Despedida de Soltero
grew up amid the anthracite collieries of northeastern Pennsylvania. Early on, Chuck earned four university degrees, including an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For many years, Chuck worked as a tax attorney in San Francisco, California. Now he teaches English both in San Francisco and in Bogota, Colombia. Chuck’s stories have appeared in Esquire, Portland Review, Permafrost, Two Thirds North and Jonathan. Collections of his published work are available at Amazon.com.
My mistake was not marrying Alvaro. I realized this during the stop-over in Houston on our United Airlines flight from Bogota to San Francisco. Although I am not sure marriage would have altered the outcome entirely, marriage would have made a difference. Why else would the immigration officer have asked about it?
Because of street demonstrations in Bogota, the pilot and crew had been delayed in reaching the El Dorado airport, and our red-eye flight took off three hours late. When we landed at Bush, we looked in tatters, like mismatched piñatas after an apocalyptically brutal Christmas—me an old, fat white guy hanging out with wiry bajito Alvaro, young enough to be my son. Despite fatigue, ever buoyant Alvaro summoned a sincere smile and as much chatter as he could, to revive my spirits. The first immigration employee we encountered, a short, smiling black woman, said my partner could pass through the citizens’ line with me. But the second immigration employee, a young Asian officer, took our passports and gave us a cold homophobic sneer. My US passport he examined quickly. Alvaro’s Colombian one attracted scrutiny.
“Are you two gentlemen married?” the officer scoffed.
“No,” I said, “But we’ve been partners for six years.”
“Without marriage,” he said, “your time together doesn’t count.”
He gestured toward the long file of people still waiting to approach his station. Then he summoned another officer to take Alvaro into custody and told me to move on. I should not have yielded to the pressure of getting out of other peoples’ way. How I wish I had summoned the courage to demand time for a proper goodbye.
Perhaps marriage would not have mattered if Alvaro had committed a serious crime. But during our time together in San Francisco, all he had done was work cheerfully for minimum wage in violation of restrictions on his tourist visa, restrictions on gainful employment, and, in the case of an industrious fellow like Alvaro, restrictions on cheer for a job well done. Alvaro’s passport showed that he had spent four months in the US the previous year, so the officer figured he was an easy mark. Most able-bodied Latino migrants work to send money back to their families. Alvaro had done just that, with half his wages going to his mother, in violation of visa restrictions on filial piety. Even as things truly were, marriage might not have protected Alvaro before he obtained a work visa or green card. But why else would the immigration officer have asked if we were married?
Another mistake was traveling on United Airlines. By offering lower prices on flights from Bogota, United lured travelers into an emboscada at Houston. Prices were a hundred dollars or so higher on Avianca, which refueled in San Salvador, and on Copa, which stopped in Panama City. On those two airlines, we would have paid a little more but could have avoided screening until we reached the sanctuary of San Francisco. I still wonder how big a bounty United receives for each arrest INS makes.
Most probably, my biggest mistake was ignoring the excellent advice of certain friends and following the excellent advice of others. My physician friend, Tony, for example, had met Alvaro in San Francisco and liked him a lot. Tony is straight but was dealing with a divorce from a woman he had never quite loved, a woman I knew and admired. I admired her even more when I discovered that, during the divorce, she had not asked for anything of Tony’s. My own ex-wife had taken half of everything and more.
It was late August the summer prior to Alvaro’s seizure. Tony, Alvaro, and I were enjoying a tomato-harvest soup and sandwich lunch at Tony’s home. When Alvaro spilled juice on the front of his shirt, he excused himself from the table to use the kitchen sink to dab the stain away. Tony took the opportunity to whisper. “Alvaro’s a special person. I’m happy you’ve met someone who loves you and whom you love too.” Then Tony added, “I´m not saying it’s the first time in your life.”
“Actually, it is,” I said. “And, yes, he does, I think. And yes, I do.”
“I’d be available for best man if you needed a witness to get married.”
“At my age, I’m afraid marriage would reduce the money I could leave to my kids.”
“How nice are your kids to you?”
“Not very nice, but it’s the principle.”
“What principle is that?”
“Among others, the principle of avoiding the humiliation of Pantaloon in commedia dell’arte.”
“Then get a prenuptial agreement.”
My diplomat buddy, David, a close friend from school, and Mary, his lovely wife of 40 years, had met Alvaro in Bogota. On the last day of their vacation in Colombia, David and Mary drove Alvaro and me to the salt mine at Nemocon. After a tour of the caverns, Alvaro bought his mother a souvenir salt carving that looked a little like DaVinci’s Last Supper. On the drive back to Bogota, David and I sang our school alma mater to summon memories of youthful ardor. Alvaro had not heard the song before; I imagine Mary had. Later Alvaro said he regretted not buying a Last Supper carving for David and Mary too. “Mary, maybe,” I said, “David, no.” Like Tony, David had a positive view of Alvaro, but not of marriage or a prenup. Mary just wanted people to be happy.
“At your age,” David cautioned, “do you really need such complexity?”
“At our age, no, I don’t. But, as I grow even older, I might need love or at least different kinds of help from a reliable younger person, like Alvaro.”
“And think of the expense. Alvaro doesn´t speak English, and you would be the first to say your Spanish is scheisse.
“You would need a prenup in two languages. Do you really want that expense?”
“No, but I do want to be with Alvaro.”
“Even with an agreement in two languages, the prenup may not be enforceable.”
“I don’t know the law,” I said.
“I’m not sure either,” David said. “But with uncertainty about what will happen after you die, can you really enjoy your last years.”
“I think I can enjoy them more with Alvaro.”
“Then figure out another way.”
Avoiding the complexity, uncertainty, and expense of a second marriage was an error. How big an error I did not realize right away. To be sure, there was impotence in Houston while waiting alone with our luggage at the baggage claim carousel. Fighting the urge to sleep, I prayed with as much concentration as I could that the immigration agents would release Alvaro. They had said that an officer would come down to let me know how the interview was going.
After a long while of my sitting on our suitcases and no one’s coming down, I succumbed to the chill that Alvaro might be deported to Colombia. Finally, an agent from United came over and demanded all bags tagged with Alvaro’s name. There was only one for each of us, the checked piece included in the price of our economy tickets. The agent took Alvaro’s suitcase and walked away. As he disappeared up the stairway back to immigration, my future with Alvaro also vanished.
I had known disorientation before, most severely when my two children attempted suicide during my divorce from their mother. Both had survived slightly scratched, as had I, though much the worse for fear. How to move today through real loss, I wondered, or somehow outrun its merciless, unrelenting approach?
I walked over to the gray-haired customs officer who manned the screening machine at the exit from baggage claim. “I’m not sure what to do,” I said. “I don’t know whether my partner’s coming down from immigration.”
“How long has he been up there?”
“Two hours, maybe more,”
“Then he’s not coming down, and you better leave.”
“Are you sure?” I said, “I’m willing to wait longer.”
“Not here,” he said. “Right now, you are loitering; I have to warn you. And if you have another flight to catch and you miss it, your partner’s detention will not buy you a new ticket.”
“Okay,” I said, “I just need to use the bathroom for a minute.”
“Not the one in here,” he said. “Use one outside. But first, do you have anything to declare?”
For a few days after I got back to San Francisco, my gratitude for the years I had had with Alvaro outweighed the unease of no longer being with him. In that while, my heart even thanked the airline and immigration authorities for making me see how fortunate I had been. But gratitude slowly ebbed as needs arose that Alvaro could no longer meet for me. Gone my genial handyman, lover, and friend, and, in his place, a distaste for intimacy with someone I would probably love less, and finally the likelihood of loneliness until death.