In leafy, liberal Providence – capital of Rhode Island, America’s smallest state – the talk at dinner is of Donald Trump: will he get elected, if he gets elected.
In the event of a possible Trump administration, most Rhode Islanders seem to be hatching an escape. One dinner guest has plans to jet across the pond and live with British cousins – us, it turns out, (“Better get your spare room ready”), while others have their sights set on Canada. The country’s northern border, only a few hours’ drive away, has never exerted a more persuasive pull.
Originally a colony for troublemakers, Rhode Island seems to have retained much of the same spirit that saw its founder, Roger Williams, kicked out of neighbouring Massachusetts for heresy and sedition. The year was 1636 but Williams’ presence has persisted through the years: Rhode Island was the first state to renounce allegiance to the British Crown and the first to outlaw slavery. These days it is solidly Democrat and, until the party threw in their lot with Hillary, Bernie Sanders was their man.
But politics isn’t the only thing on the menu tonight. My partner and I are in town for the weekend, a two-night stopover in an East Coast road trip that started out in Boston and will take us to New York. Between the trip’s sprawling bookends is tidy little Providence, home to a branch of the extended family, outliers who swapped Yorkshire for the Yanks sometime in the 60s and only occasionally looked back.
Tonight is a celebration. One of the guests, K, got married earlier in the day. This is his wedding reception. He’s got the gold band, the buttonhole; the champagne flows in a steady stream. The only ‘thing’ we’re missing is the bride.
“She’s working the early shift tomorrow,” says K, who is relaxed about his wife’s absence on account of his being gay and she being illegal and they’re really good friends and so, why the fuck not? He adds and we all clink glasses. “To friends. To family.”
K’s mother is less relaxed. She only found out about the wedding last week and met her daughter-in-law for the first time today. She’d like to get to know her son’s wife a little better but acknowledges that, “At least she can go back and visit Thailand now,” in an accent that lurches wildly and unpredictably between the twin claims of her ancestral and adopted homes. Between the dropped H’s and flat vowels redolent of her northern England youth, and the heavy R’s, the melodic upspeak of her current milieu.
In a fight to the death, both accents are pretty much evenly matched.
When K’s mother first came to the States, the idea of citizenship existed in a less contested space. The American Century was in full swing: borders were more permeable and the politics that surrounded them were of an altogether less toxic order. The economy boomed, the mood was buoyant and conflicts came in good, old-fashioned binary, simple to translate and easy to decode. Back then, nobody spoke about building a wall – walls, at the time, being a European Cold War kind of construct, not a rhetorical device wielded to usher in some terrifying ochlocracy.
In America’s current climate, it is fair to say that an immigration amnesty isn’t likely to top anyone’s political agenda any time soon.
On the other side of the world, in Thailand, K’s newly acquired father-in-law is very sick. K’s wife, who hasn’t seen her father these last six years, is not sure if he’s going to pull through.
For those lacking the requisite permissions to live in the US, the problem with borders lays not so much in the act of crossing them (gaining access to the country – any country – being largely a matter of economics). When your dearest are not your nearest, the problem with borders is your family who live on the other side of them. Your family who at any point during your illegal tenure may contract an illness, or have a breakdown, or give birth, or go bust, or get divorced from some bastard you never much liked in the first place. They might even go and die on you, and then all your below-the-radar prowess, all your superpowers of invisibility, go up in a puff of star-spangled smoke. The real problem with borders, you then realise, is that at some point the damn things will demand that you re-cross them.
Six months is the length of time required before K’s wife can make the return trip home without risking administrative detection. Six months until she has conditional residency status and can hop over those borders with American abandon. In the meantime, she saves money for the flight and hopes her father will hang on.
“She’s beautiful,” says K’s mother scrawling through the photos of the day that she’s taken on her phone.
“Mom, we’re just friends.”
“I know, but she’s beautiful anyway. Besides, you can still take care of one other, can’t you?”
K rolls his eyes. The night has begun a champagne-slide into spheres of sentimental.
But it’s not all about looking forwards with misty eyes, we look backwards with them, too, at who is gone, and what has passed, and that which, when weighed against what may be coming, may turn out to have been the best we might have hoped for.
This restaurant we’re in, for example, was not always a perfect model of civility. Once a hotbed of organised crime, awash with laundered money. Where a Mafia mobster was killed (“whacked”) in a shoot-out (“hit”) here, just steps from where we’re twirling spaghetti and contemplating tiramisu. And although no evidence of warring Dons exist today, the discussion turns to Trump again, eliciting some fighting talk from our waiter.
“I refuse to leave my country because of that man. I will stay here and help bring him down from the inside,” he says, topping up our champagne. “Now, what can I get you folks for dessert?”
Victoria Briggs is an award-winning, Pushcart nominated writer with recent work published in Unthology, Short Fiction, The Stockholm Review, The Honest Ulsterman, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Litro and Jellyfish Review. She lives in London and tweets @vicbriggs.