On the Counter
‘You know the fairy tale about the man who died, don’t you? He was waiting in Eternity to find out what the Lord had decided to do with him. He waited and waited, for one year, ten years, a hundred years. He begged and pleaded for a decision. Finally he couldn’t bear the waiting any longer. Then they said to him: ‘What do you think you’re waiting for? You’ve been in Hell for a long time already.’
― Anna Seghers, Transit
Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash
Documents fanned out on the counter like a hand of poker, not a good one. Not the good side of the partition to be standing on, either. The agent glances at them, unimpressed. I attempt, and fail, disinterest. My forehead hits the glass – too well-cleaned. I had not noticed I was leaning.
My passport is blue and not good either. An accident of birth whose pages labeled, packaged, and have since followed me around, weighing in on my life choices. I glare at the booklet, resentful and overcome with self-pity. If only … thought every person who, by one digit, ever lost the lottery.
Passe. Port. Un passeport, historically, was a note that gave its owner the freedom to go past the limits of the kingdom. Past the limits of the familiar, to travel safely across foreign lands and seas into foreign ports that then stopped being so foreign.
Pass. Port. A passport, eventually, became a leatherbound record of a gentleman’s agreement between the leaders of nations: ‘I will respect and protect your citizens. You will do the same for mine.’ Implied: a universal recognition of the freedom of movement.
‘Your passport please.’
I place it on the counter. Who knows, today, what it means.
Feet starting to ache, I shift my weight around. The agent does not look up. The agent could not care less; she has never stood, will never stand on this side of the counter.
She will never have to; she rolled her hard six. I wonder, though, at which point in her own family lineage another immigrant must have stood. At which point and at what counter had someone raised eyes like hers, hopes like mine? I think of the twelve million someones who landed in the port on Ellis Island.
The ‘tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe, the wretched refuse of teeming shores. The homeless, tempest-tost.’ I wonder: Did they find safe harbor here?
Would they still if they were standing here today? Would their passports be deemed worthy of a stamp? Mine is retained by the agent.
I am told to return to the waiting room. My former seat has been taken; there are at least one hundred other people here. Each, like me, has a number. As do the counters behind which our applications are being read. Seven of them reviewing, mechanically, who knows how many of us. This number system is septic, I observe,
As is the silence in the room. All eyes are raised toward the blinking screens calling the hopefuls one at a time to counters for their passports and verdicts. My four digits flash next to Counter 5. Purse, folder, heart in my hand, I scramble over. The agent - another one this time, but with same face – has my answer: not a good one.
I walk away from the counter. I can. There is freedom in that too. A chosen one. Outside, I exhale. Inside, others are still waiting.