In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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About ten years ago Cristina was studying to become a dentist when she got flattened by a drunk driver while crossing a busy street in Zacatecas, Mexico. Her head hit the pavement, and she was knocked unconscious. She spent a month in bed with a fractured pelvis and much longer learning to walk again, but eventually she resumed her studies. I met her two years after the accident, in her hometown of Jerez. She had become a dentist by then and was taking night classes in English at the instituto where I taught. At twenty-seven she had no boyfriend, lived with her parents, and was inclined to stay in each evening and drink tea with her mother. Her English was terrible. I was forty-four and had been alone for a long time. Neither of us had ever been married.
We went out on several dates. I had never really dated, even when I was young, unless you define dating as “drinking with women for the eventual purpose of sex.” But these were sober, proper, painstakingly old-fashioned dates. I found her pleasant company, though because of the old head injury she often drifted off to a place I came to call “Cristinaland.”
“Where are you, baby?”
“Tell me what it’s like. Tell me about Cristinaland.”
Slow, sweet smile.
I decided to bring Cristina back to the United States with me. She had only three big dreams: to see America, to learn to speak English, and to make enough money to open her own dental practice back in Mexico. (She estimated it would take five thousand dollars.) I thought I could grant all three wishes with one wave of my magic gringo wand.
Of all our American living options, the most practical was the town of Chadron, Nebraska, where I had held a cooking job six years earlier at the local hotel restaurant. The owner had been clamoring for my return, and he promised Cristina a job in the hotel and the two of us a rent-free house with a fireplace for three months.
Though I’d vowed that I would never cook professionally again, I took the offer. (I have cooked in a number of places since, which I consider proof that God has a sense of humor.) The life of a short-order cook is one of low pay, high pressure, and frequent injury — plus you get to work with jailbirds, drifters, drunks, and addicts. Before we left Mexico, I found a doctor who agreed to prescribe me Valium so I could get through six months in the hotel kitchen. But the blue tabs, even mixed with red wine, did little to ease my aggravation at work. Cristina was miserable, too: I was gone all night. The wind howled across the plains. The snow fell. She was far from her home and her family for the first time, unable to understand even the simplest phrases, thrown into a job as a maid in the old hotel, and living with a man who smoked and drank and cursed and came home smelling of French fries and beer. She cried many nights and had recurring nightmares about lavish houses full of the walking dead.
She asked me for Valium, but the pills didn’t have much effect on her — a whole ten-milligram tab, a dosage that sent me to the cool oasis, didn’t even make her sleepy. I was worried she would not be able to make the transition. America was not the dreamland she had anticipated. There was too much pressure here. Most immigrants, it seems, come to America in search of “opportunity,” which is a five-syllable word for “money,” and many of the good traits and habits they bring along with them are quickly exchanged for the aggressiveness, selfishness, and cheating required to compete for all that “opportunity.”
After six months Cristina’s tourist visa was up. We sat at the kitchen table to talk. I felt like a manager about to fire an employee. I was sorry that I hadn’t been able to grant all her wishes, but I had very little power in America. I could not get her a well-paying job or put her on the inside track. I couldn’t even save five thousand dollars. And she was so unhappy here that I thought I would be doing her a favor if I sent her back home.
When I told her this, she cried and said, “But I will go home with nothing.”
I explained everything again, slowly, in my crappy Spanish: She was homesick. She didn’t like America. I was too old for her. I would not be a good husband. “I want a simple life,” I told her.
“I want a simple life, too,” she replied, bowing her head.
“Are you sure you want this?” I pressed. “America? Me?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you understand what I’ve said?”
I calculated the relative unimportance of the few years I had left on earth and decided to do whatever I could to help her. When she returned to Mexico someday, she would not have to be ashamed. She would have an American husband who took good care of her.
This marriage will work, I thought. Despite our divergent backgrounds and the difficulty she was having acclimating, we were basically simpatico. We were both loners, indoor types, coffee drinkers. We were both inclined to leave the party early. I pictured us as husband and wife: We would take long walks. I would cook her nice dinners. She would learn English. Maybe she would change her mind about America. I wasn’t crazy about America either, but I had stopped idealizing it long ago. I’d realized its limits. America was not a storybook wonderland, but it beat the pants off Albania. America tried, at least. It was generous; it cared. Few Americans were standing in line to immigrate to China. There was no Mexican border patrol amassed at the frontier of Texas preventing undocumented Americans from entering Mexico — not yet, anyway.
