The Three-Year Engagement: A Love Story
By Sarah Carr
It was about seven years ago. I had landed back in the US, fresh off three years abroad. A few months before my return, a guy from high school had liked a photo of me eating a kebab in Taiwan (no comment! Just a silent like!). That quiet gesture evolved to a few reserved DMs, and soon enough, we were flirting over the internet from 10,000 miles apart. I told him I’d come visit him in Los Angeles when I got back on US soil. Did he think I was serious? Maybe? Was my top priority post-repatriation to fly from New York across the country to visit my new-old crush in California? Absolutely.
Blake picked me up from LAX (an act of grandeur underappreciated at the time), and when I spotted his car pulling up curbside, I felt a comfort—the giddy kind, not the slippers kind—that’s not since left. Sliding into the front seat, I was buoyed by a sensation of familiarity—déjà-vu-esque, but folded into the feeling that the scene had happened before was the feeling that it would happen over and over again. By the time we arrived at his apartment, we were holding hands.
For the next few days, Blake took me on a series of dates he’d mapped out in mechanical pencil on a strip of paper, which he occasionally took from his pocket, referenced, folded back into a tiny square, and quickly put away. We laughed about high school in New Hampshire over tacos; we made up ideas for TV shows when we went out for coffee; we picked up art on the Eastside, rode a tandem bike through Venice Beach, and ultimately fell in love over bone marrow on Abbot Kinney. By the time I left, I wasn’t just planning to come back, I was planning to move in. We had spent a grand total of seven days together.
Over the next few years of generally charmed cohabitation, we’d stick around LA for the holidays, opting out of family celebrations back east and instead creating our own important holiday traditions: drinking champagne and eating lobster all day on Christmas. (Admittedly, these were traditions singularly suited to a couple with no kids or local family or demanding jobs—or shellfish allergies, for that matter.)
As one particular holiday was winding down, I wondered why Blake got so teary when I gave him a signed Alex Katz book. (A thoughtful gift, yes, but a tearjerker? Not quite). He mentioned having one last thing for me, and before I knew it, there was a ring on my hand—the kind of ring you don’t take off for a lifetime.
That was in 2015. It took seven days for us to recognize each other as partners in all things, three years to get engaged, and about three more years to get to…now.
It’s been hundreds of days since we decided to get married, and in that time, I’ve had about as many different emotions surrounding my would-be brideship. Knowing our lives were forever changed by this specific act of love and commitment was exciting. I was thrilled and shared the news with everyone—including but not limited to: all passengers on the flight we took to Mexico the next day and our landlord, to whom I wrote a poignant unsolicited sonnet of an email to let him know that his property would be forevermore infused with the magic of our love.
While there was no denying our joy and mutual adoration, when it came to the wedding…it’s just that. Well. I guess. Hm. We were so laid-back, you’d think we spooned in a sack of grounding crystals at night. Before we got engaged, conversations around the topic of marriage were less about rushing to the altar and more about what’s the big rush? There was no Pinterest board or guest matrix, no dream location or calligraphist saved in my contacts. The plan, we decided, should unfold naturally. The true path would reveal itself when it was ready. We were the Dr. Strange of wedding planning. There were 14,000,605 potential futures, but we knew for certain we would find the right one.
But here in Southern California, it’s easy to lose track of things like seasons, and I slowly started to understand that a wedding is not a thing that just happens to you, like birthdays, or a passive process, like growing out your bangs.
I’m laid-back, but I am not beyond emotional regression. In spite of our overall nonmarital bliss, there were times when I’d ask questions perhaps more acerbically than I actually felt. There was a phase when I couldn’t get more than two glasses of wine deep without throwing a side eye and delivering some version of “Did you even mean it when you asked me to get married?” in a malicious whisper.
No one likes losing half their weekend to a hostile, lurking, insecure sense of malaise. At least most people don’t. So during this…phase of mine, we started to consider wedding options. These ranged from a dinner in Yountville with only our closest friends (“But what about the rest of our friends?” I’d wail, my eyes swelling along with the guest list), to riding bikes to the Venice courthouse (romantic, only Venice doesn’t have a courthouse), to renting out our friends’ eighty-three-acre glamping retreat on an old farm in midcoast Maine for a weekend-long celebration, complete with piles of lobster, food cooked over lovingly stoked outdoor fires, and a mushroom-foraging-and-tequila-tasting welcome party (maybe I was the only one who ever considered this idea a legitimate option, but I ask you to pause for a moment and contemplate how lovely it sounds).
Our zeal for planning waxed and waned, but mainly waned, according to the seasons, how many people were inquiring about our wedding date, and how inevitably busy our lives were, champagne and shellfish days notwithstanding.
