Long before I first thought about what love was, I imagined my wedding in a Catholic church in California.
California, because that was where the air smelled like oranges and the ocean, and a Catholic church because at some critical crossroad in my childhood logic, I deemed this the appropriate setting for an American wedding. I felt no particular affinity with the Catholic Church, nor did I feel any real longing to eventually be married, but imagining it seemed an important ritual to undertake. Something that people do on the long and narrow road that culminates in a shimmering mirage of adulthood.
My paternal grandparents were fairly devout Catholics and in the intermittent summers when we would live with them I would be expected to adopt their faith, a nod of respect to my father’s family. On these humid summer Sundays, I would sit in the front bench seat of the old Buick and watch for blue herons in the tall bay grass of the Chesapeake as we drove into a town of slanted wooden houses and tuna sandwiches; a town so polar opposite from my dusty and sweet desert home of minarets and bougainvillea that it seemed like a dream. It made me vaguely sick to my stomach, the feeling that I was alive in some other person’s memory — an incarnation of a period of time where some sensations had been amplified and others forgotten entirely.
We attended mass in a small stone church made large and imposing by a stained glass depiction of St. Patrick banishing all of Ireland’s snakes into a dark and unforgiving sea. I remember being young and kneeling on a kelly green carpet, crying in petition to a larger-than-life statue of a white-skinned, blue-eyed, thorn-crowned Jesus, nailed to a cross, painted blood running down his hands and forehead.
“Please get him down,” I begged the nun who taught catechism on Sundays, “he is hurt.”
“He died for your sins,” she responded in a tone that addressed none of my anxieties but suggested resolution.
Later we ate animal crackers and drank lemonade out of paper cups and prayed for our absolution and salvation.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.
Trespassing seemed an apt thing to ask deliverance from. The perpetual outsiders, sometimes my brother and I would talk to the other kids, primarily about things like slip ‘n slides and Go-Gurt (two things I remember being singularly present, important and American those particular summers), the conversation would invariably turn to questions about where we came from.
“Are you terrorists?”
“Do you ride a camel to school?”
“Why are you wearing a dress?” (In response to a picture of my brother in a galabeyya.)
“Your God isn’t even real.”
“Go to hell,” I wanted to tell them, because this was the newest and most potent in my armory of insults, “you don’t know anything.”
“Haha,” I said instead, pushing the animal crackers around on my desk into little awkward herds out of embarrassment, “I’m not really like that.” I felt a smoldering shame, both for breaking the trust of the things I loved most, and also for wanting desperately to belong with these new and powerful antagonizers.
It was a delicate balance, having two identities in America. People were vigilant about pointing out apparent deficiencies in “American-ness.” Accents, smells, skin color, clothing and beliefs all were potential conditions in need of remedy.
I pictured a new, more accurate sign to hang in the Customs and Immigration line I’d recently slouched along at Dulles International Airport:
Welcome to the American Dream! Melt right into this pot, Lady Liberty would beckon, with some listed reservations. Handpick a few aspects of your culture that we might enjoy, your cool music, your “colorful clothes,” perhaps your accent if it sounds sexy and European, but leave the rest of yourself behind. It’s weird, lowbrow, and/or a burden to us.
But every lie was a requiem for some part of yourself that you instinctively knew to be necessary. Every omission signified something betrayed and irretrievably lost in the betrayal.
It was a delicate balance for everyone who claimed home in more than one culture, because wandering too far into either identity meant the threat of losing the other and belonging to no one. Or belonging to everyone.
Instead of constantly asking for forgiveness for trespassing, I began to imagine our own rosary, our own devotions in the words of Joan Didion, the patron saint of anxious observers and uncertain wanderers, those who read meaning and metaphor into the loss of a bracelet, the time on the clock, a perfectly peeled orange:
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
The balance doesn’t have to be found in what we choose to leave behind in the immigration line, at the door to school or on the first day of college, but in remaking the places we’ve found in our own image. Places that don’t need gentle explaining to those who do not understand your songs and your words and your struggles — a place that isn’t always for them.
If I could make my own sign to hang in Immigration and Customs now it would say “You don’t have to melt into the pot. You don’t have to dissolve into anything else.” Bring it all and demand that they accept it uniquely and unconditionally, the way it was meant to be accepted. Every “strange” smell and every accented syllable made new in your voice. The tall and yellowing bay grass, the banyan trees in a Maadi garden. Every word in a language handed down through your mother, lost to time and an imperfect, unwilling memory. Every faded picture, smuggled from a shoebox and examined by flashlight under covers. Every fear of the future, every comfort of the past and every fault, made whole in your eyes by an unequivocal, radical love. All of it.
Julia Zarina can be reached at email@example.com.