Columns

A Far East Hippie with American Style

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Ken Wong, 27

What is your personal style? 

I am a hippie from the Far East!  When I was 10, my mother moved to Baltimore where I learned to speak English. I would speak Mandarin and Cantonese with my mother (still do).  As I grew up, I would visit family in Hong Kong and dressed in vintage Americana clothes from thrift stores when I traveled.

What are your tattoos?

They are the story of my life.

Like for example?

Here I have a tough guy tribal tattoo that was put on when I was competing in martial arts. I was 17 and it gave me strength.

And your hair?

It is a dredded Mohawk. It’s stylish and out there, but comfortable. I am a hairstylist so I don’t want to have to deal with my hair every day. Plus it’s cool.

Do you ever dress up?

For weddings and funerals.

What are you doing for the weekend?

I’m doing yoga tomorrow and going to listen to electronic music Saturday night. I’m crashing a Baltimore cookout on the fourth!

The Arrow from My Bow

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I was ashamed, but I did it anyway.  Over twenty years ago, I had a daughter without the man who had told me he was my best friend.  He wasn’t at Union Memorial Hospital when she was born.  He had moved to North Carolina to reconcile with his wife.  

I have difficulty with intimacy.  My relationships with men have not been satisfying. 

When my daughter was born, she screamed.  I knew that was supposed to be a good sign, but it was painful to hear her in distress.  My obstetrician placed her on my chest.  I reached for her, stroking her.  Trying to comfort her, I called her, “Sweetheart.”  Instantly, she stopped crying.  Her little head bobbed in the hospital blanket, following the sound of my voice. 

My bond with my daughter is the best one I have.  For her, I devote my time, resources and affection.  What I knew about parenthood was this: I didn’t want my child to be raised like I was.  That is probably a standard vow that many make who have survived childhoods that lacked stability or support.  Mine was fraught with the neglect of a woman who was unable to care for or nurture me.

I did not want my daughter to ever wonder if she was loved or wanted. 

My daughter’s father moved back to Baltimore when she was a toddler and re-entered our lives.  He took us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  To the Aquarium, downtown.  To Hershey Park. 

I craved him and eventually we resumed our romance.  But he was still married.  I told no one, but my daughter knew.  She told me she could hear her father’s voice when he visited me after she was put to bed. I tried not to think about the kind of example I was setting. 

Again, I was ashamed, but I did it anyway.

I had to work full time and put my daughter in day care, but we spent our free time together.  We took daily walks to the playground next to the Bykota Senior Center or along a wooded path behind the Towson YMCA we discovered together.  We went to Pumpkinland at Weber’s Farm.  She had her picture taken on Santa’s lap in his workshop on the promenade of the Inner Harbor.  At the end of each work week, we went out on Friday night dates; to Friendly’s on York Road and a movie at the Towson Commons.  My daughter also rode the horses on Friday nights.  She’d wave to me from the carousel, centered in the food court of the White Marsh Mall. 

We spent a week’s vacation every summer visiting relatives with children – her cousins – in Massachusetts or Prince Edward Island.  Twice, I saved enough to fly with her to Orlando.  Before we left for Disney World, she patted down her clothes that were stacked inside my suitcase.   My daughter gave me a grin I still remember, before we closed the suitcase together.  

We weathered temper tantrums, of course.  I remember one at the Carroll County Farm Museum Fall Harvest Days when I had to carry her to the car.  We stopped at a small dairy store about a mile from the farm museum, though.  Sitting on a wooden bench outside the store, we were both soothed by ice cream.

From age 10 on, my daughter was passionate about horses.  I was her chauffeur, but I was not a fan.  The barns smelled.  They were suffocating in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter.  I never enjoyed rising before dawn on weekend mornings to follow a horse trailer to a show who-knows-where.

But we did most of our talking in the car.  She spoke of the horses as though they were human.  I’d learn about her friendships.  Her schoolwork.  We talked about her uncles, aunt, cousins.  My parents, her grandparents.

We did not talk much about her dad.  He left his wife again when my daughter was twelve, for someone else.  Not me.

