I’m nearly at the gate – just passing through customs. All is happiness here, as I’m a long-term ex-pat who’s coming home, Shannon to Boston. Customs agents like it when Americans come back to America. Another one sorted.
We’re working through the formalities when a question about food catches me. No, I’m not bringing back any food. But oh, wait a second, “Is dog food considered food?” I ask, brightly. Wow, can the mood at a customs booth change.
“We have to pull your luggage,” the agent says grimly, and gets on the phone. Next she steps out from behind the desk and firmly escorts me to a swinging door, indicating that I should walk through it. I do, and step into the detainee lounge.
I am the only one in the detainee lounge, aside from two customs officers standing at desks behind a wrap-around counter. One of them indicates where I am to sit, and tells me to turn my cellphone off. And, wait, yes, I see a crate againt the far wall. Lucy is here! The two of us, busted.
The detainee lounge is pretty pleasant. Calm. Quiet. I consider it an upgrade. I’m so happy to see Lu here. The last sight I had of her was between two swinging doors as an airline employee dragged her down the corridor in her crate. Film scenes popped into my head as the doors swung closed. My bright little dog, loaded onto some mad airport conveyor belt, hoisted up floors, hurled around curves, catapulted down the straightaway, to the soundtrack of grinding machinery.
But here she is, in this quiet, brightly lit room, safe in her crate. One of the agents approaches me and asks for paperwork. My passport, Lu’s passport, Lu’s certificate of travel. Lucy hears my voice and whines, at intervals, quietly.
My suspicious bag (green, paisley) pops out of a chute behind the counter. The agent hoists it up and waves me over. Donning gloves, she searches for contraband. Helpfully, I point out where it is. The two front pockets: dry food below; wet food above. Various bags inside. “Um, those are pig’s ears,” I warn, as she is about to open a brown paper bag. “I’ve seen a lot worse,” she says. Confiscated, all of it.
When the suitcase is cleared I ask to talk to Lu. This is allowed. I forgot to put the “live animal” sticker on her crate and I’m feeling guilty about that. As though without that sticker, no one will know this is a dog. “Hi buddy,” I say, and “You’re ok.” Peeling the backing off the sticker, I align it carefully on the crate. Then I say what I always say when I leave her, “I’ll be back.” I say it twice, so she knows. The agent points me toward the swinging door and I’m decanted back into the terminal.
I turn my phone back on. Friends are texting me, saying goodbye, wishing me well. I feel alien among my American compatriots at the gate. I go to the window, hoping I’ll see them putting Lucy on the plane.
I feel sick about Lucy riding in the cargo hold of a plane, completely alone. She’s afraid of strong winds. She’s afraid of kites. She’s not too fond of buses and trucks. What will she make of this experience?
There is a group of stewardesses near me and I remember I have a picture of Lu as a puppy. I fish it out and approach them.
“Hi,” I say, interrupting their chat, “My dog is going on the plane, and I’m wondering if you can give this to the pilot? So he knows who he’s got in the hold.”
There is a brief silence. Irish women are not sentimental — not when they’re sober — and Irish stewardesses even less so. “If we give that to the pilot,” says one, “he’ll think we’re nuts.”
I suddenly see myself as they see me: a middle-aged American woman gone mooney over her dog. I explain in a rush. “The guy in baggage told me to let everyone know; that if the pilot doesn’t know he’ll turn the heat off and she’ll freeze.”
Horrifyingly, I feel tears coming up, for everything, for Lu in the hold, for me leaving Ireland, for the friends texting me and for not knowing when I’ll see them again.
Tears are not going to help my case. But the stewardesses relax. “Whoever told you that is a plank!” one says. Others chime in. “We take animals all the time.” “They all get there safely.” “The pilot knows.” “A plank!”
Feeling both idiotic and reassured, I step away from the group and go back to the window. I never see Lu. Boarding begins. I’m near the end, having reserved an aisle seat up front months ago. But when I get to the gate they don’t have my seat. I’m told it’s been given away to accommodate a family, and I’m now sitting at the back of the plane.
I don’t take this well. Family-ism! Why do they get priority? I paid extra for my seat and reserved months in advance! What, are single people just interchangeable blanks that can be slotted in anywhere? Hey, families, if you want to sit together, reserve your seats in advance!
I conduct most of this rant internally. The part that’s external causes another agent to step in.
“They shouldn’t have done that,” she says. “Wait, I’ll handle it,” and she disappears.
A few moments later she approaches me in the queue, and very quietly says “They were wrong and we’re going to change your seat to business class. But don’t tell anyone because some people have paid a lot of money for those seats.”
Mum’s the word.
And so I am ushered into the first row of business class. A glass of champagne is popped into my hand (oh yes, we live differently up here). One of the stewardesses I spoke to earlier finds me. She’s got an employee from the baggage department in tow.
“This is the man who put your dog on the plane,” she says. They show me the manifest, which clearly says there is a dog in the plane, and tell me it’s going to the pilot. This kindness, and the champagne, turn my mood right around.
As the plane taxis and lifts, I send all my thoughts to Lu. And then we’re tilting over the Shannon Esturary, green fields and stone walls clearly visible on a rare clear day. We make the great turn out over the Atlantic. Leaving Ireland, I almost always cry. Like all the emigrants before me.
In Boston I am one of the first off the plane. I grab two carts and head for the far end of the baggage carousel, near the sliding metal doors where outsized cargo gets unloaded. It seems to be taking a long time. The fear comes up again. Is Lu not ok? Are they figuring out what to tell me? Working out how to dodge blame?
Suddenly the doors roll up with a loud clank and there’s my girl, standing up in her crate, grinning at me and wagging her tail. “She’s a sweetie!” says one of the baggage handlers, and “Hey buddy!” I call. A bright, happy moment.
She’s ok and I’m ok. We made it to America. Let the next phase begin.