Line of sight
Officer Ana became instantly annoyed upon seeing the couple. They radiated happiness as they entered, gripping each other’s hands. Something about the lacing of their fingers unsettled her. They also dressed up for the occasion. The husband—a native of the Dominican Republic—donned a gray suit and white shirt adorned with a robin egg blue tie. The wife, an American citizen who with her wavy jet black hair, olive skin, and freckles appeared racially ambiguous to Officer Ana, wore black trousers and a linen top that obnoxiously matched the color of the husband’s tie.
Officer Ana did not smile. It wasn’t her job to be welcoming.
As she has done with the hundreds of couples preceding this one, she swore them in and had them seated before her. Stacks of folders teetered on her glossy wooden desk and three empty coffee mugs huddled near her computer monitor. One of the mugs, which she meant to throw away soon, read “Aşkım”—“my love” in Turkish. And as she has always done before the start of an interview, Officer Ana tossed her cell phone into her desk drawer, ignoring the last five messages and counting from her husband.
The couple drank in Officer Ana’s cluttered desk with curiosity, perhaps even concern. They knew how much weight her assessment bore on their case. Her arms parted the sea of folders to create a line of sight. She had their file at the ready and began mechanically leafing through their documents—the I-134 form for the wife to declare her financial support of the husband—and the I-485 form for him to register permanent residence.
Officer Ana then launched into her usual questioning in order to suss out whether or not their marriage was fraudulent.
“What is your address?” she asked the husband.
“75-2—” the wife began.
“Excuse me,” Officer Ana told the woman. She put her right hand up. “I didn’t ask you. I asked him.”
Officer Ana then looked over at the beneficiary and asked if he knew his address. As he recited it, she peered down to confirm it was correct.
The officer told the wife that she should only answer what’s asked of her, and the husband should only answer what’s asked of him.
“I’m sorry,” the wife uttered.
“I don’t want your apology,” Officer Ana responded tersely.
As it turned out, she had enough of those. Mea culpas at first sprinkled her home, then strung like pearl necklaces around her neck, nearly choking her. Emir’s apologies infested the third-floor walkup apartment he and Ana shared. She had spilled her fair share of sorries, too, but now she was just emotionally drained.
“Where did you two meet?”
The husband and wife looked at one another. He was out one night with friends when they stopped by a diner on the edge of town. She emerged from the kitchen to serve them. When she brought them glasses of water, he was the only one of the three men who looked her in the eye when he thanked her. She loved that. And to him, she embodied beauty—even in a simple apron, even with a weathered face at the tail end of a winding workday.
For Officer Ana, a simple “at the diner the wife worked at” would have sufficed. She didn’t need nor want to know all the nauseating details.
But their answer made her think back to how she and Emir met: through a mutual friend who was hosting a birthday party for her beagle. Ana almost didn’t go because of how ridiculous she thought it was—celebrating a dog as if it was a real child. But she still went and was amused to find this gorgeous man with dark hair kneeling on the floor to play with the birthday beagle. Ana later introduced herself to Emir, and they ended up talking for hours. Three dates later, once the liquor hit, they found themselves tangled on his bed, neither caring who heard their loud pleasure through his paper-thin walls.
“So you met at a diner. When was this?”
The husband glanced over at his wife. He wanted to say the end of June, beginning of July? The wife’s dark eyebrows scrunched together in thought. Officer Ana picked up on the woman’s nervousness, how she dug her right thumbnail into the palm of her left hand. The wife said it was the end of June because it was during that month that she had reached five years at the diner.
From Officer Ana’s drawer came a dull vibration. It was most likely another text from Emir. She excused herself before angling her phone to read his message: “Can we talk when you get home? Please.”
She clicked the phone to darken the screen again.
“Was it June or July?” Officer Ana asked. She clasped her hands and placed them atop her desk. She leaned forward, her eyes playing tennis between the two.
The wife appeared nervous. “It was the end of June,” she said again. The husband nodded in agreement.
Officer Ana warned the couple that there are severe penalties for lying to her, a U.S. federal officer. She said she could separate them if needed and ask them each the same set of questions—then see if their answers matched. She asked if they wanted to withdraw their petition. They both shook their heads no.
Exasperated, Officer Ana sighed. She leaned back in her chair.
“So was it June or July?” she asked again, this time studying the man.
“June,” he answered.
She moved on to the next question. Where did they go on dates? Their list brought pangs of pain to Officer Ana. The husband and wife went to the movies regularly, had an Irish pub they frequented, and loved Nutella crepes over coffee at their local cafe. Once they went down to Florida, to watch dolphins jump for meals of squid and fish at SeaWorld. Ana’s stomach somersaulted as she remembered Emir promising to take her there one day.
Who proposed to whom?
Do you have a garage? Who parks their car there?
