Marriage Proposal Follies

After she proposes to her girlfriend, Amy Deneson rethinks what it means to wed.

Amy Deneson | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,022 words)

 

This will be the day

That you will hear me say

That I will never run away

– Prince, Diamonds and Pearls

 

On the day New York State legalized same-sex marriage, I proposed to my girlfriend in the New York Times Modern Love column. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The column’s editor, Daniel Jones, had emailed me to request an essay he’d previously rejected for being too political. He explained the paper was dedicating part of every section in the Sunday edition to Marriage Equality. “If it’s not already committed elsewhere, there isn’t much time.”

I accepted his retraction and, being a personal-is-political kind of lesbian, sent back a few additions to his notes and ended the revision with a marriage proposal.

“Are you sure?” Jones called. “This will be the column’s first.”

“I’m ready, if you are, Dan.”

He recommended I find a way share the piece with her before Thursday, when the digital edition went live. “You want her to be the first to know.”

***

Day of Marriage Proposal, 2011

Melinda, my girlfriend of five years, friend of 13 years, made dinner to celebrate my publication. My favorite: her burgers. We set our table in the home we had made. Happily, she zipped around, sporting gym shorts and an undershirt with ripped off sleeves, her clipped coif, free of styling wax — Melinda’s inside look. I puttered, pacing circles in our railroad apartment. Sweat bloomed a pattern around my evergreen sundress, my scalp dank beneath where I’d pulled my hair into a loose topknot. I gulped. My grip sent ripples through my beer, the lager glass chilled but beading against the mid-summer humidity seeping through our window’s AC unit. I gulped. And gulped.

“I’m sure it’ll be great,” Melinda said, probably assuming I was nervous about being in the Times, my grandest writing accomplishment, yet.

The plan was for me to read it to her after dinner.

Melinda finished her burger. I might’ve eaten two without noticing. We moved from the table to our couch. I had printed out the final draft hours earlier and kept the pages hidden, even though Melinda was at work.

“Is it so different from the ones I’ve read?”

She was my first reader, but beyond the page, Melinda lived much of my work before our days became stories. Wryly, she rued the reality that she, someone so intensely private, a virtual recluse in the era of social media, fell for a woman with the compulsion to write about her love life.

On the day New York State legalized same-sex marriage, I proposed to my girlfriend in the New York Times Modern Love column.

The title was out of my hands; so, I started reading my Modern Love column-to-be about having a love-hate relationship with my ring-finger for over half my life. On my 13th birthday, my evangelical parents presented me with a purity ring, a heart-shaped blue topaz, my birthstone, which represented my commitment to staying a virgin until my holy, white wedding night.

Melinda touched my knee as I read about bucking against this ring and its multifaceted symbolism through my experimental teens and bisexual-ish twenties. She leaned her head against the couch cushion, dreamily, when I described her as: The woman I have loved since the day we met. The one I would choose over all, even family, if necessary. Melinda scooched closer at the scary part, where she was kept overnight in the hospital, and we lied about being domestic partners, hoping I might be permitted to stay. That night she asked me to be her domestic partner for real.

My fingerprints dampened the pages.

Melinda commended Jones’s edit. “Smooth.”

We grinned together, as I recounted our moment at the courthouse, when the clerk offered to “just tick” the marriage box. We balked. Marriage for us was still illegal in 2010; we actually wanted the rights that came with partnership.

In previous drafts, I’d concluded with a platitude along the lines of hating how my bare ring-finger might suggest a lesser devotion, how I loved that everything a wedding ring symbolized, Melinda and I already had. We could wait for our union to be legal.

A day like today, I read, then looked up, made eye contact, and recited: Melinda, will you marry me?

She bolted forward. “Is that in there?”

Nodding, I lowered the block of pages between us and pointed to the proposal in black-and-white print.

“It’s going to be published like that?”

“Hopefully.”

A siren tore down our block. We stared at one another.

“I don’t believe in marriage,” Melinda said, “you know this.”

I did. But in the rush of publishing and history and our happiness, I thought maybe it would feel — “I don’t know,” as they say, “just different.” Her disgust at the systemic discrimination of women and queers might be eclipsed this once by romance.

