I feared I had made a tragic mistake the instant the car door closed behind us and I realized there were two men, not just the driver, in the front seat. But what was I to do? We had shivered in sub-freezing cold outside the terminal for more than twenty minutes along with at least a hundred other people trying to get cabs. Emily and Janie, my 10 year-old twins, huddled bravely to my side. But the wind pierced our jackets like daggers and I knew their courage would fade quickly on a night like this. At that moment, I wished Martin and I had not divorced or that I had another man to help me, to take charge. But that was not the way it was. I was on my own and I had to make a decision. It was my judgment and my judgment alone that would either get my girls home safely or expose them to more danger.
We had decided to spend Thanksgiving with my mother in Florida. Mom had moved there two years earlier, a year before Martin and I separated. I finalized our plans only a week before the holiday so that the best we could do for a return flight to Newark arrived a little after midnight on Sunday night. The flight home had been delayed about forty minutes, but was otherwise uneventful, with Emily listening to her I pod non stop, her head bobbing with the music, her feet unable to remain still. I pictured her in a few years, away from my protection, dancing wildly with some shirtless boy in a dark, crowded club, music at ear-piercing volume.
Janie, not yet as grown up as her sister, slept part of the way and when awake, was entertained by a small doll my mother had bought her. Her grandma told her that it was a special doll, made by Seminole Indians, that if she held it real tight it would protect her from bad guys and bad things. Janie took to the doll immediately and while she had many others stuffed in her suitcase, this was the one she had chosen to carry on the trip home. She spent most of the flight alternately cuddling it to her slight chest, or rubbing its soft felt surface across her cheek.
We left the flight exhausted, hoping for a quick cab ride home. As we approached the baggage claim area I started to feel anxious, realizing that this last part of the trip was not going to be easy. The crowd was enormous. All of the conveyor belts were filled with luggage and the space around them was jammed with travelers. We were sent from carousel to carousel as the announcer made one correction, then another, unsuccessfully trying to make order out of chaos. Two flights from Miami, another from San Juan and one from Trinidad all arrived around the same time, and many of us were looking for the same black suitcases with wheels and a pull-up handle. I held the girls close to me, shielding them from the mob, as we looked for the red ribbons I had tied around our bags so that we could easily identify them. I thought I was being so clever, but there must have been ten other suitcases just like ours, with the same red ribbon.
By the time we got our belongings it was close to one AM and the mob of travelers had moved from the luggage area to the ramp leading to ground transportation. Several men converged on us from different directions. I might as well have worn a “V” for ‘vulnerable’ on my forehead. One, a tall, thin black guy with a bandanna around his temple, tried to take my arm to escort me to a car he had waiting that would deliver us home ‘safely’, he assured me. I pulled away, only to come face-to-face with a stocky bull of a man who, in a thick Eastern European accent said, “You come with me, only fifty dollar. I take care.” The black guy shot back at him.
“Get off her, man, she’s taking my car.” They seemed ready to brawl, but a policeman heading our way made them both scramble away. It was illegal for anyone to solicit fares other than the registered cabbies lined up outside the terminal. We had been warned frequently not to get into one of those ‘gypsy’ cabs.
I dragged the girls and our luggage up the ramp and through the doors to the outside. As we left the terminal I was shocked to find temperatures that had plummeted to below freezing. When we left New Jersey the previous Wednesday afternoon the sun was shining with temperatures in the high 60s. I had neglected to think ahead for the possibility of an early winter cold spell and so had only packed light jackets for the girls and me. Martin would have brought warm jackets, just in case, I thought.
The wind blew fiercely, like needles against my sunburned face. The girls buried themselves against me, bravely not complaining. When I saw the crowd of what had to be more than 100 people in line for only a few waiting cabs, my heart sank. Emily, my precocious neo-rocker on the plane, regressed and began to whimper.
“Mommy, I’m freezing. I want to go home,” she said. Janie gripped her doll in one hand and my leg in the other. What would Martin, what would any man, do?
The cold, the long lines for the legitimate cabs and the pleading look from my girls, weakened my judgment. I began to look for a gypsy cab driver. We were approached almost immediately, this time by a stocky dark-skinned man in a heavy jacket.
“Sixty dollar,” he said. “I take you and girls home.”
“No, it’s a $30 ride,” I answered boldly, summoning all my confidence as I shivered in the cold. “That’s what they charge,” I pointed at the yellow cabs.
“Yes, but you wait hour or more for them. OK 50 dollar, let’s go. I’m Carlos.” As Carlos reached for our luggage, I thought for a moment to stop him, but then faltered. He led us to a beat-up, four door sedan idling in a ‘No Parking’ zone. He popped the trunk, threw our luggage inside, opened the back door and quickly seated us in the car. The girls were already in when I realized that there was another man behind the wheel.
“Who’s he?” I demanded, my hand on the door handle ready to escape. We could still run if we had to, I thought.
“He my brother, Juan. Juan no hable Ingles. I don’ speak too good either, Senora, so when you tell us where to go, speak slow.” The driver looked dirty, with a ruddy and worn appearance; yet he was young, barely 25, I guessed. He didn’t turn around or smile. He just gripped the wheel and stared grimly straight ahead. The man we had spoken with outside the car was older, slightly better dressed, but when I looked at him now, as the interior car light dimmed, he too seemed unsavory. What had I done?