Cristina and I had a civil wedding at city hall. It was the best I could do, not being Catholic, like her, or inclined to hypocrisy. The diamond on her ring was small, but it’s always seemed to me that the larger the jewel, the shorter the marriage. Unable to understand anything being said to her on one of the most important days of her life, Cristina was overwhelmed. She will be happy now, I thought. She will at last belong.
I had been naive enough to think that once I married Cristina, she would become an instant citizen, but I’d forgotten about the long tradition of marriage fraud: American citizens being paid handsome sums to wed aliens and then divorce them. Ahead of us lay thousands of dollars in fees, dozens of forms that could not be correctly filled out even by Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel, fingerprints, medical examinations, the resurrection of ancient Mexican documents, and several trips to ins headquarters on the other side of the state. I began to fill out forms and make frequent long-distance calls during which I was put on hold for hours and given a different answer each time.
With the arrival of summer and the onset of the brief Nebraska tourist season, Cristina began to work with me in the hotel kitchen. The hours were more reliable, it was a better environment in which to practice her English, and we could spend more time together. We’d get off late and go home to our dark house (on which we were now paying rent), wash off the grease, salve our cuts and burns, open a beer or two, and watch movies whose dialogue for the most part she couldn’t follow. Cable is a must for young newlyweds who don’t speak each other’s language well.
Every day Cristina seemed to like America less. She appreciated our power, culture, and wealth, but the Americans she observed — especially in films — were too predatory, mercenary, cold, coarse, bitter, vulgar, violent, and corrupt; too Night of the Living Dead. And it was true. Anyone could see that the splendor of America had faded, that it had become a tired, overweight, depressed, profane, and complaining nation. Almost all the resources once reserved for lofty goals now went toward repaying debt and repairing the gaping breaches created by its empire-sized desires.
Cristina’s mind often drifted, like a child who has wandered too far from camp, and I’d find her staring at the primeval forests of Cristinaland. Even when conversational, she was in the habit of starting sentences and not finishing them.
“If you want, we can . . .”
We can what?
“Let’s walk faster. It’s too . . .”
Twenty seconds. Too what?
“I wish I could . . .”
Three beats. Half a measure. “I wish you could too.”
My wife wanted to have sex most nights. That was a bicycle I had not ridden for a long time, and the chain was pretty rusty, the handlebars bent. For most of the green valley of my youth I’d been drunk or high, and it was difficult for me to perform otherwise, but I tried to please her. Often we had long, fevered foreplay followed by a flop in the first act. She cried and took the blame. She wasn’t sexy, she said. She wasn’t like the American girls.
We visited the doctor. I explained my problem, which I thought I’d solved long ago by forfeiting the game. The doctor nodded and rubbed his goatee. He spoke about sex surrogates, implants, and psychologists. (Horrors!) “But we’ll try the Viagra first,” he said.
“Good,” I said. If the Viagra doesn’t work, I thought, I can always kill myself.
A boner pill — even if it drops your blood pressure, gives you a headache, and makes you feel flushed and dried out — is a true marvel. Flaccid middle-aged men must have lain in their beds and dreamed of such an invention for a hundred thousand years. Think of how much more territory the Romans or the Macedonians might have been able to conquer with that mighty blue pill. A dose lasts about eight hours, and after taking one I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a splendid woody, ideal for hanging coffee cups on but of no real use for sleeping. I’d get up for a glass of water, steering my unwieldy appendage before me as I made my way through the darkness into the kitchen.
Judging from the Viagra ads everywhere, I knew I was one of millions, but I still felt ashamed getting the prescription filled. Buying condoms is embarrassing, but at least you’re saying, I’m virile; I’m capable. If you’re buying Viagra, you’re saying, I am unable to achieve the only evidence of manhood recognized by this society. So I tried to function without it whenever possible. And then one night, without the Viagra, a bit of magic and wham! A month later Cristina began feeling nauseated. We got a home test kit and confirmed that she was pregnant.
