The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta. Zero Mile is a series of fictionalized stories based on real life in Atlanta, Georgia.
By Nicki Salcedo
They talk about those crossing the border. They mean for you to hear it. They think it means you, even though you crossed not one but many borders and an ocean to get here.
Your mother tells a story. Halfway through the flight you asked to go outside. You didn’t know that you were in the sky. You’d never been cooped up for so long before. You didn’t understand the plane or the leaving. You asked to see your grandfather who you’d never see again.
The first night, you sleep on the floor of a distant relation. You have your papers, visas, and passports. You have a star-shaped vaccination scar on your left shoulder. There is a blanket between you and the ground. You had a bed every night of your life until you came to America.
In school, you try to lose your accent. Some words are particularly difficult. “Comfortable” could be said any number of ways. You choose words that don’t give you away as a stranger.
In Korea, they taught you to stand before you addressed the teacher. The teacher in America does not look like a teacher, but you feel the instinct to rise and bow and pay your respect even though the man is dressed in t-shirt and jeans. You look him in the eye. Even though he is friendly, you are afraid.
In Bosnia, you lost your entire family. Everyone died. You are fifteen years old and traveling with your girlfriend’s family. Without them you would be lost. She holds your hand, not out of love, but the fear of you dying. Years later when you are married, you will love her because she remembers the war. She knows the day half your city was murdered. You will love her because she remembers your mother.
In Ethiopia, your dad was a scientist. Now he works at a grocery store on Spring Street. He works as a taxi driver. He works for people who have no idea how smart he is. For him, numbers are like the watercolors of a painting. He remembers the day he passed his exams to move up to high school. The boys in high school could wear long pants. Girls would only date boys who wore long pants. He laughs every time he tells that story. He laughs when he tells most of his stories.
They tell you that Chinese boys cannot be good at American football. But you are good.
You cover your hair because you are Jewish. Muslim. Sikh. You cover your hair for snow and rain and sunshine.
You get your U.S. Passport. You are a citizen. You can vote. You do as your parents did. You work and work and work. You barely sleep.
You didn’t cross the border and neither did your parents. You were all born in America. People ask where you are from anyway. You never say Mexico. That’s what they want you to say. You say Arizona and will yourself not to blink. A man on Buford Highway speaks to you in Spanish, then is disappointed to find out you are “chilango.” Then he is happy because you are proud of your ancestry and not ashamed.
You work in an office. You work at a construction site. You work in a daycare. You are a doctor.
You are from Pakistan. Your neighbor thinks you are from India. You correct him some days. Other days you pretend you don’t see him.
They think you are dangerous. Your only threat to this country is hope.
You work in the chicken plant one hour away from Atlanta. On weekends, you wash dishes in a fancy restaurant on Highland Avenue. You can buy nothing where you work. You live with five other guys. You send money to a wife and family who are starting to forget what your face looks like, what your skin smells like.
You sit at your desk and stare at the skyline. You walk into a meeting. You used to be embarrassed by the smell of kimchi on your clothes. The smell of curry and paneer. The smell of sarma. The smell of jerk chicken. Now you call it perfume.
You meet a man who finds you exotic. He buys you a drink and says, “Your people are so beautiful,” like it’s a compliment and not another reminder of otherness. When he touches your hair like it’s not a living part of you, you know you will never love him.
You think you will never have friends. You wonder about the life you left behind. You touch the scar on your shoulder.
You think Southern people are so kind until they aren’t. You remember that your homeland had unkind people too. You like grits. A lot. You think biscuits are from heaven.
You remember that girls are not much safer in America than the country you left. They still disappear and are trafficked and silenced and murdered. America just hides it better.
You look at the sky. Atlanta can be so cold. You like the hot months. You like people who meet your eyes as you walk toward yoga in the park. You like seeing the people in the city jumbled up and not divided.
You read a poem by Lucille Clifton about Superman. It never occurred to you that he was an alien, too. You would know little of your home country if you went back. You are feeling suddenly very homeless in the only home you’ve ever known. You go to the mountains to pick Georgia apples. You read that Harriett Tubman liked apples. You learn to make apple pie. At the last moment you add a dash of cayenne. There is America. It is the best thing you’ve ever tasted.
You are American now.
During yoga in the park under the moon, you think: “We should leave. All of us. We should leave the tables packed with dishes. We should walk out of the classrooms and laboratories. We should not hush their crying babies anymore. We should leave the crops in the fields to rot and the mysteries of science to be undiscovered.”
There are children running on the playground in the distance. You can’t be peaceful as you lay. There is an accent dying inside you. Your child voice is gone. You are different watercolors now. The numbers equal a thousand stories. If you asked me, I could tell you one.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the backroads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. Zero Mile stories will appear on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.