~This essay was first published in Fourth Genre (2013).
Once upon a time, there was a girl who was not an orphan tended by a woman who was not a nanny in a red brick house that could never be, by any calisthenics of imagination, a castle—
though there was a view of the sea.
That girl sitting at the table was me. That woman standing by the stove was my mother.
We lived then in the late splendor of catalogues. Everything we ever wanted could be found on a glossy page. Locate the little white letter in the upper right corner, then call and place your order.
I liked to linger in lingerie, with my scissors and my paste and my tablet of red construction paper. These were old catalogues, mine to cut and alter. My mother stirred a pot of something frothy and said, “Pack a suitcase.” This was only pretend. She wanted me to choose the clothes I would take on the trip that comes after the wedding.
If the man was there, the man who was every day less my savior and more my father, he would fill a glass with water and lean beside the sink. “Did someone order a honeymoon salad?” I never got it. I shook my head. Then, he’d chuckle—“Lettuce alone!”
I noticed over time the faces of women in the catalogues. There were not many of them, so the same woman wore garment after garment, sometimes with her hair let down or her lipstick lightly blotted. One face I loved—the dark curls, the pert nose, the creamy complexion. She posed in nightgowns, pajamas, matching bras and panties. Once, I found her in a black lace body suit. Though it seemed transparent, nothing was visible beneath it. I expected a glimpse of her real body, but she had none. She was like a doll arranged on a low chaise lounge: her elbow bent by someone else, a smile painted across her lips, her bright eyes unblinking.
“Have you found what you’ll wear on your wedding night?” My mother leaned across the counter as I tore the page free and trimmed its edges.
“This,” I said, triumphant.
“That’s a little racy,” she murmured. “Why don’t you try again?”
One of my earliest memories is of a wedding. It is blurry in that way of memories before they contain narratives. Summer, I think, because my skin is warm. I wear a white eyelet dress with a blue sash that matches the blue ribbon tied around my white Easter bonnet. This bonnet keeps the sun from blinding my eyes.
My parents are there—my mother in a long skirt, my father in suit and tie. We sit in chairs on the lawn, and someone rolls a carpet down the makeshift aisle. A woman with hair like a silver curtain strums the strings of a harp.
I cannot recall precisely the bride or groom, the minister’s deep voice and lavish robes, the boy who bears the ring. Two girls, not much older than I, scatter petals from small woven baskets. My mother squeezes my hand. I study everyone’s shoes. In the distance, a little dog paces behind a fence, waits for the dancing to begin.
I think in the way of thoughts before they are tied into words, parcels made tidy with knowing. The gist of it, folded into a bow—this is the most important thing I could ever do.
I have cut three wedding gowns from the catalogue and smoothed them onto thick sheets of paper. My mother reviews them, remarks on the gown she likes best.
“And when will this wedding take place?”
“Christmastime,” I say. “There should be snow. We may have to go to the mountains.”
“The best time for a wedding is spring or summer. Your father and I were married in August.”
“But my bridesmaids will wear velvet,” I explain. “Red velvet dresses with furry white pouches to keep their hands warm.” I have seen this before in a film.
“How will they carry their flowers?” She is testing me now.
“White roses,” I say, “pinned to their pretty lapels.”
I thought the wedding was a fashion show, a commercial for the marriage.
But what was a marriage? I did not know.
It was a treasure hunt, but we always meant to put everything back. A distant cousin was getting married at a distant house. I fell asleep on the car ride there. When I saw my closer cousin, she was ready. She had her mother’s old valise—leather, with a satisfying clasp. We wandered the rooms and lifted trinkets from the tables. In the bathroom, I took so many soaps my own small purse came to exude a dreamy lilac and honeysuckle smell.
Then, we were on the landing. Suddenly, everything was still. I crouched down and peered through the window, the square kind at the top of the stairs. They were kissing, my distant cousin and his distant bride, and the crowd assembled on the patio leapt to their feet and clapped and cheered.
“We missed it,” my cousin sighed. “Now they’re different forever.”
What was it about the kiss that did this? Thinking of my mother’s lip print on the envelope, her cursive annotation—SWAK!
“I always close letters to your father like that.” She pointed to the row of capitals. “It’s an acronym. It means sealed with a kiss.”
“How are they different?” I wanted to know. “They look just the same as before.”
My cousin lifted a votive candle from the window ledge, slipped it into her pocket. “Haven’t you read your storybooks? The right kiss at the right time is the only way to make or break a spell.”
Jump rope chant: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.
I could see there was a proper sequence to things. It was like math, the way you had to add before you could multiply, then multiply before you could divide.
