Crossroads. Places where a choice has to be made, where the paths one may travel diverge to different destinations. Everyone has many of these intersections in their life; many are of small significance, small details, or that’s what we think at the time. Then, with the experience of hindsight, we look back and wonder ... what if?
Let me say that I am happy about how my life turned out after passing one particular crossroad. I have been married for many years, and I have absolutely no regrets. Still, that day, that moment, lives in my heart, seared there by love. And, occasionally, my heart says – what if?
“She doesn’t feel that way about you, and you can’t marry each other.” My aunt’s words hung in the air, and I looked across the bed where my cousin sat on the other side. My mother sat next to me, and my aunt, her sister, stood at the foot of the guest room bed where my mother had been sleeping. My mother and I had come into town the day before on one of our infrequent visits, and they had brought my cousin and me into the guest room to talk.
I was young, almost twenty-one, and I was so very tired of being alone. I had tried to date, but casual relationships and casual sex wasn’t what I wanted. In short, I wanted a wife. A year earlier, (this was in the days before the Internet) I had struck up a mail and phone correspondence with my cousin, who lived several states away. We talked by phone and we wrote letters, and we always said “I love you” to end each conversation. In one of my letters, penned three weeks before this visit, I had told her that perhaps we should talk about marriage.
I watched my cousin as she stared at the wall in front of her. A storm of emotions flooded through me, driven by the terrible realization that I had misread my cousin’s feelings for me. She was sixteen, almost five years my junior, and my heart ached as I watched her...
... and then she looked at her mother. “I love him, Mom.”
My heart thudded in my chest, and I found myself standing to face her directly. “You do?” My mother and my aunt were stunned into silence, but my cousin and I only had eyes for each other in that moment. She smiled shyly, that same little smile she had bestowed on me for years.
“You can’t get married!” my mother snapped.
“Are you two crazy?” my aunt rejoined.
I tore my gaze from my cousin’s face, now showing apprehension, and looked to my mother. “We are not saying we are getting married. We are saying that we want to talk about it.”
“It’s illegal!” My aunt spat.
I was ready for this question; I’d done some library research, and I’d made phone calls. “You’re right. It is illegal in this state. But it’s perfectly legal in mine.”
“She,” my mother pointed at my cousin, “is only sixteen. She’s still in high school.”
“Yes,” I nodded, “she is. We aren’t asking to do this next week. All we want to do is talk about it. That’s all. Talking isn’t a crime.”
“She’s not going to talk to you,” my aunt bristled.
My cousin stood up. “Unless you are proposing to lock me in my room, I will talk with him about this.”
“Well, you two aren’t going anywhere alone.”
My cousin sighed. “We will take my sister with us, okay?”
I looked at my mother and my aunt. “I promise that all we will do is talk. I love her, and the last thing I want is to hurt her.” I looked at my cousin. “Let’s get your sister and go for a walk.”
“Okay.” She looked at her mother. “We are going outside for a little while. We won’t go far.”
“No, it’s not okay,” my aunt snapped. “But I suppose you will do whatever you want to do.”
“Your father won’t be happy to hear this,” my mother said coldly.
“Mom, I will talk with him,” I replied evenly. “But not now.”
My cousin stepped around her mother and walked to the bedroom door. I followed, and we stepped into the hallway. My younger cousin was standing a few feet away, her eyes wide. “You two are getting married?”
“No, we aren’t, at least not anytime soon.” I smiled at her. “Will you go outside with us?”
The fourteen year old nodded and grinned at us. “You two are in so much trouble.”
Fifteen minutes later, the three of us sat down at a picnic table in a park a few blocks from my cousin’s house. “So,” my younger cousin said with a grin, “Why don’t I leave you two lovebirds alone for a while?” She held up her Walkman player. “I’ll be over there at the next table.” She stood and walked the twenty feet to the next picnic table and sat down.
I turned to my cousin. “When did she stop being a brat?”
“She hasn’t,” my cousin said with a giggle.
“Hm.” I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the table, and looked at my cousin as she sat next to me. “So, where do we start?”
“I dunno.” She shook her head and looked at her hands. “Can we even do this?”
“We can. Well, not right now, and not here. But, we can.”
“How do you know?” She glanced at me, and then looked down.
“I did some research at a library,” I explained. “I also made a few phone calls. We will have to wait until you graduate from school, and,” I took a breath, “you’d have to move in with me.”
“Why?” She was looking intently at me now.
“It’s the only way it will work with our two states’ laws.”
“Our parents would go nuts if we lived together.”
“I’m not asking you to sleep with me, but you have to move away from here before we get married. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to come back here without getting into trouble.”
