We crossed the border when we were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. We crossed the border to talk to girls, to dance with them in foggy, neon-lit clubs playing uncool dance music. C&C Music Factory. MC Hammer. We crossed the border not just to visit another country, but another world. We crossed the border because we thought if the girls wanted to talk, if they wanted to dance, they might want to do other things. Most of us started crossing the border at eighteen, then nineteen. Even when we were twenty, we were still crossing the border.
Back then, we didn’t need passports. We didn’t even need the fake IDs some of us slid into our otherwise empty wallets, IDs that claimed we were from small towns in the middle of a state we had never been to – big orange construction paper T next to a goofy photo backgrounded by a faded blue blanket. Cheap, homegrown lamination already cracked and peeling.
All we needed to cross the border were three tiny words: “Nothing to declare.”
Kaz was driving – Kaz always drove – as we inched along the Peace Bridge into Fort Erie, waiting in one line to pay the toll, another to pass through customs, the six of us crammed into Kaz’s father’s old station wagon, two in front, four squeezed together in back, arms sticking straight out because there wasn’t room to put them anywhere else. Exhaust drifted from the tailpipes in front of us. Bright red brake lights shimmered in the frozen night air.
This was the same trip Feebs got the dark-haired girl’s number, the night Kaz confessed he was afraid of the future. We usually split up after we paid the cover. Divide and conquer. Some of us drifted off alone while others preferred the wingman route. After twenty minutes of wandering, Kaz found me coming out of the men’s room. “Dude, you gotta check this out.”
He led me to a remote corner of the second floor. In the clubby gloom it was hard to make out the two entwined figures at first, but then a rack of colored dance lights—red and blue and yellow—rotated with the beat, and I saw the guy was Feebs. Goddamned Feebs. “Holy shit,” I said, peering at the couple as they made out so hard it seemed like they might swallow each other. “Anyone we know?” There were some girls at the club we saw week after week, whose names we would go over and over again on the slow drive across the long bridge in case they showed up that night. The long game.
“I don’t think so,” Kaz said.
I nodded and peered, like a voyeur. The shadows were too deep to see her well, but I could tell the girl had long, dark hair that curled over her shoulders and wound down her back. She wore a denim skirt and her white tights, draped over Feebs’ lap, glowed an artificial blue in the harsh neon light. I didn’t recognize her.
Kaz rubbed the back of his neck. “Don’t you owe me a beer?”
I did. We drifted toward the bar, jockeying around gyrating couples and wide circles of girls balancing Long Island Iced Teas as they hooted and hollered and danced with each other. I ordered two Blues. We sat in silence for a minute or more, trading stolen glances back at Feebs and the dark-haired girl, still attached to one another.
“When do you go back?” Kaz asked. He picked at the Labatt’s label on his bottle, pulling one corner away.
I was on winter break. “Next week.” Even as a sophomore, going back to college felt weird. Half of me didn’t want to go. The other half couldn’t wait to get back. “You still looking?” Kaz was taking a year off, he had told me last summer, to get his shit together.
He sniffed. “Nah. I’m not like you guys. You and Feebs. Donaldson. Not smart enough for college.”
His sudden smile was rueful as he interrupted me. “You ever think about all those crappy jobs we did in high school? Mowing lawns, flipping burgers, washing cars? They were just a way to pass the time for you guys, but I’ll be doing that shit the rest of my life. I already know. Scares me sometimes.”
“No, man. You’re just taking a year off.”
He twisted his mouth and chuckled, as if I had told a bad joke. A redhead wearing a dark blazer over a short skirt with black thigh highs passed by, and he chugged his beer, then stood. “There goes my future wife,” he said with a belch, disappearing into the throng after her. It took me a long time, sitting there alone, to finish my beer. When I did I ordered another.
After that I drifted around the dance floor a while, but I couldn’t find anybody. Not Kaz. Not Donaldson or Mikey or Mikey’s little brother whose name I could never remember. I couldn’t find a girl to talk to, to dance with. Maybe I wasn’t looking that hard.
Someone grabbed my shoulder. “We gotta go.” It was Feebs, his tone urgent.
I smiled at him. “Hey. Who was the girl?”
“Kimmie.” He wasn’t smiling back. Kimmie’s pink lipstick blurred the corners of his mouth and drifted onto his right cheek. “We gotta go. Kimmie’s got a boyfriend.”
It took twenty minutes to locate the other four. We found Mikey and Donaldson trying to dance with a group of six girls who kept tightening their circle and squeezing them out. Kaz was bellied up to the bar on the second floor with Mikey’s kid brother, buying him beer and talking about the Bills. Somewhere in the club, at the same time we were looking for our friends, Feebs assured me, Kimmie’s boyfriend was looking for us. “Dude was humongous,” he kept telling me.
