Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Proposal: the Michelle Story Part 5

After Michelle and I returned to New York, we continued life as we had been. We enjoyed ourselves and spent almost every waking hour together. One funny little habit we developed is that, in the morning, when we were both thirsty, we would each try and wait for the other to go downstairs for a drink. As soon as one of us headed downstairs, the other would ask for a drink, as well. I remember both of us laying in bed, each trying to hold out as long as possible, so as not to have to be the one who went downstairs for the drinks. Oh what lazy days those were.
Michelle's father started questioning when I was going to get another job. Michelle and I would come up with this or that excuse. The truth is, I wasn't even looking. As long as the money held out, I wasn't in any hurry to go back to work. The idea of spending days apart from Michelle seemed like some horrible event, to be avoided for as long as possible. Instead, I started taking her to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where there was legal casino gambling. I would play Blackjack, win a couple of hundred dollars, then stop and we would make our way back to Long Island, where we were staying.
Michelle wanted to try to get into modeling, in New York. She found an ad in the newspaper, by a photographer, who offered to shoot a portfolio for prospective models. Michelle had brought back her portfolio from Wales, but wanted to update it. I was hesitant, because the session with the photographer would cost a significant chunk of our ever dwindling savings and because I was skeptical that this photographer was any good. There are a lot of photographers out there who make their money selling photo sessions to hopeful young women, which leads to no work for the girls. In any case, Michelle was insistent and it was hard to refuse her anything. After the photos were done, we looked up some of the top modeling agencies in New York and went to see them. I sat in with Michelle, when she was seen by Eileen Ford's agency, one of the most famous in America. The woman we spoke to at Ford's was very helpful. She said that Michelle photographed too old. Although Michelle was only 17, she looked in her early to mid twenties in the photos she had done. The current look that was being sought was a young look; girls who were 17 and looked 14 in their photos. A few years earlier, the "sophisticated look" was in and Michelle would have been perfect for it, but the market had changed. Ford wasn't interested. We tried Elite anyway, as it was the agency for Michelle's modeling idol, Cindy Crawford, to get a second opinion, but they weren't interested either. If the photographer had been any good, he should have known this and had Michelle made up to look younger, not older. As I feared, the money we had spent had been wasted.
Michelle started wanting to go to the malls around where we lived more frequently than I did, so I taught her which buses to take, so she could make her own way. She went out on her own, a few times. She was so sweet, she would call me from a phone booth, after a couple of hours, and tell me which shops she had been to and what she's had to eat. One time she called me and told me some shop manager had offered her a job, but that brought up the issue of her visa. As she was on a tourist visa, she couldn't legally work in America. She had hoped that if she was wanted for modeling work, they would help her get a work visa. I explained to her that she wouldn't be able to get a working visa just to work in a retail shop. The US government had these ridiculous rules that before a foreigner could get a visa to work at a job, the employer had to demonstrate that he couldn't find a suitable employee from amongst American citizens or aliens who had residency. Unless the job was one that had been certified as being short of workers, in that industry, or required some unique talent (such as an actor, TV performer, or musician), no work visa would be issued. Obviously, a retail shop assistant is a job that almost anyone could do. It's a shame, really, because Michelle had started wanting to work, yet was unable to, due to some silly regulations.
Eventually, our lifestyle hit a snag. On one of our trips to Atlantic City, I lost big time. Our savings was depleted and I would have to go back to work. Michelle and I had a discussion about things. I needed to go back to work and she wanted to work. I don't know how it came up, but we discussed getting married. I loved this girl and wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. If we got married, she'd be able to work, legally, in the US, as well. I thought we needed to wait till Michelle turned 18, as you needed to be 18 to get married without your parents' permission, in New York. Little did I know at the time, but Michelle and I could have legally married in Scotland, which has a lower age limit. We left things that we would most likely get married at some point in the future.
In August of 1989, Michelle's parents wanted to come visit. They were traveling to Toronto, Canada, where her father was buying a condo. They wanted to come down to New York and see where Michelle was living. I did the most thorough house cleaning I had ever done. I wanted to make as good an impression as possible. During their visit, we took them to the beach and they were amazed at how nice the areas around New York were. Many people abroad think New York is only what they see on TV and in the movies. Thus they tend to only have images of Manhattan and urban high rises. They were surprised to see so many trees. In the outer boroughs and the surrounding suburbs, there are plenty of trees and green spaces.