“That’s a lot to think about,” she sighed. “Are we doing the right thing?”
“We’re talking about it,” I shrugged. “I think that’s a good thing.”
She popped me lightly on my shoulder with her fist. “I’m not talking about right now, silly.” She sighed and looked back at her hands. “Do you really love me like that?”
“Yes,” I said immediately. I reached out to cover her hand with mine. “I love you more than just as your cousin.”
“What if we do this and it doesn’t work?”
“What if we do this and it does?” I gently squeezed her hand. “Look, we have two years before we can marry, anyway. That’s a helluva long engagement.”
She sat quietly for a minute. “What if you find someone else?”
“I’d have to be looking to find someone,” I replied. “I promise I won’t look.”
After another minute: “Do you really love me?”
I leaned close to her, and she turned to head to look at me. “Yes.” I looked into her eyes, and her lips parted slightly. My lips touched hers before I knew that I had moved. I drew back to look at her.
She sat very still, and then she turned toward me, twisting her torso to face me. She reached up to take my face in her palms. Tugging gently, she brought my mouth to hers, and we kissed, softly at first, and then urgently.
“Ahem,” my younger cousin cleared her throat as she approached us. “I think this is exactly why I’m here.” She grinned at us.
I took my cousin’s hand. “I love her. Is that okay?” My tone was light, but I looked at her with a serious expression.
She looked at her older sibling. “Do you love him?”
My cousin nodded. “Yes, I have loved him all my life.”
She looked back and forth between us. “I think it’s really weird, but I love you both. I’ve seen how you two are together, even when I was younger.”
“We’d better get back before they come looking for us,” my cousin said with a sigh.
I rose and offered her my hand. She took it, and I drew her to me, and then I leaned down to kiss her. She wrapped her arms around me, and time stopped as we embraced.
Finally, she released me and leaned back to look at me. “Wow, that was way better than I thought it’d be.”
“Me, too.” I smiled at her and held out my hand again. “Shall we?”
Our mothers’ moods hadn’t improved by the time we got home. My uncle had come home, and he was his normally placid self as my cousin and I walked into the house holding hands. The ladies scowled at us as we sat down next to each other on the living room couch.
“I still can’t believe that you’re doing this,” my mother started.
“You should know better. She’s only sixteen,” my aunt added.
I took a breath and reminded myself to stay calm. “We aren’t doing anything other than talking, and we can’t get married for at least two years.”
“You live halfway across the country from each other,” my uncle said. “That’s a tough way to have a relationship.”
“We’ve done okay, so far,” my cousin answered. “Letters and phone calls.” Her eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to her. “Mother, you read my mail!”
“What?” My aunt looked at her daughter, and then looked away.
“You did!” She turned to me. “That’s how she found out about your suggestion to me. I certainly didn’t tell her about it.”
My aunt colored a little and glanced at her husband, who was watching her closely. “What? Okay, so I saw the letter on her desk, and I picked it up. She’s my daughter, and I have an obligation to know what’s going on in her life.”
“That won’t always be true,” I pointed out. “In fact, it will cease to be true in about two years.”
“You can’t marry each other,” my mother said sharply. “This is ridiculous.”
“She and I should decide that,” I replied.
“I think such a marriage is illegal,” my uncle said quietly.
“It is, here,” I agreed, “but not in my state.”
He studied us for a moment. “She will finish high school first. That is not optional.” My cousin and I nodded together.
“Wait,” my aunt rounded on her husband. “You’re going to allow this?”
My uncle ignored her. “I do hope the two of you have done nothing – physical?”
My cousin blushed, and I shook my head. “No, just kiss and,” I lifted our joined hands.
“See that you keep it that way. A child would be a most inconvenient complication, and there is no contraceptive that is a hundred percent effective.”
I took a breath, and grasped my cousin’s hand in both of mine. “I promise that she and I will wait until after our wedding.”
“Well, I don’t condone this!” My mother sat back and crossed her arms.
“Nor do I!” My aunt copied my mother’s posture.
My uncle sighed. “Look, I’m not happy about this, either. I know my daughter, and I know my nephew. He is old enough to choose for himself, and she will be old enough in less than two years. Our forbiddance would add nothing to this situation. Like it or not, we are all family, and I refuse to turn out one of my own.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” my cousin said with a sniffle.
“I love you, Daughter, and I wish you’d have made another choice. Long distance romances are difficult, as is cousin marriage.” He looked at me. “You stand an excellent chance of breaking my daughter’s heart, and your own. Is this still the course you wish to pursue?”
“Yes,” I said with conviction.
