Years ago I asked Beth if she could identify the moment she became a woman. It probably had something to do with my dissertation. I wrote it on female coming-of-age stories. For myself I had tentatively chosen the moment my mother and stepfather drove off, leaving me at college. Beth had no doubts. “It was when you first kissed me,” she said sweetly. It was the kind of answer that made me want to go back and revise mine.
That kiss was twenty years and a week ago. Well, twenty years and six days, technically, since it took place after midnight, but we’ve always celebrated it on the fifteenth because that’s when the date started. We had to discuss the kiss in an oblique, roundabout way for hours before we did it. But it did lead to two kids and a mortgage, so perhaps our caution was not misplaced.
Even after our long, tortured conversation, I jumped in blind, since Beth, who had wished on a star for me to fall in love with her, never got around to coming out to me, even after I came out to her and confessed my attraction. The whole thing was perplexing. We’d been friends for two years (she was the very first person I met at college) and our friendship had become more intense since the spring. I asked my friends the Jims, with whom I was living that summer, if they thought she was flirting with me or not. Jim K said yes. Jim B said no. In a way, their answers were not surprising since Jim K was not so secretly in love with Jim B, who did not return his feelings. In the end, the only way to find out was to kiss her and see if she kissed back. She did.
If I was the one brave enough to make the first move, Beth was the one clear-sighted enough to see the relationship for what it was, from the very beginning. When I left for a semester in Spain a month and a half later, she wrote me every day, mailed me Oreos, and bought a double futon, despite the fact that I was coming back to a boyfriend (he spent the summer at home and we’d decided to see other people until I got back from Spain in January) as well as to her and I hadn’t decided exactly what to do about that. Then there was the Spaniard who told me I had “la cara de un ángel” (the face of an angel) and tried to convince me to stay in Córdoba through the spring semester. The turning point was the November morning I found a bouquet of roses on my dorm room desk and I realized with a feeling approaching dread that I didn’t know who they were from. They were from the Spaniard and my instant disappointment that they weren’t from Beth pointed me in the right direction and showed me the way home.
Meanwhile, Beth, who was midway through her senior year in college, was making plans to stay in Oberlin an extra year until I graduated. She got a job at the campus computing center and then she followed me (to Iowa of all places) for grad school. It was shortly after our second move together (to D.C. two years later) that I proposed. We were twenty-four years old, with newly minted Masters degrees in impractical fields. Beth had a part-time job and I was unemployed. We were celebrating the fourth anniversary of our first kiss with a midweek trip to Rehoboth Beach we couldn’t really afford. I presented her with gifts made of paper, cotton, leather, and fruit and flowers (the materials associated with first through fourth anniversaries) and had her open them in backwards order, ending with the card. In the card, I asked her to be my life partner. This time I had no doubt about her answer. She had made it clear for years she was ready for this. Our commitment ceremony was the following January.
Over the years I’ve kept up the tradition of the anniversary materials, with the occasional adjustment. The fifteenth anniversary is crystal and I bought a set of glasses with endearments painted on them since we are not real crystal kind of people. (Noah was a year old that summer and let me tell you, shopping for items made of glass with a toddler in tow is more than a little stressful.) The twentieth anniversary is china. I decided anything ceramic would do and settled on a very pretty set of cobalt and sage green ice cream dishes made by a West Virginian potter.
I didn’t get to give them to Beth on our actual anniversary, however, because she was on a three and a half day business trip to Toronto. We decided to celebrate on her return rather than before she left because I was pretty cranky about her leaving and I thought it would be a happier occasion if we waited.
I was sad while she was gone, but we muddled through. The kids got fed and bathed. Dishes and laundry got done. I was even ambitious enough to take the kids to Air and Space and to mow the lawn. (One of the advantages of using a push-mower is that you can safely mow with a toddler playing in the yard.) I took a vacation from cooking anything more complicated than mac and cheese from a box and pancakes, much to Noah’s delight. June’s naps were disrupted because I was taking Noah to and from camp instead of just picking him up and she kept falling asleep in the stroller. The hardest part turned out to be getting her settled at night. She’s used to falling asleep in Beth’s arms after I nurse her. I use this time to shower and do small chores around the house. After two nights of skipping the cat box, I finally had to clean it with June standing right there, wanting to sample their food and play in that fun sand box where Mommy was playing.
Late Tuesday night, Beth returned, bringing tales of exotic restaurants and the theater. She went to a play! I figured out that at the exact time the curtain rose, I must have been trying to stop June from engaging in texture play in the litter box. I am trying very hard not to begrudge Beth this experience.
Wednesday morning, we opened presents. We’d waited so Noah could watch. He’d been quite taken with the idea that he was “the only one in the whole world” who knew both my “versary” gift to her and hers to me. He kept the secrets faithfully, only letting slip that he thought Beth’s gift to me was better. “But they’re both good,” he added diplomatically. This piqued my curiosity since Beth had hinted she would make up for her absence on the actual day of our anniversary through the gift. Inside a store bought card with a picture of a falling star on it was a card she and Noah made on the computer. It had a photo of the house where I lived during the summer of 1987 on the front and the Rehoboth boardwalk on the inside. “We’re leaving Friday afternoon for Rehoboth Beach,” it said. It also said, “I can’t think of a better way to spend half my life.” Neither can I.
We went to our favorite Mexican restaurant that night to celebrate twenty years with spinach enchiladas and virgin mango daiquiris. At home we ate coffee and vanilla ice cream out of the new ice cream dishes.
The weekend at the beach raced by, as beach weekends do. This was our first summertime trip to the beach since June was a little baby and the first time she was able to really enjoy it. She fell head over heels in love with the sand, the surf, the whole experience. Noah and I spent hours making sand castles and pretending Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series (www.randomhouse.com/kids/magictreehouse/) were having adventures in them. This morning as we were headed to breakfast, we passed the guesthouse where I proposed to Beth. She was telling Noah for the umpteenth time to stay on the sidewalk and off the chemically treated lawns. I was a bit ahead, pushing June in the stroller and retrieving her sneakers as she repeatedly removed them and pitched them out onto the sidewalk. I stopped in front of the guesthouse and waited for Beth to catch up. I put my arms around her neck and kissed her. “Will you marry me?” I said.
She smiled and said yes, again.