We drifted out the door, and I faded to the back of the group, falling into step with Kaz. “The redhead?”
“Didn’t work out. Irreconcilable differences. She got the dog.”
I clapped him on the back. You couldn’t keep Kaz down for long.
“I got her number,” Feebs announced then, the steam from his breath drifting back toward us. The six of us bounced through the parking lot, the beat still thumping from behind the club’s walls, all of us high on adrenaline fueled by beer. Feebs held up a corner of paper napkin.
I snatched it from his hand. Sure enough, Kimmie had written out her name and phone number in purple ink, both i’s dotted with heart-shaped punctuation. We would hear about that little ripped section of napkin for months, hanging out in Kaz’s basement, where Feebs would occasionally hold it over his head and, with a huge grin, exclaim, “I got her number.” He never explained how or why they had started making out. And he never called Kimmie, either. “That guy, her boyfriend? Dude was humongous,” he’d explain.
There were six different theories in Kaz’s father’s old station wagon why the Peace Bridge was so backed up on the way back into the States. The loudest and most persistent was from Mikey, who swore there had been a Rush concert somewhere, anywhere, in Canada that night and everyone was heading home from it. “That makes no sense,” Kaz told him.
Donaldson was panicking. “My dad is gonna kill me, I get home too late.” He kept saying it. “My dad is gonna kill me.” Kaz gripped the wheel tightly, checking his mirrors and craning his neck to see if there was a better lane to be in. The bridge was packed with cars and trucks, wedged together like puzzle pieces. It was midnight already. “My dad is gonna kill me.”
“Donaldson, shut the fuck up,” Kaz yelled.
Feebs had been staring at Kimmie’s purple name on that torn napkin but now he looked up and pointed. “Hey! Look, all the way to the right. Only one truck in that lane.”
“Can’t be right,” I said.
“Must’ve just opened.” Maybe he was right, because the green light above the lane was lit. It was open, and there was only one giant semi waiting there.
“Go!” Donaldson screeched. “Get in there before anyone else notices.”
“I don’t know,” Mikey’s little brother said.
Kaz spun the wheel and squeezed out of our lane, cutting across four others—Feebs hanging his head out of the passenger’s side window, pointing, waving thanks to every sap who let us through—until we were all the way to the right, behind the semi.
“Suckers.” Donaldson, joyous in the knowledge his father would not be killing him after all, sneered at the other cars, none of whom had followed us into the nearly empty lane.
The semi lurched forward, releasing air and steam with a hiss. Kaz pulled ahead, taking its place, and immediately swore. There should have been an eye-level window there, with a dull-eyed, overworked customs officer staring back at us. But instead there was only a tiny white door.
“Where’s the guy?” Donaldson said in a voice spiked high with renewed panic.
“You guys are so stupid,” Mikey’s little brother said. “This lane is for trucks.”
Kaz leaned out of his window and looked up. We pushed against each other and followed his gaze. I could see best; I was right behind Kaz in the backseat. A middle-aged guy with a receding hairline scowled down at us from a high window—high enough to be eye-level with the driver of a tractor-trailer, but too high for a shitty old station wagon full of inebriated boys. “Son of a—” the officer started before yanking his head inside.
Kaz pulled his own head back in, rolled his window up and twisted in his seat. “He’s pissed. Everybody just calm down. Don’t lose your shit.”
We could hear the customs guy clomping and clanging down what sounded like tight, spiraling metal steps toward the little door. It opened, and he squeezed out. He was really short. Feebs mumbled something about hobbits and the Shire. “Shut up, Feebs,” Donaldson insisted.
The customs hobbit tapped on the window. Kaz plastered a smile onto his face and rolled it down.
“You boys read much? This lane’s for oversized tractor trailers only.” He pointed back toward the sign we must have missed.
Kaz’s voice was clear and even. “Yes, sir, we apolog—”
“Nothing to declare!” blurted Donaldson.
The customs hobbit squinted into the depths of the backseat, first at Donaldson then at the rest of us, seeming to consider each of our shadowed faces for a long moment. Did the beer show on them? It must have, because he sighed. “All right. Why don’t you pull it over there and let’s have a look.”
“Oh, I don’t—” Kaz said, voice deepening.
“Just pull it to the side, son.” He pointed to a clearly marked area on the shoulder under glaring fluorescent lighting. A square sign on the small outbuilding behind it read CBP Search Authority.
None of us said a word—or breathed—as Kaz eased the old station wagon between the painted lines. Two more officers in heavy jackets emerged from the building and urged us out of the car. “Everybody this way,” one told us, leading us into a stark, overheated waiting room with orange plastic chairs lining the walls.
The officer read from a sheet that described the search process he and his partner would be following. “Is there anything we should be aware of before we begin?”