Last year, my daughter graduated from college.  She has chosen to remain in the city where she went to school.  I miss her every day and recently drove up to see her.

She called me to confirm the night before I was to come.  And then she called me a minute or so after we had hung up, to ask me if anything was wrong.  She said she’d detected something in my voice.  “Nope,” I told her.  “Nothing’s wrong.”  I cherished her concern, though.  She was emerging from her awkward, uncomfortable urge to get away from me.  An urge I’d tried to overlook. 

The summer before she left for college was the worst one for me.  By then, I no longer knew all of my daughter’s friends. 

One night in mid-August, 2006, my daughter did not come home.  I woke at four a.m. with an horrific knot in my stomach.  The pain would not subside; she was nowhere in the house.  By seven a.m., I was panicked.  I forced myself to make coffee, walk the dog, water my impatiens.  By eight a.m. I was calling every one of her friends I knew and got the phone number of the boy with whom she went out.  When I got a voice message on his line, I called the Baltimore County Police. 

The officer sat in my dining room, writing on a form that was encased in a metal box.  I tried not to cry while he asked me what happened.   Had we fought?  What was she wearing?   I’d sewed one of the straps back on her white dress just as a car pulled up in front of our house.  It was driven by a dark haired young man.  She hadn’t introduced me to him and he did not get out of the car.  Once more, shame engulfed me.  I couldn’t give the police officer a license plate number or description of that car.  I was a horrible mother whose daughter had disappeared with some stranger I hadn’t bothered to check out.

The officer asked me if my daughter had ever been fingerprinted.  I told him she had, that a criminal background check was required when she worked at St. Timothy’s riding camp.  The officer had one final question, and he cautioned me not to be alarmed.  Did my daughter have dental records?

I knew why he was asking.  I nodded my head, tears brimming.  Forcing my fingers, I signed the form allowing access to her records. 

The black techno cube on the officer’s shoulder crackled.  He jumped up, excused himself and turned around.  The voice coming from the box described my daughter’s white dress.  And then the blessed words:  She is walking down York Road.

The officer smiled at me, “Ma’am, we’ve found your daughter.  I’m going to go pick her up and give her a ride home.”

The relief.  The elation I felt was quickly extinguished when I saw my daughter: “What the hell!”  She called me a psycho mom.  None of her friends had a mom like me.  I suffocated her. 
A week later, I drove her to college and helped lug her stuff up to her freshman dorm room.  The crush of her absence hit me as I climbed back up the steps to our house.  My neighbors from both sides of my rowhouse were enjoying the beautiful summer evening.  Citronella candles glowed.  A grill was smoking.  The neighbors knew where I had been and asked me how it had gone.

I could not speak.  I simply cried.  They invited me to join them and I did. 

Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:  “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth … Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”  I believe that I learned to nurture myself by caring for my daughter.  With her, I am content; committed.  Loved.

 Five years later, I drove to my daughter’s.   She had introduced him to me a year before.  I was pleased then that he was nervous about meeting me.

Seven months later, he spent Thanksgiving with us in Baltimore. The last time we were all together, in February, he picked up the tab of more than one hundred dollars at a delicious seafood restaurant.

My daughter chose a good man.  This early spring, they sat side-by-side at a comfortable corner table.  It was one of the first warm days of the year and the whole wall behind us was open to the sidewalk.  My daughter’s former college roommate was our waitress.  I am concerned that no one with whom she has graduated is working in the field in which they majored.  I am hopeful the recession will ebb.  My daughter is paying for her rent, utilities, and food with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs.  I am paying off all of her college loans.

But we did not talk of money when we sat together, sharing a smile over the table.  We laughed.  We toasted our threesome and I ate the best French toast I’d ever tasted.
 My daughter is beautiful.  She wears layers of colorful clothes that I never recognize.  I no longer buy her anything for her wardrobe and she has a style that exudes her originality.  Her hair is auburn with natural red highlights.  I was delighted to see these red strands again.  She is no longer dying her hair ebony. 

As I watched her, I realized with a jolt how comfortable she was with this man.  And he smiled when he talked to her.  Watched her when she spoke, nodding his head.  The devotion was natural between them. 

