The Professor's Green Card Marriage
I’ll marry you.
Professor Valentyn Shevchenko isn’t sure how to react when, after months of ineffective flirting, the cute barista’s first words to him are a proposal. In many ways, Peter Grunberg is the solution to all his problems. With his work visa inexplicably denied, Valentyn is running out of options to keep from being deported. But is a green card marriage really the answer? Is it still a marriage of convenience when he’s this attracted to his potential spouse?
Peter came to his uncle’s coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado, to reset his life after his struggles with selective mutism returned with a vengeance. He never meant his first words to the handsome ecology professor to be an offer of marriage, but he’s not backing out now. It doesn’t matter that Peter struggles to find words. He can say everything he needs to with his body.
Though this relationship may have started out back-to-front, Valentyn and Peter are determined to make their fake marriage real. But one misstep in their immigration interview could bring everything crashing down. They’ll have to hope that their love is enough to overcome all their obstacles and give them the prize they’ve both been dreaming of: a certified happy ever after.
THE MAN with the Russian accent sat by the window as usual.
He’d been there on Peter’s first day at the coffee shop and had shown up regularly ever since, grabbing coffee on his way to the University of Colorado Boulder, where he was a professor. Peter knew this from eavesdropping on the man and his frequent companion, lurking within range as he cleaned the tables and emptied the dirty dish bin. Peter kept trying to catch the man’s name, but he’d never managed it, so he continued to be The Man With the Russian Accent. Amy, who usually worked the counter during the same shift as Peter, didn’t take down names for orders, only called out drinks or took them to the tables.
Russian Accent got a breve latte every time. Peter usually made the coffee unless he was in the back doing dishes, and once Russian Accent leaned over the bar to say thanks. “You make the best breves in town.” His low voice curled around the edges of the words in ways that made Peter tingle.
Unsurprisingly, Peter hadn’t been able to respond to him. He’d ducked his head in a nod of acknowledgment and gone back to loading the tub with dishes. The man didn’t seem offended when Peter didn’t respond, though, only inclined his head and took the coffee to his table.
Peter liked the man a lot. While he washed dishes or filled food orders, he imagined talking to him. He wanted to know where the man came from. Had he lived in the United States long? What had brought him here? Did he like Colorado? What did he think of Boulder? Why did he like breves so much? Was that a thing in his country? Peter had seen the man doing the crossword puzzle once, and he wanted to ask him about that too, if he did it regularly or if that had been a whim. Peter liked crossword puzzles. He did a lot of them, and he had a whole shelf full of completed volumes back at his mom’s house. Did the man have a favorite crossword puzzle writer?
When Peter lay in his bed in the tiny closet-turned-bedroom in his uncle’s house, he stared at the ceiling and imagined asking Russian Accent out. In the palace of his mind, Peter would smile and flirt for a few days, and then he’d ask if he could take the man to get ice cream. Sometimes he pretended Russian Accent was new to Boulder, and Peter offered to show him around. Occasionally Peter imagined he lived in an apartment of his own and told Russian Accent if he came over, he’d make him an even better breve. He’d show him how to do it himself.
Frequently Peter imagined them having sex. A few times he’d fantasized about doing it in the alley behind the shop. Nothing like that would ever happen in real life, as all Peter’s exes—all four of them—had made it clear he was horrible in bed. In his mind, though, no one could critique him, so he had whatever fantasies he liked. Peter had no idea if the man was gay or bi. But it didn’t matter because he was never going to talk to him.
He couldn’t. Literally. There would be no flirting, no suave invitations. Eventually the man would move on or date someone else, and Peter would still be washing dishes at his uncle’s coffeehouse.
Then one day he went to wipe down tables and overheard Russian Accent talking to his friend.
“…can’t believe they hung you out to dry like this.” The professor who didn’t have a Russian accent said this. He had an accent, but it sounded vaguely Southern. Maybe Texas? Peter hadn’t traveled enough to guess. It was a subtle twang that echoed on his words. He looked vaguely Latino, but honestly that had made Peter think he was local until he’d opened his mouth.
