I don’t remember getting married. It’s not that I was drunk or anything. I simply wasn’t there—I was sound asleep, 4,400 miles away. Thankfully, my groom’s sister was gracious enough to marry him for me.
In 2020, many couples discovered the charms of alternative ceremonies—the intimacy of a backyard wedding, the giddy conspiracy of elopement. It’s almost better with the excess and commercialism whittled away, they said on social media, the ceremony distilled down to its heart—two people in love, together. But what happens when the bride and the groom can’t be together for the wedding? Not even over Zoom?
The story of our marriage—not our relationship, just our legal marriage—has more plot than it has any right to. We’re talking hurricanes, an 18-wheeler fire, Pope Innocent III, and, of course, a pandemic. It was an “ain’t no mountain high enough” situation, but with more geopolitical strife and less of Marvin Gaye’s sanguine assurance that everything would work out in the end.
After seven years of trans-Atlantic courtship—we met after I befriended his sister when she was an exchange student at my high school—I was set to marry Enrique, a Spaniard, on April 18, 2020. We had planned a modest ceremony with about 50 guests in a Spanish village, at the kind of restaurant with a broken-down cigarette machine in the corner, inconceivably good food, and a couple of old-timers cackling and judging you from the table by the bathroom. Afterward, we were going to apply for his visa and move to the United States together. But when Enrique’s parents both contracted COVID-19 in March, we made the nonchoice of postponing the wedding indefinitely.
Soon the shutdown dominos started to fall across Europe. As a local reporter in North Carolina, I went from discussing the logistics of American quarantine as a legal question to interviewing bereaved families in a matter of weeks. Enrique and his family watched in horror as Spain converted its largest ice rink to an overflow morgue. (Enrique’s parents, luckily, recovered.)
In the revolving door of travel bans, Enrique and I got stuck on opposite sides of the Atlantic with no legal way to be in the same country at the same time (except perhaps Cambodia, if we made a deposit to cover the cost of our funerals). I felt like the walls were closing in on me as I did the math—I couldn’t enter Spain unless we were married, but we couldn’t get married unless I was in Spain. We didn’t know how long restrictions would last, nobody could have guessed how successful the vaccine trials would be, and we couldn’t wait forever.
Our lawyer in Spain cracked some very old law books. We learned that thanks to a 13th century decision by the Catholics (shoutout to Pope Innocent III, whose most famous act in any other context would be his decision to have thousands of “heretics” slaughtered), we could get married like medieval royals hastily sealing an alliance in wartime. Spain, we learned, allows marriage by proxy.
There was just one problem, said our American immigration lawyer, who is very young but so important he could only speak to us during his commute. The United States doesn’t accept marriages by proxy, our lawyer’s sunroof said over video chat—unless we can prove the marriage has been consummated in person after the legal celebration.
Surely, we implored, surely that must mean something different in a legal context.
“No, you’ve got it … ” the sunroof said wryly.
“Are we … do we need to make a sex tape for the government?”
For the United States to acknowledge our union, we would have to provide pictures of us in physical proximity after the marriage (clothed, the lawyer assured me) and plane tickets that would demonstrate we were in the same place at the same time. Apparently, they assume that as soon as we get within spitting distance of each other, we’ll snap together like magnets. (We wondered how far could we push this. If we supplied the government with documentation that we shared a 45-minute layover in Heathrow, would some bureaucrat call my bluff and say we didn’t consummate our union in a Terminal 3 bathroom?)
Then, for Enrique to be able to live and work in the United States, we’d need to sign a sworn affidavit of some kind affirming that we had, indeed, known each other in the biblical sense after the marriage. ICE cares nothing for pre–marriage-by-proxy sex. “If you did happen to have a sex tape,” the lawyer told us, “but couldn’t demonstrate that it was filmed after the marriage, that wouldn’t work, either.”
I confirmed we had no prior sex tapes, anyway. “We just didn’t foresee a legal situation in which that might be useful,” I said.
To designate Enrique’s sister as my proxy agent, I needed to sign the forms to give her “special powers” in the presence of a Spanish official. The local Spanish Consulate in Birmingham, Alabama, located two blocks from my childhood home, wasn’t empowered to do this, so my mother and I made the 11-hour trek to Houston to the regional Spanish Consulate. This became a 16-hour trip when two 18-wheelers and a car collided on a Louisiana bridge we were on and burst into flames. About four hours into the resulting traffic jam, a caravan of desperate bathroom seekers, including us, made a break for it and gunned it east on I-10 West, to the mild alarm of law enforcement. (Since there were in excess of 50 vehicles whizzing the wrong way down the highway, they politely pretended not to see us.)
After weaving through back roads lined with sugar cane and aboveground graves, we arrived in Houston in the wee hours of the morning and unsealed our hotel room, which had been taped up meticulously. It had not felt a human touch in three-plus days, the staff assured us—the cleanest hotel room we’ve ever been in.
The next morning, the consulate revealed itself as a baroque suite in a slick modern office building. There were swords, tapestries, oil paintings. I was dog-tired and discombobulated, so when they asked me about the trip, I lacked the wherewithal (or the vocabulary) to lie about it in Spanish. I told them all about the explosion, which made them check my ID one more time.
Stamped documents in hand, we careened eastward about 20 minutes ahead of the bands of torrential rain from a tropical storm. Enrique charted our course home, from mission control in Spain. It all felt very biblical, or maybe very Amazing Race.
We hadn’t dared plan any celebrations for the proxy wedding until a week or so out—Madrid teetered on the verge of a second total shutdown in October as cases surged, and there was a real chance the government would close. We didn’t know what to plan anyway. There aren’t Pinterest pages for how to orchestrate a marriage-by-proxy celebration. There are no cards for this—waking up married, with no idea when you’ll see your mate. How could we make a potentially heart-wrenching day special and fun?
The nuptials occurred in a courtroom in Madrid, no phones allowed, at 4 a.m., Alabama time. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of wedding bells ($1.29 on the app store) and a completely unexplained power outage. At the 9:30 a.m. Zoom reception, the bride wore a cream sweater, my mother’s pink jeans, and no shoes. On the other side of the world, the groom sat on the edge of a couch and kept accidentally drifting off-screen while his aunts cracked jokes in experimental English. My grandmother, who willfully misunderstands videoconferencing, commented on people’s weight just a little too loudly. All the toasts were standard—happiness, love, and the opportunity to be on the same continent soon.
Enrique and I have never wallowed in our separation—I’ve always known what I was signing up for in a long-distance relationship, and I’ve always known he’s worth it. But we thought we’d at least make it to the finish line hand in hand.
For now, we’re Schrödinger’s newlyweds—a husband and wife married without a wedding. We struggled over whether to wear the rings right away or wait until our “real” wedding, but with variants and sparse booster shots, that’s probably two years away at least. I’m wearing mine the traditional Spanish way (right hand, ring finger) and he’s wearing his on the American hand (left).
According to the Spanish government, I’m now Enrique’s wife. According to the United States government, Enrique is now my “alien relative,” which is an unromantic but strangely endearing term that he quickly embraced. In April of this year, we finally reunited in Denmark, where we’ve lived ever since, and where, as of this writing, the Danish government has spent six months trying to figure out how married we are. By all accounts, we’re more married than unmarried. My wedding dress, two-thirds fitted, hangs in the guest room closet of my childhood home. It—and we—will have our day.