As a girl, all I ever wanted in life was for my dream man to ride up on a horse or BMW, get on one knee, and profess his love for me while opening a tiny velvet box to reveal a ring so bright and shiny that every woman within a five-mile radius would sense the sparkling stones and swoon. I grew up believing, as many women do, that if a man did not propose by the time I reached a certain age, there was something wrong with me.
When David first told me he had no interest in marriage, I was crushed. Embarrassed. Rejected. "He's got one foot out the door," people whispered. "He'll come around," some said. But after the initial shock of learning that the man I fell in love with didn't want me in the way I'd always imagined he would, I came to understand that "not wanting to get married" does not equal "not willing to commit." Now I find myself explaining the difference to close family members and distant acquaintances. The trouble is, I myself am only half convinced.
"What are the cons of marriage?" Heather asked, after I'd explained to her that I didn't want to get married and that one of the major reasons people marry is for social acceptance.
"Well, if you're not religious, one of the cons is that marriage is a religious institution," I replied. My sister Heather was married in a Catholic church. I call her almost every day to discuss books we read and share, and any other topics that bob above water in our waves of conversation.
"What about civil ceremonies?" she asked. I had asked David the same question two weeks ago.
"If civil ceremonies have no religious significance, then why can't gay people get married?" My response was an echo of David's answer to me.
"Barb, I still don't get it. There are atheists who get married civilly," Heather said.
I didn't have a response for that; I honestly hadn't thought much beyond the gay quip. So I tried another tactic. "David's got a philosophy about not getting married. It means a lot to him that I can walk out the door any time I'd like without any negative repercussions or penalties, and that I am with him for no other reason than that I want to be with him. He likes the idea of our love being string-free or something."
"But aren't you guys going to have a commitment ceremony? And didn't you tell me that you were having paperwork drawn up by a lawyer to give you the same rights as a married couple? If you're doing all that, why not just get married?"
"Yeah," I said. "But it's different."
"How? I mean, isn't it all just semantics at that point?"
I was stumped and felt the urge to defend myself, so I explained to Heather that I don't like the word "wife" and that I bristle at traditional family values. My need for her approval blinded me to the fact that she is a married mother of two and that I was basically expecting her to denounce her own choices to praise mine. I told her that David and I didn't need to have a third party confirm our commitment. She pointed out how contradictory this sounded, considering our plans for a public commitment ceremony.
Finally, my mother beeped through on Heather's other line and we said we'd pick up the conversation later. I sat and thought about what I'd said. I remembered dozens of conversations in the last year in which I'd professed my disdain for marriage and stood behind David's opinions as if they were my own. Then it dawned on me -- they weren't. I didn't believe a word of what I'd said. Not one word.
David bounded up the stairs when he heard my tortured sobs. He kneeled by my chair, put his arms around me, and asked what happened in a soft, soothing voice.
"I've been lying to myself," I said. He didn't have to ask about what.
"I know that you've listened to me when I've given you my reasons for not wanting to get married, and that you've tried to understand them and make them your own. Perhaps, intellectually, you've been able to come to terms with that, but the truth is if I were to ask you to marry me right now, I think you'd be thrilled."
This terribly accurate insight voiced by the same person from whom I thought I had hidden it so well pierced my chest like a cold dagger, stealing my breath for a moment before I let it out again, hard and fast, through ragged gasps and renewed tears. David quickly fetched toilet paper to sop up the wetness leaking from my face.
"I... don't... believe what... I've... been saying," I said, my words punctuated by intakes of air. "I... don't... understand. I don't know that I ever will."
"You know I love you," David said.
"Yeah," I said, my voice taking on an edge of cynicism. "You love me. But how do I explain that to other people? Especially... when... you don't... even... want to... marry me?"
"I want to be with you," he said. "You already know how I feel. I don't care what other people think. I don't tell them how I think they should live their lives or how they should express their commitment to their partners and I don't like it when they try to tell me how I should do the same."
We'd been through this all before. The only difference was that in the past, I would nod and agree. But this time, I needed to be convinced more than anyone that the man I loved did not, as they say, "have one foot out the door." Why did I feel this way? Am I that affected by what other people think? Am I that insecure about our relationship? I asked myself if marriage was a deal-breaker and felt a sure no . I want to be with David -- tiny velvet box or no tiny velvet box.
As he wiped away more tears with the tissue, I guided myself through a mental checklist, the same way I did the first time he told me we would never be getting married. We just bought a home together, I reminded myself. We're with each other 24/7. We will have all of the same rights, through legal paperwork, that any other married couple has. He is with me. What more do I need? What more could I ask for than the love I'm receiving day in and day out? I shushed the inner voice that began chanting tiny velvet box , and looked my partner in the eyes for the first time since he'd rushed to my side.
"It doesn't matter to me," I said.
"I don't believe you," David said, his eyes wet, his mouth smiling. "But that's okay. I love you. I want to be with you."
"I know, beh beh. I know."