Cristina had been pleading with me to have a baby, but I’d been telling her I wasn’t ready; I wanted to publish a book first. Perhaps two. Now here I was, forty-six and about to become a father. Well, I liked children. Of course I’d be slobbering in a wheelchair at his high-school graduation while all his friends said, “So nice your grandfather could attend.” But I vowed to do my best. Maybe the greatest opportunity for learning, better even than travel or hardship, is raising a child. It’s another try at growing up, but from a different perspective. The fates had given me one more chance to get it right. And I’d write as many books as I could so that there would be some trickle of pennies coming in beyond my days, and my child could say, Yes, he was an author. So what if you’ve never heard of him.
When our neighbors decided to move, they offered to sell us their house — a real ranch home, circa 1920, with three bedrooms, a skylight in the dining room, a large backyard, and two enclosed porches — for thirty-three thousand dollars. This was the only price at which I could ever have afforded to become a homeowner. I don’t know how the average American does it: house, car, insurance, wedding ring, Viagra (eight bucks a pill!), new roof, water heater, washer and dryer, college tuition, and an antique hardwood dining-room table that weighs two hundred pounds and won’t fit through the front door. Say what you will, the American dream, even the discount version, is one expensive proposition.
But our new house was sunny and spacious and watertight, with good ghosts and tulips and clean drains and a dishwasher and a crab-apple tree and a gorgeous view of the railroad tracks and the prairie across the street. And I had my own room in which to write, so I could finally open all those boxes of manuscripts I’d been dragging around for years. It would be a fine place to raise a child.
I just wished it had made Cristina a little happier. I told myself that when she finally mastered the language, things would be different. Or when she got her driver’s license. Or when she had the baby. Or when she got her citizenship. It wasn’t as if we had the option to turn back now. Even if we’d wanted to return to Mexico, she couldn’t leave the U.S. for the next two years without invalidating her bid for citizenship.
So we whiled away the time practicing her English, watching movies, working at the restaurant in the evenings, and talking about the baby. In spite of my views on the corrupting influence of material possessions, I tried to make sure Cristina got whatever she wanted: an aquarium, a new television, a new bed, an antique china hutch. When she wanted a car, however, I resisted: We could not afford a car. We had just bought a house and all the other items I’ve mentioned. The prenatal and hospital-delivery bills would total more than nine thousand dollars.
But then the ins demanded that we make our first of many appearances in Omaha, 460 miles away. There was no economical way to get to Omaha from Chadron without a car. And soon we would need to drive to the hospital, and later to soccer games and chess matches. And maybe if I bought a car, Cristina would stop being so homesick, stop dreaming about zombies, stop retreating so often into Cristinaland.
So I visited the used-car lot and asked Rick, a friend of mine, for a cheap, reliable car. He showed us a Buick (no thanks) and two Subarus: an automatic with 130,000 miles and a standard transmission with 107,000 miles. I chose the standard. It got us to Omaha and back without a hitch. It was not a pretty car, but it ran well, the air conditioning worked, and it got better than thirty-five miles per gallon. I tried to teach my wife to drive it so that she could become an American, all alone in her car in bank lines and fast-food drive-throughs and traffic jams, yakking on her cellphone, punching the radio buttons, and melting the ice caps. But she didn’t take to the stick shift. She thought we should get another car, one with an automatic transmission. OK, hold on a sec, honey. Was not something recently said about a simple life?
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I got up late while my pregnant wife lingered in bed. Before starting breakfast I checked my e-mail and was met with Yahoo! pictures of the World Trade Center punctured and in flames. I hurried to turn on the television, where all major catastrophes since the assassination of JFK have been viewed over and over in slow motion. Watching the horrific footage, I had the same thoughts that millions of others had: Maybe we deserved this. Nothing will ever be the same again. What ever happened to the big, dumb, lovable America that bailed everyone out and asked for nothing in return? We must catch the bastards who planned this and put them in giant bird cages and dangle them from the New World Trade Center until they are covered in sea-gull shit.
