To tell you the honest truth, I had never really considered marriage until that night in the taco shop.
She had a veggie special burrito and I was working on a chicken supremo. It was day four of my favorite kind of road trip, the kind where you find out where you’re going when you get there, and we had a tablecloth made of road maps.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Death Valley,” I confessed to her. The van was running like it had a crush on the horizon and we both liked the dusty taste of back roads.
“Sure, Death Valley sounds sexy, but I want to go to Vegas first.”
“Vegas?” I raised an eyebrow. She didn’t seem like the bright lights, big city type to me. We had slept in cemeteries and junkyards all the way down from Vancouver, she drank
green tea and cracked organic black peppercorns onto my sandwiches with her teeth. She advocated the use of natural menstrual sponges. The two of us in Las Vegas? I couldn’t see it.
“Yeah, Vegas. I want to get married.” Sour cream dripped off of her little finger and landed on the Oregon coast.
“Who you gonna marry?” I passed her a napkin.
“You, you bonehead. Will you marry me?” She licked her fingers.
Perhaps I should have thought a bit at this juncture, considered concerns like commitment and vows and responsible behavior, but thinking is contrary to the whole spirit of eloping, so I didn’t. Think, that is.
“You want to think about it?” Time had elapsed. I was still sitting open-mouthed, and had not answered.
“No I mean yes, I mean sure, let’s go to Las Vegas.”
What did I know of love and marriage? I knew that I loved her hands, the way they moved, faster somehow than the rest of her, and a little too big, and calloused, but everything else about her soft and brown, even in early spring like this. I could marry her just for her hands, how they looked in the dark by the dashlight and holding a Zippo as she lit two smokes and gave me one. Watching her do that made me feel peaceful and restless at the same time and isn’t that love for you right there?
High noon the next afternoon the desert was dry-brushed sage and dust. The only things painted vivid were tiny flowers on the cactus, flecks of that purple that teenagers paint their toenails.
We were fifty miles outside of Las Vegas and I was searching for a sign. She was up in the hills behind me, taking photos, and I was praying for some guidance. I wanted some kind of sign, from God, or whoever it is who’s responsible for those kinds of things: Should we get married?
Heat waves were bending off of bone-colored sand, and everything was quiet. Nothing but the distant hum of the interstate.
Then I saw an emerald-green lizard skitter across the gravel and disappear.
Okay, God, I thought. Bright green lizards are really cool and all, but this is a monumental question here, I’m gonna need a big sign. Big as the desert, the kind of big I can’t ignore. Hit me, Great Creator: To marry or not to marry?
I heard the grind of a tanker truck gearing down, and there it was. A sixteen-wheeler painted painful white humped down the off-ramp and drove real slow, right past me. Stenciled on the side in block red letters was one word: LUCKY. And right behind that truck was another one, identical to the first. And then one more.
Three times lucky? Three times lucky! That settles it. Today was to be our wedding day.
My photographer fiancée came down from the hills smiling. “Take a picture,” I told her, laughing. “Take three pictures. It’s a sign.” My boots crunched gravel in a prenuptial dance. I dropped to my knees, grabbed a handful of wedding day dirt and tipped it into my pocket, for luck. “Let’s go get married.”
“Okay,” she smiled again. “But it’s my turn to drive.”
The Strip in Las Vegas is a whole lot of stimulation all at once for a small town lad who doesn’t play videogames. I was glad she was driving. The first strip mall we found in town had a big sign that advertised free maps, coloring books and “wedding information.” They’re like that in Las Vegas.
The woman behind the counter had a face that looked like she smoked too much and wintered in Florida. I announced my marital intentions and she immediately sprang into a flurry of action. “How completely and utterly romantic. We have a number of lovely little chapels to pick from, here, take these brochures, and where is your lovely bride-to-be? She’s out in the van? Well, go get her, son, let’s have a look, isn’t she beautiful? You two are going to make the most darling babies, here I’ll just draw for you on the map the way to the courthouse, and the Candlelight Chapel is it? An excellent choice, very quaint, they’re all lovely people down there, they’ll do something special for you, just tell them Karen sent you. Okay, let’s call and book it for 7:45, shall we? Give you time to freshen up. Of course I need a seventy-five dollar downpayment, to book the chapel, you see, where did that receipt book disappear to?”
