Jason Arias

The River

In a future where immigrants have been made outlaws, a man reluctantly escapes to the home he never knew in the dying Amazon.

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Jan 11 2018, 6:00pm

Jason Arias


It is a sad hallmark of our time that 2018 began with new announcements of forced expulsions of longtime American residents and migrant workers, and the fate of hundreds of thousands more hanging in the balance. For millions, the threat of deportation looms. Here, in a beautiful feat of speculation, Tori Cárdenas accelerates this trajectory and imagines an all-too-plausible future where immigrants are all but outlawed—and the personal impacts that follow suit. Enjoy. -the ed.


First, we were banned from holding positions of public office, then from public-sector jobs, from public housing, from government benefits, from education. Every day the news brought more and more restrictions, until the tagline that ran along the bottom of the screen read, “All Immigrants to be Relocated to Secure Holding Facilities, Processed for Deportation.” Men in black suits reached into our homes with their long thin fingers and dropped us into “Community Housing” on the edges of the map.

Daniel and I are married, but his citizenship couldn’t protect me by proxy anymore; the document for our marriage was now officially void. And we knew what it meant to be ‘relocated.’ Separation, segregation, subjugation. So, for some time before, we had been planning our escape. We just hadn’t started planning soon enough.

This wasn’t home anymore, with the fusion restaurants, or holding hands as we walked down electric streets. But we didn’t have enough money for two tickets. I would have helped pay, but it had been a long time since I was allowed to work.

One day, I received a letter in the mail. The heavy black envelope read, Bonifacio Alto. I couldn’t even open it. My hands shook so badly when Daniel asked to see it that I dropped the envelope and started to cry.

“Don’t worry, Boni,” Daniel said, tearing it open and reading the first page. “I’m going to be right behind you.”

He dove me to the docks late one night, about the time we usually had dinner. There was a ship taking about two thousand of us back to Brazil. The sun had gone down and groups of people were saying their goodbyes in the foggy light streaming over from the city. Children and parents and grandparents and friends and lovers, whispering and holding each other for what, as far as they knew, was the last time. Daniel kissed me goodbye and promised he would be only a few weeks behind me.

*

The ship cut through the silver and black and took me halfway across the world to a land I hadn’t seen with adult eyes. All I had were my mother’s stories of the jungle, and the lazy green river that slithered its way through, full of reptiles and rainbow-scaled fish, and a disease called cholera. I was expecting monkeys and tall trees that shaded the forest floor from the sun.

*

It was early in the morning, and the sun shone pink and yellow on the water. At the docks in Rio de Janiero, I met up with my cousin Javier. I hadn’t seen him since I was four and I didn’t recognize him. We had the same nose and curly head of black hair, but we didn’t have anything else in common. If we did, we lacked the language to talk about it.

He took me to breakfast, then we rode the train inland to where we were born, where he grew up. Train stations were built into the basements of buildings and smelled damp and murky. The trains were fast, the walls shook slightly when they went past. When we stepped off the platform to our stop, we dipped into a small café for cups of steaming tea that smelled like curry. He walked me around the neighborhood, which looked updated, clean, angular.

He told me all about how the city worked. The residential buildings are usually the ones bordering the river, he said. If everyone has a view of the river, then prices stay low and everyone gets to live with a view of the water. Here, the buildings lining the river had balconies, a few with umbrellas, a few with grills, or small curly-haired dogs barking. The river ran tiny and green beneath them.

This was not the serpent of a river from my mother’s stories. It was a trickle of water lost in a jungle of concrete.

When couples marry, they amble down the streets for their honeymoons and stay in the hotels and travel up the river until they get tired and they settle down there. My wife and I settled a few miles downriver, and we visit my parents here often. Javier’s English wasn’t very good and neither was my Portuguese, so I just listened and nodded.

