A Long Engagement


Depending how you look at it, Angie and I were engaged for eight months or eleven and a half years.

Depending when you asked us, we were anti-marriage, resentful of marriage, indifferent to marriage, or about to be married. We never thought of ourselves as engaged.

In this new time and place, people announce their plans to marry on Facebook. They change their status to “Engaged,” and people annotate their walls with glad tidings. We wanted to tell people our good news, in light of our new entitlement to federal recognition, but neither one of us could bring herself to be engaged.

The image that comes to my mind is a foot hovering above a stair. Marriage is the fabled next step, but engagement implies a kind of limbo, an almost-not-quite-there yet—the zero that comes before the one. Angie and I decided to marry in June 2013, and we finalized our vows in February 2014. No one got down on her knee and proposed. We did not wear engagement rings. By this point, the ritual seemed entirely ridiculous to me, and I’m the romantic in my relationship. Just imagine how it would have seemed to Angie. How would one of us go about “popping the question” after sharing our lives with each other for all these years? Wasn’t the question on the table already, right next to the silverware and the salt and pepper shakers? Wasn’t it part of the ongoing conversation of our lives? (Of course it was. It had always been.) We were waiting for new information on the subject, and then we had it. The conversation simply resumed.

On Bluetooth from her car, Angie said, “Do you think we should get married in light of Windsor?”

“Yes,” I said. “I do.” And then we talked a little bit about what to have for dinner. And then we said “good-bye” and “I love you.”

But here’s what I knew: We could get married, or we could not get married, and nothing about our daily lives would change. Neither would anything in our hearts. We would have access to a different set of legal possibilities, and likewise, to a different social lexicon, but everything that had happened in our relationship—our partnership—up until that moment we exchanged our vows and rings would not be recast as warm-up for the real workout, or training wheels on the big red bicycle of forever and ever, till death do us part.

In other words, when people came out of the woodwork to congratulate us on our upcoming nuptials, Angie and I shared more than a few secret eye-rolls over the stories we were told:

“So-and-So and I lived together for years, but it didn’t feel really real until we signed the papers.” What were all those mornings waking up together then, all those nights falling asleep side by side? What were all those road trips and doctors’ visits and leases and bills and celebrations and emergencies if they weren’t the Real Deal, the Genuine Article, the Program-in-Progress?

Or: “Marriage changes everything. You don’t have the option to wake up one day and just walk out the door.” I could read Angie’s mind on this one: What are you, a shut-in? Don’t you get up and walk out the door every day? One piece of paper isn’t the thing that makes you walk back in, that’s for sure.

Or: “Marriage just takes your commitment to a whole new level.”

But there wasn’t a new level for our commitment to reach. That was just it. We never thought there was another stair for us to step up, so in our life together, we had already reached the relationship landing. This is where the gay experience is different, I think, from those heterosexual couples who live together before they decide to wed. If you’ve always had the choice to marry, you can hold out, or you can give in. You can “I do” on the books, or you can “I do” off them. Take that choice away, and you build a different structure entirely. We had a sturdy ranch, and marriage for us was going to be a skylight, not a new flight of stairs.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →