Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Banality of Travel

I was aware that the Ontario Provincial Police knew my name, what I looked like, and the city I was currently living in, so I took some precautions before going out. The previous night, Mary and Ashley had dyed my hair green and given me some raggedy old clothes for me to wear.

Presently, I stepped out of Mary's house slowly, careful not to let any of her dogs out.

The dominant feeling was one of overwhelming paranoia.

It was around 11 in the morning and I was the last one to leave Mary's house. I sat down on the curb, careful not to sit in any of the snow or mud on the lawn, and wondered why there was still snow in Sarnia in mid-April. It was a grey and cloudy day and I was not looking forward to my errands, especially with the newfound knowledge that many of my friends had been pulled out of their classrooms by the police and questioned on my whereabouts. Additionally, the Sureté du Québec police force had successfully hacked into my e-mail and read my online conversations with friends. I was not in a particularly good mood.

However, I was desperate for something to do.

I took the cell phone I had purchased a few days prior out of my backpack. I also pulled out a pay-as-you-go card and dialed the number listed on it. I scratched away at the secret code required to add more money to my account with a small pocket knife, but accidentally erased the last two digits in doing so. I foolishly tried entering numbers at random to fill in the last two digits, hoping I would get the one correct combination out of 100. This soon proved to be impossible.


I called the customer service line and asked them what I should do, and was told to go back to the convenience store and explain what had happened and that they would probably provide me with a new card. I thanked them and hung up. I was now determined to buy a new pay-as-you-go card, since I wanted to call my friends but didn't want to take the risk of using Mary's home phone.

I walked up to Confederation street and stopped myself from turning left when I noticed a police cruiser parked at the corner. I found myself gulping and snickered at myself. You're being an idiot, I thought. Just act natural and take a detour.

I crossed Confederation and followed Ontario street. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the policeman in the cruiser staring at me. It suddenly occurred to me that what I saw as a disguise actually demanded people's attention. I saw the convenience store ahead, just next to a Canadian Forces military base, and continued forward as I tried my hardest not to turn my head to look at the cop.

Not breaking my stride, I stepped onto the path leading up to the store's front door. I could hear my quickening breath over the sound of my shoes crunching onto the snow covered concrete squares. I was certain that a hand would reach for my shoulder before I made it to the door.

I closed my eyes and entered the store. I turned around. Nobody was outside. Nobody is following me, I thought, relieved.

I turned to the clerk, a short Asian woman with rugged features. I briefly looked around the store to see if anyone else was going to buy anything so that I would have ample time to discuss my situation; there was no one else there. I wasn't worried though. After all, I had bought my pay-as-you-go card here.

"Hi," I said, smiling.

"Hello," the woman responded in accented English. She did not return my smile and seemed uneasy.

"I have a situation that I have to explain to you regarding this pay-as-you-go card that I bought here a couple of days ago," I said.

"Okay," the clerk said, clearly uncomfortable.

"Well, I scratched out the last two digits by accident and called the customer service line, and they told me to take the card back and that you would be able to replace the card with a new one," I continued.

"No! I not do that. You no steal from me," the woman said, shaking her head furiously.

"Why?" I was not prepared for that answer. "I can show you the receipt, and I can call the number right now and show you that the card hasn't been used yet," I said worriedly.

"I said no! No! No! You no steal! No! Get out of here! You want me to call police? You want me to call police?" she screamed, suddenly grabbing a rotary phone from behind the counter.

Part of me wanted to laugh at the sight of her using a rotary phone to dial 911, but most of me felt terrified at the thought of wrongfully being charged for fraud. I was frozen in place and yelled, "No! Don't do that!" because I didn't know what else to say. I waved my hands in an attempt to calm her down - she had the phone up to her face and was waiting for the other line to pick up - but it only agitated her more, and she suddenly threw the telephone at me.

She missed. I heard the phone clang onto the linoleum floor behind me.

I grabbed my pay-as-you-go card and threw it at the clerk, yelling, "Fuck you!" It struck her on the cheek. She flinched and screamed and clawed at the air in front of her face. Full of adrenaline, I ran out of the store as fast as I could. A green-haired maniac running as fast as he can looks sort of suspicious! I heard a voice inside of me say. I ran to a side-street and started walking slowly and determinedly, as if I was walking to a bus stop.

I noticed a telephone booth at the next corner and decided to hide inside of it for a while. I picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone until a pre-recorded message started playing. After repeating this a few times, I looked down the street and noticed three police cars, sirens on and lights flashing, driving to the store I had just run out of.

There was a giant, writhing ball of embarrassment and fear inside of me. The fear superseded the embarrassment. I was terribly afraid. I was afraid of being arrested, of having a criminal record, of having to return to my family in Québec, of having to go back to school, of living a life of shame for having run away from everything I had. However, deep inside I knew it was only a matter of time until I was caught by the police; if I was caught, Mary's mother could go to prison for harbouring me illegally. I was afraid.

Not sure what to do, I thought of calling the customer service line to complain about what had happened.

I searched for the number on my cell phone and started dialling it on the pay phone.

After a few seconds I hung up the phone and thought. I thought long and hard.

I pressed 0 and requested a collect call from the operator. The phone picked up on the first ring.

"Oui, allo?"

In that voice I felt countless fits of crying, sleepless nights spent sitting next to the telephone, indescribable depression, and the infinite pain of losing a child. I suddenly understood the gravity of what I had done. It wasn't just about me anymore. I had hurt people so deeply and had not even realized it. I did not know if I could ever be forgiven or if I even deserved it. I simultaneously embraced and rejected the thought of banishment.

Bathing in the alternating red and blue lights of the police cruisers down the street, I kneeled down in the telephone booth and sobbed. And my mother sobbed with me.