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He gives my arm a gentle tug. “Let’s get on with it, then.”

The gravity of what we’re about to do really hits home once we’re inside. There’s an austerity in the air—an impression that this is not the place to expect to be charming and get away with anything. A set of metal detectors sits just inside the doorway and a stoic security guard watches while we sign in and pull out our identification.

We peel layers off in silence, placing coats and scarves and bags into gray plastic tubs that are shuttled away on a conveyor belt. Calvin motions for me to go first into the scanner. Once through, we silently find the elevator—my heart is a hammer now—we climb in—Calvin’s hand grows sweaty in mine—and he reaches with his free hand to press the button for our floor.

I curse the hard-soled Mary Janes I’m wearing as they alternately squeak and then clunk across the glossy tiled floor. I try to adjust my footfalls and end up doing an awkward shuffledance down the hallway.

“Never a dull moment,” Calvin quips at my side.

I growl through a laugh, trying to walk normally. “I’m not great with pressure.”

“No,” he says in mock disbelief.

I shove him a little. “At least I don’t have to pee. When I was a kid my mom knew where every bathroom in Des Moines was located. Even a hint of anxiety and I’d pee my pants.”

He stifles a laugh. “I was a thumb sucker.”

“Tons of kids do that.”

“Not till they’re four. God, Mam tried everything to get me to stop. Socks on the hands, bribery, even painting my thumb with this clear stuff that tasted awful.” He scrunches his nose at the memory. “Then we visited my uncle and he told me to pluck on his old guitar when I felt the need to do it, and that was it. I never looked back.”

We reach the office door and I tuck that piece of information away in my Calvin vault.

Understandably, this room has none of the optimistic charm found at the Marriage Bureau. The carpet is standard industrial gray and a handful of other couples sit in metal-and-fabric reception chairs. One couple seems to have brought a lawyer with them. Jeff told us not to. He said more often than not it tends to make the immigration officer suspicious, and that there was no need. I hope he was right.

At least twenty minutes go by. Calvin and I try to quiz each other in a way that looks more like flirting and less like cramming for a last-minute test—and get so caught up that we startle when our names are called. I’m assaulted by the mental image of cartoon characters with sweat spouting from their foreheads and the word LIARS flashing above. Calvin links his fingers with mine again when we stand, and we’re greeted by a smiling man with more forehead than hair who introduces himself as Sam Dougherty.

Inside his office, Officer Dougherty sits down in a chair that creaks each time he shifts. “All right. Please repeat after me: ‘I swear that the information I am about to provide is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.’?”

We repeat it in quiet unison, and I wipe my sweaty hand on my thigh when we’re done.

With his eyes on the file in front of him, Dougherty begins, “Calvin, may I please have your passport and driver’s license, if applicable. And Holland, I need whatever proof of citizenship you’ve brought with you.”

We huddle together, and despite knowing this file backward and forward, it takes a comical amount of time and repeated paper shuffling to find what he needs. I feel the tremor in my hands as I hand it over, and can see it in Calvin’s, too.

“Thank you,” Dougherty says, taking them. “And thank you for making copies. That’s always appreciated.”

Even though I sense that he’s going out of his way to be nice, my heart is pounding in my throat. But when I glance over to Calvin, any trace of nerves seems to have left him. He sits comfortably in his chair, hands loosely folded in his lap, with one leg easily crossed over the other. I take a breath, wishing he could funnel some of that calm into me.

“When did you enter the country?”

Calvin answers honestly—eight years ago—and I note the tiny quirk in Dougherty’s brow as he writes this down. I clench my own hands in my lap to keep from leaning forward and explaining, See, he’s a brilliant musician and kept thinking that the right opportunity would come along, and then it didn’t, and before he knew it, he’d been here four years illegally and was terrified he’d lost any shot at playing music in the States.

Calvin glances at me, lifting a brow as if he can tell that I’m on the verge of losing it. He winks, and my blood pressure backs off; the cold panic thaws along my skin.

I tune back in, following their conversation. Where did you go to school? What did you study? When were you born? Where were you born? What do you do to make ends meet?

Calvin nods, having prepared for this last question. Although street performance itself is protected under the First Amendment as artistic expression, we agreed with Jeff that busking didn’t lend credibility to Calvin’s plan to play the part of a classically trained musician. “I’ve been playing with a number of local bands,” he says, “performing at various venues.”

“Such as?” Dougherty asks without looking up.

“Hole in the Hall,” Calvin says, and winks at me. “Bowery. Café Wha?, Arlene’s Grocery. Tons of places.”

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