Chapter 1: Marriage and Surprises
Late one afternoon in the summer of 2006, I found myself in a small village in northern Vietnam, sitting around a sooty kitchen fire with a number of local women whose language I did not speak, trying to ask them questions about marriage.
For several months already, I had been traveling across Southeast Asia with a man who was soon to become my husband. I suppose the conventional term for such an individual would be "fiancé," but neither one of us was very comfortable with that word, so we weren't using it. In fact, neither one of us was very comfortable with this whole idea of matrimony at all. Marriage was not something we had ever planned with each other, nor was it something either of us wanted. Yet providence had interfered with our plans, which was why we were now wandering haphazardly across Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia, all the while making urgent—even desperate—efforts to return to America and wed.
The man in question had been my lover, my sweetheart, for over two years by then, and in these pages I shall call him Felipe. Felipe is a kind, affectionate Brazilian gentleman, seventeen years my senior, whom I'd met on another journey (an actual planned journey) that I'd taken around the world a few years earlier in an effort to mend a severely broken heart. Near the end of those travels, I'd encountered Felipe, who had been living quietly and alone in Bali for years, nursing his own broken heart. What had followed was attraction, then a slow courtship, and then, much to our mutual wonderment, love.
Our resistance to marriage, then, had nothing to do with an absence of love. On the contrary, Felipe and I loved each other unreservedly. We were happy to make all sorts of promises to stay together faithfully forever. We had even sworn lifelong fidelity to each other already, although quite privately. The problem was that the two of us were both survivors of bad divorces, and we'd been so badly gutted by our experiences that the very idea of legal marriage—with anyone, even with such nice people as each other—filled us with a heavy sense of dread.
As a rule, of course, most divorces are pretty bad (Rebecca West observed that "getting a divorce is nearly always as cheerful and useful an occupation as breaking very valuable china"), and our divorces had been no exception. On the mighty cosmic one-to-ten Scale of Divorce Badness (where one equals an amicably executed separation, and ten equals…well, an actual execution), I would probably rate my own divorce as something like a 7.5. No suicides or homicides had resulted, but aside from that, the rupture had been about as ugly a proceeding as two otherwise well-mannered people could have possibly manifested. And it had dragged on for more than two years.
As for Felipe, his first marriage (to an intelligent, professional Australian woman) had ended almost a decade before we'd met in Bali. His divorce had unfolded graciously enough at the time, but losing his wife (and access to the house and kids and almost two decades of history that came along with her) had inflicted on this good man a lingering legacy of sadness, with special emphases on regret, isolation, and economic anxiety.
Our experiences, then, had left the two of us taxed, troubled, and decidedly suspicious of the joys of holy wedded matrimony. Like anyone who has ever walked through the valley of the shadow of divorce, Felipe and I had each learned firsthand this distressing truth: that every intimacy carries, secreted somewhere below its initial lovely surfaces, the ever-coiled makings of complete catastrophe. We had also learned that marriage is an estate that is very much easier to enter than it is to exit. Unfenced by law, the unmarried lover can quit a bad relationship at any time. But you—the legally married person who wants to escape doomed love—may soon discover that a significant portion of your marriage contract belongs to the State, and that it sometimes takes a very long while for the State to grant you your leave. Thus, you can feasibly find yourself trapped for months or even years in a loveless legal bond that has come to feel rather like a burning building. A burning building in which you, my friend, are handcuffed to a radiator somewhere down in the basement, unable to wrench yourself free, while the smoke billows forth and the rafters are collapsing…
I'm sorry—does all this sound unenthusiastic?
