From The New York Times, I’m Miya Lee.
Often, when people are first dating, they hide things about themselves in order to appear in the best light.
Right, they do. But in this essay, a woman has to hide a really essential part of herself in order to survive. And over time, that just takes a huge toll.
Before I was even old enough to have a boyfriend, I was trained to lie to him. My secret, my mother said, could be used against me. “You can never tell anyone you’re undocumented.”
When I was 11, my parents who had been living and working in the United States for years, brought me from Mexico to join them in Texas. Three years later, my U.S. visa expired, and I became one of 11 million undocumented people in this country.
I didn’t understand the implications of my immigration status, only that it was a weapon that could be used against me. The first time I lied was in 11th grade at a party with my crush, Chris. When the police arrived in response to a noise complaint, I took off running into the backyard and jumped the fence. He said I overreacted, not knowing I could be deported if I got caught.
My fear of discovery was ever-present: at school, where I excelled, in college, where I graduated cum laude, and in my first finance job in New York City, working for Goldman Sachs. When would my lies begin to unravel? Every phone call or email I got from human resources would make my blood run cold. Yet it never happened. After Chris, I lied to nearly every man I ever dated.
In college, I finally pushed aside my mother’s advice about hiding my status with the guy I was then seeing, who had driven me an hour to eat my favorite tacos. On the ride back to campus, I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t have papers.” I exhaled with relief over speaking the secret that had been crushing me for so long.
A few years later, after he and I moved from Texas to New York City, I discovered that he was cheating on me. I found the woman’s number and threatened to call it. “If you call her,” he said, “I’ll call ICE.”
After that, it took me years to share my immigration status again with anyone. The next time was when my father had passed away, and I couldn’t travel to Mexico to be with him. In a moment of desperation, I shared my undocumented status with my then boyfriend. “I can’t be here anymore,” I said, weeping. “I’m going to move back to Mexico.”
The pressures of my immigration status left us with two choices — break up or get married. We chose to elope so we could stay together in the United States, but after saying “I do,” our entire relationship became about filling out paperwork, meeting with lawyers and having interviews with immigration officials to prove our love. We never had a honeymoon. I became a U.S. citizen. But the years-long process extinguished our romance. And we eventually divorced.
More than a decade later, newly single, I downloaded Bumble and matched with a bearded hipster. After telling him about my past, I never heard from him again. Next, I swiped right on a handsome Mexican man with sun-kissed skin and a flirtatious smile. On our first date, he told me how he used to build fighting rings for his wrestling toys as a boy and now worked at an architecture office.
My mother would approve, but would she still want me to lie?
I told him I was a writer. There, one truth. And he told me about his travels to Europe. “I never traveled anywhere when I was younger,” he said. “And I knew as soon as I could afford it, I wanted to see the world.” My favorite trip had been the one I took to Mexico to see my family after getting my papers, but I couldn’t tell him that. Not yet.
Here I was, on my first date with woody, kind-hearted Fernando, wishing I could unburden myself and speak honestly. But I was too scared to trust that it wouldn’t ruin everything before it began. So once again, I chose the lie of omission.
Soon, it was 2:00 a.m. and the restaurant was closing, seven hours after we arrived. “I had a great time,” I said. “When can I see you again?” he said.
A few weeks and many dates later, I was headed to Antigua for my best friend’s wedding with a layover in New York. As soon as I landed at J.F.K., I realized I didn’t have my U.S. passport, which I would need for my flight the next morning. I panicked. I found out the only way for me to make the wedding was if someone were to drive my passport to L.A.X. and place it on the last overnight flight to J.F.K., a service I didn’t even know existed.
Fernando’s office was only a few miles away from my apartment, but I hesitated to ask him for help. My U.S. passport was in the same drawer as my Mexican one, which I had not updated since my divorce. Mexican passports for married women require them to list their husband’s last name. I hadn’t told Fernando about my first marriage.
Now, he might see my name next to my ex-husband’s.
What if Fernando saw that and thought I was still married? Would he ever let me explain?
I thought about all the friends’ weddings I missed because I couldn’t travel outside the country and how much I regretted not being there for the people I loved. I couldn’t do it again.
If Fernando eventually came to love me, he would need to understand or at least accept my need to hide the more difficult points of my life. I called him.
“OK,” he said, “I’m on it. Tell me what to do.” I gave him the combination to my catsitter’s lockbox for keys and explained where to find my passport.
The next morning, I picked it up from the airline counter and boarded my flight. As we ascended, I decided I would tell Fernando everything when I returned. I was tired of the evasion and lies. I am an American citizen. And if I couldn’t finally be free of my past, then all those years of anxiety would be for naught.
Maybe Fernando would run, as had so many others, when he learned the truth — that I had spent more than 10 years undocumented, that I had used fake papers to work at Goldman Sachs, that I was divorced at 33. Would it all be too much? Would he ever trust me?
Romance may thrive on mystery, but love can’t be built on lies.
When I got back home — and what a glorious word that is, home — I met Fernando at a quiet bar down the street from my apartment. We sat on a red velvet couch, his hand resting on my lap as I told him about the wedding in Antigua and thanked him for rescuing my passport. Then I paused and bit my lip.
“Is everything OK?” he said.
“I have to tell you something,” I said. “I’ll answer your questions, but let me finish.”
He set up. “OK,” he said, but he never let go of my hands.
As the truth flowed from me, backfilling my past, he never looked away, never raised an eyebrow, never signaled any judgment.
“That’s it?” he said. “I thought you were going to tell me you killed someone.” He pulled my hands toward his face and kissed it. “Life is complicated.”
