I was 23 and living in a rundown second-floor studio in Bellingham, Wash. when I sleepwalked out a window.
A converted hotel room, the studio featured south-facing windows stretching from waist-level to about 10 feet high all across the far wall—a wide fixed picture framed by two casements. Opposite the radiator, French doors opened to a shallow closet in the east wall, so I’d installed a Murphy bed.
I’d leave the westernmost window open at night, and when the radiator cooled, I’d wake to shut it. I could close the easternmost window by pulling on the latch or, if I didn’t want to get up, the stay, but its sister stuck in a couple places. I had to stand on the sill and jerk at the top until it came loose. For a year, this was my routine. And then I started sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking is not about control. You can care and kill yourself with anxiety or you can relax, do what you can (more rest, less stress, fewer drinks), and ride it out. If you can go at any moment, why not have it be in your sleep?
The exciting bit is waking up:
1. I woke on the couch in the building’s rear apartment, a half-floor below my own—one that was accessible only by fire escape.
2. I woke next to a re-sealable but empty package of Hormel pepperoni, pepperoni that was not in the apartment when I went to sleep.
3. I woke in the living room at my parents’ place, downstairs from the guestroom, half-covered by a towel.
4. I crashed on a buddy’s couch and woke standing above his bed, dick in hand, as he and his girlfriend begged me to use the bathroom across the hall.
And then I woke in my underwear on State Street, right below my window, between a sidewalk sapling and a “No Parking” sign. At first, only head trauma was obvious. I wondered if I’d been been mugged. (For my clothing?) I re-entered the building and pounded on my apartment door until a Warcraft-loving night owl opened up across the hall:
“It’s 5 a.m.”
“Sorry. My friend is inside.”
“I woke outside. The door was propped. Did you prop the door?”
“Your friend won’t let you in?”
“No, I’m in. I got in. I’m here.”
“I’m calling 911.”
“I’m gonna lay down. Here.”
An MRI and friendly reconnaissance filled in the rest: My tailbone struck (and bent) a metal support of the canvas awning below my window. Gravity met said resistance at dead center, dusting half my T12 as I pitched forward and fell to the street, my back broken before I’d ever hit concrete. Scans of my middle appeared normal from the front or back, but from the side, my vertebrae looked like a wedge, a cursor pointing toward my belly button.
The landlord called when I was in the hospital. He’d spoken with my neighbor and asked to enter the apartment. Percocet and valium had me in a permissive mood:
“You fell out the window?”
“Yeah it sticks in the stay and frame at the top so you gotta stand on the sill to pull it shut. We’re thinking the rod tripped me or somethi-”
“The walls are all painted red. And there are beer cans…”
“I didn’t jump.”
Surgeons at the hospital made shallow Ss with their hands. My spine now curved forward a little. It wasn’t imperative that they operate, and operations are always risky, especially spinal procedures: “Why don’t we see how things go?” So I left the hospital pretty much as I’d entered it–with a doorstop for a vertebrae–but in a molded, full-torso back brace.
When I returned, the casement stay worked beautifully. There was no proof it hadn’t always worked beautifully. My dad and friends packed my things as I watched and I moved home so my mom, an RN, could oversee my recovery. I slept on my back in their den for six weeks, with the cats perched on my brace, purring into my face.
I’ve seen how things go for 9 years now, and things have gone such that I need surgery. The problem is, my primary employer doesn’t offer benefits. The job perks are a modest annual bonus, an invitation plus-one to the holiday party, and a paycheck every other Wednesday. I work from home, a perk and curse hand-in-hand. At my side gig, I’m a part-timer; I don’t qualify for benefits.
So I’ve had a good look around. Of everything I’d seen, the health plan offered by my girlfriend’s employer was the most comprehensive and affordable, but I couldn’t get coverage as her boyfriend. A domestic partnership was our idea for a work-around. Yes, “our.” The $35 registration fee was mine.
Ours is a domestic partnership of convenience, a commitment that changed in name only. Marriage is the serious step. The difference, in our case, is simple: We didn’t exchange vows before any loved ones or deities. We were half-hitched in May by a clerk named Rianuldo.
But that’s underselling the process. There were traces of romance. She didn’t pause before signing the form, an indication, I thought, of trust or readiness or—I wasn’t sure. Or I was: I was sure she was sure. She’s too good to be that good an actor. She asked, “Have you seen any celebrities in here?” and Rianuldo said yes, Eli Manning, and her face lit with recognition. All Indiana girls know the name Manning, that a Manning is a Big Deal.
Without my glasses, I lost sight of the ceiling. Light poured in from everywhere. I counted grandads in their good shoes, newlyweds at their beaming, dieted-down best. A flash went off every few seconds. Puerto Rican flower girls toddled through wedding parties and exploded with tears like tiny lace novae. All that hope packed into one hall had a soaring, dizzying effect.
