Nonfiction

The Knight in Shining Earrings

By Maria Capezio Crookes

The years 1999 and 2000 were not kind to me, and I was not kind to myself. My best friend, Rut, was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma at 19, I dropped out of my first attempt to go to school, my abuelito died, I broke up with my abusive high school boyfriend, I felt lost and a failure. At least I was able to accompany Rut for the first part of her Chemo treatments (she is now Dr. Rut, has been in remission for several years, and has a beautiful family). During that time, I read a lot, and tried to figure out what to do next.

In 2001 I decided to go back to school, enrolling in the only Methodist University in Argentina -by accident. I didn’t know it was a Methodist school then. I pursued a degree in Labor Relations, a relatively new offering, sold as a Human Resources meet Union and Labor Law, the bridge between the leadership of the company and the work force. Now I know better.

In my circle of friends, it was almost shameful to attend a private university, the assumption being that the classes were much easier, and you were paying for your degree one month at a time. All my friends attended the very prestigious Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Facultad de Ciencia Política y Relaciones Internacionales (in Argentina, the National University system has free tuition, excellent reputation, and is a stronghold for social and political change). With all that baggage, I attended my first day of school at UCEL in March 2002. That first semester kicked my butt.

By the time, the second semester started, the members of our cohort knew each other well, formed two distinct groups (and Victor, the one guy nobody liked), and had our spots in the classroom. We had a heavy course load: Intro to Critical Thinking, Intro to Psychology, Methodology of Research I, History of Labor, Algebra, and Foreign Language (English II, in my case). That first Monday at 6:00pm, I walked in the classroom, expecting the same faces that were there just one month before. And they were. But there were also three new students who were greeted with the classic nod-smile combination as I walked by them to head to the back of the classroom to join Soledad and Paula. I never thought that my life was about to become something that sounds like the plot of a Hallmark or Lifetime movie.

The Critical Thinking professor walked in, introduced himself, and then announced in a deep and careful voice: “I hope you greeted our guests today. They are exchange students from the United States, coming from Oklahoma City University, sister school of UCEL.” When Dr. Salvatore said those words, Jenilee, Micah, and Murray smiled and looked around, with confused eyes, slightly overwhelmed. I am almost sure that the only reason they realized the introduction was happening, was because they heard ‘Oklahoma.’ Years later, Murray confessed to me that he could barely understand any Spanish, even when his Major was in Spanish.

We glanced, waved, and then simply moved on with the lesson. I couldn’t help but to keep watching the one guy. Long, dark hair, wide shoulders, shiny spikes coming from the back of his ears, peaking through his hair. There was something about him that annoyed me. I am not sure what it was, even until this day. Was it the earrings? The grin?

After a couple of weeks of class, we settled in the routine: lectures, homework, readings, projects. Rinse and repeat. We were more comfortable talking with the exchange students, but never long enough to get to know them. One professor suggested we get together for dinner, show them what Rosario is about, support them by not practicing our English skills. We decided on pizza dinner at the terrace in Malia’s apartment building, the following Wednesday after class. The following Wednesday was 09/11/2002, the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. We promptly postponed dinner to the next week, as my annoyance morphed into curiosity.

The day arrived. After class I collected money from those attending, headed to the grocery store with some friends, and filled up a cart with 1-liter bottles of beer, a couple bottles of wine, and some sodas. Malia’s house was just two blocks away, so we decided to walk. The sidewalks in Rosario are lined with cement tiles with grooves on them, and as soon as we hit the sidewalk with that grocery cart, the music started. The clink-clink of bottles tapping against each other was enough to launch us into a giggle attack. We tried going slower, which made every single person around us look at the cart and us. Clink-clink. We tried going faster, making the music louder, drawing more looks, and more laughter, and the slight concern that we might break a bottle or two. One block to go. Keep walking. Clink-clink.

We were about to cross the street when we found Murray and Jenilee. The look on their faces was truly priceless. Our cart was, after all, full of alcohol. And they were under 21 (legal drinking age in Argentina is 18). After the uncomfortable “Hola,” and them staring at our cart for a few minutes, we started walking again. The conversations the rest of the way made us forget about the clink-clink of the bottles.

Dinner went as planned. We talked, ate pizzas, drank, laughed, staying up too late. After 2:00am, some started to slowly get ready to leave. At 3:00am, the few of us left were -most likely- intoxicated. Murray, Paula, Soledad, and I were talking about… something. I am sure we were trying to impress him, acting like the intellectuals we were not. Paula and Sol hopped in a car, and left, leaving us behind with the leftover beer. My drunk-self invited Murray over to my apartment, to finish the conversation and the beers. He hesitated but agreed when I told him my brother and his girlfriend were home.

