On our nine-year anniversary, Nathan and I went out to dinner at our favorite sushi restaurant. After our wine had been poured but before the appetizers arrived, he slid a card across the table. I tried to skim the inscription, but my eyes were drawn immediately to the question scrawled at the bottom of the page. As I realized what was happening, my heart started to pound and I felt my face begin to flush. “Will you marry me?” read the small, precise print. “Circle yes or no.”
Nathan and I met as undergrads at Purchase College, the art school of New York’s state university system. He was temporarily homeless, living in a tent in the woods while waiting for a bed to open up in the dorms. I was a studying poetry and fiction, a wannabe-hippie with a wardrobe that consisted mostly of brown corduroy. After our first conversation, Nathan proved to be smart, adventurous, and unpredictable. He was also good-looking, with blond hair, blue eyes, and forearms sculpted from weekends spent rock climbing.
On one of our first dates we went rappelling in the Natural Sciences building -- an activity that was slightly dangerous and probably illegal -- and as I lowered myself down the stairwell, attached to a rope, wearing a harness, and inexplicably trusting a boy a barely knew, I realized Nathan was the perfect balance to my bookish personality.
We promptly fell in love, positive we’d be together forever. There was just one problem -- we were only 20 years old.
The fact that we were so young didn’t stop us from being hopeless romantics. On the contrary, it encouraged it. We sent each other long love letters when we were apart, passionately discussed where we’d buy our first home, vehemently insisted we’d still be hot, even when we were 92 and wrinkly, and pledged our everlasting devotion to one another on a weekly basis.
But as the years ticked by, there was no talk of a wedding, no talk of a ring. The word “engagement” made me panicky, even as friends and family began asking about our plans for the future. Each time, I shrugged my shoulders, smiled and said we didn’t want to rush forever.
On the rare occasions Nathan was questioned, mostly by his parents who were itching to welcome their first grandchild, he said the same. You see, even though we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, we had no desire to get married. Not then, and maybe not ever.
When I talked about marriage, with Nathan or with my girlfriends, I had a list of reasons to explain why it wasn’t for me. Marriage was just a piece of paper, rampant divorce had rendered it moot, gay marriage was illegal and that was ridiculous, it had been used as a tool to oppress women for centuries. (I was a ton of fun at bridal showers, let me tell you.)
And while my reasons were logical, founded on evidence and hearsay, there was something else at work. The truth -- the one I didn’t like to admit, not even to myself -- was that marriage scared the shit out of me.
I knew I was being paranoid. I understood that marriage between two loving and committed people was a beautiful thing. I had plenty of married friends who were perfectly happy, even the ones who’d gotten hitched at 19, or eloped after dating for less than year. My parents were still married. So were Nathan’s. A few years earlier, I’d danced at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, watched them lovingly feed one another bites of cake, and thought to myself, “I want that.”
But as wonderful as marriage can be, the fact remains that it’s an institution loaded with pressure, for better and for worse. When you’re 20, 25, even 28, promising to love someone seems impossible, and sort of unfair.
Those nights when Nathan was asleep beside me, our dog curled up at the end of the bed, I’d wonder about the future. We were so young and had so much growing up to do -- what if we grew apart, or in different directions? What if being in a long-term relationship somehow stunted us? Nathan and I loved each other as we were in that moment -- what if the fear of losing that love made us stagnant, unwilling to take risks or embrace change?
The way I saw it, a relationship was fluid, held together by a thread that was relatively easy to cut. A marriage, on the other hand, connected two people with a noose. Too much wriggling, worrying, or wandering, and you were a goner.
It seemed safer to stay the course, and so we did. Years passed. We adopted a second dog. We moved from Texas to North Carolina. We got a KitchenAid mixer, which seemed to me the height of adulthood. We weathered hurricanes -- some literal, others figurative. We grew. We changed. We matured. And through it all, we continued to love one another.
Somewhere around year six, while daydreaming about the future, we discussed how we should celebrate our 10th anniversary. A decade was a long time, we agreed, and it deserved something big. A trip to Europe? A bicycle ride across the United States? A wedding? Any of those would be fun, we decided, and we talked about the various options on and off for the next few years. But as our ninth anniversary approached, we stopped talking about year ten, about Europe and bicycles and weddings. A decade was suddenly too soon.
And then it was our ninth, and we were out to dinner, and I was reading a card that contained the most important question I’d ever been asked. The options were laid out clearly for me, waiting patiently for a circle. As I read the words over and over, I thought about the last nine years, how far we’d come from those 20-year-old kids who’d fallen in love so quickly and deeply.
The brown corduroy was long gone, and Nathan only slept in a tent when we were camping. We’d pursued different careers until we found the ones that clicked. I’d never felt stunted or limited by my relationship. In fact, each time I was afraid to take a chance or worried about a risk, Nathan had been the harness around my waist, keeping me safe while I jumped.
In that moment, I was still afraid of marriage. But it was only our ninth anniversary. I had a whole year to get used to the idea. When the server came around to refill our glasses, I asked to borrow his pen.
I circled yes.