I’m standing in the conference room of an immigration law firm reading the asylum cases that are framed on the wall, and keeping one eye on my boyfriend, who’s pacing. Six months ago I didn’t even know this man, and now I am clutching his deportation notice with both hands.
Two lawyers come in and the whole story unfolds. I’m taking notes furiously.
One of the lawyers asks, “Did you love her?”
And without hesitation he says, “I loved her very much.”
She says, “Good, because now we just have to prove it.”
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I write that down: Prove love for ex-wife, and circle it.
We met in a dive bar in Brooklyn. There were flames painted on the outside. I walked in, and I saw a guy.
He’s got messy hair, a big coat, he’s holding a beer. He sees me, lowers his beer and says, “Oh wow.”
I go directly to the bar, but I can feel the coat hovering behind me. He offers to buy me a drink, and I sense a hint of an accent.
I try to find somewhere else to sit, but there isn’t one, so when I walk back he greets me with open arms and says, “They always come back!”
He was relentless, making jokes and talking, but it was impossible to ignore him because he was just so free. So I gave in, and we talked for hours.
At one point our bodies stopped facing the bar and started facing each other. I asked him about a scar that he had on his forehead, and his face changed like I had unlocked something, and I kissed him.
Actually, I threw myself at his mouth, and he stopped me and said, “That’s not how you kiss.”
And I didn’t have a second to process the criticism before he said, ”This is how you kiss.” He started over by my ear and he dragged his lips over my cheeks and then kissed me, and I burst into tears. I wasn’t sure if I was crying because I hadn’t been kissed in a really long time or if I had just never been kissed like that before.
He came home with me that night, and as I was about to take off our clothes I asked him, um, “What’s your name again?”
I made him say it slowly.
“Like someone is chubby.”
I went to the bathroom, and I came back, and my bedroom was covered in Post-It Notes that said Csaba.
Csaba on the wall.
Csaba on the lamp.
We stayed up all night talking and fooling around like teenagers until the dawn got us. He fell asleep, but I stayed awake, holding this man that I had just met, and connecting the freckles on his back like I was tracing a constellation, but a new one, ours.
Exactly one week later I looked at him, and the words just fell out, “I love you.”
He looked at me and he said, “I love you, too.”
And that was that.
Csaba is from Hungary. I am from Australia. When I meet Americans the question is always: Where are you from?
But when I meet foreigners the question is: How are you here?
The response is either a mishmash of words like visas, green cards, renewals, O-1, H1, J1. . . or silence. And the silence means: I don’t want to talk about it. I can’t talk about it. It’s all I think about.
Csaba was the latter. When I met Csaba I already had my green card, and he had nothing. He was out of status.
He had been married to an American girl years before, but they had divorced. And he did get a green card in the mail, but they made a mistake, and his name was on it, but the face was of an Asian lady. The letter said that if the information on the card is incorrect, send it back, and he did.
And that’s the last thing he ever heard from immigration.
By the time I met Csaba he had been out of status for years. He couldn’t travel.
No driver’s license, get paid in cash. Don’t get arrested, no red flags. And you can’t go home, not unless you want to stay there and not come back.
In those first few months when we were together we threw out the idea of having a lawyer look at the case, like maybe there was something that could be done. But it cost hundreds, and we never had it, and we just thought: let’s just cross that bridge when we come to it.
And then the bridge came to us.
I came home and he was sitting on the couch staring at the wall, and he didn’t speak or turn. He just held up a piece of paper, Letter of Removal. Csaba had to appear in deportation court and plead his caseor leave the country within 60 days or be deported anyway.
I read that notice over and over, staring at that word ‘removal’, trying to imagine my life without this man that I had just met six months earlier, and the air left the room.
We barely spoke that night. We showered holding hands. We slept molded to one another.
That brought us to the lawyer’s office. In order to keep Csaba in the country, and for us to be together, we had to prove that even though his marriage had ended in divorce, it had been real, which meant finding evidence that he had loved her, finding evidence that my new boyfriend had loved a blonde elementary school teacher from New Jersey.
The first time I saw Csaba in a suit was in his wedding photos. We hadn’t even celebrated an anniversary, but in those photos my boyfriend looked good. I poured over photos of wedding invitations, searched for insurance records. I called their dentist, anything I could to prove their relationship.
The entire time I did so as the anonymous detective and not the new girlfriend, because we both knew that it would muddy the case. But it also gave me this sense of remove, until one dayI couldn’t avoid it anymore, and I had to go to the source. I muted the TV, I sat down next to him, and I asked how they met, and if he knew right away, and how he proposed.
He took a deep breath, and he told me about the barbecue that they met at, and how they fell fast. The proposal was simple, nothing special. I focused on taking notes.
“Did you guys write love letters to each other like we do?”
Please say no.
“Did you keep any?”
Please say yes.
Every time it stung I just applied more pressure, more emails, more phone calls, more research, until the filing deadline came, and I packed everything up and sent it to the lawyers, and the case was filed. I had spent weeks reaching into his heart and plucking at his heart strings, and now all there was to do was wait.
But wait with who? I knew that this could take years, and Csaba was no longer the free and playful guy from the bar that night. I had stopped feeling like I was in our relationship, and I felt like a third wheel in theirs. It was like I looked at him, and I could see in his mind that he had already started packing.
I wanted to shake him and say, “Why are you giving up? Don’t you want to stay here with me?”
Before the court date there was an interview, and in place of his ex-wife, who couldn’t be there, her parents went to vouch for their former son-in-law.
Csaba and I took the subway in, and we walked to Federal Plaza, but we stopped a few blocks short, and I said it so he didn’t have to, “They probably shouldn’t see me.”
That was the plan. It was the right thing to do. It was my idea. But in that moment I wanted him to grab my hand and take me anyway. Make a scene like in a John Hughes movie.
But he said, “Go home. I’ll see you in the afternoon.”
When I saw him he said it had gone fine, but he didn’t want to talk about it, and he was different. It was like a spark was back, and it hit me: I had spent so much time, worked so hard to prove this love to the court, maybe I had proven it too well to him. Maybe our love story was just a small part of their bigger love story.
And I thought: Oh, I could really get hurt here.
But the truth was is that I loved him, I’d never loved anyone as much as I loved him, and I wanted him to be free.
On the day of the court hearing we met our lawyer in the lobby, and she was wearing a waistcoat that had little embroidered cowboy boots on it. If she wasn’t the smartest woman I’d ever met, I would have panicked. I sat up in the back and watched Csaba stand before the judge.
I know that I had done so much to get him to that point, but it wasn’t me standing up there, it was him, standing up for his life and his loves and his mistakes and his future. I saw a strength that I hadn’t seen before, and that guy, that guy, looked great in a suit.
I prayed that it was going to go quick. Whatever the outcome, make it quick. The judge went over the box of relationship that we had given him, and there was a little bit of back and forth, and it was quick.
He looked up long enough to say, “Welcome to America,” and then he called the next case.
Csaba turned to me, and he smiled, and I knew that he was back.
It took a while for it to sink in that it was over, that we weren’t being torn apart. We were just us. And a spark had gone, but we had uncovered something even better.
These days Csaba prefers to sleep molded to one another like we used to, but I can’t. I’m not a snuggler.
But I made him a deal. “I’ll lay my hand on your back.”
I don’t have to trace the constellation anymore. I know it by heart.
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