The Border Crossing
I just left my life behind and am heading to the other side of it. The other side of it is called California, the land of iced organic defatted decaf soy mochas at every small town street corner, T-shirts any day of the year, taco stands in the desert, orange trees on front lawns and avocado trees in the back; the land of redwoods and palms and palm readings down the road, mountains almost everywhere and a twelve hundred mile view of the sea. It's the land of Tom Waits drinking tea in a backwoods cafè. I saw him once. He ordered the tea with his gravelly voice and when he got up to leave, he turned around to smile at me as if we were in one of his songs.
California, I've wanted you all my life. You're almost on the horizon, although I can still see my hometown of Guelph, Ontario, Canada in the rearview mirror and California is 2,500 miles west of here.
I'm driving a blue beat-up mini Ford Bronco that I've decided to call Marcia, in honor of Marcia Clark, the prosecuting attorney in the O.J. Simpson trial. I didn't want the Bronco to remind me of O.J. Simpson who tried to escape down the LA freeway in a Ford Bronco with a disguise, ten thousand dollars and a pistol to his head. Next to me sits a woman I've decided to call Morticia, although I call her that only in my mind. She's wearing a black polyester dress draping down to her ankles on one of the hottest days of the year and her long hair is dyed the color of slick tar. Enough black makeup is painted around her eyes to frighten small children and her face is unnaturally pale. Her real name is Debbie. I've just learned Morticia is 28, which seems a little old to be decked out in this sort of Goth get-up, especially when we're about to cross the border from Canada into the US and I can't imagine the American border patrols will take kindly to her freakish attire.
Morticia is with me because she read the notice I placed on the University of Guelph ride board: CALIFORNIA OR BUST. LEAVING NEXT WEEK. CALL IF YOU WANT TO COME ALONG AND SHARE DRIVING AND GAS.
I liked Debbie right away. She sounded fun. Debbie said she was a grad student and she wanted a ride to St. Louis, Missouri, where her boyfriend lived. St. Louis is only twelve hours from Guelph, not even a third of the way to California, but she sounded so high-spirited and level-headed on the phone, I said yes. We spoke over the phone again a few times to make arrangements but we didn't meet in person until today when I picked her up at her place in one of the student housing areas of town, a neighborhood of tall trees, large old houses in varying stages of disrepair, and dented cars parked on the road with bumper stickers saying things like Mean People Suck and Think Whirled Peas! The woman who answered the door seemed to be dressed for Halloween even though this is June.
"Is Debbie here? We're driving to St. Louis."
"That's me. I'm almost done packing. Hold on. Oh, nice to meet you."
I waited on her front porch under the scorching sun while she disappeared into the darkness of the house. When she reappeared on the porch carrying a knapsack, a black leather case and a rolled-up army sleeping bag I couldn't help noticing she was beautiful. She thrust her hand out to shake mine, the normalcy of the gesture taking me by surprise. Under the layers of black fabric she seemed to carry herself with the grace of someone with long slender limbs and a slow gait. Her eyes, beneath the metallic layers of eye shadow, were large and green and of an uncommon clarity, almost childlike. Although her straight hair was dyed black from her ears down, its roots were shades of mahogany and red like tones of polished wood. Her skin looked as if it had never been touched by the sun, and although some sun would have given it a cherry glow, she hadn't a single line or wrinkle.
As we walked toward my car she struggled with the zipper of her leather case which wouldn't close because it was bulging full of clothes. When I helped her hold the case while she pulled the zipper, I noticed that on top of her clothes, a long strip of leather was coiled around itself like a black snake. "Looks like a belt, doesn't it?" she said.
"I guess. Is it?"
"It's a whip!" she said as she yanked the zipper across the top. She tossed the case and sleeping bag into the back of my car, hopped in the front seat, waved out the window and shouted Good-bye at the house. As we drove off, she chuckled to herself, as if she knew something I didn't. Terrific, I thought. I'll tell the American border guards she's a hitchhiker and I'm dropping her off at the Beat Me in St. Louis S&M convention.
Morticia and I have been trying to have a conversation but I think her outfit is getting in the way. It's as if we're from different countries and we don't know the right questions to ask. Already I can tell we're both the sort who prefer asking questions rather than answering them. This conversation is like a game we're playing, tossing a hot potato back and forth as fast as we can so we don't have to think things through, so it doesn't burn us.
"So how long are you going to St. Louis for?" I lean toward the open window to let the wind cool my face.
"Don't know yet. I have to wait and see how I like it. Why are you going to California?" Her feet on the dash. She's wearing army boots. The heat, I keep thinking. I'm in sandals and even they seem too hot today.
