A Different Kind of Love
As the plane bumped through the clouds hovering over the mountains before its descent to Banderas Bay, I reminisced about our wedding day. While our guests chattered in his living room, Alejandro had pulled me outside to the patio, drew a plastic bag out of his pocket and extracted a ring. “Now you have my heart,” he said as I pulled the silver hands apart to reveal a tiny heart. I would soon find out that the friendship ring caught on my clothes and it would be abandoned in a jewelry box. But at that moment, I knew that if agreeing to marry Alejandro meant that I would have his heart, nothing was going to stop me. Out of all the years to come of our tempestuous relationship, that moment sustained me. Proof that he loved me as well as needed a green card.
Alejandro had been both a strong presence and a distraction when my world had shattered, when I didn’t know how I would survive. We also fought hard and often, fights erupting out of misunderstandings of cultural differences as much as opposite personalities. Yet, here I was on my way to Mexico, my heart on my sleeve once again.
Alejandro asked me to marry him six months after we met. He was Mexican, handsome, charming, vivacious, gay, and HIV+. He was receiving medical care at Southwestern Cares clinic and was doing well; he had no viral load. But as their government funding got cut, they told him he needed to legalize his status. His tourist visa had expired.
Our wedding took place on a warm, sunny October afternoon on the lawn of the bed and breakfast across from the courthouse. My best friend Victoria and his boyfriend Felipe served as witnesses. I had asked a friend to take photos for our immigration interview. I wore a long-sleeved lace blouse and black skirt with delicate embroidery, and underneath, blue Victoria Secret’s lingerie with pink bows, lingerie that he would never see. Alejandro wore a forest green jacket over a pale yellow shirt and brown pants, and a tie of a Gauguin painting of bare-breasted women in Tahiti. I gave him a gold dollar to put into his shoe for prosperity.
My black kitten heels sank into the shade-dappled grass as we positioned ourselves. Alejandro and I faced each other and when the judge said to hold hands, he took mine in his. I was glad to hear that the “obey” portion of the ceremony had been deleted. In the photographs taken that day, the unmistakable look of love shimmers on our faces. He slipped a ring on my finger that I had bought for six dollars, a simple silver ring with a malachite stone, and I slipped onto his finger the embossed silver ring we had chosen. But also in those photos, I am standing in the shadows while Alejandro stands in the sunlight, a fitting parable for our relationship.
When the judge said to repeat “Til death do you part,” a shiver went through me. I realized that I was taking a vow I meant to keep. We might never sleep in the same bed. But we were intertwining our lives in a way that was irreversible. Alejandro and I were married, but not living together. Yet. That day would come, not in a way I could have foreseen, not in any way I would have wanted. It came because of tragedy and grief, slipping to the edge of what I was able to bear.
The thought of our impending immigration interview made me nervous. We had to prove that we were a genuine married couple, romantically in love, in a sexual relationship. I was also signing a document that would make me responsible for him financially even if we divorced. The fines for misrepresenting our case were $10,000 or jail time. This was serious business. We had friends who had gone through the process and warned us about the difficult, intimate questions they had been asked. Counseling helped us sort through our boundaries. I was astonished to hear Alejandro tell the counselor that the minute we met, he knew we were soul mates. I did not consider us to be soul mates: he was quite different from me, sensually anchored firmly in the world, admiring and desiring expensive things, determined to make his mark more than make the world a better place. Ultimately what drew us together was the ability to get back on our feet and not give up. And a love of beauty, art and poetry. His irreverent humor gave us many hours of entertainment, our “marriage” a joker card to pull out in the midst of social competitiveness at elite Santa Fe parties. We walked into gallery openings and dinner parties with me on his arm, a handsome couple, even while he flirted with everyone, male and female, gay and straight.
As we struggled to balance the ways we were expected to be together with our actual life styles, tension turned into eruptions and we would break up. But Alejandro would always apologize, the Green Card and his medical treatment something he could not afford to give up.
What words can you use to describe that shattering moment of answering the telephone, the moment when the nightmare begins, when your life falls, smashed into thousands of tiny shards that will cut your heart to ribbons? What words can adequately convey the way your breath is knocked out of your body, the sensation that pours through: This can’t be real, this can’t be true.
