I was nervous, but you wouldn’t have known it to look at me.
The courthouse hadn’t seemed this imposing before. But then, I hadn’t ever needed something from it before.
It was the last day in November. 2016. Less than a month earlier, Trump lost the popular vote. He was expected to win the electoral college. Trump and his VP, Mike Pence, infamous for his support of electroshock therapy for gay people and other civil rights abuses, were set to assume leadership of the US of A.
As we pulled up outside the courthouse, my love and I, the irony of it almost made me forget the hollow feeling in my gut. My love, Michelle, was assigned female at birth, and the family never came clean about any of it. At eighteen, Michelle went through a growth spurt. His voice changed. He had rage issues. There’s a word for that kind of gender-bending, these days: intersex. The word used to be hermaphrodite, but words change, and the words really aren’t the point. Michelle is someone who doesn’t fit in either the M or the F box that so many forms require you to fill out.
Neither Michelle nor I identify as gay. We love who we love. I’m agender, he’s intersex. By some definitions, we’re both transgender, but neither of us wants to transition; gender doesn’t define us. We’ve both been married before. Both married to men named David, as it turned out, and divorced rather agreeably. But our state didn’t legalize marriage for people like us, people with an F stamped on our driver’s licenses, until the Supreme Court finally, forcibly, caught the whole country up with the idea of equal rights in 2015.
We had no idea how the people in our smalltown courthouse felt about gay marriage. Legal or not, they might try to throw up roadblocks. There was no way to know what to expect. As if just getting married wasn’t enough to be nervous and excited about, we didn’t even know if we would get that far.
The paperwork was all in my backpack. An unseasonably warm breeze ruffled my scarf as I pulled the pack from the back seat. Michelle, long black leather coat swirling dramatically, draped a long arm over my shoulder.
That always makes me feel better. Always makes me smile.
Michelle’s hip had been acting up, so we took our time, trying to find the entrance to the courthouse. It was all the way around the back, of course. Construction. When is there not construction? But he kept his arm over my shoulder as we went, so I didn’t mind.
I’d never seen a security guard at a small-town courthouse. Where I grew up you just walked in, got lost, asked directions, and eventually found where you were headed. No metal detector, no guard. But this courthouse was different.
The security guard looked us over, Michelle’s long black leather coat, my short bright red hair. Told us we’d have to take the backpack back to the car, and Michelle’s wallet with the chain, too. Chains can be deadly, I suppose. I took our packet of documents out of the bag and handed it off to Michelle. He extracted the drivers license from his wallet. We didn’t say why we were there, yet, but I still didn’t want to leave Michelle alone with the fellow. Granted, he was a full eight inches taller than the guard was, and plenty good at taking care of himself… it just didn’t feel right. So as soon as I was out of sight of the door, I ran. Dashed to the car, dumped the backpack, dumped my coat. Dashed back, locked the car door with that handy little keyfob as I did.
I guess all the working out I do is good for something, because I wasn’t even winded when I got back to the entrance. And everything seemed fine. The metal detector didn’t turn me away. It wasn’t until I asked the guard where we should go to get a marriage license that he stopped meeting my eyes. That’s when that hollow feeling jumped up my throat again.
“First floor,” he said gruffly. “Across the hall.”
We wandered down the wrong hallway first, of course, and he let us wander for a minute before he finally directed us to the elevator. Polite enough, but still not meeting our eyes. We both knew he didn’t approve. It was in every line of his body.
The first floor of the building was ornate, not like the bare commercial basement we’d come in through. Carpets, high ceilings, dark wood paneling, heavy frames. We found the probate court door easily enough. We hadn’t talked about it, but both of us stood farther apart than we usually do. No more arm over my shoulder. We walked through the doorway, into the probate court office, and stood awkwardly for a long moment in front a counter that was almost chest-high.
Someone asked how they could help us. A young woman in a red sweater looked up when we said we were there for a marriage license. She hopped out of her desk chair and came over. We went through all the paperwork we had brought, made sure Michelle’s W2 would work as a stand-in for his missing social security card (which we’d lost in an epic roller coaster adventure earlier this year). Everything was fine, until we said we’d both been married before.
Neither of us had brought our divorce paperwork. It hadn’t even crossed our minds. I was reasonably certain I knew where mine was. I checked the time — 3:30 pm, and the website had said to be at the courthouse before 4 pm to apply for a marriage license. We lived maybe 10, 15 minutes away from the courthouse. It was possible. Barely.
