Liza Monroy


Baby Hearts

 

The crowd in the remote waiting lot looked as if they could have been tailgating before a football game or arena concert, but it wasn’t that kind of world anymore. The afternoon I went to LAX to pick up Emir, no one was allowed to drive through the loop around the terminals, so traffic was directed over here instead, into a vast stretch of asphalt. I fidgeted with the blue-and-white Turkish worry beads Emir gave me in college. Palm trees, temperature in the seventies, three thousand miles removed: L.A. was unchanged, save for images on TV and homemade banners proclaiming “We Are All Americans Now.” 

Scattered applause rose from the crowd as the first jet came into view, circling in its landing pattern overhead. A woman in a blue denim smock dress held her hand to her forehead as if in salute, though actually she is shielding her eyes from the glare. I snapped some pictures with a yellow cardboard disposable camera. I worked for a set decorator at the time and my job was to drive around Hollywood taking pictures of furniture, so I always had a camera in my bag. The ensuing photograph of the crowd in the remote waiting lot would remind me of the day the planes returned. I still struggle to make sense of the image. 

Emir was coming back from New York. Or so I hoped. A Lebanese and Turkish citizen, Emir was in the country on an H1-B work visa. He had lost his job, and it verged on expiration. Though Emir wouldn’t normally have had to show a passport for a domestic flight, nothing was normal, and I hadn’t been able to reach him before he went through security. I didn’t know what airport authorities were checking, who was being profiled, screened, or how. News reports were suddenly filled with stories about the young, Muslim, male detainees; whether or not they had any connections to terrorism had not—and in many cases could not or would not—be proven. 

More planes soon followed, soon forming a silvery, glimmering sky parade in the bright, early-afternoon sun. Squat white buses shuttled passengers out to the lot, and the crowd swelled to greet them. Names were shouted out, arms extended toward relieved embraces.  The air was thick with sweat and cologne in the mass of people on that hot afternoon. I clutched my beads and watched for Emir. 

 

In previous days’ messages, Emir had cheerfully recounted the eating of his mammoth pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side (so big I couldn’t get my mouth around it, which should give you an idea, ha ha)—Katz’s was at the top of his list of things to see in New York as it was the setting of the famous scene from his all-time favorite romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally.  Our friend El Toro, who worked in dance management and the reason Emir was visiting the City, got free tickets to the New York City Ballet.  (El Toro had gone to college with us, but Emir knew him from their international high school in Beirut.) In another message, Emir described his feelings of vertigo and bewilderment while standing on the outer top deck of the “Empire States Building.”  I did not correct him in my response; even Emir’s grammatical mistakes charmed me.

Emir had originally been scheduled to fly back from New York on September 11th.  Not on one of the planes, but I hadn’t known then what time or what airline. In his final message, of September tenth, he had written of his plans to rise early for a visit to the World Trade Center, where he could just squeeze in breakfast at Windows on the World before heading to the airport.

The next morning, sitting on the thrift-store orange couch in the living room of my West Hollywood apartment, glued to disaster footage replaying on the news, I re-read the message over and over again on my laptop, stared at the date, the words “tomorrow morning.” Emir and his stupid, earnest tourist activities!  The worry, the waiting. He loved traveling and had to see everything there was to see and do everything there was to do wherever he went.  In New York, this included all the major landmarks: Statue of Liberty, Empire “States” Building, the Met, and of course he could not leave New York without seeing the World Trade Center. He also wrote of the smaller charms of West Village side-street restaurants, hole-in-the-wall bars, and stumbled-upon art galleries. 

For a whole day, I hadn’t known if he’d gone to Windows on the World. I feared the worst: Emir was always on schedule, always on time, always sticking to the plan.  I clutched my cell phone in my hand, not daring to put it down even for a moment, hoping for it to ring, to hear his voice, telling me he was okay. The waiting, the worry. Only late at night, when I heard his voice on the other end, telling me he had indeed overslept, did I finally cry.  I sat cross-legged in the middle of my bed, the blue comforter beneath me, me as one-palm island in a flat ocean. I twisted and twisted the worry beads. 

I don’t know yet about my flight, he said, but will you pick me up?

He could have asked for the moon then, and you would have found me tying together loose bits of rope—let me pull it down for you—fully realizing the task’s impossibility but attempting it anyway. I always got carried away. All he needed was a ride home from the airport.  Just when and I’ll be there.

