Because the backward-thinking American government does not recognize my fifteen-year marriage to Clyde, returning to America is always a challenge for us. This trip presented us with our most challenging re-entry yet.
Both Clyde and I were pulled aside for special screening, where we were asked lengthy questions and given special scrutiny. I got off relatively easily: the agent going through my bags was suspicious (“You’re traveling with family? So where are they? Why aren’t they here? Whose clothes are these? You’re traveling with a friend, then? Another man?”), but efficient. Once he started coming across Tarot decks in my carry-on, he pretty much left me alone. (Latex gloves won’t protect you from bad juju, I suppose.)
Clyde’s experience, though, was extreme … and disturbing.
“What countries did you visit?” the customs agent asked.
“Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam,” Clyde replied.
“That’s an itinerary very much associated with child pornography,” the agent said, frowning.
How do you respond to that? How does anyone respond to that?
Clyde didn’t have time to respond. Instead, he was separated from me, whisked aside, and put through more than a half-hour of pure trauma.
Clyde happened to be carrying the suitcase stuffed with two weeks of dirty clothes. The agents pulled these out, pulled on gloves, and went through every pocket on every pair of pants, unwadded every piece of underwear, and unrolled every damp, sweaty shirt.
The agents looked at every photograph on his digital camera. (There weren’t many; I’d dumped most of them to my computer.) They made him power up his laptop, and then complained when the battery went dead almost instantly. (Which shouldn’t have been too surprising, given that we’d just gotten off a twelve-hour trans-Pacific flight.)
After plugging in the laptop, they started looking at the photographs and movie clips on Clyde’s computer. Finding nothing incriminating seemed to annoy them … and so, of course, they looked even harder, eventually looking at every. Single. Digital. Image. One. By. One.
And meanwhile: the questions. Where was this family he was traveling with? (On another plane.) Why were they on another flight? (They were going home to a different destination.)
In terms of minutes, we aren’t sure exactly how long this ordeal went on, but here’s one way of measuring it: it went on long enough for Clyde’s laptop to go from a 10% charge to an 80% charge while the agents poured through his electronic files.
Meanwhile, I was left standing in the terminal, separated from my husband, with no idea about where Clyde was, what he was being subjected to, or when (or where) he would reappear.
Had we been husband and wife, we at least would have been able to go through the ordeal together.