He didn’t ask where I bought my fake papers, why my parents didn’t fix my immigration status, or why I hadn’t gone back to Mexico if things were so difficult here.
Instead, at the end of the night, he asked me the same question he had asked after our first date. “When can I see you again?”
I had spent so many years keeping people at arm’s length, believing that isolating myself was necessary. I carried a heavy load of guilt over all the lies I told to stay in this country, to grasp onto the few crumbs of love I was given. I accepted crumbs instead of looking for a whole person, someone who understood that love, for those of us who have to hide the truth to survive, sometimes drives us to take seemingly indefensible actions.
For my entire life, I believed finding love was all up to me.
If only I could figure out the perfect formula of what to omit, what to say, and how and when to say it, love would be mine.
But what I really needed was a husband who doesn’t judge me, fault me, or question the difficult choices I made to carve out a life in America.
Now that I have found a home in Fernando’s heart, I refuse to hide or apologize for any of it.
After the break, we hear two stories from our listeners, Greg Cope White and Valentina Marinovich, who were both separated from their partners by national borders during the pandemic.
I’m Greg Cope White. I’m a screenwriter and author and a U.S. Marine. My partner and I have been together almost 15 years. His name is Bob. He lives in Montreal. I live in Santa Monica.
So when Covid hit, we were stuck. We’ve been apart since January 20, 2020.
My name is Valentina, I’m a fashion designer. I was 10 months separated from my boyfriend, Rafa, due to the pandemic. You’re going to laugh, but I actually met him on the street. So I was dating someone else on the moment. And we just crossed paths in a red light in New York. I immediately realized that he had an accent same as me. So I asked where he was from, and he was from Spain. And I told that I was from Chile.
He wanted to know more, and we went to have a drink. And then we had dinner. And, well, he was leaving the next day. And we kept messaging and texting for a month. Then I broke up with my boyfriend. And we have been together since then, so, like, four years. And after that, we kept the relationship, like, long distance because I was in school, and he was working in Madrid. But we would see each other pretty often.
So in March of 2020, when we thought we were ready and he was going to move with me, the visa was approved, and everything was done. The pandemic hit. The consulates closed. The borders started closing. And he couldn’t travel. We were trapped. I was trapped in the United States, and he was in Spain. And that’s how the kind of nightmare started.
Early on, when the border closed, we thought it was going to be over in a month, six weeks. We were used to that. We’d done that. I was like everybody else. I was going to treat the quarantine, the brief 30-day quarantine, as a reboot. I was going to do yoga every day, read the stack of books that I hadn’t gotten to. I was going to learn how to bake bread, all those things. Just another month apart. Boom, boom, easy. We’ve done that.
I used to work in a big fashion company. And they were really, really hit due to the pandemic. So I decided to go back to Chile and wait for my boyfriend there. When I arrived, I realized that the borders were also closed there. And when the exception for married couples was granted, we decided that we wanted to get married to be able to see each other again. So the only option for us — because Rafa was in Spain and I was in Chile — was a proxy marriage.
OK, so how proxy marriages work is basically you need to find a person to represent your husband or wife in the country. So I found someone that was willing to do it, because it cannot be, for example, your brother. So there was one person in my same situation. So I asked Miguel that I could represent his girlfriend, and he would represent Rafa.
So that day, I was really nervous. And I remember being in the car, talking to Miguel, which I’ve only seen one time before. But it made me feel better, just because we were in the same position. And I knew how nervous he was. And I could see it. I could see his voice trembling. So just the fact of having someone in your same boat made it easier.
We have a practice that we do, where we spend every night together on Skype. Every day at 6:30 his time — which is East Coast —
30 my time, I put on a live Skype cooking show. I spend a lot of time. All the onions, the peppers, the carrots, they’re all in little separate dishes. And I begin cooking. Now, he’s a really good cook, so he’s watching me. He’s asking me, “Is that salt? Don’t burn the fish.”
And by the end of 20, 30 minutes, I’ve got a complete dinner ready to go that I’ll eat in about an hour and a half. And I let that sit. And I move the laptop into the living room or the dining room. And I sit down and enjoy talking to him while he eats whatever he’s cooked.
So we got married in this tiny office while my boyfriend was in the dentist, which was terrible. So I’m not going to say that it was romantic because it wasn’t. And then I just like WhatsApped him, hey, we’re married now. You cannot regret it anymore. So that was it. It was so weird.
After, I think, three weeks, he got his exception to travel to Chile. The airport was completely empty. I arrived there three hours before just to make sure that I wouldn’t miss him or something. So as soon as the doors opened, I saw him. I kind of run to him, and I hug him. And so we hugged for five minutes. And it all came back to me, like the smell, the feeling of his beard against my cheeks. So it was such a happy moment and knowing that it was mine, that they couldn’t take it away.
I have played our reunion over and over again in my head. As a writer, I do kind of envision these things maybe a little more elaborately than other people do. Whitney Houston is there in the living room live, singing. Dolly Parton is playing a tambourine. The whole soundtrack just swells as I come in the room. And he’s just overcome with the sight. And I just can’t get the words out. We’re just so excited. But I know, in fact, what’s going to happen is I’m just going to grab him and hold him. And my voice is going to crack, just like it is now.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, with help from Hans Buetow and Elyssa Dudley. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. The executive producer is Wendy Dorr. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. Original music by Elisheba Ittoop and Marion Lozano. This week’s essay was written by Julissa Arce and read by Frankie Corzo. Greg Cope White and Valentina Marinovich shared their Covid love stories.
Special thanks to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick and Ryan Wegner at Audm.
And I’m Miya Lee. This was our last episode of the season. We’ll be back in the fall with more stories from Modern Love. Thank you so much for listening.