Rick R. Reed © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Same-sex marriage had just become legal in Washington State, and Duncan Taylor didn’t plan on wasting any time. He had been dating Tucker McBride for more than three years, and ever since the possibility of marriage had become more than just a pipe dream, it was all Duncan could think of. He thought of it as he gazed out the windows of his houseboat on Lake Union on days both sunny and gray (since it was late autumn, there were a lot more of the latter); he thought of it as he stood before his classroom of fourth graders at Cascade Elementary School. He thought of it when he woke up in the morning and before he fell asleep at night.
For Duncan, marriage was the peak, the happy ending, the icing on the cake, the culmination of one’s heart’s desire, a commitment of a lifetime, the joining of two souls. For Duncan, it was landing among the stars.
And for Duncan, who would turn thirty-eight on his next birthday, it was also something he had never dared dream would be possible for him.
Now, too excited to sleep, he was thinking about it—hard—once again. It was just past midnight on December 6, 2012, and the local TV news had preempted its regular programming to take viewers live to Seattle City Hall, where couples were forming a serpentine line to be among the first in the state to be issued their marriage licenses—couples who had also for far too long believed this right would be one they would never be afforded. Many clung close together to ward off the chill, but Duncan knew their reasons for canoodling went far deeper than that.
The mood, in spite of the darkness pressing in all around, was festive. There was a group serenading the couples in line, singing “Going to the Chapel.” Champagne corks popped in the background. Laughter.
Duncan couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he watched all the male-male and female-female couples in the line, their moods of jubilation, of love, of triumph, traveling through to him even here on his houseboat only a couple of miles north of downtown. Duncan wiped tears from his eyes as he saw not only the couples but also all the supporters, city workers, and volunteers who had crowded together outside city hall to wish the new couples well, to share in the happiness of the historic moment.
And then Duncan couldn’t help it; he fell into all-out blubbering as the first couple to get their license emerged from city hall. Eighty-five-year-old Pete-e Petersen and her partner and soon-to-be-wife, Jane Abbott Lighty, were all smiles when a reporter asked them how they felt.
“We waited a long time. We’ve been together thirty-five years never thinking we’d get a legal marriage. Now I feel so joyous I can’t hardly stand it,” Pete-e said.
It was such a special moment, and it was all Duncan could do not to pick up the phone and call Tucker and casually say something like, “Hey honey, you want to get married?”
But he knew he had to wait even if patience was a virtue Duncan had in short supply. On Sunday, when the first marriages would take place, he planned on bringing Tucker to their favorite restaurant, an unpretentious little joint on Capitol Hill called Olympia Pizza. There, amid the darkened and—for them—romantic interior with the smells of garlic, basil, and tomato sauce surrounding them, Duncan would propose, saying something clever like:
“I’m thinking about changing my Facebook relationship status to ‘engaged.’ Would you mind?”
In his mind, Tucker would chuckle and then rub at the tuft of blond hair that grew from his chin, regarding Duncan with his dark-blue eyes. Duncan could see the flicker of the candle lighting up his man’s features as he held the silence for a few moments, building the suspense. Then he would say something like, “I think I’ll change mine too.”
That would be one way it could play out—very twenty-first century.
Duncan would then imagine all his friends and family congratulating the newly minted fiancés with “Likes” and words of encouragement and shared happiness. Maybe he could get their waiter to take a picture of them, holding hands over a sausage and mushroom pie, right after the moment when they went from two guys dating to two guys anticipating…marriage.
Duncan found himself wiping yet another tear from his eye. Sunday was going to be perfect.
Because Tucker spent Saturday night on Duncan’s houseboat, they rode over to the Hill together and parked on Fifteenth, just a few steps away from the pizza restaurant where they had been regulars ever since their first date here three years before.
Even though it was only 5:30 or so in the afternoon, the day had grown dark, and there was a damp chill in the air.
Duncan locked his Ford Escort and hurried down the street, eager to get inside, eager to set in motion, well, the rest of his life. His heart beat a little faster, and his breath came a bit more quickly. Inside, he felt filled with brilliant light.
Tucker called from behind him, laughing. “What’s gotten into you tonight?”
Duncan slowed to turn and cast a glance back at Tucker, who looked very fetching in a pair of worn Levi’s 501s, a form-fitting black T-shirt, and a black leather jacket that contrasted wonderfully with his almost white-blond hair.
“What do you mean?” Duncan asked.
“Well, there’s a real spring to your step is the only way I know how to put it. This is different from the usual swish in it.” He laughed and caught up to Duncan, squeezing his bicep to show he was only kidding with that last remark.
