They sit side by side on their couch inside a Kearney, Neb., trailer park — which is about as far from the U.S. Supreme Court as you can get.
They sit side by side and stare at the TV, and Alicia flips half crazed through Facebook and Twitter while Laura clicks on the Supreme Court website and hits refresh … refresh … refresh.
They sit side by side, knowing that the next few seconds of flickering light from the TV and laptop would turn their lives one way or the other.
If the decision goes one way, Laura will be able to stay with Alicia in Kearney and get a good job. They can save some money and move out of the trailer park.
If it goes the other way, they will be thrown back into the legal muck of a six-year immigration fight, thrown back into something so Byzantine and bizarre that no matter how many times they explain it to Alicia's mother, she still can't quite grasp it.
But why can't Laura just get a work permit? Why can't she get a green card? Why can't she get a job?
Because the government won't let her, Mom.
If it goes one way, they can live happily ever after.
It it goes the other, maybe they will leave the United States. Maybe they will give up. Maybe … “well, there wasn't really another option,” Laura says.
You might think the Supreme Court's decision on the Defense of Marriage Act is powerfully symbolic, and to millions of people on both sides of the issue, that's exactly what it was.
But to Alicia and Laura, and to roughly 35,000 other men and women caught between two of the thorniest issues of our time — same-sex marriage and immigration — the DOMA decision means more than just a statement on equality or morality.
This decision is life as they know it. Their life is this decision.
And so they sit side by side, and they do what they have been doing since the beginning.
They hold hands. They wait.
“It's not fair to split us up,” Alicia says, and she begins to cry. “It's not fair to split us up.”
* * *
They first felt the chemistry in chemistry class. They became study partners in that University of Nebraska at Kearney course in the spring of 2003. Then friends. Then best friends. And then Laura stepped onto the ledge and told Alicia that they weren't friends at all.
Laura loved Alicia.
And thank God: Alicia loved Laura, too.
“It is not too often that you find someone who you relate to on every level, that you can talk to about everything, and that you cherish every moment that you get to spend with that person; in Alicia this is what I have, what we have,” Laura wrote in a court file.
It wasn't exactly a walk on the beach with Macklemore's “Same Love” playing in the background.
For starters, they had no experience with any of this. Neither had ever had a girlfriend. Neither had yet said those hardest first words: “Mom, Dad, I'm gay.”
And Kearney doesn't even have any beaches. In 2004, even the college campus felt like an unwelcome place for a gay couple. They knew of no gay campus organizations, no gay-straight alliances. They didn't even really know any other gay people.
So they lived a deeply closeted life, appearing in public as inseparable friends while constantly making sure no one saw them holding hands.
But year one became year three, then year five. They moved in together. Laura made breakfast. Alicia paid the bills. Laura taught Alicia about Europe. Alicia helped Laura with homework.
Slowly they began to invite family and friends into their secret life. Slowly, as they attended the weddings of their heterosexual friends, they began to realize: They already felt like an old married couple themselves.
In 2008, they took a trip to San Francisco and went north into wine country. There, in the Finestra vineyard, Laura got down on a knee.
Yes, Alicia said.
But not quite yet. Same-sex marriage was barred in Nebraska, of course, but it wasn't even that — they could have easily driven east into Iowa.
No, they decided to stay engaged but not get married because of advice they had read on immigration websites, the ones that Laura and Alicia pored over as Laura's graduation neared and she tried to start the process of moving from a student visa to a green card.
Don't get married, the immigration websites said. It won't help you to become a United States citizen.
It will make it even tougher.
* * *
Laura came to Nebraska when she was 11, moved all the way from England to Gothenburg with her schoolteacher parents who came here after they decided to quit teaching.
They had taken a family vacation to the United States in 1990, driven around the country in a rented RV and loved every mile. They chose Nebraska because it seemed like the perfect place to start over, to chase the same elusive thing that the pioneers chased across the Great Plains.
“It just seemed like there was more opportunity here, like it was …,” Laura pauses, “better.”
Laura's parents started their own business, a Gothenburg campground and gas station, using a 10-year work visa. Her mom started the process to become a U.S. citizen at the end of that decade, a move that would make Laura's siblings U.S. citizens, too.
Crucially, though, that didn't occur until Laura was 21, too old to become a citizen when a parent does. Instead, she was at UNK, steaming toward a bachelor's degree and a nearly 4.0 grade-point average in respiratory therapy.
Only one problem: Respiratory therapy isn't among the jobs allowed under the type of visa most foreign-born students get when they graduate.
So Laura decided to go back to school. She wanted to be a nurse anyway, and being a nurse would allow her to get a work permit.
Until her second semester in nursing school, when the U.S. government changed the rules. Nurses could no longer get a visa after graduation.
The next few years were a tangle of red tape, conflicting legal advice and frustrating answers.
Yes, Laura could graduate with a degree. No, she could not take the nursing boards.
Yes, Laura could legally stay in the United States by patching together a series of temporary extensions. No, she could not work.
This meant that Alicia, who had earlier graduated from nursing school, brought home the sole paycheck. It meant they needed to live in a trailer park.
And yes, she could get down on one knee and propose marriage. No, that marriage didn't carry an ounce of legal weight that could lead to citizenship, as it would have if one of them had been a man.
Laura and Alicia decided to try it anyway. They visited Omaha's Peck Law Firm, which specializes in immigration law. They sat in a conference room with lawyers Amy Peck and Brian Blackford, and they sketched out a long-shot legal challenge to DOMA.
They married in an Iowa courthouse. They enlisted friends and relatives to write testimonials on their behalf — Alicia's father and Laura's mother and siblings and cousins and friends wrote the federal government nearly 100 typewritten pages arguing that they were good people. They worked hard. They loved one another. They should have a chance to stay and work and live together in the United States. They shouldn't be forced to move to England or elsewhere.
The government received the file in June. It denied Laura's claim that her marriage should lead to citizenship in July.
“She has three degrees, top of her class,” Brian Blackford says of Laura. “She is exactly the type of immigrant we should want. We should want her to use her talents to help our country.”
Says Amy Peck: “Laura has always tried to do things the right way. And our immigration system failed her. It failed her.”
* * *
Which is how we get to two young women, sitting side by side, staring at the television as the Supreme Court reporters clutch the decision in their hands and begin to read it aloud.
At first Laura refuses to believe it. She refuses even as her phone starts buzzing with congratulatory texts and questions from classmates, friends, loved ones.
“Does this mean you guys get to stay?” texts Alicia's brother-in-law.
Laura doesn't know. She is sure there is some missing detail that will derail her pending case, so sure that she downloads the 77-page PDF file and decides to read the entire decision herself.
She can't find a discouraging word.
Laura and Alicia want badly to call their Omaha attorney, but they decide to wait — they are skilled at waiting — and eventually Brian emails them his reaction.
It looks good, he says. It looks really good.
They hug. They kiss. Laura bawls.
Then they get on the phone and call their closest friends. Meet us at Cunningham's, they say.
That night they order food and beer, and they celebrate the nine old people wearing black robes half a country away.
And this is what striking down DOMA looks like, beneath the oratory and the symbolism, beneath the breathless analysis about what it all means.
It is two women leaving a Kearney trailer park together and sitting side by side at a bar.
They are smiling because they know that the federal immigration system will soon recognize their marriage as legally valid, even if the state where they live doesn't.
They know that their valid marriage will likely allow Laura to get a green card and eventually work as a nurse in the United States.
For the first time in years, it is clear that they will get to stay together, just like they would if one of them was a man and one a woman.
“For most people it was just another day,” Alicia says. “For us, it was a moment that gave us a chance.”