And without hesitation he says, “I loved her very much.” She says, “Good, because now we just have to prove it.”
We met in a dive bar in Brooklyn in 2009. I walked in, and I saw a guy with messy hair, a big coat, holding a beer. He saw me, lowered his beer and said: “Oh, wow.”
He was relentless, making jokes and talking, but it was impossible to ignore him because he was just so free. We talked for hours. I asked him about a scar on his forehead, and his face changed like I had unlocked something. I kissed him.
Actually, I threw myself at his mouth, and he stopped me and said: “That’s not how you kiss.”
I didn’t have a second to process the criticism before he said, “This is how you kiss.” He started over by my ear, he dragged his lips over my cheeks and then kissed me. 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. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, my bedroom was covered in Post-It notes that said “Csaba.”
Csaba on the wall. Csaba on the lamp. Everywhere Csaba.
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 visas, green cards, renewals . . . 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’d gotten divorced. He did get a green card in the mail, but they’d made a mistake, and his name was on it but the face was of an Asian woman. 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 heard from immigration.
By the time I met Csaba, he had been out of status for most of his 20s. He couldn’t travel, couldn’t go anywhere where he might be asked for papers.
No driver’s license, get paid in cash. Don’t get arrested. And you can’t go home, not unless you want to stay there.
In those first few months together, we tossed around the idea of having a lawyer look at his case. But it cost hundreds, and we never had it, and we thought: Let’s just cross that bridge when we come to it.
Then the bridge came to us. I came home one evening, and he was sitting on the couch staring at the wall. 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 case or leave the country within 60 days or be deported.
I read that notice over and over, staring at that word “Removal,” trying to imagine my life without this man that I had met six months earlier.
We barely spoke that night. We showered holding hands. We slept molded to one another.
That brought us to the lawyer’s office. 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 an elementary-school teacher from New Jersey.
The first time I saw Csaba in a suit was in his wedding photos. I pored over 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 day I couldn’t avoid it anymore and I had to go to the source. I muted the TV, sat down next to him, and asked how they met. Did he know right away that he loved her? How did he propose?
He took a deep breath and told me about the barbecue where they met and how they fell fast. The proposal was simple, nothing special. I took notes.
“Did you guys write love letters to each other like we do?”
Every time it stung -- and I just applied more pressure, more phone calls, more research. When the filing deadline came, I packed everything up and sent it to the lawyers. The case was filed. I had spent weeks plucking at his heartstrings, and now all there was to do was wait.
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. Instead, I felt like a third wheel in theirs. 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.
When Csaba came home, 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 proved it too well to him. Maybe our love story was just a small part of their bigger love story.
I thought I could really get hurt here.
But 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, I sat up in the back and watched Csaba stand before the judge, standing up for his life and his loves and his mistakes and his future. I saw a strength that I hadn’t seen before.
I prayed that it would go quickly. The judge went over the evidence of love that we had given him. There was a little bit of back-and-forth. Then he looked up and said: “Welcome to America” and called the next case.
Csaba turned to me, 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. A sparkle 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.