Russian Accent folded into himself. “I asked if we could appeal the decision, but my lawyer said no.”
“We need you in that department. I can’t believe that wasn’t enough.”
“I worry Immigration rejected me because they know something about me they don’t like. They didn’t tell me I’d stepped out of line, but if they’re listening to our phones the way we think they are, that might have been enough.”
Immigration? Peter had been about to leave the area and wipe down other tables when he heard this. He took his time going to the dirty dish bin with the trash he’d collected from a table, still trying to listen.
Maybe-Texas Accent ran a hand through his thinning hair. It stood up on end after he messed with it, but he was too agitated to notice. “And the administration isn’t helping you?”
Russian Accent shook his head. “There’s not much they can do.” The object of Peter’s interest pursed his lips, but then his shoulders slumped further. “Dennis, I can’t go back.”
At the dish bin, Peter paused, taking note. All right. Maybe-Texas Accent was named Dennis.
Dennis was as determined as Russian Accent was dejected. “What about asylum?”
“No good. I can’t prove persecution.”
“Well, that leaves marriage.”
Russian Accent looked acutely pained.
Peter stewed in internal frustration and went back to wiping tables, hoping no one noticed he’d already taken care of these. He wished he knew his crush’s first name instead of his friend’s.
Dennis scowled. “If only James hadn’t been so fickle, this would already be settled. It might be worth it to ask him, to tell him the stakes.”
The man held up a hand. “No. James and I were a bad fit, and the way we parted doesn’t give me much room. I can’t ask him for help.”
“You’ve got to ask someone. If I weren’t married, I’d do it.”
Peter frowned at the table he had now wiped down three times. Was this what it sounded like? Was Russian Accent about to get deported? Peter didn’t like that thought at all.
Who was this James? Russian Accent’s ex?
Russian Accent sighed in frustration. “There’s no one to ask. I only know people through the college, and I certainly can’t ask one of them for a green card marriage. They don’t even know I’m gay.”
Peter abruptly stopped wiping the table.
Green card marriage?
“Why not?” When Russian Accent made an angry noise through his nose, Dennis continued. “Fine. Nobody from the college. Put out an ad, then.”
“Do you have a brain in your skull? That will get me a one-way ticket to Kyiv.”
Oh. At the dish return once more, Peter made a fuss of tugging a napkin from beneath a plate. Not a Russian accent. Ukrainian accent.
“Also, keep your voice down,” Ukrainian Accent murmured. “I don’t need you to inspire someone to call ICE.”
Out of his peripheral vision, Peter saw Ukrainian Accent glance his way. Well, this was one time that selective mutism was an advantage, he supposed. There was no chance Peter’s blank expression gave any clue he’d heard a word they’d been saying.
Even so, he reluctantly acknowledged he’d overstayed his welcome. With an internal sigh, he hoisted the bin out of the dish return.
Dennis spoke more quietly now, but Peter could still hear him. “Your visa hasn’t expired yet.”
“You think they’ll stop to check?”
“Well, you’re not brown. You’re literally Caucasian.”
“No, I’m not from the Caucasus region. I’m Ukrainian. But I take your point, as we’re cousins.” Ukrainian Accent grunted and hunkered down further. He was practically nose to the table now and very glum.
Peter wished there were something he could do. Even if he had been able to talk to the man, there was nothing to say, nothing to do that would help him.
Well. A fluttery feeling bloomed in his stomach. There was one thing he could do that would help the man out, according to Dennis.
The fluttery feeling twined with yearning and fear as Peter considered the thought. Obviously he couldn’t do that. If he was unable to acknowledge the man when he accepted his drink order, he certainly couldn’t propose. Still. The thought was heady. A bit of overkill when it came to the flirting department, and definitely not something to decide on a whim after eavesdropping, but… well, it was the most delicious fantasy yet. He lingered for a second, shutting his eyes and imagining himself walking over to Ukrainian Accent, taking his hand as he dropped to one knee.
Never fear, I’ll marry you.
Peter wanted to laugh, though nothing showed on his face. What a dramatic image. It would never work. Never.
