My grandmother gave me a box that she told me not to open until my wedding day. She died the following year, and I came home from college for her funeral. I had been taking a women’s history class at the time and learned that marriage was rooted in a custom in which a man transfers ownership of his daughter to another man. I’d sworn then that I would never be a part of it, and I put the box on a shelf in my Los Angeles apartment, where it sat like a boat that would never touch water.
After college, I met Benjamin while I was in Paris, where I was working for the summer, writing and working remotely. A year into our long-distance relationship and after several cross-continental flights, we began to discuss our future in earnest. He’d asked me to marry him at least five times, but always, it seemed, in jest. After two years of this back-and-forth travel, he came to the States for Christmas to meet my family.
I began to wonder what it would feel like to open the box.
By then, I had learned that Europeans are a little different when it comes to marriage. At least French Europeans. They wait longer. They don’t get married in a church but at city hall. And many enter into a civil partnership instead of the traditional marriage. It’s referred to as PACS— pacte civil de solidarité. You move in together and enjoy all the tax benefits of marriage without the financial entanglement. Sign a paper and you’re in, sign a paper and you’re out. This sounded like the best option — not least of all because the PACS would allow me to live and work in France.
But back to Benjamin, who had traveled later that year from Paris to Los Angeles for two weeks for his vacation. I drove him up and down the coast, from Zuma to Rosarito. One day we were lying on our matching beach towels in the sand. I lay my hat over both our faces.
He turned to me and said, “I’m going to start looking for an apartment.”
I turned so that we were eye to eye.
But what did this mean? If I was going to live with him in France, we would have to PACS. I knew I wanted to be with him, but now I wasn't sure about the PACS. It felt like a halfway point between living together and marriage. One that didn't necessarily lead to a wedding. I felt a shift. Was marriage what I wanted after all? I knew I wasn’t alone with my conflicted feelings. So many of my girlfriends were single — either still unmarried or divorced. Somehow we’d gotten the message that to be without a man was to be incomplete. I knew that was a lie. But I also worried that settling for the PACS would be just that — “settling” — when perhaps I wanted more.
Benjamin made good on his promise to find an apartment big enough for both of us.
All systems seemed to be pointing toward Paris, as I had also begun a new job that allowed me to travel and work from anywhere in the world.
We signed our PACS paperwork before a notary, and a month later, I went to the French Consulate in Los Angeles to apply for my visa. The man behind the counter was confused as to which visa I should apply for and what my standing would be under PACS. He told me I was still single in the eyes of immigration.
I felt my eyes sting.
Then his colleague corrected him. No, in the eyes of French law they are married.
Thank God I hadn’t started crying. I tried not to act smug. I am only almost French.
Later, I told Benjamin that I still hope one day he will ask my father for approval, get down on one knee with a ring and ask me to marry him, and we will walk down the aisle in a church. I will wear a white dress, and we will smash cake in each other’s faces. But that first, we’d try living in the same country for a while. He said something in French that took me a moment to understand. It was similar to my grandmother’s saying: I give you an inch and you take a mile. I gave him a playful punch and he hugged me and we laughed.
When I packed up my apartment in Los Angeles for the last time, I labeled plastic bins with red duct tape so they wouldn’t get confused with anyone else’s while I was overseas, and headed up to my father’s house in Napa. As I unloaded the bins, I came across the unopened box from my grandmother. It seemed to peer back at me with her eyes, like two English peas. What would she have thought about my PACS? I asked my dad for his knife.
I opened the lid and pulled out a knit blanket with corrugated waves of green, gold and burgundy — every stitch linked to the next by the turn of my grandmother's wrist, secured by the loop of her needles.
I looked up at my Papa. His face was soft, his eyes fixed on the blanket. I realized this wedding present mattered more to my dad than it ever would have to Benjamin. It is a thing his mother made. He — the man who still has not unpacked the boxes from his 1974 divorce from my mother, the man who keeps every greeting card I send him — probably appreciated the blanket more than I could ever know.
I thought about all those “sexist” ideas about a woman leaving her father’s house for her husband’s house. The trading of property. And yet here we were — with the blanket in hand — an exchange in our own way.
I folded up the blanket, put it back in the box and used my red duct tape to mark it — so that everyone would know it was mine.
When I arrived in Paris, I wanted to tell Benjamin about the box and what was inside it, but I felt conflicted. I didn't want him to feel like this story was pressure from me or my family. It was, after all, a wedding gift. Then again, I didn't want him to feel bad that I hadn't opened it with him. PACS is, for many French couples, the modern equivalent of a wedding. I didn't want to be that girl who talks feminism and then walks down the aisle the first chance she gets. But there was a part of me that longed for the dress and the ring and all that goes with it.
Wait a minute, was I pressuring him? Was I that girl?
Maybe the PACS would be enough. Maybe this was the solution I had been looking for all along. And if it wasn't, I would have to find the courage to say so.
That night, as we settled down on our new couch in our new apartment, I decided to just enjoy the moment together in this new place halfway between what is and what will be.
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