My wife watched without emotion as the buildings collapsed and the people fled in horror. Crashing planes and balls of fire are Hollywood trademarks, so I didn’t know at first if she could distinguish this from entertainment. She did not know where New York City was. She asked me to translate. I explained to her who the God-confused people were who everyone thought had done this, the likely reasons why they had done it. Later I’d wonder how the men who’d designed and executed this plot, who’d lived here for five years and shopped and bicycled and played miniature golf and gone to strip clubs, had sustained their hatred for the U.S. Perhaps they’d been motivated by the very things I’d warned my young wife about: the selfishness, the emphasis on material values, the pervading sense of isolation, the deterioration of faith and family, the emphasis on winning at all costs, the rudeness, the subordination of beauty for profit, the sameness, the commercials everywhere you turn. . . .
Cristina’s mother called. Her sister called. They didn’t know where New York was either and hoped that she was not too close. After the 385th replay of the plane plowing into the second tower, my wife still watched impassively. Then it occurred to me that she was viewing this from the perspective of the Third World. This was a tower that did not represent her; that symbolized exclusion, privilege, and economic monarchy; that oversaw the factories that paid her countrymen three dollars an hour for labor for which Americans would be paid twenty. For her, a soulless, godless, corporate, venal, inaccessible monolith was falling. That was all.
A friend e-mailed her a few days later. The subject line read: “Viva Osama bin Laden!”
“What does this mean?” I demanded.
“It’s just a joke,” she said.
“That’s a strange joke,” I said.
We both watched the stock market plummet. Neither of us had any money in there. I had trouble explaining to Cristina what the stock market was: Well, see, these people who don’t actually work buy and sell pieces of companies. . . .
About a week after 9/11 Cristina and I took a belated honeymoon trip to Laughlin, Nevada, a small gambling resort along the Colorado River. The Subaru was not up to crossing the Rockies, so we traveled by bus. The freeways were empty. The airports were empty. Vegas, as we strolled through the downtown area on a two-hour layover, was empty. The stock market was still falling. Everyone was scared to death, and our bags were searched several times because a mixed-up Croat had knifed a bus driver a day or two before. The bus windows were so dirty you could barely see out. The Stars and Stripes were waving everywhere.
On the way, we sat in a McDonald’s, the gloomy and shocking headlines all around us. But nobody in the restaurant was talking about Osama bin Scarybeard and his insane plot to destroy the civilized world. The man had no sense of humor, and his concepts of God and justice reeked. The journalists who made their living preying on our emotions continued to talk him up, saliva on their lips, inflating his image, hailing him as a “mastermind” and so on, but to me and my wife and the rest of the diners in McDonald’s, Scarybeard was just another power-hungry pirate who wanted his name in the paper. We were bored with him and his humorless megalomania. He probably needed Viagra. We’d get him eventually (we thought at that point), put him in a pair of too-tight Calvin Klein jeans, pierce his nipples, set him in front of a TV, and force-feed him Pringles potato chips.
While we were in Laughlin, a model-airplane factory burned down, and everyone thought it was the terrorists. For the first time in my life Americans were not only frightened but seemed to be measuring the last days of the Republic. All the hysteria and emptiness was contagious, and Cristina finally became afraid too. She wondered what would happen to her family if America fell. What would happen to us? Who would she be?
© Robert Alexander
After 9/11, dealing with the INS changed from a bureaucratic nightmare into a labyrinth that even the Minotaur wouldn’t be able to negotiate. As our bumbling leaders continued to manipulate our doubts and fears to consolidate their power, immigration ground to a standstill. Xenophobia, as Scarybeard had hoped, was at an all-time high. No dark foreigners could be trusted, not even pregnant twenty-eight-year-old Catholic dentists. Nevertheless, we were already halfway to citizenship, and we couldn’t give up now.
On our second trip to the Omaha office of the ins (already splitting and morphing into the Department of Homeland Security) we were almost killed. It’s a nine-hour drive from Chadron to Omaha. Highway 20 is two lanes, undivided, not much traffic as a rule — not much humanity out that way, period. It was raining hard, and trucks passing in the other direction doused us in blinding sheets of water. The farmer pulling a trailer in front of me was going too slow. I peeked out, saw the way was clear, signaled, moved into the opposite lane, and accelerated to pass. The farmer signaled and began to make a left turn in front of me.
