My husband Wayne and I made the commitment to forgo marriage after a pregnancy test came up unexpectedly positive several years ago.
“You do know this doesn’t mean we’re getting married,” I said to Wayne, who had gotten down on one knee to get a closer look at the stick’s two pink lines. I was face-down on our fold-out futon, nauseous and exhausted.
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
From that day forward we honored, even cherished, our decision to bypass lawful marriage. We skipped rings and saved our money. We skipped wedding plans and saved our sanity. We skipped cashing in with a wedding registry and saved our dignity. (Though cooking nightly on less than All-Clad, I do regret that choice just a little.)
We passed on marriage for many reasons. We weren’t young or struggling financially. Neither of us was particularly religious. We weren’t beholden to our families regarding holy unions and public declarations of our eternal devotion (his parents had eloped decades ago; mine had divorced just months before). To marry for the sake of a child would have felt like a correction. But our daughter, born later that year, was hardly a mistake. Tying the knot seemed beside the point, once our DNA became irreversibly entwined.
Plus, we hated the exclusivity of holy Aside from the glamour of her mother in a strapless celadon bridesmaid gown, weddings simply didn’t register with our girl.matrimony.
“Gays can’t marry, why should we?” Wayne said.
“Are we any less of a family if we don’t?” I wanted to know.
Naturally, others had opinions.
“Your child will feel different growing up,” Wayne’s father told him. What kid doesn’t?, I wondered.
“I would want the security,” my sister-in-law said. As if our lack of legal status made it okay for one of us to just up and leave home – or as if marriage could prevent that.
After we had the kid, and the heavens didn’t open up, and our lives became unmistakably domestic, people eased up on sounding the alarms. My daughter asked about weddings – a theme that popped up occasionally in library books and events we sometimes attended, once even with me as a bridesmaid. She wanted to know why girls carried flowers. But she never really equated weddings with marriage or family. Aside from the glamour of her mother in a strapless celadon bridesmaid gown or the convoluted cartoon plots involving careless ring-bearers, weddings and their end-product, marriage, simply didn’t register with our young girl in the context of her own family. As for Wayne and I, we mostly forgot about our unmarried status. That is, until Wayne decided to change careers. The tech companies where he had worked recognized domestic partners in their benefits plans. I had switched to his health insurance policy when I put my career on hold to stay home with our baby girl and her younger sister, born four years later. We worried that a new employer would not cover me.
But Wayne wound up taking a job at a state university in Southern California, where coverage for domestic partners was included in the benefits package. Of course California treated all families equally, regardless of status. It’s California(!), where a city mayor had been signing off on same-sex marriages the year before and where living together was practically invented. In California, we could remain unmarried for life, till death do us part, the state employee benefits program footing the bill for our sickness and health. Wayne signed the contract. We moved 3,000 miles.
Within a month, our unmarriage began to unravel.
Yes, California’s university system extended health benefits to domestic partners. But only for same-sex couples. We were in no position to fight it. In two weeks, the first $400 premium to continue insurance for me would come due. For a family of four living in Los Angeles County on the wages of a college professor in the humanities, the price for abandoning our principles was even lower than that. Wayne booked a room in Las Vegas for the following weekend.
“So you’re saying I have to marry you?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “you do.”
“Blue state my ass, California,” I growled, as Wayne clicked his laptop shut. Directions from the hotel to a notorious drive-thru chapel sat in the printer tray. Three days later, we pulled into Circus Circus in time for dinner.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for commitment. I’m too insecure for anything but monogamy and, frankly, too lazy to be a single mom. But why did we have to get married? Why now? What did a pithy declaration of a forever promise mean to an HMO that staying coupled after four years of being parents, three major moves, two kids and one lawsuit did not? We had suffered all those looks pitying our “inability to commit,” our “stubbornness not to conform” or, worst, suspicion that I couldn’t get Wayne to settle down. Now we’d have to get through “congratulations!” and “it’s about time!”
The first stop on our wedding day was the Marriage License Bureau, a stunningly matter-of-fact building in Vegas’ bland downtown a few miles from The Strip, its dense lights, make-believe pirate ships and stories-high digital images of Celine Dion and her circus. Celebrity magazines had me believing we could just stumble into a wedding chapel, look into each others’ bleary eyes, and walk out with souvenir wedding photos and feelings of regret. Not so.
Using short No. 2 pencils that sat neatly on a granite countertop, we each filled out applications, alarmingly easy forms – asI’m too insecure for anything but monogamy and, frankly, too lazy to be a single mom. But why did we have to get married? straightforward as a sandwich order. Then we stood between velvet ropes with the other couples waiting their turns to answer questions from the clerks seated like bank tellers behind bullet-proof windows. I had expected raucous and raunchy, but nobody was even drunk. Only the clerks spoke above a whisper. We were the only ones who brought children.
