The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took to Keep My Best Friend in America, and What It Taught Us About Love304
The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took to Keep My Best Friend in America, and What It Taught Us About Love304
The Marriage Act is a timely and topical look at the changing face of marriage in America and speaks to the emergent generation forming bonds outside of traditionand sometimes even outside the law.
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No matter what, you could count on a glorious day in Los Angeles. The perpetual lull of cars passing on the boulevard outside the bedroom window, soothing as the sound of the ocean: constant, steady, and rhythmic. That December, the weather seemed the one constant in a time when recounts and pregnant chads dominated headlines and KCRW, the local NPR station I listened to obsessively. The Supreme Court was about to declare George W. Bush the country's forty-third president and we still had no idea what we were in for. And by "we" I mean the world, the country, and the microscopic piece of it all that was Emir and me. I had just turned twenty-one. All of it still lay ahead of us.
* * *
One late afternoon at Emir's poolside apartment in West Hollywood, during the period after college when we were both underemployed, he handed me a steaming cup of sweet, milky tea and I told him about the embarrassing ritual I'd developed. It entailed sitting for hours on my bedroom floor rereading Julian's old love letters, letters I imagined him scrawling when he was bored in morning meetings at Big Wall Street Investment Bank and on the countless cross-country flights he took to see me. I combed through these letters again and again, trying to figure out what I had missed.
I'd dreamed of marrying Julian since I was sixteen. We met in high school in Mexico City. Five years later, we got engaged while in a long-distance, bicoastal relationship. Two weeks before I was supposed to leave Los Angeles to live with Julian in New York, our relationship imploded. Julian was reduced to a little pile of letters.
"Do you want me to keep them in my filing cabinet for you?" Emir offered.
"I'd just come over here even more and keep reading them."
"Then there's only one solution."
Emir led the letters and me downstairs to the building's subterranean carport. We crouched over a drain in the concrete, a pose of genuflection. He held the first one out over the drain while I lit the match. The flare illuminated his dark eyes, flickering shadows across our faces. Julian — paper Julian — blew away in the breeze of a warm Santa Ana.
"You don't have to be stuck in the past," Emir said. "There's so much more out there for you."
Once upon a time there were three important men in my life. Julian and my father were gone. And there was Emir, right where he always was, right in front of me, in plain sight.
* * *
I first laid eyes on Emir al-Habibi when he walked into the advanced film production classroom in black-and-white Adidas workout pants and gym shoes. He had cute, curly dark hair, full pillow lips, and a broad white smile that took over his face. He could have passed for any average American college kid, though his face, with tan skin and dark, dramatic features, would have been perfectly cast in a Benetton ad. He was Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. I was struck by how familiar he looked until I realized he resembled ... me. He could have been my long-lost fraternal twin. When we had to form groups for short film projects during class, we both stood and drifted toward each other as if we already knew we were somehow linked, or meant to be. At Emerson College in Boston, Emir was an international student and I felt like one. This was the subject of one of our earliest conversations:
"During orientation, someone asked me if back home I rode around on a camel," Emir said. "And I told him, 'Someone's seen Aladdin too many times.'"
I laughed. "I've been asked if in Mexico City I rode to school on a burro."
"Someone's seen The Three Caballeros too many times."
I was immediately drawn to this kindred spirit. We each spoke three languages and were living in the United States for the first time. (Emir more so than me. I was born in Seattle but left when I was five.) We loved travel, film, shopping, and dancing. It was a typical personal-ad list of leisure activities, but when we were together, even the mundane took on an air of adventure. We were idealists, optimists, and as Emir phrased it, "love-fools." We both wanted to be screenwriters. Emir was already on his way: his romantic drama about a middle-aged divorcée who inherits a hotel in Egypt from an eccentric aunt became a finalist in a national screenplay competition, while I stuffed my earliest effort, a pretentious piece about a painter, a Greek professor, and Jean-Paul Sartre, into the recesses of a very dark desk drawer.
Emir and I made our first film together that first semester. I'd adapted a William S. Burroughs short story called "The Junky's Christmas." The protagonist, the forlorn junky, gives the shot of heroin that took all day to score to a kid moaning in pain in the next room at the motel where he goes to shoot up. The Kid, who has a kidney stone, is soothed by the opiate and can finally rest. After giving up the drug he worked so hard to get, the Junky returns to his room dismayed, only to suddenly find himself inexplicably, completely high. It's the immaculate fix, the elevation that comes from doing a good deed with nothing expected in return. Emir and I had no idea how strongly that metaphor would return, how much more it would come to mean.
Everything went seamlessly during production on The Junky's Christmas. The script was tight, the story funny, and our actors hit every beat. We were so proud the day it was in the can, we called it "our baby." But when we went to pick up the print from the film-processing lab, we were horrified to find our baby was stillborn: an undetectable light leak in the camera had overexposed the film. There was no way we could have known, the technician told us — as if knowing it wasn't our fault might lessen the blow. We had been so confident we never anticipated it could end in disaster. After finding out, we sat side by side on my futon not saying a word. It was the first time we cried over something that should have been beautiful gone terribly wrong.