“Just hungry,” Duncan replied. But hunger was actually the last thing on his mind at the moment as his hand worried the velvet box in the pocket of his cargo pants. He hadn’t planned it, but on Saturday he was downtown, and he couldn’t resist wandering into Ben Bridge just to see what they had in the way of wedding bands.
He saw it right away. He knew that the fact his eye fell upon it first thing was fate talking to him. Before he had even spoken to a salesperson or glanced at another item, he saw the simple white-gold, diamond-studded band in the display case. “That’s for Tucker,” he whispered to himself. He hadn’t planned to buy an engagement ring, and he certainly couldn’t afford its exorbitant price tag, but the thought of the light that would come into Tucker’s eyes when he opened the box was so thrilling and romantic, he couldn’t resist.
The clerk, a young woman whose dark hair, olive skin, and green eyes mirrored Duncan’s own, came up to him. “Can I show you something?”
Duncan recalled being at a loss for words. This little side trip into the jewelry store had really been intended as only a fantasy; a sort of appetizer for the better things to come.
“I just love that simple band with the diamonds right there.” Duncan had pointed down to the ring.
“Oh, it’s a beauty. Would you like to try it on?” She was already stooping down to take the ring out of the display case.
“Oh, it’s not for me.” And suddenly, Duncan stopped. He was so filled with love for Tucker, he was unable to speak. He gnawed for a moment at his lower lip, looking away from the smiling and expectant face of the clerk and drawing in a deep breath to compose himself. What did he have to lose, anyway? He smiled and looked down to see his hands trembling. “It’s for my, my…” His voice had trailed off. What to call Tucker? He was his boyfriend, he supposed, yet he seemed like so much more. But partner was so presumptuous because they didn’t live together for one and had never registered as domestic partners in the state for another. “It’s for the guy I hope will be my fiancé,” he had finally blurted out, hoping the clerk didn’t notice the tear he could feel standing in the corner of one eye.
He wondered what she would do. Would she regard him with disdain? Would her attitude change? Would she laugh?
But her face had immediately brightened, and her smile was as wide as his own. “That’s fabulous!” she exclaimed. “I’m so happy for you.” She had pushed the ring across the counter. “He’s a lucky guy. And I’m not just saying that because he’d be getting this gorgeous ring, but mostly because he’d be getting you.” She winked. “You’re a catch.”
Duncan had picked up the ring with one hand and reached for his wallet with the other.
Now, in the restaurant, he was just about to burst with what he wanted to ask Tucker. With anticipation. With excitement. With the promise of a seismic shift in his and his boyfriend’s lives.
Wait. Wait, he told himself, over and over, as they followed the hostess to a table near the back. Wait, he told himself again as they perused the menu, both ordering a Stella Artois.
When the pizza arrived, so would Duncan’s proposal.
Duncan forced himself to make small talk as they sipped beer. He let his gaze wander over to the table next to them where an older couple sat, indicating with his eyes that Tucker should look as well. Tucker looked at the man and woman, who both appeared to be in their seventies, with gray hair and clothes that kind of matched, baggy jeans, cardigan sweaters. She wore a brightly colored scarf around her neck, and his glasses were square, blocky and, whether he knew it or not, kind of cool in a retro sort of way.
“How long do you think they’ve been together?” Duncan asked, leaning forward and placing a hand atop Tucker’s.
Tucker leaned back, putting his own hands in his lap and screwing up his gaze in what Duncan would surmise was deep thought. “Gee. It’s hard to say. Probably a long time. I’d guess Gramps and Granny there are in their seventies, and I bet they’re each other’s first, so maybe fifty years or more.”
“That’s what I was thinking too. Notice how quiet they are together?” Duncan admired the way they stared into each other’s eyes and how the woman held her fork aloft with a piece of fried calamari on it for her husband to try.
Tucker snorted. “They’re probably all talked out. After half a century, they probably can’t think of a single new thing to say to the other.” He laughed. “He’s probably thinking he can’t wait to get home so he can plop down in front of the TV and crack open a beer, and she probably just wants to bury her nose in a Harlequin romance, so she can get a glimpse of what she doesn’t have anymore.”
Duncan felt the statement cut through him and tried to convince himself that Tucker was merely going for the obvious interpretation, the one most people would make. “Oh, don’t be such a cynic!” he cried. “I think they’ve just been together so long they’re really contented around each other. They probably don’t feel the need to fill the silence up with idle chatter.” As you’re doing right now, Duncan chided himself.
“Maybe.” Tucker scanned the restaurant. “I hope that pizza gets here soon. I’m starving.”
“Me too.” Duncan rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “I’m sure it’ll be worth waiting for.” Making sure Tucker wasn’t looking, he moved the boxed ring from his pocket next to him on the booth bench, so it would be ready when the moment arrived.
