In 2012, I passed Cory in the narrow hallway of our tiny graduate school building. He later told me: “I remember thinking, ‘Who is that girl?’ ”
He’d have to wait three years to find out. By then, we had both graduated. I was adrift after moving to Seattle from New York. I had no full-time job and was living with my father. About eight months into my stay, Cory reached out to me over Facebook messenger; I had posted a video he found intriguing. For the next month, we Skyped, G-chatted and messaged our way into a romance.
After I sent him a tipsy marriage proposal via text, we decided to meet in person. I flew to New Jersey, where he’s from, and stayed with him for a week. He called it the longest first date in history. A short time later, I moved in with him permanently.
Cory is not my boyfriend. That word does not communicate the depth of our relationship. There was no period in our relationship where we were casually seeing each other. We did not engage in the coy games of courtship, never waiting the requisite four to six hours between text messages or closing the door to pee. We aren’t technically dating, either. We both work demanding jobs with long hours, so date nights are a rare treat.
We avoid labeling each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Both words sound childish to our 20-something ears, as if they’re describing high school kids. For other couples who enjoyed a more traditional courtship, perhaps the word does not sound so strange. But we were serious from the start. I have been through the uncertain boyfriend phase, not sure how long he would stick around, wondering when, or if, he would call. I felt none of that relationship anxiety with Cory.
I have introduced Cory as my boyfriend to my friends. But I’ve always felt the urge to add caveats: “But we live together, and have discussed our future-kids’ names, and I have a great relationship with his mother.” The word boyfriend never seemed to tell the whole story.
In an effort to avoid these traditional labels, I tried out “partner.” In job interviews when I first arrived back on the East Coast, I told my prospective employers “my partner and I live in Jersey City.” But that too felt wrong, as though I was co-opting a word reserved for LGBTQ couples who were not able to be get married until recently but had been together all their lives.
In casual conversation, I have lied to strangers. I will sometimes say to waiters: “I’m meeting my husband here.” If we’re having dinner at his parents’ house, I tell the Uber driver, “I’m on my way to see my in-laws.” Chalk it up to sexism, but I fear that people will not take my requests, suggestions or directions seriously if I don’t preface them with the implication that I am married. And if marriage is a life-long commitment in sickness and in health, until death do us part, then my lie is not too much of a stretch. Cory and I have made that commitment to each other, albeit not in the eyes of the law. We often discuss getting married, but have decided to wait. Fiancé is another word that doesn’t fit for us.
We are in relationship limbo, the place between casual dating and marriage that doesn’t have a name. In theory, the label we share with other people shouldn’t matter. The only people that need to know our relationship status are the two of us. In practice, it is imperative that I properly characterize my relationship to the world: to know the role that Cory plays in my life is to know me. For the sake of our pride and dignity, we haven’t tested out lover or soulmate, either. But we do have a roster of nicknames — Beeboop, Coco and Asparagoose, for instance — that we call one another more than our real names.
Perhaps my refusal to use the word “boyfriend” to describe Cory is stubborn. But I know that words have power. I would rather simply say “This is Cory,” than tell people he is my boyfriend — a word that does not do him justice. Until language evolves to create a word that encompasses the complexities of our situation, that will have to do.