I share these unpleasant thoughts only to explain why Felipe and I had made a rather unusual pact with each other, right from the beginning of our love story. We had sworn with all our hearts to never, ever, under any circumstances, marry. We had even promised never to blend together our finances or our worldly assets, in order to avoid the potential nightmare of ever again having to divvy up an explosive personal munitions dump of shared mortgages, deeds, property, bank accounts, kitchen appliances, and favorite books. These promises having been duly pledged, the two of us proceeded forth into our carefully partitioned companionship with a real sense of calmness. For just as a sworn engagement can bring to so many other couples a sensation of encircling protection, our vow never to marry had cloaked the two of us in all the emotional security we required in order to try once more at love. And this commitment of ours—consciously devoid of official commitment—felt miraculous in its liberation. It felt as though we had found the Northwest Passage of Perfect Intimacy—something that, as García Márquez wrote, "resembled love, but without the problems of love."
So that's what we'd been doing up until the spring of 2006: minding our own business, building a delicately divided life together in unfettered contentment. And that is very well how we might have gone on living happily ever after, except for one terribly inconvenient interference.
The United States Department of Homeland Security got involved.
The trouble was that Felipe and I—while we shared many similarities and blessings—did not happen to share a nationality. He was a Brazilian-born man with Australian citizenship who, when we met, had been living mostly in Indonesia. I was an American woman who, my travels aside, had been living mostly on the East Coast of the United States. We didn't initially foresee any problems with our countryless love story, although in retrospect perhaps we should have anticipated complications. As the old adage goes: A fish and a bird may indeed fall in love, but where shall they live? The solution to this dilemma, we believed, was that we were both nimble travelers (I was a bird who could dive and Felipe was a fish who could fly), so for our first year together, at least, we basically lived in midair—diving and flying across oceans and continents in order to be together.
Our work lives, fortunately enough, facilitated such footloose arrangements. As a writer, I could carry my job with me anyplace. As a jewelry and gemstone importer who sold his goods in the United States, Felipe always needed to be traveling anyhow. All we had to do was coordinate our locomotion. So I would fly to Bali; he would come to America; we would both go to Brazil; we would meet up again in Sydney. I took a temporary job teaching writing at the University of Tennessee, and for a few curious months we lived together in a decaying old hotel room in Knoxville. (I can recommend that living arrangement, by the way, to anyone who wants to test out the actual compatibility levels of a new relationship.)
We lived at a staccato rhythm, on the hoof, mostly together but ever on the move, like witnesses in some odd international protection program. Our relationship—though steadying and calm at the personal level—was a constant logistical challenge, and what with all that international air travel, it was bloody expensive. It was also psychologically jarring. With each reunion, Felipe and I had to learn each other all over again. There was always that nervous moment at the airport when I would stand there waiting for him to arrive, wondering, Will I still knowhim? Will he still know me? After the first year, then, we both began to long for something more stable, and Felipe was the one who made the big move. Giving up his modest but lovely cottage in Bali, he moved with me to a tiny house I had recently rented on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
While trading Bali for the suburbs of Philly may seem a peculiar choice, Felipe swore that he had long ago grown tired of life in the tropics. Living in Bali was too easy, he complained, with each day a pleasant, boring replica of the day before. He had been longing to leave for some time already, he insisted, even before he'd met me. Now, growing bored with paradise might be impossible to understand for someone who has never actually lived in paradise (I certainly found the notion a bit crazy), yet Bali's dreamland setting honestly had come to feel oppressively dull to Felipe over the years. I will never forget one of the last enchanting evenings that he and I spent together at his cottage there—sitting outside, barefoot and dewy-skinned from the warm November air, drinking wine and watching a sea of constellations flicker above the rice fields. As the perfumed winds rustled the palm trees and as faint music from a distant temple ceremony floated on the breeze, Felipe looked at me, sighed, and said flatly, "I'm so sick of this shit. I can't wait to go back to Philly."
So—to Philadelphia (city of brotherly potholes) we duly decamped! The fact is we both liked the area a lot. Our little rental was near my sister and her family, whose proximity had become vital to my happiness over the years, so that brought familiarity. Moreover, after all our collective years of travel to far-flung places, it felt good and even revitalizing to be living in America, a country which, for all its flaws, was still interesting to both of us: a fast-moving, multicultural, ever-evolving, maddeningly contradictory, creatively challenging, and fundamentally alive sort of place.
