The Rules Do Not Apply

Levy’s unforgettable 2013 New Yorker magazine piece, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” told the agonizing story of how her pregnancy ended. Here, the backstory to her relationship with Lucy, her wife at the time.

“I PROMISE TO TREAT your family as my family” was another vow we came up with. But it was tricky. My family was so boundary-averse, so unabashedly forward, and Lucy was so reserved. She closed in like a sea anemone when they poked at her with questions. 

I didn’t know how to act around her mother. She was eighty-two when we met, a Minnesotan who never said anything harsher than “Oh, honestly.” It was best to talk about the garden, I learned, her towering rhododendrons and perfectly pruned roses. Or fashion: We would look at women’s magazines together in the evenings while Lucy and her father watched sports on television. If it was winter, we’d flip through the thick Nordstrom holiday catalog, and her mother would say, “That’s a darling heel,” or, “That looks like a toasty coat.” We avoided all discussion of politics, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion (except once, when I let loose an “Oy vey,” and Lucy’s mother said, “What?” And I said, “That’s what my people say when we mean ‘Oh, honestly’”). 

They still lived in the house where Lucy grew up. There was still wallpaper printed with cars and trucks in the “boys’ room.” One of the boys was an Evangelical minister in his fifties; another had become an anesthesiologist; the youngest worked in marketing for the creationist movement. When Lucy came out in college, her parents did not speak to her for months. She had finally done a single thing wrong. 

“WHAT ABOUT FIDELITY?” Lucy said that evening on the back deck, with the vows and the West Coast Sparklers, while the cool California dusk settled on the yard. 

I said, “I don’t think I can promise that for an entire lifetime.” I said, “Is that really even important?”

 I sort of hoped that once you’d made a declaration of commitment to someone you truly loved you would stop feeling sodden with lust for relative strangers. But also, I sort of thought, Who cares? Who cares if sometimes you bring out your seduction skill set—briefly!—for a person other than your spouse and you have a little adventure with your body? Why did that have to be at your spouse’s expense? Couldn’t you promise your deepest love, your first allegiance, to your favorite person without locking yourself in a chastity belt and presenting her with the key?

 Gay marriage wasn’t even legal—we were making it up! Couldn’t we invent something truer, deeper, finer than an institution devised to consolidate property and bloodlines? We have our freedom, we can make our own rules. Why not?

For years, I would resent that Lucy had chosen not to hear me when I told her—from the very beginning!—that I did not really value monogamy. Eventually, it would occur to me that I had chosen not to hear that it was important to her. 

NEITHER OF OUR MOTHERS was particularly thrilled when we said we’d decided to have a wedding. Lucy’s mother shuddered when we told her—it may have been the most heartfelt “Oh, honestly” of her life. And I could sort of see her point. She was mortified by the notion of a lesbian wedding, worried we were making a mockery of a traditional institution and therefore rejecting her values. When I asked her to help me pick the flowers for the occasion, she said tightly, “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

My own mother’s contention that weddings were mainstream, commercial hoo-ha—and that marriage was no great shakes, either—seemed equally persuasive. She was as mortified as Lucy’s mother by what we were suggesting, worried we were embracing a traditional institution and therefore rejecting her values. “How can you justify spending so much money on a single day?” she wanted to know. “What do you care about society’s approval?” Wasn’t it enough just to love each other?

It was not. I wanted more than love; I wanted marriage. Or at least that’s what I thought.

Ariel Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker. This is from the book The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Ariel Levy, Inc. All Rights Reserved.