I’m a pretty big Neil Diamond fan. And when I say fan, I mean more than Sweet Caroline. I love his whole songbook. It’s peculiar for someone my age, but I’ve loved him since childhood and more so since seeing The Jazz Singer. My mother believed I should grow up seeing key movies from the eighties – Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Weekend at Bernie’s, and The Jazz Singer. My fandom of Neil Diamond has led me down a couple of very interesting paths in my life, but I most recently drew inspiration from his song America.
I had a direct flight from St. John’s to Orlando booked for my big move to America, three weeks after the wedding. It seemed easier that way, and safer for my cello. Add travelling at humane hours and Michael Scott would call this a win-win-WIN. I’d arrive in time to drive to Tia Cori’s for fish tacos. Delish.
I was just taking 1/3 of my wardrobe, my music books, my cello, and a few pink tchotchkes. No furniture. No car. No coats (yay!). It was going to be simple because my husband could take an extra checked bag with him when he left. Oh, but right. Then he got sciatica and couldn’t even manage his own carry-on when he returned to Florida a few weeks ahead of me. Wait. Okay. (Counting number of bags on fingers.) Shit.
I ended up flying down with a little more weight and a few more bags than I intended, including one very heavy personal item, containing all of the wedding gifts from people who MISSED THE MEMO that our registry shipped directly to Daytona.
Few people have likely gone through airport security in St. John’s with Waterford Crystal in their bag, stuffed with ankle socks and wrapped in my Yale sweatpants. The agent peered at the screen and looked up at me to ask “hey, crystal? Nice!” And then I responded with the Richard Burke all-knowing head nod, and said, “wedding gift.” He nodded in solidarity, like he too had once flown with Waterford Crystal strapped to his body.
I landed uneventfully in Orlando, ready to be a wife! Got my married name passport to boot, whether I wanted it or not. Yes, I mean, deep down I guess I did want to change my name. But then “immigration” (actually, I think it was just a woman at my husband’s university named Judy) tells you you really SHOULD change your name, because it would make immigrating so much easier, and your paperwork to enter as a dependent would be processed so much faster, and entering through customs with a matching last name to my spouse would make it so much smoother. I followed Judy’s instruction blindly.
I stood in the customs line up with my paperwork in hand, Canadian passport sparkling on top. A Hector Elizondo doppelgänger was directing the flow of passengers. He took a look at my passport and asked me en français if I spoke French. I feigned all humble, and bashfully say “no, no, not very well.” And he said having a second language was the best thing a person could have in this world, after the language of music. And then I swept him off his feet by adding that I’m a cellist. And wouldn’t you know – his brother lives in Italy and conducts an orchestra there, but he himself was a drummer and plays the bossa nova exclusively. And then Hector closed his eyes and held up his hands in a partner hold and hummed a bossa nova while his feet took little steps.
Judy was right, this was going so smoothly! I’m obviously going to charm the pants off these people. Wait until they learn I’m from the place Come From Away is set.
But things quickly turned bumpy. I took my cello playing, NL butt to the customs desk, now humming The Girl from Ipanema myself, but this young officer just took one brief, casual, sideways glance at my dependent paperwork and said, “let’s just get a better look at this inside.”
But I am inside already. What did he mean?
He meant inside secondary customs screening, which I now believe was designed to replicate the experience upon arrival at Ellis Island. Except there was no feeling of hope. Just tears and fears.
No more humming. I sat in silence, deflated. I sat with my carry-on in my lap, so I could still feel the crystal and make sure it was intact. No phones were allowed. Someone had theirs confiscated not long after I arrived, so I didn’t even attempt to try to send my husband a message. He would be getting so worried. How long could this take anyway?
HOURS went by. I kept busy memorizing the government website posted on the wall to file complaints about my customs experience. I just knew I would have them. There was no rhyme or reason to the processing. I tried to figure out the delay, but there was no use reading lips, because I don’t speak Spanish. Judy didn’t mention this. My neighbor, though, was young and kind of cute, and he spoke a bit of English. He told me my name was beautiful, and pronounced it like LAO (like plow)-RA with a rolled “r,” and I thought, oooh, that’s kind of sexy. So we got to chatting away, and he was teaching me little phrases in Spanish and I started to re-inflate.
Until a woman threw herself at the glass door from the outside, screeching, hands splayed, most likely breaking her nose in the process. Seriously THREW herself at the door, like a bird flying into a window pane that then dies immediately upon impact. She knelt down, I thought to mourn her nose or possibly wipe the blood smear off the glass, but instead she slid a set of house keys under the door.
