It's the closest I've ever come to being sent to jail.
"Maybe if you're lucky he will ask you to marry him and then you could live here," she menaced from across the desk.
The immigration officer was as large as she was angry and had spent the last ten minutes threatening me with an ambiguous mixture of deportation and incarceration upon my re-arrival at the Barbados airport.
Palm trees swayed casually in the breeze outside, carefree vacationers trundled off to seaside resorts. In the tiny interrogation room, her stare raged. I tried to suppress adrenaline, tears and a spray of inappropriate laughter at the idea of being asked for my hand in marriage under duress, in the Caribbean, during what was supposed to be a fantasy year on the beach.
A few months ago, in my old life as a radio producer in Toronto, my long-term boyfriend and I walked to brunch in matching unisex Converse; we split the rent. A model of modern equality. But now, I was being likened to a knocked-up 1950s debutante. And I was buying into it: submissive, scared, contemplating marriage for the first time in my life -- and as a legal salvation, rather than a blissful shindig.
All this because I chose to escape my job at the public broadcaster -- a string of crappy short contracts in a toxic environment -- for a year of adventure and professional opportunity in the Caribbean.
So what a crazily fantastic exit I'd found. Pressing the eject button and landing on tropical shores felt like a dream come true.
"We're doing this for work experience -- and the chance to snorkel daily," I'd say, trying my best not to barf when friends and family suggested I was "following a boy."
Why couldn't they see that becoming an international freelancer would improve my CV, too? Didn't they see we made this decision for both of us? And that learning about life in another culture is just, well, an important life experience and awesome?
But these questions were long gone in the seemingly shrinking airport interrogation room as I began to calculate my best chance for another escape, this time from an immigration disaster.
The tropical temporary home where I'd been living for six months was just a few minutes' cab ride down the white beach. Its balcony faced a shore lined with blooming hibiscus, our life there set to the push and pull of the waves. It felt so, so far away.
Sweat trickled on my tailbone. I bit my lip and completed transformation into an Eisenhower-era desperate housewife: I cried for the immigration officer. So not behavior of a confident global journalist. How had I let this happen?
Little had I known that by mustering the courage to step into a new phase of my career, I'd be jet-setting my identity as a woman back by about six decades. In the past few months of traveling between the various Caribbean islands my boyfriend and I jaunted to (some for work, others for fun), I went from filling out the "Occupation" field of the Barbados immigration card as "Journalist" to "Homemaker/Journalist," and then finally, sadly, to simply, "Homemaker." Really. From modern young professional to domestic dependent in three easy steps.
My status as an independent freelancer on the island was legal, technically, but that didn't really matter. The immigration officers found it dubious and wielded freakish power over my life. If I wanted to continue realizing my dream, I had to find a way to fit more clearly into one of the boxes on their paperwork.
We discovered early on that the easiest way for me to get back and forth across borders was to stroke my boyfriend's arm, declaring I was a little [insert giggle] unmarried housewife [insert "aren't we so naughty" look] and to keep my occupation as a writer and radio producer a filthy secret. To be, officially at least, a kept woman. A hit to my ego as an independent woman, but a manageable cost -- or so I thought.
It seemed alright at the time. I treated it like a joke. Ha ha, I am pretending to be the little lady around the house! Maybe I should put on my pearls whilst I sear this roast!
Then came the onslaught of folksy tips on how I should be better feeding and caring for my man. The neighbor asking why I hadn't washed the dirty dishes -- the ones piling up while I was writing. The Stepford Wives-ish influence of other expat ladies, all too happy to be kept women that organized fundraising events and worked on their muscle tone and golden crisp tans, took on a powerful appeal.
I'd stare at drafted query letters with a crumpled brow as waves smashed against the coral outside our balcony, sending salt and sand spraying in through our window. I needed to sweep it all away so no one could judge me as a negligent housekeeper again. Pitches could wait.
And yet it was all a joke, right? My kept-womandom was just a joke, a gag to skirt the immigration bureaucracy while living the dream escape.
But finally, as a pseudo-criminal/hot mess in the airport immigration room, even tossing my personal and professional identity out the airplane window and identifying as a "homemaker" was no longer enough. Someone in a uniform was saying that maybe I'd be lucky enough to be asked for my hand in marriage. Submit to a retro convention of wifery and keep living the life I was living or hold on to my precious ideals but get deported from the country and/or possibly thrown in the slammer.
And it wasn't because of a chauvinist boyfriend or an uninformed view of the world or, heck, even a lack of strong Caribbean lady role models -- of course there were plenty of amazing local women I learned from. For example, this immigration officer doing her job like a boss. (Respect.) It was a much bigger problem: that out there in the big wide world, I was not seen as a person, only as plus-one to a man. And for some reason, I believed it.
Moving home to North America now felt like an escape to the promised land. No more snorkeling but, hey, I could do whatever I wanted while remaining unmarried! Ah, to be seen as an individual again. Forget the beach and its prison threats, I wanted to tongue-kiss the snow-covered ground.
But now, here we are in my paradisical North American getaway from retro expectations of women, and yet there's GamerGate, and yet Emma Watson speaking about feminism at the United Nations results in sexualized threats, and yet all sorts of people are equivocating campus rape, and yet even computer scientist Barbie needs a man to help her, and yet this Slate calendar of the year in outrage is jammed to the brim with reasons it's still so, so crappy and hard to be a woman all over the world. Here and on tropical islands and in farther flung places, too. For women this burden is real, this is still happening. I learned that even more acutely once we moved to Nigeria for a year, where life is even harder for women, where "the Chibok" girls remain lost.
And yet, my boyfriend globetrotted the whole time with impunity. Never hassled, never questioned, never threatened with marriage or sexually harassed or asked why he hadn't washed the dishes.
You'd think I'd be angry, discovering there is no real escape for women like me and many others whose experiences are infinitely more traumatizing, life-stunting and sad than mine.
But I'm not angry, I'm excited. Because we're talking about it now on front pages and year-in-reviews and tweets and in conversations with our moms. That means that we're recognizing the extent to which bias against women seeps into our lives here and abroad. And that means we're one step closer to change, the greatest escape of all.Suggest a correction