“You listened to Bob Marley, and a bartender got you some pot, and someone told you what irie means, and you think you know something. You saw a tiki bar and a beach and your hotel room. That is not a country. That is a resort.”
He holds up his hands like he’s defending himself, like he’s trying to push the words in the air back into me.
Yes, I’m being awful.
No, I don’t care.
“Don’t tell me I’ll be all right. I don’t know that place. I’ve been here since I was eight years old. I don’t know anyone in Jamaica. I don’t have an accent. I don’t know my family there, not the way you’re supposed to know family. It’s my senior year. What about prom and graduation and my friends?” I want to be worrying about the same dumb things they’re worrying about. I even just started getting my application together for Brooklyn College. My mom saved for two years so she could travel to Florida and buy me a “good” social security card. A “good” card is one with actual stolen numbers printed on it instead of fake ones. The man who sold it to her said that the less expensive ones with bogus numbers wouldn’t get past background checks and college applications. With the card, I can apply for financial aid. If I can get a scholarship along with the aid, I might even be able to afford SUNY Binghamton and other in-state schools.
“What about college?” I ask, crying now. My tears are unstoppable. They’ve been waiting for a long time to come out.
Mr. Barnes slides the tissue box even closer to me. I take six or seven and use them and then take six or seven more. I gather my things again. “Do you have any idea what it’s like not to fit in anywhere?” Again I say it too quietly to be heard, and again he hears me.
I’m all the way to the door, my hand on the knob, when he says, “Ms. Kingsley. Wait.”
MAYBE YOU’VE HEARD the word irie before. Maybe you’ve traveled to Jamaica and know that it has some roots in the Jamaican dialect, patois. Or maybe you know that it has other roots in the Rastafari religion. The famous reggae singer Bob Marley was himself a Rastafarian and helped spread the word beyond the Jamaican shores. So maybe when you hear the word you get a sense of the history of the religion.
Maybe you know that Rastafari is a small offshoot of the three main Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. You know that Abrahamic religions are monotheistic and center on differing incarnations of Abraham. Maybe in the word you hear echoes of Jamaica in the 1930s, when Rastafari was invented. Or maybe you hear echoes of its spiritual leader, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
And so when you hear the word, you hear the original spiritual meaning. Everything is all right between you and your god, and therefore between you and the world. To be irie is to be in a high and content spiritual place. In the word, you hear the invention of religion itself.
Or maybe you don’t know the history.
You know nothing of God or spirit or language. You know the present-day colloquial dictionary definition. To be irie is simply to be all right.
Sometimes if you look a word up in the dictionary, you’ll see some definitions marked as obsolete. Natasha often wonders about this, how language can be slippery. A word can start off meaning one thing and end up meaning another. Is it from overuse and oversimplification, like the way irie is taught to tourists at Jamaican resorts? Is it from misuse, like the way Natasha’s father’s been using it lately?
Before the deportation notice, he refused to speak with a Jamaican accent or use Jamaican slang. Now that they are being forced to go back, he’s been using new vocabulary, like a tourist studying foreign phrases for a trip abroad. Everything irie, man, he says to cashiers in grocery stores who ask the standard retail How are you? He says irie to the postman dropping off mail who asks the same thing. His smile is too big. He pushes his hands into his pockets and throws his shoulders back and acts like the world has showered him with more gifts than he can reasonably accept. His whole act is so obviously fake that Natasha’s sure everyone will see through him, but then they don’t. He makes them feel good momentarily, like some of his obvious good fortune will rub off on them.
Words, Natasha thinks, should behave more like units of measure. A meter is a meter is a meter. Words shouldn’t be allowed to change meanings. Who decides that the meaning has changed, and when? Is there an in-between time when the word means both things? Or a time when the word doesn’t mean anything at all?
Natasha knows that if she has to leave America, all her friendships, even with Bev, will fade. Sure, they’ll try to stay in touch at the beginning, but it won’t be the same as seeing each other every day. They won’t double-date to prom. No celebrating acceptance letters or crying over rejection ones. No silly graduation pictures. Instead, time will pass and the distance will seem farther every day. Bev will be in America doing American things. Natasha will be in Jamaica feeling like a stranger in the country of her birth.
How long before her friends forget about her? How long before she picks up a Jamaican accent? How long before she forgets that she was ever in America?
One day in the future, the meaning of irie will move on, and it will become just another word with a long list of archaic or obsolete definitions. Is everything irie? someone will ask you in a perfect American accent. Everything’s irie, you will respond, meaning everything’s just okay, but you really don’t feel like talking about it. Neither of you will know about Abraham or the Rastafari religion or the Jamaican dialect. The word will be devoid of any history at all.