An Honest Application

The real story behind a Family Class Application for Canadian Permanent Residence

12On a separate sheet of paper, provide any additional details of your current relationship that you believe would help to prove your relationship is genuine and continuing.1

Five years after I first met Robin Durnford in Baton Rouge, and in the middle of a divorce from my first wife, I was in Texas for yet another academic conference. After I finished giving my paper—which focused on an obscure nineteenth-century science-fiction novel—a woman in the back row asked if I’d read another similarly obscure novel with similar historical precedents. The woman—breathtakingly beautiful—seemed familiar. …

The next day, I saw her sitting alone during lunch, and I sat down. During that lunch, she made quite an impression.The next night, we went out for a drink and ended up spending much of the evening together.The next day, I flew back to Georgia; she flew back to Canada.

Two months later, she decided to leave her then partnerand join me in Georgia.This was a difficult decision for all involved.We spent the next several months trying to deepen our understanding of each other and our emerging relationship.6 I proposed in October of 2010;we were married December 17, 2010.We settled in to spend the next few years in Georgia. After everything that had happened in 2010,we were looking forward to some quiet domesticity. A month later, she discovered she was pregnant.She very much wanted to give birth back in her native Newfoundland, and by taking some online teaching responsibilities, I was able to accompany her to the island that fall.10 Samuel Gary Durnford Elliott, named after bothgrandfathers, was born on October 8, 2011, in Corner Brook,Newfoundland. . . .

After awhile, we found we liked living in Canada better than living in the United States,11 and she got a job here in Newfoundland. . .and so I am turning in my application for permanent Canadian residence.12

Sam is the great joy of my life; Robin is the great love of my life.13


[1] I have to press this story into that kind of language?

[2] I fell in love. She asked where I was going after lunch.“Wherever you’re going,”I answered. If she had asked me to move to the North Pole,I would have packed a parka. I know,I know, you’re not too sure you believe people can fall in love that fast. I’m not sure I believed it,either,before all of this happened. That’s why I am not saying as much in the actual application. People can bevery skeptical aboutlove. It strikes me as an inherent contradiction embedded within this application process,a process so clearly generated by a repressed North American culture. I’m supposed to prove to you that we have a “genuine” relationship, yet modern-day reticence about “falling in love” makes any such language a bit suspectfrom the beginning. I’m judged as sentimental, possibly foolish, even as I open my mouth. But that all rather elides the actual fact that I fell in love with her over lunch. Why? Because she listened to what I had to say in a way that only a few people in my life have shown themselves capable of listening, and as a result, opened up about things I hardly ever tell anyone, let alone a strangely beautiful woman with what seemed (to me) to be a faint Irish lilt under her Canadian accent. Because one of her first questions after finding out where I lived was how far away the sea was and how hard it was to get there from where I lived. Because she was beautiful and I desperately wanted to make love to her after she asked that question about the sea.

[3] I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is yes. Two years later, she published an incredibly erotic poem about that night.

I’ve watched her read this poem out loud in front of hundreds of people. I have had at least one friend make surmises about my sex life based on that poem. A colleague of Robin’s actually taught the poem—and the book of the same title, in which it was published—in a Canadian literature class; a student in that class demanded that the teacher explain what the poem “meant.” Seamus Heaney—for God’s sake, Seamus Heaney—commented on the eroticism of this poem in the gracious letter he wrote my wife to thank her for sending him a copy of the book. You make love to a strange, gorgeous woman in a random Texas hotel room, and the next thing you know, university students in Newfoundland are doing presentations on it, and Ireland’s most beloved poet is assessing the poetic write-up of the evening as the kind of thing Gerard Manley Hopkins might have written had he not been so repressed. I’m not complaining, mind you, nor am I particularly trying to impress you. Is it all a bit surreal? Yes, and I want you to see that. Can one explain the strangeness in a document like this one? No. And the thing is, this is certainly the kind of evidence that would prove our relationship is “genuine and continuing,” so it seems profoundly unfair that I have to leave it out.

[4] One June day, this intelligent, beautiful woman broke off a relationship of seven years, got on a plane, and flew from Nova Scotia to the American Deep South to be with a man she had met twice in the space of five years. In the middle of a divorce from a woman I had been married to for almost a decade, I drove to the Jacksonville airport to pick up a woman I’d spent less than ten hours talking to in person. You’re right,of course: ninety-nine times out of a hundred, these would be bad decisions at best, disastrous actions at worst. It was romantic, and I mean that in the full robustness of that word; the whole thing had a reckless abandon about it that still scares me a bit. I’m not talking about the sentimental nonsense between couples that is passed off as romanticism; I’m talking about the earth-shaking kind of sublimity that Byron tried to capture in verse and Beethoven tried to write into his scores. I found myself capable of desperate, dangerous actions. 

