‘Til Death Do Us — Wait, Wait, What Do You Mean DEATH?

As I briefly mentioned in an earlier blog, I just got married a few weeks ago. To be honest, it wasn’t anything that we were in any hurry to do. Then Boyfriend Now Spouse (yup, still having trouble with “husband”) was divorced already, I’d bought his ex-wife out of the apartment we share two years ago making us legally bound by real estate, and I have to admit that we were somewhat invested in the concept of living in sin to the extent that we had already gotten kind of attached the nickname “Little Bastard” that we had given to our un-conceived child.

Then we realized that, come September 1st, after he earned his doctorate, TBNS would be without health insurance. Nothing takes the sexiness out of a situation faster than the prospect of being unnecessarily bankrupted by it. As a member of a union (the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 52, thank you very much), I have pretty good health insurance, so I looked into domestic partnership. Unfortunately, in an interesting twist on your average form of societal prejudice, my health insurance only insures domestic partners of the same sex (and now that same-sex marriage is legal in New York, they probably don’t do that any more either). So basically, the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans forced us to get married. Jerks.

Now, I’ve been to a ton of weddings. I’ve been to a whole lot of the ones with some combination of every traditional wedding cliche – matchy-matchy bridesmaids and groomsmen, too many pictures with annoying photographer, baby cousin ring bearer/flower girl, quartet during and DJ/soul band after, embarrassing speeches, cut the cake, throwing the bouquet wedding, etc etc. Then I’ve been to the “Love Slightly-Less-Anal-American Style” wedding, for the bridezilla who wants to be a little more chill, where they might, for instance, have a cupcake cake, or the bridesmaids might actually get to pick their own dresses as long as they adhere to a certain color scheme. Then, of course, since I am nominally Jewish, I’ve been to several variations on Jewish weddings, from Orthodox, where the women and men sit separately, only the men get to dance, and, as if it couldn’t get any less fun, all of the food is kosher; to your Jewish American Princess variety, which takes all the typical wedding nonsense and just adds a rabbi, a huppah, a broken glass, and the Horah; to the only nominally Jewish (because of the rabbi and the homemade art huppah) groovy wedding, with a cas sea-foam dress, original vows, and a picnic meal where everyone gets a blanket as a party favor.  I’ve been to a traditional Hindu wedding, which took literally about four days, where we all got our hands and feet mehndied, the groom, in a turban, actually rode up the street on a white horse to meet his bride surrounded by his dancing family (who were carrying the perhaps-less-than-traditional boom box), and everyone wore saris and dhotis etc, and I couldn’t really understand anything but I took lots of pictures. image

Add to those the Greek Orthodox wedding, which had the nice detail of the bride and groom wearing attached lace crowns, and the Quaker wedding, where the bride and groom said no vows, but sat quietly while their friends and family got up and gave speeches about them and then, eventually, just got up and walked away when they felt like they were married enough.  And then there were all of the venues – churches, temples, city parks, botanic gardens, fancy hotels, by lakes, on mountains, by lakes and on mountains, etc etc etc.

Ugh.  To quote my mother, it just seemed like a lot of work.

Those of you who know me, and even those who don’t but have just started reading a few of these blogs, will not be surprised to hear that I was never a girly girl. My mother is a feminist of 1970s vintage – the type of feminist who originated the term “feminist,” before the 80s revisionists started making us feel like it was a bad word (you know, like “liberal.”) She co-founded her chapter of the National Organization for Women and had a running commentary throughout my childhood on the sexist television shows we watched — which, given that it was the 70s and 80s, was pretty much everything on TV — making it clear in no uncertain terms that growing up to be Carol Brady, or even a Charlie’s Angel (because who did they all belong to? Charlie.) was not the end all and be all of a woman’s existence. Because of all this, I grew up a feminist tomboy through and through. I liked kickball, hated dolls, and had to be forced into wearing anything resembling a dress from the time when I started dressing myself pretty much until I graduated from college (with the exception of graduations and prom, which of course were semi-traumatic experiences for that very reason). So, no, I never staged Barbie’s Perfect Wedding, or even Mousy’s Perfect Wedding with my collection of 150 stuffed animals.

