"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“That nice gay roommate of yours. What’s his name again?” my mother asked over the phone.
“Emir,” I said, though I’d told her before.
“When I get there I’m taking you both out to a nice dinner.”
My mother’s generous offer to dine at a restaurant Emir and I couldn’t otherwise afford would not typically have been cause for a panicked frenzy, but things had changed. The night before she landed in L.A., Emir and I scurried around our two-bedroom apartment like squirrels preparing for winter. We buried banking paperwork bearing both our names, photographs of us with the red-suited Elvis impersonator who married us in Las Vegas two months earlier, on Nov.r 17, 2001, and Emir’s I-485 forms, the INS paperwork for adjustment of status.
My mother had only to see the code I-485 to know what we had done. As a diplomat, she spent her days surrounded by these forms, with their cryptic letter and number combinations: O-1, H1B, K-1, K-3, DV. We worried my mother would sniff us out like a German shepherd and 52 tons of cocaine at baggage claim. She had a nose for our specific brand of deception. Three days before Emir and I wed, she was the star of a very different ceremony, as the recipient of an award from the CIA for her work preventing illegal immigration.
“I’m a profiler, that’s what I do for a living,” she said when I accused her of judging people too quickly. If she learned I married Emir for his green card, she would take it as a personal betrayal. I feared she might turn us in 1) to teach me a lesson, 2) because it was her job. But my mother lived thousands of miles away, while Emir shuffled around the kitchen with me every morning, both of us bleary-eyed, waiting for coffee to brew.
During college, I was briefly engaged to a high school sweetheart. When this did not end in a wedding, my mother swept in, went to Ikea, and got to work building furniture in the small empty apartment where I landed. We didn’t talk about feelings. Emir was the one who stroked my back while I cried and who helped me burn, over a drain in the building’s garage, the old love letters I couldn’t stop rereading.
I loved them both, but Emir knew me better than my mother did. We watched romantic comedies with tissues and fat-free popcorn. We sang along with J-Lo on road trips. We danced to pounding house music at Rage and waltzed around our living room to Barbra Streisand. We talked late into the night about men we were seeing and how hard it was to find real, lasting love. We argued about dishes (namely, Emir had higher standards of cleanliness) and whose turn it was to scrub the bathroom (probably mine). Meanwhile, my mother asked about achievements and successes, awaiting news of my “getting discovered” in Hollywood. Emir was more realistic. We spoke openly about our failures and disappointments in a way I could not with my mother because such discussion spiraled into fear and worry. My mother wouldn’t suffer if I married Emir, but Emir would suffer if I didn’t. When I was growing up, my mother and I were a little family, just the two of us. I had a new family now.
Emir and I met when we were both 19, at film school in Boston. When he walked into the classroom, I was struck by how familiar he looked and realized he resembled me. We could have been related. While working on a project together, we discovered how much we had in common besides appearance. We each spoke three languages, and loved travel, shopping and dancing. We were idealists, optimists, and as Emir phrased it, “love fools.” And we were both well versed in the art of deception.
Emir grew up gay in a Muslim country, hiding who he really was from his father. His mother guessed the truth when he was a teenager. She confronted him and he admitted that, yes, he was. She cried and begged him to never tell his father. He would divorce her, or worse. He would blame her, I wondered? I behaved with my mother as Emir did with his father. We hid who we really were in favor of more “acceptable” personas. I couldn’t tell my mother I had a tattoo, much less that I was fired from a job. My situation wasn’t life-or-death as Emir’s, but I understood what it felt like to pretend to be someone you’re not for somebody else’s benefit. Who didn’t?
After college, we stayed together, graduating a semester early and settling down in West Hollywood as the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the 43rd president. One year later, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Emir had visa trouble. He needed a job to stay in the country and aside from new prejudice against young men from Muslim countries, no company was hiring. Visa sponsorship was reserved for the exceptionally skilled, for instance, a surgeon who developed groundbreaking procedures in infant cardiology.
If Emir was forced to return to his homeland, where homosexuality was considered a sin, he would be forced back into the closet as well, not for the two years we’d have to be married to ensure his green card, but for life.
Marriage was the best option.
People assume it was Emir’s idea, but I proposed to him. At first he said no — he was nervous about possible arrest and deportation. I thought he was worried about nothing: We loved each other, lived together, had a history. How do you judge a marriage entered into with emotional authenticity? Besides, I knew the color of his toothbrush.
In the era of OKCupid, open marriages and serial divorce, who’s to say what a marriage looks like, anyway? According to the journal Legal Affairs, “the law doesn’t detail what makes a marriage valid for immigration purposes.” Section 3 of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), which President Obama just declared unconstitutional, defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” It meant the federal government didn’t recognize gender-neutral unions, and immigration is a federal-level concern. DOMA is, for lack of a better expression, a screwed-up law. If a same-sex couple gets married in a state where it is legal, and one partner is a U.S. citizen and the other a foreigner, the citizen cannot immigrate the non-citizen partner the way heterosexuals can in a simple matter of signing a few forms.
We were one man and one woman, I told Emir over dinner, at the dry cleaners, in line at Starbucks, in repeated attempts to convince him. Our marriage could be made legal. He kept saying no, not wanting to put me in any kind of danger.
One night, we were drinking cosmopolitans at the Abbey, our favorite West Hollywood gay bar, when Emir mentioned the latest round of applications that went nowhere. I hopped off my bar stool and got down on one knee. Would he please agree to be my blushing bride already?
