ruthie blum USE! 298.88.
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'I hate to break this to you," the young woman at the El Al check-in counter says in a surprisingly gentle manner. "But your American passport has expired."
"Couldn't be," I laugh in a surprisingly confident one, taking the document out of her hand to point out her error. "You must be looking on the wrong page."
She does not argue. Instead she shrugs and lets me see for myself that the mistake is not hers. Clearly she is not one to kick a person when he's down. Especially not one who has spent the past week in frantic preparation for a trip abroad. Making lists, meeting deadlines, delegating chores, tying up loose ends and, finally, pulling an all-nighter to do laundry and pack.
Arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport represents a full stop to the above - a clean slate with which to begin reveling in relaxation. Being handed a boarding card is like being given a ticket to leaving real life behind long enough to want to return to it. Being told your passport is invalid is not supposed to be part of this vacation scenario.
"What happens now?" I ask sheepishly, aware that I am forbidden from entering the United States on my Israeli passport, and that even if I weren't, doing so would require my having a visa.
"In the worst case, you'll have to pay a fine when you get to New York," she says, clicking and stamping away, business as usual.
This seems unlikely, considering the security concerns that have made travel even within the US almost parody-like. But I do not challenge her. After all, she was right the first time. Furthermore, she's processing my papers as though nothing were out of the ordinary. She's letting me fly as though the sky hadn't just fallen a few feet. Why, then, should I be worried?
I shouldn't be. But I am. Not so much about the fate that awaits me at Kennedy - though bending rules based on using judgement is not the American Way - but about my lapse.
Had I not checked the dates on both passports? I'm certain I had. Hadn't I renewed them both quite recently? I know I had.
Walking with a somewhat heavier gait than I would be doing without this mishap hanging overhead, I try to retrace my proverbial steps. I envision the cupboard and folder where I keep the family's documents. I picture myself removing the plastic envelope I use for the passports. I imagine flipping to the appropriate page of each. I remember seeing exactly what the El Al desk clerk saw when she did this - expires: 04/07.
"Oh my God," I say aloud, though I am alone among a throng of strangers. It dawns on me that I thought April 2007 was a date in the future, rather than in the past. Jokes about senility aside, I consider the possibility that I am truly losing my marbles.
I take out the passport - issued in 1997 - and look at it again. How had a decade slipped by without my noticing? Am I really 10 years older than the woman in that photograph? These questions make the ones I anticipate answering when I disembark pale in comparison. Not to mention give double meaning to the term "final destination."
"UH... MA'AM," says the man at the passport control counter, lowering his voice to spare me embarrassment. "Y'know, your passport has expired."
I weigh feigning shock at this discovery, but opt for honesty. Coming face-to-face with one's mortality next to a neon duty-free sign will do that.
"Yeah," I admit. "So I was informed in Israel, before boarding the plane."
The man looks first at me and then at the document in his hand, open to a photo of a woman from the previous millennium. I return his gaze, wondering whether I am going to have to recount the reasons behind this unseemly screw-up. Hoping I won't be pulled off to the side and searched by the guy's superiors. Or sent back to the real life I'm here to escape for a couple of weeks.
"What should I do?" I ask, smiling - my way of indicating that I can play the damsel in distress card if called upon to do so.
"Oh, just go," he says, smiling back - his way of indicating that he is capable of telling the difference between a flake and a security risk.
"One more thing," I add, before hightailing it out of there. "What's going to happen when I return for my flight back to Tel Aviv?"
"I don't know, Ma'am," he says, shaking his head. "I only handle this end."
"YOU FLEW on an expired passport!?" gasps one family member when I tell him the story. "How could that be? You'll have to take care of this immediately - while you're in the US."
"Well, that won't work," another warns, filling me in on the scandalous backlog that allegedly has forced many Americans to cancel scheduled trips abroad this summer. "Even diplomats are on a waiting list for passport renewals."
"I have no choice, then, but to exit the country the way I entered it," I respond coolly. I am uncharacteristically anxiety-free about the whole affair. In fact, I am grateful for not having woken up to my miscalculation prior to the trip. Had I been aware of it, not only would I have panicked; I might even have been forced to cancel, due to consulate overload. If there ever was an instance of "ignorance is bliss," this is it.
The surrounding skeptics aren't so convinced.
"If the authorities let me in without a fuss," I explain, "they're bound to let me out."
"HEBREW?" THE El Al security agent at Kennedy Airport calls out, wresting me from a chattering crowd of "birthright" participants.
I hand the agent my Israeli passport. After ascertaining that I am not bearing firearms, he whisks me away without a second glance and resumes giving the teenagers on line - all of whom have valid American passports - the third degree.
I am home safe. And safe to fly home. Would that time were not flying alongside me at such a furious pace.