She made the decision to get on that plane.I was—and still am—arrogant enough to think that was the right decision.

***

[5] Her former partner was kind enough to forgive her, eventually. They remain close friends. He’s now living with his new girlfriend in Nova Scotia; they are very happy. I deeply respect his immense generosity, kindness, and intelligence. I hope he has some idea how grateful we are. Of course, even that language makes it sound like this was all very easy for the three of us. He forgave her, and everything is great! By all reports, he went through one hell of a year after she left him for me. I’m sure he still misses her at times, and they really do remain friends, which has not always been easy, especially at first. She still sends him her poems on a fairly regular basis, and he  reads them closely,  and sends back extremely carefully prepared feedback, the kind of feedback that only someone who cares deeply about both the poetry and the poet can offer. He was with her through an incredibly difficult time in her life, and the bond that can only come with that kind of shared experience remains.

Was I jealous of that bond? Damn straight. Did I always handle the situation with the maturity, generosity, and grace that should have come from knowing she had made a deliberate choice to leave him and her entire life to be with me? No. Though, to be fair, anyone might find it difficult to watch the love of his life still be so close to her ex, but that doesn’t let me off the hook for occasionally being a small-minded asshole. And,of course,she was the one who took the brunt of his painand my jealousy. Perhaps you’re sittingthere in a climate-controlled office in Alberta,clucking your tongue, uttering some banality like “She made her choices!” What was she supposed to do? Stay with him out of guilt after she had fallen in love with me because people like you are uncomfortable with the idea that relationships evolve and eventually end? So, yes, it was pretty damn difficult for everyone involved.

[6] The following months were simultaneously harrowing and joyous. A novel might get at all that happened; there is no way this application form ever will. There was all of the emotional fallout that I’ve already touched on in note number five. But there were also financial hiccups: she couldn’t work in the United States, at least not easily. There were professional issues. How does an emerging Canadian poet get grants—grants based on having your feet planted firmly on Canadian soil—when she is living in the States? There were the inevitable immigration issues, as well; we foolishly hired a lawyer in the States to help us through the process. He, a cross between a Dickens character and a Faulkner character, did help us through the process, but we’re still repaying the money I borrowed to do that, and it turns out that neither of us really wanted to live in the States anyway. But we were also in love. I was as happy as I had ever been until that point. If you’re to understand anything about us, it’s very important that you hold that happiness in direct tension with everything else I have said.

[7] The immigration form—and the eighty-page instruction manual that accompanies it—hints, in a way I can only describe as passive-aggressive, that it would be good to say something about the proposal, so let me say something about that here sinceI’m not going to say a damn thing about it on the form. There were no rings, no flowers, no engagement pictures. I proposed twice, and I was naked both times, in a single-bedroom south Georgia apartment, in the kind of blandly generic apartment development that is ubiquitous across the suburban wastelands of the United States. The first time I proposed, some two days after she came down to me in Georgia, the words popped out of my mouth before I quite knew what I was saying. It was sunrise; I was half-asleep and exhausted to the point of drunken stupidity with talking and making love. We both agreed, a day later, clothed and fully conscious, that it might be better to shelve the discussion of marriage for a bit.

I asked again in October. I’d been debating how to do it for some time. Immigration issues put a strange pressure on a relationship. If you ask her to marry you, you know that she knows that you know that the proposal is somewhat informed by your immigration options; it’s an inescapable fact of a cross-border relationship. So I worried about this for quite some time; I wanted her to know how much I desperately loved her, needed her, desired her, not how much I needed her to be legal and working. When the moment came, we were again naked, and I was trying to communicate how much she meant to me. It wasn’t premeditated. It was an oddly beautiful moment we have never told anyone about, probably because we were far too vulnerable. I left this part out of the application because I don’t want you—ghostly, theoretical, judgmental immigration official—to know this story. She wrote a poem about the first night we made love. I might publish a story about how I proposed naked, covered in postcoital Georgia sweat, but it doesn’t belong in a government form being read by an immigration official doing his duty for the Canadian government.

