Perception is everything, Cookie.*
This piece was made using body prints of my breast, hand, and face, with paint and collaged packing material. It has to do with looking at myself—outer and inner selves. Though none of it is truly a self-portrait in a likeness sense.
The First 33 Things He Asked Me to Know in His Language
Look at me.
I drive I5 south to exit 135 and head west on East 27th Street. Take a right at the War Pony Indian Smoke Shop. Follow the big rigs over the Portland Avenue Bridge and along the Puyallup River. Take a left, away from the Gog-Le-Hi-Te Wetlands, and another left, over the tracks, onto East J Street.
The Northwest Detention Center sprawls. I walk past the unmanned guardhouse, across a blacktop parking lot. There’s a line, stretching out the door, of children and families, dressed as if for church. I’m dressed as if for court, and I get in line.
Eventually, I learn that lawyers can skip the line, but this time, after awhile, I reach a desk where the guard asks for my bar association card and I.D. She will keep my things until I leave.
I pass through the metal detector. I write my name in the notebook. I write my client’s name in the notebook. The guard asks for my client’s A number—this means his Alien Number. (After a few visits I get the nine digits memorized. Years later, I am still thrown by the idea and practice of enumerating human beings and calling them alien.) The guard searches my bag and waves a wand in search of more metal. No belts or jewelry, guns or knives. The guard stamps the inside of my wrist with ultraviolet ink.
I sit in one of the plastic orange chairs alongside lawyers, grandmothers, children. We watch CNN on a large television hovering above. Cumulus conversations rise in English, Spanish, Hindi.
Sometimes, I wait twenty minutes. Sometimes, I wait two hours. Sometimes, I forget, and arrive during count. Counting detainees can take awhile, so on those days, I grab lunch down the street, across the tracks, at Sam’s Café.
Look at my face.
HUDAK, the tall guard with the braids shouts.
And then, WHAT KIND OF NAME IS THAT, ANYWAY?
Oh, um, Hungarian.
(I once met a man with an Eva Gabor accent who asked where my grandfather was from. When I gave him the name of the village, the man clapped his hands with delight. Oh! That is where my peasants were from! Where my grandfather’s from, Hudak means peasant.)
I NEVER MET A HUNGARIAN BEFORE. YOU’RE UP, HUDAK.
The guard buzzes me through and I learn the first door’s weight. I walk a narrow, white, cement-blocked hallway to a second door. I press a button that makes no discernable noise and peer through a wire-meshed, safety glass window. Past that second door is a vestibule, past the vestibule is another door, past that other door is another guard, peering through his own wire-meshed, safety glass window.
I wait. After several minutes, the second door buzzes. I walk into the anteroom and the heavy door slams behind me. The guard on the other side of the third door watches. I hold my stamped wrist up to a bare UV light bulb. The guard nods. He looks away from me, toward something I can neither hear nor see.
Eventually, the guard lets me out. Or in?
He’s in there. The guard gestures toward the end of a stretch of several doors. As I head toward where he’s gestured, I see that beyond each door there are small, white rooms with gray laminate tables, beside which other detainees sit, with other lawyers.
I enter the designated cell. Cell: the basic unit of life and, from the Latin, a small room. Ours is concrete, overflowing with fluorescent light and silence.
Hello, nice to meet you, thank you for meeting with me. I’m nervous; my sentences crowd.
I offer him my hand. He does not accept.
I’m a volunteer attorney. I’m here to talk with you about your case.
After some time, he speaks. Very, very gently:
A weak wisp of hope rises—in me? in him?—in spite of itself.
Hi! (The hope makes me burble.) I have your case file here and I’ve reviewed it. Our task over the next few months is to determine how best to share your story. I will be your assistant. I will help you gather evidence in order to effectively share your story with the court.
I’m so sorry we’re meeting like this.
He slips sock feet in and out of black plastic sandals.
I’m sorry we will have to talk about such terrible things.
There is a long silence.
It is not easy, he says. It is the first thing he says after hullo.
After hours of slow, jagged conversation, my client and I rise to leave.
I open the door to our cell.
The guard shouts.
