“America’s healthcare system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.”
― Walter Cronkite
Legally, my boyfriend Cory and I are married.
It’s a secret, for the most part. I don’t like to talk about it, have certainly never written about it, and it’s not something most people in my daily life know.
We don’t acknowledge it in any meaningful way, unless you count healthcare or taxes, and even then, he does his thing; I do mine, annually checking the box next to “married, filing separately.”
The abridged version goes something like this; Cory was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 33. When we met, he was a 36-year old cancer survivor, radiating a kind of mysterious incandescence. The kind of liberated perspective usually only attained by those who spend weeks, months, or years locked in a terrifying waltz with their own mortality after normal was exploded one average afternoon by a diagnosis grenade.
Chemo and radiation complete, his recovery now involved painful, panic attack-inducing screenings every six months to keep the pin firmly in the grenade for as long as possible. Forever, hopefully.
Divorce had ended not just his marriage, but his health insurance. By the time we got around to making eyes at each other when we met at a daycare classroom graduation for our 3-year-old sons, Cory had skipped a crucial cancer screening because he couldn’t afford it.
Also recently divorced, I had just removed my ex from my healthcare. Fuck it, I thought. Double fuck our health care system. Even though we were just realizing we might really like each other— maybe even love, although we were taking emotional declarations slower than that driver you get stuck behind when you’re late— I informed Cory it just so happened that, upon my divorce, a spouse-sized slot had opened up in my employer-provided health insurance. It would cover his cancer screenings, dental cleanings, and anything else he needed. Fresh ball-squeezing courtesy of the doc to confirm your parts are in working order? Have a ball, pun intended! Got cavities you diligently ignore? Go crazy, I offered, like a coked-up ’90s Bob Barker presenting the second, always better, showcase at the end of the showcase showdown. I got you, vision included!
The only catch? Marriage. Like for a green card, but with healthcare.
He accepted my proposal, we applied for a marriage license, then put the date a local judge agreed to unite us in unholy matrimony on our Google calendars as “Monica co-signs Cory’s health insurance.”
KAPOW. Take that, Uncle Sam.
We’d only known each other a year and didn’t live together yet. Because we were still puzzling together the dizzying details of co-parenting with exes, we didn’t want to confuse our loved ones with blundering explanations of a marriage that didn’t mean anything to us except medical insurance for him.
People tend to view marriage as a Very Serious Undertaking. A sure sign of everlasting love and commitment, two things neither of us were interested in discussing with each other yet, let alone explaining to exes, kids, parents, coworkers or Buddy down at the bar. Why did anyone need to know at all? we reasoned. It’s just a piece of paper we’re going to sign, then stuff in a Manila folder, tucked between my taxes and the kids’ birth certificates in the plastic black filing case hunkered in the corner of my closet.
We spoke a lot about just doing the thing and forgetting about it, so it couldn’t worm its way into the relationship that was slowly sprouting beautiful vines around us. I vowed he could keep my insurance, even if our love story snagged; he promised I could totally divorce his ass if we broke up and I wanted to rescind the healthcare offer. Super romantic stuff.
A crisp fall day a week later, we secretly left our jobs early to meet in the parking lot of the district court in a town far enough away from ours that we figured our marital endeavor would remain private. Unbeknownst to us, records of marriages in Pennsylvania licensed within the state’s jurisdiction are public records. So public, in fact, that the local paper publishes the names of everyone who applies for a license.
We crept into the low brick building like guilty defendants headed for trial. Instead of bustling with law-related life, as I’d envisioned, district court was a tomb, unhappily lit by an abomination of seizure-inducing fluorescents. A middle-aged woman, whose most memorable feature was bangs curled to well-done and sprayed to ten-hut, tiredly thumbed a magazine at us from her spot behind a dirty glass window featuring a speaker. Head tilted down at the magazine, she eyed us up suspiciously.
“The judge will be right with you,” she said through the speaker, then maintained uncomfortable eye contact for an excruciating beat before returning to Good Housekeeping.
A petite woman, more school teacher than district judge, appeared and ushered us to the front of an empty courtroom where a judge would preside if we were there for trial, then cheerfully encouraged us to face each other and hold hands.
I held both hands up in front of me, palms forward like I was offering the judge a double high-five and politely demurred. I explained we didn’t need the full lovey-dovey package— we just wanted to get in and out; nothing to see here, folks. She pooh-poohed the notion before I could finish talking, slid a piece of paper from a leather folder and passionately launched into a definition of love and marriage that would embarrass the priest from The Princess Bride.
“MAWWIAGE…That blessed awwangement. That dweam wiffin a dweam.”