These were the words, three words like the peaks of three snowy mountains—Love, Marriage, Baby. You had to hike a long way to reach them, but the mountain-climbers had a word for this, too. They might plant a flag or drink a thermos of cocoa when they reached the summit. But what did you call the space between those summits?
“Do you mean the lowland?” my father asked. “The opposite of a mountain is a valley.”
I could picture the valleys, too—snowy-deep, untrodden. It seemed every mountain had one. The valley beside Love was Lonely. The valley beside Marriage was Single. The valley beside Baby was Childless. How I wanted to find the crocus heads pushing up through that cold, cup them with my woolly mittens. How I wanted to lay myself down and make angels, one after the next, until a path could be forged across the angels’ bodies. Maybe then—it required a deep breath—maybe then those angels would bless the valleys where only the very sad or very brave would dare to tread.
I had some confusion, though, about “happily ever after.” Did Prince Charming ever actually marry anyone? Could the Ash Girl or the Sleeping Beauty live happily ever after without a ring and a dress and a softly whispered “I do”? Or a suite at the Marriott, for that matter? Or a baby that came the next year?
“Someday,” my mother wept, “your father will give you away.”
Newly skeptical, I heard myself say it: “I think I would rather stay.”
You see, I was beginning to understand about stories—how you could read them for the sounds they made, the pictures they painted in your mind. But then, when you went back to them, you could read again for something different. You could wriggle on your belly and sift through the soil until you found their meanings, which were hard little stones in your hands.
Everything Cinderella wore was borrowed, including the glass shoe. I felt uneasy about it—all that false pretense surrounding her one late night at the ball.
My father read to me for the last time from the big book of Disney favorites, read to me until I stopped him.
“But she was lying to the Prince,” I say. “Everyone says you’re supposed to be yourself, but Cinderella came as someone else.”
He shakes his head. “No. She just wanted to put her best foot forward. She just wanted to look her best.”
I rub one pebble around and around in my palm until it forms a tiny blister. “And what about that shoe? Why didn’t it vanish with the rest of her things? By rights, he should have never been able to find her.”
My father removes his glasses and wipes them with his handkerchief. “The way you’re talking—it sounds like you wish he hadn’t.”
What of that? What if he hadn’t? Could I change the story? Did I have that power? The Prince seemed like a dubious man. He claimed to love her, but he didn’t recognize her face? He needed the shoe to prove she was the one he had pledged his heart to?
“He even says it himself in the film. ‘Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?’ I think she’s too good for him. I think the Prince is a little bit shallow.”
Now my father wrinkles his brow. His hands are clean and soft with no dirt beneath the nails. “I think you’re reading too much into this,” he says.
In the church pew, we find our offering envelopes, the little wood pencils to fill in the lines.
Before she can stop me, I take my mother’s blue ballpoint; I tithe my dime. Then, I check the box beside Ms. and print “Wade.”
“This one,” my mother corrects, pointing to Miss. “It lets people know you’re not married.”
“I’m ten years old. I think they know.”
“Still,” she says, crossing it out. “You want to get into the habit.”
I study my parents’ wedding album. Everything is white, even the cover, though it is stenciled with silver bells. Even the edges of the photographs are white, so you could write something if you wanted to, but no one has.
“The train of your dress is so long,” I say. “Didn’t you worry you would trip?”
“No. It’s easier to walk than you would think, and I had my sister, the maid of honor, to smooth out the wrinkles and set everything straight.”
“Did you like having so many people staring at you? I think I would blush or faint or something.”
“When it happens, everything will be perfect, and you won’t mind them looking. You’ll be glad. You’ll be giving hope to every young girl and single woman in the audience. Yours will be, for all those assembled, the face of love.”
For some reason, at twelve, I turn easily queasy. I can’t take comfort in the old truths anymore. Watching The Sound of Music with my mother, I walk out during Liesl’s dance in the gazebo. This seems the best time to blow my nose, to forage for something to make a sandwich. When I return, she has paused it for me—Liesl in mid-air as Rolfe spins her around, Cinderella-style. Her shoes, too, seem impractical.
“He’s going to be a Nazi,” I say.
“We don’t know that yet,” she replies.
But the scene where Fraulein Maria gets married—it is hard not to watch. It is hard to feign indifference to that grandeur. The music swells, the people rise, and my nose burns with tears I refuse to cry.
“This film came out two years before I married your father.” My mother turns sentimental now, clipping her coupons and sipping her tea. “I kept going back to the theater for this—one scene in nearly three hours of screen time. I wanted to copy everything, right down to her crown of roses.”