The next thing I knew, we had a date scheduled at the Viva Las Vegas chapel. My bridesmaid canceled at the last minute. Her older sister, it turned out, told her she was getting involved with “an illegal green card arrangement.” That she could be implicated — maybe even arrested as an accessory. “When I told you I’d be in your wedding, I didn’t know you were doing something illegal,” she said as I protested.
Emir and I danced down the aisle on our own and promised we’d always polish each other’s blue suede shoes and walk each other’s hound dogs — reasonable vows. What Elvis had us promising was very realistic. We crossed the threshold into the walk-in closet big enough to hold us both, with our various threads of false stories to keep straight. Emir’s father knew we were getting married but didn’t know his son was gay; his father hoped we would fall in love during the course of this green card process and I would have his grandson. My mother knew Emir was gay but not about the marriage. Neither knew the secret the other held.
Back home, we curled up under a fuzzy gray blanket on the couch in our West Hollywood nest to watch “Sex and the City.” I was guilty of “alien snuggling,” I joked. Emir was the one person who laughed at my lame puns. Who was to say we did not “count” as “legitimate”?
Why should I have to keep the nature of the most important relationship in my life a secret?
“That’s how gay people feel all the time,” Emir said.
Five months into our marriage, Emir and I moved to New York City for a fresh start. Our apartment hunt began with a mishap in conversation with our broker: “What do you need the second bedroom for?” Me: “An office!” Emir: “A baby!” The broker looked at us skeptically, but we got the place. Being married looked good on paper.
We developed a morning ritual of getting Mexican coffee from a little shack on First Street, across Houston from our building. The one time I went to the coffee stand without him, the cashier, a young, friendly Hispanic woman, cheerfully asked me where my boyfriend was.
I laughed. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
Should I be telling her this? The secrecy question still tripped me up. The cashier smiled.
“Oh thank god you know!” she said. “Here I was thinking, ‘That poor girl has no idea her boyfriend’s gay.’”
I handed her money across the counter. “Actually, he’s my husband,” I said, picking up a cafe con leche in each hand and turning to head home. Imagining the shocked expression on her face, I smiled to myself, but amusement over our situation never lasted long.
“We have to degay the apartment,” Emir said when I walked through the door.
What? Most of our décor consisted of “Absolutely Fabulous” posters (one of which read, “SIN IS IN, SWEETIE!”) and large refrigerator magnets that said things like “NOBODY KNOWS I’M GAY” in big capital letters. Photos of us with Elvis, at Pride marches and dancing in West Hollywood clubs decorated the shelves. Degay the apartment? We had barely finished decorating!
His father was coming to see us, Emir explained.
This time, instead of the marriage, we hid gay evidence. I thought of my mother’s L.A. drop-in, how Emir and I were keeping the same secret in opposite ways from our opposite-gender parents who would disapprove. But this was us, our life, who we were — what would happen if we just laid it all out on the table? Wasn’t the real enemy not immigration laws, not sexuality, not anything but secrecy itself?
Emir’s father looked like an older version of Emir — he could have been my father. He wasn’t at all the imposing tyrant I’d come to picture him as. He took us to see “Beauty and the Beast” — the Broadway musical. A homophobe getting teary during a play based on a Disney cartoon? “Are you sure he’d be mad if he knew?” I asked Emir later as we regayed the apartment.
“Appearances deceive,” he said.
Of course. We were doing the exact same thing.
We stayed in the closet our entire first year and went to one INS interview, but then Emir won the Diversity Visa Lottery, more commonly known as the green card lottery. We could have divorced, but we didn’t.
“Something could still go wrong with your paperwork,” I said.
“I like being married to you, too,” he replied.
My mother could have found out Emir and I were married at any point if, bored at work one day, she had looked him up in the Consular Consolidated Database, a computer program that’s the portal into the world of immigrant visas. She never did, and might never have found out at all, but I told her eventually. I had to or she was going to find out in the New York Times. It wasn’t a marriage I thought I’d have, much less one I thought I would talk about openly, but I was publishing an article about it in hopes of highlighting the absurdity of the DOMA, which discriminates against people based on the gender of whom they love, and at some point in our lives, we all have to come out about something. My mother yelled, screamed and cried over the phone, holding firm that what I did for love was marriage fraud. The same year, Emir came out to his father, as his father drove him to the airport at the end of a visit — an easy escape up into the sky, bulleting at 500 miles an hour back to New York, where he would be safe. His father gave him the silent treatment for almost a year before coming around.
Emir and I had traveled far from where we began. By then, I’d become a full-time writer with a book coming out, and Emir a screenwriter-actor. Eventually, we divorced, but he is still a pillar in my life. I wonder if we would have grown apart or lost track of each other if not for the eternal — or at least eternal-seeming — bond created by our marriage, which stayed firm even after our divorce went through.
My mother gradually accepted my choice. When she visited recently, she took Emir and me to a West Village brasserie. Emir told us he’d been cast in an off-Broadway play, in a role as a straight man. He worried about pulling it off. “You have experience playing straight,” I said. “That TV pilot … the INS …”
Emir quickly looked from me to my mother, bracing for a bad reaction to the lighthearted mention, but she just smiled and sipped hot chocolate.
This all could have ended so differently, I thought. The possibility of my mother spearheading Emir’s deportation now seemed absurd. The secret we held onto for years felt so far removed from our present, and something else had taken its place. I watched them, thinking, this is my family.
Liza Monroy is the author of the novel "Mexican High" (Spiegel & Grau) and is currently at work on a memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times magazine, the L.A. Times, Newsweek and other publications. She teaches writing at Mediabistro and Columbia and lives in Brooklyn. Visit her on the web at lizamonroy.com.More Liza Monroy.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also post your essay on Open Salon and tag it "real families."