I sit in the stands watching buckets overflow with rainwater from the cracked ceiling. My two brothers glide along the plastic tiles in the rink, my middle brother stopping at his goal to squirt water through the cage in his goalie mask. He is too young for the adult league, a few years below the age bracket, but he doesn't want to separate from our oldest brother, and his height is enough to convince the mustached redneck owners of the rink that he can handle it. They say so outside the open garage door to the rink—not in their offices I imagine they hardly use, cigarettes hanging from their lips, holey t-shirts stuck to their backs, pit stains showing.
The older men in the league don't care about age brackets, at least not the men my brothers are playing right now, the men sponsored by Mugs 'n Jugs, a local family sports bar. They don't care about these foreigners invading their Floridian rink, whether my brothers are Canadian or Trinidadian or Indian—all they care about are their sticks, the puck, and the back of the net.
A fight breaks out between one of the Jugs and Nick Beesley, the biggest dude on my brothers' team who wears golden lacrosse gloves instead of hockey gloves. I pretend they are power gloves from The Legend of Zelda, and I imagine him lifting giant boulders and hurling them into the air.
The adults from the opposing team are ejected from the game, but they linger by the rink door drenched in the scent of sweaty skin and mildewing hockey pads, arguing with the referees. I run to the edge of the bleachers with eyes wide, heart beating fast and hard. Good, I think. Kick their asses out. Though, I'm not sure if the word ass is in my vocabulary just yet.
Let me in. I want to play.
All my life people have asked me where I'm from. Do I tell them where I grew up? Or where I was born? Or do they want to know why I'm not white?
When I was a kid, I'd say, “Canada,” without missing a beat. Many adults found this funny, and they'd say, “No, honey, we mean where are your ancestors from?”
I never understood. I was from Canada. My family lived in Canada. I played hockey. I had felt snow without gloves; built snowmen; gotten bloody noses from the cold, dry air. Even my mother would say, “You're Trinidadian,” laughing, knowing how I would respond.
“No. I'm from Canada,” I'd say.
My brother would say, “You're barely from Canada. You're pretty much just an American.”
No. I'm from Canada.
A quick Google search of “Indian hockey players” yielded mostly field hockey articles and pictures of men holding field hockey sticks in mid stride over a green field. Some have full beards that cover the entire front of their necks; some have neat mustaches, smiling directly at the camera; and some have shaved faces. They are all as dark skinned as I am, their bodies glistening with sweat, their backs hunched as they pull back their candy cane shaped field hockey sticks before swinging away.
Grandma's basement is perfect. We sit in the cavern bathed in glow from the television, our eyes wide, jaws slack. We call it a tournament—we draw up a bracket on Grandma's yellow legal pad and chart the winner's journey. There is no prize—just bragging rights.
This time my uncle Rudy joins us. He is the only adult who will play video games with us, but it comes at a price; I am left on back scratching duty while he tries his luck against my brother.
My brother and uncle are locked in an overtime match, and the first one to score will win the tournament. My brother's grip causes the plastic Super Nintendo controller to squeak, the tip of his tongue peaking out of his pursed lips. His arms rocket toward the ceiling when he scores, and my uncle laughs.
“Let we go,” Uncle Rudy says, his Trinidadian accent thick. “Grandma made pilhouri and chutney.”
Pilhouri is my favorite snack, a fluffy fried ball made out of crushed split peas. I like to bite it in half and use the yellow insides to soak up Grandma's coconut and tamarind chutney.
I am always the last one left at the table, but when I finally finish eating I run down the black steps and join the rest of the kids starting a new hockey tournament in the basement.
My brothers used to tell me their Canada stories about walking home through the snow; building snow forts and igloos and snow tunnels; or getting into fights while wearing their puffer jackets. They are older than me and went to school in the north.
I can't relate.
I was three when we moved to the United States; I would grow up in Florida, the sunshine state. They had snow days—I had hurricane days. They had snowball fights—I had water gun fights. Long johns and mittens—swim trunks and sunscreen.
We visited Canada almost twice a year, packing our video game systems and staying up late playing NHL '94 into the small hours of the night, knocking each other out of our homemade tournaments. One Christmas, my brothers and I all received matching Maple Leafs jerseys. Mine was too big for me to wear, but my parents told me I'd grow into it.
We are taught to fall forward, the plastic palms on our gloves shielding our hands from the broken asphalt behind our apartment. We wear pads over our soft knees and practice well into the night—me with my brand new black and orange rollerblades, my brothers with their brand new grey and teals and black and greens.
“If you fall backwards,” my oldest brother says, “you can really hurt your butt.”
I snicker. He said “butt.”
But I listen. When I fall—and I fall often—I fall forward and use the plastic protection. By the next day, my brothers and I are starting to get the hang of it. By the end of the week, we are perfecting a trick my brothers call the Tropicana, where we balance on the front wheel of one skate and the back wheel of the other.