As it was getting near to the end of the six months Michelle had to stay on this visit to the US, we applied for an extension to her stay, for a couple of months. We sent off the application, which said it should take two weeks. After four weeks with no reply, we figured we'd just go to Canada, to spend more time with her parents, and she'd get re-stamped upon return to the US, with another six months. Her parents flew back to Toronto, while we drove up. After spending a few days with them in Toronto, I drove back, via the Thousand Islands region, hoping to stop in Watertown, New York, on our way back and see my friend, Fred. When we reached the Border checkpoint on the US side, we were asked the routine questions by a female Border Patrol officer. As she looked over Michelle's British passport, things changed. She told us to park the car and that there would be some further investigation. We were placed in separate rooms and my car was searched from top to bottom. Then they questioned each of us, separately. Finally, we were brought back together and spoke with this overweight, male Border Patrol officer, who seemed to be in charge of our situation. They had kept us there for over two hours, so far. He asked where Michelle's I-90 immigration form was. I explained that we had sent it off when we filed for her extension, as required by the application, something I thought he should be aware of. We told him the whole story of visiting her parents and how Michelle planned to go back to Wales in October. I showed him the cash that her father had given me, to pay for her ticket back to the UK. Nothing seemed to move this guy. When searching my car, he'd found the business card of the photographer Michelle had got her photos from. Based on that, he accused her of illegally working and living in the US. I explained that we had looked into getting her modeling work, but she hadn't actually secured any and that the card was just a photographer we bought photos from. While I was trying to talk this bureaucratic pinhead around, Michelle blurted out that we were planning on getting married. That seemed to settle things, for him.
The piggish official stated that because we intended on getting married, Michelle was planning on immigrating to the US, therefore, she no longer qualified for a tourist visa. He took a pen and drew a line through the visa in her passport, stating he was revoking it, on the spot. He then said she must return to the UK and re-establish herself there. What were we supposed to do now, sat in an office on the border with Canada? To finish things off, he was denying her entry into the US, so she couldn't even return with me to Long Island and get the rest of her things. We were instructed to turn around and drive back into Canada.
When we reached the Canadian checkpoint, a few hundred yards back along the road, it all started again. Now they wanted to question us. I inquired what the problem was, as we had just been in Canada a few hours before. That was different, the Canadian officials told me. Before, we had entered Canada voluntarily. Now, we had been refused entry into the US, so the bureaucracy went into overdrive. They phoned Michelle's parents and verified our story. I thought we might be doomed to spend the rest of our lives just driving back and forth a few hundred yards, between these two border checkpoints. Finally, they agreed to grant us entry, with the stipulation that Michelle had only three days to fly out of Canada.
Back in Toronto, Michelle's dad got us a room in the same hotel as the her parents were staying at. Her father booked her a ticket back to the UK, in three days time. While we were relaxing in the hotel's indoor pool, Michelle made a suggestion to me. "Why don't we get married straight away?" she asked.
"Are you proposing to me?" I needed to verify what was going on.
"I guess I am," she replied. I thought for a moment, then accepted, of course. We had no rings to exchange, but from that point we considered ourselves engaged. To date, Michelle remains the only woman ever to propose to me.
Regardless of our intentions, Michelle still needed to return to the UK. I would apply for a fiancee's visa, for her, as soon as I got back home. On the day before she was due to fly back to the UK, we were sitting in her parents' hotel room, all playing cards. I had taught them to play Spades and we were having a game. All of a sudden, I noticed that her father was cheating to enable Michelle to win. I complained about this and he blew up at me. We argued and he made a comment about paying for our hotel room. I told him to stuff his hotel room and headed for the door. I looked back at Michelle. She stood in the center of the room for a moment, as if torn between us. Her father told her not to go anywhere, but she turned and followed me out. He yelled after us that she'd better be at the airport the next day.
I found a cheap motel for us to spend the night in. We made love for what would turn out to be the last time. When relationships end, you usually never know that your last time making love is going to be your last time. If I had known it was to be our last time, I would have tried to make it more special. The mood was quite somber, as we were both unhappy. The next day, I had Michelle at the airport on time. She urged me to get her back to America as soon as possible. After a tearful farewell, she was gone.
