Picture this. It’s the night of the Ansett Australia Cup final. Geelong and Carlton are playing. Back then, in 1997, the AFL pre-season was still a big deal. Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens and surrounds – the Shrine and Kings Domain – are awash with blue-and-white-scarfed footy supporters shortcutting it to the MCG.
And then there’s us.
We’re getting married on a Friday night after work and we make an understated party. There’s me, my bloke, our obligatory witnesses – my sister, his brother – and our celebrant.
Our photographer is a policeman who shoots weddings on the side. By day, he takes photos of crime scenes.
I like that parallel – after all, we’re committing something here tonight.
That Friday was the 10-year anniversary of our first date. A decade on, we had a mortgage and though we were still young, “for richer, for poorer” had already happened.
Truth be told, we were getting married because we wanted children and I was being old-fashioned.
It’s quiet and intimate in our little corner of the garden and we are losing daylight. We stand beneath a muscular eucalyptus, my bloke looking smart in his vest and tie, and me in my $89 Sussan dress.
Our celebrant leads us through our vows. I feel like I’ve been punched.
No air in my lungs, my stomach is clenched, my face is hot. This is it.
I’m a promise keeper but I’m not a promise maker; I don’t do promises because anything could happen. But I said those words and my gut twisted with the realness of the undertaking.
As for our certificate of marriage, it’s filed alongside the birth certificates, tax file numbers and three little plastic wristbands, the vestiges of my sons’ first days on earth.
The government knows I’m married. But the government has no idea of our first date. How we walked the city trying to find somewhere to eat. We chose Mexican and neither of us liked it. That didn’t stop us catching up the next day.
I feel like we married on that first Friday, because over refried beans and post-mix Coke we became exclusive.
I’m married, but I don’t wear my ring. I’ve lost it twice and replaced it twice – and I’m sad to say it’s missing again. But also, my “status” is nobody’s business. I have nothing against anybody else wearing a ring to say they’re married – tattoo “Just Married” on your head if you want – but it’s our marriage. It was between us that Friday night and it’s between us now.
What is it about marriage? What’s the difference between living together forever, unmarried, and being married? We lived together for five years before we got married and that’s a question I should know the answer to.
For me, marriage is the most you can do. It’s the last line in the sand that you can write. You start off with soggy enchiladas, escape to camping weekends, take a holiday, co-sign a lease, get a dog, a mortgage. Then bills mount, things become difficult, you find ways to sustain what you are building. And then you get married.
Whether it’s for external validation, the government knowing who you’ve picked, your community knowing, or whether to settle something inside known only to you and your partner, you get married.
Some might say that I’ve sold myself to a patriarchal, misogynistic social construct, but I don’t remember that being in the vows.
Marriage may have sprung from that – I don’t know, I wasn’t there – but male-oriented control and religious bums on religious seats are not what modern marriage is about.
Being married is about being there when the chips are down, about getting on the floor alongside your loved one and picking them up. Because you said you would. Because your gut clenched and your heart beat and you promised.
And I like to remember me and my bloke under our tree on that Friday night. The footy crowd has thinned, our witnesses are looking on. The paperwork is ready for signing. We make the promises we’re already keeping. He’s smiling, he’s beautiful, the corners of his eyes are creased.
I’m out of breath as I say it. There is a weight I didn’t foretell and can’t explain. I squeeze his hands, tremble and whisper, “I will.”
Nicki Reed is the author of Unmarry Me (Text Publishing)
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