The guard rushes to us and glares.
There could be an orange or red uniform out here!
It takes me a moment to understand: the guard means high-security, potentially violent detainees. My client, who committed no crime (beyond arriving at the border and requesting asylum) (asylum: another word for safety), wears navy blue.
Never just leave like that! the guard barks.
I shake my client’s hand and look at him directly, carefully.
Thank you, sir. I will see you next week.
He returns my gaze, for the first time, and I can see that he is amused.
Don’t destroy the law.
The Attorney General
may grant asylum
to any applicant who qualifies
as a refugee.
—8 U.S.C. §1158 (b)(1), paraphrased
A refugee is any person
who is outside
any country of such person’s nationality or,
in the case of a person having no nationality,
is outside any country
in which such person last habitually resided,
and who is unable or unwilling to return to,
and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of,
the protection of that country
because of persecution,
or a well-founded fear of persecution,
on account of
membership in a particular social group,
or political opinion.
—8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(42), paraphrased
And then they burned down my business.
Did you call the police?
The police helped burn down my business.
Did you try to get away?
I left in the night and moved to
XXXXX, five hours away. I thought I would make a new business in XXXXX. But then, one night, they found me. They pulled me from my bed and tied me to a chair and beat me with sticks and metal rods.
Here are the scars.
It is my job to take good photographs of the scars.
Why are you crying?
Arise and go.
I learn, over time, that some people who flee in the night run from African countries to Latin American countries. In Latin America, some look for work. Others just head north. There is a river in Latin America that African refugees must ford to reach the United States. There is an easier, more direct route that avoids the dangerous river, but that way is not safe. (Some Latin Americans don’t like Africans, my client explains.)
Some of the people along the river, my client tells me, they just sit down and die. We sit quietly, then—me imagining the people dead along the river, him remembering them.
I make three copies of thousands of pages. One is for me, one for the government, one for the judge.
(The government of the United States is my opponent in this lawsuit. The judge—whose previous job was being an attorney for the government—decides whether I, or the government, wins. If I win, my client will not be shipped back to a country that has already attempted to murder him. If I lose…
at least my client can appeal.)
Birth certificates; school certificates; witness statements and letters attesting to my client’s truthfulness; photographs of his scars and photographs of his losses; State Department reports on human rights. A legal brief I wrote, explaining why and how all of this evidence unites with the law to entitle my client to asylum.
Each stack is five inches high.
The day I’m required to have everything filed, there is a traffic jam on I5, an electricity blackout at the detention center, and the court clerk finds a typographical error on some of my pages.
My stomach wrenched, I watch the clerk wonder whether to reject the evidence.
She decides to let me fix the mistake by hand. I fix it on all three copies. She accepts my filing two minutes before she closes for the day.
Do you hear me?
No, I don’t hear you.
Yes, I hear you.
The week before his hearing, my client slides a handwritten list across the gray table in our cell. On one side, English. On the other, his language.
You must learn my language, he says. I can speak English, but I cannot express everything.
When I try to voice the vowels, he laughs. Perfect, he says.
The day of the hearing, the judge has the flu. We are close enough that I can see his glassy eyes. He props his head in his hands, weary. When the sleeves of his black robe slip toward his elbows, I notice his starched, white cuffs.
The government’s attorney arrives late and fumbles at the desk to my right. He has not read my filing, but he knows he is against granting asylum.
(At first, this shocks me. I believe his failure to read the filing I spent so much time and energy on is personal—a specific affront to me and my client. It takes awhile for me to understand: some government attorneys are bad; some are good. None of them has enough resources to adequately do their job.)
My client sits beside me. An interpreter we just met sits in the witness stand. For the first time, I hear my client tell his story in his own language. When my client speaks, the rest of us look to the interpreter to learn what he said.
My client tells stories of beatings, rapes, fires, of hiding in dark alleys alone, unclothed. He speaks this all to a room of strangers, some of whom are paid to be hostile to his stories and plea for safety.
Hours in, the judge irritatedly clears his throat.
Is it really necessary to listen to this entire story about how he walked along a river in Latin America?
I am honestly stunned.
I believe so, your Honor. I want you to know the lengths he was forced to go to seek asylum.
Against the law
Where are you going?
Tell the truth.
I have never done this before.
I call my attorney advisor to tell her the judge did not say yes or no. He said maybe. He asked for more evidence.
My attorney advisor tells me she is very sorry.
Weeks later, on the day of the second hearing, the courtroom is filled with other detainees and lawyers, waiting. This time, we will have just fifteen minutes, and no interpreter.
When it is our turn, the judge glares.
A-987654321. I received your filing, Ms. Hudak. Is this all you have? He flips listlessly through the new, supplemental evidence.
Should I tell him about the midnight phone calls with people in a village with no electricity, who risked their lives (and spent money they couldn’t afford) to send me more photographs and letters?
Yes, your Honor.
I submit Exhibit X to support my client’s claim that
dxy qiucbpaokj ywin siuyed vx.
Exhibit Y supports my client’s claim that
siu wiubysgjcb hjkloiuy wu jnd.
And Exhibit Z supports my client’s claim that
uyt iophj gtrs y dfresw bh resou bdr vdesiuydo.
The judge sighs. He mutters to the clerk and writes something on a piece of paper. The clerk retrieves copies of the judge’s paper and hands one to me, one to the attorney for the government.
My client and I remain seated until the judge dismisses us. The judge does not look up when he waves impatiently and says we’re done here; you can go.
Outside the courtroom, there is another long, white hallway. Other men in other uniforms—guards, detainees—sit on wooden benches or stand watch at doors.
The judge’s paper falls to the cement floor as my client falls into me. I gather him to me and hold him, tightly, for a long time. The people in the hall watch us. Another detainee reaches for the judge’s decision, and gently places it on a bench nearby.
Always do good.
When will you go?
Inside, they fill the time with futbol. My client says they play country sides: Venezuela v. Congo, or Sri Lanka v. Sierra Leone. Regardless of first languages, everyone knows what it means when someone shouts orsay.
Outside, it rains. While I wait for my client beyond the detention center gate, I watch a windowless van deliver six new detainees to take his place.
* C. Hudak provides pro bono legal representation to people seeking asylum in the United States. This piece includes details from multiple clients and cases, as well as small fictionalizations—true in spirit—in order to maintain privacy.
The Illegal Film Roll
Whidbey Island, Washington
I’m visiting my friend’s second home. Vacation home? A fixer on an island. While I stand in the dark avocado living room, the painters arrive and evaluate it:
I've never seen mildew that black.
The moisture from the Sound comes in, and it's got nowhere to go. It collects there in the corner.
Look how it's heaving paint.
This house isn't breathing.
It needs to breathe.
The house looks out on Possession Sound. The view dominates everything. I see a smaller island that appears uninhabited. Beyond it, stretching out along the horizon, the mainland. Snowy Mount Baker peeks out of the clouds. It's part of the Cascades.
In the mid-distance, sailboats and yachts tack and traverse. Boats with or without motors do not drift. They have wind or horsepower, and therefore purpose. Me, I'm feeling lost and puny. I find myself splitting my attention equally between the view and the fire ants at my feet. The ants climb the cement square blocks stacked up unevenly at my side.
The view appears to be the whole point. I feel I am required to pay attention to it. What’s at the margins? On the right, rocky cliffs suffer a slow disintegration, crumbling from the Sound’s constant reaving. On the left, a bald eagle surveys the situation from its perch near the top of a forty-foot pine. The lookout tree, my friend explains. The hunting tree is somewhere else.
The Sound looks cold and treacherous. Currents clash and whorl. I miss what I know—cement, an impotent sky, traffic roar, aridity.
My friend says, The view is supposed to make you feel lost and puny; that's the whole point of views. Splitting my time between it and the ants feels like cheating. Like maybe I need more courage to take in the view, and being unable to, I find myself lacking.
Seattle looks different now.
A street scene in Naxos, Greece, by T. Bull.
* The title of Issue 039 is a quote from writer, bartender, and friend of Behind a Door, C. Paredes.
Issue 039 is our final issue of 2021. We’ll see you again in 2022.
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