I was dazzled, and paid her in cash. She reached across the counter and stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. “You are a lucky bride,” she said solemnly to my somewhat confused fiancée. “My Arnold had a baby face, too, that means he’ll still be handsome in thirty years. God rest his soul. I miss him like he just went yesterday. Oh, to be like the two of you again. Best of luck to you. Make sure you send me a picture.”
We left without mentioning that I was actually biologically female. It just didn’t seem appropriate to spoil it all for Karen like that.
Only the bride and groom-to-be are allowed into the actual marriage license office. The hall outside of the office was chaos, small children running amok and relatives of happy couples sweating in their Sunday best. We were ushered through a metal detector, my pocket knife was confiscated and we got in line to wait.
All the other couples were staring at us. I presumed it was because I was wearing shining silver pants and a metallic blue cowboy hat with a dalmation fun fur hat band, and she was stunningly beautiful in her sundress. My palms began to sweat and for the first time I wondered how the state of Nevada really felt about same-sex marriages. But we had come so far . . . I took out my B.C. driver’s license. The only thing identifying me as female was a tiny capital “F” on the back. I removed some lucky wedding day dirt from my pocket and began to rub the grains of sand over the “F” with my thumb. It quite easily disappeared.
It seemed simple enough. I would just let her do the talking.
The woman behind the counter took our thirty-five dollars without a second glance. She filled out both our names on a form, and then a marriage certificate. Things were running smoothly, until she asked me what my middle initial, E, stood for. My middle name is Elizabeth. “Uhh . . . Elliot.” I had hesitated, and she looked up, her eyes narrowing.
“I’ll be right back.” She scooped our IDs and paperwork up, and disappeared into a back room with them.
She returned minutes later, accompanied by a woman with even bigger hair than hers, her supervisor. The supervisor came out from behind the counter and walked slowly around me, scrutinizing. I felt her eyes cross over my chest (I have no breasts to speak of; well, none that a good sports bra can’t render harmless) and then down to my crotch. I was, as usual, packing. Still she was on to me.
“Well, I am afraid I cannot issue you a marriage license. Both of you . . . appear to be female, and this identification,” she paused to look over her spectacles at me, “appears to have been . . . tampered with. Two people of the same gender cannot be married in this state. I will thank you both to leave now.”
The beefcake security guards didn’t look too interested in hearing me pontificate about my theories refuting the binary gender system, they just pointed at the door.
We left, and as we walked past the gauntlet of staring couples, I felt something I thought I had grown out of: indignant rage. Or to be more accurate, it was foot-stamping fury. “How come that guy behind me can get married?” I wanted to rail at someone in charge. “He doesn’t even look happy to be here. How come he can? And that other guy doesn’t even have any teeth, and he’s scoping out all the women except the one he is standing with. And how about whassisface over there? He is wearing acid wash jeans, for chrissakes. The injustice of it all.”
We walked back to the van. My ears burned, and my lovely bride to be placed a cool palm on the back of my neck. “We were so close. You just about gender-fucked the state of Nevada.”
Any doubts I may have previously had were gone. This was Las Vegas. Someone was going to marry us. We were still booked at the Candlelight Chapel for 7:45.
“I’m afraid we can’t perform a ceremony without a license here.” He looked freshly scrubbed, and sincere. “I don’t understand what the problem was, you’re over eighteen, aren’t you?” His desk in the chapel office was spotless and spit-shined. “Just try again, they change shifts every four hours, you’ll probably get someone else, sir, and we can just move your booking ahead.”
“I really don’t think my age was the issue. Apparently two women can’t be wed, I think that’s more the problem.”
His jaw dropped, and again I felt his eyes: Adam’s apple, chest, crotch. It was beginning to get tedious. “Well, then, we certainly can’t marry you here, uhh . . . ma’am, we can’t, umm . . . help you at all.”
