This morning I crossed the border into Canada.
Does everyone feel as nervous as I do when making that subtle yet formal transition into a foreign country?
It isn’t bad enough, seeing that big, ominous gate looming before you; the guards cloaked in near-invisibility in their shadowy booths.
It isn’t bad enough, being subjected to those increasingly suspicious questions, the ones that make you feel as if your privacy is being invaded, but legally, so that there’s nothing you can do about it.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“How long will you be in our country?”
“Where will you be staying?”
And my personal favorite, uttered with furrowed brows and an accusatory pointing finger: “What’s in those boxes?”
“None of your damn business” never seems like a particularly smart answer. But sometimes it sure is tempting to give it.
No, the worst part of crossing a border is the fact that no matter how many miles you have already traversed with seemingly boundless impunity, suddenly you have to obtain permission to move from one bit of land on one side of some imaginary line onto another bit of land on the other side of it. It seems a rather illogical affront to one’s freedom of movement. And, of course, anytime you have to request permission to do something, there is a chance, however unlikely, that that permission will be denied.
I don’t like being forced to answer questions I don’t want to answer, but that still isn’t as galling as being subjected to the whims of some random authority figure who gets to decide, based on the uprightness of my carriage and the shiftiness of my eyes, whether my truck or my person gets searched or whether I need to be detained for further questioning. What happens if the guard doesn’t believe my highly implausible tale of a memoir-in-progress – or doesn’t approve of it?
“Nope, sorry; we don’t want your kind up here in Canada. Turn around and go back.”
But then at least you’re stuck on your own side. What really fries my nerves is not wondering whether they’ll decide to let me come in. What if they won’t let me back out?
I don’t do well with confined spaces, even when they’re the size of the Great White North. I don’t think I could live on an island – even a very lovely one, like Hawaii – because there would be no other place to which I could escape. It’s silly, right? Practically speaking, in my everyday life I rarely travel more than thirty miles from my own home. But I would absolutely flip out if someone told me I couldn’t. It isn’t the amount of space; it’s the fear of being trapped that I find so disconcerting.
(This, incidentally, is why I’ve never wanted to get married. I’m not opposed to commitment. I just don’t understand why I would ever want to form a legal attachment to someone that would make it difficult for me to disentangle my life from theirs should the need arise. There are two terms for spending all of your time confined to a room with one other person. If it’s voluntary, you’re in love. If it’s involuntary, you’re in prison.)
Perhaps I’ve simply watched too much film noir, but it’s hard for me not to wonder whether I might be detained on some technicality; perhaps a case of mistaken identity. What if I’m “The Wrong Man”? What if I took the wrong “Detour”? Even worse, what if there’s a decades-old warrant out for my arrest?
I learned something in my senior year of high school that – much like the opening scenes in a fatalistic film noir – would set in motion a seemingly inevitable chain of events. My friend C. dropped this particular tidbit on me so casually that one would never have guessed that it would hit me with all of the force of one of those nuclear weapons we kept expecting the U.S.S.R. to send screaming into our midst.
“Yes, Canada,” she repeated, her voice muffled by the gargantuan chemistry textbook into which her nose was solidly stuck. “My cousin’s going to have a party in Montreal for his birthday. I guess you can drink there if you’re eighteen.”
My own chemistry tome clattered from my hands and onto the unfortunate tail of the family dog, sending him yowling under the bed. “You can?”
I wouldn’t say that the plot formed immediately in my mind. In fact, I’m not even sure that it was my idea. But somehow I knew that we were onto something here, something truly special. So I tucked that magic lamp back into some dusty corner of my brain and let my subconscious go to work on cleaning and polishing it.
And perhaps this was why, some time later, the plan sprang forth so simply and naturally from our collective minds; a fully formed Athena who turned and thumbed her nose at the older and wiser Zeus the second the proper opportunity arose.
“Are you guys going to that thing in Boston that Key Club’s doing?” C. said one day over a cafeteria lunch of warm tuna and cold pizza.
I set down my sandwich – my non-rodent teeth needed a rest from gnawing on that tough roll anyway – and shrugged. “Wasn’t planning on it. Plus I seriously doubt my mom would let me.”
“I don’t want to do the event,” my friend A. mused, tilting her pizza sideways in a futile attempt to drain the puddles of grease the pepperoni had deposited on her slice. “But I wouldn’t mind making a trip to Boston.”
“It would be neat to go,” I admitted. I had been to Boston before, but never on my own. “I dunno, maybe I should ask… Mom’s been less of a control freak since her surgery.”
My mother had had the first of two planned foot operations and for weeks had been largely confined to the rocking chair in our den. Not only had she been forced to consent to me getting my license, but she had also had to ease up on the discipline. I suppose that, even in her mental state, she realized that being physically incapacitated gave her a rather tenuous hold on a teenager with access to a car.
Still, I was surprised when, scowling, she nonetheless agreed to let me go. So much so that I began to wonder whether I was taking full advantage of this unanticipated grant of liberty.
“Seems like such a waste… spending the whole day in Boston,” I complained after telling my friends the good news. “Too bad there isn’t somewhere more exciting we could visit.”
“Hey, if we were eighteen, we could go to Canada and drink!” C. joked.
It was true; none of the three of us had hit that magical eighteen-year mark, which was undoubtedly the passport to a garden of earthly delights – in Canada, anyway. But did it matter? I wondered. I had already had some success in passing for twenty-one – the legal drinking age in the U.S. – so how hard could it be to pretend we were eighteen?
Now, of course, it’s impossible for me even to conceive of selling booze to any teenager, because anyone who is under the age of thirty looks ridiculously young to me. In fact, I’m continually wondering who keeps handing out driver’s licenses to all those middle school kids. But as a high schooler, my frame of reference was not other adults, but awkward and pimply freshmen. And next to them we looked mature, indeed.
“Don’t you think we could pass, though?” I said thoughtfully.
A. perked up instantly. “Bet we could!”
I could see my friend’s mind working, her eyes sparkling at the thought of hatching a plot of unadulterated evil that was guaranteed to get us in a heap of trouble.
“I wouldn’t want to drink there,” I added hastily. “Not when we have to drive home the same day.”
We all agreed that partying it up over the border was not the most sensible idea. But the seed had been planted, and, wetted by the drool dripping from our tongues, it would naturally grow – into a weed. We would be doing something in Canada, all right – something far more illegal than trying to weasel a drink at a bar.
I don’t recall who said it first. I don’t know who to credit or to blame for the harebrained scheme that flowered from that idle discussion. But two weeks later, we were leaving Massachusetts with a few hundred dollars and a plan to smuggle a boatload of booze back over the border.
To be continued…
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