Amanda Jones
back to personal essays

Coming to America

Written for Lonely Planet's By The Seat of My Pants, a humorous travel anthology

I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, where I had a spectacularly sheltered and conventional upbringing. In 1982, at the age of twenty, I had recently graduated from university and was living at home with my parents. I had no plans for the future.

One day, my father summoned me into his den, accused me of being "rudderless" and presented me with a truly horrible suggestion. He was at the time the president of the city's Rotary Club, and he clearly felt the position entitled him to practice the worst kind of nepotism.

"Rotary," he announced, "is offering a scholarship for an MBA program in America. I've entered your name I feel quite sure you'll get it. I think you can rely on the fact that you'll be off to graduate school in a matter of months."

"Huh?" I responded, wondering what I had ever done to make him think I would be either good at, or interested in, business. I was, however, suddenly buoyed by the notion that I pick up and move to America. "Where in America?"

"Georgia. It's in the Southern portion of the country."

"Christ!" I shrieked. "Georgia! How desperate do you think I am? They don't even drink in Georgia!"

I had no idea if this was true, but we'd all heard the stories about America's dry college campuses -- a notion incomprehensible to a New Zealander -- and I had no desire to go to the South. It certainly gave my father pause. He stood there speechless, likely imagining visiting me at my dry college and being obliged to exchange his gin and tonic in cut crystal for a Tab, straight from the can. He sloped off, and the scholarship was awarded to some other hapless creature.

That conversation did, however, make me realize that I must take control of my life before he came up with more insane ideas. I must leave. And anywhere but Georgia sounded good.

I quickly determined that Gina, an American exchange student who'd lived with my family for a year, was my salvation. We were both fifteen when Gina had come to live with us. Back then she'd towered over me. She had enormous breasts, she smoked clove cigarettes, she had one pierced ear and a mane of frizzy, white-blond hair that gave her an exotic, feral allure. Boys adored her, my parents despised her, and I desperately wanted to be like her. Gina had hated New Zealand. She'd hated the food, hated the rain, and she'd especially hated being made to go to my all-girls high school wearing a tartan kilt uniform.

Now, five years later, Gina had written telling me she had dropped out of college and was living in San Francisco. She had a grand apartment, a rich boyfriend and a fabulous job. I wrote asking if I could come and stay with her, telling my parents I was considering Californian graduate schools.

"Come on over!!" Gina had replied, with what appeared to be great enthusiasm. "I'm psyched!!! You can live with us in our apartment!!! It'll be totally cool!!!" I was beside myself. I was off to smoke clove cigarettes in dim San Francisco bars, to stroll down the infamous Haight Ashbury, to pepper my speech with terms like "psyched" and "totally cool." I was going to be just like Gina.

To my absolute astonishment my mother bought me a plane ticket and my father presented me with an American Express credit card that he made quite clear was "for emergency purposes only." At the airport I jubilantly bade farewell to my family and my boyfriend and strode off with not a backward glance.

Arriving in San Francisco, I hauled my grossly over-packed luggage through airport customs and out into the propitious Californian sunshine. I stood and watched as my fellow passengers swarmed past me to be met by joyful smiles and tight embraces. I watched until they had all drifted off, leaving me alone with my bags and no Gina. I'd been stood up.

With no other option springing to mind, I slumped into a chair to wait. Twenty minutes later the doors finally opened and an agitated Gina flew through them. I ran toward her, throwing my arms around her feral neck, prepared to forgive.

She pulled away, barking, "Hurry, I'm parked illegally."

Outside, commanding a stretch of red curb was a 1962 Cadillac, fins and all. I'd never seen a car so glamorous. On the inside, however, the car appeared to be stuffed floor to ceiling with Gina's worldly possessions.

"Look, things didn't work out with the boyfriend," she said. "I had to...leave." "So, where are you living now?" I asked, the car's contents leading me to fear the worst.

"Well, not sure right now. I thought we could get an apartment. Hey, you got any money?"

"But what about your job?"

"Yeah, well, the boyfriend didn't think I needed to work. I gave it up."

"But...where are we staying tonight?"

She shrugged, lighting a clove cigarette.

"I met this bartender. He's into me. He said we might be able to crash at his pad."

"Crash at his pad?" I was stunned, horrified. I wanted to slap her.

I took a closer look at Gina. She'd lost weight and she looked haggard. Her clothes were tawdry, her ankle boots were scuffed, and her makeup was too heavy. Even the nimbus of hair seemed lackluster. As my mother would have said, she looked well used.

It dawned on me that I'd left the tidy security of my former life for a hoax. The only real thing about Gina was the clove cigarette.

The bartender looked normal but he seemed to have no obvious interest in Gina, which was worrying. Finally, after last call, he extended a half-hearted offer for us to come back to his apartment and Gina jumped at it.

