One day, some time after it was all over, my creative writing advisor and I sat across from each other in her living room. I was sweating despite the frigid draft that descended from everywhere in her massive apartment. She had some papers of mine her lap, trying to dissect the mess I’d written. There were pages and pages of lines recounting my relationship with a man that had no real point in the end.
“It’s love,” she suggested about the seemingly endless holes in the story. “You don’t need to explain it.” “No,” I told her, sweating. “I don’t think it’s that at all.”
He was a customer where I waited tables. Handsome, severe face. Muscular forearms and big shoulders. A demeanor that was shy or mysterious or evasive — none of that was clear upon first contact. He passed me his number on a slip of paper and invited me to sushi, which I dislike but ate anyway.
On that first date, he told me he was a masseur. On our second, he said that he hadn’t been back to his country in eight years. In fact, he couldn’t leave the United States at all because if his long-expired visa was discovered, he would be banned.
Those first dates turned into weeks and months. We became boyfriends not so much through intent as through time and the momentum one gets when the aims you’re pursuing aren’t aims at all. At this same point, I was the poster boy for a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen: a metaphor for my life at the time. In the picture, I’m shirtless and have a big silver chain around my neck. A pint of beer drips sweaty in one hand and with the other I grab myself, licking the corner of my mouth. I had yet to start grad school and was between two worlds: the wild and the less so. And in this context we met, both of our wheels spinning in place. Eventually you hope those wheels catch a solid surface, and send you speeding out, above and beyond.
For the unaware, here are the horrors currently being doled out upon undocumented immigrants by the United States government: A caravan of migrants fleeing endemic violence and poverty is being greeted by thousands of heavily armed American troops along our southern border. We actively forbid citizens of many nations from obtaining visas through marriage or bloodlines, or even purposes of tourism. Children are being separated from their parents and forced to stand trial as toddlers, placed within the U.S. foster care system, or housed in concentration camps. Workplaces are being raided. Armed officers are demanding identification on buses and boats and streets within 100 miles of the nation’s borders. Asylum-seekers are being told that escaping from certain death back home isn’t a good enough reason to be granted asylum. People are being detained and deported as they show up for government-mandated immigration hearings.
And while it’s certainly worse now, it was not exactly easy in 2008 either, when this man and I were together. George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s deportation machines were in full effect, and so my life and his existed under a web of surveillance I hadn’t previously understood.
Moments like: We spent his birthday bicycling through Central Park, up to Spanish Harlem to see another immigrant friend who was recovering from HIV-related illnesses with the help of sponsored programs offered only in New York City. As we passed the Martin Luther King projects during a block party, we biked on the sidewalk to get past the crowds and were immediately stopped by police for doing so. I personally thought nothing of it and within moments we were allowed to continue our ride. We did that, but at the next traffic light, he was furious with me. We could have been ticketed for a court appearance, sent before a judge, and had our details thoroughly examined. Or the cops could have asked for ID, and his residency situation would have been made plainly clear.
The end result — for him — was always the threat of deportation. Deportation would upend not only his life, but an entire network of people connected to him, who relied on him, both in the United States and abroad. There were nephews and nieces who needed clothes and laptops for school. His aging mother and father who still lived in his home country. The constant worry he had for their safety in a place where the security situation was growing more volatile. So long as he stayed under the radar, he was safe.
His mother came to visit around the holidays, able to secure a tourist visa for the journey. She stayed with his sister in one of the boroughs and spent the night cooking rice and beans and fish and meat and didn’t understand how I could be a vegetarian — how anyone could be, really. My dinner of beans and rice and lettuce yielded a confused smile on her part more than once. We couldn’t communicate directly, as I did not speak her language and she spoke no English.
After dinner, he and his sister cleaned the kitchen and we sat in the living room watching some ridiculous reality show. One of the characters was going on and on about her breasts or ass or something, and the camera kept panning in on and out off of these various body parts. Once more, she looked at me, at first with something like shock on her face, but then a knowing side smirk. We both laughed and rolled our eyes.
As I left that night, we handed her a gift we had mutually bought her. I think she may have cried and as she hugged me goodbye she murmured some things to me I’ve never understood.
Was it something like, “Keep my son safe? Protect him? Run away from him? Send him back to me in one piece?”
Once, that same year, we walked from the West Side of Manhattan to the Guggenheim, which was exhibiting a Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective. Inopportune: Stage One hung overhead, a series of white cars with neon lights sprouting from them in some dazzled approximation of a car bomb. We climbed the spiraling walkway. Tucked into the sides were various images wrought in gunpowder and smoke. Like most days, there was little to talk about between the two of us, save for the weather or vacant inquiries like: “Isn’t that cool?”
Near the top of the spiraling ramp I paused in front of the artist’s black fireworks videos, thinking that they looked like nothing more than clouds of smoke — what I’d wanted was for the black to have the lethal, hot sparkle that other colors get when they’re lit off at night. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his phone in his large hand, his wide face turned down. I walked on. He caught up.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Of course you do.”