She wasn’t actually quoting The Princess Bride, but she may as well have been. (For the record, that would’ve been awesome.) But she was saying A LOT of stuff about love. This quickie health insurance co-signing thing was turning into a painful extravaganza. Ever been to a Catholic wedding? Like that, but without the bread and wine which, in addition to The Princess Bride quotes, we totally would’ve welcomed.
I was making what-the-fuck eyes at Cory. He tried not to laugh. We released hands to wipe sweaty palms on pants, then regripped. Somebody sneezed outside the courtroom. Someone else, probably Tall Bangs, invoked god’s blessing in cordial response. The minute hand clattered circles around the clock. Low-rise jeans made a comeback, then went out of style again. Empires rose and fell.
“…through love and patience; through dedication and perseverance; through tenderness and laughter…”
Shaking with suppressed laughter, I looked from the judge to Cory.
“Are you crying?” I asked with the same disgusted tone Tom Hanks once yelled, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
“No!” He let go of my hands and wiped wet eyes.
I don’t remember anything the judge actually said— only that it was straight from her calligraphy-ed script and amounted to a string of every insolent love cliché you’ve ever seen tole-painted onto your Instagram influencer-loving cousin’s wall.
“Listen,” I giggled awkwardly. “We don’t need all… this.” I flapped my hand indicating her script. “We don’t have rings or anything. You can just skip to the legal stuff.”
“This is what I do. It’s what you paid for,” she waved the calligraphy-covered piece of paper at us, bewildered by our indifference toward consecrating “until death do us part.”
Don’t fuck with Magisterial District Judge Kelley Jackson. She’s got a job to do, and by the power vested in her by the good lord and, oh yeah, the state of Pennsylvania, she is going to do it, and do it well.
I don’t remember the date. Neither does Cory, because I just asked him. Last week of September 2017. We didn’t take photos either— I checked my “cloud.”
A few days later, my next-door neighbor shouted across our lawns, offering his hearty congratulations on my recent marriage; said he saw we applied for a license in the local paper. After stuttering my thanks, I sped to the post office and grabbed a copy. There it was in bold type; MARRIAGE LICENSES, followed by our first and last names. It’s also easily Google-able.
So much for stealth healthcare marriages.
Soon thereafter, my ex-husband’s mom called to ask if I had gotten married. A former work colleague recognized my name, she said, when it was published in the local paper.
Who are all these people perusing lists of marriage license applicants?
After six months of cosigned healthcare bliss, we moved in together, merging our kids into one loveably wacky bunch of four. Before they were a year old, our sons slept in adjoining cribs at daycare; now they share a bunk bed.
Ultimately, when we tried to explain our unusual marital situation to the kids, they could barely summon the interest to feign— let alone interest to actually listen to our awkward explanations about the difference between marriage and love, and “one doesn’t necessarily require the other, but yes, we do love each other very much, and everybody gets to chart their very own course through life, including you, and hopefully that won’t mean blindly following the well-worn path society often requires, and while we’re talking about it, you should know society gets it wrong more than it gets it right, and marriage shouldn’t be the default relationship scenario because…”
They stopped listening two sentences into that bumbling endeavor. They had referred to Cory as their stepdad for years, and the surprise existence of a government-stamped paper made little difference, as far as they were concerned.
Despite the signed, stamped government document nestled among my files, Cory remains my boyfriend, though the word sounds juvenile and feels reductive in relation to what we have worked so hard to build. Mostly, I call him my partner, though that word isn’t quite right either, even if it does conjure the coolest partnerships of all time: Thelma and Louise, Scully and Mulder, Crockett and Tubbs, Cagney and Lacey, and other stellar duos that kicked ass and took names while doing their damnedest to dodge the steaming piles of bullshit littering the sidewalk of life. And that most definitely applies to Cory and I.
So, “partner” it is, I guess. For now. Until someone comes up with a better word for the person you choose to spend your life with each day. The person who feels more like a part of yourself than a separate human being. The person who calmly helps your mind filter the world into sense after a shocking diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder in your mid-forties has you second-guessing every perception. The person who views life and experiences humor in almost the same way as you, but whose personality is opposite, someone so exceedingly gentle and kind, he often feels like Jekyll to your Hyde. The person who could come to you with terrible confessions of murder you would earnestly listen to before constructing a plan that may or may not involve calling the authorities.
In all honesty, it would be me confessing murder as he nodded in stoic validation of my savage rationale.
Nearly five years after the official co-signing, we are still sharing a healthcare plan, even though these days he can totally get his own.
Now that’s true American romance.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
Jennifer Senior on how the older we get, the more we need our friends—and the harder it is to keep them for The Atlantic. (A spectacular read!)
Emma Sarappo on the books you should read in light of recent book bans for The Atlantic.