“If we can get the paperwork, do you think we’ll still have time to get the marriage license today?” I asked. I was doing my damnedest to convey warmth, and worry, and the gut-sense that we were real people in a vulnerable moment.
She glanced up at the clock. “It really depends on how busy things get,” she hedged. “But I think you’ll have time.”
I thanked her as we gathered up the documents. Just two more things we needed to grab to get this marriage license. Just two. We had time to get it done today if everything went smoothly. I knew we did.
If we didn’t… our wedding might not quite work out the way we’d planned.
It wouldn’t be a disaster, I told myself as we rode the elevator down. Not a disaster at all, as we passed the empty security station. We’d roll with the punches and find a way to make everything work out. But I did not relish trying to drag Michelle out to the courthouse again on another day. Bad enough that we both had to be there — bad enough, with him on a tight writing deadline and a short fuse for people in general. Worse, because that deadline had technically already passed.
We held hands on the way back to the car. I could tell his hip was still hurting, so I didn’t push the pace.
“I think we have time to get this done today. I know where my divorce papers are,” I said as we plumped into our seats. “Do you have yours?”
“If I have them, they’d be in the black filing cabinet in the bedroom.” He pulled his phone out and scrolled through news without really reading. “I almost didn’t tell them I’d been married before. Not entirely sure I even have a copy.”
I winced at that, but didn’t say anything. If the papers existed, we’d find them. Maybe it wouldn’t be today. But like we’ve already established, that would not be a disaster.
Not unless we can’t get the papers in order until after Trump takes office and he or his cabinet find some way to re-illegalize gay marriage or make anybody who doesn’t want us to get married bold enough to throw up more roadblocks. But we’re not there yet so it really doesn’t need worrying about and we really have better things to focus on right now. Don’t we. Focus.
“Well.” I breathed. “Let’s see what we can find at home. Would you spin the pokestops on my phone while we zoom?” Michelle took my phone, and I eased out of the parking space and into traffic. He didn’t look entirely happy about it. He and some friends had gotten me into the game, and now, just a few months after launch, I was the only one who still played much. The game was too buggy for the rest of them, or they were too busy.
I drove around the square slowly, slow enough that he could spin all the stops and get their rewards. We were almost out of town when a rare pokemon showed up — a Lickitung, I think. (Let me just say for the record that I have no knowledge of Pokemon outside of this game. The creatures are bizarre and if it didn’t reward walking and exploring new places so effectively, I would have nothing to do with it.) Michelle turned on his version of the game to try to catch the critter, but before it finished loading, traffic sped up and we were out of range.
“None of these fucking stops are giving me anything,” he muttered. “They’re all ‘Try Again Later’.”
“Ah,” I winced. “They changed the game again. It’s been that way for a couple days. If you’re going over 20, nothing pops and you can’t get any of the stops.” I could tell he was upset, and tried to keep my tone lighthearted. “It’s almost enough to make me stop playing in the car.”
We were close to home already. Michelle went back to reading on his phone after catching one last poke-critter, while I navigated the maze of back streets. At a stop sign, I glanced over to my phone in his lap. It was stuck on one of the pokemon screens. I reached over and tapped out of it as we started up again.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that.” His mouth was tight. He looked straight ahead.
“I was just closing out of the screen. The only reason I keep it open any more when I’m driving is to see if anything rare pops up. When it’s stuck on that screen I can’t do that,” I explained.
“I just… you asked me to play for you. And now you aren’t trusting me to do it.”
That didn’t sound like him. I glanced over as we pulled up to the house. “It isn’t about trust, Beloved. You weren’t paying attention to it, so I tapped out of the screen. But we’re here – let’s get our papers and talk about it more on the way back to the courthouse.”
My divorce papers were right where I thought I’d put them, in the little black accordion file stuffed under my desk. “Any luck?” I called, heading to the bedroom.
“Got ’em! Right at the front.” He straightened and held out a fat wad of official-looking paper to me as I came in.
I took the stack and checked the time. Not quite 3:40. “I think we’ve got time to do it today,” I grinned.
As I pulled out of the driveway, I kept my phone closed.
“So… would you rather not play Pokemon on my phone when we’re driving?” I kept one eye on Michelle and one on the road. He didn’t seem quite so agitated, but he still wasn’t calm.
“No. I’d rather you didn’t play while you’re driving. And I feel like an ass for saying it.”
“Beloved,” I began.
“Apparently it takes a whole lot of frustration to actually get me to come out and say it,” he fumed.
