I put the check in a drawer where I won’t forget it and I look around my apartment. It feels like mine again. It feels like I can live a life here of my own. I know that I envisioned a life for Ben and me here. I imagined we’d move out one day when we had kids. I even imagined that one day, Ben would be moving boxes out of the house by himself while I looked on, eight months pregnant. that life is not going to happen for me. But now I realize that there is a world of possibilities. I don’t know what it’s going to look like when I move out of this apartment. I don’t know when it will be. and that, in its own way, is kind of thrilling. anything could happen.
My cell phone rings, and it’s a number I don’t recognize. For some reason, I decide to answer it anyway.
“Hello, is this elsie porter?” a woman asks.
“Hi, Ms. porter.this is patricia devette from the Clark County recorder’s office in nevada,” she says. I swear my heart stops beating for a moment. “I have a . . . We don’t usually call people directly, Ms. porter, but I have been filing some paperwork here and I wanted to speak with you about your county record.”
“Okay . . .” I say. oh God. I avoided this moment so long that it decided to take matters into its own hands and crash into me.
“It’s taken me a while to figure out what exactly went on here, but it appears that Ben ross put the wrong social security number on your marriage license. I’ve left a number of messages for Mr. ross and have not heard back.”
“I’m getting in touch with you, Ms. porter, to let you know that the marriage has not yet been filed with the county.”
And here it is. What I have feared all along. Ben and I are not legally married. during Ben’s lifetime, we were never recognized as a legal union. My worst nightmare has come true, and as I stand here on the phone, silent, I am surprised to learn that I don’t collapse. I don’t break down.
“Thanks, patricia. thank you for calling,” I say. I’m not sure what to say next. It’s such an odd predicament to be faced with. all I’ve wanted since Ben died was proof that we meant something to each other. now, I realize that no piece of paper can prove any of that.
“Well,” I hear myself say. “Ben passed away.”
“Ben died. He’s dead. so I’m not sure if you can still file it.”
“I’m so sorry, Ms. porter. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
I get the distinct impression that Ms. devette doesn’t know what to say. she’s quiet for a few breaths before she speaks again. “Well, I can still file it,” she says. “since it’s overdue paperwork representing a legal union that did take place. But it’s entirely up to you. We don’t have to.”
“File it,” I hear myself say. “It happened. It should be a part of the county record.”
“All right, Ms. ross, will do. Can I get his real social security number?”
“Oh,” I say. “What number did he put on the document?” “518–38–9087.”
“Just change the 518 to 581.”
“Great, thank you, Ms. ross,” patricia says to me. “thank you for calling,” I say.
“And Ms. ross?” she says as she is getting off the phone. “Hmm?”
“Congratulations on your marriage. I’m sorry about your husband.”
“Thank you for saying that,” I say to her. When I put the phone down, I feel a short, sound sense of peace. I was Ben ross’s wife. no one can take that away from me.
Elsie porter?” the officiant said to me.
“Are you two ready?”
“Yes, sir,” Ben said. the officiant laughed and shook our hands. “My name’s dave,” he said. “let’s get this show going.” “okay!” I said, my arms pumped.
“Would you turn to face each other?” he asked, and we did. “Ben and elsie, we are gathered here today for you to celebrate one of life’s greatest moments and give recognition to the worth and beauty of love, as you join together in vows of marriage.”
I couldn’t see the officiant; I just kept staring at Ben. He was staring back at me. His face was lit up. I couldn’t believe how animated his smile was; I’d never seen anything like it. dave continued to talk, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t make out the words. It felt like the world had stopped, like it was paused and muted, like I was frozen in time and space.
“Did you two prepare vows?” dave asked, as he brought me back to reality.
“Oh,” I said, looking at Ben. “no, but we can. Wanna wing it?” I said to Ben.
“Sure.” He smiled. “let’s wing it.”
“Ben? Would you like to go first?” dave asked.
“Oh, okay. sure.” Ben was quiet for a minute. “are vows, like, supposed to be promises you make or just . . . like anything you want to say?” he whispered to dave.
“Anything you want to say is fine,” he said.
“Oh, okay.” Ben breathed in sharply. “I love you. I feel like I loved you from the moment I saw you in that pizza place, but I know that doesn’t make sense. I can’t live my life without you anymore. you are everything I have ever wanted in another person. you are my best friend, my lover, my partner. and I promise that I will spend the rest of my life taking care of you, the way you deserve to be taken care of. My whole life I was never looking for something bigger than myself, and then I met you and I want to dedicate every day of my life to you. you are it for me. you are why I am here. Without you, I am nothing.
So thank you, elsie, for being who you are, and for spending your life with me.”
Tears were forming in my eyes, my throat felt like I’d swallowed a brick.
“Elsie?” dave prompted me.
“I love you,” I said and broke down. I couldn’t make out words in between my blubbering. as I looked at Ben, I saw he was crying too. “I just love you so much,” I said. “I never knew what it was like to love someone so much and to be loved so well,” I said. “For the rest of time, I will be by your side, Ben. I will dedicate my life to you.”
Ben grabbed me and kissed me. He pulled us together so tight, there was no room to breathe. I kissed him back until I felt an arm between us.
“Not yet, son,” dave said, pulling us apart and laughing. “We still have a small formality to take care of.”
“Oh,” Ben said, smiling at me. “right.”
Dave smiled and turned to him. “Ben, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“I do,” he said, looking directly at me.
“And do you, elsie, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
“I do,” I said and nodded, smiling widely.
“Then by the power vested in me by the state of nevada, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
It was dead quiet for a minute as we were both frozen. Ben looked at dave expectantly.
“Now, son!” dave said. “now’s your chance. kiss the bride.
Give her everything you’ve got.”
Ben grabbed me and spun me. He kissed me hard on the lips. It felt so good, a kiss like that. It just felt so good. dave chuckled to himself and started to walk away. “I’ll let you kids calm down,” he said and, before he made it through the door, “you know, I marry a lot of people, but I have a feeling about you two.”
Ben and I looked at each other and smiled. “do you think he says that to everyone?” Ben asked.
“Probably,” I said, and I threw myself onto his body. “are you ready to go to eat wings?”
“In a minute,” he said, running his hands through my hair and then pulling me closer. “I want to spend a few seconds looking at my wife.”
I pick up the check and I get in the car. I go to Citibank and cash it. I have a purpose and an energy I’ve lacked for some time, but I know what I want to do and I know I can do it.