"I love California. I've been there lots of times. Hot day for a drive. Too bad I don't have air conditioning. So you're visiting your boyfriend in St. Louis?"
"Yep. Can't wait. What's so great about California?" she asks.
I turn to look at her eyes again, but this time I don't notice their clarity, but how they're expertly rimmed with smooth black eyeliner that tapers dramatically to a feathery tail just beyond the corner of her eye. I'm wearing cut-off shorts, a cotton sleeveless top and no makeup. Suddenly I feel very unfashionable. "Lots of things. The coast for one thing. Most of the California coast is rugged and undeveloped. People don't realize that. They associate California with LA. But so much of the state is wilderness. It's full of scenic beauty. So what are you studying?"
"Physics. And some other stuff. What are the people like there?"
"Physics?" I look over to see she hasn't rolled down her window at all.
"I'll probably do a post-doc in physics. The Californians. What are they like?"
"The place is full of variety," I tell her. "Lots of environmentalists, social activists. No smoking allowed in public in the whole state. They don't even allow it in outdoor cafes. But it doesn't seem to matter much because hardly anyone seems to smoke there. They talk about it as if it's a quaint and embarrassing idea from the past." I pass a slow-moving RV. "Where are you from?"
"Toronto originally." She picks up her knapsack and begins rifling through it. "You?"
"Guelph. I was born in the States but grew up in Guelph mostly." She's looking intently for something. Cigarettes perhaps.
"I have way too much stuff in this thing. So how long are you going to California for?" She's emptying the knapsack's contents onto her lap. One by one the items tumble out—a giant hairbrush, a make-up bag, two tattered paperbacks, comic books that appear to feature leather-clad women in black masks holding whips, an electric toothbrush...
"For the summer," I tell her, although it could be much longer. I might actually be moving there for good. I might actually be leaving my entire life behind. Everything. I might be leaving my nice boyfriend and a hundred other friends, work, maple trees, streets where people know my name, a hometown where every block contains a memory. "Hey, comics. I used to love Archie comics," I say. "Betty and Veronica was my favorite."
"No way. Me too." For a second her eyes flash wide. "They're worth a lot, if you have the right ones and they're in good shape."
"There must be 500 Archies in my parents' crawl space," I tell her. Maple forests stretch back from both sides of the highway, occasionally interrupted by a dairy or cattle farm. I look at the collection of odds and ends piled on the black clingy nylon of Morticia's lap. She must be boiling in those clothes but she's not even sweating. She actually seems cool. I keep thinking she'll explain something about herself, like her appearance, but after over an hour's drive it doesn't seem she will. Couldn't she have ditched the costume just for today? We're about to cross an international border.
"Is that rain?" she asks. Big drops are starting to spatter the windshield. The sky has become suddenly leaden.
"Yeah, rain will be nice. Cool things down. I love summer rains."
"Me too," she says. "I love how rain smells." She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. We're discussing the weather. She's dressed as a witch for Christ's sake. Is her appearance supposed to pass without comment? "Smells like dust rising," she adds.
Dust rising? I'd expect someone so urban-looking wouldn't care or even know about the smell of summer rain showers. Yet she does. She tells me how as a kid she'd run into the street during thunder storms, how her mother hated it, how she loved to feel drenched. Our conversation turns to Lewis Carroll, whom she loves. The rain is pounding harder, instantly cooling the air like a gift. Cars have switched on their headlights and I can hardly see the highway. Morticia and I discuss European medieval history and poetry. She likes T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Me too. Morticia is thoughtful and self-possessed, a bright mind with a youthful confidence, happy even. I can't fathom why she's projecting this image of herself but perhaps that's what separates the young from the rest of us. The young, anyone under thirty, are still open to the world, still believe it can be new, offer fresh ideas. Those of us over thirty, even by a few years like myself, have started shutting the door on anything new. We've grown suspicious, weary. We've already allowed enough of the world in to last us a lifetime. Anything new would be confusing.
"So are you excited about seeing your boyfriend?"
"God yes." She peers in her knapsack again and looks up, puzzled.
"How long have you known him?" The rain is splashing the side of my face and feels so good I leave the window open.
"Over a year."
"How did you meet him?"
"On the net. There it is! It was in the pocket!" She holds up a Kit Kat chocolate bar.
"I didn't know they still made Kit Kats. No kidding, the net? On a chat line or something?" I glance over to see she's still holding the chocolate bar up to the windshield like a trophy. Somehow this lightens my heart. "Remember Bar Six? You can't get Bar Sixes anymore. Or Pixie Stix either. So, a chat line?"
