Many of us are uncomfortable with going through customs/border checks. We say too much. We try to be the funny guy. Yesterday, a colleague of mine mentioned how she inexplicably adopted an English accent when going through the border crossing to the U.S. I, of course, jinxed myself. “I don’t get nervous. I’ve been through it all. I don’t care.”
Okay, I haven’t been through it all. No strip searches. No guard dogs, barely restrained, eyeing me as dinner. But I’ve had my car thoroughly searched, vacation plans doubted (Boise? Really?!), suitcases ransacked—and I’d been so diligent about folding everything! In 2004, I had a U.S. border guard detain me, send me to some back room at Vancouver airport and treat me like I was a criminal for having previously been a permanent resident in the U.S. who’d had the gall to move back to Canada. It seemed to be a personal affront to his daily Pledges of Allegiance in what I’m imagining was a patriotic shrine in the living/dining room of his basement apartment.
But things had been hassle-free lately. I assumed I’d ride this good streak into my On Golden Pond years as skilled officers accurately assess me as the harmless, fifty-something do-gooder that I am. (They may also see me as a regular contributor to the U.S. economy, making impulse purchases and bingeing on $4 donuts, all the while pretending that my Canadian dollar has greater value than the American nickel. (Scrutinizing my credit card statements is an exercise in masochism I choose to avoid.))
Alas, the streak ended.
I’m on a two-week vacation and, as soon as I could leave work yesterday, I bolted for the U.S. border. Seems that, even though I had to formally relinquish any right to live in that country, I keep going back whenever I have the chance. Now more than ever. The estimated wait at the Peace Arch border crossing was twenty-five minutes so I nonchalantly read magazine articles, munched on a whole wheat sesame bagel and readied for an agent to glance at my Canadian passport and wish me a nice trip. Indeed, the line in which I queued seemed to move along smoothly with only one car inspection that I could see. Probably some guy with marijuana smoke wafting in the air when he rolled down the window. Or maybe someone blaring that song from “Frozen”. Maybe a combination of the two. The driver got directed to pull over and head inside for further inquiry. Been there. I feel your pain. But I remained cheery. If it was a random questioning, I was in luck. No way I’d be sent in, too. Border agents shouldn’t be overworked.
And, cut to the chase, I didn’t get pulled over. But I drove away feeling equally, perhaps more, violated. As I drove up to the booth, my passport dangled out the window, open to the page with my photo. Yes, officer, I’m going to help move this along as quickly as possible.
“Where are you going?” he asked, stone-faced. Last time I crossed, I’d gotten the guy to smile, even joke with me. This guy—I’ll call him Barney—was all business. He’d wear the premature wrinkles on his thirty-five-year-old forehead with pride.
“Portland.” Keep it simple, I coached myself. No need to mention an excursion to the Oregon Coast as well.
“I’m visiting a friend.” And that’s where I messed up. Maybe Barney wasn’t just dead serious. Maybe he was having friendship issues.
“Why?” Um,…isn’t that what friends do? Poor Barney.
“For a visit.” I’m a very private person. Neither my co-workers nor my family knew more. Why would I share more with randomly named Barney?
His next question startled me more. “Do you have a significant other in Canada?”
Significant other? I didn’t feel this was part of official border training. In what way had I revealed my gayness? (To be clear, I was not playing that song from “Frozen”. I don’t even know all the words.) My calmness cracked. I was at the mercy of an authority figure and, being a gay man of a certain age, I’d grown up wary of officers. I’d heard enough about Stonewall, about bashings, about how today’s “hate crimes” were once deemed just desserts. It’s taken a lot to be open about being gay, but I still don’t always feel safe talking about it. I remember “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and there was a time when I felt that was actually progress. As good as it’d ever get.
“No,” I confessed. No significant other in Canada.
“So who’s your friend?”
What did Barney want me to say? I coughed up a name. First and last. How would that advance anything? I’ve moved past imaginary friends. For the most part.
“How’d you two meet?”
“Online.” Here, I knew I’d entered another uncomfortable realm. I believe in telling the truth, but I sure wished I could have lied on the spot. Twenty-four hours later, I still don’t have a good alternate story.
Oh, god. Here, I hesitated. Deep breath. Welcome to Too Much Information land.
“OkCupid.” Do people actually meet on Twitter? Or LinkedIn? At least it wasn’t Grindr, but I was red-faced and resentful enough.
“How long have you known each other?”
“A year and a half.”
“Is it serious?”
I finally lied. “No. We’re just friends.” I felt disgusted with myself. I hate being so guarded with the truth.
Then Barney rambled on about not caring about the details of who I am. “I just need to know you’re not crossing the border and moving here. That’s my job.” Hmm, did the two dozen shirts hanging from the pulldown grab handle on the passenger side lead him to think I was moving? If he was going to make snap judgments about who is gay, how could he really think I’d move with so little apparel? If anything, I’d under-packed. (More possible shopping in tax-free Oregon! Another 0.3% uptick to the U.S. economy, courtesy of a Canadian who can’t distinguish between want and need.)
I assured him I had a good job to return to in Vancouver and, to repeat, my Portland companion and I were just friends.
He waved me through. Mission accomplished. On with the drive to see MY BOYFRIEND. Maybe I should even call him my partner. Yes, we’re serious.
Not that some border agent needs to know.