“Beloved, that’s exactly what I need to hear. I’m not good at subtle.” I studied his profile, the straight nose, the proud chin. “But our relationship — you know you can tell me what to do. There doesn’t even have to be a reason as good as this one.”
“It would just suck if you were driving and playing Pokemon and hit a kid or something,” he said.
“Yeah, it would. I’ve been careful, but if you want me to stop playing while I’m driving entirely, I will do it. I promise. That’s… that’s what it means to me to be your submissive.”
He looked up at that. “I know,” he sighed as he glanced out the window. “And I’m trying not to abuse that power.”
I put a hand on his leg. “Or abuse me. I know. But this – I can’t tell you how much this helps me.”
“This – Beloved, I don’t know how you do it.” We turned back onto the main road into town. “My whole life, if anybody told me what to do, I’d want to do the opposite. I told you about the shower revolt with my mom, right?” He nodded. Suddenly, my eyes started to tear up. I hadn’t been expecting a minor squabble to run this deep, but here it was. “Somehow, you get right past that contrarian streak. I love knowing the things you want me to do, because once I know them… there’s nothing I want to do more. I love being able to make you happy.”
There was nothing I loved more.
“Can I still play while I’m driving around the graveyard, though?” I asked, hoping. The graveyard was the best place to restock in town. It had become the second home for pretty much everyone who was still playing.
“Playing in the graveyard’s fine,” he said gently. “It just makes me nervous when you have it open all the time.”
For once, I didn’t argue, even in my head. He was right. And it actually felt nice not to split-screen my attention while driving like I’d been doing. It felt even better to know I was doing what he wanted.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still nervous about the marriage license. But I felt more settled, not quite as hollow as I had before. The courthouse still loomed, but now we knew where to go, and we had all of our paperwork. There wasn’t much that could go wrong, at this point.
“This just doesn’t look right.” The woman in the white sweater shook her head as she pored carefully over my divorce paperwork. “See, the judge didn’t even sign this last page.”
She called another courthouse employee over, and the two put their heads together. The official seal on the back page of the document was clear. The stamped date and certification was clear. The second woman looked up. “Where did you get your divorce?”
“Cook County, Illinois,” I replied. Nodding towards the document, I said, “I do wonder if that’s just how they do the signature there. I think this was a certified copy, not the original.”
The other woman nodded. “You know, that’s a good point.”
“Is there any chance you could call them and check?” I asked. “I know it’s a little late in the day, but it is an hour earlier there.”
“Yeah, I think we could do that.” She glanced back to the first woman. “Would you take care of it?”
“What, call Illinois? Now?”
Michelle and I exchanged glances.
“I mean, if Kim were here, she’d be able to tell and we wouldn’t have to go through all that. I just don’t know if they’ll be able to get it done today.” She talked to the other employee, as if we weren’t standing right there.
“It’s going to be really hard for us to both come back on a different day,” I admitted. “We’re writing under a deadline. If there’s any way it can happen today that would be really great.”
The younger woman in the red sweater, the one who had helped us before, piped up from her desk. “Isn’t Kim in a meeting? She’s still here, right?”
In the flurry, as someone went off to see where Kim was, we were left face to face with the older woman. The one who was so terribly concerned that we might both be forging divorce papers. The one who still wasn’t making eye contact with either of us.
“Well, while they’re figuring that out, are these papers ok?” I asked. Michelle hadn’t had a lawyer on his divorce — dissolution, technically — but as far as we knew, everything was official. Just like it had been for the past 10-plus years.
The woman flipped through the stack of papers. “I don’t see a judge’s order here either. You say this was in our courthouse?” She met Michelle’s eyes for the first time. “You’ll have to check across the hallway, make sure they have all the papers there. You can both take a seat out in the hallway while we take care of the other one.” She gestured to the open hall behind us.
Reluctantly, we stepped out into the hallway. It was almost 4:10 already. At this point, they could decide to close the office on a whim, and we’d be sunk. Michelle poked his head in the door across the hall where the records were and struck up a conversation with someone.
I checked my phone. No signal meant no pokemon, and no escape from the fact that there was nothing I could do right now to help our chances of getting a marriage license today.
I knew how much Michelle hated this kind of bureaucracy. I did too; I just tried to focus on the point and not get sucked into the hating. Once all this bureaucracy was finally done, we’d be able to get married. And that would be worth a lot more hassle than this.
I just hoped Kim would get out of her meeting in time, and be able to help us.
