Daniel John

I left Halifax for America in 1980 but I never thought about being a snowback—a Canadian illegal immigrant—until 1983, when my money began to dwindle. I couldn’t get a student visa because my massage and movement therapy school in Amherst, Massachusetts, was too small to meet the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s definition of “school.” I couldn’t work at a real job because I had no social security number, so I worked infrequently as a masseuse. Even when I lived on canned macaroni and Jell-O, I still preferred America, because here I had the right to be myself, to have feelings, and, wildest of all, to be different. In Canada I was always one apology short. I had to apologize if I acted without other people’s approval, if I let my feelings show, or if I stood out in any way, especially positively. If I came first in anything I had to go on and on about how I didn’t deserve it, it was just an accident, and anyone else could have done better. If I stood up for myself in Canada, politely turned-away faces told me I should be ashamed of myself for being rude, conceited, and acting like an American.

But when my parents offered to send me a plane ticket for a family reunion in Saskatchewan, hunger overruled my sensibilities. I flew to the Land of the Nice for a week of dull, nourishing food and fiendishly complex conversation. I hardly knew how to interpret the Canadian code anymore, the secret ways to probe what someone really means when they say “yes” (because for sure they don’t mean “yes”); the thrust and parry of alternating apologies; and the many polite ways to avoid putting someone in the embarrassing position of having to say either yes or no. Once I’d gained a few pounds I was glad to come home to the United States.

The plane landed in Toronto to put people and luggage through American Customs and Immigration before continuing on to Boston. “Where do you live?” a young woman in a green uniform asked me as she examined my documents.

“Nova Scotia.” That was easy. That was where my children lived, the ones I couldn’t visit because my ex-wife and I couldn’t agree on how many were mine. She said I could see two or none. I said I had to see three or none. So we’d settled on none—but without speaking, since we didn’t talk to each other anymore.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I own a natural foods store.” Close enough. I’d sold it two years earlier.
“Where did you buy your ticket?”

She looked at me thoughtfully, then went through my backpack, taking out and examining each item. She pulled out my journal and thumbed through it, reading here and there. I was terrified she’d read about the time right before I left for Canada, when I made love to menstruating Janice. “Why are you looking through my journal?”

“To see if you really live in Canada.” Her eyes bugged out. Uh-oh. That was Janice. She slammed my journal shut. “How long has it been since you were in Boston?”
“Three years.”
“This plane ticket was issued two weeks ago in Boston. You have just lied to an Immigration Officer. This is grounds for deportation.”
“Well, a lawyer told me that snowbirds who live in Florida for six months out of the year don’t have to—”
“Lawyers have nothing to do with it!” She threw my stuff down on the counter like garbage, then said angrily, “Next please!”
I stood there with belongings dragging down my arms while she processed the next person. “May I speak with your managing officer, please?”
“Go ahead. He’ll back me up. You lied to me. Next, please.”

I withdrew to the Canadian side of the border and knocked on the door marked “INS.” I was told to sit on a bench and wait. My nervous sweat cooled and I shivered. The plane to Boston left. Finally, the American in charge called me in to his office and I told him about the school that didn’t qualify. “There’s nothing I can do,” he said. I was doomed. All I had left in Canada were the children I could not visit. I had to live in the wrong country from my boys or die of grief. I forced myself to my feet and turned to leave.

“Wait!” I froze. “If you’ve been a student in the States for nearly two years then you’ve got all your stuff there, right?” I nodded. “I’m going to give you two weeks to pack and move back to Canada.” He paused, then added quietly, “But you must promise to return after two weeks.”

We both knew America had no internal controls on illegal immigration. We also both knew I would tell the truth. “I will return in two weeks,” I said, trembling like a piece of paper in a breeze. He stamped my passport with a two-week visa. In fourteen days I would either have a green card or be run over by a truck on the Canadian side of the border.

The next flight to Boston didn’t leave until morning. I spent the night in the airport underneath a bench, jerking awake over and over again to the strains of fluorescent Muzak.

Once I was safely back in Massachusetts I checked the INS regulations. Massage therapy wasn’t even on the list
of waiting lists. My only option was to marry an American. I had thirteen days to find a wife.

My sixteen fellow students at the School for Body-Mind Centering were single women in their late twenties. One after another, each woman told me she would have no trouble marrying a stranger to help him stay in the country. The problem was I wasn’t a stranger. After two years of shared intensities we were bonded like soldiers in a war, but not one of them could say “I do” unless it was to a real marriage. To argue with the definition of “real” was like talking to a TV set: no matter what I said, I got a 1960s sitcom for an answer. I not only had to promise monogamy, I had to promise it for the rest of my life. I couldn’t even promise to stay alive longer than the eight days remaining on my visa, which was when I finally gave up on marrying American.

On my last American Friday I went to one of my favorite places, a weekly rough-and-tumble community party called Dance Jam. At halftime I sat on the steps outside and told a friend my border story. “So, I have to go back to Canada. My friends like me too much to marry me.”

