What on earth am I doing here?
What am I doing hunched in a wool coat under the unfriendly fluorescent lights of a Burger King off a Canadian highway, staring at my tired, pale, frightened reflection in the dark glass of the window, listening to the doleful Canadian pop music that falls like heavy dew out of the speakers over my head?
I know what I’m doing here. I’m waiting for my watch to say exactly 12:30 so I can make a phone call from the pay phone on the other side of the parking lot, waiting to call the number written on a scrap of paper in my pocket. I’ve been stopping to make these phone calls every hour since late yesterday afternoon, always using the same code words and always listening to versions of the same message: there’s been a delay, but the plan is still in place.
But what am I doing here? How did I, 52 years old, mother of two grown daughters, Smith College graduate, contributing editor to high-end decorating magazines, member of the board of the local classical music festival, homeowner, gardener, sister, daughter, aunt, how did I find myself alone in the middle of a chilly April night in Canada on my way to break I-don’t-even-know-what or –how- many laws. I’ve never stolen even so much as a pencil eraser, I’ve never had more than a speeding ticket, I’ve always been the responsible one, the sensible one, the cautious one. What am I doing here?
I had come up to Quebec City to observe a big protest for myself, a protest against a proposed trade agreement called the FTAA—the Free Trade Area of the Americas—to try to understand better the political passions that were driving my older daughter Isabell, the rebellious spirit that had lodged deep in my younger daughter Margaret, to answer a little hunger for adventure in myself. To take part in something that was happening right now, in real time, and not wait to read about it after it was over and had been processed and translated through someone else’s experience.
What I hadn’t come for is this. At least I don’t think I had. A group of people, friends of the people I’d come up with, had been turned back repeatedly at the border. They had been able to persuade someone to take them into the woods and show them a place to cross on foot at night. All they had needed was a driver to come pick them up once they were over. Somehow, it became clear as the plans unfolded over the tense days, that driver was me. I’ve spent the last twenty years driving people around to swim meets and play practice and slumber parties, I thought, pushing the crumbs on the tabletop into a straight line and looking past my reflection into the dark parking lot. And here I am still driving everyone around.
I have a good three hours of driving ahead of me. If all has gone well, somewhere out in that chilly night a group of people half my age dressed in boots and heavy coats and mittens is making its way by starlight and flashlight through the snowy woods north towards the border. I could still go back, I suppose. Or I could just get in the car and head down the highway, back towards a legal border crossing, pull out my bona fide passport and my bona fide credit card, return to my own country, find a motel, take a hot bath, watch some TV, call Bill and Margaret and say I’ll be home in a day or so.
I could, but I won’t.
I fumble with the coins in the pay phone and make my call. This time it’s a recorded message from the boy whose code name for the weekend is The Burly One. They’re leaving. It’s on.
I button up my coat, get back into the car, and turn onto the two-lane road that runs south from the highway. The bare trees nearly meet overhead; dirty patches of snow sit on the shoulders of the road like wads of old newspaper. The stars are low and clear in the wedge of cold night sky through the trees. The dashboard lights glow green; I dial the French voices on the car radio down to a whisper. There’s no turning back.
When my mother is agitated she falls back on the old fashioned phrases from her own mother’s generation. “Well, you’ve thrown your cap over the windmill now,” she’ll say when one her five children makes a particularly foolish decision.
Well, I think, as I push a little harder on the gas pedal, I’ve thrown my cap over the windmill now.