Michelle ambled back out into the hall, brandishing a tiny slip of paper clipped to top of the divorce paperwork.
“No surprise, but they had no idea why the office needed this,” he said under his breath. “There was a lot of eye-rolling, but we’re all set.”
Right then, they called us back into the probate court office. We were whisked off to the back, where Kim was just sitting down. Standing off to one side while she finished a conversation over some case files, we had a chance to look around at her desk.
“Are those your kids?” I asked when she finally looked up.
“Almost. They’re my grandkids,” she said as she leafed through my divorce papers.
“You don’t look old enough to have grandkids!” I was surprised – until she said that, I would have put her in her 30s, 40s at the latest. She was slender and moved quickly, but with a deliberate economy that made her come across as incredibly efficient.
“Well, bless you,” she said, finally cracking a smile. “My son will be turning 32 soon enough. Still not used to it myself.”
Without even bringing up the divorce paperwork, she picked up the phone and dialed. “I’m just going to check the records with the Cook County court,” she said around the mouthpiece.
“Thank you,” I mouthed, and we leaned against the wall to wait. While she was on hold or navigating automated phone menus, a couple other people stopped by to talk with her. One chatty, long-haired woman sat in a chair next to where we were standing and started talking offhand about how complicated the phone systems were. She had a pile of paperwork on her lap.
Another couple, a man and a woman, came in through the door asking about a marriage license. The older woman who had raised all the concerns about our divorce paperwork went to help them. I couldn’t hear everything they said, but they walked out with their marriage license in hand before the phone call ended. I really hoped we could get ours settled today, too.
Right then, Kim got through to a real person. A moment more, and she was reading off the record number. Time flickered. The next few seconds felt like forever. She thanked the person on the other end and hung up.
“Everything’s fine. You’re all set,” she affirmed crisply. It was 4:25 pm.
The other woman sitting by us leaned forward. “I bet I know exactly how that confusion happened,” she started to confide. “It’s a little complicated. They have this thing where…” she paused, shook her head.
I don’t know if my face conveyed the urgency I was feeling, or whether she realized that her explanation might take too long. She cut herself off before I could. “But you don’t need to hear this right now. Go on, get your license, and congratulations.” She smiled and waved as she turned to Kim.
We hurried back to the main desk, armed not only with our small mountain of paperwork, but with official approval, too. The older woman in the white sweater who had helped the other couple started to stand up and head over to us, but the younger one who had explained things on our first visit beat her to it.
“I can take care of them,” she said to the older woman with a faint smile.
The next few minutes were a whirlwind. Our full names, places of birth, parent’s names, everything was cross-checked and printed on a form with ornate curlicues on the edges. One typo meant a swift reprint. We handed over the cash fee. She handed our driver’s licenses back.
And held out our marriage license with a lopsided smile.
I think we thanked her several times. I remember wishing I had a business card to give her, though I suppose I know where she works and I could go thank her again any time. One thing I know for certain is that when we got our marriage license, it was 4:32 pm.
We walked out of the courthouse arm in arm. I made a conscious effort not to beam at everyone we passed, but I probably failed. I might not have been trying very hard.
We settled into the car. I leaned my head back against the seat in utter relief. “I am so, so glad we got that done today.”
Michelle didn’t respond right away. I looked over at him. “I… Beloved, aren’t you glad about this? I mean, I know you love me, but you don’t, I don’t know. You don’t really seem happy about this part of it.”
“No,” he said softly. “No, I’m not happy about this part of it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re already married.” He took my hand, held it to his chest. “We already have that bond in our hearts, ever since the public proposal. That kind of recognition is more than many cultures need to recognize a marriage as valid. So this piece of it, the bureaucracy, the license, isn’t the important thing. Not to me.” He kissed my knuckles. He seemed about to say something more, but he stopped himself.
“What is it?” One of his eyebrows had a quirk that usually means something’s going on. It was quirking hard.
“You saw that other couple that came in while we were at Kim’s desk? The man and the woman?”
I nodded that I had. “I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, though. What about them?”
“I thought you might have missed that. Maybe… well. I don’t really like telling you things that make your view of the world more pessimistic,” he hedged.
“I like my view of the world to be realistic. You know I can’t do that if I’m missing facts. Besides, I’d rather have an accurate opinion than a comfortable one,” I reminded him.
He sighed. “I thought you’d say that. Well. I heard the man say he had been married and divorced before.” He shot me a look. “But the woman in the white sweater, who helped them?”
“She didn’t even ask to see his divorce papers.”