He was nervous now. I had messed with something sacred regarding how he saw the world, I looked like a man but wasn’t, and was probably dangerous. I asked him for our deposit back. “Well, I don’t know anything about a deposit, you’ll have to go back and talk to Karen about that.” He moved things around on his desk, then moved them back.
There were two fags in tasteful blue suits opening the oak doors out front. Both were sporting conspicuously new-looking wedding bands. One winked at us on our way out. “Best of luck to you, girls.” He lisped and gave us a limp-wristed salute.
I sat in the van and smoked, sadder than a sun-faded fun fur skirt, while she went in and tried to get our deposit back. I watched her return empty-handed, the wind wrapping her dress around her thighs. “No dice, cowboy.” She shrugged and climbed in. “Karen went home. It’s a different woman, she’s not all that sympathetic.”
I took the receipt from her. I was getting our money back. Starry-eyed lovers get ripped off in Las Vegas? Whoever heard of such a thing? “I’m gonna give it a try.” I kissed her, and tasted tea tree oil and honey. “Cover me, I’m going in.”
The woman I found inside was older than Karen, with tired eyelids and lipstick escaping into the lines around her mouth. “And you must be the groom. I can see why they had trouble with you at the courthouse, you don’t look a day over sixteen.” Her gold tag proclaimed her to be Rita. “I told your lovely bride, and I’m telling you, I can’t give you your money back. Karen has it.” Rita’s voice sounded like gravel rolling over gravel.
“I’m not asking you for our money back. I just want you to find someone who will marry us without a license. Come on, Rita, just help us out.”
“She pregnant? Is that what this is all about?” She looked at me sideways.
“No, nothing like that. We’re in love.”
“Love,” she repeated, like she had finally heard it all. She took a deep breath and picked up the phone. “I want you to know this is coming out of my own pocket, Karen and I, we run a separate thing here, we’re not partners, I just taught her everything she knows.”
I imagined there wasn’t much Rita couldn’t teach.
“Zat you Greg? Yeah, it’s me. Yeah, he’s fine, stitches come out on Thursday, ornery as ever, but what else is new . . . listen, can you marry a young couple I got here without a license? I dunno, some trouble down at the courthouse.”
She coughed and almost dropped the phone. “No . . . he’s old enough . . . ” She looked at me like I was a shoplifter. “Well, it’s hard to tell these days . . . he’s wearing a cowboy hat.”
I removed my hat and stood tall in front of her, palms up. “What do you need to see, Rita?” I was almost ready to give up.
“Yeah, I gotta couple of ladies here for you, Greg, can you still do those? Kay, I’ll send them right down.”
Rita scribbled an address down for me, shaking her head. “They can take you at the Shamrock. You should have come clean with Karen in the first place, you got yourself into this, kiddo, you’re lucky old Rita is helping you out at all. Bet Karen liked the looks of you though, huh?” She laughed, bringing on another cough. “Be careful out there, don’t go getting yourself beat up now, you hear me?”
I thought I loved Karen, but I loved Rita more.
The Shamrock Wedding chapel was located in the lobby of the Howard Johnson Hotel, just past the nickel slot machines. I went in alone, while my fiancée stayed in the van to find some clean underwear and pick out a dress.
I had my vintage periwinkle blue suit with the velvet lapels slung over my forearm. The chapel was tiny, with a little office on the left, a couch, and a big screen TV in a little alcove on the right. Slumped on the couch was our reverend, his white collar half undone and his leftover belly arguing with the buttons on his black shirt. “You must be my eight o’clock.” His voice boomed bass notes, but his eyes never left the television, where a naked blond writhed and moaned on top of a guy half-wrapped in red satin sheets.
I stared at the television, somewhat disturbed. He pressed the mute on the remote to appease me, and looked up. “Tell your fiancée she can get dressed in that little room across the lobby. The one marked ‘private’. You can wash up in that little room right there. Greg’ll get you a towel.”
His eyes went back to the TV. The blond was now on her hands and knees, throwing her head back soundlessly.
“My name is Ivan.” I extended my hand.
