We were trolling up the queue that now stretched far back into the highway. The border was still a good quarter of a mile up the road. The geese were flying off the inland sounds and circling overhead and I decided it was time to rehearse.
“Three days in Whistler,” I said to Clay and held up three fingers.
“Three fingers,” Clay nodded.
We settled into the back of the slow snake twist of cars and idled our way along. A jet-black Jaguar with Washington plates made a sharp left cut into the neighboring lane and scraped the bumper of a white Jeep Cherokee with British Columbia plates. The Jeep driver jumped out and rapped on the tinted window of the Washingtonian, who was putting forward unawares. He rolled down the window and there was a lot of quick nodding, and then the Washingtonian got out and a great scene of frantic hand gesturing began.
We creeped by the altercation, which was sending our nerves high, and slowly approached that radar-lasered rubicon spot where your license plate is photographed and the great trial begins.
I began to sweat, a lot, as we putted meekly into the booth and rolled down our window and the man inside swiveled around on his little stool until his gaze landed squarely on us. It was a hard stare with thin eyes and I knew immediately that this would not be easy and I suddenly wished we had shaved.
“Where have you boys been?” he asked in a dead straight, mechanical voice, his face-reading interpreter gaping above his right shoulder, observing us like some parrot.
“Whistler. Three days,” Clay said, and held up the three fingers. I grimaced at the re-enactment, which was alright because they couldn’t see me all the way over in the passenger seat with the glare settled over my face. (It also obscured the “art-work” that blinked through the sun from the other side of the corral. This was a grey square of needle-like shards silhouetting an empty space where a billboard should have been, and it looked like one of the windows from the half-exploded Urakami cathedral in Nagasaki.)
The hard man looked back at Clay, riding the great pause of words out until it all became unbearable and crushing, and then strained to look at me again in the passenger seat but the merciful sun blinded him away as it beamed off the dashboard.
“Buy anything up there? In Whistler?” he finally asked, still searching for me.
“Nope. Kind of surprising,” Clay said and broke into a sudden crashing wave of nervous cheer.
“Why is that surprising?” the hard man whirled on him.
I saw the interpreter scribble something in his notepad, and I began to pray.
“Why? I don’t know,” the tremor in Clay’s voice rose. “Why not? I guess I usually buy something. You know how you usually buy something when you go abroad? I just didn’t this time. It’s weird. Kind of makes you feel stupid, you know? Like you missed an opportunity. And when are you gonna be back here again? This place ain’t cheap!”
The man said nothing, staring his two donut eyes into the great scroll of our memories.
“You know what I mean?” Clay echoed in this little kitten-like voice, and I must say, I admired him. You could stick Clay in a P.O.W. camp and he’d be friendly to every guard.
The hard man did not, however, find this cute, or friendly, or anything good at all, and slapped an orange sticker on our windshield, signaled us to the left, and filtered us into limbo.
We pulled off the main parking lot loop and found a quiet spot away from everyone and sat in the car. No one had told us anything, so we just sat there. We sat there for a long time with nothing happening, and then we drove to another spot closer to the officials and began to sit there.
“What are you two doing in there?” a uniformed man suddenly tapped on our window, and Clay rolled it down.
“This isn’t…door-to-door service,” he stuttered out, riding out his metaphor like a drunken horseman bounces around in the saddle.
So in we went, filing quietly into a building we didn’t know when we would get out of. We slotted into the new queue and it seemed like as soon as we did all the officials left their cashier stations and went into a huddle in the back. They left everyone standing there, frozen into their line positions, unknowing of anything else to do and unaware of anything that was going on.
I broke formation and ambled off to find a bathroom, an exploration that took me to the far corner of the structure’s vast, desolate void. White walls and a white ceiling with no decoration of any kind. I came around a corner and found myself suddenly talking to a man in a bullet-proof vest.
“What are you doing?” he said in his best cop-voice, his hands locked on his hips.
“I wish to urinate,” I said. This brought no response, so I pressed on. “Where may I find a bathroom where I may perform this act?”
“You’ll have to wait,” he sneered. “We’ll open it up from the inside when we’re done.”
“Done with what?”
“Don’t you worry about that.”
I filed back into line and proceeded to hop on alternating feet.
After a lifetime or two the uniformed people returned to their chosen positions and we were signaled ahead. The new man smiled as we approached, and thankfully it was a kind smile. We smiled back without thinking about it–so quickly and pleasurably is humanity returned.
“Hi there, boys. You were selected for a random search. Sorry for the trouble.”
“Anything we can do?”
“Just sit tight for a few minutes. I’ll call you back up when we’re ready.”
“May I urinate?” I asked, still hopping.
“Yes,” he laughed. “I’ll have the door opened for you.”
It still took a long time after I got back from their steel safe of a bathroom, and I made it through a few chapters of Murakami while the lines of people slowly cycled through. He was in the middle of some bizarre sex scene involving costumes and cats in a penthouse when we were called back up to the counter, and our new friend had the same mellow smile on his face and I knew we were in the clear.
“All set, boys. Everything was fine except this,” and a grey-bearded officer behind him held up a mesh-bag of oranges. “You can’t bring these into the country.”
“That’s okay,” I laughed. “But just so you know,” I decided to venture, “we bought those here. We’ve only been away three days.”
He was not surprised by my candor and seemed almost glad to receive it, appearing long since done with the whole great concert act of the border patrol.
“I know. I’m sorry but we have to do it,” and he paused and seemed on the cusp of a laugh. “You boys don’t have anything else to declare?” he went on, holding his smile. “No pot, cocaine, crack, heroin?”
“Um. No, sir.”
“Good to hear. Well, then, that does it. Welcome back.”
We took our keys and left. There was a thick rush of smells as we left, mostly noble pine and car exhaust mixed in with licks of ocean mist that made me light-headed. That place had been more sterile than a surgery wing.
We got in the car and gave each other a look and began to drive out, following the magical yellow lines that would deposit us back into the world of democratic governance. There was one final checkpoint to clear, and I felt the same upslope of nausea I had felt before, but the guard barely looked up from his newspaper as he nodded and raised the barrier.
When you escape from a purgatory like that, where you can’t use your cellphone and your whole modern digital identity is momentarily lifted, you feel like you got away with a crime even though you had none to commit. I don’t know if it’s just the anonymity brought on by a society of three hundred million people, but it’s terrifying all the same. It feels like a national sickness, one worthy of the international scorn we tend to receive, this inversion of judicial process. It stinks of totalitarianism, and until it fades we can be sure to remain the elite pariah of the world.