My luck at U.S. Customs & Immigration is horrible. The worst.
I basically always get pulled aside for “additional screening.”
Is it my bottomless curiosity, causing me to glance around wide-eyed, sucking in every detail just like a terrorism planner might do? Is it perhaps (as another equally luckless traveler said she’d been told) that the screening selectors try to fill some of their quota with people who look nice and cooperative?
I never know.
Except for this last time… I had a good guess.
Despite a Portugal-departure panic, I eventually made it to the U.S.
Standing in line at immigration – sleep deprived, greasy, pale, and rumpled- I struggled to focus while I mentally rehearsed the last six months of my life.
You see, most Americans re-entering the U.S. have clean, simple answers regarding their whereabouts. A two-week vacation to Jamaica, a ten-day visit to family in the UK, a business trip to Russia… whatever. They left the country for a single goal, accomplished it, and returned.
A nomad like myself rarely possesses clean, simple answers when clearing immigration. My plan upon departing the U.S. was to base myself in Australia with my domestic-twin and lifestyle-opposite. We also had an international stint in Europe planned, centering around a friend’s wedding in Portugal. Boyfriend kept not-buying his flights. Eventually I volunteered to go alone. A few weeks later, I realized I should also volunteer to stop being his girlfriend. It was the most gut-wrenching realization of my life.
And it threw a wrench into my sense of self. The plan was no longer the plan. My reality was no longer my reality. And before I could make a new plan and reality, it was time for that international stint… from Thailand to the Netherlands via Sweden, then to Portugal. I swallowed the cost of my tickets back to The Land Down Undah, instead finding cheap flights to the U.S.A. via Belgium.
By the time I looked a U.S. immigration officer in the eye, the pieces of my life were thoroughly scattered.
Why? Uh…. So many answers. How to say it in a quick sentence?
Lucky for me, the immigration officer saved me from having to summarize. He stopped me at the beginning of my whereabouts list, interrupting with, “And why did you go to Australia?”
Unlucky for me – despite having matter-of-factly explained the snapshot of my life to at least one person every single day for the last month, and despite the fact that my break-up had already improved my life – a bad thing happened. First I quipped, “I was there with my boyfriend! Well, ex-boyfriend. We broke up.” Then, as he turned back to his screen, the bad thing started.
I felt the unstoppable rise of 100% unexpected tears.
“Oh my god.” I thought. “No way. This can’t be happening.”
“Oh SHIT! It is happening! No, no, no, no, shit, shit, shit…”
When he looked up, my eyes were brimming. A giant lump in my throat guaranteed floodgates would open if I muttered a single word.
His eyes went wide.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, as tears began rushing down my face. “I didn’t know I was going to cry. I’m so sorry.”
I tried with all my might to snap my tear ducts shut. Failure. I cursed my stupid lack of sleep, and my stupid monthly hormones, and my stupid ex-boyfriend. aHe’s not really stupid. He’s actually one of the smartest people I know. Despite… other things that would be unfair to say publicly.
The poor man shifted uncomfortably, forced to continue his inquisition on a now very-pathetic subject.
“Ma’am, why are you crying? Is it because of your boyfriend?”
Despite wishing for dry eyes with every ounce of my being, a new rush of tears found their way to the surface.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I managed to say between surges. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know I was going to cry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, ma’am,” he replied, stamping my form. “Just step right over there please,” he said, gesturing toward the exit control man.
What was my level of surprise when – as usual – the exit control man directed me down a long hallway instead of into the arrivals hall? Zero.
I trudged under fluorescent lights like a rat in a maze. Finally, I rounded a corner and found a rough-looking fellow seated on top of his rucksack.
“Well,” I thought, looking past him to two other ‘additional screening’ victims, “at least it’s a short line. Just a few minutes until I can call up someone I love and get some sympathy about this embarrassing and unanticipated nightmare.”
Twenty minutes passed. We were tortured by the only thing we could see: a stream of luggage suspects having their bags quickly x-rayed before moving on to the arrivals hall.
A wall to our left hid the ‘additional screening’ area, giving zero clues as to why we were frozen in this bureaucratic purgatory. I know it’s best not to make waves when dealing with U.S. Immigration, but after forty minutes I couldn’t help myself.
“Sir, can you tell us how long we might be here?” I asked the man in charge of the baggage-x-ray area.
He stumbled through a slightly defensive, ‘shut-up-and-wait’ explanation, mumbling something about being understaffed.
Needless to say, irritation quickly replaced my bewildering tears. Next came full-blown annoyance. I tired really hard not to fume.
Finally I advanced to the front of the line. I could see immigration officers standing inside a giant circular desk, interrogating all the suspicious air-travelers.
Ten more minutes passed before the closest officer shuffled some paperwork and beckoned me forward. I popped my carry-on up on the counter, ready for the usual emptying and repacking of my backpack.
The forty-something man looked at his computer screen, turned to me and asked, “Ma’am are you feeling all right?”
And just like that my irritation evaporated.
“Oh no!” I said. “Am I here because I cried?!”
And, would you believe it? Those #$%@$-ing tears stampeded to the surface again.
I didn’t even try to stop them this time.
Just like most men faced with a crying woman, he held up his hands in the ‘Don’t shoot!’ position.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. Calm down. It’s alright.”
“I know,” I replied, my tears slowing. “I’m sorry I’m crying. I didn’t know I was going to cry.”
“You’re crying about your boyfriend?” he asked.
A new set of tears spilled over as I whispered “I guess so.”
“Lemme tell you something,” he said. I sniffed, thankful for the opportunity to get my tears under control.
“When my daughter was 11 years old,” he began, as I nodded and wiped my cheeks, “I lost my wife in a car accident…”
I froze, stunned for a moment by the unanticipated tragedy. Then I burst back into tears, half-wheezing, “Oh no! That’s so sad!” bNote to all men: telling a crying woman a sad story will definitely not stop her crying.
He continued gravely, explaining what a hard time it had been for both him and his daughter. He talked about the loss and his subsequent devastation. My tears slowed during the next twist in his story, which gave me my first, welcome-back-to-America-culture-shock.
You know what his advice was for me? What made his life better after the horrible trauma of losing his life partner and mother of his child? What he suggested as a remedy to a complete stranger in a formal, professional situation? The most American thing I can think of: “The Good Lord Jesus Christ.”
He followed up by telling me how young and beautiful I am (ha!), that I have lots of great years ahead of me, and he sent me on my way without ever touching a single zipper on my backpack. cFor the record, I am thankful for his kindness.
Just like that I was back in America!
For who-knows how long.
Doing who-knows what in who-knows where.
To be continued! ♣