Fraulein Maria, who is also Julie Andrews, who is also my namesake and a woman whose beauty doesn’t end with her face, fills me with inexplicable dread. From nun and nanny to wife and mother, I know I cannot walk in her shoes. I haven’t the patience for it, or the stamina. What’s more: her shoes come second-hand from a man who must reject another woman, and before that, whose first wife had to die.
“You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else,” Captain von Trapp tells Baroness Schrader on the terrace. He has the power to change the future, for not one but two women’s lives.
We begin watching Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman on Saturday nights as a family. It is “wholesome,” my father lauds.
“And Sully’s so handsome,” my mother beams.
Jane Seymour has one blue eye and one green, which is enough for me. My biology teacher calls this condition heterochromia iridis, which can be genetic or acquired. My history teacher reports that Jane Seymour was the third wife of Henry VIII, possibly his one true love. She is remembered for birthing Henry his only male heir, even as she died from complications after.
Dr. Quinn, who comes to the valley at the base of a mountain called Pikes Peak, is without love, marriage, or children. We learn her first name is Michaela, mistaken on a telegram for “Michael A.” No one expects a woman doctor. We learn she is thirty-five and has never been married, which requires an explanation. Her one true love—her betrothed—died in the Civil War. Now we can feel pity for her and not suspicion. She was trying to be a wife but was prevented, by circumstances beyond her control.
We also learn that Dr. Quinn is a virgin, which is not the same as unmarried, but “should be,” my father says. “It’s nice to see a show with good old-fashioned values for a change.”
Even though I have studied the mechanics of sex in school, I find the prospect as remote as an island, as mythical as Atlantis. I am a virgin with two blue eyes and a little green of envy in my heart.
When Dr. Quinn marries Sully, who I understand is beautiful but for whom I must force a swoon, the crucial scene is the one that happens next. Will it be “happily,” this surrender of her virginity, this sequel to the wedding vow of wife? She has been alone in her body so long—twenty years longer than I. She has made a home in that valley, pitched her own tent and learned how to tend her own fire. Must Love lead to Marriage? Is this the only chair lift passing through the heart?
I take the VHS tape to my room in secret. I sit at the edge of the bed, my face close to the screen, scanning for shadows of uncertainty, resistance. Sully has made their marriage bed in a train compartment. Her dress swaddles her into something half-child, half-swan. They seal again with a kiss, then draw the shades together. When he lays her down on the bed, she cups the back of his head, consenting. He contains the music, I understand then; she waits for the dancing to begin.
“I’m a little concerned,” the teacher says. “I asked you write about a ritual in your faith. I don’t see how what transpires here is a ritual.”
“It’s a wedding,” I tell her. “Aren’t weddings a ritual in any faith?”
“Yes, but—” I have been summoned to her office. This is not the first time. She thinks I am troubled but also promising. Ambivalence hangs between us in the air. “You realize that this isn’t really about the wedding.”
“Is it ever?” I have been practicing my enigmatic face, shortening my sentences for effect.
“I think perhaps you’ve misunderstood the purpose of the assignment. In describing the ritual, I wanted you to consider its significance.”
“I have. The wedding exists to prove a marriage has taken place, and the marriage exists so the man can take the woman.”
The teacher is married, which means that she has been taken, but I notice also she has not taken her husband’s name. Ms. A married woman who is not a Mrs.
“I need to confirm—” she uncaps her pen as if she is going to make a mark of some kind—“I need to confirm this didn’t really happen to you.”
“I’ve never been married,” I shrug.
“Not the marriage—the rape.” The word is so hot it burns the roof of her mouth to say it.
“What rape? This is a story about a girl who marries her high school sweetheart.”
“No. This is a story about a young woman who marries the only man she has ever known, and then he takes her to her childhood home and ties her hands to the wicker headboard and—has his way with her.” Thank goodness for euphemisms. She would never have made it through that sentence without them.
“It’s a metaphor,” I say calmly. “It’s about a loss of innocence. That’s why I put baby’s breath on her windowsill and dolls on the bed that he has to sweep aside.”
“But it’s not true?” she makes me promise, holding my gaze a long time.
“Not literally, no”—though I do have a wicker headboard.
“So, why did you write it?” She lets her pen trace the length of my margin.
“I wanted to look at a different ritual besides the wedding itself—the one no one talks about but everyone implies.”
“Consummation,” she nods.
“To me, even though I’ve never been consummated”—I feel the need to reassure her now—“it seems like the place where borrowed meets appropriation.”
“Can you say a little more about that?” Her brows have come together in a dark line; her lips, which are thin and pale, pucker deeply with concern.
“No. I really don’t think I can.”
