Significant Others

Significant Others

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A Short Story

By Beverly Desoto Stevens

It was a great dinner party. All of us – every single woman at the table – is a successful graduate of the same class at Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy. All of our ‘significant others’ are great people. Most of us are gainfully employed. One is still in grad school.

Kieran and Becky are our glamor couple. She’s an art director. He’s a young doctor, tall and dark, with a fashionably scruffy beard and rakish green eyes. Their apartment was beautifully decorated for the holidays. The food was exceptional, yummy and gluten-free.  

It should have been a perfect evening. Maybe it was the free-flowing wine, but that’s when the trouble started.

You see, Melissa has this older boyfriend. And I do mean ‘older.’ Tom must be 45 years old, if he is a day. He was her law professor, first year in Torts.

Now, I’m not trying to be judgmental, or anything. People can do what they want. But Tom started it, with his comments on how all destination weddings were “a huge waste of money for spoiled brides.”

The guy is obviously bitter. He is divorced, and practically penniless because of what he has to pay his ex-wife in child support.  But that was no excuse, because it started this huge thing.

Tom started it, with his comments on how all destination weddings were “a huge waste of money for spoiled brides.”The guy is obviously bitter. He is divorced, and practically penniless because of what he has to pay his ex-wife in child support.  But that was no excuse, because it started this huge thing.

“And what exactly are you gonna do about it?” Kieran laughed. “If a girl wants a wedding, she’s gonna get one, right?”

Beautiful, red-haired Becky shot Kieran a worried look. I know she wants to get married, but he hasn’t asked yet. (She’s already thirty, too.)

Melissa is now in her third year of law school. She shrugged.

“Why would I want to get married?” she announced, smiling somewhat over-brightly at Tom. “Do you know what divorce lawyers make? My parents’ lawyers got $500 an hour. That’s where my college money went.”

Tom laughed.

“That’s because you are brilliant as well as beautiful, babe,” he said approvingly, reaching his arm around her shoulders. She tossed her long dark hair, took a sip of  her white wine and smiled at him.

All I could think of was Melissa confiding in Becky and me about how she was going to stop taking the Pill so she could get pregnant.  But before I could think of anything to say, Meghan interjected.

“Hey, you guys,” she said, as everyone turned to listen to her. There was a note of mild disapproval in her voice. Meghan is on the partner track at a Washington law firm – and she’s married to Spence, who is a free-lancer. “Let’s not get too down on marriage. I kind of like being married.”

Meghan is what my grandmother would have called ‘a pushy broad’ back in Brooklyn. Most of us would never take her on. But Tom wasn’t intimidated.  

“Meghan, so if you do ever get divorced, are you prepared to pay for Spence’s counsel?” he said, leaning forward challengingly.

We all froze on the spot before the men – except Spence – burst out laughing. Seeing the furious look on Meghan’s face, I jumped in quickly to steer the conversation elsewhere.

“Uh, Tom, I really don’t think you want to go there,” I said in what I hoped was a kidding tone. But Meghan was already there, up on her stout little feet.

“Tom, I don’t think you should let your own personal experience color your perception on marriage for all of us,” she declaimed, in her best warning tone.

Tom wasn’t taking any hints, though.

“Oh please,” he said, his face reddening. “Marriage is just an excuse for lawyers to make a fortune off the rest of us poor saps.”

“I don’t think it’s the lawyers’ fault that so many people get divorced,” said Becky, rushing to Meghan’s defense.

This was like pouring gasoline on the fire. Everyone in that room knew that Tom had left his fat demanding wife for the lithesome Melissa.

This was like pouring gasoline on the fire. Everyone in that room knew that Tom had left his fat demanding wife for the lithesome Melissa.

“That’s not the point!” snapped Tom, but before he could explain, Meghan was on him.

“Marriage is a human right,” she announced, in ringing tones. “What do you think gay marriage is all about, Tom? It’s about human rights. Civil rights!”

Tom laughed harshly.

“Oh come on, Meghan,” he said, shaking his head with a grin. “Gay marriage is all about bringing in a whole new market for the divorce lawyers to feed on. It’s a bonanza for our ‘profession.’”

This was too much for Meghan.

“I don’t have to stand here and listen to this!” she snapped, and turning on her expensive heel, marched off into the kitchen. Becky gave Tom a furious look, and went after her.

Spence chuckled distractedly, scratching his balding head.

“You did it now, man,” he said unhappily.  In addition to being a great bread-winner, Meghan is a top organizer. As a result, Spence has a phenomenal life as a freelance photographer; their full-time au pair takes care of their two children.

“What is ‘marriage’?” Kieran interjected in a philosophical tone. Ever the good host, he was pouring more wine for everyone. “It’s a contract. It’s two people signing a piece of paper promising to stay together, file their taxes, raise their kids. It’s an agreement.”

“Exactly,” agreed Tom, nodding his head vehemently. “And like all contracts, it can be broken. And divorce lawyers are the ones who benefit.”

“Okay, okay,” said Spence tiredly. “Whatever, man.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Tom,” said Becky, who had emerged from the kitchen bearing another bottle of wine. “I don’t think marriage is just a contract.”

