Some time ago, I received a personal e-mail message from everybody’s favorite windsurfer and Man of Principle, Senator John Kerry. He requested that I sign a petition in support of a filibuster on Samuel Alito. Despite the overwhelming odds, it was clear from Senator Kerry’s impassioned missive that the only person that could effectively block the Republican agenda and assure reproductive freedom and civil rights for generations to come was Rachel Shukert, citizen, Democrat, leader.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive a letter from MoveOn or the DNC, proclaiming my unsurpassed importance to the political arena. And it’s not just the progressives who need me. Thanks to an ill-placed check mark on a magazine order form, I once held a two-year subscription to Field & Stream, informing the N.R.A. of my value to their cause. I once attempted to contact the Rev. Jerry Falwell, namesake of my deceased hamster. He never got back to me, but for years I received newsletters addressed to Rachel Shukert, anti-secularist crusader.
If my mail is any indication, on a scale of one through ten, I’d rate my political influence level at about a seven: lower than Karl Rove, but miles above Harry Reid. Giddy with the thought of my own effectiveness, I signed Senator Kerry’s petition immediately. Then I thought, Shit. What if someone reads this?
Once upon a time I felt okay about expressing my opinions on the internet. But that was before federal wiretapping. And before the government got involved in my love life.
Readers! I implore you, before you get taken in completely by that fetching accent, those lovely manners, her delightful ignorance of American television, his charming use of the words bellissima or “rubbish,” have a good hard think. Those of you who plan to marry a gay Venezuelan because “we’re such good friends and then he can stay in the country, and besides, he’s going to pay me like three thousand dollars,” think especially hard. Because you have to really, really love somebody to go through the flaming hurdles our government sets up for its international couples. The good part is that if you come out the other end, you’re pretty sure it’s the real thing. The bad part is everything in between.
In the summer of 2004, I moved to Amsterdam to do a play. By virtue of being an imported, paid actor, I was catapulted into a social echelon I’m only marginally aware of in New York — that of young, highly paid creative professionals. One night, I met a hotshot advertising guy, went home with him and didn’t leave until my visa expired. Ben was intelligent, ambitious and funny. He was single. He was non-violent. He shared my penchant for Hollywood biblical epics. Born in the U.K. but raised in South Africa, he was hopelessly knowledgeable about the world in the way a Nebraska-born acting major like me could only dream of, and his plummy accent made me swoon. When I began to imagine him tenderly administering a “plaster” to the skinned knee of our pouting, proper offspring before the Rolls whisked him off to be knighted, I decided it was the real thing.
Also, he was Jewish. My parents — and his — were shocked and thrilled.
My first inkling that not everyone might be so enamored of my relationship was at the maximum-security gate of Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.
“You were visiting Holland to see your boyfriend?” the customs guard asked, unimpressed by my woeful face, still puffy from our tearful goodbyes.
“He is Dutch?”
“No,” I answered dreamily. “South African.”
His face lit up. “So he is here illegally!”
“No! He works here — he’s . . .”
“Tell me, this boyfriend, was he ever alone with your bags?”
“Umm . . . well, I stayed at his apartment, so . . .”
“Look,” he glowered at me. “It’s not my problem if he put something in your bag. I’m not going up there. The other 250 people on this plane — they’re the ones who are going to have the problem.”
My imagination is particularly sensitive to the power of suggestion. After all, it was still early in our relationship. How well did I really know this Ben — if that was his real name? I’ve watched enough episodes of 24 to know when a foreign stranger puts the moves on you too quickly, they’re probably about to blow something up. Something big.
I spent the first forty-five minutes of the flight mourning for my tragically short life and cursing myself for being taken in by so obvious a terrorist, and after I had eaten some peanuts and my blood sugar returned to normal, passed the remaining seven hours berating myself for being such a paranoid idiot. When the plane landed and my voicemail contained three messages from Ben saying how much he loved me and missed me already, I vowed never to let a government official fuck with my head again.