And then there he was, climbing out of a white airport van in a black-and-white Adidas tracksuit, gym shoes, and aviator sunglasses. A baseball cap covered his curly dark hair. The crowd was too thick to push through; I reached my arms up and waved until he spotted me. He made his way over, pulling his rolling suitcase behind him, people pushing every which way. Circles rimmed his dark brown eyes and he looked as if he hadn’t slept for days. We hugged tighter than usual and I breathed in his familiar, comforting CK One-and-cigarettes smell. I nestled my head against his shoulder and finally felt relief.

“Thank you for getting me,” he said.  

“It’s the least I can do. Are you all right?” 

Tears did not come easily to Emir but a few strays fell from his eyes. The only time I’d seen him cry, really cry, was during college, when he heard that one of his best friends from high school friend, Amir, had been brutally murdered, stabbed to death, his body left in a ditch. Amir was last seen alive walking on the Corniche, the boardwalk by the Mediterranean Sea, at sundown. It was known to be dangerous, Emir said; he knew why Amir had gone looking for men there—it was a known cruising spot, and men liked Amir, but he hated that Amir did that, pretended his friend wasn’t going there as often as he knew he really was. After hearing about the murder, Emir told me he would never go home again. 

Back in my blue Nissan Sentra, I inched out onto palm tree-lined, strip-club and rental-car lined Airport Boulevard, out into the river of honking horns and smog.  Voices on talk radio spoke of terrorism and border security, about plans for young males from predominantly Muslim countries: interviews, fingerprinting, photographs, questionnaires.  Even those already in the country with green cards and work visas could face screenings and delays of weeks or months; breaches in procedure could result in being banned from the U.S. for five years, sometimes more.

Complaining of chapped lips, Emir reached into his backpack for his Chap Stik and pulled out a thin metal tube. I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It twinkled in the sun.

“I completely forgot I had this,” he said, sounding horrified.

“That’s a fancy Chap Stik case.”

“It’s not, it’s mace.”

“What?”

“Mace spray. I just have some in my bag, old habit from fearing gay bashers.”

Mace? Suicide bombers use it to hijack planes the day before yesterday and they let you bring it on board?”  

“They didn’t let me. They didn’t even know.”

“Why didn’t you throw it away?”

“I told you, I forgot it was there.”

The oversight was bewildering. So was our conversation, a far cry from our usual talk about dates, movies, people we knew, places we wanted to go. Emir took out a Marlboro from his pack. 

“Mind?” he asked. 

He always asked, and my answer was always the same, “Not in my car.” It had become a joke between us—I will always ask even though I know you will always say no. Just one of those meaningless repeated exchanges between friends, until then.

“Go ahead,” I said, and he rolled down the window and lit up.  Warm air and smoke whipped through the car.  

Two things frightened me: that mere days after September 11th, airport screeners hadn’t caught the spray-bottle of mace in Emir’s backpack, and the thought of what could have happened if they had—a Middle Eastern-looking person with mace in his carry-on two days after the attacks.  All other details about Emir would fade against that information.  I imagined him taken away for questioning, brought to Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center and held indefinitely with the rest of the roundups. 

“Was it okay getting back?” I asked. 

“They weren’t checking passports for a domestic flight,” he said, “but I was scared. The way people were looking at me, I could feel it, what they were thinking.”

Emir has a tan complexion and curly black hair. His eyes are the darkest shade of brown. Sometimes he had facial hair, a goatee of some sort or a five o’clock shadow, but his face was freshly clean-shaven, as if he had anticipated those questioning glances. It seemed not to have helped. 

“Strangers looked at me and saw a young Arab man,” he said. “They don’t care that Lebanese isn’t Arab and Turkish isn’t Arab, I was just this one thing.”

“People aren’t that prejudiced, honey,” I said, trying to reassure him.

“They will be now.” 

He shook his head. We were quiet for a moment. Then he told me about being trapped in the subway underneath downtown Manhattan, the first plane just having hit aboveground, the mass exodus across the Brooklyn Bridge, how he’d narrowly missed being at the World Trade Center when the first tower collapsed. He hadn’t known at first that what happened hadn’t been an accident.  No one knew. In those early moments, it was chaos, running through dust, debris.  From the Brooklyn Bridge, he said, he’d watched the towers fall.

“You couldn’t understand it from there,” he said. “Because you were in it.  You probably knew what was going on before I did.”