Back at the bartender's 'pad' we were introduced to the half dozen guys lounging about the room. They were of all sizes and shapes, a few years older than me. Despite it being three a.m. some were playing musical instruments, others were reading, and a few were cooking. I shuffled over to the bookshelf to bury my exhaustion, feeling shy and daunted.

I judge people by their books. I can't help it. Books tell you something substantive about their owners. Between them, this motley-looking group of young men had every book I had ever wanted to read. There, like flaming tablets, stood Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Siddhartha; The Tin Drum; On the Road; The Razor's Edge; Doors of Perception; Gödel, Escher, Bach; The Little Prince; The Waste Land; The Dubliners.

I was saved.

Gina, it turned out, was a coke addict who had been kicked out of her drug-dealing boyfriend's apartment. She had no job and was high most of the time. Within days she had drifted off to whereabouts unknown -- leaving me in a three-bedroom apartment with five men. They'd all gone to an Ivy League university back east together and they had moved to San Francisco for the same reason I had--to find a life.

I asked if I could stay with them until I sorted myself out.

"You're in luck," the small one said. "Eric, our roommate, is out of town on business. You can have his bed this week."

I moved into Eric's room. I slept in Eric's bed. I read Eric's copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and felt like I was living with the Merry Pranksters. Then, on the fourth night at around two in the morning, the door to the bedroom burst open and there was Eric himself. I was deeply asleep and stark naked, having figured that by sleeping that way I could save on laundry effort.

"Oh, hi," he said, "How ya doin'?" There seemed to be no surprise in his voice. Perhaps, I thought, finding an unfamiliar, unclad woman in your bed was one of those tedious occurrences one must deal with when one chooses to live in San Francisco.

"Good, thanks," I said. "But. ...look...I'll leave, but I can't...not like this." Eric left the room, returning with a sleeping bag. I slid into it and hopped out of his bedroom. It was not a terribly auspicious beginning.

Fast-forward several months. The boys and I had moved to a bigger house and Phillipa, my best friend from New Zealand, had also moved to San Francisco. The men cooked foreign food for us, they played bongo drums for us, they engaged us in intellectual discourse and listened to our opinions, and they took turns showing us San Francisco. We'd found Nirvana.

One day, I came home and was introduced to yet another new roommate. He'd been to college with the others and had just moved to San Francisco. He was tall, he had a loud voice and he was dressed head to toe in clothing with the name of his former college emblazoned on it. I pegged him for an elitist and he treated me as if I were the interloper in the frat house redux. Here we go, I thought, here's the jerk to spoil the perfect thing we've got going here.

Later I heard that Eric, sweet Eric, had told the new roommate there was a blond model living in the house. What Eric had neglected to tell him was that I was merely working at a modeling agency. After my father had coldheartedly cut off the American Express card (which I had quite comfortably lived off), I was forced to find a job without a work permit. The modeling agency was the only place willing to hire me. When I'd shown up, Greg (the new roommate) was actually thinking, "So--where's the model?"

Over the next few months Greg began to pay more attention to me. I grudgingly noted that he made me laugh. He was smart and quick-witted and actually very handsome. He'd lean forward to pick up a beer and I'd notice how pleasing his forearm was, or how broad his shoulders were, or how his eyes sparkled while he was being so richly sardonic. Then, on my 21st birthday, I confessed to being madly in love with him.

Meanwhile Phillipa, my New Zealand friend, was having a fling with Eric. Everyone was happy. After a year, however, Phillipa and I had exhausted all our visa renewal options and could not legally remain in America. One sunny afternoon I encountered the stirring words of Emma Lazarus printed on a calendar in a drycleaner's, "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" The poem moved me to send a beseeching letter to a local congressman requesting a visa extension. He wrote back saying, in so many words: Who the hell do you think you are? You are not the huddled masses of some war-torn nation besieged by disease, poverty and corruption. You are not stricken by some heart-rending disability. You are not a defecting citizen of an enemy country. And clearly you are not a genius of incomparable measure. So piss off.

Phillipa and I vowed we would not leave. We moaned about the bitter unfairness of being born in the First World. We thought about living on the lam. And then one day she had an idea.

"We'll have to get married."

Looking up from his National Lampoon, Greg said, "That'll work. I'll marry you."

Naturally I thought he was talking to me, his girlfriend of four months.

He wasn't, he was talking to Phillipa.

I glowered. I sulked. "Good for you two. But who'll marry me?"

"Dunno," said Greg. "Maybe you should talk to Eric."

That night, I found valor in tequila and knocked on Eric's door to propose. "Hey, got a quick favor to ask of you. You know how I am really in love with Greg? Yeah, well, I don't want to leave America. So look, will you be a sport and marry me?"

Ever the gent, he asked to sleep on it.