"We like the same music, Alex and I, that's his name. Kind of a music chat line."
"Really? What's he like?"
"He's funny. Super intelligent, a little out there. Lives in his head, one of those types. Pretty cute too, sounds like." She offers me two sticks of the Kit Kat, half of it.
"Thanks. Sounds like? Sounds like what?" I bite into the melted chocolate.
She takes a bite and chews slowly, contemplating; then, scrunching up the wrapper she says suddenly, "Like he's cute, not that he's actually said that about himself, but I can tell a lot about him by the way he writes. It's amazing what you can learn about a person you've never seen."
"You've never seen him?" I keep my eyes on the road but say it cheerily, so she'll go on.
"No. That's why I'm going to St. Louis, to see him."
"Oh...right." I swallow the last of my Kit Kat. The rain has stopped as suddenly as it arrived and already the sky is brightening. Ahead is a sign saying, "Bridge to the United States." We pay a toll fee and cross the half-mile expanse over the St. Clair River where it flows out of Lake Huron. The sun has escaped from the rapidly moving clouds and its reflection on the water is blinding. A rainbow enlivens the sky and far below sailboats emerge looking like toys. At the end of the bridge we drive straight up to the immigration booth without having to wait in a line. I say hello and smile at the white-haired man behind the glass. He slides open his little window.
"Purpose of visit?"
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to California and she's going to St. Louis."
The man leans out the window to get a closer look. Morticia twists her wrist up to wave. He takes a deep uncompassionate breath. "Yeah, right, and I was born yesterday."
"Would you mind telling me where you're really going?"
I repeat what I just told him.
"Look ladies. I don't have time for this. Where are you going today?"
"Why wouldn't we be going to California and St. Louis?" Don't people go to those places? We have to go somewhere. I look over at Morticia. She shrugs. Maybe he thinks someone who looks like Morticia wouldn't be caught dead in the Bible-belted flatness of the Midwest. I turn back to the border guard. "Would it make a difference if I said Chicago? Nevada?...South Dakota?"
Ignoring me, he writes something on a piece of paper. "Pull your vehicle over there and step inside the main building." The man hands me the piece of paper and with no warmth in his voice whatsoever says, "Think about telling the truth once you're inside."
We pull into the mostly empty parking lot and stop the car. Morticia says to me quickly, almost under her breath, "Let's just say we're both going to California."
"But why?" I ask, incredulous.
"Because it sounds weird to say we're going to two different places."
"Why? We have nothing to hide. We just tell them the truth. If we lie they'll trip us up. There's no point. Let's just tell them the exact truth. We're not doing anything illegal."
"But they don't trust the internet. Don't tell them I met Alex on the internet."
"Okay. I doubt they'll ask that anyway. This should be over in five minutes." As I open the car door I glance into the back seat at my pile of things. It's true. I have nothing to hide. When they search the car they'll see my tent, my camping gear, my books, my maps of the Rockies, maps of California, my hiking guides, Morticia's whip. What's the big deal? I begin to feel my pumping heart as we walk to the inspection station.
The spacious, air-conditioned US immigration building, impeccably clean with freshly painted white walls, is a far cry from the bleak and gray immigration offices I've seen in developing countries. Those offices usually have peeling paint, cheap fluorescent lights, too few windows and men standing around holding unreasonably large guns. Sometimes, giant warning signs declare, "Anyone Caught With Drugs Will Be Hung." Things never seem on the up and up in those offices.
Another white-haired man is waiting for us, although this one's hair shoots up in mean military spikes. His eyes narrow to slits as he watches us take the long walk up to his counter. He taps his fingers. Four or five people behind him sit at computer screens in a brightly-lit office. When we arrive at the counter he blurts out, "Your story?"
"For some reason the guy out there didn't believe us." I hand him the piece of paper. "I'm going to California and I'm dropping her off in St. Louis."
"And why should he believe you?"
"Because it's the truth. Don't people go to California anymore? Do you want to see my maps of California? Addresses of friends I have there? What can I show you?"
"Some ID for starters." His tongue is perched on the side of his mouth as if that's its usual resting place. He has a crowded bulldog face.
I fish through my bag and produce some photo ID.
"What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a teacher."
He turns around to the people behind him at the computer screens and shouts, "This one's a teacher!" A few of them look up, not particularly interested. Turning back to me, he says, "So if you're a teacher you're really smart. You should know all the capital cities."
"I know capital cities. Try me."
His eyes become mere cracks of watery blue. For some reason he doesn't want to play this geography game after all.
"What do you teach?" He turns around. "Listen to this, guys." The office people don't seem to be listening.
