I’m going to call him Machito because that’s what his circle of Latino friends called him in 1999 with a measure of irony. He was a bull stud of compact body and easy smile, and I fell hard for him after catching sight of him in an East Village bar. I cruised his reflection in the bathroom mirror until he turned around; he was Venezuelan, with a nearly incomprehensible accent.“I nebah see a gringo tan bello,” he told me. I wasn’t much interested in talking anyway. We lunged for each other right there and it got pretty intense, as the bar’s jaded customers came and went. We walked out of that bathroom over strains of “Rhythm Nation” and we were in an instant relationship. Machito moved into my spacious apartment in Fort Greene a couple of weeks later; it was like the apartment was waiting for him.
There was one immediate problem: Machito was about to overstay his tourist visa, so I hastily arranged a trip to Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. It seemed the easiest way to leave the country for a long weekend. I planned three days at this all-inclusive resort–sunbathing, Caribbean waters, elaborate meals–and upon our return, Machito’s visa would be renewed for another ninety days. This was the plan at least.
Our Dominican idyll took a dark turn; on our first night, we returned to our room to find a break-in under way. The thieves jumped off the balcony and disappeared under the palmettos. They hadn’t gotten away with much, but they succeeded in rattling us. The next day at the beach, we watched as a crowd abused and beat a Haitian man – a trinket-seller who had strayed onto private property. I railed against the injustice, and fumed at the oblivious tourists carrying on with their beach vacations. In my aggrieved state, our immigration plan was hardly front of mind when we boarded the return flight. “Let’s just get the hell off this fucking island,” I said to Machito, who had seen worse in his native country.
Once we were instructed to form separate lines at Miami International, our plan came back into focus. From the line for U.S. citizens, I watched as an immigration officer went through Machito’s bag. She had a round, pleasant face, a plump body, and salon waves in a short bob. She looked comforting, like a suburban mom, except for the uniform. I was sure she’d be sympathetic. I watched as she pulled a postcard from Machito’s carry-on. The thoroughness of her search surprised me; I really just figured she would stamp his passport and move on to the next person. Machito had written to his sister, but we couldn’t find stamps or a post office in Punta Cana. She read his scrawl – somewhat more decipherable than his spoken English:
“Estoy trabajando en un café, esta bien.”
Her pleasant face fixed in a rictus of vindictive triumph. She yelled, “We got one!” and high-fived her male associate. Machito had all but confessed to working on a tourist visa. I was seized with panic as the customs agent reviewing my documents waved me through. I watched, horrified, as Machito was shuttled off to an interrogation room. Machito glared back at me with a wounded look. He looked so small next to their wide bodies, like they could crush him with one coordinated turn. “Sir! You can’t linger here. Move it along,” the customs agent barked. I made my way through the area, then doubled back to find an immigration official.
After facing some stonewalling, I learned that Machito would be sent back to Caracas, his passport stamped, barring re-entry for ten years. “My government has taken my love away,” I lamented to anyone within earshot, but no one seemed to care. I vowed to get him back. Sure, we barely knew each other, but that wasn’t the point. Whatever journey we were on was not going to end with this mean mom-lady in beige. The official gave me the location of the facility where he’d be held overnight. “They’re taking him to Krome,” he said with a certain fatalism. I took a taxi to the Krome Detention Center—this concrete bunker built on top of an unused airstrip and surrounded by a tall chain link fence. A crowd was gathered outside the fence. One person yelled a name, and got an answer, so everyone else let them talk. A older lady—a detainee’s pained mother—explained to me that it was the only way to talk to a detainee. I waited my turn, then yelled “Machito! Machito!” but my cries just bounced off the concrete.
I returned home, heartbroken. I was lamenting the situation over dinner with my best friend Josh and his girlfriend Aimee when Josh said, “Dude! Just bring him back through Canada,” like it was the most obvious solution in the world. Aimee was a weaver from Vancouver; she was, like her signature pieces, more weft than warp, loose yet unyielding. She connected me with some friends; they were evasive with details, but had assured her that they could help. We’d have to meet up with them in a remote part of British Colombia. “‘We will show them the path,’ was how they put it,” Aimee related. “OK good—so first I have to figure out how to get him into Canada without passing through U.S. airspace,” I replied. I landed on an expensive but surprisingly uncomplicated solution: Machito would to first fly to London, and visit with an aunt who had married an Englishman, and from there fly to Montreal.
I traveled to Montreal on Amtrak, meditating on the vastness of Lake Champlain as the train chugged northward. Machito’s flight had landed by the time I got to Dorval Airport. We nearly ran into each other on a crowded concourse. Once we recognized each other, after a year of separation, Machito’s black eyes flooded with tears. We embraced, and I started crying too, which made me worry about attracting attention—but no one seemed to notice our reunion. We bought tickets to Vancouver at the Air Canada counter, and upon arrival, rented a car and drove hours east on the Trans-Canada highway, to meet Aimee’s mysterious friends.
Our rendezvous point was at the head of a trail. There were three of them—sons of Vietnam-era draft dodgers and Canadian women. They were friendly, but did not offer their names. They were basically white Rastafarians—these strapping guys who kept their blond hair in dreadlocks. I offered to take them out to dinner, and they gratefully accepted, suggesting a place with vegetarian burritos. Due to their fathers, they were themselves stateless in the view of the U.S., so they’d figured out how to sneak into the country—to visit relatives, but also to conduct business. They grew marijuana in the woods.