My uncle smiled slightly. “Then I think you have a question for me.”
I took a breath. “Uncle, like Jacob before me, I come to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.” My cousin’s grip tightened painfully on my hand, but I ignored that and studied my uncle’s face.
“I will grant your request,” my uncle held up his hand as my aunt and mother started to speak, “with some conditions. First, she graduates from high school before anything else happens. Second, you must marry legally under a valid license. Anything else is an open invitation for trouble. Third, you stand by your promise to not become lovers before you become spouses. Fourth, you will not cohabit until you are married.”
I looked at my cousin, and she turned her head to meet my gaze. “Okay?” I said softly.
“Yes, that’s okay with me.”
“Then,” I faced my uncle again, “we accept.”
“I’m telling your father about this,” my mother snapped. “He will set you straight.”
“Dad knows that I’m old enough to make my own choices, Mom.” I shrugged. “He will probably be upset, but I will talk to him.”
“We aren’t going to pay for you to fly out here.”
“Then I will use my own money,” I replied calmly. My father’s job afforded him deeply discounted airline tickets for his family, but I would be eligible to use them for only one more year. Inwardly, I cringed at the idea of buying full-price airline tickets several times per year. I lived too far away to drive, so this would be a real hardship for us.
“We can discuss all of this later,” my uncle said firmly.
“We want to go out together while he’s here,” my cousin put in. “My sister can go with us, but we,” she emphasized the word, “have to talk to each other.”
My uncle nodded. “As long as all three of you go, that’s fine. Take care of your sister; don’t just drop her off somewhere.”
“No, Daddy, I wouldn’t do that to her.”
“You can’t let them just ... be together!” my aunt started again.
“They are together. I refuse to be a tyrant to my own daughter.” My uncle stood. “Maybe you three should go for a while. Be home by six for dinner.”
My cousins and I scooted for the door, and went to my cousin’s car. “Good thing I can drive,” my cousin commented as she closed her door.
“Is there a mall around here?” I asked.
“That’s a good idea. We can dump the brat and walk around by ourselves.”
The brat in question giggled. “So, should I introduce him as your cousin, or your boyfriend? Or, your boyfriend-cousin, or cousin-boyfriend?”
“Oh, you’re soooo funny!”
“Okay, ladies,” I said with a smile for my younger cousin. “Let’s just go and walk around.”
~*~ I was in town for a week, and my cousin and I spent most of the days at the mall, or at a local park. After two days, my younger cousin successfully lobbied to not accompany us out in public, a request which was granted by my uncle.
We talked, we kissed, and sometimes we just sat together, soaking in the short time we had with each other. It would be months before we could see each other again, and we both dreaded the separation.
“We have been writing and using the phone for a year,” she pointed out as we sat on a bench, looking out over the water that bordered the park. “We can do this.”
I leaned my head against hers for a moment, savoring her perfume. “You will have to soak a handkerchief in that perfume for me, like the ladies in the old novels.” She giggled, and I sighed. “I’ve always loved you, but it’s so much brighter now, somehow.”
She turned and pressed her lips to mine. “Yes, it is,” she said as she pulled back a little.
Finally, it was time to leave. My mother and I rode to the airport with my cousin and her family. At the departure gate, while our parents said their goodbyes, my cousin and I stood off to one side. “I’m going to miss you,” she said as a tear tracked down her face.
“I will miss you, too.” I drew her in for a long kiss and a fierce hug. “You are the love of my life, and I promise I will be back for you.”
“I will be here,” my cousin said. “Come back to me.” She kissed me again, and then I turned to board the plane that would take me away from her.
~*~ The next year was difficult for us. Despite my mother’s threats, my father finally relented and allowed me to purchase three airline tickets over the year that I was eligible to use them. The visits with my cousin and her family were bittersweet – she and I spent as much time as we could wrangle from our family with each other, and we parted tearfully at the end of each visit.
In between my visits, we wrote letters, recorded taped messages, and called each other as often as we could afford. We discussed our plans for our mutual future, and shared our research on cousin marriages.
The most pressing problem was, she could not even leave her state, marry, and then return. Unless she was not a state resident when we married, her home state would consider the marriage void. That fact became even more important when, shortly after the first year had passed, I was selected for a new and highly paid job – in my cousin’s home state. I had no real choice but to accept the position, and so, four months later, I moved there to start my new job.
The good news was, I was within a reasonable driving distance of my cousin’s home, and I made that drive nearly every weekend to see her. The bad news was, she and I were both under the same state restrictions. We could be romantically involved, or even live together, but we could not marry. Even so, we were still confident that we could make things work, though it was difficult to see just how it was possible.