My daughter’s boyfriend has introduced her to his family.  They share their lives; they live together.

Choosing not to lean on anyone was the only way I knew how to survive.  But my daughter is taking a different path and I marvel at how well she is doing it. 

College Touring: Finding The Right Fit

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“Too much flannel.” This was the text message our high school senior sent to our second child, a junior in high school, as she drove into Burlington, in the Green Mountain State. Emily and my husband were on the first of what promise to be many college tours. They have been across the back roads of New England, looking at some of the finest institutions a young person might attend: Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Dartmouth, and University of Vermont. My sarcastic reaction to the flannel observation? “Well, it’s good to know that she’s evaluating the University on its merits!” 

It is hard to know what the real purpose of the college touring process is. Of course, we want our kids to see campuses, to get a sense of the college life. And to distinguish among the many different experiences they might have: urban, suburban or rural; large, medium or small; liberal arts or specifically oriented to a certain discipline, like math or engineering.  We want them to “demonstrate interest”, as the colleges put it.  We want them to get their foot in the door.  But there is a finer, truer purpose, as well. 

One of the things we have observed as our daughter engages in this fantastic step of growing up is that choosing a college, and the culture that comes with it, is really about choosing who she wants to be. So, when she glows about the range of courses offered or the kinds of entrepreneur programs one or the other school has, she is really learning, and telling us, that these elements are a reflection of her future self. She is choosing a match for the person she wants to become.

What a gift we offer our children. Unlike so many places around the world where the options are limited, we have, for better or worse, created and supported a system of education where the sky is the limit. There are so many different kinds of colleges and universities, and our children really have the chance to “match” with a place—to connect in a hopeful, growth-filled way. So, while my first reaction to Emily’s text message was along the lines of an eye-rolling “Oh God,” my considered reflection is that her text message may be a fair observation about the fabric of the place, and one that did not feel right for her. And that is good enough for me. 

Federal Hill Find Mixes New with Old

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HOT HOUSE: 227 Grindall Street, Baltimore, 21230

Open plan, architect-designed Federal-style townhouse in prime Federal Hill location. Two thousand square feet plus roof-top deck: $485,000

What: Three bedrooms, three baths, on three stories, over 2,000 square feet in all, with a two story atrium that sets a light and airy tone in this 2006 townhouse. Brick and stucco exterior blends surprisingly well with its older neighbors and a big bay window in front with garage doors underneath makes it distinctive, in a good way. Garage is a boon for both parking and storage.

The modern open-concept design means:

1. A sleek eating area. 2. A chef’s kitchen with stainless steel backsplash, large breakfast bar and premium appliances and 3. The atrium, with cool metal railings leading around and up the stairs. Downstairs, a large 13′ x 18′ sunken living room with fireplace opens onto a protected terrace big enough for tables and a grill. Upstairs are three bedrooms–master has a walk in closet–and access to the roof-top terrace, with stellar urban views, especially at night. Hardwood floors downstairs, carpet upstairs, all in pristine condition. 

Where: Grindall Street is two blocks south of Federal Hill Park, and intersects with Riverside Avenue.  Nearby is Digital Harbor High School, among all the other attractions of Federal Hill–the park, the harbor, etc. Your local will be Porter’s, the popular Federal Hill pub. 

Why: This is a pretty good-sized house by Federal Hill standards. The light and space of the modern interior makes a nice change from older townhouses. Roomy enough for a (smallish) family. Also, walkability rating is 98.

Why Not:  Rooftop views: awesome. Views from interior windows: not so much. Third floor also feels like a bit of a let down after the downstairs. 

Would suit:  Chic urbanites of any age.

Big Fish Q & A With Collector, Designer and BMA Trustee Stiles Colwill

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If you subscribe to the concept of predestination – a phenomenon immune to scientific scrutiny – then, perhaps, you could make the argument that Stiles Colwill’s given name ordained him to a career in design and connoisseurship, and to an avocation as an art collector. (Of course, you’d need to fudge his name’s spelling a trifle.) 