“Yeah?” Tom responded sardonically. “Then what else can it be?”

“It’s the foundation of a family,” Becky said with emotion. I know Becky’s family. They are ardent Catholics — involved in some kind of ‘movement’ – and they were none too happy about her moving in with Kieran a little under a year ago.

“Oh please,” said Tom, rolling his eyes. “Romantic mumbo-jumbo. Marriage is different for women than it is for men. Women think it’s about love and romance forever and ever. Men know the deal. It’s about working for the rest of your life to support someone who then can treat you any way she pleases.”

Women think marriage is about love and romance forever and ever. Men know the deal. It’s about working for the rest of your life to support some woman who then can treat you any way she pleases.

“Or, you could also say it’s about a woman giving up her career to stay at home and raise some man’s brats, only to be dumped when she turns 40,” retorted Meghan hotly. She had returned on Becky’s heels.

“Or, you could say that marriage is about any number of things” interjected a quiet voice from the corner of the living room. It was my date, Patrick.

We’d met about a month before at a choir meeting at the Catholic parish in Arlington, Virginia near where I live. My therapist had recommended singing as a way to help deal with my depression over the loss of my eight-year relationship with my college boyfriend.  The Parish has an outstanding Gregorian chant choir, something I’d always been intrigued by. 

Patrick is a funny kind of a guy. A bit of a nerd, maybe – not surprising in a policy analyst. I liked him, though. He was careful, measured and pretty good-looking, in a bookish sort of way. At first I thought he wasn’t that ‘into’ me, because he hadn’t made any physical advances. Yet, he’d kept texting, even calling, me.  

“Logically speaking, ‘marriage’ is whatever a particular culture defines it as,” Patrick explained calmly. “The Saudis. The Mormons. The Chinese. All these cultures define marriage according to their norms. What you all are fighting about is what ‘we’ define marriage as. The reason you are fighting is because there is no more ‘we’ in our culture, in the West.”

“The Saudis. The Mormons. The Chinese. All these cultures define marriage according to their norms. What you all are fighting about is what ‘we’ define marriage as. The reason you are fighting is because there is no more ‘we’ in our culture, in the West.”

Marriage,” Meghan declaimed with a tight, scornful smile,is whatever the law says it is.” 

Everyone looked at Tom for his reaction.

“What else would it be?” he shrugged diffidently. “I’m not sure where you’re headed with this, Patrick -?”

“This debate about what marriage is is symptomatic of the larger crisis in our culture,” Patrick said. “Whether or not you know it, it was the Catholic Church that set the rules for Christian marriage at the end of the Roman Empire.

“This, er, arrangement, has lasted a very long time,” he continued. “It’s been the foundation of what we call ‘civilization.’ Those rules – with divorce added, but only in ‘extreme’ cases, depending on the sect – were fundamentally untouched by the Protestant Reformation. They did not really start to change drastically until the last few decades…”

“…so, what you’re saying is that ‘the End is near,’ right?” interrupted Tom waggishly. “Are you one of these ‘Rapture’ guys?”

Everyone laughed, a bit relieved to reduce the tension. Patrick shrugged good-naturedly.

“Not really,” he said, unoffended. “That call is above my pay grade, as they say.”

“So what are you saying, Patrick?” asked Becky. She had settled herself down next to Patrick, intrigued.

“He’s saying he wants women to become legal sex slaves, like the Saudis have,” said Meghan sarcastically.

“YESSS!” cried Kieran, to general laughter.

“I’m saying,” said Patrick, unruffled, “that I think we are entering a time when ‘marriage’ will become whatever people want it to be. I don’t think the political will is there to maintain the current pseudo-Christian structure, enforced by the State.”

“A bonanza for the lawyers!” cried Tom in mock ecstasy. “Just imagine it, Meghan. Divorce cases with three, four, five or six sides – and court-appointed lawyers for all the children!”

“Just imagine it, Meghan. Divorce cases with three, four, five or six sides – and court-appointed lawyers for all the children!”

Meghan rolled her eyes.

“Probably,” Patrick shrugged indifferently. “But likely what will happen is that most people won’t bother to get married. Too expensive. Too stressful. Marriage is already becoming a luxury — for the rich, only.”

Hearing this, Melissa began to nod vehemently.

“I don’t need a piece of paper to make me feel secure!” she announced. “I make my own way in life, anyway. If someone wants to get out of a relationship, they will. No matter what the piece of paper says! Like Tom says: it’s a contract. And contracts are made to be broken.”

“This is why I love you,” said Tom reasonably, patting her affectionately. “Such a smart woman.”

“So Patrick, you think that marriage is on its way out?” Becky persisted.

“For most people,” Patrick responded. “Except Catholics, of course.”

“Why do you say that?” Meghan wanted to know. She and Spence had been married in a glamorous beach wedding in Jamaica. The ceremony was performed by the hotel’s non-denominational chaplain when Meghan learned that the local Catholic priest would not perform the marriage without pre-Cana certification. (“Who has time for that crap?” had been her pragmatic pronouncement. Spence, who wasn’t Catholic anyway, was away on a safari shoot at the time.)

