Eight years of life together, punctuated by periodic proposals, acceptances, laughter and tears, legal victories and delays, came down to this: one of the states we domicile in will let us legally marry, and the other will not. Yet. While we wait for our home state of North Carolina to do the right thing, we decide it might be prudent – and altogether wonderful – to get married in Pennsylvania, where my sweetheart works and does her part to make our lives possible.
August 29, 2014 (in Tammerie’s words)
I drive to Philly, with all my papers in hand, and off to the courthouse we go. And what a courthouse … if you are going to a courthouse to get a marriage license, you want it to look like this: a wedding cake of a building, smack dab in the heart of the City of All-Kinds-Of-Love (not just brotherly), and – as my sweetheart noted – the cradle of liberty. A liberty that was becoming a little more ours, citizens that we are.
We wander around the building. I am trying to feel all the feelings running around my heart and soul and mind and body: calm, excited, confident, curious, sure of our task, unsure of our process. We go into the maps and information office and my beloved M asks a couple of white-haired volunteers for the ladies’ bathroom and the wedding license office, in that order. They laugh, congratulate us happily, and give us directions. I remember the card I had sent M years ago. I had written inside: “Have two people ever worked so hard just to achieve the ordinary?” And here it was. The ordinary, shot through with amazement and love, like sunlight streaking through the woods.
We walk granite-lined halls and foot-worn floors to an echoing bathroom: spotless, sunlit, an odd mix of fixtures and utilities. Our eyes meet in the mirror as we wash hands; she looks like a four-year-old headed to the circus, anxious and happy fighting for control of her face.
When we find the right lobby, security guards review our identification as we sign into the day’s register. Name, address, time, purpose … “Wedding license,” she writes. I can feel her heart turning over from two feet away. “Fourth floor,” the security officer says, handing us back our IDs. “Court of Common Pleas, Orphan Court …”
Up to the fourth floor in a tiny elevator and out into a dark, ornate hallway with offices and lesser hallways leading away. A hand-lettered sign tells us we are in the right place, but not to take out our cell phones or snap pictures inside the Orphan Court. We step through the door into a small, shabby lobby with a long counter divided into four stations. A young man and woman are standing at the counter, and we wait, looking around and reading signs. I bad wanted to take a picture of the various “No cell phones or photography” signs, but this would not be the right time to get kicked out of a government office. The people in front of us are invited to take a seat, and the young man behind the desk motions us forward. “Can I help you?”
“We’d like a marriage license,” M says. Her voice is in the upper registers. I look at her; she does not look back. He takes our driver’s licenses, social security card, my divorce decree and name change documents, and walks away. “I can’t believe this is happening.” There is such wonder in M’s voice. I grin. I am wondering, too … if we had everything we needed, or if we’d be thrown out on a technicality. The young man comes back, hands us our papers, along with a dated photocopy of our licenses. “Here you go. Give this to the person that calls you. Please have a seat.” M takes the papers and we sit down. I want to hold her hand, but she has a deathgrip on the papers. She will not meet my eyes. I know she is trying not to cry.
A clerk at the other end of the counter had motioned the young man and woman before us up to his section of counter. The urge to duck under cover of cell-phone checking is suddenly almost overwhelming. I sit back, taking in the room, my beloved M, my own feelings. There is more feeling than can fit into these moments.
I think back to the first time M had proposed to me. It was our second weekend together; she had traveled to Dallas to see me, and now I was returning the favor, on her home turf in North Carolina. We had been touring Durham and had just stepped inside Duke Chapel. As my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I took in stone archways, patches of floor riddled with rainbow light, multicolored arches of stained glass illuminating the narthex, gleaming pipes for the organ.
“I’d sure like to walk down that aisle with you someday.” Someday? Weren’t we about to … ooohhh. It took a moment to register. Did she mean what I thought she meant? I turned to look at her face, eyes opaqued by the sunglasses she was still wearing. She did mean it. Our third date, and she had just proposed.
My mind returning to the Orphans Court, I think of the kids, wondering what they are doing, what they will think, now that we were moving from “someday” to “today” … or something close to it. The people at the counter were standing up, drawing my eyes and thoughts back to the room.
The clerk said, “Next couple.”
That’s us that’s us that’s us that’s us that’s us that’s us that’s us that’s us!
I try to feel every step. Slow the moments down. Look at M’s face. The clerk glances through our paperwork, and turns his computer screen where we could see it. “I just want to let you know that system still says groom and bride, but your marriage certificate won’t.” He asks about our names, our parents’ names, communicable diseases, prior marriages. He types and types, slowly, and I want to wrest the keyboard from his hands. He takes our $80. M’s voice is still climbing the walls.
It is sinking in to me that we have gotten this far because it is legal for us to go the rest of the way, and we are going to. We have said the right things, brought the right papers, paid the right money. But it’s not about us doing the right things; it’s about our rights. We could have tried to do all the same things in North Carolina and walked away empty handed. This is just proceeding apace, so normally, so casually, so ordinary an action, that will end up changing … everything? Nothing? How we see the world? How the world sees us?
I am very aware of the many people in our nation who have rights that are not respected, who have rights but not justice. This is a small drop in a large ocean of rights that need respecting. In my joy I want not to forget the work we all have left to do.
After the clerk has us review his data entry, he stands and says he’ll be right back. I look over at M, and she finally looks at me, and her eyes began to fill up. She turns away again as the clerk comes back, holding out a beige certificate with a red seal on it. “Here’s your wedding certificate!” he says, beaming. M’s hands fly up to cover her face. I take the paper from the grinning clerk, trying to listen to his instructions. Valid in three days, good for sixty, signature here, copies there. It’s a blur. Joy obliterates everything. He says “Congratulations!” I shake his hand, thank him, and follow M, who is dashing for the anonymity of the hallway.
We drive home to North Carolina, license to thrill tucked safely away. We spend the weekend making up an announcement – date TBD – and a list of people to send it to. How very, very ordinary … it makes us laugh, and cry, and shake our heads in amazement.