by Karene Horst, contributing editor – Single yet again for another Valentine’s Day, my thoughts turn as usual to chocolate. No one sends me flowers. Cards kill trees unnecessarily. Instead, I’m baking myself and my co-workers a sugary concoction of chocolate, melted caramel, cream cheese frosting and more chocolate.
Valentine’s Day used to mean more to me than overdosing on fattening carbs and cacao. Romance. Love. Happily ever after. One Valentine’s Day eight years ago my lover and I even planned to get married.
It would have been a hastily tossed together affair. A friend of Michael’s claimed an affinity for baking cakes. Michael waited tables at a restaurant, so of course we’d have the reception there. Another one of his co-workers, a lay minister for the local Seventh-Day Adventists, said he could marry us if we read his version of “The Book.”
My teenage daughter and her best friend, hopelessly hooked on “Say Yes to the Dress” and a stream of sappy romantic comedies, squealed in excitement as they volunteered to serve as my bridesmaids.
Michael and I went to the courthouse and applied for the license.
I searched through my closet for something appropriate to wear. Nothing white of course. But I could certainly find a frock that would suffice.
My best friend, whom I asked to stand up for me, watched warily as I breathlessly rushed through the preparations.
“Really. I thought you swore you would never marry again.”
“I love him.”
“Really.” Wisely she didn’t press me further. She knew I already had plenty on my plate.
She was the only person who knew why I was really marrying Michael, throwing together a celebration in a matter of weeks, declaring my intentions to my bewildered parents.
She was my only friend who really knew about Michael.
You see, Michael was an illegal immigrant. He had snuck into the United States from Mexico in the belly of an empty oil tanker with a slew of other illegals years before. His “sponsor” owned a Mexican restaurant where the waiters worked six days a week ten to twelve hours a day for tips and leftovers: no salary, no health insurance, no sick days or paid vacation, no worker’s compensation, no legal protection. When I met Michael he lived in an overcrowded apartment procured by the restaurant owner for his undocumented kitchen staff and servers. Michael slept on a mattress shoved into the corner of the kitchen floor.
I invited him to move in with me after his living situation deteriorated even further.
He was a gifted artist and musician who dreamed of fame and fortune in America. He taught me to play guitar and he laughed hysterically along with my son to reruns of “The Office.”
Then one night in November 2008 state liquor control officers arrested him for unwittingly serving alcohol to a minor with a fake ID. He called me from the police station.
“They are going to deport me,” he whispered.
The next morning I found an incompetent lawyer advertising himself as an “immigration attorney” to represent Michael. That frigid Friday night I met the lawyer in his BMW parked outside the county jail. I had brought warm clothes for Michael, knowing how easily he caught cold. I imagined the cement floors and concrete walls chilling my sweetheart, sending him into uncontrollable shivering fits. The lawyer had encouraged me to bring along thick wool socks, flannel pants and a cotton hoodie; apparently he had no idea I would not be allowed a visit with Michael that night, nor could I provide him anything other than a non-returnable paperback book.
The lawyer did confer with his client behind bars, after I paid him half of his $1,000 retainer fee, cash only. My breath hung in the air while my toes grew numb as I squirmed on the passenger seat, studying the concertina wire topping the concrete barriers surrounding the county jail. After his visit, the lawyer returned smiling, assuring me Michael was “in good spirits,” warm and snug in his jail-issued black and white striped jumpsuit. Then he spelled out our options.
No bond. Michael was an undocumented “alien.” He would sit in jail until the various legal entities sorted things out. Could be weeks, months.
Shock, panic and fear washed over me as I huddled in the front seat of the lawyer’s car.
The lawyer looked me over and asked if Michael and I were intimate. I found his interest insulting but possibly understandable as Michael was a gorgeous young man and at that moment, I’m sure I could have doubled as a crazed zombie: hair disheveled, eyes red and puffy, skin pasty and drawn, clothes grubby. Would I marry Michael to keep him from being deported from the country? Of course. We could pull it off. Interviews with federal immigration officials, photos of the happy couple. No problem. I loved him. I didn’t want to get married, but what was a piece of paper to keep the US government from ripping him away from me?