We made some quick calculations, time zones, hours. He was right; when I woke up that morning, he was still on the bridge making his way back across, escaping the inferno. The rare time he overslept became the time it might have saved his life. He never imagined being so grateful to Splash club in Chelsea, those go-go boys in little hand towels dancing on the bar, his fifth margarita.

Emir flicked the cigarette butt out onto the freeway and rustled around in the backpack some more, eventually landing on the Chap Stik and slicking a glossy layer onto his full lips.  He looked in the mirror affixed to the passenger-side sun visor, rubbed some Chap Stik on his fingers and smoothed down his thick, dark eyebrows as I merged onto the 405, my little blue car suddenly dwarfed by a swarm of black SUVs.

I took the La Cienega exit off the 10.  Emir mused about the desert culture of Los Angeles, the mentality of individual caravans, each to his own and loyal only to his tribe, how the feeling of New York was so much more communal.  Out here on the freeways there was loneliness, a lack of humanity.  Not only on the freeways, I said. The sense of disconnectedness was also why I loved L.A: here was everything, and yet here was emptiness—a city that mirrored how I felt at twenty-one, unmoored, uncertain, and completely unsure of how to make good use of my time.

 

We sat at our usual table on the sidewalk patio of our favorite sushi restaurant in Hollywood and ordered the same tuna rolls and green tea as always.  After everything, sushi—same lunch date as we’d planned for that day, delayed only by a few hours. 

Emir worried about his visa. A production company he had been working for since we graduated had recently gone under. Emir loved that job, assisting a producer and reading screenplays for him, helping decide what projects were worth taking on. The producer read a few of Emir’s screenplays and said they had real potential, gave him notes on what to revise for one he especially liked and wanted to option. Emir was getting his big break. Then the company started having financial problems. Emir’s boss agreed to uphold his visa sponsorship for another month, all he could afford to do, in hopes that Emir would find another job. But that was before. Under a new procedure, every visa application for men between the ages of sixteen and forty-five from Muslim nations had to be sent to Washington for an FBI and CIA security review. How could they lump everyone from an entire region and religion into one category? 

That Emir, a former film student and gay man who sought asylum in West Hollywood, could end up on a watch list was absurd to me.  That afternoon in the sushi restaurant, I told him so.

“But there are many different English spellings of Arab names,” he said. “They have a computer that lists all the variants. If there is an Amir Ahdivar in there, so is Emir Adivar.”

“But they’ll make sure they don’t have the wrong person, right? That’s why they do it—to make sure you and that other guy are not the same person.” 

“How am I going to find a job now?” he said. “In interviews, they’ll take one look at me, and send me right back out the door. Or they’ll see my foreign-sounding name on my resume and throw it out.”

“Don’t you think that’s just a little extreme?”

“All those terrorist assholes were Middle Eastern.  One was Lebanese.”

Emir was twenty-two, four months older than me. We were both a year into postgraduate life in Los Angeles, and the entertainment industry wasn’t hiring. Or at least they weren’t hiring him. Emir soon learned that entertainment companies typically don’t sponsor foreigners for entry-level clerical assistant positions. The producer had been a rare exception, and with the company’s bankruptcy it became clear the producer was someone who took major risks, financially. 

Sponsoring a foreign employee cost thousands of dollars in application and processing fees, and there were plenty of U.S. citizens—myself included—eager enough to have staplers tossed at them by manic studio executives for twenty-thousand dollars a year or serve their bun-less cheeseburgers in a restaurant.  Sponsorship was reserved for doctors, scientists, researchers—those who could make a significant, measurable contribution to the country, those who satisfied need.  And after September 11th, they encountered visa trouble, too.   

If Emir had made a film that went to festivals or secured him an agent, he would have a chance at an O-1, an “Exceptional Talent” visa, the best option for an artist, but he hadn’t proven himself an “exceptional talent” yet.  If he went home, he would never have the opportunity: Emir’s own work focused on LGBT themes, especially oppression in the Middle East. Returning to his country would deliver him back to the very silence he was trying to make noise about. He would be forced back into the closet, and this was akin to another kind of death. 

“I saw on the news about heart surgeons who cannot get back into the country,” he said. “People who operate on baby hearts.  What use do they have for an aspiring filmmaker?”

His eyes darted around the restaurant. Emir was newly preoccupied with the idea that people were looking at him. I remembered something else, something he told me in college: during orientation week, another student asked him whether at home he rode around on a camel.  Sounds like you’ve watched Aladdin too many times, he snapped. Being stereotyped wasn’t new to him, but feeling as if strangers were suddenly suspicious, that they were eyeing him, was. I told him I understood, but also that it would be impossible for anyone to mistake him for a terrorist. 