We sat at the kitchen table and talked, for hours. Politics, philosophy, sociology, history. We compared what we thought we knew from each other’s countries with the lived reality we had. Mostly it was me, quoting The Simpsons, Friends, and Gilmore Girls, asking about pop-tarts and stereotypes that were prevalent in movies and TV. I remember asking him about 9/11 and being surprised that he was not passionate about it. Everything in the news in Argentina was about patriotism that was born out of these attacks. He called it nationalism and mentioned the dangers of it. How right he was. He asked me about my family, he had a one-sided version of what families in Argentina were (money and privilege). I told him about my family, and even when I had some financial stability thanks to my parents, I was able to talk to him about my friends, that sometimes had to count pennies to make it to the end of the month. We drank well until the morning sun peeked through the window, telling us that Murray had to leave to shower and go to class.

My curiosity was, to my utter exasperation, changing once more.

After that night, attending class was something that I looked forward to. The class itself was boring and monotonous; Dr. Salvatore was going slow on purpose to support the exchange students, and I could not care less. Murray was there, and I would get to see and talk to him. We were becoming close friends, having great discussions, studying, playing pool, and going to the movies. We even attended a formal dance together. Yes, it sounds like we were dating, and I might have been already falling in love. But he wasn’t, and I was not going to force him to like me. Yet.

I talked about my family, why I struggled finding my path, how I ended up in Rosario, my favorite fútbol. team. He talked about his school, his Yup’ik ancestry, his dream of going to the Peace Corps after graduating, about his hometown of Sitka.

I was head over heels for him.

November came around, we celebrated his 21st birthday, studied for finals, and spent more time together. One night, after studying for a few hours, we went out. We ended up sitting down at a bar, played pool for a while, drank too much, and went back to my apartment. It was 4:00am. I invited him to spend the night.

“I have an extra bed,” I said. I still had two beds in my bedroom, from when I shared it with my sister.

I changed in a different room and went to bed. My own bed. We slept for a little while. When I woke up, I could see the dawn changing the colors in the room. The spaces between the blinds were letting the sun peek, a golden hue reflecting on the mirror, the silhouette of the man I thought was the man of my dreams lying in the bed next to me.

He was so close, and so far away. I got up from my space and lay down with him.

Ana, my sister-in-law, walked in, not knowing he was there with me (she needed to borrow my black comfy flats, for work). It remains one of the most told stories among siblings: her face and tone when she saw us, the speed in which she left the room, the exclamation outside the door, my brother asking what happened and realizing I was not his little sister anymore. After a moment of giggles mixed with a little panic, our eyes adjusted to the dawn leaking through the blinds, to find each other. I remember taking a deep breath, knowing I was about to bare my soul to the guy with the funky earrings, who was leaving in a few weeks, a guy I might never see again. When the last of the air left my lungs, I kissed him. And he kissed me back. It was a sweet, soft kiss that lasted forever, but not long enough. I was profoundly in love with this man, and I did not want him to stop. But he did.

He didn’t push me away.

He hugged me, tight.

He whispered, “I can’t do this, I am sorry. I have a girlfriend. I am sorry.”

I was embarrassed, desperate to find the secret to time travel, to be taken away and never been seen again. He got up, got dressed. Stopped at the door.

“I am sorry.” And he left.

Awkward is not enough of a word to explain the next time we saw each other. But we did talk. We made a point (unspoken one) to not be alone anymore.

Finals came and went. And then, the day they were all leaving arrived. We were at his host family’s home, alone. We didn’t talk much. I helped him pack his bags, making sure all the presents he bought were safely cushioned, we had mates, listened to music, and waited for the shuttle to come. After midnight, the doorbell rang, my heart missed a beat. Outside, he said goodbye to his host mom, to the other classmates that showed up to say their goodbyes. And then, me. He gave me a blanket, a CD, and a letter. He hugged me, kissed me, and got into the shuttle.

My heart was broken into a million pieces. I knew I was never going to meet anyone like him, and I suspected I was never going to see him again.

I stayed in Rosario for Christmas with the family, and then traveled back to Ituzaingó for the rest of the summer break. I didn’t hear much from Murray that first summer.

Life continued, always with the shadow of a man that I was in love with, later using him to measure any other person I dated or attempted to date. Remembering the one night we could have done more, but he chose to be faithful. I now wanted a man that I could talk to for hours about books, history, politics, and food. I wanted to date someone that could set boundaries, be faithful, and hug me tight. I wanted someone that could make the butterflies in my stomach start a hurricane and make my entire body tremble by simply grazing my hand. No. I couldn’t find anyone like him. I used to think that I was holding on to a dream that was never going to happen.