“Yes…” Melinda said, her voice level as a dotted line, “of course…,” she paused, “if it will make you happy.”

I exhaled breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding. My heart bounced, as if I were swimming toward the surface after touching bottom. I waded. Treading, because being with Melinda felt like floating in water warmer than the air; I never wanted to get out.

“Of course,” I mumbled. But would it? Make me happy?

***

Beach Day, 2008

Truth be told: Melinda had already said yes — in a way.

Years before, on vacation, Melinda and I found a table on the terrace of The News Café in South Beach. We waved off the Times, needing to take a break from Proposition 8 headlines. We gazed at Ocean Drive. Our conversation was breezy. Our mood bright as the kind of Miami day we’d hoped for to break up the February doldrums back home in New York.

I noticed an aerial banner, being pulled across the coastline, and read it aloud as it came in to view: “WILL U MARRY ME…?” As I turned to scoff — surely, I surmised the proposer could have sprung for the Y and O in YOU! — I discovered Melinda, frozen, her head bowed, her fork and knife stuck in the crust of her quiche.

She looked up, startled, but, with the assurance of a woman who knew there would be a pre-nup, she answered, “Yes?”

GABI,” I said, pointing at the banner. “Some cheapskate is asking Gabi to get married.”

We laughed at the misunderstanding.

“I couldn’t imagine you’d ask me…” she chewed, “like this. Here. When we’re wearing sweats.” And she had a piece of spinach in her teeth.

We laughed some more: her chuckle tinged with relief; mine with shock. I’d never imagined asking her. Or that she’d say yes.

On that perfect day of clear blue bliss, we rented a convertible and drove down through the Florida Keys. I brooded beside Melinda, counting the landmark mile-markers to zero, and wondering how we would mark the progress of our relationship without the milestones of fiancée, bride, and wife to move toward. Our destination seemed to fall off into the watery unknown at the bottom of America

***

Night of Marriage Proposal, 2011

Melinda and I went to bed. We held one another in our way but didn’t feel close. Her heart was racing, her neck heated, short hairs bristling.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m freaking out,” she said in the darkness. “I’m trying not to but I am.”

“I know.”

“No. I’m really freaking out.”

“We don’t have to do anything,” I told her.

“I said yes.”

If. She said, if it would make me happy. I pictured her miserable, putting on a good face, in a suit she’d gladly don for another occasion, gritting her teeth at an institution she didn’t want to patronize, making pledges she believed devalued women, and vowing commitments that paled in comparison to her bringing me coffee in bed every single morning.

Melinda had a point. We were on the same page about web-ordained officiants and commitment celebrations not being for us, whereas we were all in on joint bank accounts, life insurance policies, and annual honeymoon-esque vacations. But I wanted a reception. White tulips and lilacs. A dance to Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” I wanted to celebrate finding her, choosing her — being chosen.

‘Yes…’ Melinda said, her voice level as a dotted line, ‘of course…,’ she paused, ‘if it will make you happy.’

My teenage purity ring had left a mark. The heart-shaped gemstone was packed away as part of my religious childhood, but the vision of myself being someone’s bride, albeit a non-traditional one, had impressed itself into my core sense of self.

See! said the voice of my parents I’d internalized for decades. We told you there was only one straight and narrow aisle to the altar.

See! echoed ex-boyfriends or girlfriends who’d told me I wasn’t marriage material because I was a slut or self-absorbed or prone to demanding my way or hitting the highway.

See! Actually, Vidjeti! in the native tongue of my Croatian Motherland. Where I heard every woman, back to the beginning of my lineage, chorusing from our ancestral village, where Melinda and I once visited and dusted off surnames on graves, while I half-wondered if she might propose, all imploring me now: How do you stay with someone who doesn’t want to marry you?

***

The Thursday before publication, 2011

I am here for you

Love is meant for two

Now tell me what you’re gonna do

The print edition wouldn’t be out until the weekend, but on Thursday, “Ring-Finger Follies” went live on the Times website. The accompanying illustration by Brian Rea was surprisingly dear. A link to the Modern Love column was shared on the newspaper’s Facebook page. Likes and shares mounted, along with comments of cheer. My heartbeat thumped between validation and dismay. I shared the links.

