Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Not easy being green

Body Shop shaving cream. Body Shop shaving cream. All the way up Rte 91 to Hartford, an hour-long drive in hellishly slushy conditions, I quizzed myself about my partner’s beauty products – actually, his only beauty product. Just in case the green card interview came down to a single telling question, like in that garlic-and-cheese flavoured movie with Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell.

As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered with the toiletry rigmarole. Even the pile of paperwork several inches thick seemed beside the point, as did the photo we added at the last minute of the two of us with Busytot (the only one of us with an American passport, and living proof that our marriage is not only convenient but authentic). The moment the interviewing officer heard the words “string theory,” we were golden.

Who knew we’d land the officer who was a closet physics freak? He inquired about the famous chap off the TV who’d written one of the letters of recommendation, joked about how he met a lot of "multidimensional" people in his line of work, and basically waved us through.

The physicist of the family was the primary applicant, under the category of – and I quote – “Alien with Extraordinary Ability.” I’m merely that alien’s spouse. Of course, I do have some extraordinary abilities of my own, like the power to find missing objects, and the ability to divine what’s going through Busytot’s head when he explains that he used to be my Mummy and by the way, do we eat this stuff, this stuff, this candy stuff hiding in the drawer, and oh when we were squids, where we live?

But the American government doesn’t seem to care where its car keys are, so I sat mum (as it were) and soaked up the Immigration and Naturalization vibes.

The waiting room, packed full by ten o’clock, was decorated in signature federal warehouse style: acoustic-tile ceilings and lino floors, and framed photographs of scenic Washington, D.C., as well as the one of the firemen hoisting a flag at Ground Zero.

We weren’t allowed to bring Busytot, according to the official letter which warned that children under fourteen would not be permitted, but there were a handful of kids in the room. He’d have been the only blonde creature in the place, though: sitting in that room full of dark heads, I was more aware than ever of what a global minority white people are (not to mention how ghastly winter-white skin looks under fluorescent light).

We had a half-hour wait for an extra form deemed necessary at the last minute. So I eavesdropped on Russians, scoped out two American dads filing the papers for their adopted Chinese daughter, fell into conversation with a Kenyan brother and sister wearing matching All Blacks jackets (a souvenir from the World Cup in Sydney), and chatted with an old Kurdish lady who had been studying like mad for her citizenship exam. Just another day at the USCIS, America in the making.

The extra wait was a tad annoying, but it was nothing after the three years of delay we had already endured. Back in May 2001, we’d been told it would take about six months. It would have, but history intervened. (If they ever find that bastard Osama, he owes us a couple of thou in extra lawyers’ fees and processing charges.)

The feel of a new regime was all over the place, not just in the portrait of the firemen. A large stars and stripes on one wall trumpeted the new Department of Homeland Security, accompanied by a framed copy of its founding declaration. Its punning motto: Securing America’s Promise. Its principles: Integrity, Respect, and Ingenuity. A sample of the deathless prose, inked in faux-Declaration of Independence italics: “Through our leadership, this organization will become known as an example of world-class Respect, Dignity, and Courtesy.”

Not just common or garden respect, dignity, and courtesy, mind you: world-class!

And guess what? Despite the various dubiousnesses being carried out elsewhere in the name of homeland security, that’s pretty much what we got. Respect, and a green card. Followed by a celebration lunch of bagels and cream cheese and lox – which, I didn’t realize until later, was exactly what I ate the day I first landed in this country, nearly ten years ago.

Everything came full circle this week, in fact: the dissertation, defended back in July, was finally revised, formatted and handed in.

This was no trivial process: it’s not like you press “Print” and sit back and relax. I finished up the revisions in between fighting off a noxious head-cold and showing my Mum and sister a good time (freezing our ears off at the top of the Empire State Building; getting a pedicure from frosty Korean ladies; and laughing ourselves sick at Avenue Q, the first words of which are, fittingly enough, "What do you do with a BA in English?").

Then I hacked my way through the brambles of the final stage of academic hazing. You think writing the thing is hard. Try formatting the bugger. Everything has to be on the right paper, in the right font, with the right margins, the right settings, and the right signatures in the right ink on the right forms, signed under a full moon with a quill recently plucked from the left wing of a passenger pigeon.

Malevolent footnotes and rogue commas taunted me in my dreams. Not to mention the eternal, ultimate horror of what I call cryptoscatalogophobia -- the fear that you inadvertently typed “fuck” in the middle of a tremendously important document that you have just sent off (don’t tell me you’ve never felt it). Anyway, it’s off my desk now, and more importantly, off my shoulders.

And because important things should happen in threes, I completed the trifecta by swinging past the animal shelter and picking up a cat, a well-mannered and friendly ginger tom with a snowy white tummy.

Shelters are such woeful places; I don’t know which is sadder, the animals who paw urgently at the bars as if to say “Yo! I’m innocent! Ask my lawyer!” or the ones who’ve given up and hide in the corner softly singing gospel songs to themselves.

The cat I had in mind from a pre-Christmas reconnaissance trip was, amazingly, still there, and still smooth-talking the punters. “Hey baby, whaddya say we split this joint and curl up in an armchair someplace while you feed me fishy treats? You know you wanna!” He’s not much more than a kitten, but there is a Rat Pack sensibility about him; he has a metaphorical hat on, and a metaphorical jacket slung over his shoulder.

Apparently he had previously belonged to an old gent who couldn’t look after him any more, so it felt entirely fitting to bring him home to the house that had previously belonged to an old gent who couldn’t look after it any more. Old bloke’s cat in an old bloke’s house.

Huckle, as he is now known, gathered immediately that he had landed on all four paws. No hiding under the couch for days on end: he took a leisurely stroll around the place, located the fridge, noted the freshly purchased litterbox, appraised the big bed, and gave me a big wink.

He and Busytot have settled into a conventional sibling relationship, one minute giggles and playful romping, the next, howls of outrage that a certain ginger paw lies provocatively across the path of a certain favourite train, followed by a bellow of “Huckle! What are you doing rubbing your face on my Mummy! That is VERY naughty!” Busytot has much to learn about the ways of cats, but he’s getting there.

It is lovely to have an animal in the house, though. I mean, another animal. Last night, with the temperature well below zero, there were four bodies squeezed into the big bed. Only one of us was actually purring, but if we all could have, we all would have.