There in Philadelphia, then, Felipe and I set up headquarters and practiced, with encouraging success, our first real sessions of shared domesticity. He sold his jewelry; I worked on writing projects that required me to stay in one place and conduct research. He cooked; I took care of the lawn; every once in a while one of us would fire up the vacuum cleaner. We worked well together in a home, dividing our daily chores without strife. We felt ambitious and productive and optimistic. Life was nice.
But such intervals of stability could never last long. Because of Felipe's visa restrictions, three months was the maximum amount of time that he could legally stay in America before he would have to excuse himself to another country for a spell. So off he would fly, and I would be alone with my books and my neighbors while he was gone. Then, after a few weeks, he'd return to the United States on another ninety-day visa and we'd recommence our domestic life together. It is a testament to how warily we both regarded long-term commitment that these ninety-day chunks of togetherness felt just about perfect for us: the exact amount of future planning that two tremulous divorce survivors could manage without feeling too threatened. And sometimes, when my schedule allowed, I would join him on his visa runs out of the country.
This explains why one day we were returning to the States together from a business trip overseas and we landed—due to the peculiarity of our cheap tickets and our connecting flight—at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. I passed through Immigration first, moving easily through the line of my fellow repatriating American citizens. Once on the other side, I waited for Felipe, who was in the middle of a long line of foreigners. I watched as he approached the immigration official, who carefully studied Felipe's bible-thick Australian passport, scrutinizing every page, every mark, every hologram. Normally they were not so vigilant, and I grew nervous at how long this was taking. I watched and waited, listening for the all-important sound of any successful border crossing: that thick, solid, librarian-like thunk of a welcoming visa-entry stamp. But it never came.
Instead, the immigration official picked up his phone and made a quiet call. Moments later, an officer wearing the uniform of the United States Department of Homeland Security came and took my baby away.
The uniformed men at the Dallas airport held Felipe in interrogation for six hours. For six hours, forbidden to see him or ask questions, I sat there in a Homeland Security waiting room—a bland, fluorescent-lit space filled with apprehensive people from all over the world, all of us equally rigid with fear. I had no idea what they were doing to Felipe back there or what they were asking from him. I knew that he had not broken any laws, but this was not as comforting a thought as you might imagine. These were the late years of George W. Bush's presidential administration: not a relaxing moment in history to have your foreign-born sweetheart held in government custody. I kept trying to calm myself with the famous prayer of the fourteenth-century mystic Juliana of Norwich ("All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well"), but I didn't believe a word of it. Nothing was well. Not one single manner of thing whatsoever was well.
Every once in a while I would stand up from my plastic chair and try to elicit more information from the immigration officer behind the bulletproof glass. But he ignored my pleas, each time reciting the same response: "When we have something to tell you about your boyfriend, miss, we'll let you know."
In a situation like this, may I just say, there is perhaps no more feeble-sounding word in the English language than boyfriend. The dismissive manner in which the officer uttered that word indicated how unimpressed he was with my relationship. Why on earth should a government employee ever release information about a mere boyfriend? I longed to explain myself to the immigration officer, to say, "Listen, the man you are detaining back there is far more important to me than you could ever begin to imagine." But even in my anxious state, I doubted this would do any good. If anything, I feared that pushing things too far might bring unpleasant repercussions on Felipe's end, so I backed off, helpless. It occurs to me only now that I probably should have made an effort to call a lawyer. But I didn't have a telephone with me, and I didn't want to abandon my post in the waiting room, and I didn't know any lawyers in Dallas, and it was a Sunday afternoon, anyhow, so who could I have reached?
Finally, after six hours, an officer came and led me through some hallways, through a rabbit warren of bureaucratic mysteries, to a small, dimly lit room where Felipe was sitting with the Homeland Security officer who had been interrogating him. Both men looked equally tired, but only one of those men was mine—;my beloved, the most familiar face in the world to me. Seeing him in such a state made my chest hurt with longing. I wanted to touch him, but I sensed this was not allowed, so I remained standing.