He wished it would, though. He wished he could live out the yearning in his heart, the desire to connect boldly, wildly. He didn’t need to propose to the man, but he wished he could at least smile at him.
No, honestly, I want to propose to him, to swoop in and rescue him. I want to be the hero. I want to help him. I want all of it.
But I can’t.
Dejected, Peter started for the kitchen.
Dennis wasn’t giving up. “I’m telling you. We can find someone for you to marry. Maybe you’re right, randos are better. Man or woman, doesn’t matter. They just have to be a citizen.”
Peter tightened his grip on the bin as he disappeared around the corner. He should have kept going, but he stopped, frustrated and tangled even though he didn’t have a right to be.
I’m a citizen. Ask me. I’ll do it.
Ukrainian Accent made a noise through his nose. “That’s never going to work.”
“Sure it will. It’s a business arrangement. All you need is someone who will play along.” He gestured to the coffee bar. “Hell, you can marry that girl who works behind the counter. She’s cute and peppy. I’ll even ask her for you.”
The bin slipped out of Peter’s hands, tumbling to the floor. The sound of shattering cups and plates and clattering silverware sent off a discordant buzz in his ears as he fell to his knees, rushing to clean up the mess.
I don’t want him to marry Amy. I don’t want him to marry anyone except me.
Peter’s hands shook as he struggled to contain the mess. He couldn’t stop thinking about what Dennis had said. He wouldn’t really ask Amy to marry Ukrainian Accent Man, would he? She might say yes. Peter hadn’t told her he liked Ukrainian Accent Man. He still didn’t know her well enough to predict if that would stop her, but it hardly mattered. He was just now to the point he could talk to her during work without mental preparation. A heart-to-heart about his secret crush needing a green card marriage was beyond him right now.
Why hadn’t Dennis suggested him? Why hadn’t he said he’d talk to him? Clearly Ukrainian Accent was gay. Peter was a better choice. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.
It doesn’t matter. You couldn’t talk to Dennis either. You can’t talk to anyone. You can’t save anyone, because you can’t even save yourself. You don’t even know this guy’s name, but you’re inventing fantasies about him. You think he wants your attention? No chance. He’s never going to look at you for more than a well-made breve anyway. Stop this nonsense. Clean up your mess, get back to work, and forget him.
“Are you all right?”
He crouched in front of Peter on the other side of the bin, picking up silverware and placing it into the tub.
Funny, his hands shook too.
He knew Peter had heard them.
Peter’s mind raced, rattling off everything he wanted to say. I’m sorry for eavesdropping, and I won’t call ICE. I won’t tell anyone. That’s a joke, see? Because I can’t tell anyone. Except I want to tell you all kinds of things. More than I want anything else. And now that I know you’re gay, I really wish I could tell you how much I want to help you.
Trembling, Peter lifted his head enough to get a glimpse at the man. He stared at Peter, wary.
I want to talk to him. I want to reply. I want to tell him….
Peter shut his eyes and took a deep breath. He would try the trick. It didn’t work often with strangers, but usually he didn’t want to engage with a stranger this much. He shut out the coffee shop, shut out everything, sliding back to his elementary school classroom. He imagined the man was his mother, asking if he was all right. That she….
No. That one wouldn’t work.
He tried again. Put himself in the same elementary school classroom, but this time he saw his fourth-grade teacher smiling at him and holding an envelope. Inside was the thing he wanted the most. When he was young, that thing had been a new crossword book, or a ticket for a free ice cream cone, or any of several glorious treats.
Right now something very different waited in the imaginary envelope. “Tell me what you want to say,” his teacher told him, “and you can have what you want.”
Peter clutched the edges of the bin. One sentence. He could do once sentence, if he kept his eyes shut, if he didn’t stop imagining the envelope. Tell him you’re okay. Say that you’re fine. Say thank you. Say anything, damn it.
“Hello?” Ukrainian Accent sounded quite worried. Tentatively, he touched Peter’s hand.
Dizzy, Peter’s brain rioted, and instead of the reply he’d planned, something else entirely fell out of his mouth.
“I’ll… marry you.”
Peter opened his eyes.