Somehow, my brakes irrelevant at that point, I managed to shoot the gap between the front of the farmer’s truck and the mailbox that marked the entrance to his acreage. Our Subaru went blasting off an embankment, Cristina and I both screaming our version of our last seconds on earth. A moment later we were stalled in the grassy mud of a ditch, and Cristina was yelling over and over, “My baby! My baby!” I jumped out to help her stand up. The farmer had parked and was shuffling down the grade toward us. He was a slow, rickety man of about sixty with a hook instead of a hand dangling from his shirt sleeve.
“I signaled,” he said.
“Yeah, you did,” I returned, “after I started to pass you.”
He shook his head and looked up at the rain. Somehow we were not hurt, and the car was miraculously intact. We didn’t have time for police and insurance reports and idiot farmers. If we missed the Omaha appointment, we would have to reschedule for months later and possibly have our case denied.
I got my frantic wife back into the car and drove up the steep, grassy bank and back onto the rainy highway. A few miles down the road I pulled over to survey the damage more thoroughly. The steering wheel was bowed where I’d gripped it to absorb the impact, a signal lamp had been knocked loose, and the license plate was bent, but that was it. On the dash was the cup of coffee I had bought ten minutes before I’d tried to pass the farmer. The top hadn’t even come off.
Cristina was still convinced that our child was badly damaged or killed.
“This is our baby,” I said, showing her the coffee cup. “The top didn’t even come off.”
We made it on time to the ins office, where the officials were nice to us after they’d inspected our pockets and learned that my wife was eleven days away from giving birth. We needed another document, but we were “getting close” — the way the donkey is getting close to the carrot on the stick.
I kept telling Cristina the baby was OK. (The doctor would confirm this on our return.) The womb was the ultimate shock absorber. Our necks were sore, and her chest hurt from where the shoulder harness had held her. Fortunately she hadn’t fastened the lap belt. I can’t explain our luck. I highly recommend a Catholic passenger in your Subaru.
Everyone said our child would be a girl. They knew by the way Cristina was carrying, by her craving for sweets, by the tilt of her eyebrows, and so on. My wife and I believed them. We even picked the name Isabela. Then it occurred to me, about three days before labor was to be induced, that most people are wrong. They invest in the wrong stock, bet on the wrong football team, make the wrong career choice, vote for the wrong president. They possess too strong a will to believe what should be true. I also realized that a girl would be too easy for me to raise. If I had a boy, I would be under the obligation to provide a masculine role model.
By the day Cristina delivered, I was the only one who thought that our child would be a boy. My wife was astounded when she saw the baby raised slippery red into the air with his doodlebug hanging down. The doctor handed me the scissors to cut the umbilical cord, and a little blood spurted onto my smock. He was not much of an Isabela, our son. We decided to name him after both of our fathers: Thomas Francisco.
Cristina bore down on her English studies when she realized that her son would soon be a native speaker, and she could not bear the thought of being unable to understand what he said to her. But even motherhood had not made her happy. She seemed little changed from the day she’d first arrived in the country of her dreams. The only time she ever glowed and smiled and laughed with sparkling eyes, besides on a shopping or gambling trip, was when she was on the phone to her family in Mexico. Occasionally I talked to her parents, too. Though I had trouble understanding their Spanish over the phone, I could identify key words and the usual phone dialogue. (So, how are you? How is your health? Is the boy doing well? Are you working on a book?) Once, when Cristina had stepped out of the room, I was emboldened to ask her mother, “Por qué está infeliz tu hija? Es mi culpa?” (Why is your daughter so unhappy? Is it my fault?)
Her mother, a broad, warm woman, laughed. “No, no. She is happy with you. She is the happiest she has ever been. She just worries. She has always been like that. Her father is like that too.”
To become a U.S. citizen, there is a five-year “continuous-residency” requirement — three years if you’re married to a citizen. When my wife’s notification of eligibility finally arrived, she was working for the state college as a janitor and receiving good benefits, some of which (pension and IRA) were likely being salted away somewhere in a tower in New York City.