And that’s exactly how I felt. My chest ached every time I thought of the possibility I would never see Michael again, never hold him again. They had locked that sweet, loving man up inside a cage. Once deported, Michael would remain only a distant memory. I couldn’t leave the US to be with him other than a brief trip now and again; I had young children.
I couldn’t sleep. I stumbled through my days in a stupor, calling on Michael’s community of illegals who offered spare cash to help pay for the lawyer and nervously mumbled words of support. It could have been one of them.
The lawyer did predict correctly that the state would drop the misdemeanor charge of serving alcohol to a minor and instead turn Michael over to US Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE, or as Michael breathlessly fretted over for years, “La Migra.”
Long before his arrest, I’d return home on many occasions to find him cringing on the couch in a fetal position with the curtains drawn.
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“La Migra,” he’d mutter. A rumor traveling from cell phone to cell phone routinely sent the Hispanic community of kitchen help and day laborers into a frenzy. La Migra had just hit a local restaurant during the lunch rush. I grew accustomed to these episodes and Michael’s tortured reaction, swearing he would kill himself before they’d send him back.
I never took his concerns seriously and grew irritated by his seemingly irrational fears and anxieties. Millions of undocumented workers across America proved me right. I imagined the comical scene at area Mexican eateries with the help fleeing through the emergency exits while dumbfounded white people waited for their enchiladas con carne as they slurped their margaritas.
Then it happened. Like a giant fist socking me right in the gut.
After being treated like a criminal myself by the sheriff’s deputy, I finally got to see Michael during the weekly visitation hour at the county jail. I couldn’t stop crying. We talked via telephone separated by a plexiglass partition. We couldn’t even touch. He joked that his black and white striped outfit made him look like Michael Keaton’s character in Beetlejuice. After a steady diet of Hollywood’s frightening depictions of prison life, Michael had expected violence from his fellow inmates. Instead, he bunked with other illegals and non-violent inmates, sharing their histories and boredom while lunching on bologna sandwiches. I left behind a paperback of Eric Clapton’s autobiography for him to read and “donate” to the jail library.
Then the US government snatched him up in its legal maw and shipped him to a federal “holding facility” two hours away. Michael was officially on his way out of the country.
Several weeks later, he ended up in yet another federal jail near Kansas City for his court appearances. We managed a few very expensive conversations via telephone.
The lawyer started demanding more money. Then something amazing happened. The lawyer “discovered” a federal program for non-violent deportees where Michael could bond out for $500. I just had to drive to the ICE offices in Kansas City and deliver the bond payment, sign some papers, and I could bundle Michael out of jail and take him home while the legal proceedings sputtered along. I had to bring a money order. The lawyer provided me all the instructions. But he got them wrong.
I arrived at the federal building, passed through the metal detector, signed in and proffered the money order to the unsmiling, uniformed federal agent. He shook his head.
“We only take US Postal Service money orders. This one is from your bank. We can’t accept it.”
I became hysterical, crying and weeping, something you should never do in a government office with armed, uniformed government agents milling about.
“You need to leave. Now!” one barked at me.
But I did just what the lawyer told me to do! My boyfriend had spent almost a month in jail and he would continue to rot away there because of some insane bureaucratic distinction between a private bank’s money order and one from the local post office? I blubbered and wailed as the federal agent advised me again to leave the premises immediately. A female security guard took pity on me and told me to take care as I limped away.
The bank closest to the federal office would not cash my money order so I could purchase the prerequisite money order at the local post office. The local post office would not accept my check or credit card to purchase another money order, only $500 in cash. The lawyer would not answer my frantic phone calls.
I drove home without my Michael.
