The first time I got engaged, I did so because the alternative seemed worse. We had known each other for less than four months. There was a ring. There were diamonds on it. He got down on one knee in front of ten or so of my friends at a hotel piano bar we all went to, as a group, on Sunday nights, to drink cocktails very slowly and see who turned up. There was champagne. Somebody put it on Instagram before we paid our bill. A friend of mine made a face of such astonishment in the background that a photograph of our engagement I’d idly tweeted went viral. I got Facebook ads for detox shakes days later. We had an engagement party. I bought a veil, and a monthly membership to a boutique fitness class. We had conversations about letterpress invitations. I did not recognize myself.
I had never wanted to get married. At least, I had never thought that social marriage, in that banal, heterosexual, letterpress invitations sense, was ever something that I would do. My mother was unmarried—she’d become a single mother by choice in her late thirties. My friends’ parents were all divorced. None of my friends were straight. I identified, for the first half of high school, primarily as a lesbian; most of my first romantic partners were women; I was sixteen before I was comfortable with the idea that I liked men as well, settling into an inchoate queerness quieted in practice by the fact that I spent eight years with the same college boyfriend.
We had the same fight every week or two for the entirety of our relationship. He was Anglo-Irish, fond of country walks and pub dogs and quiet brandies in fireside alcoves. He wanted to get married young, have several children. He wanted to stay in Oxford forever, or at least live a few hours’ drive from his childhood friends. He did not believe in abortion or divorce. He was Catholic. He was, he liked to say, inconveniently Catholic.
Whatever I was, it was not inconvenient.
I was a theologian by training, but I went to church only rarely. I never remembered when to genuflect. I was ethnically Jewish and baptized vaguely Christian; in practice I belonged to that vague class of coffee-hour Episcopalianism sometimes described as moral therapeutic deism: a neoliberal generality. I believed in being a generally decent person, and largely doing what I liked—in listening to the call of my own heart and finding spirituality wherever seemed an interesting place to go and look. An interesting place, but also a convenient one.
It was not that I did not hunger for more. I read Tarot and I lit candles. I memorized poems. I dabbled in witchcraft. I fetishized transcendence. I confused it for experience. I did a lot of stupid things in the name of experience.
At times I wondered about becoming Catholic. I was curious, albeit in an aesthetic way, about Catholicism. But it seemed hideous to me then. It was, I thought, a religion by and for unhappy people, people who insisted on resisting all the comfortably liberatory notions of our enlightened modern age out of sheer perversity. All Catholics, in my mind, were secretly Brideshead characters like Lord and Lady Marchmain: despising one another, poisoning their children, refusing to divorce.
I moved back to New York, in my mid-twenties. My Catholic partner of eight years and I broke up. I thought this made me free. I tried everything I thought I was supposed to want, or that it would be poetic or bohemian or interesting for me to want, that it would be enlightened and liberatory for me to experience: Tinder, Dan Savage–sanctioned open relationships, consciously political lesbian polycules, dates where strange men promised to buy me diamonds, or tried to lick my face. It did not get me very far.