The Crossing

by Jason 5neltell

WE WERE DRIVING FROM AMSTERDAM BACK TO PARIS, OUR HOME for the year, racing to return the rental car within the twenty-four-hour limit. Four silly young Americans fresh out of college, sandwiching eight hours of pot-fueled debauchery between sixteen hours of driving. And we planned to bring some of that debauchery home with us. Before leaving, we had opened the windshield-wiper-fluid container and dropped in ten little baggies of Thai Stick wrapped in tiny tinfoil packets. Smart, we thought. Well hidden. We weren't dealers, just kids tired of paying retail in Paris.

We reached the Belgium-France border at about five in the morning. It was still dark, and the two groggy fools in the backseat couldn't locate their passports quick enough for the guards in the tollbooth. They told us to pull over to the side, then escorted all four of us into the station house.

In a small, barren room decorated only with a few posters of French tourist destinations, a six-foot-five border gendarme— that's French for "scary cop who held a cigarette in one hand and my fate in the other"—snickered, grunted, and began his interrogation.

"Where were you?"

I was the only one who spoke French. I had to answer. "Brussels."

why.

"Research for school."

I was quivering. This was the end. My parents were gonna flip. And that's if I was allowed to contact them and ask for help. Maybe I wouldn't even get that chance. Maybe I'd just rot in a French jail, surrounded by prisoners calling me "mon cheri."

"One day?"

"Yes. I have a paper due tomorrow." A lie. I wasn't even in school.

"Empty your pockets!" he screamed. "All of you! Now!" The two guards stepped forward.

We had actually thought of this and emptied our pockets of Dutch currency before we hit the French border. Just in case. Only wait. The slower of the two dolts in the backseat—slow to find his passport, slow in general—looked like he was going to cry. When he reached into his back pocket, a fistful of Dutch guilders spilled out.

"Amsterdam," said the gendarme, grinning with malevolence.

The guards approached my friend and whisked him through a doorway in the back of the room. The rest of us, all now sweating, were taken outside to watch a German shepherd nose through our rented Renault.

A pair of mechanics removed the doors and ripped them apart. Nothing. Then they put them back together, which was very nice, considering. They opened the trunk. Two books on Rembrandt that I'd bought at an art bookstore in Amsterdam. The gendarme looked astonished. He picked one up and started flipping through it.

I began to prattle, almost beg.

"Je to dis que je suis etudiant," I said. I told you I studied. We smoked it all in Holland. I swear. We did. We, I, would never risk my life on something so stupid. Please. There is nothing. Yes, we went to Amsterdam. We got high but brought nothing back.

I'd never spoken such fluent French in my life.

He wasn't buying it. He went to the hood. My friend, the ringleader and driver, looked down and shook his head. The gendarme turned on his flashlight. He pointed it down at the engine and peered. His scaly, pockmarked skin shone in the light. He aimed the beam at the little tank that held the wiper fluid. He unscrewed the cap and bent down to examine it. He turned to one of the mechanics in orange.

"Liquide, c'est tout." Just liquid.

The tinfoil packets had sunk to the bottom. He couldn't see them. And the dog couldn't smell the Thai Stick through the chemicals. We were saved.

Our friend with the guilders emerged from the station house looking pale and mildly traumatized. He walked over to us and found something fascinating to stare at on the ground between his shoes.

"Q UEST LE SHIT?" the gendarme demanded, louder now, the frustration rising in his voice. Where's the shit? I know you have it, he said.

Our ringleader just shrugged. He knew enough French to understand the question, but he pretended like he didn't. I said nothing.

The gendarme stared back at us with a mixture of disgust and boredom. "Am revoir," he finally said, dismissing us with a wave of his hand.

We piled into the Renault and drove away, staying well below the speed limit, at least until we were out of sight.

In the car, we were overjoyed. Giggly. Except our friend with the guilders. He looked sullen.

"What happened?"

"Strip search."

"Like, cavity search?"

"I don't ever want to talk about it."

We were silent the rest of the ride home. Our absentminded-ness—not emptying the fluid before inserting the packets—had saved our young lives, or at least saved us a trial for drug smuggling: When we reached Paris, we removed the packets before returning the Renault. The weed was too wet to smoke, of course, despite our lame attempts to seal it. We let it dry for two weeks, then we smoked it anyway. We never had such headaches. And we—or at least I—never tried anything that stupid again.

Jason Sheftell is a New York writer who committed one or two other very minor infractions (like jumping the subway turnstile) while living in Paris in the late 1950s. Though he's almost forty now, his parents are still going to flip when they read this.

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