Saved by the Scallop
My mother’s generous offer to take us to a restaurant we couldn’t otherwise afford would not have been cause for a panicked frenzy under typical circumstances. The night before her arrival, Emir and I scurried around the apartment like squirrels preparing for winter. We buried banking paperwork bearing both our names, photographs of us with the red-suited Elvis impersonator, and Emir’s I-485 forms. My mother had only to see the code I-485 to know what we had done, and we worried she would sniff us out like a German shepherd and fifty-two tons of cocaine at baggage claim.
She’d gone on a business trip to Tijuana and then to Seattle to see my grandmother. She was stopping by on her way back out of the country, staying at The Standard hotel. It would be Penny’s first time meeting Emir in person. They had spoken over the phone before, even at length, and they got on well. My mother knew Emir as my good friend from college and she was glad I had a “nice roommate.” How was it possible that these two had never met before?
Then she was in our apartment, standing in our living room, wearing a red belted dress and hugging me. She smelled of L’Air du Temps and had a short haircut with chunky blonde highlights.
At Chaya Brasserie in Mid-City, Los Angeles, my mother told us about new border security and visa procedures, how a lack of interagency communication led to the September 11th attacks. Billions of dollars were being invested in new border surveillance technologies; Canada was problematic. Closed borders with the U.S. would be disastrous for Mexico.
“Nothing could have prepared us for this,” my mother said. “How is the wine?”
“Good,” we said, nodding in unison.
“What people need to understand now is that terrorism and immigration enforcement are different things.”
“That’s a great point,” Emir said, and I agreed.
Maybe my mother wouldn’t disown me if she found out about our marriage. Maybe I wasn’t going against the system but helping it along. Helping it run more efficiently. As much as I liked that notion, I knew even then it was wishful thinking that my mother would be anything but appalled.
“Why don’t you get the scallops,” she said. I wanted fish but so did she, and how would we trade bites if we ordered the same thing? To me, scallops were the seafood equivalent of sneezed-on marshmallows. Nothing’s viler than a scallop. But my mother wanted me to order them. When your mother is my mother and she wants you to order scallops, you order scallops. Also, if you are married to your best friend for his green card and your mother is an immigration expert, and if you are out to dinner with both, don’t go to the bathroom. When the two are left alone together, without you as a reliable buffer to steer the conversation away from green card, border crossing, and immigration, these topics will surely come up, as it’s something the two of them have in common. Back in September, before Emir agreed to marry me, I’d asked my mother all those questions about his visa problem and what could be done to keep my beloved friend from having to return to a country where being murdered for being gay was not considered a hate crime but a fine thing to do because homosexuals were subhuman creatures who purposefully went against the laws of nature.
Because I had asked these questions—and here was Emir—I returned to the table from the bathroom and sat down to the uncomfortable conversation already in progress.
“It hasn’t expired yet,” said Emir, shoveling a forkful of pasta into his mouth.
“But if you’re freelance, who is sponsoring–?”
“Who would like another scallop?” I interrupted. “Mom? Scallop?”
My mother speared one, never diverting her focus from Emir. “Have you applied for asylum?” she asked.
“Yes,” he lied.
“The system is so slow and it’s backed up on top of that. I wish there were some way I could help you, but I can at least check on your case and give you some idea of when you might expect to hear…”
“Mom, he really doesn’t need—”
“I have to use the…excuse me,” said Emir, his face blanching. He walked across the crowded restaurant and disappeared into the restroom.
My mother reached over and speared another scallop. She lowered her voice to a whisper.
“Do you think he’s lying?” she asked.
“There’s no way Emir isn’t illegal now. His O-1 would have expired months ago and he says he’s freelancing.”
“I haven’t looked through his file cabinet. It’s none of my business. Or yours.”
“It is your business, Lize. You live with him. Do you really know him? Do you know what his family does?”
“That’s totally paranoid. I spend all my time with him. If he were up to anything sketchy, I would know, and please don’t call me Lize.”