Our cell phones lit up with group texts.

CONGRATULATIONS!!

OMG! We love you!!!

YES!! MY BRIDES!

Rainbows of heart emojis bubbled and bubbled on our screens.

Well-wishes continued as word spread.

A #LesbianRelationshipGoals hashtag or the like was happening on Twitter. I wouldn’t join Twitter for another two years, but then Melinda read the comments aloud, shielding me, while I winced.

A stranger, also named Melinda, accepted my proposal, my Melinda told me, “with many exclamation points.”

@bookladysblog pointed out an egregious typo.

“Read to the kicker,” a favorite journalist reported.

Emails were forwarded from the Times. Many expressed their happiness for us, for New York (finally!), for all LGBTQ people. “Love won!”

We kept our ambivalence to ourselves. We saw no reason to ruin the moment for them.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Melinda, late on Saturday morning. We were still in bed. A shared croissant sat between us, crumbling, before the print edition was even out.

“I’m being an asshole, I know,” Melinda said, as she texted back Thx! to her colleague. “I don’t want to be a downer. This is your moment. Being in the Modern Love column was your dream.”

I nodded with a frown.

“We should tell our families.”


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They didn’t read the Times, but we wanted to be the ones to share the news, before anyone happened to get wind of it in the Midwest. Melinda’s mom cried with joy and then thrilled over the thought of a wedding. My parents were Wall Street Journal subscribers, but per Jones’ suggestion, I express-mailed them a copy as a courtesy, since they were mentioned. My mom breached our estrangement and called. I picked up only to hear her wonder aloud if the readers of such a press could possibly understand the pathos behind our purity ring, while Dad listened silently on the other line.

What’d she say? everyone else wanted to know.

“Yes,” I told them. “She said yes…”

When’s the big day?

***

***

The following Sunday, 2011

“This is our time!” Our neighbor, held the elevator, waving his Sunday paper. “We’ve fought so long for this.”

Our best couple friends framed the column for us.

My boss expected a signed copy.

“When’s the day?” they kept asking.

“Oh, we’re in no rush,” we said for the rest of 2011.

“We’re waiting for our anniversary to land on a Saturday,” we said through 2012. When it did in 2013, around the time the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, we said we were waiting for federal recognition. We didn’t want to be jerked around like our California community suffering under the Prop 8 rulings.

“Maybe, if we buy a place.”

“Maybe, if we have kids.”

“Maybe, if…”

Most assumed we just got married. Dan Jones did in his book Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers). In a sub-section called “The Unintentional Admission,” he recounted the story of me criticizing GABI’s proposal in South Beach. A story he knew because I had submitted it to him for consideration, and he had regretfully passed on publishing it, saying the scene didn’t really have an ending.

In his 2014 book, he described Melinda as “misty-eyed” and concluded: “But after laughing at the fumbled exchange, they realized that an accepted marriage proposal had been floated between them — the desire and vulnerability had been exposed — and it had to be dealt with one way or another.”

He presumed the ending, as so many did. “So not long after, as soon as their state decided to allow same-sex couples to marry, that’s exactly what they did.”

The (assumed and mistaken) reality of our lives became subject to the collective myths and storytelling about first comes love, then comes marriage…and few wanted to believe in another way. Myself, included.

When the federal Marriage Bill passed in 2015, I was working at an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.

“Now?” a younger colleague asked with tears in her eyes. “Now, will you and Melinda get married?” When I’d interviewed her for the job, she called me a “celesbian”, telling me she’d shared my Modern Love link on her blog, Gay Writes.

I hugged her by way of a response.

It wasn’t until a 2016 spring wedding, when answering my friend in a shimmering dress, her butch in tails, that I finally forced out the truth: “I don’t think we’re going to do that.”

The (assumed and mistaken) reality of our lives became subject to the collective myths and storytelling about first comes love, then comes marriage…

I thought twice when people started getting married to resist the 45th president, bracing themselves against the administration and their Supreme Court nominees.