“Sure,” he said, “I’m so gay terrorists wouldn’t let me run with them even if I wanted to.” 

I had run out of things to say. In a time when the talking heads on TV began throwing around the word “jingoism,” it was difficult to think a visa would land in Emir’s hands. 

“The other thing,” he continued, “is I’ll be required to serve in the mandatory military service.  Imagine me in military service.  I do not want to think about what they will do to me.”

I listened quietly, poking at a piece of raw salmon with my chopsticks as we prattled through other possibilities: asylum, hiring a lawyer, the green card lottery, which he entered every year, and every year heard nothing.  The random draw, officially known as the Diversity Visa Lottery, offers approximately the same chance of success as the regular lottery. What challenged Emir before had in a matter of days become much more difficult, if not impossible. Beyond military service and self-censorship lay darker things, the realities of being gay in his country that really preempted his desire to stay in the United States. Amir was one but there were others. When Emir was thirteen, one of his uncles, an uncle who was suspected of being in a relationship with another man, disappeared. Emir overheard things. He was not a quiet person but back then he kept his speaking to a minimum, afraid of being found out. 

I had an idea. A why-didn’t-I-think-of-it-in-the-first-place idea. I resented that Emir had been lumped into a vast category of potential terrorists based on ethnicity and a religion his family followed but he did not. My Emir. He performed in a drag show at a local bar. His latest screenplay was a gay romantic comedy. 

In the days since Emir and I became friends as film school students, I had since decided I wanted to become an art director on movies. Besides taking snapshots of furniture for the set decorator, I was freelancing on commercials and music videos and studying drawing at a local art college in my spare time. I loved the art department because of all the research and re-creation the work involved, turning a raw space into Marie Antoinette’s bedroom or a dusty studio backlot in the Valley into Florida swampland. Everything was carefully and deliberately rendered to appear natural and real. 

“Marry me,” I said.

“Don’t joke around with me about that, sweetie. I might take you up on it.”

“I’m not kidding.” 

My idea was the simplest way to keep Emir with me—in the place he belonged, where he would not be in danger. We were two small people in a suddenly unrecognizable landscape, in a moment that would slip away as fast as any other, and yet continue to obsess me for years. Emir paused, seeming to consider my proposal.

“The problem,” he said, “is that you would be marrying me to stop me from going back to my father’s house to live a double life. But the reality of it is that there would be double the double lives, yours and mine. And you say you don’t want me to end up in an arranged marriage, and what is this if not the ultimate arranged—”

“Not for the rest of your life.”

“Wait, let me finish. You don’t want me to be in the closet, but if I married you, I will have to go back in, at a wedding and for INS interviews at the least.” 

“But there’s an expiration date, whenever you get your green card. It doesn’t have to be forever. Back there you’d be closeted and in an arranged marriage for the rest of your life. Why are you so against this? You want to stay and I want to help you stay. We want the exact same thing.”

Emir sighed. 

“Sweetie, it’s you,” he said.

“It’s me? What, I’m not even wife material for a gay guy?”

(My love life was not going so well.) 

“I don’t mean it that way! I don’t want to put you through it. It’s a huge risk, sweetie. If you went to prison because of me I would not be able to handle that.”

“Neither of us would go to prison.”

“How can you know this?”

“Because our marriage would be real.”

“Yes, okay, what did you put in your coffee this morning?”

“No, Em, I’m serious.”

I explained it as I saw it: we would still see other people, date (and hopefully have understanding boyfriends), live exactly as we did, except we’d be married on paper. All we would have to do is move in together, organize some documents, add to the ton of photos we already had, go to a little interview, and voila!

“But that is the very definition of green card marriage,” he said.

“No. It would be a green card marriage if I met some stranger off the street who financially compensated me for marriage,” I argued. “I’d be marrying you out of love. Not for money. That’s what’s illegal. You aren’t a stranger off the street.” 

“I don’t know that INS would buy your definition, my sweet.”

“Don’t you love me?”

“Yes, of course, that’s not the question…”

“Then why don’t you want to marry me?”

