I was never one of those girls who dreamed about marriage. I never practiced walking down some aisle, never tried on my mother’s wedding dress. (There wasn’t much to try on—my mother had washed it herself instead of sending it to the dry cleaners. My sister, the artist Nancy Katz, immortalized it by fashioning it into a Torah cover.) I never even had a boyfriend until college, and that adventure ended almost as soon as it began, when I came out in 1971. By then, it was clear I wasn’t going to be allowed to get married even if I wanted to, because legal marriage wasn’t something a lesbian could have in those days, even if she wanted it. And why would I?
A better question might be, why wouldn’t I? My parents had a noisy but a long and faithful marriage. They bickered often and fought loudly—and yet, they traveled around the world together, my mother’s fluent Yiddish their social currency in countries like Norway and Mexico when they ran into Jews who did not speak English, my father’s French filling in when Yiddish wouldn’t do. They had friends, they had sex, they took care of each other (and my siblings and me) their entire lives.
I’m not saying I didn’t strive to be like them in those last respects—I did; I do—but it wasn’t marriage I was looking for. It was romance and it was the notion of a bashert—of dodi li—the one, the beloved, the meant-to-be. And until sometime in the spring of 2011, I squandered about 40 years looking for my bashert in all the wrong places.
I am 67 and have had three … wait, four … rocky two- to five-year-plus relationships with women, three of whom I don’t speak to anymore and one of whom has effectively fallen off the planet. In between those relationships I had a lot of what a person might call affairs: short, hot things that I usually wanted to extend into long-term hot things, obsessive, usually marijuana-driven flings with smart, politically committed women—some straight, none but one Jewish—most of whom were already involved with long-term partners. This is very interesting given the fact that as I have mentioned, my own parents were entirely monogamous, as are most of my coupled friends—friends who have been together for an average of 30 years per couple.
But none of those other relationships, hard as I tried to give them that dodi li je ne sais quoi, had it. While these flings and serious commitments may have been some form of bashert, they weren’t the kind you want to live with for the rest of your life. After my last five-year attempt at a sustaining partnership, I figured my bashert was to be no bashert at all.
And then, in the winter of 2011, some bozo decided to fund efforts in several states—including Minnesota, where I live—to place an amendment banning same-sex marriage into our state constitution, and everything changed.
For one thing, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in or hopeful for marriage for myself, I wanted to support my coupled friends, and folks I did not know who wanted not only the community validation of a commitment ceremony but the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples. For another, who did these anti-queer-marriage-amendment advocates think they were? If you don’t want a gay wedding, don’t have one—just don’t make it impossible for me! So when the social-justice Reform synagogue Shir Tikvah housed a fundraiser to oppose the anti-marriage amendment that May, it made sense to me to join my friends, Annie and Jeanne, and go. I was also between relationships and thought it might be a good way to meet girls. How could I have known (or maybe I did know) that I would meet a girl there—not to make too schmaltzy a point, the very girl—on that actual night?
Before the entertainment began that night, I schmoozed, I sort of cruised, and then all of a sudden, standing in front of me with her hands on her hips was (I had to look down at her name tag) Paula Forman, who I hadn’t seen out in the world since the end of the last century.
Paula had been one of three Jewish women in my chemical-dependency-treatment cohort in the early 1980s. We were friends then, and we socialized a lot, though Paula had made it clear back then that she wasn’t interested in more than a friendship. Besides, back then we wanted different things. Newly sober or not, I was less than a serious catch and my adjunct teaching at the University of Everywhere left me with a less than reliable income stream. Paula was (and still is) a hard working hair stylist who wanted kids and a stable family life.
Eventually, we went our separate ways.
But now, right there in the Shir Tikvah sanctuary, just before the lesbian folk singer took to the bimah to entertain and inspire, there stood Paula Forman after all these years. Was she still cutting hair? Yes. Was I still teaching? Student advising. And was she still with that woman … in the army wasn’t it? A cop, and no, as a matter of fact, well. … Then the program began and we went to sit with the folks we had come with, but not before we agreed to get coffee sometime.
A week or two passed. I looked for her phone number online, not sure, no luck, couldn’t find her email and then, on a rainy Saturday a few weeks after the fundraiser, I went to hear my pal Jewelle Gomez address the Golden Crown Literary Society, and right there was—not Paula, but her pal Judy Kerr, the person Paula was with at the fundraiser, who enthusiastically gave me the phone number I wanted.
Paula and I had dinner a week later. I had determined it was not a date. Then, on our second date a week after that, we went for a walk and someone took someone else’s hand. I reminded Paula that back in those post-treatment ’80s she didn’t want to date me. “Well,” she said, “can I date you now?”
We had an extraordinarily adventure-packed first couple of years: My father died a protracted death; Paula was nearly killed by a drunken driver; I had lymphoma twice; we moved her folks into assisted living—we jammed together many of the things that happen to adults in relationships over the course of 30 years into five … or is it six? And together with our friends and our communities we’re trying to keep our wits and our spirits together during these horrifying political times. And maybe that’s why we are planning wedding now—a Jewish wedding, complete with meetings with the rabbi, guest lists, wedding-cake tastings, and discussions about things like ketubah or no ketubah, and whose chuppah to use. Paula wants an aufruf, which is fine with me. I’m good with all of it, just so long as we both step on the glass. And someone should for sure sing a chorus of “Dodi Li.”
The wedding will come after the High Holidays, two days before the midterm elections in early November. We will be married before 75 of our closest friends and an as-yet-undetermined number of my cousins. I have been mentally figuring out seating arrangements; Paula has been stalking dresses. I have enlisted the husband of a work colleague to help me locate an ivory vintage dinner jacket and black tuxedo pants. We know who will walk whom down the aisle: Paula wants her 23-year-old daughter to accompany her; I imagine being carried aloft by a group of our friends who are relieved that I have at last fallen in love with someone who is thrilled to be with me for the rest of our lives.
Judith Katz is the author of two published novels: The Escape Artist, and Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound. She has received Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, and National Endowment fellowships for fiction. She is an academic advisor at the University of Minnesota.