The few words that passed between us dissolved into the shuffle all around. At first I had that self-centered feeling that arises when being publicly humiliated — even though it was irrational, it felt like every eye was on me, watching me being left alone by my boyfriend. But as my reddened face dulled, I realized I actually felt a relief so profound that its onset was violent. It was like how sometimes you fall into bed at night, so exhausted from the day, that in the process of relaxing your bones and ligaments and muscles, there’s a fleeting deep ache as they grow accustomed to this newfound state of disuse. Without him there I could enjoy the space in which I was standing — the constant stress abated.
In the next room, a stream of taxidermied wolves ran smack into a wall, an obstacle so obvious as to be invisible.
There were quieter, saner moments, though — ones that let in a bit of light and air. The first time he ever came to my place he brought a bottle of wine, had his hair combed back and was wearing a smart leather jacket. He smiled and so did I.
He came to my cousin’s wedding and danced wildly with my family as everyone got drunk on wine and joy.
He once showed me his Buddhist altar that he kept hidden in his closet — a practice he had recently let lapse.
But always, there was the constant intrusion of lives lived on the edge. His sister was a frequent source of upheaval and one night she went missing. By then, I’d learned that this was a good thing, as it meant that she was safe from her abusive boyfriend. That night, we had settled into bed in his small studio where I was living with him until I found my own place.
My ridiculous mind saw better, easier ways forward — ones that fit within the traditional American way.
First I heard a sound like a crystalline chandelier being blown in a soft breeze — a dream sound reminiscent of doors open, warm breezes, curtains billowing. Then I heard him whisper, “There’s someone out there,” beyond the door to the apartment’s hallway, right next to the bed. I froze flat, eyes toward the ceiling, the dark room coming into focus around me. Suddenly a barrage of sounds came hard against the door: wood on wood, metal on metal, the crack of the door jamb. He screamed, “Tommy. Tommy stop,” over and over again, knowing it was his sister’s boyfriend looking for her there in that apartment, her frequent place of refuge.
“I’m calling the cops you motherfucker,” I screamed, over and over again, knowing that when we were together, this was never an option for us or his sister of anyone involved no matter how desperate things became.
I swore I was leaving and began packing my bags — I kept thinking, I don’t deserve this, even though the violence and drama were rarely directed at me. However, I realized that on that night I didn’t have anywhere to go. And so our life together continued. A month later, we celebrated the Fourth of July at a house guarded by pitbulls and safes full of shotguns — the friends of his and his sister’s. I spent part of the evening lighting off bottle rockets into a gloomy, heavy gray sky. We were all so busy being Americans that day. You could smell the grills in backyards all around. It was almost nice.
When I went back inside, the women had been cooking. They were all exotic dancers and looked the type, but the scene couldn’t have been more domestic. The table was set with salads, plates of pasta, fish, large bottles of soda and beer. Silverware clinked against dishes and a din of English and their native language crisscrossed the table between the men and women and children. I think I dozed off on the couch afterward, everyone in front of a TV show in a language I couldn’t understand.
My workshops in graduate school eventually read versions of this whole story. They inevitably asked the question: “Why?” You were so miserable, your time together so fraught, that a person like you could easily have cut and run. “Person like you” was, of course, code for: a U.S. citizen with a stable job, soon-to-be admitted into an Ivy League school, with a network of friends, family living nearby, and seemingly endless opportunities. This line of thinking wasn’t unfamiliar to me — as he and I laid in bed on many nights, I wondered the very same.
But this was a time of mistakes. Not the mistake of becoming involved with a person whose life was as complicated as his. I was the mistake, my footing was the mistake, my whole way of being a total mistake.
In my mid-20s — now over a decade gone — I still had particularly toxic ideals: That there is some normal, American dream one aspires to and thus obtains. A house, a 9 to 5 in the right line of work, benefits, a partner, a dog, nice vacations, kids — all of that. My choices, though, betrayed this: I shoveled cocaine into my face to chase pints of frozen margaritas; I hung out in the basements of sleazy bars; I started racking up credit card debt to chase dream lives in other countries and other states. Only once did I apply to any sort of traditional job, and — when rejected — felt so stung I did not try again for a decade. I had a massive grudge toward the world, as though it was the world’s fault that I couldn’t pull myself together. And this was further complicated by the notion I still held onto that there was, somehow, a correct way of living, which is to say: the American way.
And so, when he came into my life, there was no possible way to accept him as he was: someone who refused to leave the United States because, for him, being here and surviving by any means — despite the hardships — was worth it. It meant he could help the people he loved and change himself. It was an imperfect process, but it was his process. My ridiculous mind saw better, easier ways forward — ones that fit within the traditional American way. Enroll in school to get a visa; learn English so you can communicate better; change your friends; tell your family to take care of themselves. I was advocating for nothing less than that typically American combination of individualism and assimilation. If I could fit this man, with all of his complexities and needs, within the narrow form I thought a man must occupy, it would right everything and make us work.
This is not love. In fact, it’s violence — and arrogance and a sense of superiority and a lack of education and understanding. There aren’t enough apologies I can mutter to him or anyone, really, because this stance of mine toward the world is a stance that’s being played out now, everywhere it seems. The difference is that my inability to exercise compassion or understanding was localized. As this struggle happens on the global scene, it has far more dangerous implications for those involved. Difference is not a thing to wrench into uniformity. It must be allowed to remain for the ways in which it enriches and complicates, expanding one’s mind and perceptions of the world. That is true, even in the most personal and private corners of our lives.