* * *
Marriage hunger wasn't new to me. After four years back in the United States, I still couldn't shake the feeling of being overseas. It was the opposite of Dorothy's saying, "There's no place like home" — no place was. The only constant was change. I was barely twenty-one, but completely convinced I needed to settle down and start creating the nuclear family I never had. In opposition to peers who sought adventure, independence, and freedom, I wanted to live in one place, put down roots, and experience predictability.
My parents divorced when I was six, during my mother's first tour with the U.S. State Department in Guadalajara, Mexico. My mother and I, her only child, moved around every few years to different countries for her government job. I was naturally independent but also lonely.
I lived alone in the summer of 1996, at sixteen: the summer Julian and I became inseparable. My mother had moved a few blocks away from our house in Lomas de Chapultepec, and in with her boyfriend, Harvey. She had gotten me a job in the visa section of the U.S. Embassy downtown, and picked me up for work in the morning. Evenings, she dropped me back off at our house before continuing on to Harvey's. A high school girlfriend came back to Mexico to visit from Russia, where her family had moved, and stayed with me for a few weeks. One afternoon she announced she was going to the flea market with another friend of hers, Julian. We had our first date a few days later, to Plaza Coyoacán in the south of the city, where we sipped tequila and sangrita at a bar called El Hijo del Cuervo and stayed up all night talking. I had no idea what we were, or what we would become, but even then my feelings for Julian were mysterious, different from the teenage crushes I'd had before. As I hugged him good-bye that night, I inhaled the scent of his leather jacket, rested my head on his chest, and thought: I am going to marry him. I went upstairs and giggled at the absurdity of the idea that, in high school, one could find the person they would spend the rest of their life with.
Julian was over six feet tall — a bear of a man, like my father, from when I could remember him — with large, intense green eyes. Though girls adored him, he was shy and said he hardly dated in high school. He spent most of his time with his rowdy, unconventional group of friends: flannel-wearing, pierced, Harvard- and MIT-bound innovator-kids. His mother was a Swiss divorcée who had been married to a Mexican — Julian's father, a brilliant engineer who was also unstable. During high school, Julian lived with his mother in Polanco, a popular shopping neighborhood; its main drag, Avenida Presidente Masaryk, was Mexico City's equivalent of Rodeo Drive. While most of our classmates had lavish homes, their apartment was small.
Our connection felt fated. As would later happen with Emir, Julian and I had uncanny commonalities. I had been rootless since my mother joined the Foreign Service when I was five and we became members of a class the writer Pico Iyer dubs the "privileged homeless." Julian grew up this way, too, moving between Mexico, Switzerland, and New York City. He also carried passports from two countries, spoke three languages, and was the only child of a domineering single mother who moved a lot. Our fathers spent more time with the bottle than with us, though Julian's father was an ambitious career man and notorious womanizer, while mine was a quiet waiter who rarely dated, saying my mother and I were his family.
But there was another side to Julian, a part of him I could neither access nor understand. This was the part that was not kind, the part with the terrible insomnia, the part that complained of nightmares and disappeared for days on end. During his disappearances, I lay on my bedroom carpet, paralyzed until he called or showed up at the gate. Like my father, he never explained the absence, and at sixteen I was afraid that bringing it up would mean losing him for good. Every time, I welcomed him back, no questions asked. Over the course of our first summer this became a pattern. I wouldn't hear from him for days before he resurfaced. When he did, I acted as if nothing had happened and everything was fine. I didn't have a gauge or model for a healthy relationship. What was clear was that Julian had a tendency to disappear, much like the other man (not) in my life.
* * *
Julian and I stayed in touch on and off after he moved to the States on a full scholarship to an Ivy League university. We dated other people until we reunited when Emir and I were juniors at Emerson, in 1999. Julian was working as an investment banker in New York; we traded weekends between our two cities, joking that we single-handedly funded Amtrak and the Greyhound bus.
I was already signed up to spend my last semester, September to December of 2000, in Los Angeles, at Emerson's West Coast campus. So was Emir, who had secured an internship with a powerful producer at a big movie studio. We would take our final courses in advanced screenwriting and independent production from the Hollywood insiders teaching Emerson's West Coast classes. Emir and I had both accumulated enough credits (taken over summers we preferred spending in Boston to going "home") to graduate in December, a semester ahead of schedule. Emir hoped to parlay his internship into an entry-level studio job as a development assistant or glorified secretary. After I graduated, Julian and I agreed, I would move to New York and we would be together for the rest of our lives. He flew out to visit me in L.A. every other weekend; with his Wall Street job, he could afford to. In L.A., I interned at a small production company and gave Emir driving lessons.
"I'm really afraid to get on the highway," he said. "Will you be in the car when I get on the highway?"
"They call it the freeway here. And sure — I'll help with whatever you need."
* * *
In October, Julian proposed. Or rather, he slid a diamond ring on my finger in the dark while I was half-asleep, but no matter — I was engaged to the man I had fantasized about marrying since I was a teenager. For a diplomat's kid who had never lived in the same country for longer than four years, it seemed nothing short of a miracle. As soon as Julian left for the airport on Sunday, I ran to Emir's building, the next one over from mine in the corporate complex (the M to my L), and showed him the ring. "You're getting married!" he said as we danced around his studio, which was an exact replica of mine.
While friends were deciding what city to live in with roommates, barhopping, hooking up, and interviewing for first jobs, I was moving to New York City to assume my next identity: young Wall Street wife. The notion of stability thrilled me. I knew exactly how my life was going to go. Julian and I would live in a comfortable apartment in Manhattan, and I would accompany him on business trips to London and Paris, where I would write screenplays in hotel rooms while he went to meetings. We would eat in the best restaurants and sip delicious cocktails. My visions stopped short of purse dogs and Hermès bags because Julian and I were more down-to-earth, the way my mother raised me: don't be showy. Chase experiences, as material things are of little value. My mother adored Julian. He fit exactly her idea of the man her daughter should end up with: successful, ambitious, international, hyper-educated. Someone unlike the man she had chosen for herself, a man no longer in either of our lives.
I reveled in the notion that now, for as long as we both would live, Julian and I could look at each other and say, "Remember when ..." — a phrase I could not share with anyone else but my mother. My words turned into fodder for her worries: Would I be able to make a living? Did I know how to be a proper judge of character and balance my checkbook? Was I too trusting and naïve? Would I succeed or disappoint? Did I drink too much? Was I going to the dentist? She fostered concerns the way I kept journals: obsessively. When I was younger, I wrote to release frustration and anger I couldn't voice. I was the only child and the ultimate project. I wouldn't tell my mother I had a tattoo (Julian, a closeted artist, had designed a depiction of our linked initials that we had inked in hidden places), much less that I was fired from a job. Even a hint of my mother's disappointment made my stomach clench. I complained about this to Emir. "You have a Jewish mummy," he said. "My father's the same way with me even though he's a man and Muslim."
"We aren't as different as we like to think," Emir said.
* * *
Emir had to hide his real identity ever since realizing what it meant: that loving someone of the same gender was unnatural, against God's will, and deserving of punishment. In West Hollywood, he walked down the street holding hands with his then-boyfriend, Adrian. Where Emir was from, if it became suspected he had a sexual relationship with another man, he would be killed.
Emir grew up gay in a Muslim country. Specifically which, to protect his identity, I promised him I wouldn't say, and so I'll refer to this place as Emiristan, the gay-intolerant land he waited all his young life to flee. He hid who he really was from his father, an image-obsessed businessman. His mother guessed the truth. She had her suspicions and confronted him the week before he moved to Boston. Emir didn't confirm or deny it. He just stood there in the kitchen as his mother cried and asked him to please never tell his father, who would surely divorce her. Divorce HER? As if it was her fault? "It's the mentality," Emir said. "My sisters don't know either. When I was in high school, I saw on the news about gays being murdered and left by the side of the highway. I knew that if I stayed I would always be one of those married fathers who still go looking for boys online and in street corners and by tapping their feet under airport bathroom stalls, fooling myself and not living my life."
I behaved with my mother as Emir did with his father. We hid who we really were in favor of more "acceptable" personas, but Emir's dilemma had higher stakes: people in Emiristan suspected to be gay have been beaten with metal pipes, had their genitals cut off, and been stabbed and left to die in ditches. This happened to Amir, one of two other young gay men Emir knew in high school, while we were in college. I told him to stay away from Dunkin' Donuts, Emir said in the aftermath; the same innocuous franchised coffee shop in the basement of our Boston dorm was one of the few gay cruising spots in Emiristan's capital. But who was I to talk, I used to hang out there too. It could have been me. Emir swore he would never go home again but it was an impossible promise to keep. His family lived there. He had to see them. My situation wasn't life-or-death like Emir's, but I understood what it felt like to pretend to be someone you're not for somebody else.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Marriage Act"
Copyright © 2014 Liza Monroy.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Seeking Asylum,
2. All in the Family,
3. Two Brides a-Blushing, No Golden Rings ...,
4. Visa Las Vegas,
5. Hound Dogs and Blue Suede Shoes,
6. Origin Story,
Part II: Keeping You With Me,
7. If You Lived Here You'd Be Real by Now,
8. Domestic Blips,
9. We're Like the Same Person,
10. The Great Escape,
11. The Science of Arrangement,
12. Caged Birds,
Part III: Show Business,
13. The Real Big Day,
14. Deus Ex,
15. Final Interview,
16. Happy Divorce, Honey ...,
Part IV: 'Til Death or the Department of Homeland Security Do You Part,