Maybe it was the weight of my sleeping baby, who was strapped to me in a sling, or the fact that her sister was yanking my arm, but I felt overwhelmed and weak and bothered by what all of this meant. I could already imagine that cruel twist of fate, where officially tying the knot winds up pulling us apart.
I mean, even for perfect matches, long-term commitment is a gamble, something like a 50-50 chance it will last as long as promised. And Wayne and I were hardly perfect. In the years of our sham marriage, we had amassed enough emotional baggage to fill a storage closet. We are open with our anger yet hurt when it gets expressed. I blow up, he scowls; I can’t let something drop, he turns and walks away. “I’m sorry” feels like losing. We tiptoe around an assortment of hurt feelings, resentments and petty grievances over the usual: sex, money, who does more laundry (definitely me). I am defensive when Wayne brings up the time I had let Dark Depression and her best friend Lost Libido move in before we had kids. He fears return visits and sometimes sees their shadows when they aren’t even around. I get pissed at him for being pissed, and pissed at him for not caring that I’m pissed. We were hardly a sure thing. In Vegas-speak, were we talking any better than house odds?
I rocked the baby and watched a bride at window No. 3. She pushed a check into the silver trench that separated her from the clerk and asked her fianc whether to spend $20 on the unofficial but decorative marriage license. He shrugged, ran a comb through his thick hair, looked away. I gave them near certain odds on divorce by this time next year.
At window No. 10, a couple dressed in matching tropical prints answered the questions earnestly and in sync. They looked alike, they sounded alike, they turned down the marriage license memorabilia. I figured odds were even that they would still be together after five years.
What about us? Could this official marriage buffer our relationship against future hardships and doubts? My own parents surprised everyone and split up after thirty-three years of marriage, an outcome few would have wagered on.
Our turn. We approached the window with a flashing light. It was booth No. 7! Lucky 7.
Our clerk, Margie, had clearly processed thousands of these forms. She was efficient but friendly. She seemed genuinely happy for us. This is just a formality, no big deal, I wanted to explain to Margie. I didn’t want wistful smiles or to learn the secret handshake of real married couples. I wanted this done.
Wayne felt none of my dread, I could tell. He was chatty, speaking loudly, working the lobby for a few laughs. For Wayne, this ridiculous Vegas wedding mocked the ridiculous marriage requirement. He was even wearing shorts and a plain gray T-shirt. I was in the whitest shirt and skirt I owned.
After stopping for a bouquet of roses, which our four-year-old insisted we get for her to hold, we drove under the awning of The Little White Wedding Chapel to take our vows. A jowly and heavily made-up woman, Rose, greeted us at the drive-thru’s sliding window. She took our paperwork and a check for the service ($40). Rose signed on as our witness, though she was absent for the ceremony.
The Rev. David Robinson, a chubby man in his thirties with a crew-cut and wire glasses, slid open the window and gave us a rundown of the ceremony. Soon after, he started in with the expected “we are gathered here,” only he sounded like a Southern Baptist calling all sinners to testify. I giggled, an expression of my total discomfort. He finished the short canned ceremony and moved on to the vows. Wayne went first. He repeated after Rev. Robinson the familiar phrases we all learned long ago on TV: “… to have and to hold from this day forward ….”
I faded in and out, hearing Wayne, hearing the Reverend, watching Wayne, watching the Reverend, watching the people watching us from the lobby inside. Wayne sounded earnest. I wanted to be earnest too.
“… till death do us part.”
Then the Reverend turned to me.
I repeated the same generalized list of what-ifs that have played out more than once in our heretofore unofficial marriage. Good times After stopping for a bouquet of roses, which our four-year-old insisted we get for her to hold, we drove under the awning of The Little White Wedding Chapel to take our vows.and bad? For richer for poorer? We had both loved and loathed our first year as parents. We had survived a helpless battle against a litigious homebuyer. We had adjusted to our personally – but not financially – enriching career changes. We managed the lows. We hardly counted on the highs. Wayne and I loved each other, sure. We even still liked each other. But I suspect we also owe our intact family equally to the dependable relationship glue of inertia, habit, the safety of belonging, and sheer laziness.
That and health benefits.
“Till death do us part,” I repeated.
The Reverend pronounced us husband and wife. We kissed. Wayne slid our tip envelope to Rose, who reappeared to snap a few photos. They all wished us luck as we “started our journey” together, complimenting our flower girl, cooing at our still sleeping baby.
“Ready to ‘start’ our journey?” I whispered. Wayne rolled up the windows.
We stopped for cake and some lunch and then headed home.