His was dry, and hot, and swallowed mine. “Yeah, sure, I’m Reverend Cotton. I’ll see you at eight sharp. I got a 9:45 coming in. You’re lucky we could fit you in.”
I left so he could turn the volume back up.
She stole my breath as I watched her glide across the hotel lobby. She smelled like vanilla. “You clean up pretty good,” she said, smiling at me. She was almost a foot taller than me in heels. “You ready?”
I nodded, and took her hand. “Wait till you get a load of Reverend Cotton.”
But only Greg was in the office, looking apologetic. He was sunburned and balding, and his jeans were too tight. “I told the reverend you were two women, and he took off. Says he’s morally opposed to that kind of thing. Sorry girls.” He shrugged and swallowed.
“You mean the guy who was watching pornos in the chapel was morally opposed to marrying us?” My voice was still calm, but my stomach felt loaded with lead.
“Yeah, I guess so. He said he could lose his license. He said he could do it for five hundred cash, but I didn’t know if you had that kind of money on you. He left me his pager number, I can call him if you want.” Greg stood on one leg, then the other.
“So . . . he is morally opposed, unless we have five hundred dollars.” I spoke slowly, and with reason. “Greg, you understand that five hundred dollars American is like . . . two million Canadian? Come on, you can get married at midnight by a man dressed as Bette Midler in this town, are you telling me nobody will marry us?”
Greg shook his head sympathetically, and then looked pensive for a moment.
“Tell you what, I’ve seen a million of these things, I set up the video and work the CD player all the time, I could marry you. I mean, it wouldn’t be legal whichever way, since you don’t have a license, and all. I’ll give you a real nice ceremony.” His voice got more confident as he continued. “I got no problem marrying you, you seem like nice enough folks, I had a girlfriend once, left me for an esthetician named Alice, no hard feelings, we’re still friends, whatever makes her happy, right?”
We both nodded. That settled it. He shook my hand, and kissed hers.
“Just let me go put on a clean shirt.”
Greg looked heartbreakingly sincere as he stumbled through our vows. He had combed his hair, too, and put on a tie. I was crying, I always do at weddings; she was laughing like Christmas morning. “Do you take this . . . Ivan to be your lawfully wedded . . . life partner . . . ” I loved her, and I loved Greg, and I loved this tiny chapel transformed by that moment and by the three of us, all there in a magic place where things ended happily ever after and then . . . he stopped.
“Fuck.” Both of his hands slammed onto the pulpit with a tinny echo. We looked up, startled to find carpet under our feet again. “I’m sorry, you guys, I forgot to turn the camera on. We have to do it again. Video comes with the cost of the ceremony.”
My lovely almost bride spoke first. “Okay, Greg, but can we take a smoke break before we try it again?”
Greg joined us for a smoke, put his feet up on his desk, in the office, puffed on a Lucky Strike. Turns out he was a roofer, from Death Valley. “Hot work, hot place, had to get out,” he explained. “Tried a few things, ended up here, I like it just fine. Meet lotsa people, I get to take pictures. I’m a pretty good amateur photographer, if I do say so myself.”
I believed him. He was, at that moment, my hero.
“Well, let’s get this show on the road before Reverend Cotton comes back for his 9:45. You ready?”
We were, by now, most definitely ready. On our way back into the chapel, I took him aside.
“Greg, now don’t get me wrong, I think you’re doing a great job, but since we’ve got a second chance here, can I ask you a favor? Can we just drop the life partner stuff and go with the man and wife thing? I appreciate what you’re trying to do for us here, but just go ahead and marry us like you would anyone else, okay, my friend?”
“Okay Ivan, whatever you want, you know, I’m just trying to make it special for you both, and some of you ladies who come in from L.A. and stuff would get real . . . well, you know, offended by that kind of thing.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Well, Greg . . . we aren’t those kind of ladies.”
We made it to Death Valley just before dawn. As a dusty orange sun rose over the salt flats and a honeymoon wind blew tumbleweeds under our tires, I kissed my wife and my wife kissed her bride.
Ivan Coyote and Nerve.com