Shacking Up: Why I’m Not Married
We plan to be an item forever. A license would spoil the fun and tilt the odds.
We live together, love each other, plan to be an item forever; we’re even (gasp) monogamous. Who needs marriage?
We’re the Dickster and Nanooch, Coach and Colette. He’s Monsieur le Patron toasting Madame le Chef. When the mood turns Italian, it’s Ricardo and Annunciatia. Could Husband and Wife sound sweeter?
R. was a widower and I was divorced when we fell into each other’s lives, on a bright October day five years ago. We’re both writers and love telling the story. “We met online, the old fashioned way. On line to buy smoked fish at Citarella.”
Lots of big spenders ahead of us at the deli counter, none in a rush, on the Saturday before Halloween. May they all live and prosper, especially a tall white fortyish lawyer couple wordily comparing the varieties of olive as if they were picking a jury. They gave R. and me time to catch each other’s eye and size up each other’s baskets. He (Aran Islands sweater, Sean Connery eyebrows) was shopping for one. I (in catering mode) was feeding 20. Before you could say Wild-Caught Sockeye, we’d segued from chitchat (hot-smoked versus cold-smoked fish) to an artful exchange of data.
He would be eating his smoked salmon at his desk on West 10th Street while finishing a piece for Forbes; he was a contributing writer after many years on staff here and in Japan, where he’d opened the Asia bureau. Oh, the fishies in Japan. I’d be catering a lunch—cooking professionally was my midlife madness—for two performance artists from Berlin and some folks they’d lured to my place in Chelsea to re-enact, sort of, The Life Swap, a book I’d written in my twenties about trying to be someone else while she was trying to be me.
“You can Google me,” he said. He didn’t quite blush, but he looked endearingly surprised to hear himself say the words. He gave me his name, and I gave him mine and my email, and four long days later, he invited me to lunch on smoked salmon at The Half King, my local eatery.
Was it love or the midday Guinness? I kept thinking he was speaking Latin. Whatever he was saying—Arma virumque cano—I wanted more of it. I invited him to look in on what the boys from Berlin were doing—I was all wrapped up in it; and he did. His presence brought needed clarity. The Life Swap was my past. R. might be my future, a beautiful future. “They’re leaving Thursday,” I said. “Come for dinner. Do you like rabbit? I oven-fry it.”
So we began.
No matter that he ate slowly and I ate fast. That he was cold in a room that I found sweltering. We were grown-ups and we were grateful for each other, which is to say we were willing to meet in the middle.
Grown-ups but kids again. We exulted in the commonalities. Benny Goodman, Irish whiskey, small museums, soft kisses. Could it be we’d found our next forever?
We began to meet each other’s children, siblings, best friends, his grandchildren, assorted in-laws, ex-laws, and outlaws; no one fainted. He gave me a gorgeous stainless steel menorah. I took communion—at his urging—when we attended the occasional mass. Our parents were long gone, so we met each other’s shrinks and asked them to bless our union.
As excitement and comfort grew, so did the rent on my post-divorce folly: a duplex with a garden and two kitchens. And mice by the phalanx and leaks so bad that a ceiling collapsed, killing my dreams of a catering business and B & B.
R. proposed that I jettison most of my stuff and move into his calm Village apartment. “You can have the front hall closet for your clothes, but you’ll have to share it with the vacuum cleaner,” he said.
It was a rescue, no denying that, and from more than a financial mess. My children's godparents—who were my two best friends—were dying of cancer, ragefully, and one of them, sublime Ela, was downstairs in the guest bedroom. I was over my head and slightly out of my mind, running a hospice for the queen of denial. When I told her I simply had to move, she went back to her apartment, grudgingly letting a team of us bring her food and get her to doctor appointments for the four awful months until her death.
R. knows about loss, alas, and he knew what to give me when I came home from my rounds. And he let me give to him. He was in the habit of being loved; I could dote on him to my heart’s content. How rare and important that is! And I don’t think he’ll mind me saying that his hands are older than mine and he appreciates my odd delight in opening jam jars and changing batteries. Fair exchange for the sports teams and foreign rivers he contributes to my daily joust with The NYTimes crossword.