Before I could act he shut the back door with a thud, got into the front seat and motioned to the driver to go. Juan pulled quickly away from the curb as an airport security guard approached. The car lurched forward and I was thrown back, landing sharply against the back seat, sprawled over the girls. I recovered my balance and sat forward to see that we were heading quickly away from the airport and the lights of the terminals, into the night and onto the highway that led to the suburbs.
I tried to control my rising anxiety and turned to soothe the girls who both sat alert, feeling my fear, I think. I told them we’d be home soon, but Janie clutched her doll and hid her head in my side, shivering. Of the two, she was the most likely to grasp that things were wrong. She knew when Martin and I were separating that it was not just for a little while, as we had tried to explain to the girls. She told me that late one night a few days after he left, after she had crawled into my bed complaining of a stomachache.
I smoothed her hair trying to calm her when suddenly the car took an abrupt turn to the right. When I looked forward it was clear that Juan had turned the car down a ramp so that we were now heading under the highway, not onto it. Cars and trucks flew by overhead but none had made the turn we had. The only noise now was the wind howling through the swamp that surrounded us, the only light, was from the airport far in the distance behind us.
Juan stopped the car. Before I could say anything, I heard a roar that quickly became deafening until I thought an explosion was imminent. I covered the girls with my arms shielding them from whatever was coming. When I looked up I saw the lights of the undercarriage of a jetliner no more than fifty feet above. Another moment and the jet landed behind us, the deafening roar fading quickly.
I held my daughters firmly, shielding them from what unknown danger faced us. Janie still held tight to her doll and Emily now shaking, buried her head in my chest.
“Where are you going?” I managed to blurt out. Juan turned to his brother. Carlos spoke to him in Spanish, his voice rising in what seemed like impatience.
“Perdido,” Juan said.
“Si,” said Carlos. He turned to us, “We make wrong turn, sorry, we a little lost. No worry, we no charge extra,” Carlos turned to us grinning, the first time I had seen him smile. Then he spoke to his brother. Juan turned the car around and headed back up the ramp. “My brother only come here, last week. I come two months ago. We not so good with directions, that’s why we travel together.”
We got back onto the main highway. “Where, where are you from?” I asked still a bit shaky, but starting to feel less fear.
“Colombia, thousand miles away.” Carlos pointed vaguely to the south. “Much warmer there,” he said grinning at us. He looked at the girls. “Juan have little girl back home too,” he said.
“What’s her name?” asked Emily, sitting up and loosening her hold on me.
“It’s Suela, short for Consuela.” Juan looked towards his brother as he heard his daughter’s name.
“How old is she?” asked Janie still with a vise grip on her doll.
“She only two, not big girls like you.” Carlos smiled.
“But why does she live there and her Daddy lives here?” asked Janie. “Are her parents divorced?”
“Janie,” said Emily, annoyed.
“Is OK. No, no little one, not divorced. Juan come here to try to make life in America, then later he bring wife and Suela. It bad in Colombia, beautiful country, beautiful people, but too much fighting, too much killing, no good for us. We always the ones who get shot, not police, not drug dealers, not rebels – it’s us, we in the middle. And they don’ care who they shoot, man, boy, woman, even little girl; anyone who gets in way.” Carlos said something to his brother and his brother nodded, his face grim. He turned to us, “I tell him, not too long and Suela and her mother will come be with him.”
“But when will Suela come? When will she see her daddy again? Does she talk with him?” asked Janie, sitting forward, arms rested on the back of the front seat.
“We don’t know, maybe next summer. Yes, he talk to her every week. We have cell phone,” he said proudly pulling one from his coat pocket.
We drove on. I directed them to turn one corner then another and soon we were in our suburban neighborhood, near our home. I felt more relaxed now and looked back to make sure the girls were OK. Emily had picked up her I pod and was fitting the ear buds into her still baby ears; her way, block things out. Janie was alert, looking at the familiar neighborhood. I pictured the two of them with their ecstatic smiles when they had greeted their grandma at the airport a few days earlier. Then I had a flash of other faces of little girls with sad, hopeless expressions, bereft of smiles.
“Do you live here in Jersey?” I asked.
“No, Queens. We have sister; we all live together. We just figure there be business out here tonight. After we drop you, we go back to airport.” It was after two AM.
We got to the house and Juan backed into the driveway. Carlos opened the trunk putting our luggage with the red ribbons next to us on the pavement.
“Thanks” I said. Carlos stood next to the car. Juan, still at the wheel, stared straight ahead, expressionless. I fumbled in my purse and pulled out the cash I had left, five twenties. I hesitated briefly, then gave them all to him. Carlos started to say something, but I put my hand up. “Thanks, Carlos,” I said. “Thanks to you and Juan for getting me and my girls home safely. I hope things get better for you both.”
“Thank you, Senora,” his head was bowed, embarrassed it seemed.
Emily and I had started towards the house before I realized that Janie was not with us. I turned, panicked. How could she have disappeared so quickly? Then I saw her, standing at the driver’s side window. Juan was rolling it down. As he did Janie held out her doll and handed it to him.
“For Suela,” she said. “It will keep her safe.” She turned and walked towards us, hugging her arms around her thin body, desperately, it seemed, trying to hold in the warmth.