By 2018, I considered letting it all go. Parallels between the True Love Waits movement of my youth and the Love Wins movement of my adulthood merged into a same-same-but-different marriage plot. It was another myth I now felt complicit in perpetuating. The singular pursuit had wound me full-circle around a ring. Unbending my mind, I started to imagine myself as someone other than someone’s bride.

But before all this.

Back to that Sunday in 2011

On July 24, 2011, Melinda and I went to the courthouse. We took a break from tag-teaming responses to my publication and proposal and went to celebrate the marriage of others. The Manhattan Marriage Bureau held special Sunday hours, so couples didn’t have to wait one more unnecessary day.

We walked Eighth Avenue through Chelsea. Drag brunches were done up in bunting, offering Champagne toasts. A techno remix of “Going to the Chapel” blared on repeat. A storefront mannequin, dom-ing a leather harness, had put on a top hat. Veils blew. Confetti flew.

“I love the gays!” was proclaimed from a fire escape.

Chelsea was only supposed to be our starter neighborhood. But we were smitten and couldn’t bear the thought of moving. Melinda and I whooped through our community on our way to cheer for the wives and husbands as they exited the courthouse. For the occasion, I wore the iconic I *heart* NY shirt on which I wrote, “DO,” in the heart with black marker to read: I DO.

“Yes, you do, boo!” a queen called after us.

Downtown, Worth Street was jubilant. We found spots near the media risers. Each time newlyweds burst through the courthouse doors, a roar rose, registering every octave of the riots, rallies, marches, parades, protests, petitions, pledges, broadcasts, pleas, grandstanding, commercials, sobs, and sworn testimonies this moment had required. Bells rang. A dandy playing a violin waltzed. Keys tinkled like silverware on goblets.

“Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” we chanted.

Husbands wearing linen and leis obliged.

Wives, hair white as their bridal suits, gave us a good one.

Swoons went up like rice.

Wives held signed certificates for us to see.

Husbands tossed bouquets.

“This is amazing,” Melinda said, flushed around her baseball cap. “I’m so happy for them.” She had no problem toasting to other people’s marriage, as long as it didn’t affect us.

“Oh, hang on.” We exchanged apprehensive glances over the young men in matching tux-printed tank tops. “Might be a bit quick for those two.”

I was happy to wish them the best, these brides and grooms, along with every bride and groom, who have ever invited me to share their nuptials. I believed in love and expressing it loud and proud. As a guest, I managed my mixed emotions — delight, envy, disappointment, enchantment — bittersweet as the extra satchels of color coordinated chocolate kisses I might have snatched.

Those days, I consoled myself with the Prince lyrics; marriage for us was illegal, therefore: All I can do is just offer you my love. But today we could do more.

Jazzy husbands snapped in-sync down the courthouse steps.

If I didn’t follow in their footsteps, was I letting down my queer community, many of whom were my chosen-family? In a similar way to departing from the ideals of my blood-family, I felt myself once again at a crossroads, torn, trying to decide what was the right direction for me and my love. I couldn’t imagine leaving Melinda or staying — when knowing she didn’t want to marry me felt akin to not being able to envision where we could possibly go from here, or who we might become.

A honking cab whisked away a couple, waving like Pride marshals.

“Look at those wives!” Melinda said. Her applause cut through me like claps to the heart.

Wife was the word that meant everything to me. Beyond the dance and public declarations, what meant most to me was being able to call her my wife — not my girlfriend, not my partner and have our relationship confused as colleagues — but to say we’re wives and have us be understood.

“Hey,” Melinda whispered. My flyaway strands stuck to her lip and she tugged me closer as she spoke. “I said yes. Twice,” she joked gently. “Remember?”

“I do.” But I didn’t want to marry her if it meant I was happy and she was sad. The thought of her feeling strong-armed by me, in my fantasy gunmetal-lavender gown, and The Gray Lady ruined the day. If we were going grow old together, I was committed to our happiness — not mine, alone.

At home, I tossed my homemade script tee in the laundry and didn’t think of it again until I pulled Melinda’s favorite pair of white jeans out of the wash, and they were covered in dark clouds, as were our gym socks and briefs.

“My shirt! The marker must have bled,” I cried, showing Melinda what I’d done. “It was supposed to be permanent.” I crumpled her jeans like paper. “I ruined everything! I destroyed us with my stupid proposal and that fucking t-shirt!”