"Lots of different things. High school English, ESL, adult education. I used to teach..."
"Prove you're a teacher."
In my wallet I find my teacher identification card, something I acquired ages ago, after teacher's college, to give me discounts at museums and on trains overseas. It never worked very well for discounts, although once it was enough to get me a teaching job in Fiji. He takes the card, holds it at arm's length for a better view of my photo.
"That you? Your hair's different here." I lean over and we both look at the picture together, trying to discern how different my hair was. Morticia looks also.
"Not really," I say. "Hardly at all. My hair was a little longer then maybe." Morticia agrees.
"Well, this could be forged." He tosses the card onto the counter. I notice the skin around his jowls hangs in unpleasant folds.
"Forged? Why would I forge this?"
"Why would I forge this?" he mocks, in an unnecessarily prissy version of my voice. My face is starting to get hot. I hate this man. "How much money are you taking into my country?"
"I have lots of money in my bank account and I'll be using this ATM card and my credit card. I could also show you..."
"Did you guys catch that?" he barks.
"My bank statements." I hand him my credit card and ATM card. He turns them over, holds them at arm's length. Then, with an alarmingly vicious twist of his mouth, he says, "Oh, excuse me, I think these are plastic. Do these pieces of plastic look like money to you?" He pauses, then tosses my two plastic cards up above the counter so they do little flips in the air, bounce down, and land on the floor.
"Of course they're plastic." I'd like this man to suffer a massive cardiac arrest, I think, as I bend down to retrieve my cards. "Haven't you seen credit cards before? What do you want? Traveler's checks? People don't need those anymore, not with bank machines everywhere, with ATM's. Do you want me to carry American cash across the border? What's the point of that when I can get it in five minutes at the nearest ATM? That's what everybody does."
"That's what everybody does," he repeats. He's smiling. "Did you guys hear that?" One of his co-workers seems to be taking a passing interest in this exchange. I look to this other man, exasperated, in hopes he'll add some sanity to the situation. He smiles slightly, shakes his head, and looks back to his computer screen. What's going on here? Why is this man not believing a word I say? Do I look like a criminal? And why is he picking on me alone while Morticia over here looks as if she's on her way to a satanic cult meeting? This guy's a complete bastard, an American Border Bastard. Mr. Border Bastard sighs deeply and says sternly, "I don't want you going into my country and running out of money. I don't want you on the street, young lady."
"On the street? What do I look like? A bum? A bag lady?" I take a step back, hold out my arms, look down at my shorts, purple top and sandals. I don't think I look like a bum, not at all. In fact I look like Mary Tyler Moore dressed for a summer day. "Do I? Do I look like a bum?" Both Mr. Border Bastard and Morticia look me over and seem to consider this. Despite Morticia's obvious sense of good fashion, she shakes her head. No, she doesn't think I look like a bum either. Is this man deranged? I want to ask him if he gets paid to be a jackass, if it's part of the job description. He's just waiting for me to blow up at him. I can feel it. He wants that. I decide to change tactics. I step back to the counter. "Would it make a difference if I told you I'm American?"
My words drop like lead. Mr. Border Bastard's face empties of expression. "Excuse me?" He cocks his head as if he didn't hear me right.
"I was born in the United States, in Madison, Wisconsin. I have dual citizenship."
The contours of his face begin to change. "Oh is that so? Is that so? Prove it." He folds his arms and stands up straight but this time doesn't shout anything back to the others.
I look through my wallet and hand him my birth certificate. He takes it without removing his eyes from mine. At first he just fingers it before taking a look, as if he knows the feel of counterfeit, then he turns it over, holds it at arm's length to read every word with his beady rat eyes. He frowns.
"Why did you lie?"
"You said you were Canadian. Did you not say you were Canadian?"
"I am Canadian, but I'm also American. Dual citizenship."
"We don't recognize dual citizenship here."
"Okay, fine. I'm American."
"Well, this will have to be checked. It could be forged like that teacher one." He puts the birth certificate down on the counter and doesn't seem to know what his next move should be.
"So can we go now?"
His face is actually flushed, as if he's lost his composure. "I can't stop you, young lady, from entering the United States at this point. I can't turn you back." He clears his throat.
Since I'm free to go, I wonder if this is a good time to ask him if he was a member of Hitler Youth. I'm wondering how to phrase the question when he says, "So who's your Friday the 13th friend over here?"
For the first time his attention is turned towards Morticia. Great. We've already been here forty-five minutes. He leans over the counter, feigning weariness. "And where are you going again? Chicago?"