A few days after I arrived back home, a letter arrived for Michelle, approving the extension of her stay in America. It was too late. I proceeded to start the process to secure Michelle a fiancee's visa. I found a job as a chauffeur and re-enrolled at university, to finish my degree. Back in Wales, Michelle got a job as a waitress. We often spoke on the phone and she said she was bored in Llandovery and begged me to get her back as soon as possible. She said her father kept pestering her to finish with me. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly and after I submitted the application, there was nothing to do but wait. After about a month, she told me she had started hanging out with a guy as a friend and asked if I minded. I cautiously said, "no," I didn't mind, so long as he was clear that Michelle was engaged and moving back to New York, and that they were just friends. After another month, I got a letter in early November, from Michelle. In it she said to forget about her and that she wasn't coming back. She'd decided to start a relationship with the guy she was supposed to be friends with. She'd only spoken to me on the phone a few days before and hadn't mentioned it. I screamed out in anguish. I called her family home, but only managed to get her sister, who said Michelle wasn't there. I wanted to fly over immediately and talk to her, face to face, but I couldn't afford the airfare. Explaining the situation, I asked my good friend, Tim, if he could loan me $500, so I could go see Michelle. While he agreed, his wife objected, saying they were trying to save to buy a house. They had $10,000 saved and I thought $500 wouldn't make that much difference, but she wouldn't budge. I wasn't able to go to Wales, then. Two weeks later, a letter arrived approving Michelle's fiancee visa. She never collected it.
Nine months later, in August of 1990, I had managed to save up enough to fly to Britain. I brought a suitcase full of some of Michelle's clothes, which she had left at my house. I contacted her sister and used the excuse of wanting to return Michelle's clothes. I drove down to Wales and went to see Michelle's sister, who was now staying in Llandovery. She had split from her husband. I asked about Michelle and her sister admitted to knowing where she was. Michelle had left home and moved in with the "friend" guy. They were staying in a trailer park, or "park home," as they are known, here, just on the outskirts of Llandovery. I drove over to see her and give her the suitcase. Michelle came outside, to the car and took the case. I saw a guy in the doorway of the trailer, starring at us. She told me to forget about her, but thanked me for returning her things. It was too late, they were living together.
It turned out that the "friend" guy was an ex-convict, newly out of prison. He got Michelle involved in drug use. I saw her two more times, over the years that followed. The next time was when I was visiting Wales. I stayed friends with Michelle's sister and youngest brother. Originally, it was to keep in contact with her, but I came to value them as friends in their own right. Michelle called me in America once, saying that the ex-con had dumped her, but she didn't go so far as to suggest we get back together. When I was visiting Wales, her sister told me she was working in Brecon. I went to Brecon and found Michelle working in a sandwich shop. I bought something to eat and she took a break and sat with me, while I ate. Nothing came of it. Subsequently, she moved to Basingstoke, in England. Then in 1993, while visiting Britain with Tim, Michelle agreed to meet me so I could return another suitcase of her things. At the time, she was living in a house with a couple of guys, although she didn't make it clear what her relationship was to them. She went into London with me and Tim, joining us for some sightseeing. She had changed her hair color to red, which I didn't think suited her as well. After a few hours, I drove her home, so she could get back before the guys she was living with got home from work. It seemed that she had kept meeting me a secret. That was the last time I ever saw the Great Michelle, although, indirectly, she is part of the reasons I ended up living in Britain. Later, I heard from her mother that she had had a baby. That news caused me to finally give up hoping we would ever get back together. The last time I saw her brother and sister was in July, 2004, in Wales. I had driven down to visit, for the weekend. Her sister, ever one to suspect how deeply in love with Michelle I had been, managed to give me a few tidbits of Michelle news. She'd had another baby and was now living in Newbury, just on the other side of Reading from me. She still wasn't married, although she was living with a bloke.
Falling in love with Michelle and then losing her had a profound impact on me. Even now, almost 14 years since I last saw her, writing this has brought tears to my eyes. For a long time after that, I couldn't stand the sight of weddings, without feeling very sad. My cynicism expanded exponentially. What justice is there, in the world? How could there be a loving God in the universe, if people could experience such loss? If I had a soul, then it was deeply scared. It's one of those scars that heals eventually, but never completely fades away. I am reminded of the last line in the film, "Patton." "All glory is fleeting."


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