By Jodie Baker
“This piece is about the nebulous state of “in between” that so many airports become as we seek to move from one place to another, and about the hope that propels us to do so. Writing and revising it for publication in light of the recent pandemic made me nostalgic for a time when I had the luxury of being detained over my own misunderstanding of basic visa policy, and it made me hopeful for a future when travel once again becomes a cause for excitement instead of concern.”—Jodie Baker
“I’m sorry, miss, you’ll need to come with me.”
The British immigration official frowns down at my passport.
“Is there a problem, sir?” I hurry after his blue-suited back, tripping over my rolling suitcase to keep up. He leads me through the back corridors of Heathrow, the ones you’ve never seen if your travels have always gone according to plan. He takes me to a small grey room with a metal table and dumps my suitcase onto it, unzipping every compartment. Gloved hands probe through my careful packing, becoming intimately acquainted with my socks and underwear.
“And can you confirm for me why you’re visiting the UK?” His clipped British accent pipes up over the rummaging.
“I’m visiting my boyfriend. We’re, well, we’re getting engaged.” I blush as I say it, hoping that by voicing it aloud it might actually come true. Richard has promised me that this time, this time, we would actually get married.
“And do you have a fiancée visa?”
“Well—no. We’re not quite at that stage yet.” Richard had asked me to marry him the last time I was in England after a particularly lovely afternoon, heedless of fiancée visas and immigration laws.
“You’re just so happy,” he’d said, standing in the doorway of his flat with his arms around me, “I need that positivity in my life—always.” And then he’d asked me to marry him. I was 22 years old and he was my first real relationship. We had no money or real careers or concrete plans for the future. There were absolutely no practical reasons why I should say yes to his proposal.
Except how it made me feel when he said he needed me, my positivity, in his life.
I said yes.
But there’d been no ring and no wedding. And whatever it was he may have felt in that moment that he’d asked me to be his wife, it hadn’t lasted. I had left shortly after, unable to take his “maybe I’m just not cut out for this” speeches.
Until, of course, he made his remorseful pleas for me to come back to England and be the positive ray of sunshine in his life again and I’d packed my bags immediately.
Evidently finding nothing suspicious in my bag, the immigration official briskly zips it shut and begins the real interrogation.
His questions are rapid fire: name, date of birth, profession, fiancé’s name, address in the U.S., address in England, fiancé’s employment history, and financial assets. My palms are sweaty, splayed flat on the metal desk in the tiny interrogation room. My head is fuzzy and aching from my eight-hour flight from New York. His questions cease and he looks at me gravely over his notes.
“Unfortunately, you are in violation of English law. Your tourist visa is only valid for six months out of a year.” My first visit alone had been five months. This is now my third.
“Additionally,” he continues, “we have serious doubts about your ability to afford staying here without assistance. You cannot work in the country at this time and frankly, we’re not convinced your ‘musician fiancé’ will provide sufficiently for you.”
Truthfully, there has been much less of his music lately and much more lounging around the flat collecting unemployment benefits and ferrying around his emotionally fragile mum. I try to see past it. Sometimes I succeed.
“Now,” the immigration man continues, “we will speak to your fiancé and decide whether or not to issue you a provisional visa while you seek a proper fiancée visa. We may be lenient.”
“What happens if you decide not to let me in?” I whisper.
“You would stay in the detention area while we book you a flight home.” A pause. “At your own expense, of course.”
“Of course,” I repeat after him as he closes my file and taps it sharply on the desk, leading me from the tiny interview room.
The detention area is taupe and green and sterile. I sit on a vinyl bench, an unintelligible British comedy playing on a TV that is bolted to the ceiling. I struggle not to think about the faceless officials who are making calls and deciding my future in the next room.
I try to remain the positive person Richard told me he needed in his life, as if my innate optimism can protect me from what’s happening. Instead I feel ashamed for being so careless and angry that these immigration people can justify charging me for a return flight to my country while telling me I can’t afford to enter theirs. Most of all, I feel certain that my fragile three-year long-distance relationship will not withstand this new complication.
Then the immigration man is back, beckoning me from the waiting room into the attached office. I look up at his impossibly blank face.
“We have decided. . .to let you into the country.”
I grab the man and hug him. “ThankyouThankyouThankyou!”
“Right, well. Let’s get on with it.” He carefully extracts himself from my American enthusiasm.
As he leads me through the back corridors to the bustling terminal, the immigration man finally cracks a smile.
“Best of luck,” he says.
I look for Richard’s tall, gangly frame in Arrivals. All I want is to collapse into his arms and cry, anxiety turning into relief. My eyes dart, rapidly searching the crowd.
He isn’t there.
He tells me later that he hadn’t been able to handle the stress of it. Immigration had called him to explain the situation and he’d just left the airport and driven around London, while I’d spent an hour circling arrivals, dragging my suitcase and fighting panicked tears. I couldn’t know how awful it had been for him, he’d say.
He would explain. And I would accept it.
Three months later, I left England for the last time, unmarried, carrying my provisionally stamped passport like a badge of shame.