“Because whatever the environment around it, the Church stays the same. Catholics have always defined ‘marriage’ as a sacrament,” Patrick answered calmly. “This was the case at the end of the Roman Empire. And it’s the case now.”

“Because whatever the environment around it, the Church stays the same. Catholics have always defined ‘marriage’ as a sacrament. This was the case at the end of the Roman Empire. And it’s the case now.”

“Mumbo-jumbo,” interjected Tom heartily.

“To you, of course,” said Patrick mildly. I caught my breath, wondering if Tom would realize that it was a rebuke. But the wine had done its job, and the law professor was too stoned to take offense. Melissa herself looked a little miffed, but said nothing.

“You can’t ‘un-do’ sacraments,” Patrick went on. “You can’t ‘un-do’ a baptism, for example. Once it’s done, it’s done.”

“Oh, please,” snorted Meghan in derision. “The Church grants annulments all the time.”

“You went to Catholic school just like we did,” Becky said suddenly. “Meghan, you know what an annulment is. It says that the sacrament never happened, because the right conditions weren’t present at the time of the marriage.”

At this, Kieran piped up.

“What conditions are these, then?” he said with a wink and a sidelong glance to Spence. “I’m, uh, just checking for future reference.”

“The conditions are that both parties must be fully aware of what they are doing, doing it of free will, without threat or coercion,” Becky declared.

“Whew!”  Kieran smirked in mock relief. “So a man can’t be forced to marry, then?”

Spence and Tom laughed uproariously at this.  Even Meghan and Melissa smiled.

“Don’t count on it, man,” Tom advised, mugging over the general hilarity. “You can be walking down that aisle and not even know how you got there…”

I kept watching Becky and Patrick throughout all of this. Becky’s face was glowing with emotion. Patrick looked thoughtful.

That was where the discussion ended, much to everyone’s relief. The rest of the evening was fairly amicable, though Becky looked somewhat distant. When Patrick and I got our coats to leave, I suddenly saw that she was dressed, too.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” she said quietly. “I could use a breath of fresh air.”

She glanced at Kieran, who looked unconcerned. He was finishing the wine with Melissa and Tom. Meghan and Spence had left earlier, albeit a bit stiffly.

Outside, our breath rose in white clouds in the frosty January night air, as we trekked on the Capitol Hill sidewalk. Patrick offered me his arm, which I took. It felt solid, warm, and real. As Becky shut the door behind us, we looked at each other for a long moment, oblivious to everything around us.

Patrick offered me his arm, which I took. It felt solid, warm, and real. As Becky shut the door behind us, we looked at each other for a long moment, oblivious to everything around us.

“I’m moving out,” Becky said suddenly.

Patrick and I stopped, incredulous, and turned to look at her. Her nose was red, against her pale skin. Her eyes shone with tears.

“I-I made a mistake,” she said miserably. “N-now I know.”

It all came out in a rush. How Kieran was not serious about the relationship, though she’d hoped that moving in together would make him so. How she couldn’t waste any more time. And how she felt like she was going to die.

“He’s going think this is a ploy,” I said, reluctantly. “He’s going to think this is all about getting him to marry you.”

Becky nodded.

“I know,” she said, wiping her eyes. “But it isn’t. I can see now – after tonight – that he doesn’t have a clue about marriage.”

“Actually,” I heard myself say, to my shock, “none of them do. Meghan thinks the law is all that matters. Tom thinks that money is all that matters. None of them have any idea that it is only the Sacrament that matters.”

“Yes,” Patrick said soberly. “And poor Melissa is going to have a rude awakening, though I don’t really think she believes what she is saying. She wants a family.”

Becky and I regarded him with astonishment.

“How did you know that?”

Patrick shrugged, “Because she’s a normal woman. And she’s ready. But if she gets pregnant, Tom won’t want the baby. He already has too many mouths to feed.”

“Tom is a loser,” Becky said darkly.

“Tom is in pain,” Patrick countered. “So he’s going to spread the pain around. Guilt hurts.”

We all looked at each other.

“Where will you go?” Patrick asked Becky, practically.

“I-I don’t know,” she said, sorrowfully. “I just know that I can’t stay in this relationship. Kieran doesn’t know what marriage is. He’s not ‘ready’ – whatever that means. And I don’t want to force myself on anyone. I can’t afford to waste any more time. I know what I want now. I want a Catholic marriage. I want the Sacrament.”

That’s when I heard myself say it.

“Y-you can move in with me,” I announced, with a broad smile. My apartment had a spare bedroom. It had been six months since my own long-distance relationship had melted under the strain of two widely-separated lives. And after tonight, I knew that it would never start up again.

I also knew that Patrick would never be moving in with me – not without a Catholic marriage, that is.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’s not ‘ready’ – whatever that means. And I don’t want to force myself on anyone. I can’t afford to waste any more time. I know what I want now. I want a Catholic marriage. I want the Sacrament.

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