It wasn’t until later, as I quizzed her (Eli plays for… “The Yankees?”), that I realized I hadn’t paused either. I’d signed a legal commitment with zero hesitation. Implicitly, we’d said something like “I might marry (a less broken) you,” or even, “I will marry you,” but not yet “will you marry me.”
Not that we gave it that much thought. We’re in love, happy, all that. If we break up, it’s as easy to dissolve a domestic partnership as it is to buy one. There’s a form online, a $27 fee. Efficient exes can bypass both fee and form by marrying someone else.
The certificate Rianuldo gave us did not guarantee me health coverage. Her provider asked to see our lease, tax returns (or government-issued IDs with matching addresses), proof of a joint bank account, and utility bills in each name. They also sent a Declaration of Cohabitation & Financial Interdependence for us to sign and notarize under a key phrase:
“We, the undersigned domestic partners, being duly sworn, depose and declare that we have been living together on a continuous basis for at least six (6) months and we are financially interdependent.”
I was approved a few days short of Sept. 30, the end of the annual enrollment period. Coverage was retroactive to Sept. 1, immediately deflecting some $17,000 in hospital bills.
I maintain my $35 investment with a $325 monthly premium—her employer contributes a little, and we split the rest. There’s also the welcome burden of relationship maintenance, none of which is new. I do the dishes when she cooks. I run errands in the dark and cold. To varying degrees of success, I communicate.
In New York, a domestic partnership grants many benefits of marriage with a few crucial exceptions: There are no income tax advantages, spousal communication privileges, or inheritance rights. You also can’t say you’re married. “Wife” isn’t true. I’m not the type for “partner.” Girlfriend works for now.
The lone difference in our relationship is that a serious accident won’t leave me in serious debt. Even better, if I die, she’s not yet saddled with my hardcore records. (The number of cassettes I own may hold off marriage indefinitely.) It’s a good place for us both.
My mom is in a different place entirely. The day after I told her, she emailed:
“Since our conversation, I’ve stopped wearing Gma/Gpa’s engagement ring. Let me know if you want me to send it to you…”
The day after that:
“It’s tucked away someplace safe, and you just let me know…”
And so on. No pressure.
So while I’ve compartmentalized marriage and domestic partnership, the divide is harder to navigate with others. When we visited her family in Indiana this past Thanksgiving, I stayed in the basement. She slept two floors away. Her parents know about our situation, and they’re sympathetic, but they’re traditional. The message was clear.
The basement is finished and well-appointed, the bulk of it dedicated to a sprawling rec room. There’s a full kitchen. A wrap-around couch faces a cinema-sized flatscreen. Behind the couch, a pool table, used not once in two decades, and a ping-pong table, its Masonite pocked in four even patches.
I was working in the rec room just before we left when her father came downstairs. He was headed back to work. An ortho himself, he passed along the names of some surgeons in NYC, and we hugged or shook hands—a make-or-break choice so fast and awkward, panic blurs the memory—and said goodbye.
I’d had an impulse, should we find ourselves alone, to express my intent. To establish my domestic partnership with his daughter was an end-run and not endgame, that I loved her and intended, someday, to come and ask for her hand. But not today. Someday. And certainly not “her hand.” I wasn’t sure how to phrase it.
“Thanks for coming. It’s always nice having you here.”
“Thanks for having me.”
“Call those specialists. Someone will take your insurance.”
“I called a f—I hope so. Thank you.”
Was the mention of insurance a cue? There was a pause, as there is at the end of any conversation, and I should’ve said, “You know…” But I hadn’t planned each word. I put my hand on the pool table. We half-smiled and parted.
I can blame head trauma or my state-school education, but the truth is I’m just a nervous guy. I’m no good on my feet. I botch words so consistently, it sounds like I’m making them up. And the Obama-“uh”s and Dubya-flubs strike hardest when I’ve got something I really want to say, something I have to get right. It’s fear. If and when I ask for his blessing, I’ll need a stack of index cards. And that’s embarrassing.
Doubly so: Marriage and domestic partnership are separate in my mind, but obviously connected somewhere else—I’d romanticized the speed of her signature. Any pressure to level with him had come from inside. I am so not cool.
Still, I can’t recommend The City Clerk’s office enough. It’s the best attraction in the city. There are no tourists, no suggested donations. Singles are welcome—go window shop for your next relationship status. Go for the chill vibes. Marriage is no longer a privilege in New York, so it’s open season, a big, blissed-out party.
And if you’re lucky enough to find a mutual investor, couples’ rights are now a fun commodity. You just go downtown and pick which ones you’d like. Domestic partnerships cost the same as marriage licenses. Ceremonies are an extra $25. The wait’s about an hour, so grab a bench. Bring a sandwich. The whole thing will cost less than dinner.
Michael Dempster is from Tacoma.