On Friday, a day after the California Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage, I visited a place in downtown Los Angeles where no one was talking about weddings. One-time lovers avoided eye contact, children wept and lawyers counted money.
"Yeah, we're busy," Family Law Commissioner Steff Padilla said during a break in the action at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, which is teeming with misery.
Padilla had begun the day with five divorces on her docket and was up to nine by mid-morning. She's handled as many as 35 in a day (some judges do 40 to 45), and her courtroom is one of 58 countywide handling breakups and other matters of domestic disturbance and abuse.
As for those who argue that legalized gay unions threaten the institution and sanctity of marriage, the statistics leave no doubt that heterosexuals are perfectly capable of cheapening the vows entirely on their own.
L.A. County issues about 75,000 marriage licenses annually. In fiscal 2006-07, there were 108,554 filings countywide for dissolution, annulments and legal separations.
In Padilla's courtroom, I watched a recently divorced Lawndale couple battle over an estate valued at roughly $400,000. One and a half years into this battle, they stared straight ahead with slumped shoulders while their lawyers bickered for them.
"The romance goes out of the relationship when people get married," observed world-weary attorney Michael Rose, who represents the ex-husband in the Lawndale divorce and juggles 25 to 30 divorce cases at a time. If and when the romance goes out of gay and lesbian marriages, Rose said, his services will be available.
"I think it's a good thing," he said of his specialty, "because some people need to get divorced. They need their lives back."
Hard to argue with that. And with gays and lesbians rushing to the altar in an attempt to beat a possible November ballot initiative that could challenge the Supreme Court decision, we may soon need to pass bonds to build more divorce courts.
Or maybe not.
Just when I was ready to embrace the be-careful-what-you-wish-for theme, I spoke to Lorri L. Jean about the birthday party 16 years ago that changed her life.
"Unbeknownst to me, my mother was telling my friends, 'Lorri's been single too long. Can't you help her meet a nice woman?' "
Jean was a San Francisco attorney at the time, and another attorney, Gina Calvelli, was at the party. Jean had never met her, but when the soiree was over, Calvelli suggested they get together sometime.
Well, maybe. But Jean didn't lose any sleep over it.
Then, a week later, Calvelli called.
"She left a message on my home machine asking if I'd like to get together for lunch," Jean said.
What kind of lunch? Cold tuna salad and innocent chitchat about the joys of lawyering? Or warmer fare and saucy banter?
Jean summoned her roommate to help interpret Calvelli's intent. Together, they replayed the phone message several times, like love detectives.
"Is she asking me on a date?" Jean wanted to know.
"Absolutely," the roommate said.
A time conflict turned the lunch into a dinner, and Jean and Calvelli had such a lovely evening they were still looking into each other's eyes when the restaurant closed.
So who would make the next move?
Calvelli played it cool this time, hanging back. A week later, Jean called and invited her to an Oscar telecast party.
Brilliant move by Jean.
If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would have ruled that no gay or straight couple be allowed to get married without first watching an Oscar telecast together. In a three-hour span, you can learn everything you need to know about people. Their taste in movies, actors and fashion. Their tolerance for horrible music and schlocky production. Their dishing abilities and finger-food preferences.
It's a make-or-break deal.
Not only did Jean and Calvelli hit it off, they can't even remember who won any of the Oscars that night. And several months later, when Jean took a job running the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Calvelli happily joined her on the trek south.
They moved to Hollywood; Calvelli became a judicial attorney for the state Court of Appeals, and after 16 years they're still sharing the same tube of toothpaste.
Last week, they were in their separate offices, reading the Supreme Court ruling online. Then they got on the phone with each other.
"We screamed and we cried, and we both cheered in jubilation," Jean said.
The wedding has been set for late September, said Calvelli, who figures this will be one of the most joyous and expensive summers of her life.
"We'll not only do our wedding, but tons of our friends are getting married," and no doubt registering for gifts as you read this. "I would say about 100 couples."
Not to play devil's advocate, but health benefits are already available to domestic partners in California, and getting married still won't give them rights to a partner's Social Security benefits. And then, of course, there are those scary divorce statistics.
"I don't concern myself with how many people get divorced," Calvelli said. "I think about things like going to a doctor's office and being presented with a form, and having to check whether I'm married or single. It kills me to check single because that isn't how I see myself."
Finally, there'll be no more living in sin.
"We did not want to go to Massachusetts or Canada or Spain to get married . . . because we wanted to be legal in our home state," said Jean, who has no worries about the high rate of divorce in the United States.
"Shouldn't I have the right to get married and screw it up, just like straight people?"