Who gets married on a Monday, an ordinary Monday, the most dreary and prosaic, back-to-work day of the week? On this little spit of land that curls its way into the Atlantic Ocean, the answer is: people who have been waiting decades for the opportunity.

This weather-beaten village at the tip of Cape Cod is once again in the historical spotlight. Long a destination for gay couples, the town that has seen the whaling business come and go, great shoals of fish come and go and the salt industry come and go welcomed the arrival of a legal deadline, set by the State Supreme Judicial Court, to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- making Massachusetts the first state in the union to do so. And so with town offices opening promptly at 8 in the morning, the old definition of marriage that came with the Pilgrims -- one man, one woman, no substitutions -- passed into history.

People thronged the entrance to the stately white Town Hall, which like town halls across the country is where the basic passages of life are made real by paperwork. Provincetown expected such an influx of people applying for the license that officials preregistered more than 100 couples to come and apply on the first day alone. And come they did, 154 couples by the end of the day, making their way under a light canopy of Bradford pear trees, abloom with delicate white flowers. They passed up the stairs and paused before the building's large, open doors, waving to the crowd that cheered them on and in.

When they emerged, there was cake (carrot with white frosting). By 10:30, the well-pillaged communal treat was showing the strain of the day, but the crowd was still hungry for celebration.

Provincetown is a party town, where people come to take aimless Saturday strolls down a long avenue of shops, art galleries and restaurants, their heads, often enough, just a little foggy from a brace of late-brunch bloody marys. But it is also a town where vacationers get hooked on the slate-gray blankness of the ocean and the pale blue of the sky, where party people slowly morph into locals, buy houses and torture the poor, thin, sandy earth until it blooms. Yesterday, although it's only mid-May and the temperatures have not brought out the skintight tank tops and Speedos, it felt fully in party mode, with well-wishers, the curious and the media spilling out onto the narrow main street.

Of those applying for licenses in Provincetown, a town official estimated that it was roughly half and half, male and female couples. But Jeremy Pittman, of the gay civil rights group Mass Equality, said his group did an informal, statewide survey of same-sex couples intending to get married, and he estimated about two-thirds of them were women. Certainly, to the south in the more sober, more stolid Cape Cod town of Orleans, the most prominent, and historic, action was lesbian.

Linda Davies and Gloria Bailey of Orleans, together for 33 years and now local demigods of the gay marriage movement, were among the original seven couples who, on April 11, 2001, filed a complaint protesting Massachusetts's denial of a marriage license. That complaint led to the Supreme Judicial Court decision six months ago that legalized gay marriage. It has been a long road for Davies and Bailey and it came -- if not to an end, then to a new milestone -- Monday on Nauset Beach, where they held a small wedding ceremony.

They started at the Orleans courthouse at 8 a.m., waiting for a waiver from the state's three-day waiting period to receive their license. They were not the only couple there, but they were given pride of place, emerging to cheers with an unprepossessing piece of paper that said the government had no objections to their rushing headlong into a marriage three decades in the making.

Two young men, perhaps in their early twenties and both with close-cropped hair, sat side by side in the lobby, waiting outside a Barnstable County courtroom.

Joanne Hush, a friend of Davies and Bailey's, had come with a large basket of candies wrapped in pink tissue paper. She offered the young men a May 17 Marriage Day favor, but they just looked at her a bit confused and refused.

"Whatever," said one man, when told why the courthouse was crowded.

"It's their call," said the other. But then the two men looked at each other awkwardly, and moved apart on the bench.

Davies and Bailey left the courthouse in a small caravan of vehicles and crossed town to the Orleans town offices, where they were greeted by another small crowd, many of them friends from the First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church, where the women worship. A woman with an accordion serenaded them with strains of "That's Amore." It was here, more than three years ago, that they were first denied a marriage license.

As Davies and Bailey were finishing their morning paperwork in Orleans, the Provincetown Board of Selectmen, the town manager and other officials were holding a news conference. Their first message was straight out of the town's tourism brochures: Provincetown is the best little (extremely gay friendly) town in the country. If it is not already the Niagara Falls of gay marriage, it soon will be. But they were also dealing with a little legal thicket. With a five-member board of selectmen that includes three lesbians and one gay man and is served by a secretary, Vernon Porter, who also goes by the name Lady Di, the selectmen are taking a rather more luxurious reading of state marriage law than the commonwealth's Republican governor, Mitt Romney, would like.

Provincetown has announced that it will marry anyone, state resident or not, who takes the customary oath that there is no legal impediment to the marriage. Citing a 1913 law (crafted, it is said, to prevent out-of-state interracial couples from marrying in Massachusetts), Romney is demanding that town clerks enforce the "legal impediment" oath with new rigor. Given that other states don't sanction gay marriage, that would preclude many non-Massachusetts residents from marrying.

But Provincetown is acutely aware of its history and perhaps hungry for a little more space in the history books. Though they won't quite say it, town officials are happy to push the envelope on this one. It is not, they argue, for town clerks (after judges, perhaps the most unlikely heroes of the gay marriage movement) to decide whether these oaths are above board. Provincetown will marry all comers who meet the basic requirements.