While we were on the last leg of our trip, waiting for the 12 o’clock train, Javier led me into a side alcove of the station. There was an aquarium built into it, an “Auxiliary River Research Facility.” It was dark, mostly lit by blacklights, and there were slimy white and grey fish clustered in every observation window. Their eyes stared out milky and useless in the darkness of the river. They were ugly, and they looked sad, their long rubbery whiskers reaching out to feel the cold thick glass.

A well-dressed group of children were on a field trip with a fussy woman who must have been their teacher.

A field researcher in a black skintight scuba suit said, “Children, gather over here please, we are about to take the sediment sample.”

He put on a large bubble of a helmet with a microphone built into it, snapped the seals into place over his neck, and stepped into a door that shut with a large steel wheel that could be turned from both sides. All the while, he explained the functions of his equipment, what tubes were for oxygen and which buttons for which flashlights, how the seals inside the door protected the walls of the structure from leaks and floods. When he had sealed it behind him, he opened a second door and was released into the river. The children gasped and stared through the small window by the door through which the man had disappeared. The room where he had been moments before flooded with murky water.

“The river is all that has not yet died or been destroyed,” the diver’s voice said over an intercom. “Well, besides us.”

The children laughed. He dove down farther and farther, flicking on more flashlights, his camera live streamed to a large monitor for us to watch.

“The Amazon River is still the world’s largest drainage basin in the world, and is stretching deeper and deeper into the Earth. And with that, it is generating some of the most diverse adaptations modern science has ever seen.” Grimy white crocodiles and blind mudfish crawled left and right, shying away from the researcher’s white flashlights. “Crocodiles have almost completely lost their color due to no exposure to light, and many creatures have lost their sense of sight altogether.”

Javier pulled my arm. The train was here. We presented our tickets and climbed aboard.
Javier stretched out on two train seats and pulled out a photo from his wallet. It was a picture of him and his wife from their wedding. He was about ten years younger. Daniel and I had been married about the same time.

Do you have a wife in America?

I didn’t know how to answer him. Not in Portuguese. I didn’t know how to say, I’m terrified for Daniel for helping me to escape. I didn’t know how to tell him, Daniel is my husband. I didn’t know how to say, They’re torturing him right now, or he’s in prison, or he’s already dead. I didn’t know how to say, I’ll never see him again. The idioms and euphemisms I know don’t work the same in the language they speak here.

I shook my head and the train pushed on.

*

It has been eight months and sixteen days since I arrived here. I am still working in my cousin’s bodega. I clean things up and restock the shelves. I’m picking up little bits of Portuguese from listening to the mothers talk to their babies in the aisles while I’m mopping or stacking mangoes. I understand enough to know when Javier’s wife was yelling at him to get me off their couch and into my own apartment. Before he worked up the nerve to ask me in his broken English, I found a tiny studio downriver. Now I can watch reruns of Friends on my tiny television in peace.

But the thing is, I still don’t feel like I belong in this country. The city stretches out forever on both sides of the river, almost as far as I can see, a path of streetlights meandering through the desert dunes that used to be the Amazon rainforest. In some places, wide, squat soccer stadiums and dense concentrations of office buildings branch off from the highways that run parallel to the river. All of that sand and all of that city, and it feels like you could walk forever along the rigid banks of flood-proof buildings, until maybe you would finally walk right into the desert and sink down into the sand.

Sand—for miles and miles and miles—sand. That is what I can see from my apartment’s one tiny window. Sand on one side and the city on the other, no river to speak of. Javier and his wife have a view and balcony because the both of them work.

I’ve tried to blend into the crowds that walk or take the train up and down the curves of the city on the river, to get to different boroughs, the ones where they grew up or started raising their families. I’m trying to stay hopeful that Daniel is on his way, that someday soon, he’ll call me and tell me everything is going to be alright, that he’s safe, that he’s getting on a boat or a plane to come and find me.

But until then, I walk through a station with an aquarium every day, to watch the pale crocodiles with no more muddy banks to sun themselves on, bottomfeeding and adapting to their new environment, their eyes whiting over with the darkness.


Tori Cárdenas is a queer Puerto Rican poet from Albuquerque, New Mexico.