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Being Detained By Canadian Border Officials Showed Me Just How Clueless I Was

Photo: Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock
woman in handcuffs

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. My family didn’t travel much when I was a kid, and we certainly never left the country.

Though I longed for something more and dreamed endlessly of going literally anywhere else, the Midwest and its milky white homogeneity was my reality and the lens through which I saw the world.

I only began to realize how sheltered my life had been when I got to college at age 17. 

During my freshman year, I attended a small school in upstate New York, just a short drive from the Canadian border. At school, I met kids who were not just from different states, but from different countries. 

This was simply unfathomable to me; it had never occurred to me that kids from other countries would come to the U.S. to attend school. Yet here I was, surrounded by kids from Iraq, Ukraine, Ghana, and countless other places around the globe. I might have been the only student at the school who had never possessed a passport.

Knowing this made me even more stir-crazy.

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Canada was enticing for a kid like me.

The great thing about wanting to expand my horizons was the fact that another country sat right next door. I first ventured internationally, in fact, just a few weeks after arriving at school when my program organized a day trip to Ottawa.

All sixty of us piled into a coach bus and drove for an hour, alternating between dozing and watching the Monty Python film playing soundlessly on the tiny video screens, before tumbling out into chilly sunshine that felt somehow different from the chilly sunshine we’d left behind.

The city was just beautiful. The streets were immaculate, the locals were kind (despite my loud and arrogant ignorance), and the shops were like nothing I’d ever seen (mostly because I’d been shopping exclusively at Wal-Mart up until then).

In addition to its beauty, Canada had its other draws for a teenager living just over the border.

The drinking age, for one — was 21 in New York but only 18 in Ontario. This meant my friends (although, alas, not I) could cross the border and bring back endless cases of booze to be consumed at illicit campus gatherings.

Also, the minimum age for obtaining a piercing or a tattoo was only 16 in Ontario, compared with 18 in New York.

One of the only things I chose to do during that day trip to Ottawa, in fact, was to obtain an eyebrow piercing — my first act of rebellion since my parents had dropped me off with some TOOL posters and a set of extra-long twin sheets a few weeks before.

Piercing in place, and minimum-age data downloaded into my brain, I returned to my New York dorm room feeling content that my first trip to another country had been a success.

My next trip, however, would not go as smoothly.

In the months that followed that first trip to Ottawa, I gained a boyfriend. His name was Sam, and he was, despite his less-desirable qualities, an amazing artist.

He used to paint huge works of art on underpasses back home, and from time to time he would show me a crappy Polaroid of his work, taken in low light before fleeing the scene.

One of my favorite things to do was to flip through graffiti galleries with him on the archaic version of the internet that existed twenty years ago, oohing and aahing at the gorgeous designs the artists were able to create with just letters and a little spray paint.

It wasn’t long before I asked Sam to design a tattoo for me.

It took him quite a while to create it but was worth the wait. Once he’d completed the design and revealed it to me, I was impatient to pay someone all of my money to etch it permanently on my body.

But, alas, I was only seventeen — not old enough to be tattooed in the States.

Enter Dela.

Or, Dela’s car, to be exact.

Dela was a kind and generous guy. His group of friends — all a year or so older than me — had absorbed me into their fold early in the school year, and Dela had taken on the role of my protector. We were all close, as college friends go. A group of us had all been planning to drive down to Florida together for spring break; I’d been looking forward to it for months.

Dela was from Ghana, and his father had rented him a car to use while he attended school. He offered one day, to lend me the car whenever I needed it. None of us had much need for a car on a college campus in the middle of nowhere, but I logged the offer in the back of my mind for later retrieval.

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One Saturday night, not long after I’d seen the tattoo design for the first time, Dela’s offer came back to me. I was feeling impatient and impulsive. I desired instant gratification. If I was too young to get inked up in New York, then I would just drive to Ottawa and get it there.

I called Dela in his dorm room. “Hey, can I borrow your car for the night?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Dela with no hesitation. “Just come grab the keys.”

“Let’s go,” I said to Sam, who shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette.

In less than ten minutes, we were on the road. It was late — probably close to 10:00 at night. We had no iPhones or GPS; we didn’t even have MapQuest directions printed off. We just pointed the car north and drove.

Everything was going fine until we got to the border.

I was driving when we arrived at the border station in Cornwall, which was probably the first mistake. Sam, who was far more worldly than me, was in the passenger seat. We were both stone-cold sober, and we had nothing with us but a pack of cigarettes and a computer printout of his tattoo design. Still, leave it to me to turn a perfectly normal situation into a completely awkward and suspicious one.

I rolled down the car window as we arrived at the booth, confident we would pass through without much fuss.

“Do you have your passport with you?” asked the border agent.

“Nope,” I said. “I don’t have one.”

“Citizenship?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said with a quick nod.

