Homeland Security and Then

By Trista Hurley-Waxali

Posted on

We hand over our passports as part of the routine. The customs officer reads the country of origin and watches how I’m already taking my glasses off, from years of hearing that being requested. I watch my husband talk to the officer, I can’t seem to make out the words as my ears are still cloudy from the long flight. I rarely feel completely clear until an hour from landing.

“Do you work?” the officer asks me.

“I am not working but rather helping my husband succeed,” I respond. He gives me a blank stare and sure enough, no immediate follow-up.

“Where is your husband’s office located?”

“Los Angeles. Want me to get more specific?”

“Is he looking for a change of career? And yeah, I assumed it’s in LA County if you’re landing here.” I nod.

“I don’t imagine my husband will be changing careers,” I say, is this appropriate for him to ask me about his career direction? My husband goes paler as it dawns on him where these questions are going. Each one leading from the recent terrorist attacks in Europe pulls away the security blanket from all our borders. I’m standing there answering questions, I’m standing there until he finally tells us:

“Please wait to follow the other officer.”

The hair on my neck vibrates over my dried out skin. I feel the camera’s above zooming in on my face dreading this second screening. We’ve read about this room, about the trauma that follows from this room. Personal blogs and sites have popped up each one with lines of fear and code of conduct tips on how to manage your frustration.

Ma’am, can you walk ahead of me to the doors,” The female officer says, getting me to snap and focus on being insecure of my walking speed. I decide to add a stern poise as I want to get this second screening over with so then I can go home. Home. Seems so close and yet so far.

The officer scans her badge and the doors open. She hands our passports to the front desk. Only after I see our passports being handed over my mind starts to feel the gravity of this room. The walls are thick with soot that must be coming from a fire. How is there no smoke coming out when the doors open? How does the smoke stay so isolated in this room?

 “Is this feeling extreme?” An officer asks, noting I haven’t taken a seat. I nod and walk down the aisle of seats to the rear and take a spot to face the other people. He watches the bold choice. The door to the back room opens as another officer comes out to take our passports. I peer inside to the fire that is controlled by a few feet deep pit to support the tall flames. Over the fire there’s a rotating spit, I’m assuming it’s their dinner. The door closes back behind a customs officer.

What can show up in a Google search? What can be enough cause for a second screening? Is it because his job has international investors and contributors? The very fact a company exists to simply put people all over the world together and communicate? No, that can’t be the reason.

An officer comes out from the back to question a woman and I can start to smell the meat cooking over the fire. I turn to my husband and nudge him to look over but he is looking down at his folder. He’s unable to see the flames. How long will they keep us back here until they offer some food? I wonder how long people have already been waiting but I see no one else is looking through the doors or at the smoke. An officer makes a joke that I can’t quite make out and he opens the back door to relay the punchline. As he rests on the door frame, I look at the flames for escape. I watch the spit rotating and then I register the shape of the meat. As I watch a man’s arm falls out from the rope. His once moving fingers singes and changes the smell of the room. The smoke is thick with loss and I turn to my husband in fear. But he doesn’t seem to notice the man on the spit, he doesn’t seem to notice anything besides the order of people getting called up to the window. That he takes note of, because what I’m looking at can’t exist, it can’t be real.

My ears pop.

My husband gets called up to a window but it’s not clear if it’s the 2nd or 3rd window. He walks over and watches where the officer sits and takes that window’s seat. My husband’s shoulders keep bobbing like he’s at sea, warning ships of rocks and dangerous terrain. I start to block out the white noise to maybe make out the interrogation. It’s quickly apparent that they are trying to catch him in a lie as there isn’t any order to the questions, they’re waiting for him to slip so they can write something down and take it to the back. Something to use against us and force us into the back room to show their fearless cannabilist leader they did well, that they vetted a liar.

No one wants to believe this room exists somewhere in the gray area of security, where if they make an arrest we have a small selection of rights. Where contacting a lawyer might need to be conferenced in with an embassy. But do we really want to contact them before we’re detained? And say what? What would we say?

“Dinner’s ready! He’s about medium rare but the limbs are well done.”

I watch my husband for answers. He’s sweating, but not the sweat that you get from working out, it’s the sweat that radiates cold. It’s then I see the officer who is questioning my husband, he doesn’t know what to ask about my husband’s occupation. Just that the title registered as a term for a security risk, a sudden red flag in the system from the head honcho, the man who calls himself “chef.”

I get it, the officers are simply following orders, if they were told to pull aside everyone wearing purple sweaters that day, the officers will have to watch the cameras. To pull aside those people and still track their movements. Nothing is clear on the interrogator’s intent, just that they are following orders.

So are any of these questions on merit or simply scare tactics?

Because I know they don’t know what it is we do here.

On which side of the glass am I?

“Babe, you ready to leave?” My husband sits back down next to me and puts the folder away. I stand up and grab the handle of the luggage with my sweaty palms. The front desk hands back our passports. He presses a button and the doors open. And this is when I hear my stomach grumble, it’s late and I’m starting to get hungry.

– Trista Hurley-Waxali