In the Sharon Olds’ poems I begin to read in college, sex is a new, rare, coveted thing. The way she writes sex makes me want to want it, makes me wonder if I ever will. Then, I remember—like a dream that returns all day, bit by bit, in fragments—that I do want it, that I have. Only where was sex in the old sequence? Could it come before Love? Must it come after Marriage? (It was only clear that it must precede Baby in the baby carriage.)
At the central desk in the Mormon genealogy room in Salt Lake City: “Are you married yet?” the woman’s sweet voice inquires.
She nods and smiles.
“I’m—I’m only nineteen,” I stammer.
“It’s never too early to start your family planning.”
A pamphlet with a husband and wife and many rosy children—everyone white and clad in khaki—appears beside me on the counter. I never see her hand. She seems to move the pamphlet with her mind.
“That’s OK,” I say. “I already have a plan.”
In my dorm closet again, I assess the stash. One jug of Carlo Rossi wine, the only kind I could find in the pantry at home. This will help to put us in the mood, to soothe our nerves—should there ever be an us and a reason to be nervous. Also, many condoms from Campus Health, pilfered from a small woven basket when the receptionist stepped out to heat her lunch. I don’t know how many I will need, so I take all of them. I only know there must not be a baby in a baby carriage.
Finally, a pack of cigarettes—Marlboro Reds—because I once heard a tattooed barista tell a suave-seeming man that they were sexy. People seem to want these after. I’ve seen all the movies, some of them several times. At least in bed then, after the sweat and the swoon, when the words have become insufficient, I won’t have to wonder what comes next. I’ll have something to do with my mouth and my hands.
It is my last time in my parents’ church, and I am restless. The weddings and baptisms have all been announced. The preacher has read from the big book of laws and parables. I slip five dollars into the envelope, which feels less like a gift than a bribe.
My mother watches as my hand hovers above Ms. “What did I tell you about that designation?”
Recently, I have become irate about double standards. Everything is grounds for comparison. “Look,” I whisper. “Men are always Mr. their whole lives. They never have to change their prefix, and no one expects them to change their names. I won’t do it either. It isn’t fair.”
“So, you’re going to be that kind of woman then? You’ve made up your mind?” She signs her check in flourished script—the first name hers, the last name borrowed.
Anger is opening inside me like a rose. I take her pen and check the box beside Mr.
What was a marriage then? I wrote it in a poem. Marriage, for women, was a big pink eraser. They tried to make it sound nice, but it wasn’t. I was onto them, whoever they were.
Another euphemism: this Pink Pearl.
In a poem she wrote to her daughter, Sharon Olds makes the following prediction: “That night will come. Somewhere someone will be entering you, his body riding under your white body, dividing your blood from your skin…”
Only for you, it is day, and the sky is rippling blue in that soft September way; only faint wisps of cloud annotate its margins. It is also your birthday, and what you want most is a gift you cannot return—pure experience, nothing with a string or a tag.
Later that day, you will arrive at your parents’ house to play the good daughter again, the one who saves herself for marriage, the one who faithfully abstains.
But the sequence and the startled opening and that feeling like the flutter of trapped birds and then the glimpse of something as through a skylight returns to you in dream-haze for days.
You are not ashamed the way your mother promised you would be. This is the first surprise. But it is not like the poems promised either. You do not feel a great cathedral inside. Instead, like someone opened an umbrella indoors, and you are the indoors, and he is the umbrella with the sharp points and the too-wide smile.
Perhaps—an unsettling thought—perhaps you are not a Modern Woman after all. Your mother passes the piping hot rolls. Your father mentions the weather: how mild it has been, how serene. But wasn’t he the same person who always said, “It’s calmest before the storm”?
It might be in fact—an intriguing thought—that you are a Post-Modern Woman, the one who comes after and other, who does not play by her mother’s rules, but neither does she play by their converse. Less chart and graph, less dotted line. More dark mosaic and white noise.
It was long in coming, but we knew it, the way we always know. My best friend’s wedding like the arrival of a train, and the people on the platform remarked, “Why, lookie here. Right on time.”
“Will you stand with me at the altar?” she asked. “Will you read a sonnet for us in blessing?”
Would she be erased by him, her gentle husband? Would he be erased by her? I did not know.
So I stood, and I read, and I played the part of witness—the part I knew well, the part I knew best of all. It was important not to seem jealous. (Was I?) It was important not to begrudge. (Did I?)
There were calla lilies on my dress, the dress I had chosen. Later, a woman told me they were the flower of death. “Don’t worry, dear. You didn’t know.”
A furtive look on my face, a blush cresting my cheeks. Ambivalence hangs in the air between us.
This is the last time my parents will dance together, or the last time I will see them dance, so it is final for me: the way a photograph preserves its subject exactly as she was and cannot account for changes that follow.