The next semester began in March. I wanted to forget what happened in November, but the memories of him were floating around the school, in the classroom, with my friends, at home. And then, I heard the unmistakable alert from MSN Messenger. Ding. Murray was connected and wanted to talk to me. I asked about his girlfriend. “We broke up. She cheated on me while I was in Argentina. I am trying to learn to be alone, I don’t know how to be alone.” So, I resigned myself to be his friend.

We talked often via MSN Messenger, e-mails, some letters. After a few months, I would let my fantasies loose, and imagine a future with him. And he disappeared, again, for several months. I cried on my sister’s shoulder, too embarrassed to admit to my friends what was happening, never fully admitting to myself that I needed to let go and move on with my life.

Ding. “I was dating a girl, I felt that it was better if we didn’t talk. She was jealous of you. We broke up.”

I let my guard down again. It didn’t take much. My dating life was stuck, and it was easier to dream about the person across the world than figuring out what was happening around me.

One night when I turned my PC on, the alerts started going insane. Ding. “I know I am drunk, and probably shouldn’t say this. But I think I am in love with you. You are the one person I can’t get out of my head. All other women I date don’t compare to you. I love you.”

The little bit of defenses I had left were gone. The following weeks we talked a lot about what it meant that we loved each other, what could we do, how could we move forward?

And then, again. He disappeared. I was heartbroken, ashamed, falling in a spiral of guilt, unhealthy habits, depression, some relapses with my eating disorder. It took me a long time to climb out of it, build my walls back up, push him away as much as I could -yay for therapy!

I knew he was dating someone else, after he professed his love for me. And still, when the day was over, his memories would creep into my mind, his smile, his stupid earrings, his voice. I hated him for breaking me, and I hated me for not being able to shut him out.

A couple of years passed. In 2006 I was working at an NGO, where I met a Psych student. He was an intern, learning the ropes of HR interviewing (in Argentina, psychologists run most HR companies, with HR professionals as support). I was in my 2nd year of my internship, mostly processing and reviewing resumes, and now tasked with teaching him how to use the system. We started walking to the bus stop after work, and then stopping for coffee instead. I was scared to get into a relationship, the shame of what happened before was holding me down. Pablo was a nice guy, smart, fun to hang out with, willing to go slow.

Ding. “I have never stopped thinking about you. After all this time, all these relationships, you are the one I compare all women to.” Le sigh.

Why? Why after all this time are you here? Why are you saying these things? Are you going to stay on the other side of this computer long enough to break me, and then leave again? I should have said all that, but I didn’t. I am not good at confrontation. So, I listened. He told me about his heartbreaks, about his brother returning from Iraq, about a woman who cheated on him and then left him in an empty apartment in Pittsburgh, about his DUI, and about how he still loved me. I didn’t say it back. I told him that I was sorry for the tough times he was going through, and I was happy to see him.

Life is a funny thing. As I was working hard to keep those walls up, Pablo was trying to convince me to date, but in secret. Because “I am not the person that can give you what you want. And I couldn’t bring you home” (he is from a very traditional Jewish family and was expected to date/marry a Jewish woman). And Murray was trying to convince me to visit him and be in a relationship with me. My therapist was clear, she told me that on one hand there’s this guy that is IN Rosario, but doesn’t want to be seen with me, and on the other hand, there was this guy that is broken but is willing to pay for me to visit him in the US and see what happens with the relationship. I needed to move to get unstuck.

I know how it sounds. At the time I thought I should walk away from them. I was so tired of holding the walls up, so tired of keeping everyone out, tired of being in a constant state of heartbreak.

I had to make a choice, and I did.

I told Pablo I was not willing to be with someone that I didn’t have a future with.

I told Murray this was his last chance. And chose to trust him. We committed to not being with anyone else and started planning my visit. That conversation with my parents was fun, by the way. My sister was not exactly excited about it and did not have a problem letting me know. My brothers were like, “Meh. What are you bringing me?”

Parallel to all this chaos, life continued as usual. I was working on graduating, my sister was getting married in January, my brother Claudio moved to Spain and back, my brother Franco and his wife had a baby, my country was falling deeper and deeper in economic and social disarray. Since 1999 and forward, we had 7 presidents (5 of them in one week in 2001), our peso devaluated so much that our economy morphed into a bargaining one, crime increased everywhere, and our politicians were well known for their corruption. Once a booming economy and exporter of grain and soy, we were now paying for irresponsible farming practices.

But among all the chaos, I was happily planning to travel to the US. We started to look for options. I enrolled at a local University in Edmond, OK to take English classes, applied for a student visa, and he got the tickets. April 18th I was leaving from Buenos Aires to Oklahoma. These plans gave us a beginning and end to my visit, a safety net for me, and peace of mind to my family and friends.