Where was your wedding held?
Describe the art on your bedroom walls.
When did your relationship turn romantic?
Each answer punctured Officer Ana. She felt the tile beneath her begin to turn. The piles of folders on her desk swayed. She wanted the green card interview to be over as much as she suspected the couple did.
After answering the final question, she noticed how the husband and wife’s shoulders collectively dropped. They appeared relieved. She wondered to herself: Did they think they passed the interview? Seeing how comfortable they looked bothered her.
She couldn’t help but inform them, in the most unfeeling tone, that they must now wait for a decision on their case. They stood up and shook her hand, then found each other’s hands again as they walked out of the field office.
Officer Ana sat back down at her desk and pulled out her phone. She read Emir’s flood of messages, pleas to her. He wanted to talk.
She texted him back, then packed up her belongings for home.
It began innocently enough. Could Emir assist him on the mat? Kaan wanted to push himself, to build up his chest and shoulders. Could Emir spare some shampoo? Kaan’s bottle had just run dry. And what was Emir doing after this? Did he want to grab a bite to eat? Did he want to catch a movie around the corner?
The two men worked out at the same gym. No wedding rings; matching salt and pepper hair. All the other club members were much younger, their bodies pink and pert and gleaming. It made sense for Emir and Kaan to become friends. In the weightroom, Emir stood above Kaan: legs sturdy, hands wrapped tight around the cold metal bar; ready. In the shower, he passed the plastic pop-top to his new friend without saying a word.
According to the manager, dressed in lycra, Emir and Kaan were the only two Turkish members. Funny, as the gym was in Paterson. “Erdogan,” Emir said to Kaan one day, soon after they met. “Your opinion?” It was a question with an agenda, and Emir was asking because he wanted to answer it himself. Kaan sensed this. He said: “My opinion is the same as yours, abi. It’s time for the old man to fuck off.”
Emir assumed his position under Kaan, sliding down the vinyl, the backs of his thighs hot and sticking to the plastic of the weight bench. Looking up at Kaan, he felt his face burn. A buzzing warmth shot up the back of his neck, quickly spreading across his scalp, making the roots of his hair hum. Emir clutched the metal bar, knuckles white, and pushed through his flared nostrils, a big horse’s breath, eyes fixed on a ceiling tile, in order to avoid Kaan’s gaze.
The other men at the gym were a careless, sloppy lot. They hogged the resistance machines; didn’t wipe the equipment down. When they pumped iron, they did so loudly—grunting and heaving and dropping dumbbells heavily to the mat so that the floor shook for several seconds afterward. On the treadmill, they squirted water from squeeze bottles over their heads, sweat dripping onto the machine, thick streaks against dark plastic. Sometimes they mouthed the words to whatever stupid song was being piped into their stupid ears. In the locker room, they left mounds of damp towels in a pile on the floor.
The women gym members were somewhat better. More thoughtful but they irritated Emir in other ways, how they moused around in pilates tights, quivering with embarrassment; how they weighed themselves constantly on the scale by the far wall. Ana was like that, too. Emir’s wife. She wasn’t a member of this gym, or of any gym, but at home she obsessed over her weight, taking issue with the girth of her hips, the chafing of her thighs, the way the skin under her chin had begun to soften and sag. The morning Emir did what he did, and later, when he continued to do it, it wasn’t with the intention of hurting his wife. He loved his wife. And although he couldn’t fully explain why the whole thing had happened, he was certain Ana had nothing to do with it.
One rainy Saturday, Emir and Kaan found themselves alone in the gym, at an hour far too early for the youngsters with their Olympic grunting. All at once, like a failing dam levee—holding and holding only to snap without warning—Emir was flooded with realization. When it came to this particular matter, he understood he would no longer be able to exercise restraint. He would no longer, he could no longer hide his excitement anywhere. Not in the shower, nor in the handicap stall; not against the wet tiles, or the mirrored wall, or the hamper containing freshly laundered towels.
And so, it would happen. And again it would happen. And each time Emir would leave the gym, a fierce pounding in his chest, the smell of Kaan filling him completely, trembling with shock, blaming himself, only to return to the soft indulgence of memory almost immediately. Here was the thought of Kaan, taking over his meeting with accounting. Here was Kaan, sitting beside him on the car ride home. In bed with Ana, thoughts of Kaan arrived uninvited.
One day, Kaan decided they should both call out sick; ditch work. Emir snuck Kaan into his house while Ana was at the office. Kaan had many ideas about what they should do next, how they could better use their bodies and imaginations. Afterward they shared a smoke together, on the back porch. They juiced carrots and a knob of ginger in the machine, quietly sipping from tall cold glasses, side by side at the kitchen counter.
