Could our story be any more cliché? Foreigner falls for American girl. He’s in a pickle, she wants to help. They marry before they’re ready but it’s cool because, you know, happily ever after and all that. Only this wasn’t a romantic comedy, this was my life.
We met at a coffee shop through mutual friends and exchanged clumsy hellos while our friends did the flirting. I was wearing borrowed clothes that day, so I didn’t exactly own up to the belly shirt and low-rise jeans I was wearing. I had never been comfortable around boys, so I scrambled to hide my shy midsection while he pretended not to notice. Just as I began to console myself with the thought that love would probably find me in college, I mustered just enough confidence to glance in his direction –and that was when he smiled. Oh my god, that smile. It was energy and passion and electricity and magic and in that moment I felt strangely drawn to him. Stranger still was the suspicion that things would never be the same again.
We fell quickly and easily for each other. Whispery late night phone calls, make-out sessions in my Toyota, and a new appreciation for sappy love songs sustained us that summer. He was kind to me, attentive, and even though he was guarded and even careful at times not to reveal too much, that mystery only drew me closer. Beautiful days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and months, I secretly hoped, would turn to forever.
Little did I know as this 17-year-old girl enjoying her last summer before college, that I’d go on to marry this beautiful 18-year-old boy who housed a very personal secret.
A few weeks into my freshman year, with no signs of our romance slowing down, my boyfriend revealed he was living in the United States illegally on an expired visa. To be honest, I didn’t really understand what that meant. The only "visa" I ever knew about was a credit card and I didn’t even have one of those. He told me he’d traveled to the States from the Philippines with his family in his early teens and only recently discovered his expired legal status upon applying to college. I suppose I should have been shocked, but I wasn’t. For the first time, his guarded nature started to make sense. So that’s why he didn’t have a driver’s license. So that’s why he wasn’t going to school.
Unable to work, drive, or seek higher education without proper documentation, he attempted to find odd jobs, self-educate, and find a solution. "How could this happen?" I’d ask over and over. "What does this mean?" my parents worried. The answer was always the same: he didn’t know –and uncovering answers to even the simplest immigration questions wasn’t easy. His father was a proud and private man, offering only the occasional "I’m working on it" when pressed.
A year later and no closer to a solution, I suggested we meet with his father’s immigration attorney. "You have two choices," the lawyer said, "Go back to the Philippines and re-apply for a visa that you’ll probably never get, or get married."
On our drive home from the meeting, he said what we’d both been thinking. "Maybe it’s time I go home. This isn’t fair to you." He was right, but there was also this little matter to consider: we were in love.
For a hot second I considered taking route 60 to I-15. In four hours we could be in Vegas. I was 18, he was 19; it could work! I imagined standing in a chapel, me in my Levi’s, he in his worn Doc Martens. We’d commit to forever in one breath and blame the bravado of young love in the next.
But there would be no Vegas, for being foolish in love was different than being foolish with love. Sure, a quickie marriage could have solved one big problem, but it was almost guaranteed to create about a million more. First, there were my parents: would they forgive me? Would they forgive HIM? Perhaps in time, but things might never be the same following a stunt like that. Then there were logistics: how would we support ourselves? How would we pay for an immigration lawyer? As an 18-year-old college sophomore living at home, I’d be forced to quit school to attempt to support us. And on top of all that, immigration was a lengthy process. Who knew how long it would be before he was granted authorization to work? The idea of our well-intentioned "I do" had a big, fat "DON’T" written all over it – even for him. "It’s not supposed to be this way." he said, "You deserve to have a wedding with your parents there and you really need to finish school first. We can’t do this right now, not this way." He was right, so for the next three years I devoted my life to two singular things: loving him and finishing college as quickly as possible. Only then would he agree to marry me.
So at 22 years old, newly graduated and all waited out, I married my boyfriend for a green card, yes, but also for love and a little more than a hunch that his circumstances didn’t define him.
Of course, there were raised eyebrows. "Do you ever worry he only married you for a green card?" folks would oh-so-carefully ask. But I didn't worry, because even in his most desperate moments, when depression threatened to destroy the few hopes he ever had, he never pushed me. Then again, only a life newly unstuck from pause would tell.
Our honeymoon phase began with attorney appointments and immigration notices. As his shifting immigration status began to allow for more freedoms, I unwittingly assumed the role of parent, teaching him how to drive, apply for a job, register for college, and open his very first bank account. (It was as romantic as it sounds.)
And at a time when I should have been celebrating the culmination of everything we’d spent the last five years hoping, praying, and paying for, I couldn’t bring myself to share in the joy. Everything was changing too quickly, including him. He immediately threw himself into working, going to school, and attempting to make all that time wasted worth something. Best and worst of all, he was doing it all without me.
Don't get me wrong, I was proud of him — so proud — but at the same time I couldn’t shake the insecurities all his newfound independence brought. Since the beginning of our relationship, his dependence had been MY purpose. I thrived on helping him as only I could (co-dependent much?) and it made me feel needed and important, and now suddenly, that need was gone. I wasn’t practiced in the art of being one of his many priorities; up to this point, I’d been the only one! I wasn’t used to sharing his time, receiving his help, or trusting him in all the healthy ways partners do. So yes, readers, at the tender age of 23, I found myself unraveling as though I was an empty nester — and it was scary as hell.
Maybe we loved too hard too fast, I thought. Maybe this love was an "eff you" to insurmountable odds and shitty circumstances. Sure, idyllic young love made us soldiers to the cause and slaves to the passion, but was it enough to keep us together now that his newfound independence threatened to drive us apart? I didn’t know. And as fear began to cast a shadow over my heart, I chose to do the only thing I could: I held tight to uncertain love.
Only then, by trusting our love, could I begin the quiet and gentle process of falling in love all over again, this time in reverse roles. Now that I was one who needed hand-holding, my husband took it upon himself to court me in all the ways he’d never been able. We dated like young lovers, taking long drives to nowhere as I rode as a passenger in his car. He showered me with thoughtful gifts he was proud to purchase from money he earned. We took our time learning each other all over again — he as a strong, independent man and me as a trusting partner and loving equal.
From our first attorney appointment to our wedding day, our green card interview to the birth of our two beautiful sons, love had always been the answer. It was braver than we could ever be, bolder than our deepest unspoken fears, and always, always bigger than the two of us.
Lori and her husband, now a naturalized citizen, have been married for 15 years.