At the news conference, Cheryl Andrews, the newly elected chairman of the board of selectmen (who is marrying her girlfriend on Thursday), read from the Massachusetts Constitution stirring words about equality, words crafted in language only somewhat altered from John Adams's original prose. That document, and the Mayflower Compact, signed in the harbor of Provincetown, give people here a unique sense of possession over social justice issues, a point that Andrews (who claims a relative at the Battle of Bunker Hill) drove home in her speech: "Let gay America have a new history beginning here in Massachusetts, today, May 17, 2004." It was an applause line that worked, but you didn't need rhetorical flourishes to get this extraordinarily happy crowd on its feet.

Andrews is a feisty and friendly presence, a shortish woman with thick hair and the manner of a kid sister who runs the family despite the usual pecking order. She is none too pleased that her town clerk, a gay man named Douglas Johnstone (who also plans to marry his partner) has been getting heat from state authorities.

"A few phone calls have been made, and we're not happy about it," she said on Friday of some ominous warnings from state officials. "The bottom line is they are very unhappy, the governor's unhappy. We get the message.

"But c'est la vie."

If it felt in Provincetown like the people were staring across the water at a glowering Mitt Romney, in Orleans there seemed to be hardly any controversy at all. No protesters were in sight as the early morning marriage mill began to turn.

"People compare it to Little Rock, to Brown v. Board of Education," said Paul Hush, Joanne's husband, mentioning the political leitmotif of the day. It was, in fact, 50 years to the day since the Brown decision spoke out (with words, if not results) against school segregation. It was mentioned everywhere, as if by some higher intervention, that May 17 would now have a double significance in the annals of civil rights.

"The thing that's different," continued Hush, "is that we don't have the protesters outside the door, all that hatred. The feeling is that, all right, the objections have been made, people have had their say, now let's move on."

There was nobody but the media and well-wishers on Nauset Beach when Davies, 58, and Bailey, 63, were finally married at 1 p.m. The couple appeared at the top of a sand dune rising above the Atlantic Ocean. They took off their sandals and walked down to the beach to a little wooden table with spindly legs planted in the sand. There, weighted with some smooth ocean stones, was their hard-won marriage license. They may be one of the first couples to use a court decision -- the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinion that made gay marriage legal -- as one of the texts for their ceremony.

"Dear, dear friends, this amazing day has finally arrived," said Mykel Johnson, minister of First Parish. She cited the history of gay rights and the momentous role that Davies and Bailey had played in it. She used a turn of phrase -- "the love that dare not speak its name" -- from Oscar Wilde, reluctant martyr of the movement. A woman sang John Denver's "Annie's Song": "You fill up my senses . . ." Then Johnson declared the two women "legally married spouses," and Davies and Bailey kissed. A few moments later they looked at each other as if they had just come out of a dream, and hugged again. That second hug sapped the last of Bailey's emotional resistance, and she sobbed in her wife's arms.

"The last time you cried that hard was when we won the lawsuit," said Davies.

Not every couple who applied for a license and a waiver was married Monday. Some will marry after the three-day waiting period, others are waiting for a propitious Saturday, or a balmy day later in the season. Many already consider themselves married and see the new understanding of state law as just a legal addition to their relationship. Mary Cronin, another member of First Parish who will marry her partner on Saturday, said she will do the paperwork first, then have the marriage, and only then invite everyone to a big bash.

"I wanted to separate the ceremony and the celebration because even a month ago our governor" -- she says it with distaste -- "was still trying to find ways to block gay marriage." In 1999, she and her partner were living in Cambridge, with domestic partnership status. Then a court, on a technicality, nullified a local domestic partnership law. Like a lot of same-sex couples, she is wary.

On Nauset Beach, however, Davies and Bailey seemed as if they had settled into a perfect certainty: married now in the eyes of both God and the state. A century and a half before, on a beach near Provincetown not far from the little marriage party that was breaking up, Henry David Thoreau found a perfect spot to contemplate the passage of time, the ephemeral things of the earth, and the strange, desolate places where one can find fertility and abundance on this planet.

"A man may stand there and put all America behind him," Thoreau said.

With the ocean behind them, Davies and Bailey, married at last and somewhat late in life, had all of America before them, an America waiting to see where all of this will lead. But if there were rumblings of anger or hostility out there, they couldn't be heard at the moment, as a light surf made a large noise and a small group of friends kissed and laughed under a faint afternoon sun.

Linda Davies, left, and Gloria Bailey were married on Cape Cod yesterday, three years after they and six other couples filed a complaint that led Massachusetts's top court to overturn the state's ban on same-sex marriage.Cheryl Andrews, left, and Jennifer Jermack celebrate on the steps of Provincetown Town Hall after applying for a marriage license.Joanne Colucci, left, Marilyn Lober walk to Town Hall bearing the length of their journey on their backs. By the end of the day, 154 couples had applied for marriage licenses.