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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

TSA gives warm welcome to returning expats ... and their pets

"Take your cat out of the carrier."

I blink at the large woman on the far side of baggage x-ray as if she's just spoken Kyrgyz. The cat in question is not, to put it mildly, a happy camper. He hasn't eaten, drunk, or peed since we left Bangkok nearly twenty-four hours ago. He's just spent the transpacific flight from Narita to O'Hare wedged under a "B" seat, watching my Crocs fight a losing battle with the invading sneakers of the snoring Japanese teenager in the "C" seat (as if the greedy bugger didn't have a whole damn aisle to flop around in). We've spent the past forty-five minutes shuffling through a security line that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to a Soviet-style bread line, but without even the dim satisfaction of a treat at the end. The cat is teetering on the tweaking point--and so am I.

The thick redhead in her khaki TSA uniform (JANELLE shouts her name tag) repeats her command, this time louder. JANELLE has no way of knowing the truth: she's dealing with a cat that even under far less-trying circumstances often manifests what my friend Lindy has dubbed "feline autism." I cringed when she first blurted that out; I've met plenty of brilliant, intriguing and assuredly nonviolent people with autism. If I had to make a diagnosis in this case, I'd go with something that puts people in prison, like antisocial personality disorder. This cat is plain psycho.

"Can't I just take the carrier through?" I ask. JANELLE answers me with a grunt. People behind us are starting to grumble. Unclaimed laptops and diaper bags are piling themselves into an unstable Mt. Everest at the far end of the x-ray machine.

With a sigh, I reach to unzip the carrier. At the two Asian airports I've passed through, BKK and Narita, security let me carry the cat through the metal detector carrier and all. Buddhist airport personnel are in fact refreshingly pet friendly, meowing at the little menace and making kissy faces at him through the mesh. At Thai immigration, a smiling security guard appeared with a wheelchair to push the cat and and his unwieldy carrier to the gate. Antisocial cat valet. Now fed up JANELLE is whispering to the lanky youth behind the x-ray machine (DEZMOND) while casting a toxic glare in my direction. If she's ever made a kissy face, I'm kind of glad I missed it.

As I reach inside the carrier, I can almost hear the metallic ping of the cat's claws whizzing out of his toes like switchblades. "Here kitty, kitty," I say, as if about to lift one of those sweet, golden balls of purring love that some people are lucky enough to end up with when they rescue an orphaned kitten from a truck stop, just like I did. The cat's name, I should mention, is Durian. For those who haven't had the pleasure of walking into a Southeast Asian supermarket, a durian is a giant citrus fruit that resembles a spiky, green bowling ball and smells like rotting flesh. I actually know a woman who knocked a durian on her flip-flop-clad foot in one such grocery store and had to get stitches. The cat's name ain't Durian for nothing.

I grasp Durian the Terrible in both hands, grit my teeth and tug. His claws are sunk so deep in the carrier that it rises off the belt with him still inside. JANELLE and DEZMOND lean in to watch the action, but don't bother holding the carrier to assist me. Part of me resents this, and another part thinks, they aren't stupid. Wrestling the beast into a one-armed sleeper hold, I pick his claws out of the mesh with my free hand. The whinging behind me intensifies. One insensitive gorilla shoves past and helps himself to a trip through the metal detector.

When I finally manage to separate psycho cat from the carrier, he immediately claws his way up my arm as if I'm a human tree. In a stunning feat of flexibility, I swing one arm over my shoulder and the other behind my back and manage to pin the little prison breaker to the back of my head with both hands. I stand there contorted like the liquid metal Terminator after Linda Hamilton blasted through its torso at point blank range. Duri hisses. His claws are deep enough in me to puncture a kidney, possibly a lung.

JANELLE regards me straining, practically tied in a knot, without a glimmer of empathy. She wears the look of someone who has seen worse. Much worse. "Go back and send the carrier through," she snaps.

Panic mounting, I ease the less twisted of my arms down to conveyor belt level and snag the carrier with my pinky. The crowd has given up waiting; people are now streaming past, bumping me as they break for the metal detector. The best thing I can imagine would be for Durian to jump off of my back and land on one of them. Although then I'd probably get sued. This is America, after all. A place I've been gone from for six-years and to which I am today making my first visit of indefinite length since our ill-fated hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass-destruction.

I hate it here already.

I sling the carrier on the belt and somehow manage to manhandle Duri back onto the front of me. He huddles there with every muscle tensed and his front claws sunk in the exposed base of my throat. I must be going into shock, as I no longer feel the pain. We've now officially lost our place in the line. People march past, willfully ignoring bloody girl and psycho cat. Finally, a woman is kind enough to stop and let us go next through the metal detector. Duri thanks her by laying his ears flat and hissing.

"Oops," says the man in front of us, as the machine lets out an unholy beep. "Forgot my keys." He walks back, hands the keys to GEORGE, tries again. Beep. He shambles back for a third try. I ponder America and its aggravating individualism while this bonehead digs unhurriedly in his pockets for change and Durian fights his way onto my shoulder. If the damn thing beeps when I go through, I swear I'm doing a runner.

Finally, I clear the detector. On the far side of the conveyor belt, Duri's carrier hits the mountain of laptops and diaper bags and slides to the floor. I sink beside it and dump him in, then hold his thrusting head as I zip. Then I sling the carrier over my shoulder and stand there nearly crying with relief as the cloud of cat hair settles around me and blood beads on my throat and shoulder. Somehow I doubt anyone is coming with a wheelchair this time.

As I head for my gate, a man (clearly less individualized than these other wretched Americans) approaches. If this were Asia, he'd ask "Are you OK?" and walk beside me to the first aid station. He'd even offer to lug the cat carrier.

"I gotta tell ya," he says grinning. "That was the funniest thing I've seen all week."

Send me home to Bangkok. Send me home NOW.

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