There they are, my parents, as vivid in memory as they were that day in the chilly church basement: gliding across the checkered floor, swaying in time to the Big Band tunes. Perhaps I felt a little wistful then, watching them from the folding chair with the Styrofoam cup in my hand—wistful that perhaps I would never be a blushing bride, a Mrs. So-and-So—that emulation they had always longed for.
“Do you feel sad?” my mother asks when she pauses for a cookie and some punch.
“Sad? No. Why should I be sad?”
“Well, it’s hard, I know, being surrounded by so many couples. But your time will come, and all of us will dance on your wedding day.”
“Yes?” She is powdering her shiny skin into a plain matte finish.
“Why are we here again?”
“Well, Nancy’s my friend, and she and her husband wanted to renew their vows.”
“But they’re vows. Aren’t they supposed to last forever?”
“Of course they are, but it’s just that her family’s been through so much, and they’ve weathered it all—every last storm. Now don’t stare, but—” She makes a subtle gesture toward a young woman in a tight black dress. I had noticed her earlier: the freckled arms and cropped red hair, the body that seemed afraid to ever stop moving. “That’s Nancy’s daughter, and in the last two years, she has dropped over a hundred pounds.”
“Oh.” I am not sure what to say. (Was there a right thing to say?)
“On the road to spinsterhood,” my mother gleams, “someone just made a U-turn!” Then, she swivels her gaze toward a young man, dark and stalwart, standing beside the pass-through window. “And Nancy’s son—see him there? He used to be gay, and now he’s not anymore. I hear he’s even found himself a girlfriend.”
Many thoughts still require images to explain them, especially in the absence of certain words. No one will tell you that there is a place apart from the mountain and the valley, separate from the summit and the lowland. Sometimes it is concealed by a waterfall, which everyone recognizes as a symbol for passion. For example, many lovers stood at Snoqualmie Falls and kissed each other fervently; some even recited their vows and exchanged their rings against the roar of water cresting over the rocks.
This was the dangerous side of Love. They liked it, even though they were afraid.
But below and behind that glistening spume, I could picture it now—what Thomas Wolfe had called “an unseen door.” If you opened it, you could step through the mountain and change your trajectory entirely. No longer ascending or descending, you could traverse the landscape of the underside, the unspoken. I had approached that keyhole many times in my mind, but it too was dangerous, and I was still afraid to peer inside.
My father extends his hand to me, and I startle. “Sweetheart,” he says, “may I have this dance?”
The new millennium makes me want to do something extraordinary and daring—maybe even mountain-climb. I work with a man who makes me laugh sometimes, who shows me the way the shoes lay flat in their box: “Like opening a quote, then adding an apostrophe.” He smiles his best, syntactic smile.
We work on commission, the way everyone does, whether they know it or not. Once, in an elevator with him, I pressed the STOP button. I meant the opposite. I meant READY, SET, GO. I wanted so much to be like those women in the movies, leaning in and leaning back, playing coy and enjoying it. Beneath my starched white collar and my pinstriped skirt, I could feel myself tremble, tipping: a barrel poised on a waterfall.
It would have been fitting if the musak had played, “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors,” Charlie Rich soulfully crooning. I did, in fact, let my hair hang down, and he was glad then to be a certain kind of man.
When the doors opened, though, I should have been a certain kind of woman, her palms slick with concupiscence, her heart in her throat like a wild bird. Instead, I smoothed my skirt and walked on toward the break room calmly. I can still hear my heels clicking on the newly shined floor.
For our wedding, we agree to meet in the orchard. It is our long ago and far away, our fairy tale landscape after all. His brother is a priest, and I have two friends to act as witnesses. What I want is small and simple and private: a dress without a train and a blue car waiting in the underbrush.
“I’ll rent a convertible,” he promises. “We’ll drive all day to the beach.”
One friend is married; she encourages me. “This is where it leads,” she says. “Not an end at all—a new beginning.” I can tell from an hour in their home that she loves her husband as I have never loved my fiancé.
My other friend is single and silent on matters such as these. As I stand before the three-way mirror, I ask her to fasten the clasp, secure the zipper. “I never wear dresses anymore,” I blush. The hot lights of the fitting room; her hand on my back like a flame. I am marked now, in a way I cannot erase.
“What about the bouquet? Will you have one?”
“Iris,” I say. “A bundle of them, almost in disarray. So blue they are almost purple.”
Something—it is not ambivalence—hangs in the air between us.
Instead. This is the word on the little gold plaque on the large wood door under the waterfall. You can knock as long as you want, but no one will answer. Your voice will ricochet and return to you in that cavern, and you may feel, for a moment, more alone than you ever have.