The waiter, and the moment of truth, showed up just then. The waiter was a lanky kid with a neck tattoo and a shock of auburn hair that fell over one eye. “Here you go, guys. Careful, that pan is hot.”
“And so are you,” Tucker quipped.
The waiter grinned, his gaze cutting to Duncan, who did not grin back. Duncan swallowed, suddenly feeling a distinct lack of spit in his mouth. His heart beat just a little harder.
The waiter wandered away.
“God, that smells terrific.”
The aroma of the pizza wafted up, embedded in the steam rising off the hot, cheesy pie. Even though the smell of tomatoes, garlic, Italian sausage, and basil were the sweetest perfumes to him, Duncan didn’t feel hungry.
His proposal was now front and center in his mind, and he swore he could not entertain the thought of taking a bite until he got his special moment underway. Later, the dinner could turn into a real celebration. Hell, the whole night could.
Tucker was about to reach for the spatula to lift a slice onto his plate when Duncan grabbed his wrist. “Wait. Before we get started, I have something I want to ask.”
Duncan reached down, feeling for the box at his side. His nervous reach hit the box and knocked it to the floor. “Shit,” Duncan whispered. When he quickly ducked to grab for the box among the shadows and grit beneath the table, he whacked his forehead on the edge. He saw stars.
“What the fuck?” Tucker was laughing.
Duncan groped around in the dark, feeling for the box. This isn’t the way things are supposed to go at all. Where is that damn thing, anyway? Finally, his hand lit on the velvet box. In the fall, it had opened. He reached inside and found, to his horror, that the ring itself had rolled away. He groped around on the floor some more until he felt the metal of the ring under his fingertips. He breathed a sigh of relief and grasped both box and ring, righting himself and being careful not to hit the back of his head as he reemerged from beneath the table.
What could he do but laugh? So he did, putting the ring and the box on the table in front of him. “Hey, it’ll be a good story to tell our grandchildren, right?” Duncan continued to laugh, rubbing at the knot already forming on his forehead. He thrust the ring toward Tucker. “This is for you.” He managed to make himself stop laughing even though there was something giddy going on inside that he didn’t quite understand.
Was it joy or the beginning of a heart attack?
Tucker picked up the ring, examining it. He looked with a questioning smile across the table at Duncan.
“It’s legal now,” Duncan gasped, the carefully chosen words he had imagined and planned on saying deserting him.
“Don’t be stupid.” Duncan stared across the table, feeling as he once had when he was a teenager on Thanksgiving weekend driving on a slippery highway. It had rained earlier and the temperature had dropped. The roads were slick, but not frozen—until he tried to make it across the overpass. The car did a figure eight, and all he could do was wait for the impact, whether it was with a guardrail or another car. He knew the only thing that would stop the desperately fishtailing vehicle was a collision. He could still feel the impact all these years later.
He felt that way now, helpless to do anything but push onward.
His mouth was utterly dry. He took a gulp of beer and licked lips that felt chapped. “Marriage. We can get married now.”
Tucker’s laugh was high-pitched and nervous.
“You and me?”
Duncan laughed again, but there was no mirth in it. Reality couldn’t have been more different from his fantasy. “That. Was. The. Hope.” He managed to get out between breaths that verged on panting. He looked desperately into Tucker’s blue and now, he could see, uncommitted eyes. He tried to swallow again but was unsuccessful and finally said, “That’s an engagement ring.”
The words he had planned on saying, clichés all, now came back to him, and even though he knew he was in a car headed for a collision, he forced himself to say them. “Tucker McBride, would you make me the happiest man in the world and agree to be my husband?”
Just then, the one-eyed waiter waltzed up to them. “Get you guys a couple more brewskis?”
“Get out,” Duncan hissed, out of character but fearing he would scream.
The waiter hurried away.
Tucker didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, he stared down at the ring, turning it around and around with his fingertips as if endlessly fascinated by the shiny object.
Finally, Duncan asked, hope barely there, his voice just above a whisper, “Would you marry me, honey?”
And, at last, Tucker looked up at him, tears standing in his eyes. He put the ring back on the table and then shoved it toward Duncan.
“No,” he said.
Duncan stared hard at this man across the table, this man with whom he had spent the last three years, through good times and bad, through hot summer nights and hot winter ones, too, through dinners, movies, bar crawls, and quiet evenings at home and suddenly felt as though Tucker was a stranger. Duncan blinked back tears. He put a hand to his stomach, which was churning with what felt like acid. Not a single coherent thought formed in his head, so he certainly couldn’t think of what to say in response to Tucker’s eloquent refusal.
He picked up the ring and stared at it and almost wondered how it had made its way into his hand.
