These earthly godfathers of Heaven's lights, that give a name to every fixed star, have no more profit of their shining nights than those that walk and know not what they are.
-- William Shakespeare
'D avid, my man, long time no see. You look great! No, no, don't get up, please," said the man with the wavy, graying blond hair. As they shook hands, David's body language conveyed the man's firm, confident grip. They exchanged a few more words while I stared on from my seat beside David. Noticing the expectant look on my face, David remembered his manners and said, "Oh, Paul, I'd like to introduce you to Barbarella, my..." "Bitch," I finished decisively, extending my hand in a swift and resolute motion meant to mirror Paul's own refreshing intensity. I had read him correctly -- David's old acquaintance smiled at my quip and pulled up a chair.
David and I sometimes find ourselves at a loss when introducing each other. A "happily unmarried couple" is not yet in the social vernacular, especially not a happily unmarried heterosexual couple. When the state would not recognize us as a domestic partnership (because we are a heterosexual couple under 60 years old), we sought power of attorney to have the same rights as those couples that choose to marry. But it's not as clear-cut when we attempt to explain our status to strangers, or even to friends and family.
I used to worry that David's aversion to matrimony was tantamount to a fear of commitment. Like most of the women in my life, I thought that if my boyfriend didn't want to marry me, it was because he wanted to keep one foot out the door. Now, after four years of steady love and devotion, I realize that marriage does not guarantee a long and happy relationship any more than getting your driver's license guarantees you won't wreck your car. Any relationship -- whether it's between you and your father or you and your god, whether between a husband and wife, two siblings, or friends -- requires a certain degree of attention and commitment if it is to last.
Striving for simplicity, David will introduce me as his wife when we meet someone new. This word may come closest to explaining my role in his life, but it doesn't feel right to me; getting wrapped within its religious and institutional connotations is like being stuffed into a constricting high-necked Victorian gown made of the scratchiest wool. When pressed for more information, the situation often becomes unbearable. For example, when someone says, "Oh, yeah? How long have you been married?" or "When did you get married?" we have to explain that we're not really married, not in that way, and an awkward silence usually follows before someone says, "So, uh, where ya from?"
We've tried many other words on for size, but nothing seems to fit us comfortably. "Significant other" is too sterile, like a checkbox on a government form. When I refer to "my partner," people either ask me what her name is or they inquire as to the nature of my business. "Boyfriend" is out -- aside from sounding casual and ephemeral, the boyfriend/girlfriend terms conjure images of teenagers or divorcées. "Mate" is too Australian for me and too Animal Planet for David. "Bitch" can only be used in certain company and only as a joke. "Lover" is too sexualized, a word more suited to a middle-aged hippie couple who feel the need to make sure everyone knows they still "do it."
We can't agree on "man" and "woman." David thinks if he refers to me as "my woman," he will appear possessive and brutish. He doesn't mind if I call him "my man," as I often do, but it has to go both ways in order to be effective. I've tried to appeal to his logic by explaining that these words are the common denominator of all heterosexual labels for couples -- if you deconstruct everything else, it comes down to the fact that I have chosen him to be my man and he has chosen me to be his woman. Everything else -- the words, the ceremonies -- is just decoration.
"We need to go outside the English language," David suggested when Paul left our table to greet other family members and acquaintances at the party. "Maybe we could find a word in Samoan or Swahili."
"You mean a word that's as foreign to the people in our lives as the alternative nature of our relationship?"
"Yeah, basically," he said. If only it were that simple.
People have the need to understand and categorize their surroundings. If you don't give them enough to go on, they will be wary and unsure. Conversely, if you give them too much (e.g., by describing the ins and outs in specific detail), they might be uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Words like "wife" and "girlfriend" imply everything they need to know without the burden of too much intimate knowledge. Such words are a kind of social shorthand; they allow small talk to glide smoothly along timeworn grooves.
Some of our friends and family members, having received no direction from David and me, often hesitate when attempting to describe us to their friends. A few of them, however, have settled upon a word that best suits their own understanding of our relationship. Most recently I was called David's "friend," which to me is akin to saying Itzhak Perlman is a guy who likes to play the fiddle. Because we are not married, the word most commonly used by others is "girlfriend." I find this word to be an inferior summary of my love saga, but I prefer to silently accept this, and whatever other terms people choose, because contradicting people over something as insignificant as a label only causes discomfort.
Whenever I'm frustrated with society's inability to comprehend my relationship, I remind myself that as long as we know what we are to each other -- whether or not there are words to describe what that is -- it doesn't matter what other people think. The language is ever changing. Perhaps one day there will be a word that perfectly describes what David and I have going on, one that not only captures our joint living and financial situation, but also accounts for the depth of our devotion to one another. Until then, my man and I will just have to wing it.