“Oh, I’ll marry you!” I whipped my head around. A bright-eyed young blonde was coming down from the top step to sit next to us. “This country is so sexist! About the only power women have left is to get foreigners into the country.”

I shut my wide-open mouth and asked her questions. Her name was Jane, she was 22, and nearly almost entirely sure she was a lesbian. She’d graduated from Smith College that spring and worked as a waitress so she could stay in Northampton, the lesbian hub of the Northeast. My heart was hammering with hope, but I told her I’d wait three days, then call her. In fairy tales true things always take three days. I held onto her phone number like a monk clinging to the tooth of a saint. I called on Monday. “Yes, I’ll marry you,” she said.

“Can you meet me tomorrow for the blood test?”
“I have to work today and tomorrow. But I can take the rest of the week off.” I fretted like a nervous cat for two days. We had to get all the documentation together before Friday at two p.m., when I had to be out of the country or be a liar.

On Wednesday Jane and I lay down next to each other and gave blood. It felt like premarital sex. On Thursday we arrived a few minutes after five at the courthouse in the small town in New York State where she was born. The clerks had just finished closing up, but they opened up again just for us to put the official seal on her birth certificate that Immigration required before she could legally sponsor her husband into the country. On Friday morning at 10:30, wearing the stiffest clothes I owned, Jane and I got married. We walked out of the registrar’s office and drove to the INS in Boston. I had three hours left on my U.S. visa.

“That was such a joke!” Jane said, driving too fast. She stuck her lips out like a duck and mocked the clerk, “‘Do not enter lightly into marriage!’ It was all I could do not to laugh in her face. We get divorced in eighteen months! What a joke!”

She lit up a joint. I opened the window. I’d better do all the talking to the INS. Marijuana breath over there did not have a winning attitude. A hot breeze licked my face. When the registrar asked me if I solemnly swore to take this woman to have and to hold from this day forth, my hands went clammy with fidelity. When I said, “I do,” my heart moved all its cookies into her kitchen. I was about to swear to the United States of America that this was a real marriage and not one entered into for purposes of immigration. To lie was a felony, punishable by two years in jail and then deportation. The car swayed as Jane zipped out from behind a huge truck. Being nearly almost entirely sure she was a lesbian meant there was an infinitesimal chance she could fall in love with me. Her large breasts were alarmingly perky all of a sudden. I wondered if she even owned a bra. I looked out the window at the trees flapping by like happiness in the hot and humid honeymoon air as we zipped down Newlywed Pike to Boston in July. It was already too late. I was going to have to tell the truth: this was a real marriage.

We sat on a long, wooden bench in a room filled with couples from all over the world. Jane opened her purse and pulled out a baggie of pot. “I’m not sure I should have brought this with me. Will you put it in your pocket?”

“Possession would get me deported,” I whispered, scandalized. She shrugged and put it back. Americans were so ridiculously entitled. She even sat like an American, sprawling her legs out any way she pleased, as though she owned the place.

“Oh, right!” the agent said, rolling her eyes. “Get married then immigrate on the same day!” Months later I discovered the INS verified a real marriage by putting the husband and wife in separate rooms and asking them questions like, “What kind of underwear does she wear?” then cross-checking. Most couples studied for weeks to make their marriages look real—even when they were. But to ask Jane and me those questions would be to imply we’d been living in sin. She asked a lot of other questions, and examined our faces carefully as we answered. Since I was her real husband, I wasn’t faking anything when I treated Jane with that special married mix of consideration and condescension. Jane put on a performance as the Coy New Wife that was as good as anything on daytime TV. After half an hour the interviewer stood up and said my green card would arrive in the mail in a month or so. I exulted like a Canadian: invisibly. Showing off is wrong because it might make other people might feel like losers.

Back in Amherst I saw Jane once a week for a massage. Each time I rubbed her nude body down love and yearning poured out my hands like honey. She talked nonstop about herself, and when the session was over dressed languorously in front of me like a movie star, then gave me a big hug and left. My hope that she wasn’t entirely lesbian glowed more certain with each delicious massage. Every week I’d ask her out to something innocuous like a group dance, a picnic, or an open-air play. Her face would light up with pleasure. She’d say yes, great, see you then. . . . then stand me up. “I just forgot, that’s all! Okay? Okay!?” she would say each time I asked her where she’d been. It was many weeks before my hope shrank to the point where I stopped asking her out. This marriage was turning out to be just like my first one: all there was to eat was pictures of food.

Months later, I moved and sort of forgot to give Jane my phone number. When I finally called her, she’d moved without leaving a forwarding address. I let sleeping wives lie, but every now and then without warning hope sang songs in my heart like a TV commercial: Jane would love me back if only I would love her better. Each time this happened, plaque from the first marriage washed out of my arteries. The second marriage, the real fake one, was cleansing me of the first, the fake real one.