As founder and proprietor, he oversees the Lutherville-based Stiles T. Colwill Interiors, designing living spaces for local and out-of-town clients, while also operating Halcyon House Antiques and working as a partner with prominent New York City antiques firm John Rosselli & Associates.

Not incidentally, he has served on the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees since 1995, presiding as its chairman until last week when he stepped down after five years. Previously, he spent 16 years at the Maryland Historical Society, starting as an associate curator and concluding his tenure there as its director.

Colwill was born in Baltimore and raised on bucolic, 122-acre Halcyon Farm in Greenspring Valley, where for decades his family bred thoroughbred racehorses (his father, J. Fred Colwill, rode Blockade to win the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1938, 1939, and 1940). Stiles Colwill, 59, only recently discontinued the breeding operation, but he still lives at Halcyon, along with his life and business partner of more than 20 years, Jonathan Gargiulo, plus a menagerie of horses, cows, and dogs. The pair maintains elegant gardens and a home chock-ablock with early American paintings, Maryland decorative arts, and 19th century French bronzes.

Although he has stepped down as BMA board chair, Colwill continues as a board member, helping to shepherd the museum’s fundraising campaign and physical renovations. “Stiles’ dedication to the BMA is remarkable,” notes museum director Doreen Bolger. “He has left a huge mark on this wonderful institution.”      

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence. 

When I look at my glass, it is always more than half full.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they? 

Many people set goals for themselves; I didn’t really. I just always wanted to give back: to my parents, friends, and the community. So rather than goals, I have had rules to live by that were instilled in me when I was very young. One is from McDonogh’s lower school poem: “Be the best of whatever you are.” Another is from my father: “Always be kind to others.” And a third is from my mother: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed? 

It came from my grandfather Tuttle when I spent a summer with him at about age eight: If you want it, go after it. You can do or be anything that you want. All you have to do is try. 

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?

I guess that I have been very lucky and never been given any bad advice.
 
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime? 

While I was not “surprised” by them, I know these to be true and live by them:

Don’t judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to people.
Always be yourself.
Never look back – you cannot change the past.

What is the best moment of the day? 

First light on the farm. It is amazingly beautiful.

What is on your bedside table? 

First, let me say something about the table itself. It came from Andy Warhol’s estate sale, and it was his bedside table before it was mine. I remember seeing it in his house years ago, and it serves as a wonderful souvenir of my time living in New York City. The table always makes me smile and wonder, “What would it say if it could talk?”

On it is a silver cigar box that was the rider’s trophy for the 1938 Maryland Hunt Cup, given to me by my father. It was one of his most treasured possessions – and now, mine, too. Also, fresh flowers from our garden or an orchid from our greenhouse, plus stacks of recent books and trade magazines.

What is your favorite local charity?

The Baltimore Museum of Art.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing? 

Go for it.

Why are you successful? 

Hard work.

What is your favorite piece of artwork (painting, sculpture, installation, textile, furniture, whatever) in the BMA’s permanent collection — and why do you love it so much?

Many people do not recognize this as a work of art, but is it the biggest one in the collection: the magnificent, inspirational BMA building itself — perfectly designed by John Russell Pope. It affects every aspect of the BMA, and I always find new details in it every time that I visit.

What single thing could Maryland’s thoroughbred racing industry do to help save itself, rather than being repeatedly bailed out by taxpayers’ dollars?

The racetracks were successful when operated by great owners like brothers Ben and Herman Cohen (Pimlico) and John Schapiro (Laurel Park). Let someone who is passionate about racing – and deep-pocketed – take over the tracks. Maybe developer David Cordish; let’s see what magic he can make of them.
 
Tell us your most effective universal decorating tip, applicable to living spaces as diverse as urban loft to rural cottage to double-wide trailer to suburban mansion to stately manor.

Make it your own. Always have personal items around. Home is really a nest, and we are all nesters at heart. If you make it personal, you will always feel at home.

Owning Her Look in Colored Sleeves

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Looking for people with a look, we headed to one of my favorite hair salons in Baltimore, balance the salon. Balance is located on Cold Spring Lane in Roland Park and I think it is a prerequisite that you must have a tattoo to work there.  