I was visiting Minneapolis, staying with my oldest son, deeply asleep when I heard the house phone ringing but since this wasn’t my home, I didn’t answer. Then my cell phone rang and I bolted upright, alarmed. Who would be calling in the middle of the night?
Don’s voice said he had bad news. A flutter of thoughts ran through my mind in split seconds. When he said it was about Sam, my youngest, what went through my mind is that he had been in a car accident—a mother’s fear from the minute our kids are able to drive. But when Don told me that he was dead, my soul left my body. I felt crushed, the breath knocked out of me. Shattered, my world spun and shook, like a snow globe hitting the floor, glass and figurines and tiny pieces of fake snow never to be pieced back together.
I thought, Don is making such a stupid joke, how dare he? I collapsed onto the floor, unable to bear the weight of my own body. I didn’t weep, I didn’t scream, I didn’t shriek and wail. It just doesn’t make any sense at all, is what I was thinking. This can not be true. This is a mistake.
When Alejandro heard the news, he asked, “What can I do?” My immediate response was, “Drive up here,” knowing it was completely impractical. But later, after the memorial, I begged him to bring me home to Santa Fe. “I can’t get on that plane by myself,” I insisted. I was determined that he had to be the one to fetch me. I knew he would be tough, that he would show no mercy, that he would get me on that plane. Another friend would offer solace and sympathy, and I felt that it might push me over the edge, to the place where the tears would be endless and uncontrollable. Alejandro had lived through his mother’s death and I trusted that he would know what to do.
I called him because I didn’t want to be comforted. That would soften me and I needed to be strong. I knew Alejandro would demand that of me. To scold me that I had fifteen minutes to pack my suitcase. To walk me down the corridors of the airport and steer me to the coffee counter. To tell me to buckle my seat belt. How would it be possible to place anyone else there? I knew this was the most helpful thing he could do for me, and despite feeling ill at ease with the responsibility, he did it.
We continued our quest for a Green Card but it was becoming clear that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Every organization that helped immigrants shook their heads when I explained that he was HIV+. You have to hire a lawyer, we were told. We made an appointment with what was rumored to be the best immigration lawyer in Albuquerque. This was after paying $200 for the physical exam, and photos, fingerprints, paperwork that had to be filed, each accompanied by fees.
The immigration lawyer charged $500 to circle the wording in the immigration policy restricting immigration for those who were HIV positive. Her advice was to prove that, because of mental anguish, I would be unable to function if Alejandro had to leave the US. “You need to be on anti-depressants and under a psychiatrist’s care,” she advised us. Alejandro and I looked at each other, shocked. We were beginning to realize that this would cost thousands of dollars and may not succeed. Eventually it became apparent that he would have to go back to Mexico.
Finally things boiled to a head due to his own arrogance. He insulted a former employer and she retaliated by threatening to call immigration. His choice was to take whatever he had managed to save and flee back across the border.
Felipe had already left after an especially violent argument. Alejandro begged me to cross the border with him. I agreed to travel with him for a few days, but I needed to complete my contract with the school where I worked. And what would I do in Mexico? I didn’t have either the language or marketable job skills to earn a living in Mexico.
It took a few hours for him to close his bank account and pack essentials. He threw everything into the back of his SUV and left the rest of the process of closing up the house to be completed from across the border. Whatever he couldn’t do, he left for me to take care of.
After driving all night and all day, we arrived to Hermosillo. We were exhausted, frazzled, and hungry. It was easy to locate a seafood restaurant and we settled in, relieved to hear Spanish spoken all around us, the women arriving in elegant clothes, delicious smells wafting from the kitchen.
“What shall we do, Gretel?” Gretel was his pet name for me when I had emailed him that we were like two lost children in a wood, like the story of Hansel and Gretel. “I thought you called me Handsel because I am handsome,” he flirted back. And so he became Handsel unless we were fighting, then he reverted to Alex, or if he felt particularly distant, Alejandro.
“Since we are in Mexico, let’s go to the beach. Bahía Kino isn’t that far away.”
We needed beach gear, so we stopped at Walmart. I didn’t know whether to be amused or scandalized that my shopping excursion was at a Walmart instead of stopping at a Mercado, where I usually shopped in Mexico, enamored of the hand-embroidered blouses and sturdy cotton fabrics. Alejandro came back dressed in shorts, flip flops and new sunglasses. Despite my skepticism, I found a flowing pink skirt, a bolero sweater and sandals.
