“I don’t know what I’m asking,” I say after I return my eyes to her.
“You’re asking if you should stop being a stranger in a strange land and go back home,” she says.
I don’t know if it’s the mojito or the hour, but my eyes are damp, and I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep the icy lump in my chest from cracking into sharp little pieces.
“Cassie is here and shouldn’t the people we love define home for us?” I say once I know my voice won’t give me away.
She leans in to study me. “That’s one view. The other is that home defines who we love.”
After a few seconds, she leans back in her chair again. “Of course, since the second view is the excuse for why I’m marked with an identity tattoo, I’m not partial to it. But, it’s also why my peña is such a comfort to the people who frequent it, so who can say it’s wholly wrong?”
She picks up her drink, but doesn’t put it to her lips. “Exile is a strange and cruel state, Del. But the sense of being in exile isn’t precipitated by the land you inhabit.”
In this passage, narrated by Del, we find him conversing with Meche, a citizen ink who runs a peña out of her home; and with whom Del rescued an ink who had been the victim of a border dumping operation. Del has recently moved, with his wife Cassie, from their cabin in the rural wilderness of Smithfield to an apartment in the dense concrete city of Hastings. The Smithfield cabin is the cabin where Del grew up and has lived most of his life, and he maintains a profound, spiritual connection to the cabin and its land. This transition has been painful, but Del has tried his best to manage it.
His conversation with Meche meanders, but it eventually, almost inevitably settles on this subject—what it means to be home, and what it means to be in exile. Meche is the one to broach the subject, with her opening accusation: “You’re asking if you should stop being a stranger in a strange land and go back home.”
Del seems to be taken aback by his own reaction to this statement. His eyes well up, and he has to search for the reason—is it late? Is it his drink? The language used here serves to illustrate the profundity of his pain—he has to “bite the inside of [his] cheek to keep the icy lump in [his] chest from cracking into sharp little pieces.” The image is powerful and sudden–up to now we have only had a glimpse into the pain Del experiences. Even he seems to be surprised by a bit surprised by it. Perhaps hoping to deny the depth of his own loss, he tries to argue with the proposition.
Meche’s response—“perhaps home defines who we love”—is a bit cryptic. However, considered in the context of the passage, and in the broader context of the story, this observation takes on important meaning. Meche continues: “the sense of being in exile isn’t precipitated by the land you inhabit.”
This gives us an insight into Meche’s state. We know that she considers the United States to be her homeland, but it becomes clear from her words that she is not at all home. She is an exile in her own country. Despite her citizenship, she, an ink, is hated and looked down upon. This hearkens to broader themes of belonging and identity that have been coalescing throughout the text and are finally made explicit in this passage. Those that hate Meche for her tattoo don’t include inks in their conception of home (“the excuse for why I’m marked with an identity tattoo”). And Meche can never be home in America so long as it conflicts with her understanding of what it means to be home—the one inherited from her parents, to whom America was so kind.
Del is in exile too. Even though he still lives with his wife Cassie, the cabin in Smithfield is such a critical part of his identity that he cannot be home without it. This explains the gulf that has grown between the couple—if “home defines who we love,” Del cannot love the woman who has alienated him from his own. Home, in this understanding, is not just a place, nor a set of people, but a major component of personal identity.