* * *

“Boston’s a confusing city,” my girlfriend Salley warned me as we turned onto the Mass Pike one early morning a year later.

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” I said. I was taking her to meet my parents in Canada, and my green card still hadn’t arrived. I needed a temporary visa to make sure I could get back into America. I’d written the INS many times, and then switched to phoning, but that just meant being transferred from a clerk who didn’t understand to one who didn’t have a clue. Our plane tickets were for that evening, so I had to go in person. I was sure it was just a bureaucratic snafu because they had all my original documents as well as copies.

“Have you ever been to Boston before?” Salley asked.
“Just the airport.”
“Immigration is nowhere near the airport.”
“Oh. Well, I think it’s downtown.”
“Do you know where that is?”
“In the middle.”

Her hazel eyes flashed anger. I grinned. I loved the way she drove a car, like a figurehead on the prow of ship, plowing bust-first through traffic. She had reason to be mad at me. I got lost inside office buildings. We drove in silence until the buildings stood up, announcing the city.

“This looks like a good exit,” I said when we were almost past it. She swerved off the highway, supremely irritated.
“Park over there,” I said, pointing to a small lot.
“You’re lost,” she said, slamming the door as she got out.
“Let’s walk this way.”
“You’re lost.”
I had no idea where we were, but a few crooked blocks later there was the INS, looming like a headstone.
“So,” the agent said, “you need a temporary visa so you can go back to Canada with your wife.”
“Uh…no. Salley is not my wife.”
“That woman out there in the waiting room is not your wife?”
“So where’s your wife?”
“Uh…” My stomach lurched. This complication had never occurred to me.
“You mean you got married only in order to immigrate? It wasn’t a real marriage?”
“No, it is real marriage.”

My heart went squish. This man could send me under police escort to the airport with a one-way ticket to Canada along with a deportation order forbidding me to enter the United States ever again.
“Because it’s celibate.”

“It’s a real marriage because it’s celibate?”
“Are we getting anywhere here?”
“Yes. I fell in love with Jane.”
“Jane is your wife?”
“Yes. She’s my Ideal Woman. Which means I don’t have sex with her.”
He blinked twice. “Do you and Jane live together?”

“No. My love for her is pure. I used to believe the natural state of a man is celibacy and his first ‘honor and obey’ is to God. I didn’t realize until after my first marriage ended that by being celibate I was avoiding God, not honoring Him. By marrying Jane but not having sex with her or living with her I am acknowledging my psychological problem while at the same time freeing up the rest of me to change. Salley is helping me with this.”

“Does Jane know about Salley?”
“Jane and I are both clear on the nature of our marriage.”
“…I’m not sure about this…”
“Could I write somebody a letter and explain it in detail?” My armpits were soaked.

“Well, you’d have to leave out all the stuff about Freud!” He rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “So…you were issued a green card?”
“You mean you don’t know? But this is what bureaucracies are for!” I glared at him like a Canadian, with unimpeachable rectitude. He flushed with embarrassment, then stamped my passport.

* * *

Several months later, I started crossing Main St. at the exact moment Jane stepped off the curb from the other side. We met on the double-yellow center line. “It’s about time, isn’t it?” she asked, as if we’d arranged this meeting.

“Give me your phone number. I’ll make the arrangements.”
The light changed. Cars roared past us on either side.
“You never told my parents, did you?”
“No.” I didn’t even know where they lived.
“Thanks. Bye!”

A month later, the clerk of the court read the details to the black-robed judge sitting high above us. He called on Jane. She stood up, obviously nervous. “Why do you want to divorce Daniel after only a year and a half of marriage?” She was wearing a ripped T-shirt and manure-smeared overalls.

“Your honor, I’m at a place in my life where I really need to get myself together and it’s a good thing my friends said I could stay at their farm as long as I took care of the animals because I really need a lot of time to myself these days and I don’t have any money.” She paused, then added, “Your honor.”

“You may sit down,” he said, and turned to me. I stood up in my stiff wedding clothes.
“Why are you getting divorced from Jane after only eighteen months of marriage?”
I looked at my lawful wedded wife and let hope go. “Unrealistic expectations,” I said.
He banged his gavel. “I hereby pronounce you divorced.”

* * *

In a small town like Northampton, I normally bumped into everybody I knew at least once a month, but I didn’t see Jane or even hear anything about her for nearly a year. That was so unusual it was spooky. Then one hot summer day I was waiting for a bus when something made me turn around. All I saw was my own reflection in the plate-glass window of an old small-town restaurant, until I shielded my eyes with my hand and looked inside. All by herself in a booth far at the back sat Jane. I waved my hand big and slow, since I didn’t know if she could see me. She waved back, a big, slow wave, a wry, sad smile on her beautiful face.


Published by Red Cedar Review, Michigan, Spring 2006 issue.