Maybe, I surmised, a wedding is like packing for vacation: It takes exactly as long as you have time for. And without a deadline, we had no deadline. Plus, nothing we came up with felt exactly right.
And then, with no warning whatsoever, it was 2018. When the subject came up with the outside world (and not to sound ungrateful for our caring, inquisitive tribe of friends and family, but the outside world can sometimes be really pushy), either of us would respond that a ceremony, a party, and a legal recognition of our bond hadn’t become any less important—it’s just that we were still working on it. What we didn’t realize, what we couldn’t have known during all those hours of not deciding, was that our laissez-faire approach was paying dividends: our mutual adoration had grown deeper and our partnership more complex, more meaningful, than even my best-laid wedding plans.
Over the past few years, without actually getting married, we’ve done the things married people do. We have animals now, and thus the shared responsibility of keeping living creatures alive. We bought a house last year and together entered the world of necessary but uninspiring purchases at big-box stores. We’ve become richer through travel (we once biked 600 miles together, curiously if unwittingly through a corridor of forest fires, and we’ve whizzed up and down the pin-straight highways of Lithuania in a shoebox-size car, hunting for chanterelles and skinny-dipping in ponds). And Blake has been on not one but two cruises with me and twelve members of my family (if a week on the open water with someone else’s family is not a symbol of one’s devotion, I don’t know what is).
We’ve even had fights about money and sex and priorities and the appropriateness of a million different things! And we always make up. We’ve taught each other meaningful lessons and together learned skills of varying use and importance. I fought with him indignantly for years before accepting that when he points out areas of, er, improvement, it’s out of kindness. It’s because of Blake’s interest in my own personal evolution that I’ve been able to realize that living in fear of disappointing others is no way to live, that spending all my disposable income on shoes is not wise, that low and slow really is the way to sauté vegetables. Okay, I’m not completely sold on that last one, but overall, I’ve learned to be grateful for, rather than too proud to take, Blake’s advice in areas where his strengths are my weaknesses. Every trip we take together feels like a honeymoon, even the small ones, when we toss tents and a cooler into the back of a van we bought for “adventures” and barely leave LA. They feel like honeymoons not because they are necessarily grand or romantic or scattered with strewn petals but because they are times when we step back, look at how we’ve grown, and realize we are more loving, more sure in our decision to be together, than we were on any of the adventures that came before.
Let’s not be unclear about this: 2015 was a great year. But then we had three more years. Three more years learning the nuances of each other’s professional and personal lives. Three years of figuring out when to give advice, when to give support, and when to GTFO. In the past three years, I’ve been honest and open with Blake about emotions I couldn’t understand—never mind articulate—before. We make each other laugh more and cry less. It may have been only three years ago that we got engaged, but we’re a better couple now, as well as a better couple of people. Not buying a dress and walking down an aisle was never intentional. But I’ve come to realize that as our relationship has evolved so has my ideal wedding. Does that mean we’ll do it?
My own mother was widowed when I was a teenager, and despite a series of serious relationships, she chose to never remarry—which may have led to the demise of some of those relationships. The space in my mind that holds the memory of a long-term boyfriend of hers telling me “Your mom’s not the marrying type” must be rent-controlled, because the times have changed and the property value has gone up, but it hasn’t moved out. I’ve asked myself if I subconsciously consider myself “not the marrying type” by association (even though I still don’t understand quite what it’s supposed to imply, and Google search results are inconclusive).
Neither Blake nor I come from a traditional family, and while our loved ones still like to ask when we’re finally getting married (my late and much-loved father even asked me about it through a medium once—I’m not joking; the reading is on video somewhere), there has never been any pressure, only a celebratory feeling around us being together. But there are always questions. I get it. We’re all human. We like our t’s crossed and our circles closed and our children wed.
If I weren’t the one not getting married, I’d have theories about it, too. Like: All factors considered, is the reason we are content as a perma-engaged couple rather than a married one because we haven’t worked though the ways we’ve been burned by marriage in the past? Perhaps. It’s true that our families are large and loving, but they are not without thunderous zones that peace-seekers like Blake and I instinctively avoid. Are we an example of our generation’s overall tendency to question the value of long-standing institutions? Could be that. We still can’t figure out whether marriage is better or worse for our taxes, and when Blake’s brother likens tying the knot to signing up for a lifelong phone plan, it does kind of make sense. Is it just because we keep skipping ahead in the adult playbook, and it’s getting too weird to go back to Volume One: Marriage? Possibly, but the fierce pride we feel when we sit on our porch and revel in our successful adulting feels so good. Do we just keep getting distracted and spending our money on plants and vacations and, occasionally, big-box store items? Yes, we do. One hundred and ten percent.
