04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Red Cross Hotel (Part Two)

Two policewomen take me into the strip search room. They close the door and pull on latex gloves. The fear of being strip searched is so powerful I am sure they can smell it. They frisk me thoroughly, but they don't make me undress. One of the women makes me open my suitcase.

She goes through my clothes: my two new black tops from The Gap, my new soft black skirt, my white linen shirt. In the weeks before we'd left I'd rushed around buying new clothes for both of us. Like a jaded magician she pulls out the silky black and white scarf my friend Kathy gave me for my birthday. Then my other birthday present scarf from my friend Tama -- a filmy explosion of rusts and greens and smudges of pink.

They take us into another office, make us sign four pages of French documents that we don't understand and that will later be referred to as our "police papers."

They take our mug shots.

There's an escalating commotion involving a drunk Eastern European man who has been brought in to the police station. He's demanding his rights, banging on the glass window of the room they've put him in. He's screaming obscenities at the police.

I keep waiting for the glass to shatter, for the blood. If there is any blood or violence, I fear I will pass out. In the middle of all this, eight policemen in blue jackets walk in, line up in a row, and take turns kissing each of the three female officers who are sitting behind the desk. We are witnessing the essence of French decorum: a kiss on one cheek and then a kiss on the other. All the while the drunk man bangs and screams and curses and the four of us on the bench against the wall sit as if invisible. It is as if we are of another species, no longer human.

The eight blue-jacketed police surround us and make us walk with our bags to a white van downstairs. We pass the lines of people waiting to show the customs officials their passports and catch their connecting flights. They watch us. I avert my eyes. I feel dirty and ashamed. It's been five hours since we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The word "jet-lag" now seems like a luxury.

I sit in the first seat I find and a policeman shouts at me to get up and move to the back. I move. Norman sits next to me and I slip my arm through his. We are dead quiet as the van starts up. Suddenly a heavy metal song blasts out and the young cops bounce away in their seats, high on adrenaline and the fun they're having with us.

As the first of two heavy iron green gates opens and closes behind us the music changes to Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line".

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line

Norman is holding his hand over his heart. I worry about the toll this it's taking on that slightly-clogged-with-cholesterol heart of his. My heart is beating so hard I worry about it too. It feels like I've taken some kind of drug, like is just one big hallucination.

At the "Red Cross Hotel" we are taken to another waiting room. There are about half a dozen men and women waiting too. They stare at us. I sit next to a frightened looking young African woman in a traditional long green dress. We smile at each other.

We wait.

I find a piece of paper in my pocket. One of my many do-lists leading up to the trip. Cancel newspapers. Cat and dog food. Airborne. Lightweight jacket for Norm. Pedicure. Finally we're called up for questioning. We tell the woman at the desk there's been a big mistake. We ask her why we're being treated like criminals. We explain again that we have done nothing wrong, that we were given the wrong information, that we didn't know we needed visas and that if we had known we would have gotten them.

She politely tells us they are only following regulations, that if you enter Europe without the Schengen visa, this is the consequence.

Norman and I are separated. Again I have to follow a policewoman into a room and watch her pulling on latex gloves. And again I feel I will scream if she makes me undress. But she just gives me another ultra-thorough frisking. She goes through my suitcase, my bag, pulling out everything, asking what things are.

What the hell do you think it is? I feel like saying when she picks up the little embroidered hanky my neighbor sewed into a sachet and filled with lavender from her garden.

Norman and I meet up in a cell. The two guys who were at the other police station are there and the four of us greet each other with smiles and handshakes. We are old friends now. The woman in the green dress is there too, looking dazed. I sit beside her and pat her arm. She pats my knee.

We all wait.

Eventually a policeman unlocks the door and gives each of us two white sheets and a thin white hand towel. We follow him up one flight of stairs to our rooms. The police have all our travel documents, our passports, the battery from my cell phone and Norman's camera. They have given us each a stapled stack of papers that we are to keep with us at all times. Our police papers.

Our room at ZAPI 3 Immigration Holding Center Charles de Gaulle Roissy Airport has two single plywood beds with thin mattresses. The walls and ceiling are white. The grey linoleum floor looks dirty. The window, a sealed rectangle of glass looks onto the roof and windows of the opposite wing of the facility. There are no blinds or curtains. Anyone can see us at any time. If we want to change or wash we do it behind the shelves by the door or at night when it's dark. There's a triangle of a sink in the corner by the window and a small mirror stuck to the wall at an odd angle.

Wary of mysterious diseases they might harbor, we stuff our blue blankets in the shelves by the door. We cover the mattresses with the sheets, using the top sheets as blankets. We bundle t-shirts into a pillow for each bed. For the two nights we are there, we sleep fully dressed. Although there are showers down the hall neither of us wants to use them. We feel unbearably vulnerable as it is. We use one white hand towel for washing, the other for drying.

Just as we're about to take our shoes off and lie down a policeman knocks on our door and tells us it's time to eat. We follow him downstairs and learn how mealtimes work at the detention center.

(To be continued)

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