So I wound up my Chelsea life, holding a month-long tag sale and give-away, then headed downtown with my father’s chess table, my prized wooden spoon, and Rover the stone cat. Now R’s bedroom—our bedroom—smells of Shalimar, and my books and shoes are all over the place. If it’s still more his place than mine, I don’t mind. I’ve come home to myself here. (And the vac is very happy under a kitchen counter.)
Would we live differently if we were married? Would we have our own china pattern? We’ve begged our offspring to relieve us of Lenox, Belleeck, Limoges. What would we do with more?
I never changed my maiden byline and surely wouldn’t now. If we were married we’d have to play bridge with other couples—that’s what my parents did, anyway. We’d rather play chess with each other, sometimes letting dinner grow cold because we want one more game.
R. was twice widowed—his first wife the mother of his five children and the second a great midlife love. He told me early on that he didn’t expect to marry again. I thought he was decent to say so (he has only been decent, always); I looked in my heart for unease and didn’t find it. His reason seemed clear: His wives had been his wives and always would be: chapter closed. He could love again but not marry again. Fair enough.
And I, twice divorced, wasn’t good at marriage, was I? Children had come late in my life—my daughter when I was 36, my son when I was 42—and I loved them so much my husbands had felt excluded. Of course it wasn’t that simple, but the statement stands. A talent for romance and a passion for family life, yet I wasn’t good at marriage.
In a novel I wrote, a character was afraid of marrying because it meant you were choosing your chief mourner. But there’s no pretending that R. and I are exempted from the grief that love brings. Unless we’re felled by the same salmonella-tainted mango, one of us will lose the other. We’ve each taken protective steps, as married folks do. He added my name to the apartment lease. I have a computer folder labeled If I Die First: notes on how to make his morning coffee and advice to set the clocks 10 minutes fast.
Why aren’t we married? Who’s asking—the Tea Party? Sorry, dears: Marriage is no longer the default position. My daughter and her husband had an extra-legal marriage ceremony six years ago (I catered) because they refused to have a state-sanctioned wedding until their gay friends could, too. A year ago, my daughter’s girlfriend moved in with them, and they’re as happy a family as I know, so hear this: I won’t marry until my polyamorous daughter can marry both her loves.
(Because many of our vintage draw a blank at “polyamory” or think it’s a fancy name for ’60s-style swinging, I asked my daughter—an editor—to supply a definition. Says she: “Polyamory literally means ‘loving many’ and can refer to any type of ethical, consensual romantic or sexual relationship other than the standard monogamous couple. Cheaters not welcome; anything else goes.”)
So she goes her way, and I go mine. I do like to think that shacking up, as distinguished from being married, exempts R. and me from the thuddingly proper label “standard monogamous couple.” It’s nice to feel naughty as gravity tugs and eternity looms.
So we’ve avoided many of the fun-killing formalities now available to unmarried couples. I was asked recently if we’d signed a domestic partner agreement; I only vaguely knew such a thing existed. Just let some officious person try to pry us apart!
When R. had surgery and then rehab two years ago, I expected stay-over privileges in his room and no one ever questioned my right. We so clearly regard ourselves as a couple, we’re respected as one—though once when asked by an ER nurse how long we’d been together, I couldn’t resist saying it was our first date.
It’s no longer 1959. Hotel clerks don’t assume that a man’s companion is his wife or a hooker. A six-year-old grandchild can pipe up, sweet as anything: “Mama says you’re Grandpa’s girlfriend. Grandma died because she smoked cigarettes.”
I admit getting a guilty thrill out of knowing that my mother would be mortified—though she and my father would both adore R; one of her few requests when I moved to New York in my 20s was not to live unmarried with a man. Strange, isn’t it, to revel in shocking our mothers even when we’re old and they’re dead?
Don’t worry, Mom. If I get pregnant, we’ll not only make the cover of AARP magazine, I bet we’ll make it to the altar. This time I’ll wear white. To match my hair.
Nancy Weber is writing her 23d book—a thriller set in Greenwich Village about swinging senior chefs who arouse the wrath of a puritanical food blogger.