Furious beyond rational words with the irrational legal system that had glommed onto my Michael, I spent the next day calling every number available on the internet to track down someone who could help. Then I received an amazing telephone call out of the blue.
A female attorney employed by a legal aid organization had visited Michael in federal detention and signed him up for a program that released non-violent deportees on their own recognizance as long as they met regularly with an official in Kansas City and stayed out of further legal trouble, a sort of pre-conviction parole arrangement, while their case slithered through the legal system. Appears the numbers of “illegal aliens” and deportation cases had swamped the judicial system, and the feds couldn’t afford to lock everyone up while they waited for due process and the inevitable trek home. The pro-bono lawyer thought Michael’s case might take a year or more to resolve while he waited at home with me.
I drove back to Kansas City the next day to another office and met Michael and his new “parole” officer. Chained and shackled hand and foot to four other dark-haired, brown-skinned men, Michael shuffled into the room. Once they unlocked the restraints and allowed Michael to approach me, we wrapped our arms around each other and cried.
Later on the drive home together, Michael hesitantly broached the subject. “So, are you ready to get married?”
Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2009, would fall on a Saturday. What perfect timing! No one, not even my distraught mother tried to talk me out of it. Of course none of my family or friends except for my bestie knew the real reason for my rush down the aisle. Michael’s friends and co-workers all thought he’d won the lottery; who knew when La Migra would hammer down over their heads.
Then a small glitch. The lay-minister who offered to perform our ceremony woke up one morning unable to get out of bed, paralyzed from the waist down from what turned out to be a cancerous tumor. We could have just gone with a justice of the peace, but for some strange reason, my latent religious sentiments called for a preacher. I made phone call after phone call until my mind exploded and forced me to hang up on the whole idea.
When God strikes down your minister weeks before the wedding, maybe that’s a sign. And besides, I really didn’t want to get married.
I wanted to help Michael stay in the country and not face deportation, but a sinking suspicion curdled my blood. Then I started making some more phone calls. To more lawyers.
Once upon a time, American citizens could marry undocumented aliens to keep them in the country. Some people did it for love, others for money. Even for me, a vociferous critic of the peculiar institution of marriage, wedding Michael to keep him safe was a no-brainer. If someone I treasured needed a kidney, certainly I would consider going under the knife. Donate blood or bone marrow. In that context, marriage with a man I cared so much about seemed relatively painless. Just a piece of paper.
We’d fired the idiot lawyer and tracked down one who gave us an honest and accurate legal opinion but bad news: my marrying Michael would not prevent his deportation.
Thanks to September 11 and other anti-immigration bias across the country, the laws had changed. I could go ahead and marry Michael. Then after the US legally kicked him back to Mexico, we could request permission for him to return, apply for visas, etc. It could take years. Possibly ten years even. Mounds of forms to fill out, documents to provide. More lawyers fees. Hours driving to court appearances, hearings, appeals. Meeting with more federal agents who would invariably ask personal, probing questions. Michael’s prior illegal entry into the US and his deportation would not help matters. The new lawyer suggested I might have to prove that I could not leave the US to be with Michael in Mexico. He suggested arguing that my mental health would deteriorate unless Michael could return to me.
“Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Considered suicide?”
The nightmarish experience that started with Michael’s phone call from jail came crashing down around me.
We left the lawyer’s office with me shaking my head.
“I’m sorry Michael. I can’t. I can’t do it.”
How far will we go to sacrifice our needs, our hopes and dreams for someone else. Take that leap into the chasm of human relations. To trust another for better or worse. Risk it all on love, or at least the illusion of it.
Isn’t that one version of Valentine’s Day? Unconditional, everlasting? Unbare ourselves, our emotions, our hearts to the arrows of another? It’s not just about a bouquet of pretty roses or a gushingly sentimental note on a crimson piece of cardstock.
One Valentine’s Day the hopeless romantic in me almost prevailed. But the rational, sane me regained control. From here on I’ll celebrate this special day with frosted fudge brownies still warm from the oven.