What do you do for a living?

I’m the front desk coordinator at balance salon (on Coldspring Lane in Roland Park). The receptionist!

How would you describe the way you dress?

Eclectic. I love vintage. I love Urban Outfitters. I love color.

So lets talk about that tattoo!

You mean my sleeve?

Sleeve. Of course. The colors are amazing!

It took six months to complete. I got it in Frederick, Maryland.

 

What do you see in your future?

I’ve worked in salons since I was 16 and I cut hair for two and a half years, but I have a business degree so who knows!


What’s the Budget for College Touring Travel?

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Is there a budget for college touring travel? 

I often wonder how the rest of the world seems to cruise through these expensive times, seemingly without a care.  How is it everyone else appears to have so much more money?  We work hard at professional jobs, and are pretty conservative with saving and planning.  But, I’ll say it, there is still a budget!  So, when I listen to the really sweet, intelligent father whom I’m speaking with at a cocktail party, and he is describing the next three summer weekends with his rising senior daughter — one to Miami, one to Colorado, and one to New Orleans — I think, “Jeez, I wish I were your daughter!”

It begs the question, is there a budget for college touring travel, or should there be?  Is the college investment just so huge that a few grand on the front end for sightseeing trips is just insignificant?  Nothing more than a rounding error?  Will we take our children wherever they want to go, no matter how far or how many schools are on the list?  Truth is, I just don’t know.  So far, we have taken two road trips to New England.  And stayed with family at most of our stops.  Cheap.  But this is our first child, and she is making it easy.  No interest in the West Coast, or the deep South.  Her first filter for the college search is geography – “New England, please.”

So, even though we know we’ll travel a relatively easy road with this child in terms of college touring, we can still find something to worry about.  She has siblings!  What makes sense?  What is reasonable?  Should we refuse to fly or drive to the really unlikely “reach” schools?  Or does that telegraph that we don’t have any confidence in our child’s ability to get in there?  Should we tell him/her it doesn’t make sense to spend time and money (both finite resources in our lives) going to the schools that are utter “safeties”, where they are unlikely to attend?  Or does that telegraph the message that that school isn’t good enough?

I’m working myself into a pitch!  Perhaps I should just take a deep breath, and remember it will all be okay.  Perhaps I should accept that there need not be a formula for everything in life, and maybe we’ll wing it, child by child.  Perhaps the answer will be driven by the disposable income at any given time.  If you have an answer, please, comment.    

Elegant Victorian on Large, Secluded Lot in Mt. Washington

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HOT HOUSE: 5603 Roxbury Place, Mt. Washington, 21209

1880 Victorian with eight bedrooms on 2.83 secluded acres in Mt. Washington, with unusually fine period interiors: $749,000

What: A fixer-upper, for sure. But the location is unique, and the house has both character and elegance. A three story, shingle-style Victorian in wood and stone, with a covered, full-length open porch along the back of the house. Porch overlooks a large private backyard that slopes down to the woods, and is supported underneath by grand stone arches and stone walkway. Inside, a huge entrance hall with hardwood floors and fireplace sets the stage (there are seven fireplaces in the house). A wide sweeping staircase rises to the second floor. Ten foot ceilings, carved moldings and amazing woodwork in the large first floor rooms — living room, library and dining room, which is papered in chinoiserie wallpaper. Kitchen has been updated with wood cabinetry and modern appliances. Central air and gas, radiator heat. Upstairs, a double-wide landing and six further bedrooms are airy and full of light. Third floor has two additional bedrooms, house has three and a half bathrooms. Definitely, a lot of house for the price.      

Where: Roxbury Place is a magical-feeling street tucked away in a wooded glen, but an easy walk to Mt. Washington village shops, restaurants, schools, etc.  The village light rail station means easy access to downtown, stadiums, trains, airports. Mt. Washington is a mile or so north of Northern Parkway on Falls Road. Turn left to go over the Kelly Avenue Bridge, bear left onto South Avenue. Roxbury Place is on the left.

Why: Because you love old houses, and you both lost your heart to the place when you walked in the door. Life here will be like living in a 19th century English rectory. 

