‘Til Death

Queering marriage and dating with grief

(Shelby Criswell)

I never thought I’d be a wife. Queers didn’t marry. It was part of our queerness. And anyway, surely the institution of marriage was an isolating patriarchal curse we couldn’t queer. But in 2013, gay marriage became provisionally legal in Santa Fe County. So why not get married!

I needed the health insurance.

Deena said, “Yes.”

I said, “Never mind. We don’t have to. Real queers don’t marry.”

Deena said, “No, let’s,” and she produced her mother’s diamond, and she lifted me up off the floor and looked at me with such hope and adventure, and we rushed to her Jeep like a Hollywood moment, but then Deena said, “Wait. Hang on. I need to go inside and take a bong hit.”

At the courthouse, I didn’t know where to set down my purse. We promised ‘til death.

On our way home, I texted my 20-something daughter the news. She texted back a smiling squinting emoji and wrote, “This kind of news is not a text!” Was it? Not a text?

Queers didn’t marry, so I guess we’d never considered how to handle the details.

At home, we didn’t tell 5-year-old Max. We figured he didn’t know we weren’t married. He stacked Legos. The next day, Deena told the HR lady where she worked as executive chef to add me to her insurance. But the HR lady said, “Oh, no, Honey, we don’t recognize anything like that. Gay marriage? That’s nice.” We didn’t question comments like that back then. I mean, we mocked them, but we didn’t question them.

Then the next thing we knew, Sonia Sotomayor sat on the US Supreme Court and gay marriage became legal nationwide and we were like, Holy shit! And I got excited about the tax savings. Of which there turned out to be none. Deena and I bought all new sex toys for our married life—pink and sparkly, before pink would come to represent something else entirely.

I never thought I’d be a widow. Not until those first pink waiting rooms, anyway. And then I knew right away. Long before the doctors would admit it. We’d been together eight years by then. There would be four more years, often dominated by radiation and chemo and anxiety. On our last road trip together, we stepped into a Chinese restaurant in Oakland, and passed a cute butch eating alone. When we sat down in our red vinyl booth in the back, Deena gestured with her chin to the woman. “Who are you going to date? If I die?”

I wanted to say that I would never date anyone else for as long as I lived, even if she died. Even when she died. That’s what she’d asked of me after the first night we spent together, long before we married: I don’t want you seeing anyone else. I’d been faithful to that request. But now every time I started to form a new promise, it felt like a lie. I was a person overflowing with love. Deena had taught me that much, and more. I was a person runneth over with love, even if I was also a person who could feel the exhaustion from these last few years in my body like it had invaded my very fascia. My love was like water, adaptable. I could stream love into Deena when she was stronger than me and as she became weaker.

Months later, from a sublet in Brooklyn where I’d isolated myself long enough, I post on social media: How do people meet people these days? Really tired person seeks reason to get out of bed.

My friend Jess warns me that on Tinder, I can’t open myself up to trans men without opening myself up to cis men, so Tinder is off the table. Another friend recommends Lex, which instantly turns up my literary agent. I scroll through another app, trying to learn the new terms. What’s ENM? What’s DTF? In this context, ACE means Asexual, not, as I first imagined, that a person wants to compare Adverse Childhood Experience scores.

My friend Sailor messages, “Don’t try to learn all the new words. So much energy goes into these terms, there’s none left for sex.”

I’m impressed that so many people are into bondage. “Everyone has a switch now!” I tell my friend Tree, kind of excited. “Oh my god,” they say, “It just means people aren’t just tops or bottoms. They’ll switch.” Oh. Right. I knew that.

My friend Sam calls from Santa Fe, not sounding shamey, exactly, but more protective of me: “What are you going to say?” She wants to know. “If you go on a date and this person asks, How did you spend last fall?

I don’t know what I’ll say. I think one reason I’m so bad at small talk is that it doesn’t occur to me to plan it in advance.

A straight acquaintance posts: You’re not ready. How could you be ready?

Jess jumps in to defend my widow-honor: Just because Ariel’s mourning her wife doesn’t mean she can’t date. It’s a fallacy that we don’t heal in relationships. Jess suggests an ad for me: Dark-humor leaning widow seeks same. I wonder: Could I make DHLW a thing?

Gay widow who just fell off turnip truck seeks some compassion. Make me laugh.

I want to laugh because I’m sad.

Sometimes when I think about my marriage, all I can think about is the way it ended. The way Deena withered and died wanting so badly not to—and right before my very eyes, and before 16-year-old Max’s, and Jess’s and Sam’s and the rest of our small community. Sometimes I think of the last way Deena looked at me, the pain and disappointment.

But then sometimes I think of my marriage as something whole and magical and I think, Holy shit! We did that! We loved each other like water and we lived through the care and curse of the institution of marriage. We didn’t get completely isolated in it; close friendships endured. And we parted not until death.Sometimes my heart feels small in my chest when I can see that people don’t know what to say to me. But the truth is I don’t know what to say either. There isn’t an acronym for this yet. I don’t have a plan to queer widowhood, but I have the sense that I can.

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