Plus, or perhaps related to this, I’m shy. I know that sounds weird coming from someone who is essentially spilling her guts on the internet, but being the center of attention makes me hyperventilate if I think about it too much. This was one reason I missed out on the Official Wedding Practice Event for Jewish girls: getting bat mitzvahed. Even the prospect of all those checks arriving in the mail couldn’t convince me to go through the hell that getting up in front of everyone I knew and saying prayers in a language I didn’t understand would have been to me to be when I was 12. Maybe I would have understood the language if I hadn’t also been a Hebrew School dropout because I didn’t really get the point of missing Saturday morning cartoons for this whole “religion” thing. So then there’s that too: what with Jewish nonbeliever parents, spending one confusing year at Catholic School because it was the only decent option for second grade in Newark in 1976, and now being set to marry a devout atheist, there was certainly not going to be any need for Jesus or Yahweh or Ganesh or anyone else to sanctify our union. So what, then, really, was the point?

There was a time, between the ages of maybe 26 and 30, when it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married, when I did want the wedding with the works, or at least I started thinking about what it would be like. This phase corresponded most strongly, I think, with a period when I was really into clothes and men and any occasion that combined the two, preferably with cocktails – and because I lived in New York, that was pretty much every Friday and/or Saturday night, with a number of other days thrown in. It was the time of my life best described as being like Sex & the City without the sex, which is kind of sad, but explains why I suddenly found myself such a sucker for the wedding fantasy. I was always developing vicious crushes on unattainable men who I would nonetheless pursue for months if not years, convinced that each one was The One.  I would finally give up, eventually, and move on to somebody else, and then somebody else, and somebody else, until the day dawned when I realized that I was not Julia Roberts – or rather I was delusional Julia Roberts, Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, not Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride, or Mystic Pizza, or, God forbid, Pretty Woman. But then once the divorces started to happen, I realized that probably nobody else was either.

Does it sound like I’m bitter about love? I’m actually not. I’ve been in love a few times now, and every time it was pretty great, until it wasn’t – but the ratio of great to not great definitely made each time worth it. It was never perfect, but it was real. However, I’d say that it took me way longer than it should have for me to figure out that the most important aspect of love is the reality part, the part where you are actually involved with an actual person, and not this thing where you’re waiting for your fantasy of that person to realize that you are their fantasy person in some really romantic, fantasy way that you have been waiting for your entire life. Why? Because that’s a fantasy. The sad fact is I let some white male studio executives dictate what I thought love should be for a ridiculously long period of time. Despite the efforts of my mom and every other feminist influence in my life (my first RA at college who taught me to replace the word “girl” in my vocabulary with “woman,” my first boss with a child with a hyphenated last name who made me realize I didn’t have to change mine) telling me that what I saw was bunk, the Hollywood Wedding Industrial Complex had insinuated itself into my subconscious and determined a huge amount of what I thought my life was going to be. 

Finally, I had rejected all that. I was going to get married without any preconceptions about what that meant, and TBNS and I decided it was going to be very low key. Since his parents couldn’t make it out from Tucson, my parents and my brother were the guest list, but only if they could make it down to the Brooklyn City Clerk’s Office on the weekday afternoon when we had figured out we would have time to do the deed before the health care loss deadline. We didn’t know that we really wanted anyone to come, to be honest, we were planning to have a party to celebrate in a year or so when we had a little more time and money, but I thought my parents deserved the option of attending, and then my brother sort of wheedled his way into it too (there was an email conversation with my mother where she asked, “So, are you going to allow your brother to come to the wedding?” If you have parents, you know this wasn’t really a question).

Our first experience of the City Clerk’s Office took place the week before the “wedding,” when we went in to get the marriage license. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s about as romantic as going to any other city or state government office — in other words, getting married is a lot like getting your driver’s  license renewed or doing Jury Duty.  You get to experience a great cross-section of humanity — White, Black, Asian and Latino, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim and Christian of various sorts, people with heavy Brooklyn accents, people speaking French with a variety of different accents, hipsters, gay men who don’t look gay (and look like hipsters), lesbians with kids, lesbians without kids, pregnant women and their boyfriends who look like they have a gun to their heads, lots of people, in fact, who look like they have a gun to their heads — and wait on line with them (except for most of the people who look they have a gun to their head, they at some point disappear from the line), while bureaucrats behind glass take more time than makes any sense to complete forms that you thought you had already filled out online.  The graffiti you find at the window is actually fabulous, as you might expect, full of hearts and arrows and cute nicknames and other silliness left behind by bored people in love.image

