The woman I call my wife isn’t my wife at all, but I’m not sure what else to call her.
She has shared my bed for nearly twenty years. She has borne two of my children, whom we are raising together. And she expects our relationship to be both permanent and monogamous. But so far, she has refused to let me put a ring on her finger.
She refuses for a number of reasons. She is an ardent feminist and sees marriage as a vestigial social construct that only serves to enslave women. She believes in equality, and doesn’t think we should enjoy a privilege that – until recently – was denied to the gay couples we know (many of whom have relationships just as committed and durable as our own).
More than anything, though, she is superstitious. Her parents are divorced, and a part of her believes exchanging rings and vows will somehow jinx our relationship and doom it to failure.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains: she won’t marry me. So what to call her?
I’m tempted to go with my girlfriend, as it would suggest I’m still young enough to cope with the constant challenges of courtship. But the woman in question demands nothing more from me on Valentine’s Day than a list of our son’s Kindergarten classmates, so he can make a card for each. And at my age, I’m not sure I could handle much more than that.
The term also suggests hesitant and fragile relationship, one that could crumble with one wrong word. But we exchange wrong words on a daily basis, often at the top of our lungs, confident that those words will be forgotten within the hour.
“Lover” then? It certainly sounds more mature than “girlfriend,” and implies a sex life that anyone with a kid in Kindergarten would envy. In fact, it would make us sound like Baby Boomers just back from a tantric retreat. But while we’re old, we’re not that old, and most of our evenings end with us cuddling with our Kindles, rather than each other.
She calls me her partner, and when we were back on the West Coast, I did the same. People would often assume I was gay, especially since her name is Casey, but that didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, it amused me, and I would perpetuate the misunderstanding as long as possible. And when those people finally met Casey, in her sleeveless shirts and cowboy boots, I would watch their heads spin as they tried to wrap their heads around the fact I was actually partners with a lesbian.
But here on the benighted East Coast, folks are far more likely to assume I am referring to a different kind of partner, and will often ask what business we’re in. Though tempted to tell them we’re in the business of making babies, I have learned that irony is less appreciated here than back home.
There’s really no word that sums up her role in my life better than “wife.” And Casey’s objection to marriage seems to be breaking down. Her parents have both remarried and our gay friends can do the same. She’s even toyed with adopting my last name, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she finally got down on one knee and popped the question.
But I’m not sure what my answer would be. I mean, why rock the boat?