I’ve always liked the idea of embassies as a sort of warp point in space. Like holy ground, rather than being sanctified embassy soil is nationalised, imbued with the spirit of the country it represents. When discussing my future visit to London Lindsay and I would talk about the possibility of the embassy actually being connected to its homelands through a secret wormhole, through which diplomats would move between their workplaces.
Once I’d passed through the checkpoint, though I could still see London through the compound railings I was technically no longer on British soil. Having turned around the corner, the eagle on the rooftop could no longer see me, but then it didn’t have to: I was inside it, swallowed whole into the American system.
I followed signs around the outside of the building and entered the reception in the embassy’s flank. After presenting my invitation and passport the receptionist stuck three stickers onto the letter, pointed out my number–I-909–and told me to go upstairs, take a seat, and wait for it to be called.
Though the waiting room was already fairly busy the staff only started calling numbers out after I’d arrived. The first few–N-1 to N-7, I-901 to I-903–were called in rapid succession and I wondered if I’d be called so soon after arriving. Though the non-immigrant N numbers were called regularly, the immigrant numbers soon slowed to a crawl. Too nervous to read I examined the waiting room.
Large and high-ceilinged, with a floor that sparkled with unknown minerals and frantically flickering lights in the gods, it was a cross between an airport lounge, a bank lobby and a school canteen. A bank of screens–still displaying Windows boot-up details when I arrived–split the room down the centre and showed those waiting which numbers had recently been called. At either side facing them were banks of chairs that weren’t screwed down but interlocked in place with metal handles slung beneath the seats. Occasionally, in the aisles at the centre of each bank or at the very edge of the rows, chairs had become uncoupled and moved freely, being knocked back and forth by people as they were called to their appointments. To one side was a giant fan, switched off now autumn had returned to the United Kingdom, and at the back was a concession stand and a table with a water cooler and coffee machine on it.
At the front, near the entrance was the courier service desk where I’d later pay the £20.90 for delivery of my temporary visa, and to one side, opposite windows that spanned from floor to ceiling, were holes in the wall like bank-teller booths, the numbered windows to which we were being ushered. Above them, apparently useless for anything but show, metal bars disappeared up among the flickering lights.
More diverse than the queue outside, the people waiting seemed dressed in every combination of attire they could fling on. The embassy website had stated I should wear business casual; if everyone in the room had read this, some clearly had a very different concept of what ‘business casual’ was. Some had dressed up as if for a wedding; others had dressed down, in sweats; some wore avant garde outfits that, though memorable, looked more like burlesque-wear to be stripped off at a certain kind of gentleman’s club; still others dressed as though lost, wearing battered leather and denim: aging rockers and Irish travellers.
By the time my number was called the low level I-900s had started being called again. Twice I was called, to two different windows, but at the time I wasn’t sure if I’d see new people at them, or the same one, twice. Until then I waited, stealing myself every time the call for I-908 was followed with one for I-902 or I-903.
Eventually the robot voice said: “Now serving I-909 at window 13”.
Window 13 was down a short length of corridor, in an area secluded from the increasing bustle of the waiting room. An extremely pleasant young woman greeted me, and straight from the off it was clear whatever else happened at the embassy was a formality: I’d been green-lit for a visa.
“Do you have a bag with you? You might want to put it down; this could take a while,” she said. She went off to fetch my file then returned, took my passport and started leafing through her notes.
“What’s your wife’s name?” she said.
I told her.
“And how long have you been married?”
I told her that, too.
“A year and a third?” she laughed at my archaism. “And when we send you your temporary visa, when would you like to go out to New Jersey?”
“As soon as possible, please.” ‘When’, I noted. ‘When’ we send your visa.
“Of course. I’ll just write ‘ASAP’ down here and we’ll get you out with your wife as soon as we can.”