It is worth noting that your parents also have receded into the past. They are smaller now, in retrospect, like the wax figures atop a wedding cake, joined at the arm but gazing away from each other, not toward. The deep spell of their long governance has been broken.
Instead. In lieu of. Otherwise.
Look for the key in your pocket. If you don’t have a pocket, you might need to change your clothes.
Carole Maso writes, “We’re a little lost. In the semiotics. And not a graduate student in sight.”
We were the graduate students. We were a little lost. Not even the semiotics could save us.
The woman and I passed our days in communal space and spent our nights in rented rooms, and we were furtive and foolish and unable to stop what we had started. We hawked the man’s wedding band and went for Thai food. We traveled around, my wedding dress in the trunk, a library book long overdue. (Think of the stories it couldn’t tell.) Paper airplanes were made from the marriage license.
Then, one morning, many years in the future, I woke, and my pockets had sprouted flowers. There they were, fresh as clover in the neighbor’s lawn. I lay still a long time, struggling to believe they were mine.
Then, it was time. Another friend had summited the mountain and strolled the scenic bridge—from Love to its adjacent peak. (Was Wedding the signifier? Was Marriage the signified?)
She asked me to read for her, to walk ahead of her in a satin dress and stand at the altar in her honor. (In her shadow?) My beloved sat alone in the crowd; someone rolled a carpet down the makeshift aisle. Years had passed. We were happy after everything. Her eyes, cerulean, squinting in sudden sun. Years had passed. We were happy for everything to come. Her skirt and blouse, the real body I had glimpsed beneath them. Peaceful in our paradox—not Single, not Married either. What were we? What was this—our Something Else?
I stood at the altar, she sat in her chair, and all at once the old rose of anger bloomed in my throat, choked me as I tried to recite—“How shall we speak of love except in the splurge of roses, and the long body of the river shining in its silk froth”?
Of course we tell the story of rose and river. These belong to everyone, to all lovers everywhere, united in romantic fancy. But we are not only speaking of Love! My nostrils flair as I consider it at last: the blue body paragraph, the red margin line, that vast topography of difference. It is not the rose and river only, but the wedding rite, the honeymoon, the married life that follows. That familiar algorithm (part math, part witchcraft): Love converts to Marriage after a spell. SWAK! But it didn’t—it wouldn’t—not for us.
Later, my beloved would say, “Yes, you have lost something. It was not something you were sure you wanted, but you have lost it nonetheless.”
It wasn’t the ring! It wasn’t the dress!
Instead: “It was the choice—to choose or not to choose. What you lost was the possibility of.”
For the moment, then: too much champagne like a drum in my head; the catapult of the loose bouquet.
“I’m next!” a triumphant voice exclaims.
The tears on my cheeks, slowly singeing: I’m not! Not once. Not ever again.
“I’m suspicious of therapy,” I tell the therapist, folding my arms. “I’m suspicious of marriage, too.”
He meets my eyes, holds my gaze until I look away—back to his hand, back to his ring--
the thing that divides us. (Or does it?)
“Maybe it isn’t even marriage exactly,” I sigh. (Was Marriage only the subject? Was Something Else the theme?) “It’s just—it’s about entitlement, you know. That’s the theme. That’s my objection to marriage.”
“So if everyone could freely choose marriage—if it were an equal right—you’d be married? You and your partner would walk down to the courthouse and sign the contract today?”
I want to say it is so. I wait for the word—true, indeed, affirmative—like a bell set to ring at a certain time. Then, Yes is melting on my tongue; then, No is melting on my tongue. They are the snow, and I am the warm ground, the warm sound of Maybe.
Instead, it was Maybe I said.
“Can you say a little more about that?” His face is calm and kind; his pen traces a dotted line across the page.
I study his ring and shake my head. “No. I really don’t think I can.”
There are two women we know, friends we are lucky to call them. They have been “together forever,” they say. A decade at least—which sounds like forever to us.
By all accounts, they have a good life. Since Pennsylvania is not a marriage state, they have what many would call domestic partnership.
(Some romance is lost in that phrase, but marriage still implies a husband and wife. The one is business-like; the other rife with hints of old dominion.)
The invitation comes in the mail. A cardstock square of plain black script: “Please join us for our wedding celebration.”
It is Pittsburgh. It is August in the park. It is forsythia and forget-me-nots and the purple haze of summer that hangs between us in the air. They grin and wave, the bride and bride in slacks and shirts and bright Hawaiian leis. They say, “We figured, why not bring the beach to us?”
