An Excerpt from LOVE & GENETICS
By Mark MacDonald and Rachel Elliott
This was not the first time I had been in the Calgary airport, but it was the first time in years and my first time as an International arrival. My flight from Portland, Oregon had only taken ninety minutes and hardly seemed worthy of the designation “International,” but the sign directing me to Customs and Immigration seemed stalwartly sure of it. My grey and tan North Face backpack was nearly empty. It had served me well since grad school and would continue to be my preferred carry-on for many years to come, but with just my laptop inside, it felt too light for air travel and refused to ride as comfortably over my shoulder as it should have. I had a checked bag too, but that was largely empty also — just a change of clothes, some toiletries, and a good bottle of wine that I hoped to share. I wouldn’t be staying long, just the one night.
The morning plane touched down uneventfully and I was soon navigating the glass-walled maze of the international terminal. The myriad of signs and arrows were ostensibly guiding me toward customs, although the route clearly prioritized security over expediency. Fair enough. I readjusted my pack again, trying not to lose myself in thoughts of the day ahead. Through the glass I peered into the passing moments of other travelers — travelers already in Canada, travelers on the other side of the glass divide. I watched families trudge their way through the terminal with kids and bags straggling behind them. Lone adults passed time in a Tim Horton’s with a cup of coffee and a MacLean’s. Where were they headed on this Saturday morning? Where had they come from? Were they on time? Were they glad to be traveling? Were any of them worried about what they might find at their destination?
Airport customs was a small affair in Calgary; they must not get many international flights. There were only a half-dozen kiosks and only two of those were staffed by an agent that morning. But at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday there was no need for any more. I paused at a high, narrow table near the back of the open room to scrounge through the second pocket of my backpack for a pen to fill out the blue and white customs form. Fortunately, I never cleaned my pack out completely, so there was always a pen, business card, or cough drop to be found in there when needed; I had, of course, double-checked for contraband before I left, knowing full well there wouldn’t be any, but it’s always worth being sure. My completed form in hand, I chose the kiosk on the left, the one with the woman agent and only one other traveler in line. After a rolling stop at the broad red line marked on the floor, I made my way to the side-counter of the kiosk, trying not to look nervous. It never helps to look nervous at a Customs and Immigration inspection. I reminded myself that I had nothing to hide here, I was not doing anything wrong. It was the rest of the day that I was nervous about.
The customs agent took my Canadian passport and opened it to the photo page. She looked me square in the eyes and then proceeded to size me up head-to-toe before returning her gaze to my hopefully anxiety-free face.
“Citizenship?” She began in a voice that was both friendly and tired, yet still held an undercurrent of authority.
I had just handed her my passport, of course I was Canadian. I suppose they have to ask, perhaps to get a potential perjury on record, or perhaps just to see who they can trick. But it did say clearly right there on the front cover: CANADA PASSPORT (and then again in French, of course, PASSPORTE). It even goes a step further on the first page, explicitly listing my citizenship as CANADIAN, in case the reader had somehow missed the lettering on the outside cover. I imagined that once in a blue moon someone answers the citizenship question “Italian” while holding a passport from Albania and that’s how they catch bad guys. The people who mess that one up must be extremely nervous-looking.
“Where do you live?” Her focus had now returned to her computer screen, which presumably listed all sorts of interesting details about my immigration credentials and prior travels.
“Portland, Oregon, in the States.” I had been living in the US for more than a decade and had had this same conversation many times while crossing back into Canada at various borders. I had learned from experience that it did not serve to rush to any explanations or caveats, just answer their questions directly and succinctly and they’ll get to the next part at their own pace.
“Why are you living in the USA?”
“I work for Intel Corporation there and live with my wife, who is American. I have a green card.” I had my proof of residency at the ready and it was halfway across the side-counter before she asked for it.
“What are you doing in Canada today?”
This was the question I had been bracing for. Except for Tina, my wife, I hadn’t told anyone why I was taking this trip: not my friends, not my job, not even my parents. In that moment, my life as I knew it shrank from me and I felt utterly alone. But by law, here at the Immigration kiosk, I needed to be honest, and I had resolved to be plain about it. “I’m meeting my biological family,” I said.
The agent paused and turned to look back up at me, ignoring her screen for a moment.
“First time?” she asked with genuine interest.
“Yes” was my spoken reply, although I was on the verge of tears and I’m sure that she could see that piece of my response as well.
“Well, you win the prize,” she said with a wry smile. She stamped my passport and slid my documents back to me across the counter. “Best story of the day. Go on.”
As I turned to head toward the baggage claim area, I heard her add “good luck.”
“Thanks,” I replied without turning back. I don’t know if she heard me. I meant it, but I was too busy holding on to my edges to care about properly completing the social nicety. It was strange, surviving that one moment of honesty and the agent showing herself to be an ally of my quest. It allowed me to breathe normally again and gave me a tiny flush of confidence. Within minutes the world was slowly sinking back into the normalcy of airport navigation and I found myself successfully continuing to put my feet in front of each other as I made my way through baggage claim and on toward the rental car pickup. Searching for the right-numbered stall in the sparsely lit garage, I paused and felt the ground more solid beneath me than it had been in days. As I stood there, staring at the white Ford Focus in front of me, the customs agent’s prize comment ran through my mind again, and it made me wonder.
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