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How To Be a Man

The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series

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Yael Ben-Zion, Crown
Yael Ben-Zion, Crown, from 5683 Miles Away, (Kehrer, 2010). (Courtesy of the artist)

The girls have American passports so I have to take them. I hike Martha higher up on my hip and she readjusts her warm body against my shoulder without waking. Sarah pulls at my hand and says “Dad” half-a-dozen times until I look at her and she shows me she’s holding the diaper bag and helping. I tell her she’s being a good big sister. My wife Libby hands me the girls’ passports from the red travel wallet she keeps all our documents in and then goes to the line on the left.

“Let’s go, girls.”

But Sarah points back towards Libby, who’s calling my name and running back over to us.

“Thought you might need this,” she says, and hands me my own passport.

I mouth thank you; it’s clear I need this woman.

The airport is cold and bright in the early morning. Three planeloads of passengers are snaked around the white-tiled immigration hall. When the small TSA agent in her tight blue blazer speaks, everyone stops their tired whispering and allows her voice to echo. She instructs us to move forward and we obediently inch towards the front of the line. I look to see if Libby’s line is moving but it’s not. The non-Americans get grilled coming into the country. We keep shuffling along with indiscernible steps, and Sarah uses all her strength to keep our diaper bag off the floor.

Martha wakes up before we’ve reached the front of the line and starts a high-screeched cry that shakes everyone in line awake. The other passengers look at us, sigh deeply, and rub their eyes. Martha screams mommy in between choked and panicked sobs. I do the dad-jiggle, bouncing up and down, cooing. I wipe her dripping nose with the edge of my sleeve. I tell her that we’re going to see mommy very soon.

The TSA agent comes over to us.

“The long flights are hard,” she says.

“Yeah.”

“Are you going to see your mommy?” the agent says, running her finger along the bottom of Martha’s socked feet.

“My wife’s just on the other line. She’s British.”

“Here?”

“Right there, in the back of that line.”

We both turn towards the other line. Libby is looking at us, the sound of Martha’s crying having alerted something primal in her. She’s on tiptoes, peering over the crowd. I can see the worry on her face. She is a tall woman and her thin, long arms are braced on her hips. For a second she looks like someone else; without the stroller and diaper bag and two kids hanging off of her, she seems younger than herself. Still looking at us, she shifts from side to side, pulls her short brown hair into an angry ponytail, leans over the retractable divider. Her thick-framed glasses suggest a young professor or an art student. Martha’s cries get louder, more panicked. Finally, the TSA agent makes an exaggerated wave and Libby jumps over the divider in one long leap, like a high-school hurdler, her legs high and straight.

“What’s wrong,” Libby says, taking Martha, “Is everything OK?”

Martha quiets down right away. Libby’s voice is calm and precise. The way Libby rocks, too, moving back and forth, twisting at her hips, instead of up and down, seems more soothing.

The rest of the line smiles at us; they make sympathetic eyes. We are no longer bad parents, but loving and good. We know how to control our children. We are a strong family unit. I absorb their gazes, I smile back. Martha rests her head on Libby’s shoulder, and I can hear the loving tisk of all the women on line. They smile at my daughters, both of them, and try to catch their eyes.

“You guys can all go through here together,” the TSA agent says. “You’re all better; right, baby girl? Now that your mommy’s here?”

I poke Martha to look at the woman, to show some sign of appreciation, but her head is buried in Libby’s neck. I lift her small curled hand and make her wave to the agent. We’re called to the next window. Martha’s cheeks are red, and her wet face looks fresh and new. I take the baby bag from Sarah.

“You’re the best,” I tell her, “So grown up.”

I take Libby’s passport from her and hand all four of them to the immigration officer so they snap on the counter—three blue and Libby’s purple one.

“She’s supposed to be on the other side,” the officer says. He stares at us, unmoved by the beauty of my children.

“The agent moved us over here; the baby was crying.”

“Martha’s not a baby anymore,” Sarah says.

“No, you’re right, she’s not.”

“Ma’am,” the officer says, “your work visa’s expired.”

“Right,” Libby says stepping closer to the desk. “Yes, I know. I’m on a temporary visa while my green card is being processed.”

“You two are married?”

“Yes,” I say.

“And you’re getting a green card?”

We both laugh.

“Wait, are you serious?” Libby says. “Does this look like a scam to you? We’ve been married for eight years. These are our kids.”

The officer is a young man with a blue, ironed uniform buttoned up to his neck. I think he must be new on the job and doesn’t know how funny the joke he’s making is. I try and think about this straight talking, buzz cut dude who, when he’s not on the job, probably has a regular poker night, or likes to kick back with a local beer and a video game, and I think about what he must love because this dude, by the very nature of his joke, is threatening what I love. I smile at him like we were friends, but he stays thin-lipped and straight-faced. I realize that it’s not a joke. He asks Libby for her right hand for fingerprints and she passes Martha to me before she puts her hand on the scanner. She looks in the camera and has her picture taken. I stand rocking Martha the way Libby did before, and I watch the government via this young, hard man order my wife around. I could lean into the booth and punch him. There are at least 15 other officials in the hall, but I could get at least one punch in before they got me. I’d have to put Martha down first.

“We were on vacation,” I say, too quietly.

“Ma’am, you’re going to have to go with this gentleman,” the officer says to Libby.

“We’ve never had a problem before,” I say.

“Her I-94’s still attached, which is the first—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Libby says, grabbing her passport.

“Excuse me?”

Libby stomps after the man in the dark suit and walks down a long white hallway away from us. The immigration officer stamps our three passports.

“Good luck.”

I put the passports in my back pocket—Libby took our travel wallet—and switch Martha to my other shoulder. We go towards the baggage carousels.

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check out the funny new youtube spoof “Two Frat Solution”. It’s a webseries article spoofing the israeli/palestinian conflict.

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How To Be a Man

The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series