“No, sir,” Kaz said.
“Anything to declare?”
“Nothing,” came six rehearsed voices in unison.
“Have a seat. This won’t take long.”
We watched the two officers search the car in silence. They opened all the doors and crawled over every inch of the interior: lifting the carpet in the back, then the old cardboard underneath. Removing the spare tire. The jack. Crawling under the steering wheel. Sitting in the passenger seat and reviewing the contents of the glove compartment.
We were all too scared to speak but I could tell we were each racking our brains to recall if there was anything in the car to find. I didn’t think so. We had confined our drinking to the club. No open containers. And none of us did drugs. But we had been drinking, even Kaz. Were we drunk? Would they make us walk a line with our fingers fixed to our noses?
I think—now—they were just trying to scare us, maybe sober us up before sending us home to our parents. I was sure—then—I was going to end up in some Canadian prison. Sitting next to Kaz, my knee bobbed and residual music from the club spun through my worried mind. Will Smith & DJ Jazzy Jeff rapped about Summertime while the two officers in their thick jackets and USA winter caps and leather gloves and thermals poked around the inside of my friend’s car.
One of them stood straight and took a break, watching us through the window. He wiped snot from his mustache with the back of his glove. Our eyes met, and I saw him then, all of him. He had crossed the border too, years ago, when the dance clubs were discoes and the girls wore bellbottoms instead of denim skirts, tube tops in place of blazers. ABBA, not MC Hammer. He had been eighteen or nineteen, no older than twenty, when he crossed the border.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I told Kaz, nudging my knee into his and smiling. When he turned his face up to me, it had the same look he had worn in the club, lips a grim line, eyes vacant. The thing is, I knew Kaz didn’t give a shit about border agents searching his car or getting home late either. I knew he was thinking about the future again. “Hey. Everything’s going to be okay,” I told him again.
He forced the corners of his mouth up a little. “Yeah.” Kaz shrugged. “Sure. Be fine.”
I lost track of Kaz before the next summer. Heard a rumor he had moved to Cleveland, took a bunch of driving tests and started hauling a big rig. Whenever I thought about him, always driving, I wondered if he ever crossed the border on his routes. I wondered if, when he pulled his semi into the far right lane so he could talk to the customs officer in the high window eye to eye, he ever thought about the night Feebs got the dark-haired girl’s number. I figured he did, because we all did.
For almost an hour the two officers made a big show of searching the car before they came back into the waiting room, clomping their feet to warm up. “Sign this,” the one with the mustache told Kaz, who scribbled his name across the page on the clipboard without even reading it. They let us go.
We ran toward the old station wagon. Mikey called shotgun but Feebs ignored him, climbing back into the passenger seat and thrusting his hand under it to retrieve the Watchmen hardcover, in the slipcase with the forty-eight pages of bonus material, from underneath it with a sigh of relief. He clutched the comic book to his chest. “I thought they might take this or something,” he said.
We were eighteen. Nineteen and twenty.
By the time we pulled into my parents’ driveway only Feebs and Kaz were left in the car with me. Everyone else had been dropped off already. Our house was dark, thank God, so I figured Mom had given up waiting and gone to bed. The trick now was not to wake her.
I eased my door shut and headed for the front porch. At the top of my driveway I turned back and waved at them. Kaz had just put the wagon in reverse and started to back away. Feebs flipped me off, then Kaz braked and joined him, big grins on both their faces. I returned the gesture. The three of us saluted each other with our middle fingers raised, my breath condensing in soft clouds, until our smiles faded away, like the loose swirls of snow the wind kept sweeping up from the edges of my front yard.
Feebs was only eighteen, Kaz, nineteen. But me, I was twenty already. That summer, I would be twenty-one. That summer, I wouldn’t need my fake Tennessee ID anymore. That summer, the girls in dance clubs in one country would become women in bars in another. That summer, I would stop crossing the border.
As Kaz let his dad’s car roll back out of my driveway, Feebs slapped Kimmie’s napkin, that useless corner of paper, onto the inside of his window, mouthing and pointing. “I got her number.”
I smiled and stuffed my cold hand back into my pocket, watched my friends pull away from me, their headlights tunneling between the snowdrifts left by the plows. As they turned the corner, the yellow glow shed by those lights flared up, escaping to illuminate the faces of the dark, sleeping houses on the far side of the street. For a moment, not much more than a second really, they looked like searchlights.
Chris Negron graduated from Yale University, where he wrote for the nation’s oldest daily college newspaper, the Yale Daily News. His short fiction has previously appeared in the Grand Central Review, Torrid Literature Journal, Pilcrow & Dagger, the Vignette Review, Synaethesia Magazine, Spilled Milk Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel. More information can be found at chrisnegron.com.