The people who are dressed up are the ones who are in the wrong line, because they’re there to actually have the ceremony, not pick up the license. They’re in groups of three or more, rather than pairs, because you need a witness. They vary from the large parties with the bouquets and the fancy dresses to the people who are dressed like they stopped by on their lunch break. Sometimes they are unevenly dressed – the guy is in a suit and the woman is in a casual dress, the woman is in a shiny and poofy white monstrosity and the guy is in a shirt and slacks – and you know that spells trouble. Sometimes, they looks strangely matched in terms of age and dress, and one person speaks perfect English, and the other seems to have trouble understanding the bureaucrat behind the glass, and the English speaker has to spell the name of the place where the other spouse was born – “L-A-G-O-S” – and you know that’s probably a green card.

We became those people a week later, when we came back to have the marriage ceremony – we remembered about finding the right line and we didn’t need the green card, but we were somewhat well-dressed (I wore a sundress and TBNS wore long pants and a button-down shirt) and we had flowers and a pint of fried rice, courtesy of my dad (which tells you something about his sense of humor, and the solemnity with which my family treats such occasions).  But all in all, it felt like a festive occasion.  Everyone was happily pulled away from their cell phones and iPads when then City Clerk called out our names and led us into the “chapel,” and everything was going fine until she started saying the vows.  Then I kind of started to freak out a little.  I didn’t think it was all that noticeable until TBNS said, as we were leaving, “So what was up with the look of terror on your face?”
“Uh, I don’t know,“ I said.  "It was just kind of scary, wasn’t it?”
“Uh, it was?”
“I don’t know, we talked about doing it for so long, but I guess I never thought through what it all meant.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean…”

Needless to say it took me some time to smooth this over.  But the thing that was scary was, what DID it all mean?  When I was young and stupid, I had all these illusions about what marriage was supposed to be about.  Now, I knew they were illusions, and I had jettisoned them, leaving me with, basically, no idea.  But, at 44, I had a much better idea of what death meant.  I’d known a few people who had died, young and old, and, most likely, I was more than halfway there.  So when the City Clerk said, “until death do you part,” that part I got.  But the rest?  What was it that I getting myself into, until death?  I really didn’t know, and moreover, I knew now that I didn’t – because, well, nobody does.  I guess if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of my friends who have gone through marriage and the few who have gone through divorce, it’s that people change, for better and for worse.  You get into this thing one person and then five, ten years later, you’re another, and so is he or she, and so, therefore, is this agreement you made to be together.  So even if I did know what I was signing up for, it would inevitably be something different down the line.  The key, I guess, is to sign up not only with someone you like and love but who gets that, who is interested in and can occasionally enjoy the process of change that life is – and who might even be able to remind you to enjoy it when you forget that you’re supposed to.  Because when you’re middle aged, what you’re really committing to when you get married is accepting a future that is unknown except for this one person being in it (you think/hope), and the part about death.  Everything else?  Who the hell knows.

So at 44, maybe more than ever, marriage is a leap of faith.  And without spiritual faith, or faith in happy endings or The One, all you have to go on is the person in front of you and yourself and your own judgment – the judgment that led you to make all of those mistakes in the past that got you to this point where you don’t really know what anything means, yeah, that judgment.  Getting married is scary, the way every big decision is at this age, when you know what it means and yet you don’t and you know you don’t, and then you get past that and enjoy it while you can, and move on to whatever is going to scare you tomorrow.

Right now, I’m actually enjoying being married, in the sort of perverse way that I used to enjoy living in sin.  We finally got rings — made of titanium, because it was unusual and they looked nice and we could order them from Amazon.  And the whole thing is still a novelty; somehow, the very conventionality of the concept of domestic bliss seems, in all of its bizarre meaninglessness, fun.  Now if I can just come up with a better, non-patriarchal (ruling out old man, better half, papi, big daddy), non-icky for public use (ruling out the previous plus beau, baby, boo, loverboy) and not inappropriate or just plain weird (from the interwebs: buddy, hutch, devotee, mate, bitch, courtier, stantion, intimate, wag) thing to call TBNS, because it’s probably time to let that go.

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