Conversationally, she asked me a few more questions: who was the co-signer of the affidavit of support, where would we be living, what did my wife do for a living, which airport would I be flying into. At every turn her responses were so gushingly enthusiastic I decided there must have been some other factor at work here. Maybe, with so many cynical attempts to enter the US through marriage, she was happy to deal with people who genuinely loved each other, something proven not so much through the photographs and wedding album I carried with me–she didn’t ask to see those–but through the letters both my mother and my mother-in-law had written declaring our relationship valid. And while, writer that I am, I might have lent my mum a hand with writing hers, my wife’s mother said nicer things about me than just about anyone I’ve ever previously known. We honestly couldn’t have reached this end point of our journey without her support and goodwill, and while financially I hope to be out of her hair after applying for citizenship, I will forever be in her debt.
Only one thing was missing from my application: a form of ID further proving my mother-in-law’s identity. Having told me what I’d need to do to send it in, she took one of the stickers from my letter and slapped it onto her case file.
When the woman at the window told me I’d be called again I was disappointed. She’d been so nice and understanding, by all rights the next person I saw would be a cynical hate machine.
After filling the form she’d given me and feeling vulnerable without my passport, I was called to window 16 to conclude my interview. As far as I could tell, apart from my mother-in-law’s ID everything necessary for my visa had already been dealt with. The interview process is supposed to ensure everything stated on the submitted forms was true and that the applicant and sponsor have a genuine relationship–what more was there to say?
As I walked back into the nook off the waiting room, the robot voice called out numbers with E and D prefixes. Whatever the letters stood for they were no concern of mine.
Aside from a family wrestling with two unruly children, the woman manning window 16 had the first American accent I’d heard since arriving at the embassy. Looking more drawn and dour than her lovely counterpart three windows over, at first I was worried I’d been right, that this was dragon I’d have to slay in order to win my damsel’s heart. Fortunately, a few questions into the interview she softened, and by the end of it she was misty-eyed and simpering, unable to stand in the path of true love.
She asked a number of questions I’d already answered, then checked the year we met, how we’d met, when we’d met in person, when we’d decided to get married and if we planned on having children. It’s been so long since we first got together I sometimes forget how strange it is to be married for a year yet be apart for much of that time; the woman was shocked when she heard how long ago we’d wed and last met and said, firmly, “Let’s see if we can do something about that.”
Never a confident speaker, I at least felt something like confidence growing as the interview went on. I tried to follow the tips mentioned online–hold the interviewer’s gaze, try not to ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’, speak directly and to the point–which meant my usual rambling, shambling, wild-eyed approach was strictly off-limits. When I mentioned proposing and she asked me how I’d done it, I launched into full storyteller mode, describing the area where we’d stayed before talking about heading to the beach that breezy May day and writing my question in the sand.
She made an ‘aww’ sound of delight, and that was it: there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that I’d passed muster.
She returned to me the police, birth and wedding certificates I’d mailed across the ocean, and gave me another form to take to the courier desk at the front.
“Thank you,” I said–too many times, I’m sure.
Then it was off to the desk, past those waiting for windows to open, to hand over my form to the woman behind the counter.
“Your visa will take eight to ten days to arrive,” the woman said. “Would you like it to arrive in the morning or afternoon?”
And that was Tuesday.
On Wednesday I printed the documents my wife had mailed me and sent them first class registered post to the US Embassy in London.
On Thursday I grew a little older–just a day, but just enough to tip the scales and make a thirty-two-year-old thirty-three.
On Friday a courier came to the door. “Are you Mr. Daniel?” he said–which was close enough for jazz–and passed me a parcel. “Er, do you have ID?” he said, a little sheepish since he’d already given me the parcel without first checking. I had a copy of my police certificate and the receipt from the embassy, which turned out to be more than enough.
Inside the package was an envelope with a paper sheet attached, upon which was written DO NOT OPEN and the terrible things that would befall me if I did.
Also inside was my passport, and inside that, pasted overleaf from my existing photo page was another piece of paper: my temporary visa.
I’ve got a golden ticket. It doesn’t gain entry into a wondrous place where dreams come true and it’s not hidden only six out of millions; more numerous than Wonka bars, out of all the billions of people on the planet this ticket entitles me to be with the one person I love. It’s a precious thing, a magical thing, and I’ll keep it safe like a heart in my hands.
From Plymouth to Jersey to London and back, this journey is just about over.
But the next is about to begin.