"No, St. Louis." Morticia is actually beaming, perhaps anticipating meeting her internet boyfriend at the mention of St. Louis.
"Why on earth would you want to go there?"
"To visit a friend." She says this almost dreamily.
"What kind of friend?"
"Just a friend. I have his address here." Morticia reaches into her knapsack to find her address book but he stops her before she shows it to him. Clearly he doesn't like the orderliness of this, her unruffled composure in the simple act of presenting an address which he fears will be there, neatly written on the white pages of a little book.
"Hold on there, Missy. First of all, how did you and this one over here meet?" He tilts his head in my direction but doesn't look at me. "What's the story with you two?"
We tell him about the ride board at the university.
"Well that's the biggest cock and bull story if I ever heard one."
He then begins to grill Morticia about her financial situation and isn't satisfied she has enough money to go to St. Louis. He asks her how long she's going to stay there to visit her so-called friend.
"Two weeks." She says this with the faintest expulsion of disheartened breath, as if two weeks can't possibly be long enough for what she'll encounter there.
"And how are you getting back to Canada? Is Miss California over here gonna come sweeping back from Hollywood to pick you up?"
"No, I'll take a train probably, or maybe my friend will drive me back. He wants to visit me in Canada."
"Get your story straight! You don't know how you're getting back?" He scrunches up his face into a knot of wretchedness. "What kind of a friend is this? Look here, young lady, if you want into the United States you're going to have to show me a train or a bus ticket exiting the United States, a ticket that leaves in nine days or less. You'll also have to show me an updated account of your financial situation. That's the only way I'm letting you in." He pauses, and for the first time we see his eyes widen to surprising proportions. "The ONLY way."
As one by one the words slither from his mouth and coil inside me I realize that Mr. Border Bastard must be the keeper of some rare wickedness stored in a bitter heart. How can he do this to us? Now we have to go back across the bridge to Canada and drive all over the city of Sarnia to find a train or bus station and a branch of Morticia's bank. That could take hours. I look at Morticia and expect to see her as exasperated as I am. But, standing tall in her pagan outfit with her flowing shoe-polish black hair, Morticia is smiling at this pitiful man, smiling as if she doesn't hate him, smiling from the depths of her pure free heart and shiny green eyes. I think this must be love that's doing this to Morticia. I think this must be life's blessing, that we can stare down the face of hatred any day of the week if we can write a letter to someone who will write us a letter back. Life's prayer for us is easy and everywhere in the world you find people who either listen or don't and everywhere in the world you find people who are hateful.
We leave Mr. Border Bastard officiously filling out some form, shaking his head in disgust as if he knows there's something we're hiding from him, some truth we haven't told. We cross back over the bridge to Canada and spend an hour going from train to bus station then back to the train station so Morticia can buy a return ticket from St. Louis. It's much more expensive doing it this way and she really was hoping to drive back with Alex instead of taking a train. When we get to a branch of her bank to request an updated statement of her entire bank account, Morticia is surprised to learn she has over $15,000 deposited in her account. Her mother had deposited some investment certificates into her account without Morticia's knowledge. It seems Morticia is from a wealthy family. Fifteen thousand dollars should make Mr. Border Bastard happy, if happiness were possible for him.
Fortunately, we never find out what Mr. Border Bastard would have thought of Morticia's motherload of cash because we don't see him again. The second time we attempt to cross the border, along with Morticia's return train ticket, updated bank statement and our heated determination, another man is sitting at the immigration booth at the end of the bridge and this one looks different from the others. He doesn't have a military haircut and he's younger, seemingly more relaxed. "Of course he's probably just as mean as the others," I say to Morticia as we drive up to the white line. "Probably worse!"
"So where would you two be headed today?" He smiles, displaying a set of unnaturally white teeth. His uniform is starched. Ranger Smith comes to mind.
"St. Louis and California."
I hold my breath. Morticia thrusts out her documents, holds them steady in front of my face. I stare at the windshield, clenching the steering wheel.
"Have a good one."
I turn to him. "Excuse me?"
"A good one." He's smiling as if he's advertising America. What does he mean? Have a good what?
"Step on it! Go!" says Morticia.
I squeal the tires, not actually meaning to, but it feels right for the occasion. We're free. A peculiar lightness takes over my body and everything around us—the highway and the sudden and numerous interstate signs, the duty free store, the green grass on the boulevards, the ATM machines, the convenience stores, the blinding sun setting low on the horizon—feels like the hatching of a strange and marvelous dream. I'm allowed to be here. I'm American.
"Cool!" says Morticia. "Now I can put on some real makeup. I feel so naked like this."