“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” — Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Locksley Hall”
New York City seems paradoxically to be drawing farther away from spring with each day’s descent into February, and I make no claims to youth. Still, Tennyson’s cliché was clamoring about my head last Saturday as I drove through the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. To one side of me was Ikea, a blue-and-yellow behemoth squatting near an inlet to Gowanus Bay, and to the other, melt-resistant drifts of snow and debris and black ice deposited here by the city’s work crews during this season’s seemingly endless blizzards. In their car seats, my four-year-old boy peppered me with questions on every subject and my infant daughter snoozed. Tomoko, my girlfriend, sat beside me listening to the radio. Not a scene of particularly romantic bliss, and yet my thoughts (light, vernal and otherwise) still turned to love and, yes, marriage.
I should use the proper term: Tomoko is my fiancée, and has been since last week when I signed my separation agreement with Harper’s Magazine, negotiated by my union lawyer. Among other details included in the contract — 10 weeks of severance; an agreement to give any of my would-be employers a “neutral” reference; and a non-disparagement clause that I refused to sign — Harper’s agreed to make the Cobra health insurance payments on my behalf for the next four months. This last bit marks the inception of my betrothal: when the payments end we will be married.
Tomoko and I met and fell in love nearly two years ago, as I was going through a protracted divorce. A beautiful, caring and patient woman, she endured my rants on custody law and the indignities of court appearances, taught me yoga, took me surfing. She endured the dispersal of the better part of my income to the divorce lawyer, and accepted that my son’s mother would always remain a fixture in our lives. We took an apartment together as our relationship deepened. She grew close to my boy, became pregnant with our child, and we considered our options for the future. Discussions regarding marriage occurred, predicated, of course, on the completion of my divorce. (It was a source of much joking at Harper’s — another thing I’ll truly miss — that my second child came before my first divorce.) But neither of us wanted to rush things. It felt unseemly to dive immediately into a new marriage so soon after the formal dissolution of an earlier one. We’d make our wedding when we wanted, we agreed, not merely when permitted by the state or demanded by a sense of social propriety.
But now that I was out of a job, and with more than $1,300 per month in Cobra payments looming, it seemed we had no choice. No ritual act of asking for her hand ensued. My knees went unsullied with dust from the floor. I didn’t have a ring. I came home from the lawyer’s office and launched into a lecture on what I took to be our connubial options, then muttered something about the refreshing simplicity of a civil affair. Tomoko pressed her mouth firmly shut, did a neck stretch that I recognized from her yoga practice, and frowned beatifically — an indication, I knew, that her reserves of forbearance had been dangerously depleted.
Tomoko had been married once before, and she’d told me she wouldn’t require a grand country-club affair this time around, with white dress and black tie, two dinner choices and a band fresh from its latest bar mitzvah engagement. I also believe she wants to be married to me and that we will be married. She was just insulted by the brutally practical approach I had taken to the matter.
We let the subject rest for the day, but throughout the week, when we weren’t preoccupied with the sleeping and dining habits of our 3-month-old girl; when we weren’t ferrying my son to pre-school or soccer class or hockey or play dates, or whatever myriad social obligations we had scheduled for him; when I wasn’t off reporting and writing my book or sending around my resume; we talked about a wedding. Tomoko, to her everlasting credit, did her best. City Hall, she said, wasn’t her first preference. She wanted a ceremony, at home in our backyard, with family and some friends, in warm weather. Besides, her maternity leave will end soon, and she worried she wouldn’t have time or energy to plan a proper wedding before the insurance payments ended. As such, she offered, she would be willing to be married now at City Hall and then do things correctly later in the summer when we were more able.
Foolishly, I objected. I wanted one wedding, as soon as possible, and couldn’t be made to understand why organizing it would prove so difficult.
My perspective can’t solely be ascribed to financial considerations. Waiting for the right moment has never struck me as an effective way to move through life. There is no right time. We all seem to have an innate tendency to create complexities for ourselves, and obstacles will ever bar the way. Many people stubbornly insist on the proper moment or person or opportunity to have children, marry, travel, start a business, write a book, build a house, change cities. What they really seem to need is an excuse not to act. This philosophy has taken me around the world, provided me with two children, and allowed me to pursue goals (editing, writing) that if they have failed to make me rich, and likely never will, have offered other satisfactions.
Still, I knew I had fallen far short of Tennyson’s amorous ideal. The image of the “wanton lapwing” who “gets himself another crest” doesn’t quite jibe with a 38-year-old man squiring his reluctant beloved to an anonymous City Hall wedding. And a quiet woman in a car bodes no man well.
Tomoko and I spent much of the rest of that Saturday apart. She attended a yoga class, her first and much-deserved opportunity in months to be away from the baby. Even while keeping up with both kids, I kept part of my mind free to think. I wanted very much to blame this predicament on my former employer. If I hadn’t lost my job I would have kept my insurance and we would have married how and when we saw fit. I was an angry man; fuming that Harper’s had taken my job; irate that I had been asked to sign over my integrity (I know non-disparagement language is fairly standard, but no writer or reporter should contractually give away the obligation to be honest); and most of all, infuriated that I was allowing the magazine to set the parameters of my wedding.
That act of allowing, and the weakness that it implied, transformed things for me. Along with my children, Tomoko’s presence in my life is a sure sign of my unwarranted good fortune. We haven’t yet decided what we’re going to do. But what I should have understood immediately I understand now: to yield to what she wants, and when, isn’t yielding at all. It’s a privilege.
Theodore Ross is the author of the forthcoming book “Am I a Jew” and a contributor to the blog Dadwagon.