April 24, 2020 by Anne Ruelle

The Waiting Place

My name is Anne Ruelle. I am the “petitioning spouse,” if you ask US Citizenship and Immigration Services. I married my partner, Rafael, on March 29, 2019 (if you consult the Civil Registry of Santa Ana, El Salvador) and March 30, 2019 (if you ask the pictures, date of the wedding, and the ceremony that mattered). On May 3, 2019, I sent in the I-130 form and supporting documents to begin the application process for Rafa’s green card. I was still in my first year of a master’s program at the University of Chicago, with a studio in Hyde Park a block from Lake Michigan. At that point, we had already been living long-distance for a year, and calculated that it would take roughly a year for immigration to come through. 

We met when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador, in 2014. I got my residency and work permit in El Salvador when my two years of Peace Corps ended and found the job I still love, at ConTextos. We hiked all over El Salvador and Guatemala together, traveled to Patagonia, Colombia, Minnesota, and Mexico. I told him I was a feminist and feminists don’t need marriage. He poked at my seriousness and teased me. He made me “migraine sandwiches” when my head felt like it was going to explode. He held me and never held me back. He pushed—led—me over waterfalls.

Every verb about us is in the past tense now, but he’s not dead. I moved back to the US because of a family crisis (my little sister had a brain tumor) and to go to graduate school. My sister healed quickly and I moved to Chicago. My dad severed a nerve in his calf with a chainsaw, I came home, and he shoo-ed me away. He was fine. 

Rafa and I saw each other every three months or so, around my school vacations. I always knew I wanted him in my life, for the rest of my life. Feminist or not, we were citizens of different countries. Marriage was the only way we would have a chance. We got engaged over winter break and married three months later over spring break. Rafa did the planning, and I showed up with a white bridesmaid dress I bought online, and a bilingual script for the symbolic ceremony. My father-in-law was in a panic on our wedding day because the priest hadn’t arrived, but he was never invited. At our “civil marriage,” a small man gave us a sermon that no one asked for, that strongly suggested I should tolerate Rafa’s inevitable infidelity. We both tried hard to keep a straight face. Later, abuelita, Rafa’s 98 year-old grandma, told my mom that she hoped she would be very happy in her marriage to Rafa. She had gotten us mixed up. My dad and my brother drank a lot of beer and played along with events they mostly did not understand, but supported. My mom and my sister danced and jumped up and down, and gave us thin mints for our honeymoon suite. 

A month later, in May, I submitted the first round of immigration papers. Marriage does not confer automatic residency or citizenship to the spouse. It actually confers a whole lot of ambiguity. I finished my first year of graduate school, began my second year internship in Colombia, turned 29, met up with Rafa in Bolivia and Chile to travel, returned to Colombia, and received notification in late October that our first documents had been processed. 

In December, the National Visa Center requested the next set of documents—background checks, birth certificates, marriage certificate, financial documents proving that Rafa would not become a public charge. The Trump administration attempted to make two executive orders, one about the public charge rule and one requiring that immigrants already have or have the capacity to purchase their own health insurance so they don’t leech off of our superior healthcare system (please note the sarcasm). Both of these were in the midst of our application and cast huge uncertainty over the whole process. “Uncertainty” is devastating. It disconnects each vertebra from my spine and breaks my posture into a cower. Even then, we got the documents together and submitted them by the second week in December. 

I saw Rafa again, for two weeks, for Christmas. We spent Christmas on the beach, I made sugar cookies with my new nieces, we realized the beach Airbnb didn’t actually have a road leading up to it. We got a ride in on my brother-in-law’s pickup but had to carry everything out the next day like carpenter ants, including abuelita. Rafa threw her on his back, piggyback style. 

I returned to Chicago and began classes again. It’s January 2020. At the end of January, we were informed that we had to make corrections on some of the forms we had submitted. That I had submitted. So because a pdf wasn’t formatted just right, we were sent back to the bottom of the pile. 

Never tell me that it’s gone by so quickly. How dare you. 

Then, it was March 2020. In my best laid timeline, by now the US Embassy in El Salvador would be scheduling his interview soon. He would be here by my graduation. I didn’t really care about him being at my graduation, I cared about him being here as soon as possible, by summer. I thought 10-12 months was a realistic timeline, like the planes de trabajo (work plans) I make in grant writing. You know they’re going to change a little, but not compromise the whole project. 

Rafa was in two accidents during his commute to work. He’s a pediatrician in one of El Salvador’s semi-private hospitals (all care at these hospitals is paid for through mandatory payments out of paychecks, for those with formal work). He drives 1.5-2 hours each direction to the hospital on reckless highways. In his first crash this year, he was rear-ended and got bad whiplash. After a week of paid sick leave, a semi-truck crashed into him on his commute home. He broke three ribs, was hospitalized, and was given another month of sick leave. And I could do nothing but cry. My best friend came to Chicago to eat waffles with me, and my work continued.  

