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Wang Ping

This Is How You Cross the Line


Any alien who is physically present in the United States… may apply for asylum—INS § 208


First you gather the paper:
Plane tickets, photos, letters, passports
All fake but for Yuan, Euros, Pounds
Fake certificate, fake license, fake face
Everything about you, even the names
Round them up with care
Tear them, shred them, chew them
Flush the pulp down the toilet
Before the plane touches the ground
You come out clean as blank paper
Belong to no country, no race, man or woman
You’re on your own
Bleached, in the mirror
Listless, no hair grown
On your phantom face that is not
Yours--the fear, the hunger, the thirst
The urge to throw yourself
On the ground and cry Mama

You walk along the thin corridor
Along with the fellow passengers in suits and perfume
Who snore and grind teeth in their dreams
Who rush towards the customs, the baggage claims
To the shadows hovering behind the opaque glass
Bouquets, Homecoming banners, limousines

And you stand in line

You choose a booth with a woman officer
Pudgy, pasty white--a contrast to the young
Starved body that’s not yours
You look around
The girl from Fuzhou, still a skeleton
From the two-week hunger strike in Amsterdam
Has picked an obese man
Her tender ankles curve like talons
Over there, under the neon flickering CITIZENS ONLY
You see the man behind the line—

Poised to jump
Dyed beard, dyed hair
The scar on his temple pulsing red
A lighthouse leading you across
the Indian, the Atlantic, the Nordic Sea
His lion fists kept you safe from snakes
In the holds of a rusty ship
You want to throw yourself at his feet
Uncle Wu, where have you been?
But you freeze, your face a mask
Like his, hers, and others
Whose names you must erase
From your sixteen-year-old heart

Suddenly I’m alone
Before me, no human shield
No bridge behind to flee
To jump or die—STOP
Breathe, slow, deep
Pad pockets one more time
Everything set--no baggage, no name
No memory—only this body
No longer mine, never mine
Having crossed endless borders and seas
For this final sprint

The officer looks up
Eyes shadowed with overnight fatigue
A smile across her face and your knees buckle

In that small second—Mother
Will she be on the other side—the land of plenty?
But up is her finger: NEXT
And you push—a puppet
Pulled by an invisible string
The smile recedes from her eyes
Ripples of shock, fear, alarm
Carrying nothing—everything
Past her booth, her yellow line of authority
Past the guard huffing over, gun in hand

—a fetus—
Declaring asylum