[8] An extremely helpful immigration lawyer in Halifax advised against mentioning anything about the wedding being for American immigration purposes. Look: my wife is not sure she believes in marriage, even now. I was skeptical about this odd institution, too, having recently witnessed the end of my decade-long first marriage. If I could be honest with immigration officials—a frankness precluded by the barbarism of nationalism and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that such national political fictions create—I would say we loved each other deeply enough to risk marriage so that we could be safe from the USCIS. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that I’m guessing every single immigration application based on marriage processed in Canada or the United States contains at least one outrageous lie. Every international couple has to pretend that immigration legal issues did not shape the way their relationship developed, quite probably determining marriage proposals and dates. We have to pretend we fell in love and courted like two archetypal 1950s teenagers from Peoria or Winnipeg. I suspect that, much of the time, immigration officials are living a lie as well. You have to pretend you believe our story—when only a complete idiot couldn’t acknowledge the way these laws inevitably shape cross-border relationships—while simultaneously making sure we aren’t up to something really nefarious like international prostitute smuggling. For that matter, are illegal green card/permanent resident card marriages really the scourge of illegal immigration? My guess is that if I got you drunk at a party, I might get you to admit you’ve got better things to do than hassle cross-border couples for pictures that convince you their relationship is “genuine and continuing.” You’re being dishonest with us and with yourselves, which must inevitably do damage to your soul; I think this explains, at least partially, why so many of you working the border—American or Canadian—come across as hostile and damaged. An early reader of this document who happened to have gone through the US version of the process herself called the process “dehumanizing.” It is, but I don’t mind showing you my life. What I strongly resent is the way you have infected my life—and the story of the love of my life—with subtle lies through the inevitable bureaucratic failure of imagination when it comes to the way love develops, and through the dubious claims of an abstract concept like “patriotism” or the even more dubious, dangerous, utterly fictional charade we call “national security.”

[9] She came out of the bathroom and handed me a positive pregnancy test. If you get a couple of glasses of wine into her, she does a pretty good impression of my face after she handed me the test. I was scared, yes, but I was also thrilled. Until that moment,I had been pretty convinced I was never going to have children. The idea that I might have a child with this maddeningly intriguing, beautiful, stubborn, feisty, utterly sexual woman made me tremendously happy. The trouble with being happy that you’ve accidentally knocked up your partner: she’s the one who has to do the heavy biological lifting. Did I mention she can be feisty? Plus, in our case at least, she had to do that heavy lifting while getting used to a foreign country and getting accustomed to a relationship she wasn’t even in last Christmas. It’s complicated emotional territory, right? Not easily reducible to a form, right? You’re getting my redundant point, I hope?

***

[10] By “she very much wanted” I mean “she was as determined and stubborn as a salmon swimming upstream to lay her eggs in her natal stream before dying. ”My job, her life, my life, her poetry, my cat—everything bowed before the fish-like creature I’d clumsily set swimming in her uterus. I know that pregnancy is gold for the immigration process: “There’s a child! Of course they love each other and must be a family together! Approve them!” says the bureaucrat in charge of figuring out if my relationship is real. The truth, in our particular story, is that the pregnancy set our relationship back a step. She was so determined to make sure the child was born in Newfoundland that she was willing to leave me behind while he was born. I was hurt. She was hurt by my failure to understand that she—inhabiting a body that was increasingly coked to the gills with pregnancy hormones while also going through the culture shock that the Deep South inevitably produces in Northerners and Canadians—was feeling extremely vulnerable. Eventually, I managed to strike a deal with my department chair, a deal that let me teach online for a term while I accompanied my already very pregnant wife of six months to Newfoundland. God knows what some of my former colleagues think of the whole thing to this day, but the move turned out to be exactly the right thing for my emerging family. I’d guessed at how much I hated my job, but it wasn’t until I’d left Georgia behind that I could fully appreciate the sheer misery that not only my job but also the region itself, and the hellish, swampy climate, had been producing in me. I hold nothing against the Deep South or the many fine people who work at my former university, but nothing about my life in that place was a good fit.

***

[11] Yes,the socialized healthcare is a factor. Lobster is also very cheap and fresh in Newfoundland, and my in-laws see that I get to wash it down with plenty of rum. And the cycling on the Port au Port peninsula is amazing.

***

[12] Five years ago, I was a divorced and desperately lonely tenure-track professor living in a one-bedroom apartment in sunlit Georgia; this cloudy April morning, I am sitting in a home built over a century ago, watching the spring snow fallon a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. My life has been repeatedly wrecked then salvaged by a beautiful redheaded Newfoundlander and the gorgeous redheaded child born to us one October morning as the Newfoundland bogs turned bright red themselves.

***

[13] This is the one part of the application that strikes me as absolute truth. Pressed into your document, it ends up sounding dishonest, trite, and sentimental; I find that difficult to forgive.

About the Author

Nathan Elliott

Nathan Elliott grew up in the mountains of north Idaho, was educated in the suburbs of Chicago, and then took an academic job in the Deep South before falling in love with a Newfoundland poet and moving to the island to be with her.

View Essays
What’s the Story from Lee Gutkind, Founder

Read on to hear from Lee about current happenings with Creative Nonfiction.