When Blake had asked me to marry him, I’d never felt more loved. Until the next day. And the next. And the thousand that followed. I feel closer to him and I feel more grateful for him today than I ever have. And I know him better. And we’ve had more fights. And he’s driven me crazy. And it’s because of these—the painful, beautiful, authentic moments—and not in spite of them that I’m more at home, more grounded in the universe, and more cognizant of the woman I am and how I want her to evolve than any ceremony or legal document could make me feel.
What I don’t know is if we will get married or if we won’t. Our relationship is so much more than it was three years ago and maybe that’s enough. Or maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with an insane urge to call a calligrapher. It’s just that right now, we’re busy planning our summer vacation, figuring out the best cannabis lube, making sure the cat isn’t kidnapped by coyotes, making new friends and keeping the old, and working enough that we achieve our goals but not so much we never see each other.
So will we actually get married? Probably. But not this week. First I want to plan that vacation.
The Happiest Ending
We did plan that vacation—then another, and another. There was a winding northbound road trip that ended in Tofino, British Columbia. A few flights to Mexico in search of culinary adventures and Oaxacan ceramics (I’d always book the cheap seats, then cringe at Blake’s tall frame folded into his seat and regret my frugality). And then on NYE 2019, fire roaring and wine flowing, we huddled at home together in wool socks and sweats, making a list of goals for the year ahead. We kissed and clasped hands as we added finally getting married to the list, alongside less romantic pursuits, like dental surgery and window installation. It was a pivotal night, and I look back on it fondly, but sometime after midnight I also ended up in tears (not the joyful kind)—a result of the wine, the list, or both—which shows that getting married had made the 2020 to-do list in spite of still not resembling anything close to immaculate bliss.
What it meant was that in our marathon toward marriage, we had finally fallen into pace with each other or, at least, decided that crossing the finish line together was worth it, irrespective of personal race stats. In mid-January, I realized we could get married on 2/22/2020—a cool date, just one day before the anniversary of my father’s passing decades earlier. It was an opportunity to score divine numbers on our marriage license and lighten the heavy vibrational load I still felt every year during the short days and biting winds of late February, and it seemed too good to pass up.
“Wanna do it?” I asked, swiveling in my chair. “Just us?”
“Big Sur?” He replied from above a bubbling pot of pasta sauce.
“Post Ranch Inn?” I said.
And it was on. In that briefest of interchanges lies the real romance: a four-phrase volley that wouldn’t have happened a couple years earlier, because while we loved each other for good even back then, we hadn’t realized that compromising to honor your partner’s needs often makes you happier than pushing your own agenda. Four years ago, would I have pushed for Bora-Bora? Maybe. Would he have preferred camping to shelling out for a luxury resort? Maybe.
As it turns out, choosing a venue at the intersection of our desires made for the best long weekend of our lives. Big Sur holds many memories for us (far more than someplace we’ve never been—say, Bora-Bora, cough cough), and driving up the coast, we reminisced about watching bats flutter over the sea at dusk and holidays spent driving north on PCH. We made our favorite pit stops, and by the time we arrived at our guesthouse, we were giddy.
Looking back—at the medicine woman who made us laugh and cry through the ceremony, at dining at Deetjen’s just months before it closed, at watching our first sunset as a married couple looking out over the same view we’d shared on our first vacation together—it seems that time slowed that weekend, making a Friday-to-Tuesday adventure long enough to feel what seemed like the full range of human emotion. Did I end up, at one point during that adventure, in not-joyful tears in front of the roaring fire in a gorgeous architectural tree house with my new husband? Absolutely. Do I regret that anything other than three-hour lunches and lovemaking happened during our long-awaited wedding weekend? Absolutely not. The experience was a microcosm of our relationship, and I love it all the more for that. It’s proof that our partnership has a life of its own, a heartbeat that isn’t mine or his, an alchemy of the specific blend of our wants, needs, joys, ambitions, flaws, and traumas. It has mysteries to unravel and peaks whose summits we can’t yet picture.
Getting married enhanced the deep love and commitment we share, but the imperfections of our partnership are still there. Thanks to a nonreturnable gift from the universe that no one registered for, our first year of marriage has happened to coincide with a global pandemic and quarantine. So we’ve been getting hygge with the highs and hitting lockdown malaise head-on. We know more about each other than ever now: I know what he sounds like on work calls, and he knows that some days, I work for eight hours straight without speaking to anyone at all. We’re finding certain habits bizarre but feeling tenderness toward others. At this point, our anniversary is only a few months away, and I’m looking forward to celebrating with a wedding weekend redux: days spent dissolving into laughter, evenings lounging languidly under the setting sun, and at some point, a late night talking ourselves into tears by a fire.