I can’t say that marriage was a picnic on a sea cliff with roasted duck and a cold bottle of Pouilly Fuissé. We fought a lot. My wife still worried, still dreamed of zombies, still drifted away to Cristinaland. But her moods and behaviors were easier for me to understand now. And sprouts of optimism continued to appear: the proud way she drove herself to and from work; the proficient way she spoke English; her plans for the future (including travel, another degree, and a room added to the house); her devotion to our young son; the intense interest she took in the dozens of people she now knew; the expert way she operated a slot machine or filled out her NCAA-tournament brackets. She no longer feared that America would fall, or break her, or change her into someone she didn’t recognize.
Night after night she studied for the written portion of her naturalization exam. The list of a hundred possible questions had her the most concerned:
How many representatives are there in Congress?
How many times can a senator be reelected?
In what year was the Constitution adopted?
Name the two senators from your state.
How many amendments to the Constitution are there?
Which amendments address voting rights?
Who becomes president of the U.S. if the president and vice-president die?
Only my father, who’d taught government and civics most of his life, could have passed this test. Cristina was understandably nervous. We drove for the fourth time to cosmopolitan Omaha, now with our son in a car seat. INS functions were being funneled into the glittering neo-Roman extravaganza that was the new Department of Homeland Security building. We had the address, but I got lost, as is often the case. My wife navigates, map open on her lap, so she was the one who announced, “We are lost.”
“You must help me, dear,” I said. “I am an idiot. I have no sense of direction unless I am driving straight into the sun. Look, this is Second Avenue. We’re going down to L. And there is the lake over there. Should I drive into the lake?”
I knew for sure that something was amiss when we passed the sign that read, WELCOME TO IOWA. Still, we were on the right street. It was confusing. I found a policeman, who explained that some Nebraska addresses, because of the unusual partitioning of these river-bound states, are actually in Iowa.
About half a mile past the WELCOME TO IOWA sign, we pulled into the right parking lot. The Department of Homeland Security employees were out-of-the-way friendly. The wounds of 9/11 were healing. We sat in a lobby for a while, chatting with the other hopeful naturalization candidates, until my wife was summoned. It might be one to three hours, we were told. I gave Cristina a good-luck kiss, which she barely noticed; then I left to try to find some breakfast for our son. He was three years old and would eat only bacon. We walked the chilly streets of downtown Omaha, looking lucklessly for a breakfast place. I put Tom in the car and drove around and finally found a little drive-through diner that sold me a side order of bacon. The boy was happy.
When we got back, Cristina was waiting for us in the parking lot wearing a relieved smile. She had passed her test. They’d asked her only six questions, all easy ones, like “How many stars are there on the flag?” We went out and bought some wine to celebrate in the motel room that evening.
In the afternoon we returned to Homeland Security for the swearing-in ceremony. Two short patriotic films were shown. The roll was called. The citizens-to-be recited their oaths. There were two Sudanese, a redhead from the UK, two Vietnamese, two Salvadorans, one Russian, two Indians, and four Mexicans. The flag waved. Cameras flashed. There was much hugging and tears. Cristina, baby, where are you? Who are you now? My wife raised her hand and became an American.
I’ve just begun a relationship with a beautiful young Brazilian who has a good heart and a fine work ethic but no green card. So I was happy to read Poe Ballantine’s authentic, unpretentious essay on his problematic life with his Mexican wife [“Cristinaland,” November 2008]. I took issue with just a single word in the essay — the last one. He ended his piece by saying that after passing her citizenship test, Cristina became an “American.”
It’s worth pointing out that she was already an American — in fact, already a citizen of a North American nation comprising “united states”: the United Mexican States. We all know what Ballantine meant — we are the United States, the America — but it doesn’t keep me from squirming whenever the word American is used exclusively for citizens of our big, arrogant nation, and not for any of the numerous other nations that are every bit as American as we are.
I read Poe Ballantine’s “Cristinaland” with a strange sense of amusement. After becoming a father at forty-six, he imagines himself an old man at his son’s high-school graduation, slobbering in a wheelchair — at sixty-five. Is this just literary exaggeration? I’m seventy-seven and still substitute teaching and swimming competitively. I have no intention of quitting either activity for many years to come.
Maybe Ballantine and I should get together to crack a few beers and talk about how old is old.