Kaan wasn’t the first man Emir had been with in this way, but he was the first man in America. Emir had surprised himself. The part of him he believed long-dead, an adolescent, careless part, had resurrected so quickly and with such vigor, as if no time had passed at all.
Occasionally, Kaan liked to poke fun at Ana; called Emir’s wife a cop just because she worked for the government. The two of them had met only once, when Emir brought Kaan to Ana’s office so that he could have some immigration paperwork expedited, pushed through the lumbering old system. On that day, Kaan told Ana that sometimes he considered returning to Istanbul for good. “Because I miss the sea,” he said. “I miss the food.”
Ana observed him for a long moment, in silence. “I don’t particularly like Turkish food,” she said at last. “I find it overrated.”
Four weeks after this, Emir was in the shower one night; Ana in bed. She felt restless, and when she scrolled it was with impatience. It hadn’t been difficult to find. She didn’t have to try hard at all. In fact, it would have taken more effort not to see. Emir had been very reckless. He had been stupid. At first, it seemed this was the thing that had most disappointed Ana.
Emir stood before his wife, dripping, wrapped in the plush of a white towel, listening to her say, I thought you were smarter than this. You used to be smarter. Where had Emir’s mind been, snapping such a photograph, sending it through the wires; what did he think he was doing? This is what Ana would ask. Again and again she would say it. Putting the marriage at risk, just to follow some deviant impulse? To sin?
Emir, still wet, now sat on his hands, his weight denting the mattress, knees knocked together like a little boy. He watched as Ana muttered in Spanish, then crossed herself. He watched as she began to rage at him, working herself up; ragdoll caught in a hurricane, mascara streaked in sorrow. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, was all he could say.
And it was true that he was sorry. But it was also true that even as he was feeling sorry, he wondered what Kaan was doing at this moment. Could he sense Emir’s distress somehow? He could.
Emir’s phone, sitting silent atop the bed, sprang to life, without warning: vibrating as if with joy, spinning, inching toward the far corner of the duvet. When Emir reached for it, he was not fast enough. His wife, snatching it from the edge, glared at the display. She clutched the phone, a sudden reckoning, her unexpected weapon, using it to punish her husband. Insults hurled, glass shattered. Fourteen years undone in minutes. Later, Emir would tell Kaan it was all very strange, “incredibly surreal,” he would say. “It was happening to me, yes, but also: it wasn’t.”
Kaan wanted to know everything, the details of the emergency room visit, how the welted eye had been explained to the attending nurse. Emir brushed off the concern. Emir had been told the stitches could leave a scar behind. Secretly, he hoped they did.
In the days that followed, Emir continued to apologize to his wife—driven by duty, not remorse—replacing the screen on the phone, using it to try her at the office. But she never picked up, not even once, and eventually he arrived at a moment when he knew he would stop; his duty, complete.
Kaan owned a sun-soaked apartment over the pizzeria, and Emir awoke one morning inside it to the sound of eggs cracking open against the rim of a metal bowl; the whirr of ginger and carrots chunked in a machine, the smell of tomato and dough wafting in through an open window. Kaan came into the room, two omelets on a tray, tall glasses of juice, frothed and fresh. Carefully, he placed the tray atop the bedspread. To the rest of our lives, he said, but Emir wondered how Kaan could say such a thing, how he could seem so certain.
People made promises before priests, took solemn vows, swore loyalty to one another, but what if all of this was a mistake? It was a mistake and this was the problem. The thing to do was to promise a moment not to someone but with them. Only one moment at a time. Only one moment to the next.
Yet all these thoughts, Emir kept to himself. He sat up in bed, steady on the heel of a thick palm, and he smiled at Kaan. To the rest of our lives, he said back, eyes shining. He clutched the glass, cold against flesh, air bubbles rising, bursting, glinting with the morning sun.
Amaris Castillo is an award-winning journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Born in Brooklyn, New York to Dominican parents, she credits the many tales she heard growing up to her love of storytelling. Her writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms Be Like… (part of the Dominican Writers Association’s #DWACuenticos chapbook series), and Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story “El Don” was a prize finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival, and her short story “The Moon and the Sun” was longlisted in 2021. She has work forthcoming in Sana Sana: Latinx Pain & Radical Visions for Healing and Justice. Amaris is a proud inaugural PERIPLUS Fellow and has also received mentorship through Las Musas, the Kweli Journal Sing the Truth! Mentorship Program, and the Latinx in Publishing Writers Mentorship Program. She lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo or get to know her work at amariscastillo.com
Hilal Isler is a Turkish American writer. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the LA Review of Books, the Brooklyn Review, and Electric Literature online, as well as in McSweeney’s, New York, the Baltimore Review, and in The Believer. She has received fellowships from the Yaddo and MacDowell corporations; from the Jerome Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Hilal lives in the Twin Cities with her family.