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Homeland Absurdity

If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere. — Frank A. Clark

The only burp so far on our maiden voyage to Montreal had been the poutine. As a foodie, David was eager to sample the famous Québécois dish of french fries smothered in chicken gravy and “squeaky” cheese curds. But it only took two bites for us to realize that, like a burrito from a 24-hour Mexican joint, such an improbable trinity of greasy glop should only be consumed after one’s ability to recite the alphabet has been wholly wrecked by alcohol. Still, aside from that little disappointment, the trip had been nothing short of perfect. David had planned the surprise excursion as a brief, exotic escape from my day-to-day. From first-class seats on United to a designer boutique hotel in Old Montreal, his plans had gone off without a hitch — even the sky remained clear despite forecasts of rain. So splendid and easy, it’s no wonder I never saw disaster coming.

David set the alarm for early Sunday morning, the day of our departure, so that we could have breakfast and check out at our leisure. We made it to the bus station with an hour to spare, so we established which gate was ours, grabbed a few beverages, and found seats nearby. When we noticed a fast-growing queue at our gate, we hustled to the end as other stragglers lined up behind us. There seemed to be more people than could fit on a bus, so David left me with the bags and went to investigate.

As he made his way back through the crowd, David’s face was a mask of indignation. “What is it?” I asked, once he was within hearing distance.

“Our bus left. They changed the schedule. Come on,” he said, already heading back to the front of the line. Surprised, but not overly concerned, I threw my messenger bag over my shoulder, grabbed my suitcase, and followed after him to a small room with a window and counter, behind which two pimply faced teenagers stood waiting.

“The schedule changes every month, you should have checked,” said one.

“It says right here on the ticket, 11:45,” snapped David.

“You’re supposed to get here an hour early anyway. We made an announcement,” said the other. “The bus left at 11. The next one is at 3:45.”

“We were an hour early,” I whined. Turning to David, I said, “We were here when it left, we were right here!” It hit me that if we had to wait until 3:45 to embark on the two-and-a-half-hour ride to the airport in Vermont, we would miss our plane; if we didn’t make it on the plane in Vermont, we’d never make our tight connection in Chicago; if we didn’t make that connection, we’d end up having to crash somewhere and wait until the following morning to return home. My heartbeat quickened, and I suddenly found it very hard to breathe. Then my self-control blew the escape hatch and I hurled a Tourette-like barrage of muttered obscenities at the floor. Infected by my behavior, David unloaded an uncharacteristic string of profanity.

Witnessing the emotional deterioration of my incessantly serene love snapped me out of hysteria. “Let’s take a taxi,” I said. David shook his head, saying that would cost a fortune. The taller teen suggested that if we took a taxi, we might catch the bus at the border crossing. I continued, “If we miss our planes, it’ll cost more to reschedule and get a room. Plus, we might lose our first-class seats.”

At the mention of losing our seats, the glaze of despair in David’s eyes disappeared, and he said, “We better hurry.”

Outside, we approached a line of taxis from the back; each driver directed us forward. The first guy in line didn’t speak English, so we asked the second driver — a compact man with graying, Super Mario–style hair and mustache — to take us. “No, no, this guy is good driver, you don’t worry,” he said, lifting our bags into the trunk of the first car. The monolingual driver — a tall, silent type who wore dark, second-day stubble on his face like a ski mask — seemed to agree with us that he was not the right guy for the job. Mario translated as we explained that we had to get to the border to catch a bus, but if we didn’t catch the bus, we needed to be taken all the way to Burlington. I could tell from the shaking of the tall man’s head and his pantomiming with his road map and wallet that he had no idea how to get to the border and that even if he made it that far, he did not have the necessary papers for entering the States.

I looked Mario in the eyes and said, “We might need to be taken to Burlington.” Mario pushed us into the car and said, “It’s fine, it’s fine, he take you, and if bus not there, we have taxis at border on other side. Don’t worry!” Our driver continued arguing with Mario, who then grabbed the map and jabbed at different spots as he spoke. In the backseat of the cab, David and I furrowed our brows at each other. This was not cool, but our options were limited. Just after our driver started the car, Mario leaned in through the front window, reached back, and slapped David hard on the arm. “Don’t worry!” he said. Then he slapped the driver’s arm, said something in French, and we lurched forward as the driver zoomed out of the lot.

Relying on his iPhone and five years of French classes, David directed the driver to the point of entry at which our bus was scheduled to stop. An hour and a half later, we learned of Mario’s first lie — our driver could not accept credit cards. A young checker at a duty-free shop directed us to the nearest ATM, a 20-minute drive away.

With all hope of catching up with the bus dashed by the 40-minute cash-gathering journey, we resigned ourselves to forfeiting another $150 for a cab to take us the rest of the way to the airport. Because the last U-turn before customs was 200 yards short of the border, our cabbie dropped us there.

I noted there was no sidewalk as David and I lugged our stuff up the side of the road. Five lanes led to five kiosks. “I don’t think we’re in Tijuana anymore, Toto,” I joked. With an eye on the sporadic traffic zipping by, we jogged awkwardly across all five lanes. We were 30 feet away from the U.S. Customs office when a uniformed man in dark glasses and a bulletproof vest poked his head through a door and shouted, “Stop right there! Why are you on foot?”

“If you let us come closer, I can explain,” I said. He beckoned us forward, a forbidding look on his face. I told him about Montreal, the acned Greyhound employees, and Super Mario. When I got to “…and that’s where the guy dropped us off and turned around,” the weight of Mario’s second lie hit me. My shoulders fell and, in a dejected tone of voice, I said, “There aren’t any cabs waiting on the other side, are there?”

The officer took our passports and welcomed us into the waiting area. Inside, around 20 people who had come by car were dealing with various issues. Still more than an hour’s drive from the airport, I began to fear we wouldn’t be able to find a cab to take us, which would strand us in the middle of nowhere with naught but the fragrance of manure in nearby cornfields to keep us company.

After what seemed like an eternity, our names were called and a kindly looking older officer explained that the only taxi company in Highgate Springs — a town whose population is half that of Wasilla — was closed on Sundays; he reached a taxi-paging service in the next town over, so we’d have to wait and see if we got a call back. I smiled and thanked him for his help while my inner voice screamed bloody murder like a bimbo in a B movie.

Five minutes later, the phone rang…and rang. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as I desperately stared at the agents behind the counter, beseeching them to answer. On the seventh ring, just as I thought I might faint, the officer who’d been helping us picked up the nearest receiver. I almost cried with relief when he told us a taxi would collect us in about 15 minutes.

Several hours and $300 after we’d checked out of our hotel in Montreal, we finally made it to the Burlington airport. Short of finding a sparkling-clean restroom when I really have to pee, I couldn’t think of anything that could bring me more relief than sitting in the terminal, waiting to board. Twenty minutes after our plane lifted from the tarmac, my muscles began to loosen their death grip. The flight attendant handed me a porcelain container of warmed mixed nuts and asked if I’d like anything to drink.

“Red wine, please,” I said. It was all I could do not to add, “You may as well just leave the bottle with me.”

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