The border agent stared at me. Sam’s eyes bore craters in the back of my head.

“U.S.,” Sam offered.

I wrinkled my nose at him before my faux pas dawned on me. “Oh!” I said. “Sorry. Yes, U.S. citizens. Both of us.”

The agent nodded slowly. “License?”

I handed him mine. Those days, it was less than a 50–50 shot I’d have it in my possession at any given time, so the fact I could actually produce it was just short of a miracle.

“What are your plans while you’re in Canada?” he asked, tilting my ID back and forth in the sparse light.

“Oh, just hanging out,” I said with a shrug.

The border agent kept staring. I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate to say, though, and so I said nothing.

“Could I take a look at your registration?” he asked.

“Um…” I began. “Sure. It’s not my car, though. Let me just…” I leaned over Sam’s knees to try and hunt for the registration in the glovebox.

“Can you actually pull off here to the side?” the agent asked me after a long moment.

We were probably holding up the line, I thought. It made sense that he’d ask us to get out of the way. I pulled to the side and parked.

“Can you step out of the vehicle?” he asked once he’d reached us once again.

I was again bent over my boyfriend’s lap, trying to find the registration for the rental car. “Do you want me to keep looking?” I asked, glancing back at the agent.

“That’s not necessary,” he said. “Just step out of the car for me. Both of you.”

We obliged, and we were led to a bench just outside the border services building.

“You said the car isn’t yours?” the agent asked.

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“No, it’s my friend’s,” I said. “It’s a rental.”

“Mmm-hmm. Does your friend have a name or a phone number?”

“Sure,” I said, and I gave him every bit of Dela’s information that I could muster — which amounted to a first and last name, with questionably-executed spelling, and a dormitory phone number.

By now, it was nearly midnight and I only hoped Dela wasn’t either too asleep or too drunk to answer the call.

We sat quietly outside that building, chilled but not quite shivering, smoking cigarettes every so often, for what seemed like forever. Finally, the border agent returned to us, holding out our licenses, along with the car’s rental agreement and registration and whatever else he’d confiscated from us an hour or more before.

“You’re free to go.” He said this through tight lips, though I didn’t understand why. He’d been perfectly pleasant up to this point.

“Did you talk to Dela?” I asked, eyes bright.

“We sure did,” he said. He gritted his teeth. “He said to tell you hello.”

“Aw, that’s sweet,” I said, gathering up my things to get back into the car. “Thanks,” I called cheerfully as I waved goodbye and drove away.

The drive from Cornwall to Ottawa took longer than I remember.

“What was that all about?” I said to Sam once we were back on the road, between checking for exit signs and trying to train my eyes to look at the kph side of the speedometer rather than mph.

“Dude, I’m pretty sure they thought we stole that car,” he said. “I thought they were going to arrest us. Why were you acting so weird?”

I pouted. “I’ve never driven across the border before,” I said. “How am I supposed to know what to say?”

Now that he’d explained it, though, I understood how suspicious the entire interaction must have seemed.

By the time we arrived in Ottawa, everything was closed. There would be no ink for me this evening, and I would have been well-served to take this as further evidence that getting a tattoo as a teenager, which was designed by my boyfriend whose commitment to me was dubious at best, wasn’t such a good idea, to begin with.

For now, there was nothing to do except turn around and go back to New York.

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We passed back across the border, this time on the United States side, without incident. I answered the questions correctly and no additional information was requested. That was a relief because by this point we were both quite tired.

I dropped Dela’s keys back off to him the next morning, laughing as I recounted the entire bizarre incident. “I’ll let you drive to Florida,” I joked, and he answered with a vague laugh.

We didn’t end up going to Florida with Dela. He canceled the trip shortly after the Canada incident, and our friendship never recovered. Unbeknownst to me until later, Dela lived in extreme fear of his father who, if he’d learned Dela had lent some American girl his car to drive to Canada and get a tattoo, might have leveled some serious consequences.

I had unintentionally broken my good friend’s trust, and I had put him into a difficult position without realizing it, all to chase some symbol of adulthood, some promise of love — neither of which I would have obtained that evening, tattoo or no tattoo.

It was an expensive lesson.

This was the first time I realized that, while I fancied myself mature and worldly, I was in reality sheltered and naïve.

My willingness to jump into a situation feet first is a hallmark of my carefree personality, but until I realized Canadian police had been gearing up to arrest me because of my impulsivity and lack of awareness and preparation, I wasn’t aware that even a character trait I viewed as positive could be detrimental when taken to the extreme.

It wasn’t the last time I would act impulsively, or rush into something without taking the time to prepare myself, but it was the beginning of my journey outside my own sheltered experience to consider that my perspective may not always be perfectly aligned with reality.

Dela, whether or not he ever realized it, helped me get started on this journey outward. I only wish it hadn’t cost me our friendship in the end.

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, and personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.