Aja Michael and Michele Keller met in college at 20 and 21 years old, a decade ago. On Oct. 26, 2007, they had a civil union in Vermont. Then, last Wednesday afternoon, a judge in Indiana overturned the gay marriage ban. Suddenly, without fanfare or warning, we were living in a state where gay marriage was legal. So they wed again, on June 25, 2014, in the Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne.
When a wedding is planned, people -- OK, brides -- tend to stress about things like the bridesmaid dresses, the perfect bracelet, the centerpieces, the venue, the boutonniere, the seat covers. The list could fill a painfully boring novel.
But when a gay couple living in a conservative state learn their home will suddenly recognize their union, they leave work and race to the courthouse. Aja and Michele “planned” their wedding in about an hour. Their list of “things” is a little shorter than a more traditional wedding’s list, where there is a proposal, and an engagement period, and a legal ceremony in front of a hundred friends and family.
But sometimes, “shorter” means “sweeter.”
The blue bib necklace
Aja and I work together, and Wednesday afternoon, she walked into my office and asked, “Did you hear?” I hadn’t. “A judge overturned the gay marriage ban in Indiana.” As I read the story on NPR, I cried. She beamed.
“I’ve already cried,” she said.
Over the next few minutes, her office was a bustle of phone calls and planning and questions. Before I knew it, she was rushing out the door, telling us bye, she was off to get married. She didn’t want to wait in case the decision was stayed, pulling Indiana, newly introduced into the 21st century, back into the old country.
“Wait!” I stopped her, unhooking my necklace. “Do you want something blue and borrowed?”
The dollar bill
A courthouse marriage, it appears, costs $40, two $20 transactions. Aja and Michele filled out the appropriate forms on a computer in the courthouse; talked to an employee; smiled at other gay couples getting their marriage certificates, too; followed another employee to a small, stuffy room. The two disappeared down a hallway, and I waited outside with my coworker Sandra and her boyfriend Kyle. A few minutes later, Michele jogged back out to the waiting room.
“Does anyone have a dollar?” she asked, hands out, fingers splayed.
Sandra and I dug in our purses, but a woman we didn’t know, who had a fistfull of dollars -- for just such an emergency? -- handed one to Michele.
It epitomized the feeling in the courthouse: One of giving, of generosity, of selfless love. I have never wanted to hug so many strangers in my life. So many lives and loves were about to be legally validated that day in that place. The feeling in that small waiting room was one of excited expectation as everyone chattered. When a courthouse employee yelled at us to “Keep it down, people are working,” no one even minded.
For a wedding planned in an hour or less, Aja and Michele could not have asked for a more beautiful location: jade green marble pillars, mosaic glass ceiling, lush paintings of the forefathers lining the tops of the walls.
After waiting for a few minutes, a judge walked in, a young man in a suit with a shaved head. He asked where the women wanted to be wed -- ”Right here?” -- and noted their rings. He read through the ceremony quickly. I wish he had taken his time and allowed the words and their meaning to wash over the couple before him, and over the three friends in attendance. A photographer from the local newspaper was present, so portions of the ceremony are online, which means I can listen to the judge’s words again with the aid of a pause button:
“I do now therefore with the authority and laws by the state of Indiana vested in me as the magistrate of the Allen Superior Court pronounce you wife and wife. May the blessings of love and good fortune, health and happiness be with you always.”
I saw Michele’s eyes when the judge said “wife and wife.” I saw Aja’s in the video. And I know mine mirrored theirs: In addition to the glassy sheen of tears, our eyes widened. “Wife and wife.” Eleven letters, a lifetime of a difference.
After the ceremony, the five of us walked into the hallway. A row of windows let the sunshine in, and it filled the hall like a sixth addition to our happy party.
“Does anyone have a pen?” Michele asked, and I handed her the novelty click pen in my purse. It’s almost comically fat with a big orange ball on the end and a plastic accordion that folds when you click it. Blue, yellow, pink, and red flowers circle the fat portion you hold to write.
They signed their marriage certificate. “Jaclyn, you’re a witness. Sign here.”
The legal proof of the most important thing I’ve ever done took four seconds. It took Sandra about four seconds, too. Michele’s future grandchildren will not understand this, because witnessing a gay marriage will be no different than witnessing a straight one.
When Aja and Michele walked out of the courthouse, a small group of people began to cheer. Three more coworkers had been sitting outside, waiting and collecting cell phones from the grooms and brides who forgot the courthouse is a cell-free zone. One woman brought tissues.
“Want your first official photo as wife and wife now?” As one woman snapped pictures, another woman with a little girl walked up with two small bouquets wrapped in paper, a sunset-orange tiger lily surrounded by a purple spray of tiny blooms.
“Did you guys just get married? These are for you. Congratulations!”
Just then, two men walked out of the courthouse.
“We can’t keep both,” Michele said, chasing the couple. “Did you just get married?” She handed her flowers to one of the men, congratulated them, hugged them.
The wedding cake
Minutes later, a different woman with a different little girl walked up. They had a dozen cupcakes from a local bakery.
“Congratulations!” she said, and she handed Michele and Aja a white cupcake with white frosting and small white edible pearls.
“How should we do this?” Aja asked. She unwrapped the cupcake and held it between her wife and herself. They considered the small cake for a moment and then each took a huge bite.
“Anyone want some?” Aja asked as she chewed, holding up the slim middle piece of cake with two giant bite marks missing.
“I got frosting up my nose,” Michelle said.
Two bottles of Moscato
Unsure which area bar would have champagne, we tried a local favorite.
“We just got married,” Aja beamed. She had that bridal glow. Everyone who has seen a photo has pointed it out.
The waitress congratulated them, but no dice on the bubbly. Aja ordered Moscato instead, and the waitress provided champagne flutes. Aja called her best friend, and we all heard her scream, “WHAT?!” Five minutes later, she joined us.
Aja and Michele’s reception of eight women and one man fit around a large round table. Aja asked their friend Kim to perform another wedding, later down the line, one where Aja might wear a beautiful white dress and Michele might wear a sharp tuxedo. The reception that follows might have hors d'oeuvres, maybe a pasta dish or stuffed chicken, or a steak. It will likely have actual champagne.
But today, at this reception, we feasted on catfish bites, burgers, nachos, and sweet white wine. Gourmet? No. But every bite was perfect because we were celebrating something that would have been impossible just a day before. Every bite was historic.
Editorial note: On Friday afternoon, a Federal Appeals Court issued a stay on the overturning of Indiana's ban, stopping any further same-sex marriages and putting the marriages that have already taken place in legal limbo. Although the marriage licenses obtained by same-sex couples during those three days were legal, whether the state of Indiana has to continue to recognize them is now in question. For more information, see the website of Indiana same-sex marriage advocacy group Hoosiers Unite for Marriage or the Indiana branch of the ACLU.