Making mistakes is a luxury many immigrant children feel they can’t afford. But how do you practice intimacy without the messy imperfection of being vulnerable?
There is always a before and after. An epoch. A moment to mark the rupture.
My mother, aunts, and older cousins all speak of the before. They speak of desire as languid contentment. Of Mogadishu breeze, Italian-dubbed cinema outings, and moustachioed men who held their hands in local parks. The men who’d asked for these hands, who’d pined for them from afar despite differences in tribe, language, and wealth. Desire was the smoke of jazz and the crackle of oil lamps. It was living in the lap of safety and enjoying the pre-war social scene of a growing middle class. A youth I now envy and cannot imagine at the same time.
After, came the stories of how it all ended. Hushed at first, I grew older and wasn’t spared the graphic details. Stories of women who’d married warlords to save their families, girls barely out of their teens who sought older men to take them away from the collapsing country. Women who’d staked their entire futures on visa applications and the promise of escape. Whatever happened beyond the airport gates would be anyone’s guess. From Cairo to Helsinki to Toronto and Minnesota, where they would even land was a mystery. Desire, sentimentality, all belonged to the era before, to girlhood dreams. All placed on hold. For the meantime.
I grew up and around these stories of duty and obligation where intimacy was a byword for survival. It was shared in small moments, whenever you could catch a breath. Anyone who’d risked the law, poverty, and social degradation for you didn’t need to buy you flowers or plan a Valentine’s surprise, too. They’d already proved this in their sacrifices, hadn’t they? And then there were those who’d come or become alone. As refugees and exiles, their countries had already broken their hearts. To give up that part of themselves again would have been too reckless.