After dinner, the time came for our instructions: “Machito, you’re going to walk through this dry river bed. No flashlight, there’s plenty of moonlight,” one of them explained. (It was a half-moon at most). “You walk about three miles, until the river goes under a road. That’s where you hide, in the drainage ditch.” Machito was shaking. The second of the white Rastafarians gave me my directions: “You drive through this checkpoint, then go a mile or so down the road. You’ll see a guard rail on your left—that’s where you pick him up.” I quietly freaked out at the prospect of dealing with another U.S. border agent. Then the third said to Machito: “Oh! And if you see a bear, just ignore him.”
With this, Machito started crying, and threw himself into my arms. “I can no ignore bear, we no have bear in Sud America,” he wailed. I tried to be strong, saying, “You can do this. Just follow the river. I’ll be waiting for you.” Then the guy who mentioned the bear said, “You guys seem really stressed—wanna smoke a joint?” We all smoked together, and mellowed out, to the point where we were actually laughing about our situation—until the paranoia kicked in, and we worried about forgetting all the instructions.
As night fell, we dropped Machito off at the trailhead. I had to push him down the trail to get him walking.
At the checkpoint, another border agent asked me routine questions. It seemed to be going well, until she noticed some stray pot seeds in the ashtray. “This is what I get for being involved with stateless drug dealers,” I thought to myself, although the seeds were entirely mine. She had me step out of the car, and went through everything looking for contraband. Of the two big suitcases in the trunk—one mine and the other Machito’s—she asked, “Why are you traveling with so many clothes?” I played the gay card. “I just never know what to pack!” I replied, throwing up my hands. That actually seemed to work, and she waved me on with head-shaking disapproval.
It was a clear night; trees swayed in the breeze. I slowed to a stop as I came upon the culvert they had described. I heard a rustle as Machito popped his head up from behind the guard rail. His scared eyes reflected the headlights as he scrambled into the rental car. “Did you see a bear?” I asked. “No, I run all the way,” replied Machito breathlessly. His heart was racing, his jeans were soggy—that river bed wasn’t all that dry. “You did it!” I cried, as we hugged awkwardly in the bucket seats of the rental.
I was anxious to get us to Seattle, conspicuous as we were in rural Washington state—a gay New Yorker and a brown man with fake ID. We were tearing through a hamlet when we got pulled over by a police cruiser. I quickly handed Machito a ball cap and said, “Pull this down over your face and pretend you’re sleeping.” An impossibly good-looking officer approached the car—black hair, blue eyes, broad chest, broad smile—like a superhero. He seemed mainly interested in small talk.
“Oh, you’re from New York?” he asked, checking my license. “I’ve always wanted to go…What brings you out here?”
“We’re on vacation,” I replied, adding, “just doing some hiking.” This wasn’t entirely untrue.
I held it together against his superhero charms, while Machito trembled under the ball cap, tears tracking down his cheeks. Eventually Superhero said, “Well, you were speeding, but I didn’t have my radar gun on, so you’re free to go,” and grinned.
We drove through the night to Seattle, where we were put up by my lesbian friend Gwen, who had recently relocated there after a bad break-up. “You’re our Harriet Tubman!” I cried as we group hugged. Machito and I slept long hours in Gwen’s guest room, hung out in coffee bars, and smoked lots of weed with her Seattle girl power clique. Walking around the Capitol Hill area, we felt safe and free for the first time since this whole ordeal started—since that fateful day with the mean mom-lady. I eventually booked a flight back to New York, via Houston.
Things fell apart soon after our “Canadian vacation,” as I referred to our adventure. Our friends knew enough not to ask too many questions about Machito’s unexpected return. They were happy for us—but we were locked in dysfunction we could not break. I think we just reminded each other of our respective trauma. Machito went back to his job at the café, while I stumbled through my days in a stoned haze, tracing the spiral of my lover’s journey on an atlas, the stopping points forming a jagged spiral around New York: Caracas > London > Montreal > Vancouver > Seattle > Houston.
At a celebratory dinner with Josh and Aimee, Josh turned to me and asked, “I don’t get it, man. You got him back—why are you so unhappy?” I could only muster a dazed grimace. Aimee whispered into Josh’s ear: “He’s still detained at the forty-ninth parallel of his emotions.” I wasn’t supposed to hear Aimee’s poetic assessment, and I saw the disappointment register on my best friend’s face. Josh and Aimee were my border crossing enablers, and my only confidantes. Their reaction punctured the haze.
I resolved to clear my mind and talk to Machito. We still really didn’t know each other that well. I put away the atlas and weaned myself off the daily pot habit. Later that week, I was on my way home from a fresh haircut, and was summoning this new resolve in the spring air, when I found Machito and one of his co-workers from the café loading Machito’s big suitcase into a taxi. His last words to me were perfectly enunciated—and even if he’d read them off of a tea tin, they hit their mark. “No boundary stops the heart of a person that loves.”
This is a story that burrowed inside me for all these years because I could not tell it—until I had to. It seems a lifetime away, last century. It’s easier to count what hasn’t changed—and although Canada still beckons to me, it is as a disaffected American, not as a lover in need of a border fix. Those stern border agents seem quaint in comparison to the militarized assets currently deployed. I suppose I am double pariah to today’s seething, deluded horde—I harboured an “illegal,” and I myself am a sexual outlaw. Let the horde seethe; I will hold onto a heart unstopped by boundaries.
Machito is well enough, given the current situation of his people. We’ll always have that reunion at Dorval, and share that moment of victory just inside the forty-ninth. I may reflect upon my own naiveté, and this cascade of poor choices with a cringe—but I have to give myself some credit. We’d all like to think we’d do anything for love. So even if I hadn’t quite figured out the love part—as Machito was sure to let me know—at least I can say that I’m capable of going to extraordinary lengths for it.