Memoir

Without a Hitch

Why does tying the knot seem so close to tying the noose?

I have often thought that growing up is like drifting down the Tunnel of Love, the slumberous flumes, the air wet with lust, daylight slowly giving way as you’re swallowed by the deep throat of desire. And there’s so much time to look at the animatronic dolls in their closed-loops of ecstasy.

But the last stop on the ride is Marriage, the set-up that surprises you as your hewn and hollowed log abruptly turns the corner. The music thickens and slows, the lobby’s light burns its way closer to show how dirty the water is, and no—the dolls are not broken, that’s just how still people are when they’re watching a marathon of Law and Order: SVU. And the voice of God comes across the loudspeaker and demands you stay seated until you have come to a full and complete stop.

And then you’re pushed out into the harsh and sticky sunlight, holding your plastic bags of souvenirs you never should’ve bought and choosing to go hungry because all the food is too expensive. And whether it’s for the bathroom or the Drop of Doom, everything demands you wait in line. Waiting and waiting. Waiting so long it is all you know.

Isn’t it better to buoy forever beneath the neon pulse of cartoon hearts, amidst the Savage Garden soundtrack, getting a handjob beneath Cupid’s lifeless gaze?

The truth is my wife and I aren’t really married. We’re not even engaged.

The first time I lied about Litia’s and my matrimony was to get cheaper rent. We were moving to Fredericton and when I heard that married couples paid a better rate, the proposal practically wrote itself. When we moved out of New Brunswick and back into the twenty-first century, there wasn’t any need for me to keep using the wife word. But I did, finding a forbidden thrill in my counterfeit membership into adulthood.

Litia, however, does not call me her husband. I remain her “partner”—the same term I’d use if we were playing doubles badminton or robbing a saloon. Or worse yet, is when she doesn’t even refer to me by a noun. At the Costco Liquor Store, she’s chatting up a man offering samples of Sambuca. “May I have another?” she asks the attendant and jerks her head in my direction. “For him.”

In the wine aisle’s dark light, I interrogate her. “Why can’t you just call me your husband?” She shoots both samples and looks confused. “Because then people would think I married you.”

“I know it feels like it,” I say, following her past the Chilean vineyards, “but we’re not the only ones not getting married.”

As Statistics Canada will attest, marriage rates are in free-fall. And it’s not just a Canadian thing. Clark County, Nevada, (the county of Las Vegas) is America’s marriage capital, yet the number of licenses issued in 2014 was down 33 percent from ten years earlier. Why the hesitation? Economics, yes. But that can’t be it entirely. Prince Edward Island, the province with the country’s highest crude marriage rate (they actually call it that), has an average income comparable to a golf score. Secularization is certainly a part of it too; but while Newfoundland and BC have the same crude rate, almost half of British Columbians do not classify themselves as religious while only 6 percent of Newfoundlanders think of themselves the same. Whether you believe in science and rational thought or in a talking snake with a suspicious fondness for apples, chances are you don’t believe in marriage.

“You love fashion,” I tell Litia as she passes her magnum of Merlot to the clerk. “Us doing what we’re doing and never changing is the most fashionable thing right now.”

All our lives, we’ve been told that first comes love then comes marriage. We’ve also been told something similar with love and sex (“When a man loves a woman . . .”) but at least we’ve been able to fuck ourselves free of that cloistered virtue. But it is marriage’s proclamation of love that makes the idea of tying the knot seem so close to tying the noose.

Perhaps I should distinguish between love and happiness. The knee-jerk reaction is that love is happiness grown up. But to me, this doesn’t seem to be the case. And if I had the chance to hold more love in my life, I’m fairly confident I’d refuse.

I should say that I feel happiness because of Litia—at a minimum—at a semidiurnal rate. When she scratches my scalp, when she makes me tea, anything to do with sex. But then there are the times when happiness begins to skid, looses control, and breaks the guard rail. Then there’s love. This is a problem.

For the purpose of argument, let’s set aside genetic love—a love driven by instinct and self-recognition rather than by choice and self-detriment. Before I met Litia, I could count on one fork the amount of moments I’d loved someone in. And each time, that feeling sent a shockwave through my chest similar to that of a defibrillator—and it was only through luck and the absence of heart disease that my life started up again. One of those times involves a walk home from the bar, so it hardly counts; one was giving a dog a haircut; one was helping someone peel an orange; the last was sitting in a Humpty’s at four in the morning, myself and Jessica the diner’s only patrons. It’s hard to weave any thread through such a rag-tag of moments, but what they do have in common is that after each time, I was seized by the strangling fear that I would never be that happy again and be living out my life beneath the shadows of moments that no longer exist.

The big secret about love is that there is very little happiness in it, mostly just fear and ineptitude. Love forces you ahead of the present, into some ever-breaking future. What happens after? Who will get the kettle? Where will I put all this loneliness? Life in the unknowable weather outside the snow-globe, the threat of loss following you—quiet and dark—like those aforementioned shadows.

What does this all have to do with marriage? Very little. You can obviously have one without the other. But what marriage does do is announce your love to the world or at least to the far-reaching corners of your parents’ email list. And there’s a certain hubris in that, bragging that you can live forever with something so much larger than yourself. It all has a Tower of Babel feel.