There are these familiar things—the speaking of vows, the giving of rings—but no frazzled family, no store-bought bouquets. No minister officiates, no photographer directs. Neither woman’s father walks her down the aisle. Their names, paratactic on the page, remain unchanged.
We stand and smile among the witnesses, our glasses clinking through the singing, the dancing, and the stories told. We toast to their long love, to their enduring happiness. Several times, I find the warm water seeping out of my eyes.
“So, what about the laws?” I ask my friend.
The new platinum band swivels on her pale finger. “What about them?”
If a wedding doesn’t mark a marriage…I’m a little lost in the semiotics…what is it a marker for?
I’m sad, and I don’t know how to express it. I resent them all—every married person I have ever known—but I envy them, too, and I also—if I am honest—feel a little bit smug, a little bit…superior.
Every day my Love walks a tightrope without a net. Every day they have the whole circus to support them. Think how brave my Love must be, by comparison.
“So, let me understand,” he says. “You don’t want to marry your partner, but you believe you should have the right to marry her if you choose?”
“The first part is sometimes true; the second part is always true.”
“But you also wish that no one else would marry? That there would be a moratorium on marriage?”
“Just until the laws change. Just until everyone is equal.”
“Do you really believe,” he asks, “that legislation results in equality?” His gray eyes narrow and focus on mine. “Has it been your experience that laws change people’s minds?”
A poem on my pillow:
I think I grow tensions
in a wood where
Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.
In the dream, I return to the orchard where I once loved a man—my best attempt of those long years of Almost, of Not Quite. I stand in the high grass under the apple tree and remember the picnics, remember our clothes cast off after the picnics, our bodies becoming Something Else.
Then, I stand at the turn of the road and remember my absence, that old elopement I managed to elope from. How had I come to say that I would come? How had I made this promise to him—
as if our lives were only a catalogue page, mine to cut and alter?
In the dream, I do not wear the white dress. I do not carry the velvet box with the man’s thick band inside. My beloved holds long-stemmed iris in her lovely hands, blue as twilight and so many she can barely grasp them. We wear blue jeans and canvas shoes. We are not expecting a special occasion.
“Look into my eyes,” she says. They are blue also, like the sea or the sky. “Not these irises,” shaking the flowers as she shakes her head. They make a gentle, rustling sound. “These.”
I glimpse the ticker at the dark corner of the dream: Your life with her—that is the special occasion.
I had always wanted to belong without being claimed. To be a wife meant I was wanted, but it did not confirm, and in fact might obscure, the truth of what I wanted. Often I felt I couldn’t bear it—this cultural imperative—yet it was hard to look away from the Chosen Ones, to surrender my envy and even my admiration.
(Did I spurn marriage first because I feared I would never be chosen?)
I lost my best friend in the aftermath, the way numbers in a problem are sometimes left over and will not resolve. I had become her vexing remainder.
“I’m really surprised by your casualness.” The words singed as she spoke them. “You say you love this woman, but you won’t even have a commitment ceremony?”
“Our love is between us!”
“But your commitment should be made before God and everyone.”
(Did I spurn marriage next to make a point, to defy her judgment and win the argument?)
A sign on my professor’s door:
The real question is not whether the state should marry queers, but whether the state should marry anyone.
“Do you have any family I should call?” the surgeon asks before the anesthesia takes hold.
“I have family. She’s sitting the waiting room.” Now my heart thumps harder beneath my ribs—earnestly, defensively.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replies, his wedding band visible beneath his latex gloves. (I can’t help but look, can’t help but wonder…) “My nurse mentioned you were unmarried.”
On the medical form: (check one) Single Married Separated Divorced Widowed
When I wake, still groggy in the hospital bed: “I know what I would say—my vow.”
“I’m not saying we should have a wedding. I’m not saying we need a wedding. But—” She looks so beautiful in the morning light, with her glasses on and a book in her hand.
Fading out again, I whisper. “It’s Eliot. He knew. We are the music while the music lasts.”
It has been ten years now. Do we qualify as “together forever”?
In our decade of undocumented love, six states and one district have legalized same-sex marriage. In our decade of unnotarized affection, twelve states have prohibited same-sex marriage via statute, another twenty-nine via state constitution. On paper, it looks like we are losing. On paper, there is a push toward our erasure.
How can marriage be both the Pink Pearl of erasure and the Pink Pearl that prevents our erasure?
“Wild idea,” I propose over breakfast. “Since we’ve always had a Boston marriage, why don’t we go ahead and have a Boston marriage?”
“Maybe, if we lived in Boston, it would make sense. I don’t see how that serves us here in the Bluegrass State.”
“That depends,” I say. “It doesn’t make sense if we think of the marriage as purely practical—a legal document. But it does make sense if we think of the marriage as Something Else—as something symbolic.”
“I don’t think of marriage that way,” she replies.
Softening: “Do you?”
The snow and the warm ground again: “Maybe.”
She kisses me then, and a new spell is made and broken.
In the dream, we stand on the seashore, our pant legs cuffed and our fingers laced. As we walk together toward the gathering fog, the cool waves lap at our feet.
This is the perfect setting for a wedding, I realize.
When I turn to her, she points to a piece of driftwood further up the beach. Tied to the log is the largest bouquet of balloons I have ever seen. Each one is a different shade of blue.
“What are these for?” I ask. “Is this some kind of celebration?”
She doesn’t answer. Instead, she kneels down in the brown sand and begins to untie them. The many white strings are knotted, tethered to the log but also tangled with each other. I watch as she works diligently to release each balloon from the bunch.
They are Love, they are Marriage, they are Children. They are also their concomitants, the explicit and the implied: Sex, Wedding, Fertility. The blue balloons are a collection of certainties, of wishes and fears and secret anticipations.
One by one, we let these balloons go, separate from us and separate from each other. We were a little lost in the semiotics…and now in what we have no words for. That is, are we wistful? Are we joyful? Are we somber in our task? Then, we stand a long time in the morning light, watching and forgetting to watch.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
Every three years I write a meditation. I started doing so in 2005, but the idea had been brewing ever since I encountered Lyn Hejinian’s innovative, autobiographical, hybrid-genre masterpiece, My Life, as a graduate student in 2002. I wasn’t sure I could commit to writing a meditation every year, but I wanted the essays I wrote to serve as a kind of lyric inventory of what was happening in my life at the time and, in particular, what preoccupied me most at particular moments. At 26, the awareness of my own mortality emerged as the dominant theme. No sooner had I really begun to believe in my own adulthood than I found myself reckoning with the realities of aging and eventual decline. At 29, a fall down the steps of the rural Ohio boarding school where I had been teaching the year before gave rise to an unlikely triptych on favorite coats, all of them lost to time or accident. And at 32, ten years’ deep in a love relationship, I found myself reflecting relentlessly on marriage. This was early 2012 in Kentucky. Momentum was growing for marriage equality nationwide, but nowhere Angie and I had lived to date permitted same-sex couples to participate legally in the institution, including the Bluegrass State, our then-home. I began to realize that my feelings about marriage were more conflicted, fraught, and deeply contradictory than my feelings about almost anything else in my life—and this, as I tell my students, is how you know you have an essay on your hands.
I decided to structure “Meditation 32” according to the adage that brides need “something old, new, borrowed, and blue” to bring good luck on their wedding day. I grew up hearing this adage often, but as I came to understand myself as a gay person, I found my sense of belonging to the world I came from slipping ever further away. The adage was a way of reaching back in time to the “old” messages but also leaning forward in time to the “new” ones, the alternative possibilities that were emerging for my life. These four small words—“old,” “new,” “borrowed,” and “blue”—are multi-valent and pushed me to recollect and inspect my history in a free-form but somewhat guided way. I came to think of them as linguistic inkblots.
Of course I didn’t know at the time of writing this meditation that legal marriage, at the state and national level, would be possible for Angie and me in our life together. I wanted to believe we would have the choice to make—whether to marry or not to marry—but I couldn’t trust that we would in our lifetime. By the end of 2012, however, Washington State—where we first met—had legalized same-sex marriage, and by the middle of 2013, same-sex couples like us could marry there and be recognized as spouses for federal purposes, though not yet in our new Florida residence. Florida state recognition wouldn’t come about until 2015, six months before the Supreme Court decision that brought about marriage equality for all.
This meditation is especially important to me now as a record of that reckoning from the interstice—before I knew marriage would become a genuine possibility for us, a right for everyone and not just a privilege for some. I don’t want to ever forget the struggles, both internal and external, that accompanied that uncertain time in my private life and in the public history of our country. It is my hope that this essay will serve as a small strike against our inevitable collective forgetting, a reminder of that time in U.S. history—not so very long ago at all—before one person could marry another person, regardless of gender, and have that commitment honored by the law.
NOTE: Another link that might be of interest is this one, to the Fourth Genre “Off the Page” podcast series. I was interviewed by Kathleen Livingston in February 2014—three days after I married my partner in a legal ceremony in Washington State—about the writing of the essay and some of its themes: http://fourthgenre.msu.edu/?p=927
ABOUT JULIE MARIE WADE
Julie Marie Wade is the author of four collections of poetry and four collections of prose, including the forthcoming Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO/ To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. A recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives on Hollywood Beach. Find her at www.juliemariewade.net.