Until people were getting barked at to have their fingers inked and “booked.” WTF. Was I going to be finger printed? And all of a sudden my Spanish teacher neighbor was hauled out of his seat to be “booked” and taken to what I can only assume to be an interrogation room (I think they labeled it “tertiary screening”). A very large, intimidating officer then gruffly snapped a blue latex glove over his chubby hand, wriggling his fingers through to the very tips, and followed behind, letting the door slam shut behind him. JUDY!
Now, I’m no detective. But I’ve watched enough CBS crime dramas to understand a blue gloved hand is not good news. I was prepared for a lot in this new phase of married life. Plus I had this new name, didn’t I? This was supposed to make sure entering the country went smoothly. But I was definitely never prepared for this. Nothing about a blue gloved hand entering an a**hole was smooth. AM I NEXT?! IS THIS MY COMING TO AMERICA NEIL DIAMOND SANG ABOUT ALL THESE YEARS?
No, thankfully, I was not searched for drugs. As it turned out, processing was exceptionally delayed and slow because my new friend and several others were seemingly trying to enter illegally while carrying some illegal things (in WEIRD places), and they were being shipped back to where they came from. They were “booked” in time to catch a flight being held for them. Maybe it is the storyline for Come From Away, the sequel.
Almost three hours had passed, and the convenience of my four-hour direct flight was now moot. I really needed to let my husband know I was okay. I nervously approached the two officers and shyly asked to use the restroom. The now-gloveless officer grunted for me to follow him. We walked through some type of locker room, and then rounded the corner to the “restroom.” It was much more like an condemned high school gym’s forgotten toilet, with no door. The opposite of safe. The very contradiction of sanitary. The officer turned back on to the toilet, folded his arms, and I had no choice but to accept him as a human shield. Thank GOD I spent whole weekends binge watching Homeland. Because I *may have* pulled a Carrie Mathison, going rogue and breaking the rules. I was going to get a message out to my husband to tell him where I was, no matter the risk. He must have been worried sick. The officer is distracted, so I sneak the cold tap water on very gently to make it sound like I’m peeing longer than I really am, and I frantically try to connect to Orlando International’s wi-fi to send a What’s-App message. Trying to quickly get the important stuff out in as few words as needed: Landed safely, stuck in customs. No. In customs, go find cello. Mmm. Tighten it up. At customs, have tacos? SEND.
Discretely turn off water, flush, wash hands, feel like an absolute BAD ASS UNDERCOVER AGENT. I slip my phone back into my purse in the waiting room, only to see “failure to send” flash across the screen. Goddamn. I likely just risked the blue glove treatment because I was too curious about my tacos.
But they released me not long after, and I hustled out of there as fast as one can hustle with Waterford Crystal bouncing at your side.
I still had to pick up my cello and oversized suitcase, which were left standing helpless out in the open and seemingly free for the taking (thanks, MCO). I piled all my bags onto a cart to make my way to take the shuttle to change terminals. I’m stopped by two airport authorities who are peering down at me with their arms crossed, like they’re Harry and Marv. Nope, not allowed to take the cart. I had no option but to saddle up. Cello strapped to my back, crystal strapped to my front. I crammed my body, a hard shell cello case, two suitcases and my carry-ons onto an escalator, TWICE.
This whole time a smug, short, middle-aged man in a business suit is taking the exact same route, wheeling one very tiny carry-on. He watches me try to load onto the shuttle. He watches me skid halfway down the shuttle as it launches forward and I have nothing to grip because for some f*cking reason people did not shop off my registry and I’m burdened with precious breakables. He follows me, and I avoid eye contact with him, even though I can feel he’s trying to catch my eye, because I’m afraid I will shout at him “CAN I HELP YOU? OH WAIT. THAT’S SUPPOSED TO BE YOUR LINE.”
I channel every ounce of Gal Gadot I have in me (which turns out is not a lot except for our eyebrows when I don’t over-tweeze). One of my cello case straps snaps from the strain, and now I’m lopsided, and I have one suitcase with spinner wheels, one that needs to be dragged, and I’m sweating a lot, and WHERE IS MY HUSBAND? I just moved to a new country for him, he could at least show up.
I dig out my phone and call him. I’m breathless. I just carted well over my own body weight here in bags hanging off my body and I need someone to take something off me before I break. Literally physically break. I can’t see him anywhere. He must be worried sick…
It turns out I took so long, he got hungry waiting for me, so he went to a restaurant and ordered a salad, he’d be right there.
My coming to America. This land was not so sweet to me today, which is just as well, because in this moment I’m not exactly thrilled with it either. Of thee I do not sing. Not today.