By the end of the year, we are sawing off the bulky rubber behind the four wheels. If we need to stop, we will have to without the ugly brake. If we are on a roller hockey rink, we will have to learn how to hockey stop by rotating our hips, planting our feet perpendicularly, and sliding over the plastic tiles until friction takes hold.
When we went to Canada for my grandfather's funeral, my brothers and I packed our Playstation, a copy of NHL 2001, and a few controllers into our bags, wrapping them in our clothes for support during our travels. There is something about playing hockey in Canada, even if it is just virtually, something about battling with our sticks at the drop of the puck with the comfort of the thick snow resting just outside our windows.
There are photos of my grandfather and me at the beach, but not in the water. We stand on a wooden pier, his Panama hat on my head, his head bald and shiny with sweat. My father uses the same hat when he works in the backyard in the summer—I follow suit with the need to cover my head, only I use a Maple Leafs baseball cap instead. I knew my grandfather, but not well—not like I knew my mother's family. I knew he was a devoutly Hindu man, that he was strict, that he gave generously. He didn't eat meat. He was deadpan, his jokes oftentimes passing over my black hair like a warm Floridian breeze.
I didn't think I would cry at his funeral.
Maybe I cried because it made me sad to see my family sad. Because I knew I would never get to ask him questions only he could answer. Questions like what my father was like before he was my father, or whether my father's birth certificate really was filed incorrectly, the date a year earlier than his actual birth. Surely he would have known my father's real age.
Or maybe something more metaphysical happened, a clue foretelling the future, allowing me to mourn the fact that soon, still unknown to my conscious mind, I would not be allowed to cross the border to visit my family in Canada. Maybe I cried because this was not just a funeral for my grandfather but also a funeral for my relationship with my country.
Bright red lockers lined the humid outdoor hallways at Clearwater High School. I was a tiny freshman, only five feet tall, and it was only a year since I had sat in my eighth grade Language Arts class, watching two airplanes crash into the World Trade Centers. I remember the disappointment of entering high school—my brother had played goalie for the Clearwater roller hockey team, but by the time I was attending, the hockey team was no longer running.
Besides worrying about duct taped bodies to flagpoles and swirlies in the bathroom, like my brother had warned me of, I was terrified of the tall pimpled teenagers gliding through the halls. With my giant blue backpack that bounced on my ass as I walked, I remember looking up at the larger students, hoping they didn't see me.
I remember being shoved to the side by a taller student. “Move your Afghan ass out of the way,” he said. I remember playing kickball during physical education class, the students saying, “Watch out for how Abdul kicks the ball.” I remember playing ultimate frisbee, one of the white students telling his friends to “cover the Mexican.”
And even though other students would taunt me for wearing it, my Maple Leafs jersey now fit my growing shoulders, the fabric no longer touching my knees like a baggy dress.
With the destruction of the World Trade Centers came a new age of immigration policy—what used to be an easy road trip or flight from Canada to the United States, requiring only a passport or a photo ID, became a series of new rituals: taking off your belt, your shoes, wands waved in your crotch, my mother randomly selected for questioning every time she rode an airplane.
Because my parents had never obtained legal residence in the States, and because they never discussed it with me, I was for the first time hyper aware of my illegal immigrant status. In my last year of high school, the seniors had a free day to register for their voter IDs. Without any idea of my status in the country, without any guidance or explanation from my parents, I convinced my friend to skip school with me. To him, we were skipping to play Halo at his house. To me, I was running from the unknown, my heart a trembling blue jay in a cage.
Years later, I will come home to my parents in their kitchen, the bright lights reflecting on the black countertops wherever the opened letters could not cover up. The letters will call for me and my parents to appear in court for ILLEGAL ENTRY BY ALIEN. My brothers will both be married to American citizens with no need to appear in court, protected by their permanent resident green cards.
Perhaps I will be wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs jersey as my mother's worried face explains all of the worst-case scenarios. Perhaps my mother will cry in frustration, or my father will go to his room to watch television without grabbing his ritualistic cone of ice cream. What I know is how I will feel punched in the gut, my lungs too weak to absorb the kitchen air.
In the 1987-1988 season, the world welcomed the first person of Indian descent to play NHL hockey, Robin Bawa. He earned six goals and one assist in a total of 61 games throughout his career.
That's less than an entire season.
Almost ten years later in the 1998-1999 season, Emmanuel Noveen Malhotra became the second hockey player of Indian descent to grace the ice of an NHL rink. He is still an active player, and he is currently the alternate captain for the Carolina Hurricanes.
There are no hockey players of Indo-Trinidadian descent.
I call it university instead of college. Pipe instead of faucet. Converter instead of remote.
I found an assignment from when I was in the fifth grade, an assignment where we were supposed to show what our morning schedule was like getting ready for school. Like a true Trinidadian, I wrote: “7:20AM: cream my body.”
I wonder whether my teacher understood that I wasn't being dirty; that I was talking about lotion.