He slid the ring onto the third finger of his right hand and grinned at Tucker. “Guess I bought myself some bling this weekend then.” He held his hand out in front of him as though to admire the ring, but all he was really feeling was the fear that the smell of the pizza and beer were going to make him throw up.
The two men sat for a while in silence.
Finally, Duncan recovered sufficiently enough to ask, “No?”
Tucker gave him a sad smile, one that Duncan was horrified to see was fashioned mostly from pity and concern. Tucker shook his head and removed his gaze from Duncan’s to scan the restaurant. Duncan watched as he made what must have been eye contact with the waiter, and he pointed to their beers and held up two fingers.
“I’m sorry, babe. I thought what we had was kind of an easy thing, you know? No strings? That’s why I liked having my place and you having yours.” He went silent as their waiter brought two more beers, setting them down before them silently and then hurrying away. Duncan stared at the sweating bottle before him as though it were a pile of something a dog left behind, a St. Bernard, maybe.
He didn’t touch it.
“You’re talking in the past tense.”
“You’re talking in the past tense—what we had, what you liked.”
Tucker smiled sheepishly. “I guess I am, huh?” He scratched at his neck. “I didn’t realize it, but maybe my mind is getting ahead of me.”
Duncan toyed with a paper napkin on the table. He didn’t look at Tucker when he asked, “So, you’re not only saying no to my proposal, you’re breaking up with me as well. Right?” He stared down at the diamond ring on his own finger. How could he have been so stupid?
“I didn’t intend to, honey.”
“Oh stop with the terms of endearment already.” Duncan felt like he was about to cry, and that was the last thing he wanted Tucker, or anyone else in the restaurant, to see.
“Okay, I didn’t intend to.” He reached across the table to grab one of Duncan’s hands, and Duncan snatched his hand away. Tucker grabbed it again and held it.
“I don’t know if I can stand your kindness,” Duncan whispered. He was pretty sure Tucker hadn’t even heard him.
Tucker licked his lips and went on. “I had no intention of breaking up, but now that I see how far apart we are in terms of what we want, maybe we should.” He squeezed Duncan’s hand.
“That’s it? You don’t even want to try? I thought you loved me.”
“I do. I do. I love being with you. I love having sex with you.” Tucker gnawed on his lower lip for a moment and then said the line that had stung lovers’ hearts worldwide since the beginning of time: “But I don’t think I’m in love with you. That spark just isn’t there.”
Duncan looked up to see Tucker staring sadly, hungrily at him as though he was looking for something. What? Forgiveness? Absolution? For him to say Tucker was excused?
“You don’t need to go on,” Duncan said. It was odd. Moments ago, he felt near tears, edging on hysteria, and now he felt nothing. A curious numbness, almost like shock, had crept in, leaving him feeling dead inside.
“But I want you to understand how much you meant to me, what good times I had with you—”
Duncan cut him off with a bitter laugh. “There you go again with the past tense.”
“Why don’t you just go?”
Tucker stared at him as though Duncan had reached across the table and slapped him. Finally he said, “Without eating?”
Duncan stood. “Enjoy it.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, then threw a couple of twenties on the table.
“No, Duncan, don’t. Sit down.”
But Duncan was already moving rapidly away from the table and out of the restaurant.
Outside, rain had begun to fall. Not the typical Seattle winter rain, which was more like a mist, a fine drizzle that left one feeling damp instead of drenched. This one was a downpour, splattering hard off the sidewalk and cars, blinding. Lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled, also rare for Seattle.
But did Duncan hurry through the sheets of water pouring down from an angry sky?
He wandered, almost leisurely, back to his car, letting the rain soak through his clothes, run in icy rivulets off his head, down his neck, to trickle down his spine, chilling him to his very core.
He didn’t care.
The rain matched his mood.
Once he got to his car, he sat with his head on the steering wheel, shivering. He thought about how city hall today was an assembly line of weddings. How, all over the city, gay couples were celebrating being, for the first time in his state’s history, legally wed. He pictured the scores of couples right now at the Paramount Theatre downtown, where the city was throwing “A Wedding Reception for All.” He thought of the smiling faces, the linked hands, the hugging, the kissing, the shared dreams and hopes for the future, the joy of the witnesses, the popping of champagne corks, and the slicing of wedding cakes topped with two brides or two grooms.
He had never felt more alone.
Drawing a big breath, he wiped the tears and rain away from his face, turned the key in the ignition, threw on the windshield wipers, and pulled out of his parking space to start home.
He turned on the radio and tuned to the “adult contemporary” station he preferred to listen to while driving.
Karen Carpenter’s plaintive voice emerged from the radio speakers. “We’ve only just begun,” she sang.
“Oh shut up, Karen. Have a hamburger.” Duncan snapped the radio off.