Assimilation by E. L. Doctorow


Assimilation is a very familiar word to me, and that is what intrigued me to read the story. It is about a fake marriage, in order for a «girl» from a «European city» to get the green card and move to New York, that turned into a real one, through love. Ramon, the prospective husband, considers it like «selling yourself. And it’s a defilement of sacred matters», when he was first asked to marry her. But his brother Leon bluntly answers, «(y)ou sell yourself washing dishes, little bro. This is the country of selling yourself. And what sacred matter do you mean, which this scam bears no resemblance to, if you think about it?» Doctorow, when asked how he managed to get all those different voices within the story he answered that he listens and then writes them down. And that is, exactly, what he does.


Where Ramon worked washing dishes, the owner called him in one day and said that he was raising him to busboy. Ramon would wear the short red jacket and black trousers. Ramon’s hands were cracked and peeling from the hot water, but he was wary of the promotion because the owner was selling it to him like there was a catch. They were all foreigners—the owner, the owner’s wife, and the people who came there to eat. Big people with loud voices and bad manners. You are in the waiting pool now, my friend, and on a good night your share could be thirty, forty dollars, under the table. On Sunday morning, Ramon took the bus upstate to see Leon. They talked through the phones. I don’t know why he wants to see my certificate, Ramon said.

What certificate?

Of my birth.

He wants to make sure you’re an American, Leon said.

So I can?

Why not? Figure they’re illegals—maybe not the owner, because he has a business that requires a license, but a lot of them. Born here is a commodity, it has a value, so see what the deal is.

When Ramon presented his birth certificate, they sat down with him in the back after the restaurant was closed for the night—Borislav, the owner, his wife, she of the squinting eyes, and another man, who was fat, like Borislav, but older and with a briefcase in his lap. He was the one who asked the questions. After Ramon gave his answers, they talked among themselves. He heard harsh mouthfuls of words with deep notes—it was not a mellifluous language like the bright bubbling of water over rocks of his language.

And then, with a flourish, the owner placed on the table a photograph. Look, my friend, he said. The photograph was of a girl, a blonde with sunglasses propped in her hair. Her hand gripping the strap of her shoulder bag was closed like a fist. She wore jeans. She wore a blouse revealing the shoulders. Behind her was a narrow street with an array of motorcycles and mopeds parked front wheels to the curb. She was half sitting sideways on a motorcycle seat, her legs straight out and her feet in their sandals planted on the paving stones. She was smiling.

How much? Leon said.

A thousand. Plus air and hotel expenses.

They are messing with you. This is good for three thousand, minimum.

And then?
Why not? It will pay for filmmaker’s school. Isn’t that what you want?
I don’t know. It’s selling yourself. And it’s a defilement of sacred matters.
You still have it for Edita?
No, eso es cuento viejo.
Then what’s the problem? You sell yourself washing dishes, little bro. This is the country of selling yourself. And what sacred matter do you mean, which this scam bears no resemblance to, if you think about it?
When the plane landed, Ramon crossed himself. He took the bus to the city. It was already late afternoon and the city was under the heavy dark clouds he had flown through. Packs of motorcycles and mopeds kept pace with the bus and then shot past. Linked streetcars ground around corners and disappeared as if swallowed. It was an old European city of unlighted streets and stone buildings with shuttered windows.
He had the address of the tourist hotel on a piece of paper. There was just time to change into the suit and they were calling from downstairs.
The girl from the picture gave him a quick glance of appraisal and nodded. No smile this time. And her hair was different—pulled tight and bound at the neck. She was dressed for the occasion in a white suit jacket with a matching short skirt and white shoes with heels that made her taller than Ramon. She seemed fearful. A bearded heavyset fellow held her elbow.
They all rode in a taxi to a photographer’s studio. The photographer stood Ramon and the girl in an alcove with potted palms on either side of them and a plastic stained-glass window lit from behind by a floodlamp. They faced a lectern. When Ramon’s shoulder accidentally brushed hers, the girl jumped as if from an electric shock.
Some sort of city functionary married them. He mumbled and his eyes widened as if he were having trouble focussing. He was drunk. When the photographer’s flash went off behind him he lost his place in his book and had to start again. He swayed, and nearly knocked over the lectern. He clearly didn’t understand the situation because when he pronounced them man and wife he urged them to kiss. The girl laughed as she turned away and ran to the heavyset fellow and kissed him.

The photographer placed a bouquet of flowers in the girl’s arms and posed her with Ramon for the formal wedding picture. And that was that. Ramon was dropped off at the hotel and the next day he flew home.
He learned the girl’s name when the lawyer with the briefcase put in front of him the petition to bring her to the States: Jelena. It attests that she is your lawful spouse and you are in hardship without her presence beside you, the lawyer said.
Jelena, Ramon said, to hear the sound of it. He had not heard it properly, as uttered by the drunken fool who married them. Jelena.
Yes. This is all here, everything, marriage certificate, copy of birth certificate, passport, and here is the wedding picture. It couldn’t hurt for you and bride to smile, but O.K.
The lawyer slapped a pen down on the table. The John Hancock, he said.
Ramon folded his arms across his chest. The figure was three thousand, he said. I have seen only one thousand.
Don’t worry, that is to come.
Ramon nodded. O.K., when it comes, then I will sign.
The lawyer pressed his hand to his forehead. Borislav, he called to the owner. Borislav!
And then for an hour the owner and the lawyer threatened and appealed and threatened again. The owner’s wife came over. She said to Ramon, Who are you to have three thousands of dollars! She turned to her husband. I told you he was no good, the mestizo, I warned you.
Borislav raised his hand. Please, Anya, he said, you are not helping.
Ramon, he said. This is family, the daughter of my late uncle. I have entrusted you. We are trying to give her a life here where there is hope. Jelena is to pay you the remainder from her wages.
You did not tell me that when I agreed, Ramon said.
I promise you. She will work beside you as a waitress. And I am raising you to full-time waiter. You hear me? Wages and tips, wages and tips equal to all the staff. You will see, so do this.
And while Ramon sat thinking the lawyer said to him, This is a fraud that you have committed, you know that? There is a law—to marry only so that the girl can have a legal residency is to break that law. She is over there, so they cannot touch her. But you! I have just to call them. You know what you get for bringing someone here by pretending love? Five years, my friend. Five years and monetary penalties of an amount you cannot dream. And all I have to do is tell them.
So tell them, Ramon said. And I will tell them that you wrote the letter for me to sign. And I will tell them that Jelena is of the family of Borislav, the man who employs me. So let’s all tell them.
You are not to call me Borislav, the owner muttered. That is for friends and family, not for one who works for my wages.
I checked it out, Leon said through the glass. It’s bullshit. The C.I.S. can’t keep up with the traffic. The risk is small, Ramon. If they do call you in, you say you love the girl. They know you’re lying—but she will back you up, naturally, since it is in her interest. But just to have some insurance you should learn a few things about her.
What things?
You know, she watches what TV shows, if she has a birthmark, where it is located. Things.
She brought her boyfriend to the wedding, Ramon said.
Of course.
I didn’t like that. It was unnecessary.
In two years, once she has her green card without conditions, she will divorce you and bring him here in turn. And they will marry and be Americans.
Maybe. Maybe the lovers will not be able to wait that long. He will come for a visit and I will kill him.
Yes, of course, Leon said, smiling. Listen, Ramon, she is just a dumb Hunky. No class, from the sound of it.
She is still my wife, Ramon said.
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