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs are playing in Tampa, their skates cutting crisscross lines in the ice below, mini valleys a Zamboni will have to resurface during intermissions. Ice hockey rinks are giant refrigerators, so my friends and I dress in layers but forget to wear real shoes, our Floridian toes naked in our flip-flops.
The tickets are cheap because the Lightning haven't done well in years and we get a student discount for nosebleed seats. I tell my friends that I don't care who wins, that they're both my teams—but my friends start to hoot and holler for the Lightning, making jabs at my Leafs on the ice.
I can't remember who wins, but I can remember how my chest feels heavy with disappointment every time the Lightning score, each goal cutting into my heart with no way to resurface the wounds.
Do I belong to Canada, the place I was born?
Are spinning maple seeds mine to collect and throw up into the air? Am I allowed to watch them spiral, suspended in the cold, my hands covered in winter gloves, eager to scoop a handful more from my grandmother's lawn? Are the loonie and toonie coins in my piggy bank from my home, or are they money from some foreign country—like the coins my friends gave me from when they traveled to Europe? If I spend them, will a Canadian cashier raise her eyebrows at me, ask me, sir do you have permission to use this type of money?
Is my sport really the whitest sport on Earth?
Or do I belong to Trinidad, the place my parents and their siblings are from?
Am I the product of dark skinned people playing cricket on a tropical island, drinking rum, feasting on doubles and curry goat and roti at a park while a car in the parking lot blasts soca and calypso? Am I allowed to steups, or suck in air and my saliva, when I want someone to know, without a doubt, I disapprove?
Or do I belong to India, the place where my ancestors come from?
Should I be attending the huge Diwali celebrations at my university? Am I a part of the culture that celebrates Holi, the festival of colors, throwing dye in giant crowds, clouds of orange and red and green and blue floating in the air like a rainbow of fog, coating all the skin and white t-shirts?
Because if America doesn't want me after I've learned how to ride a bike here, after I've given it my first day of school—after I've driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn't want me, what country does?
When I was in preschool, I remember exiting the blue-doored bathroom to find two girls covering their mouths, whispering, and pointing at me. Kids don't understand volume or dynamics and despite their attempts to keep it a secret, I heard them.
“He looks like Aladdin,” one of the girls said.
The Disney movie was popular at the time, and I won't lie, it was my favorite movie as a child. But I had no idea that India and the Middle East weren't the same thing. All I knew was this character looked like me.
More recently, my brother and I watched a Toronto Maple Leafs game together at our parents' house. We sat on the brown leather couch with our legs propped up on my mother's favorite ottoman.
“Have you seen this guy?” my brother asked.
“Who?” I asked.
“Nazem Kadri. He's Indian or Middle Eastern. He reminds me of you. All the girls in Toronto love him.”
I looked Kadri up; he's Lebanese.
Remember my first hockey stick—the small black one by Brett Hull, the hockey player who was both Canadian and American? He wasn't invited to play for Canada's team in the 1986 World Ice Hockey Championships and instead played for the United States.
Remember how neither team won the championship?
My brothers and I didn't play hockey for nearly a decade. Our only hockey fix was on Xbox, Playstation, or fantasy leagues on the Internet. I was busy with coursework, my middle brother busy training for the police academy. I would participate in his workouts, running laps around our neighborhood or wearing a weighted vest during pushups, pull-ups, and jump squats.
I was in the best shape of my life.
Digital hockey only teased us, so my brother and I searched for hockey rinks near where we lived. The closest was a small outdoor half-rink made out of concrete; the only full-sized rink with an actual league was an hour away. Though outdoor rinks are a deathtrap in our subtropical state, we called a few friends, bought new adult-sized pads, and started practicing every week. Each day, whether we went to the rink or not, my brother and I booted up his Xbox to play NHL 2009 and discuss strategies we could use for when we found enough people to start a team.
The more we played, however, the more our mouths salivated at the thought of playing in a league again. We called our friends and worked out carpooling plans. We scouted the full-sized rink and asked around for any stray players who hadn't signed up for a team yet. My brother even made a website.
I remember how many of the men on my team didn't shave during our playoffs—a ritual we adopted from the NHL. How we got knocked out of the playoffs in our second game. How we played until we all moved away from the area, life leading us away from team sports and toward full-time careers.
Where am I from? I'm an Indo-Trinidadian from Canada. I moved to Florida when I was three.
My brother puckers his lips and blows into the grey cartridge. The Super Nintendo has yellowed from the sun, and there is a small chip in the front, right above where player one plugs in. We haven't played this game in a while; it's been years since our hands held these purple-buttoned controllers, years since our ears heard the 16-bit sounds of skates over ice.
From the drop of the blocky puck, it's as if we never stopped playing. We still remember the best players, still pick the same teams. My brother lets me pick the Maple Leafs—he picks the Lightning. It's an unfair advantage, though. In the 1994 season, which this game is based off of, Tampa is still a young team in the south, struggling to keep up with the northern teams. Toronto is a powerhouse, and I score a hat trick with my electronic Dougie Gilmour.
We end the game 5-3. I win.