Hermosillo was hot and dusty and the sun glittered in our eyes. The paved highway turned into gravel but Alejandro zipped over it, jarring the teeth in my head. When we finally arrived, I thrust my head out the window to inhale the refreshing scent of the sea.
Bahía Kino is a small town that hugs the curve of the bay across from Baja California and the water is clear, gentle, and warm. The town of about 7000 inhabitants is laid back with little to do but laze on the sand or fish. The beach on the Mexican side was filthy with litter, empty bottles, cigarette butts, and plastic bags. We drove to the gringo side, kept clean for tourists, and stopped at a restaurant open to the breeze off the bay with a thatched palm roof. This early in the evening, the restaurant was fairly empty. We sipped micheladas, beer poured over lime juice and ice, after ordering fish tacos.
I had an impulse to put my feet in the water while we waited for dinner. I took off my sandals and walked through the warm sand to the edge of rippling wavelets. I waded out further, hiking my pink skirt up and tucking it inside the elastic. The sun was just starting to set, glossing the bay in crimson and gold.
I was flooded with a realization that the sea was the Great Mother and that she was holding me in her embrace. I opened my arms wide and offered myself to the source of all life. “To you, Madre del Mar!” I cried. I felt my soul rushing back into my body, the soul that had left me when I had heard the news of Sam’s death. I knew, then, that I would go on, that I could find the courage to live. I knew that I would eventually find healing and that Sam remained a part of me—he could not be taken away.
Nine months later, as soon as summer vacation released me from my obligations, I flew down to Mexico. During the plane ride, I fretted about whether I was making the right choice. “Show me a sign,” I prayed, because although I wanted to be with Alejandro, I didn’t trust him, didn’t trust the moods, the volatility, the way he could hurt my feelings. I was in his territory now. His country, his language, his culture. In the gay scene of Puerto Vallarta I would be an outsider. I wanted to fill my senses with color and aroma and spice, to snap me back to life. But I would be connected to the one person who demanded that I “get over it.” Yes, but no. Although that had been helpful in the immediate aftermath of Sam’s death, I had to take my time, I had years to go.
Alejandro met me at the airport with a beaded necklace and a kiss. After he hauled my suitcases up three flights of stairs to our apartment, he popped open a couple of beers and suggested that we walk to the beach.
We stopped at the vista point on a bridge over-looking the bay. I noticed how good he looked, tanned and relaxed. We watched the sun sink, trailing its golden flare across the bay’s vivid aquamarine when a gathering storm cloud began to fill the sky behind the mountain. In just a few seconds, it blew directly over us. Hard drops fell. By the time we turned around, the cloud opened in a deluge and we were instantly drenched. Clasping hands, we shrieked as we ran back through the puddles to the apartment. We slipped and skidded over the swinging bridge and once we got home, exchanged our sopping wet clothes for dry ones. I pinned up my skirt, peaches-and-cream lace camisole, white cotton shawl, peach bra and undies next to Alejandro’s beige shorts, blue boxers, and green t-shirt, making our own rainbow. He looked out at the line and chortled, “What will the neighbors think? They know I am gay!” and we doubled-over in bone-shaking laughter. “¡Que escandalo!” we chimed in accord.
We sat on the balcony, amazed at how quickly the river had overflowed its banks after one storm. Later that night, the boys would come out to fish, their pants rolled up, casting nets over the rushing waters.
This was the sign I was waiting for, I mused, as he handed me a wine spritzer. The first storm of the rainy season. I remembered how the Native American women had told us that rain was a blessing. “We have been blessed,” I toasted and we clinked glasses. I felt flooded with an irrational happiness. It seemed to be my answer as to whether or not I should be there. It seemed to be a yes.
Wendy Brown-Báez is an award-winning writer, performance poet and writing instructor. She is the author the full-length poetry collection "Ceremonies of the Spirit" and chapbook "transparencies of light." She has published both poetry and prose in numerous literary journals and anthologies, both in print and on-line. She teaches creative writing and memoir in community spaces such as libraries, schools, cafes, churches, prisons, healing centers and yoga studios. Her novel is slated for spring publication. www.wendybrownbaez.com