Stephanie checked her e-mail messages at the carousel in San Diego. The bright sun glared her screen and she had to move several times to see her texts while Etan retrieved her luggage. Her stomach rumbled with a combination of hunger and nerves. Only a month apart from Chuck, she felt more like she had an upcoming blind date than a conjugal visit. Only, this blind date would take place in the honeymoon suite of a Tijuana resort hotel with an illegal alien seeking asylum in the United States - not the typical drinks at a local bar.
She fingered her ring and wondered how her perception of the man she fell in love with more than 20 years ago could unravel so quickly. Between the illegal identification, the bizarre, strained month apart and the decades of deception, the Chuck Domo from four weeks prior - with his stories about furniture sales, his grilled flank steaks and his beloved Astros games - seemed like a fictional character. Unfortunately, Chuck, the deported fugitive, desperately trying to enter the United States on a questionable technicality, seemed all too real to her.
Etan greeted her with her bags and walked her across the skybridge to a sleek, black two-seater car at the far end of a vast parking garage.
“Are you ready to see your husband, Mrs. Domo?” he asked.
“Of course,” she replied, thinking the opposite.
In the car, driving south toward the border, she read through her texts. She received several from her daughters and her mother, wishing her the best of luck. The girls sent expressive emojis such as a smiling face with hands pressed together in prayer or a peace sign or hearts. The outpouring of excitement warmed her heart and calmed the unsettled rumbling in her stomach.
But the calm lasted only until she scrolled to the text from Rupert Beckman. Just the name, bolded next to the unread message icon, set her stomach fluttering with nervous energy and a curious excitement to click; a feeling she hadn’t felt throughout the whole journey to Mexico to see her husband.
“I just wanted to let you know that you’re making the right choice,” he wrote. “I was sorry to extricate myself from your case. But I recognized that your new set of lawyers with A.L. have much greater expertise than I do and can guide you through the nuances of U.S. immigration law better than I can. I only want the best for you. And, on a personal note, I want you to know that you’re doing what’s right for you and your family. I respect that, and I admire you for it. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and your wonderful daughters. Best of luck and may God be with you.”
At the border checkpoint, Etan held out the two passports and described the story about their romantic getaway weekend they had rehearsed. After a quick check of the car and a few detailed questions about where they would stay and what activities they expected to conduct, the border officer waved them through.
Stephanie looked back at the arching portal between her country and Chuck’s. She had crossed the line. There was no turning back from this point. She clicked out of her e-mail and tried to convert her apprehension about seeing Chuck to excitement. Unable to shake the dread, she grew anxious. She clicked the mail icon again and reread Rupert’s eloquent message.
Etan handled the checking-in for Stephanie and returned with a keycard.
“He’s in this room,” he said. “He’s waiting for you as we speak. I’m going to rendezvous with Mr. Rojas and we’ll meet both you and your husband tomorrow morning at 6:30am. Have a wonderful night Mrs. Domo.”
The elevator ride to the 10th floor seemed to take forever as did the long, narrow walk to the room. With each step, she felt like trudging through mud or quicksand.
She slid the keycard and heard the beep. The light turned green. She opened the door.
As the door cleared the room, she saw him, standing. His face had a huge welt that seemed to encircle the right side of his head. Splotches of purple, yellow and dark brown curved below his eye. He desperately needed a shave and a haircut and his skin seemed so much darker than she remembered.
He wore clean, trim, dark blue pinstriped pants and a crisp light blue shirt with a sharp-looking blue blazer. She had not seen him so well-dressed in at least a decade or two.
She couldn’t tell if he looked intensely handsome or grotesque, given the bruising to his face. A wave of sympathy washed over her and she stepped toward him.
He moved forward and put his arms out to hug her. She strode into the room and pressed herself explosively into his arms. For a few moments they remained locked in their embrace, swaying slightly. They didn’t kiss. They just held each other. Stephanie considered looking into his eyes and seeking a kiss, but held back.
She noticed the table in the dining room of the suite, set with an exquisite dinner of steak, salad, broccoli and baked potato already served and still steaming.
“They came through a special service entrance behind that curtain and set it all as you were in the lobby checking in,” Chuck said.
They ate together for the first time in a month. They swapped stories of their crazy time apart. They laughed. Chuck’s eyes welled at Stephanie’s description of the girls’ involvement in all the legal maneuvers.
As they concluded their dinner, they adjourned to the balcony to drink wine and gaze at the waning Mexican moon. Stephanie scrolled through hundreds of pictures of the girls.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” she said, as the trepidation about their situation creeped her mind. “Who knows how long a wait it’ll be for your asylum.”
“Whatever it takes to get home to our girls,” Chuck replied, staring at a picture of Emily standing arm and arm with Senator Bonita Sanchez.
“And when you get there, you’ll have a whole new identity. Chuck Domo will be dead or lost in Mexico somewhere and you’ll be my second husband.”
They both fell silent. The moonlight glowed. The sounds of the city rose into the night air.
Chuck exhaled. The fear of what he would say next overwhelmed him and he needed a moment to collect his thoughts.
Stephanie sensed his hesitation and tried to look into his eyes.
“What is it?” She asked, her eyes pleading with his.
“Maybe I should wait and take my chances,” he said. “Rather than this scheme to reenter as some new third identity. Maybe I should strip myself down to who I really am and come in as Carlos. After all, that’s the real me. I’m Carlos Dominguez. I’m not an American citizen. I desperately want to see the girls. But, what message does it send them if I cheat the system and return under these circumstances.”
“Jesus Chuck,” Stephanie gasped. “We’ve jumped through all these hoops.”
“I know,” he said. “It’s all I’ve thought about all month. But look at this Facebook picture of Emily, at her computer researching immigration statutes. Britney wants to become a lawyer. Even Ashley’s starting to find herself. They’re young women now. We have to show them right from wrong. No matter how hard.”
Stephanie pushed back, but she knew his thought-process made sense.
“They’ll be devastated.”
“I can still seek asylum,” said Chuck. “We can still go through the same process here in Tijuana. It just might take longer.”
“But five years?”
“Delando seems to think it won’t take that long,” Chuck said, realizing that he and Stephanie had somehow started holding hands, but not recalling how that had come about. “It could be years. But it could also be months. I want to do it right. No more lies. No more deception. I want to come home. But I want to do it legally.”