Felipe smiled at me wearily and said, "Darling, our lives are about to get a lot more interesting."
Before I could respond, the interrogating officer quickly took charge of the situation and all its explanations.
"Ma'am," he said, "we've brought you back here to explain that we will not be allowing your boyfriend to enter the United States anymore. We'll be detaining him in jail until we can get him on a flight out of the country, back to Australia, since he does have an Australian passport. After that, he won't be able to come back to America again."
My first reaction was physical. I felt as if all the blood in my body had instantly evaporated, and my eyes refused to focus for a moment. Then, in the next instant, my mind kicked into action. I revved through a fast summation of this sudden, grave crisis. Starting long before we had met, Felipe had made his living in the United States, visiting several times a year for short stays, legally importing gemstones and jewelry from Brazil and Indonesia for sale in American markets. America has always welcomed international businessmen like him; they bring merchandise and money and commerce into the country. In return, Felipe had prospered in America. He'd put his kids (who were now adults) through the finest private schools in Australia with income that he'd made in America over the decades. America was the center of his professional life, even though he'd never lived here until very recently. But his inventory was here and all his contacts were here. If he could never come back to America again, his livelihood was effectively destroyed. Not to mention the fact that I lived here in the United States, and that Felipe wanted to be with me, and that—because of my family and my work—I would always want to remain based in America. And Felipe had become part of my family, too. He'd been fully embraced by my parents, my sister, my friends, my world. So how would we continue our life together if he were forever banned? What would we do? ("Where will you and I sleep?" go the lyrics to a mournful Wintu love song. "At the down-turned jagged rim of the sky? Where will you andI sleep?")
"On what grounds are you deporting him?" I asked the Homeland Security officer, trying to sound authoritative.
"Strictly speaking, ma'am, it's not a deportation." Unlike me, the officer didn't have to try sounding authoritative; it came naturally. "We're just refusing him entrance to the United States on the grounds that he's been visiting America too frequently in the last year. He's never overstayed his visa limits, but it does appear from all his comings and goings that he's been living with you in Philadelphia for three-month periods and then leaving the country, only to return to the United States again immediately after."
This was difficult to argue, since that was precisely what Felipe had been doing.
"Is that a crime?" I asked.
"Not exactly, or no?"
"No, ma'am, it's not a crime. That's why we won't be arresting him.
But the three-month visa waiver that the United States government offers to citizens of friendly countries is not intended for indefinite consecutive visits."
"But we didn't know that," I said.
Felipe stepped in now. "In fact, sir, we were once told by an immigration officer in New York that I could visit the United States as often as I liked, as long as I never overstayed my ninety-day visa."
"I don't know who told you that, but it isn't true."
Hearing the officer say this reminded me of a warning Felipe had given me once about international border crossings: "Never take it lightly, darling. Always remember that on any given day, for any given reason whatsoever, any given border guard in the world can decide that he does not want to let you in."
"What would you do now, if you were in our situation?" I asked. This is a technique I've learned to use over the years whenever I find myself at an impasse with a dispassionate customer service operator or an apathetic bureaucrat. Phrasing the sentence in such a manner invites the person who has all the power to pause for a moment and put himself in the shoes of the person who is powerless. It's a subtle appeal to empathy. Sometimes it helps. Most of the time, to be honest, it doesn't help at all. But I was willing to try anything here.
"Well, if your boyfriend ever wants to come back into the United States again, he's going to need to secure himself a better, more permanent visa. If I were you, I would go about securing him one."
"Okay, then," I said. "What's the fastest way for us to secure him a better, more permanent visa?"
The Homeland Security officer looked at Felipe, then at me, then back at Felipe. "Honestly?" he said. "The two of you need to get married."
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 15, 2014