In December, my high school friends were all visiting Rosario for a party for my graduation. We were sitting on my living room floor, eating cheap pizza, drinking Fernet and Coke, talking about my plans. Lucho said, “Don’t go and do something stupid, like getting married, or something!” I was taken by surprise by that comment. Of course I was not going to do something THAT stupid. I was going to figure out what this relationship was, to see if all the years of talking about him, all the years of pain and loneliness, all the years of comparing him to other men, all the years of ignoring my friends about forgetting him, all the years of using that blanket he left me were worth something.

The process of obtaining a Visa is long, with so much paperwork, fees, interviews, more fees, and a doctor’s appointment. During my interview, the embassy officer asked me “Is this person your fiancé?”

I didn’t even think about it “No, he is a friend from college.” I remember feeling the heat rising to my cheeks, moving to my neck and ears, turning bright red.

That woman didn’t believe a word I said about Murray, and I was sure I was going to get denied. I saw the red stamp on my paperwork, “APPROVED.”

I arrived at the Oklahoma City airport on April 19th. As I write these words, I can still see him standing there, the sun coming through the airport windows on his right. He had a polo shirt with white and blue horizontal stripes and green slacks, his hands behind his back, roses. I ran to him, dropped my backpack on the floor and hugged him. For the first time we were able to kiss, really kiss. I was relieved to realize that he was my knight in shining armor.

The first day was… amazing. We were holding hands, looking at each other, giggling. We didn’t see anyone else that day. It was just for the two of us.

Meeting his friends on 4/20 was a cultural shock that I have not recovered from yet (I was introduced to the unofficial holiday by meeting people that had been celebrating. A lot. Since early on the day). That Monday I had my first day of class. We woke up at 4:00am for Murray to go to work, we had breakfast, made lunch for both of us, and started the day. That became our routine for the next three months: wake up at 4:00am, have breakfast, make coffee to go, prepare lunch for both of us. Murray had to be on the road by 5:00am. I had to leave at 7:00am. Class was over at 3:30pm, and I would head back home, do my homework before Murray came back from work. Murray would arrive around 5:00pm. Dinner. Bed. Start over.

The weekends were to meet people and places. And to have crazy adventures. The most memorable of them all happened my first week there: On April 22nd, Murray’s best friend called us to tell us that his fiancée was in labor. We drove 4 hours to Ada, OK to wait for the arrival of Chavita. And then 4 hours back home, because we had to go to work and school. We heard the baby crying as we were walking away from the hospital.

We would walk around Lake Heffner, sit on benches, and take pictures. Bars and Karaoke at night. The first song he ever dedicated and sang for me was a Tenacious D song that I don’t dare name here. That night I learned that his friends would always be there to support and hide me if necessary. And put me in the spotlight if the situation required it.

Sometimes we had dinner and brunch at restaurants with friends, where they would make me try food that I had never tried before. My first French toast with bacon was AMAZING. We were the annoying couple, the one that cannot stop holding hands, or being really close to each other. I was living in the fantasy that I had built in my head for the past 5 years.

At the end of that month, Murray asked my dad permission to propose. He wrote an email in English and asked me to help him translate. His hands were shaking as we were typing. I was holding in tears. The next week we waited in agony, checking for an answer every 5 minutes, until the end of the week.

I was in class, and there was a storm brewing. A tornado watch was in effect. Murray texted me that he thought that he was going to be sent home due to the weather, and that he’d pick me up for lunch if that was the case. Right before noon, he texted me that he was heading back to town, to wait for him for lunch. I walked outside the building, and there he was. Rain was starting to fall.

We went to the coffee shop just outside campus. I ordered a coffee and a muffin; Murray had a cold drink. We talked for a while, and then walked outside to smoke by the fountain. When it was time for me to go, Murray said, “I have a question to ask, but before I ask it, you have to pinky promise that you are going to go back to class after.” Reluctantly, I agreed. He stood up, took a step back, got down on one knee, opened a little black box, and asked “Chivi, would you be my wife?” My dad had said yes. And so did I.

And yes, after he put the ring on my finger, I went back to class. I don’t remember anything of the class, except that my professor and some classmates congratulated me, and we all laughed at my catatonic state.

Murray’s grandmother’s reaction was the best. I could hear her voice on the other side of the phone: “About time!” His mom was excited, and surprised that it took him so long. His stepdad asked if I was pregnant. Jokingly, we started to answer that we were getting married because I wanted my Green Card. My parents were less excited, even when I reassured them that I was returning on the date we had planned. I imagine they suspected we were going to move to the US to settle after the wedding.

We started to plan what to do next, where to live, setting a wedding date. The decision was to stay in the US, close to Murray’s family so we could raise our future kids close to their Yup’ik relatives. The rest of the adult decisions we needed to talk about, would become a problem for future us.

We married a month later.

I did the stupid thing. And I am glad for it.

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