I was beginning to feel insecure. I was pressuring my gay best friend into marrying me. But I wasn’t going to wake up the next morning, have a cup of coffee, get dressed, and be returned to my everyday smallness—not while Emir was about to be deported. Emir. Loving him could not possibly be the only motivating factor, could it? I was seeking something, something I couldn’t seem to find—another person to complete me, to eviscerate my loneliness, to fill the void I carried inside of me. I existed in a state of perpetual liminality. Emir must have sensed my less selfless reasons, too.  Why is she doing this? The question was as loud as any that ever went unasked.

“I don’t want to make you jump through hoops like a circus dog for me,” he said.

“It’s worth it.”

“You are so frustrating sometimes!”

“See, I’m already like a wife. Nothing would even have to change.”

Emir laughed. 

“If only I were straight,” he said. “We would be perfect together.”

“Either that or we’d kill each other.”

“And you want to find out?”

 

Emir held onto the hope that a job offer would come through and fix his visa problem, but it wasn’t promising: the entertainment industry faced layoffs, as movies that had once seemed thrilling (blown-up buildings, alien attacks) were declared offensive and dropped after the terrorist attacks. Asylum was a long, complicated process in an already overburdened immigration system. He applied for jobs outside of the film industry, too, and looked at graduate schools but did not want another two, three, or four years of financial dependence on his father—he felt that was giving his father the right to dictate certain parts of his life, precisely what he was trying to emerge from. He had to “make it,” and he wanted it badly. 

 

 

At least once every handful of days—at dinner, at the dry cleaners, at Starbucks—I asked Emir to marry me. Our discussion was always the same.

Me: It would be great!

Him: And you will be saying this when we are in prison? 

All of his reasons were very good reasons. That was just Emir: he was the friend you could approach when you needed sound advice. He was logical, and possessed a sensibility about human behavior. But the impossibility of forcing parameters onto the murky territory of love in its many forms left me unconvinced that were Emir and I to get married not for a financial transaction but because I didn’t want to lose him (isn’t that why anyone gets married?), that there would be anything illegal about it. When a foreign boyfriend or girlfriend encounters visa trouble in a straight relationship, the U.S. citizen in the relationship often receives the advice marry the foreign boy- or girlfriend, from immigration officials. Love each other enough to get married?

Though marriage to Emir would most likely end in divorce, so would half of all marriages. I grew up with my single mother. I am her only child. She divorced my father when I was five or six, and he left the country. Eventually he lost touch with us entirely, and the year I was twenty-eight, I learned he had died at age sixty-nine from alcoholism-triggered liver disease. But all I knew at twenty-one was that he was not in my life. He did not try to find me and I did not try to find him. But I wanted a family, and I wanted it to never fall apart, something that is of course impossible to guarantee.

My mother got married when she was in her early twenties, and I didn’t trust myself not to marry too soon, and to the wrong man. Spending my early twenties with Emir would help me avoid this. As my mother was fond of reminding me, “your frontal lobe isn’t developed yet.” The frontal lobe, the part of the brain associated with impulse control, maturity, and sound judgment, seems to have only just now revealed itself, now that I am thirty.

The year before my parents divorced, 1985, my mother started working for the State Department. She was transferred every few years to different places— Guadalajara, Rome, D.C., Mexico City. After I went to college my mother moved to Venezuela, then Madrid, and, eventually, back to Mexico. I couldn’t depend on anything—or anyone—to remain constant. I’d always wished I had a sibling, but as an only child I had the luxury of idealizing sibling relationships. More so, I wanted someone to share memories with, someone I could turn to and say, “remember when?” 

Because my past was erased every time my mother and I moved, I was obsessed with domesticity, rooting in, ceasing to be an epiphyte. I was an outsider wherever I went. Emir understood. We were both Third-Culture Kids, members of a four-million-member global subculture of those who formed stronger attachments to other countries. We became cultural welders, fusing elements of each with customs from our own birth countries into something that becomes the third. (I imagined it sewn on matching his-and-hers bathrobes, His: Lebanon, Turkey, and America; Hers: Italy, Mexico, and America.) We spoke five languages between us—Arabic, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, and English—and sometimes joked our child would be a U.N. translator by her fifth birthday. Emir and I shared the idealistic language of the Third-Culture Kid. We believed in open borders, in travel, in the global village. 

The terrorist attacks brought a closing of the American border. But what would not change, because I couldn’t let it, was Emir staying here, where he belonged, in the United States and with me, because I wasn’t going to lose another loved one and he was not going to go back to a country where he would have to live a life of secrecy forever—I would make sure of it. For Emir, marriage had a concrete, tangible purpose; for me, abstractions: ideals, family. He needed the green card, and I needed him.