In the morning, Eric emerged having decided to become my husband, but with one caveat. Chip was yet another college friend, who, during his senior year, had replied to an advertisement in Rolling Stone magazine to become a minister in a perfectly legal mail order church. For $25 he had become a reverend, and for another $20 he ad become the Reverend Doctor. His reasons for doing this were hazy, but they involved clergy not being drafted into the military, discount airfares, and special parking dispensations. So that we would not be forced to lie to a minister of the church or a court judge, Eric suggested we ask Chip to marry us.

Chip was contacted and agreed to come out from Ohio and marry us in a double wedding--Phillipa to Greg, me to Eric. (After serious discussion, Greg and I had decided it would be foolish to marry each other for green card purposes only).

A frenzy of wedding plans ensued, and on April Fools Day, 1984, the glorious event took place. Unaware that it was a federal offence to reconfigure the U.S. flag, I sewed my wedding gown out of Old Glory, a tribute to my dedication to my new country. Phillipa's gown was a fashionable cut of the New Zealand standard. We were married in the woods, Merry Prankster style, and danced down the aisle to the Trini Lopez song, I Want to Live in America.

After the wedding, the Reverend Doctor Chip went back to Ohio, quit his job and moved out to San Francisco under the pretext that the rest of us needed moral supervision.

In order to become legal resident aliens, our next step was to have our marriages scrutinized by the INS--the notorious bureaucrats who ran the immigration department. By all accounts their philosophy was that transnational love was unseemly. We'd heard rumors of the interrogations. We'd been told they separated couples and asked personal things, like, What type of birth control do you use? What side of the bed does he/she sleep on? How often did you have sex on your honeymoon? Who in his/her family came to the wedding? We devised codes and hand signals; we posed for honeymoon photos; we memorized family ancestry; we ruminated on our fictional sex life.

The process took months, but eventually we were summoned to the final interview. After keeping us waiting for four hours an immigration officer heaved herself through the door and bawled our names. She was a brute of a woman, with a raw, ham-hock face, a brow protruding over darkened pits of eyes, and ankles as thick as a baby's waist. She wore a blue serge skirt and a white shirt buttoned all the way up to her impressive wattle. Her thinning hair was drawn back into a severe bun and bound in a net. She was a Central Casting dream caricature.

She escorted us into her windowless office with a table in the center. Overhead a bright light swung low over the table, undoubtedly used to crack would-be immigrants during tense grillings. So, tell me again, what brand of underwear did you say your husband wears? Behind her head was a picture of a hairless cat and a crucifix. Eric and I sat holding hands, as practiced.

"Right," she snarled. "How'd you meet?"

Eric sighed, glanced tenderly at me and said, "Do you want to tell the story, sweetie, or shall I?"

"You go right ahead, honey," I smiled, clueless as to what story he was referring. This was the one question we had not practiced.

"Well," said Eric, "I returned from a business trip one night and there she was, asleep in my bed, her golden hair spread around her face like a halo." Casting his eyes heavenward, he continued, "I sent up a prayer, 'Thank you, Lord. Thank you for sending me an angel.' It was love at first sight for me."

The blood left my face. Surely she'd see through his ridiculous display.

"How sweeeet," she gushed girlishly. "Did you live together before you got married?"

"Well, yes, we did, actually," I said before Eric could draw breath.

"Did your parents approve?"

"Mine were fine with it," I told her. "But we didn't tell Eric's."

In reality Eric's parents had never heard of me.

There was a pause. "I understand," she said, "My parents wouldn't approve if I lived with a man out of wedlock either."

We were stunned into silence by such personal information coming from one so formidable. My instinct was to lean forward, stroke her arm and quietly recommend that if she ever got the opportunity to live with a man, wedlock or no, she should, you know, carpe diem. Eric chimed in, lamenting the conservatism of Midwestern parents. She agreed, telling us she was resigned to spending the rest of her days with the aforementioned hairless cat because she was so afraid of disappointing her parents.

Ten minutes later, after some chatty checking of forms, she beamed brightly and sent us on our way with a meaty handshake. I was officially a legal resident alien in the United States of America.

Several weeks later, Greg and Phillipa had a similarly pleasant experience.

After two years of blissful, non-consummated marriage living in separate apartments, we threw a party to celebrate our respective divorces--legally blamed on "irreconcilable differences." Eric and Phillipa had broken up amicably during those two years and Eric had taken back up with his college girlfriend, who, upon hearing he'd married me, had made a hasty reappearance to stake her claim. They were married shortly after our divorce.

Phillipa and the Reverend Doctor Chip drove across country together, fell madly in love and were married soon thereafter. Greg and I were married at about the same time. We have all been happily married now for 17 years.

In retrospect, I am eternally indebted to that long-ago drug dealer: Three solid marriages and six beautiful children have come into the world because he threw Gina out that day.

And as for the moral of this story: Not all misadventures remain misadventures. Travel plans gone awry can take you places, connect you with people, and cast you into situations that may just change your life.