The long-distance romance is fraught with many dangers: faulty telephone cards, crippling loneliness, references to suspiciously ubiquitous new “friends,” a host of misunderstandings and conflicts both petty and severe that can never be resolved the normal way, with sex. About a year after we met, Ben and I agreed that if we were going to keep this up, we’d better spend some time together. Thanks to the magic of the tourist visa, we were engaged a few short months later.Ben and I were ecstatic. Not only were we going to be married, but all our immigration problems would be solved. My knowledge of immigration law was limited to an episode of a long-ago cancelled sitcom in which a German housekeeper, played by Cloris Leachman, faced deportation until she discovered that her dead husband was actually an American citizen, thus posthumously able to keep her in the country. “Thank you, Heinrich,” she said, gazing tearfully at the ceiling. “Thank you.”
“I think you’d better see a lawyer,” said my mother, before even lifting a fork to her celebratory quiche.
The legal difficulties in marrying a non-U.S. citizen are manifold. If we married quickly at City Hall, our relationship would come under harsh scrutiny. When Ben had been allowed through Passport Control at JFK, he had made a tacit but binding agreement that he would make no effort to remain in the United States beyond the terms of his ninety-day tourist visa. While people at USO canteens and in the featured box of New York Times “Vows” section might fall passionately in love and marry in the space of weeks or even hours, visitors to the U.S. doing the same thing could be deported for fraud. Should Ben and I marry overseas, I could return to the States anytime I pleased, but Ben would be unable to join me until his application for permanent residency was approved, a process that could take up to two years. Ironically, the endeavor of marriage, designed for two people who want to be together for the rest of their lives, for us would lead to an unspecified and unthinkable amount of time apart. Again.
The paperwork and waiting periods weren’t the only problem. To sponsor a foreign national for residency in the U.S., the petitioner must command a yearly income 125% above the poverty line in her state. I do not, and therefore am not a fully functioning member of society, so the details of my parent’s finances must be opened up to the INS. The legal fees would run into the thousands of dollars. (People do apply without a lawyer, but the government is sort of like my seventh grade history teacher, and would give a zero on the entire assignment if you used the wrong color pen — any tiny mistake and one is forced to start the whole process over again.)
We eventually chose to apply for the K1 Fiancé(e) visa, a temporary, provisional permit that would allow Ben to enter the country for ninety days with the intention of marrying a U.S. citizen. After our civil ceremony, we could file for change of status, permanent residency and advanced parole.
He would be unable to leave the country under any circumstances until the latter had been approved, for a period of up to two years. If the slightest discrepancy were found in any of these documents, or if the government decided that the cache of telephone bills, travel itineraries and personal communication (I often imagined Alberto Gonzalez creepily chuckling over some of our pet names for each other) did not constitute a valid relationship, our application could be denied, and Ben would be forced to leave. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
Oh, and in keeping with the administration’s tendency to punish the poor, these documents — which in a pre 9/11 world carried a filing fee of about $15 — are now anywhere from $170-$300 a pop.
As of this writing, my fiancé is in South Africa, where he’s been for the past two-and-a-half months, awaiting his final interview at the U.S. consulate in Johannesburg. The separation and anxiety is getting to both of us, but I know we’re the lucky ones. We’ve managed to afford the exorbitant costs. We’re heterosexual. We have no undesirable affiliations — although who knows what that means anymore. We are not nationals of “rogue” countries, have no communicable diseases (but, having had sex with someone from sub-Saharan Africa, I’m no longer eligible to be an emergency blood donor.) I’m fully aware that American security in some ways depends on strict monitoring of who’s permitted to enter the country, and up to this point things have gone as smoothly as we could possibly hope.
But still, I’m resentful. How could I not be? I’m planning a wedding, and the entire wedding industry is based around the myth that the bride is a rare and unique creature, that her wedding is an event the like of which has never been seen before. Her every whim must be catered to; her desire is law. “Anything you want,” say the wedding vendors, when I ask if the train of a dress comes in chapel length, or if out-of-season hydrangeas could be flown in from Holland. “You’re the bride,” they say. “This is your special day. We can do anything.”
Except get the man I want to marry into the country faster. When it comes to the groom, no matter what the florists or lobbyists say, I’m just one anxious bride out of thousands, and I have no power at all.
This essay originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.