“You’ve only known him for a couple of years.”
“Who do you spend all your time with, Mom?” I was regressing, becoming more and more the acrimonious teenager by the second. “Maybe you need to get a life. Then you’d have something to focus your energy on instead of what my roommate is doing.”
It was mean but I was angry and afraid. I put the last scallop in my nervous mouth.
“Is it possible he found an American and got married?”
There was only one way out. I remembered everything I possibly could from the one course I took on Method Acting. My heart palpitated wildly, a fish out of water flopping helplessly in my chest. My breath caught in my windpipe. I knew these feelings from panic attacks I’d had in college. I clutched my throat as if my airway was blocked. My eyes bulged. I was choking on a scallop. Within moments, I felt arms encircling my belly. I had no idea Emir knew the Heimlich maneuver. What if our INS interviewer separated us and asked me if my husband knew the Heimlich maneuver? I would have said no!
The sad, distended scallop plopped on the restaurant floor like a rejected organ.
“You okay, sweetie?” Emir asked, handing me a glass of water.
I coughed, and breathed. My mother thanked Emir. I would never tell either I had fake scallop-choked, In fact, years later, in recounting this story, I would forget I faked the scallop-choke, and the conversation we’d been having prior to my Oscar-worthy performance was forgotten. I sipped the water cautiously, wiped my eyes with a napkin, and watched as the restaurant settled back down. Onlookers dispersed back to their tables. Emir rubbed my back. We were safe, at least for the time being. Saved by the scallop.
I wished Emir and I had thought to come up with a story about some employer or something before my mother arrived. Why didn’t we sit down to talk about it? It felt like self-sabotage. Of course this was going to come up, she was going to talk to him about his immigration status—why wouldn’t she? We hadn’t thought to have our story prepared; we had been so wrapped up in the narrative we would present to the INS that we didn’t come up with a story for the woman who mattered most, who knew we were not college sweethearts, didn’t get engaged in L.A., and most certainly were not in traditional-marriage-style love. So new to this strange version of marriage, in our naïveté we sabotaged ourselves by forgetting to create another reality for my mother, who now seemed suspicious that something was amiss. I silently prayed to the god I didn’t believe existed but called upon during airplane takeoffs and after breakups. Please, please, let her forget.
She would be livid. Or worse: disappointed.
After dropping my mother off at The Standard, Emir and I went straight to the Abbey for Appletinis to take the edge off. The outdoor courtyard was emptier than usual. Maybe another neighborhood gay bar was screening the latest episode of Sex and the City or having half-priced specials. The venues we frequented had “nights”—drag night, ladies’ night, discount Cosmo night.
“What was up at the restaurant?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked, not wanting to tell him about the conversation he almost walked in on.
“I was more grilled than the fish,” he said. “She knows something is up.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“If she suspects, she can easily find out.”
“What do we do?”
“What can we do?”
“Will she get me deported?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I don’t think so.”
“What should we do?”
“Sit tight. Hope for the best.”
LIZA MONROY is the author of The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took To Keep My Best Friend In America…And What It Taught Us About Love (Counterpoint/Soft Skull), a nonfiction story about friendship, immigration and marriage rights, and the debut novel Mexican High (Spiegel & Grau/Random House). Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, LA Times, Newsweek, Poets & Writers, Jane, Self, Bust and various anthologies, including The New York Times Best of Modern Love collection, Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and Wedding Cake For Breakfast. She has taught writing at Columbia University, UCLA Extension, and UC Santa Cruz, and has been awarded residencies by the Kerouac Project of Orlando, Thurber House, and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Liza lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband, pug, and a potbellied pig named Señor Bacon. She spends part of the year in Brooklyn and hopes that Señor Bacon can one day also become bicoastal.
Excerpt from The Marriage Act by Liza Monroy. Copyright © 2014 by Liza Monroy. Excerpt published with the permission of Soft Skull Press.