And now the virus that seemed so far away, that we were tired of hearing about before it even got here, has blown everything up. My flight to El Salvador for spring break, for our anniversary and Rafa’s birthday, was cancelled. The president of El Salvador closed their borders to foreigners. Chicago and Illinois declared a shelter-at-home order. 

I got a puppy—if I got quarantined, it would be with a dog. It was the right choice and it almost broke me, having to figure out how to housebreak her and keep her from destroying the apartment alone. Within two days, Rafa begged me to go home to Minnesota to at least be isolated with my family. I listened, and he said, “See? Listen to me sometimes, sometimes I’m right.” And he was. Sometimes the scariest part of the waterfall is the safety at the bottom.  

His first day back at work after healing his ribs was the day after the president of El Salvador declared a national emergency for COVID-19. Rafa’s seen other epidemics: influenza, dengue, H1N1, zika, chikungunya, plus the constant diarrheas and infections from non-potable water. He’s informed and he continued researching how to protect himself and his family; he lives with his elderly parents and grandmother. In the semi-public hospital, it was up to each individual person to protect themselves as they saw fit. There was no institutional leadership, no consensus about the required measures to be taken. 

And there was still no news from immigration about the most recent documents. Was immigration (the National Visa Center) even working? Evaluating digital documents might not be essential work, but it is definitely work that can be done from home. I fretted, cried, shook my fist at the sky. Futility. There is no one to call for these things, no customer service, nada. You just wait. 

Until casually in your email you get notifications. On April 3rd, we found out that indeed, they had evaluated our documents and ACCEPTED THEM. Now, the US Embassy in El Salvador would schedule Rafa’s interview, the last step. But they won’t. Everything is closed, everyone is social distancing and staying at home. Green card interviews certainly are not going on as usual. So this was great news. And it meant nothing. It is still impossible to see each other.

Last week, Rafa texted me. On the way to work, a motorcyclist pulled a gun on him because he was driving too slowly. And a coworker, another doctor, who “didn’t believe” in COVID-19 had tested positive. This kind of news seems uniquely possible there; decades-old violence is high in the best of times and everyone’s trauma responses are even more evident now. My experience taught me that many people, like Rafa, are resilient to a fault, but it also taught me that this comes at a cost. We didn’t even talk about the motorcyclist because that threat was already over. 

Rafa was tested and taken to a quarantine center to wait for the results, where he organized with his coworkers to request donations of food and water. They went 20 hours before they were given water, in 90+ degree heat and humidity. There are a slew of abuses, inconsistencies, and plain sloppy practices throughout the system. He’s not safe there, he’s not safe anywhere. I can’t protect him anywhere, either. 

I’m on a different planet. I’m taking classes from home, going for walks in a Minnesota spring amongst songbirds and fat robins. I’m bingeing on cookies and watching Gilmore Girls every night while I do puzzles, crochet, and cuddle with my puppy. Today, I mostly just cried. I was on a Zoom call and just turned off my mic and camera. I cried, then moved to the couch and cried there. I went on three walks. I didn’t do a single thing—except, says my sister, take her pretzels out of the oven for her. And I wrote this. And I cried more, and talked to friends. I have been given this incredible grace and space to feel and be protected, not pressured. 

I just want to get this over with. I want to learn some things from a couple of classes, but I don’t care about so many things. I used to be sure of myself and confident about caring, self-discipline, performing hard and well. My fear is so big right now—COVID-19 does kill the young and healthy, sometimes. I asked Rafa for a list of his bank accounts last night, just in case, because we haven’t made a will or written health care directives. I’m not even 30 yet. 

On my wall in Chicago, I have a beautiful canvas where a friend stitched “March On.” I am not marching. I’m crawling on a good day. And I am tired. So tired. Can we just get this over with? I’ve already imagined a million tragedies for how this will end, written 100 tragic love stories that make me cry harder than The Notebook. And I still have to wake up every day like it matters. I sent in my acceptance to University of Chicago to start a PhD program in the fall. My brother started a new job. My sister committed to college at Notre Dame. We drank champagne to celebrate, champagne that was left over from my engagement. 

It feels like everything about Rafa and me is in the past. Past, preterit and imperfect. We have no future plans because what is there to plan? What calendar can I write them on, color-coded and certain? 

Every day is different and yet everything is the same; we’re one day closer to the end and things are one day more terrifying because there’s some new catastrophe. In the time that I’ve written this, an executive order has closed immigration, though they say that cases like ours will still be allowed. It’s not just about that, though, it’s about what that executive order means, and what it means is that people like Rafa aren’t welcome.  

I am the petitioning spouse, and in a lot of ways it feels like “petition” is all I am allowed to do. But now, I am less and less certain that an answer is coming. 

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