Me? I prefer to build my life in hushed whispers, not overreaching, not getting ahead of myself, not living higher than the fire escape allows. I’m afraid that if Litia and I sing our love from the rooftops, we’ll wake the next morning wracked with guilt and speaking in different tongues.

My hesitation of marriage isn’t a fear of commitment, but rather a commitment to fear. Because fear is the heart of love.

Do I love Litia? Of course I do. That’s part of the problem. I love her like Job loved God: a worship based on dread, on adoration tangled with terror, on knowing you’re never really in control.

And then there’s the fact that monogamy is really just one rung up from celibacy.

We get into slumps. Days drag themselves by and we begin to know each other in absence rather than presence, the apartmental scars of two people who have grown too comfortable: bras drying on the lamp shade, damp towels tossed onto the bed, the fuzzed razor in the shower. And in the midst of all this, would it be too much to ask for her to sweep the fucking floor once in a while?

We were insatiable once, before the lounging comfort. But what else is marriage other than a well-upholstered couch?

Of course, I still desire her body. I still forgo the slap-on-the-wrist for touching her when I know I shouldn’t: when she’s grading report cards, talking on the phone, chopping potatoes.

And then there’s the something else of when we’re sleeping in bed and I’ll awake with the urgent need to roll over just moments before her elbow plummets onto my pillow, or how later on she’ll stay asleep as she puts her hand on my shoulder, knowing I’ve stressed myself sleepless. Our somnambulant ballet. But are there other moments, deeper ones, that only a husband and a wife can know?

An example: We are attending a house party. I am on the back patio, smoking with the host who is telling me about university politics. But what I am actually doing is looking over his shoulder and through the kitchen window to where Litia is talking with a man from school, a mutual friend of ours. To hear each other over the music, their foreheads are almost touching. In another time, another place, it would’ve been easy to see them going home together. Is there still a part of her that wanders with desire, still aches for a life other than the one she is living? He says something and the two of them laugh and I watch my wife emerge from her shell of unwashed dishes, unpaid bills, and unswept floors.

But, in raised-right-hand honesty, I really don’t mind. I enjoy it, actually. How can I fault her the attention she deserves, her taking note of the lure’s shine, her revelling in the satin-luxury of a conversation that has nothing to do with me?

His hand touches her elbow and she looks at me on the porch. We smile. But as she turns back to him she has adjusted her posture, a new and small distance.

I know she has her secrets, and she knows I have mine. Because after all, we’re only boyfriend and girlfriend. The childish ideas are right there in the names.

W hen I’m in a situation where I can’t lie, I search blindly for the truth. At the American border, the sunglassed guard asks how we know each other. I clear my throat. “Well, we’re in a committed, long-term, monogamous relationship.” Above his sunglasses, his eyebrows raise. “But you know,” I add, “we don’t really do labels.”

I’ve been referring to her as my wife for so long that I’ve had to create elaborate accounts of our wedding, honeymoon, and anniversaries. I can’t tell you the date of our actual anniversary but I can tell you when our fake one is: March 3. Since I was inventing it all, I thought I might as well make it easy to remember: 03/03/13.

The story is this: One evening, I took the dog for a walk to Litia’s mother’s house. Her name is Michelle (a name that translates into “Who is like God,” and I’m not sure if she considers that a question or a statement). I ask her if I can marry her daughter. She cries and says yes. I go home and ask Litia. She cries and says yes. Candles are involved. We have a city-hall wedding with Michelle as one witness and a guy paying a traffic ticket as the other. For our honeymoon, we go to Fiji and meet her father’s side of the family. They call me “Totoka Turaga,” a name which the internet tells me is Fijian for “Handsome Husband.” For our last anniversary, I got us tango lessons. Since I’m not a real husband, I might as well be a good one.

But after every time I tell this story (to the bus driver, the librarian, the dental hygienist) I slump into something that’s not deep enough to be called and too inexact to be anxiety. Something shallow yet sprawling, something that slightly stains everything it touches. Something like a basement flood.

Because even in make-believe, there’s an aspect of finality to marriage; it signals the end of limitless possibility, where everyone and everything is available to you, and the beginning of adulthood’s quantum singularity. There’s no more asking, “When does it happen?” It is happening now.

Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce; the other 50 percent end in death. But is it too much to ask to be in love and to live forever?

Why do I refer to her as my wife? Because it is a way of being married to her without actually being married to her. It affords me all of the good without any of the bad: the public weight and authority of matrimony without any of its private strain and liability.

But “Oh yes,” a wedding ring would say to the cashier with whom I am quibbling about the seven cent discrepancy in the price of lettuce. “Out there, in that cold and unknowable world, is someone who has chosen to be with me.”

I never told her we’d gotten hitched. For five months, it was a secret only the Fredericton landlord and I shared, which was an odd type of intimacy to have with a man who repeatedly called me Robert. She had to find out from overhearing my phone conversation. “But the shower pressure is weak,” I told the landlord, then adding, “so says my wife.” I let the word’s grave power of authority linger across the line.

A plumber was sent the next day, and I stood beneath the thick cords of water with the self-satisfied smile of those not living in sin.

On Litia’s last visit home, her grandmother gave her her old wedding band. Since then, Litia has started wearing it on her ring finger. And in that sense, she has grown tired of waiting and has married herself. Her only true equal.

Richard Kelly Kemick (richardkemick.com) is a writer and a graduate student at the University of Calgary.

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