I wrecked us and a whole load of whites.

Melinda reassured me things would probably be fine. We’d run the load through the wash, again. We were okay. We’d figure it out, she said, juking this way and that to catch the pieces I pelted at the trash.

“We’ll make our own way.” She let the offending t-shirt, balled up like a bad draft, fly by. “We always have.”

***

First Day of Study Abroad, 1998

Melinda and I met in London on the first day of study abroad my sophomore year of college, her junior. We arrived later than other students from the University of Minnesota, because we’d skipped the group flight. I did because my rah-rah responsibilities as a new student camp counselor ran long; Melinda did because she didn’t cop to all that togetherness.

First to the room, I was staring out the hostel window, inhaling the reality that I was in Kensington! An ashtray on the windowsill gave me permission to smoke. I slowly rolled a cigarette, contemplating whether I wanted the top or bottom bunk, when the door behind me burst open. The flame on my lighter’s tip danced. The sheer curtains billowed. A shred of loose tobacco fluttered to the floor.

There, in the open doorway, she stood, simmering with anticipation. Her eyes bright. Her expression teeming as the ocean we’d just flown over. Her look was so queer, so cool, like she’d ducked out of a Soul Coughing concert to catch the plane. Her vintage button-down, the material of boxer shorts. Her freckles darling. Her jaw strong. Her honey-colored curls calling out for me to come get stuck.

“Hi, I’m Mel.” She hoisted up her backpack that wasn’t even stuffed — as if she knew exactly who she was, where she was going, and what she would need when she got there. “I live with you.”

My mouth fell open. The cigarette went forgotten between my fingers. I propelled myself across the carpeting, past my slumping pack, straining to contain, amongst other things, a sequined dress, camping equipment, and more books than underwear, or pants, as I’d soon learn they were called in the UK. I closed the space between us as fast as my Doc Martens could clomp and embraced her, pack and all. She hugged back.

In a similar way to departing from the ideals of my blood-family, I felt myself once again at a crossroads, torn, trying to decide what was the right direction for me and my love.

When I finally remembered my name, I told her. Even though it felt, oddly, as if we already knew one another. Not as in we recognized one another from our campus of a zillion students, but as in, we had actually known one another, in past lives, and we were finally meeting in this one. I wasn’t even sure I believed in multiple lives, but it was the only way to express the magnetism of the moment and how immediate the realization was that in her I saw the blinking inkling of the life I wanted to live. Wherever she was, I wanted to be.

Cliché! It was such a cliché to fall in love on the first day of study abroad.

“Ah-broad,” friends would drawl out, whenever we told our story. “So lesbian.”

“Such baby dykes.”

Melinda was; I wasn’t. At the time, I was trying to come out as sexual at all, before adding prefixes. Plus, we were only in London for the weekend, a welcome orientation. Afterwards Melinda went south to Brighton’s party school to continue acing her women’s studies degree, and I went north, near the Lake District, to wander after literature and wear wool.

We became friends, then roommates, then business partners briefly in one of my ventures, for which I made Melinda business cards with the title North Star. When we finally came together as a couple, we had so many days to choose from to celebrate, but we decided to make our anniversary the first day we met.

The day in September when Melinda nodded toward the open window and asked: “Wanna go get lost and find our way back?”

***

Laundry Day, 2011

There will come a time
When love will blow your mind
And everything you’ll look for you’ll find (take a look inside)

From the moment Melinda pulled out the stain-stick eraser and went to work on her favorite jeans, along with everything else worth salvaging, I began to see us anew.

How Melinda envisioned us was way more modern than my ancient fairytale of love. The answer to how I stayed with someone who didn’t want to marry me would unfold in the years to come in every moment we locked eyes and chose not to run away. There would be no marriage plot. No nursery rhyme. No mythical storybook ending. To see how it all turned out, we’d have to stay with it. Our ever after that may well take a lifetime to write.

And yes. The marker came out.

* * *

Amy Deneson is a writer in New York via the Heartland. Her essays have contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, Bust, Salon, Curve magazine, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton