It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Liza Monroy talks about her happy family:
Keeping Him With Me: New Moments from an Unconventional First Marriage
Marrying Razi wasn't a silly prank that went too far. It was love, and it didn't matter that it was nonsexual. It was real. We needed each other. We had become family. We always would be.
I met my first husband, Razi, in college. He was raised in a Muslim family in the Middle East. He is also gay, and when he faced deportation when his student visa expired shortly after September 11th, 2001, I could not stand the idea of him back in the closet, living a double life in an arranged marriage. The irony was that by marrying each other--an arranged marriage of a different sort--did lead to a double life, but one we led together, by choice. We would let an immigration officer think that Razi was straight in order to guarantee the outcome we both wanted.
Before we heard anything final from the INS, Razi won the Diversity Visa lottery--he got his green card through a random drawing. He entered every year but we never imagined anything would come of it; the odds are about the same as winning a regular lottery. We could have divorced, but we didn't. We stayed married for another year before I began to feel restless. It was the longest I'd been in any relationship. Six years later, we're still close.
Last Thursday, even though we both still live in New York City, Razi and I Skyped--my first time.
"Hi, sweetie!" he said. The light adjusted and Razi came into focus.
"Hey you're in my computer!" I shouted. He waved and laughed on the other end, his curly dark hair in its morning state, fuzzy and gel-free. "It's the future!"
He was in Chelsea and I, in Brooklyn. I held my pug up to the camera. "Look, Bean! It's your Uncle Razi."
Razi laughed at my amazement. He Skypes all the time.
We agree this future is better already, at least compared to how the country was run during the years of our marriage, the Bush years, a paranoid time. Prop 8 was a disappointment, but same-sex marriage passed in four states and Obama has repealed the law banning HIV-positive travelers and immigrants from entering the U.S. Could the Defense of Marriage Act be the next to go?
For Razi's sake, I hope so. He has a life-partner now, a South African architect. My own counterpart and I travel, double-date, and co-host birthday parties with them. But when Architect lost his job during the recession, his work visa went the same way. Razi has U.S. citizenship, but since the federal government doesn't recognize gay marriage, even if a gay couple is legally married in a state that allows it, a U.S. citizen partner still cannot immigrate a foreign one, because DOMA is federal law. I could marry Razi and keep him with me because I am a woman, but Razi, who has (almost) all the same rights as I do as a citizen cannot keep Architect with him because they are both men.
Last summer, Razi and I visited a mutual friend, Kemal, in Montreal. Razi and Kemal went to high school together before moving to the States, where we all attended the same college. As the three of us walked through Le Village, I asked Kemal if he was happy in Montreal.
"It was easy for me to get my work permit and set up my business here," he said. (Kemal is an entrepreneur.) "I have health insurance, and I can get married."
Because Razi and I know each other so well, I could tell what he was thinking as he listened to this conversation. The company he worked for in New York had also recently disintegrated in the economic crisis, and maintaining health insurance was a big concern. Had Razi gotten what he wanted--U.S. citizenship--only to end up Skyping me from Canada?
Even my mother, whose U.S. Government job includes preventing immigration fraud, pointed out that Immigration tells couples get married to keep a foreign partner in the States; Elizabeth Gilbert's new memoir Committed is a recent prime example. My mother was one person Razi and I agreed we should keep our marriage secret from. She worked for the Government, preventing immigration fraud. She won awards for it. It was the very thing she would argue Razi and I had done. I would have broken her heart, but I couldn't let Razi go.
As in all attempts to keep secrets from my mother, it didn't work, and it took a toll on our relationship. Six years after my divorce from Razi, my mother and I are just now able to talk about it.
Last month, when I traveled to Morocco with her, I asked her about her reaction in an attempt to probe deeper into her knowledge of immigration policy. I presumed her belief that had Razi and I been investigated further, I would have been dubbed an "alien smuggler" and been imprisoned. As we sat on the second floor of an outdoor café drinking mint tea, she answered my questions for the first time.
"You didn't defraud the United States Government," she told me. "I've seen worse. But you went to Las Vegas to be married by an Elvis impersonator--how could you make fun of marriage that way?"
"Making fun?" I was shocked. "We weren't making fun. Some of the people I met in the marriage-license line in Vegas were fulfilling a life-long dream."
I told her there was nothing Razi and I had taken lightly about being married. "If we had gone to City Hall would you have seen it differently?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "Elvis doesn't sound very serious to me."
After all that--she hated the wedding? I wondered if my mother had lived out of the States for so long she did not understand Elvis' permanent icon status. Yes, Las Vegas was the obvious choice to get married fast, but Razi loved the King. He knew American pop culture better than I did.
When Razi and I went to the INS, our packet of proof was impeccable--ready for battle!--photo albums with pictures dating back to when we were nineteen, joint bank accounts, mailing address, both names on the phone bill. We were prepared to jump through any hoops to defend our marriage. The interviewer leaned back in his chair. He looked from Emir to me and back to Emir. He flipped through our photo albums, shuffled papers, and scrutinized forms. We will never know the outcome--probably for the best. Then the green card lottery came through, leaving our marriage nudged.
What I am certain of is that Razi will always be family. We've been divorced for six years and gone through so much in-between, but we're finally getting around to the honeymoon; we're going to Memphis, to see Graceland.
Liza Monroy is the author of the novel Mexican High.