Why Not: Roxbury Place is a peaceful, wooded lane that badly needs repaving – looks like it might not be a priority for Baltimore City snow removal either.

Would suit: Decorator manqué, someone with an eye for furniture. House can accommodate an almost infinite number of gilt chairs, linen presses, velvet sofas…with great interior vistas and architectural details too.

Signs of Style at an Early Age

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Personal style can be learned, certainly, but some are born with it.  We thought pre-school sisters Ava and Lillian showed signs of a genetic predisposition when we spotted the two stylish little girls eating ice cream with their Daddy. Ava, 5, and Lillian, 3, may be younger than your average frock star, but they own their look.

You both look so pretty. I love what you’re wearing! Even your flip-flops match!

Ava: We both like dresses.

Who picks out your clothes to wear for the day, Mommy or Daddy?
We do it!

 What are you going to do this summer? 
Ava: Go to the pool.  Lillian: Go to the playground.
What’s your favorite thing to do when school is out?
Ava: Play outside!  Lillian: Dress up like a princess.
Lillian wrapped herself around her father’s knee as Ava giggled. A perfect Father’s Day photo op.

 

When a Civil Union Dissolves

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Please check one:           

_____    Married   ______   Single

For most people, this is a simple request, but not for me. Whenever I get to this section on a form it causes me to pause and chew my pen. Technically, I am single and unless the law changes, I always will be. After staring at my choices, eventually I always make a mark in the Single box, consoling myself all the while with the reminder that technicalities don’t have to rule my life. This was the same consolation I offered my parents twelve years ago when I came out to them.

“We’ll never see you get married,” they said, their voices brimming with disappointment. I dismissed their concerns. Despite it being against the law in most states, gay people got married all the time. In 2008, for example, 27 percent of the 564,743 self-identified same sex couples in the U.S. classified themselves as married. That same year, there were an estimated 100,000 same sex weddings. Clearly, the law did not prevent gay couples from joining in unions comparable to marriage and I had no reason to think I’d be any different. I figured I’d meet a woman, fall in love, commit my life to her and eventually have kids. Even if it wasn’t legal, it’d be close enough. 

Besides, that was all a long way off. I was only 22. Marriage was barely a blip on my radar and still wasn’t two years later when I met Kelli. She was 27 and ready for a serious commitment, something along the lines of “till death do us part.” Kelli was kind, smart and pretty—all the things I’d imagined I was looking for in a woman. We fell in love in a matter of weeks and, while it was blissful, it didn’t make me feel any more prepared to say, “I do.”

This quickly became a problem for us. In lesbian relationships, time moves on a continuum similar to dog years. There is no exact formula but based on my experiential calculations, it works out to something like one month equaling one year, which is why it is not entirely unusual for two women to sleep together on the first date, move in together after a month and marry after a year. I was considered a bit of a foot dragger in my community, but I just wasn’t sure whether Kelli, as wonderful as she seemed, was “the one,” so I hemmed and hawed, walked in circles and spent my time praying that a sense of certainty would descend upon me.

“I take marriage very seriously,” I told her whenever the topic came up, which was often. My parents had been married at that point for over thirty years and their love for each other was something I aspired to have in my own life. They were partners and friends and, although I preferred not to think about it, they were lovers, too. So while it was true that my parents set the marriage bar high, every time I talked about how seriously I took marriage, I was stalling. The longer Kelli and I were together, the more I felt like someone had shoved me into a cage full of hungry pit bulls with only a handful of beef jerky.

Our relationship wasn’t bad. We got along well, rarely fought and when we did, never raised our voices. I couldn’t imagine my life without Kelli but, at the same time, I couldn’t say that I was excited about the prospect of promising myself for better or worse. Something was missing. But as the months turned into years, I began to feel a little like a poker player with a bad hand who has been consistently upping the ante. After so much time, there was too much at stake to simply lay down my cards, so I forged ahead trying to bluff my way into happiness. In hindsight, it’s clear that the proverbial writing was on the wall: We just weren’t meant to be. Back then I couldn’t have deciphered that message to save my life.

I was the kind of person who was never sure about anything. As a kid, I would get paralyzed in the candy aisle. “Pick ONE!” my mother would urge, but I would stand there staring at the Kit Kats, Snickers, Nerds and Gobstoppers overwhelmed at the decision until my mother finally threatened me with the prospect of leaving empty-handed. I was plagued by uncertainty. I reasoned that since I felt tentative about even the most minor decisions, I couldn’t expect to feel sure about the more important ones. And so, with that naïve logic, four years into our relationship, I bought Kelli a ring and asked her to marry me. She was thrilled. Kelli had been raised by a single mom; in her eyes marriage, even gay marriage, brought an overwhelming sense of security. It seemed to allow her to believe in forever in a way she just couldn’t otherwise.

Since we lived in Maryland (one of the forty five states that do not sanction gay marriage) we were not legally married. We didn’t have a ceremony, didn’t stand in front of witnesses and publicly express our love and we didn’t recite vows. Still, the moment we exchanged rings, I felt in my heart that we were bound. For me, marriage is a promise, nothing more, nothing less. It’s the intent to commit your life to another person.

Though my notions of marriage were both idealistic and starry eyed, I also knew that there were important differences between what Kelli and I had and a legal union. The Human Rights Campaign puts the number of federal rights bestowed upon a couple who is able to legally marry at 1,138. I didn’t like to think about it, but our lack of legality meant something. It meant that if I were to get in a bad accident, my sister, who struggles with her own mental health issues, would have the right to make decisions about my medical care before Kelli ever would. It meant that Kelli could be denied visitation rights in the hospital.

We both knew that there were ways to navigate around some of these troubling issues, so we went to see a lawyer. We drew up wills that named each other as primary inheritors of one another’s property, living wills that dictated specific wishes in a variety of complicated medical situations; we granted each other power of attorney. With a very thin wall of paper we did our best to protect our marriage, but there were limits. Certain rights would never be extended to us. If Kelli were to get really sick, for example, I would never be able to invoke the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows spouses up to twelve weeks’ leave from a job to care for their loved one. And if Kelli died, I would never be eligible to receive family-related Social Security benefits.

Kelli and I moved quietly into our married life, buying a house together and moving to Delaware. We came home to each other every night, took turns making dinner, talked about the kind of day we’d had and went to bed hand in hand. For a time, I thought that I’d kept enough of a poker face to win the pot with a pair of two’s, but as it turned out, all of the red flags I’d spent so much time ignoring during the first four years of our relationship suddenly came into focus with startling clarity.

On top of that, Kelli wanted kids and I wasn’t ready. To be fair, it wasn’t as though Kelli had never mentioned children before, it was more that her biological clock had started ticking and I simply didn’t seem to have one. When Kelli spotted a cute kid at the gym, she lit up and began babbling silly baby talk. I headed in the opposite direction feeling a deep sense of panic.

Despite my best intentions, Kelli and I didn’t last and though we’d never really been married, technically, that didn’t lessen the devastation of our split. I felt like I was going through a divorce. We divided property, sold our house, dissolved our joint bank accounts, and she moved to Ohio with our two dogs. And beyond all the physical manifestations of our separation, I felt like I had truly failed at something that mattered.

Although Kelli and I haven’t spoken in years, I have heard through the ever so lively gay grapevine that she is now married and has adopted a son. She has even changed her last name. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how she describes our relationship, which ended with a fair amount of bitterness on her end. I have a sneaking suspicion that she probably doesn’t count what we had as a marriage. This is a luxury exclusive to gays since the majority of our unions are not legal. We can diminish a marriage that went bad into something far less significant. I’ll admit that I’ve been tempted by this prospect. With the clarity that accompanies hindsight, I can see that most of my actions during the five years that Kelli and I spent together were a product of fear. It would be easy to dismiss what we had as a silly little mistake, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. The way I see it, Kelli and I are divorcees, a fact that makes my skin crawl, but a fact nonetheless. The truth of the past doesn’t change even when viewed through the spectrum of a very different present. It remains what it was, even when we want it to be something else.

Unless, of course, we’re talking in technical terms, in which case, I’ve been single all my life.

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