Photography by Mark O'Connell
We were walking to the train station late one night having celebrated the beginning of the Spring break when my teacher boyfriend Elliot had rather emotionally (drunkenly) reaffirmed our nearly fourteen year relationship by suggesting we should take steps to never be apart. The next day Elliot coyly (soberly) wondered when we would tell our parents "the news."
What news?, I very carefully wondered, Was that what that was last night, a proposal?! Because that's lovely, it really is, but maybe a railway station car lot populated by vodka-swigging teenagers was not quite the Central Park horse and cart with Bollinger and Cher-patterned knee blanket moment I had always envisaged." And at that moment all marriage talk was curtly abandoned, left at the altar by cold feet and the equal marriage thing staring down on us like a Stanley Kubrick monolith with its clearly important, yet currently vague and even scary consequences. It was barely two months since the British laws kicked in granting same sex couples the legal scope to get wed. We are still like those Kubrick apes, picking through the bones of the fight and completely unsure what happens next in our evolution.
Cut to a month later. I am in that American-Bahamian glitterball that is Key West. In a few short hours, this Brit on a hot tin roof is beguiled with this island's pride, gay pulse and timber-clad beauty. At times like a heady 1970s bathhouse marvellously frozen in amber (and sangria), I realized this was the gayest place I had ever been to alone since my bedroom played host to the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest (played host is gay kid talk for finally getting a TV in your bedroom). On a LGBT press trip, I am soon teamed up with three fellow writers who quickly become Boston, New York, and Los Angeles to my London (when I wasn't playfully telling ladies on Duval Street I come from Downton).
As if the privileged trip is not enough, the unexpected real privilege is these guys company. Which is when a tsunami of life-realisations hits me. I have an utter lack of local gay mates my age - representing a marked shortage in banter, peer advice and shared touchstones. I tell Boston - or Doug - the brief tale of my cherry bursting proposal a month before. Doug immediately congratulates me on "the engagement". Hearing someone mention that word in the context of me - or us -- is wholly affecting. Crazily so. Was that what we had done? Had we really gone half-way there only to pull back at the last minute? Doing that proposal moment properly suddenly became vital. And waiting to be reunited with Elliot 4,500 miles away was not an option.
Some have said how I then finally proposed was not really a proposal, as if gay folk only recently granted the right to even get wed are already bound to those straight "chicken or beef" conference suite weddings with napkin swans and table favours pampering everyone like kids who 2have behaved well at the dentist. But I was inspired. And when people and a place inspire me it reminds me of who I love and who should be sharing it with. As Doug and I were nursing a restorative iced coffee in the calming grounds of Ernest Hemingway's house, I found myself getting on textual bended knee... to ask Elliot to call me immediately as it was substantially cheaper that way (love means never having to say you are sorry - unless you're on a roaming tariff the size of Elton's annual floral bill). Elliot called me. And I went to quiet pieces. He knew what was going on. And then I blurted it out (slightly conscious the transatlantic phone bill should not exceed any eventual wedding budget). "Would you marry me?" I asked as I cupped my tears into my cell phone as if no-one would notice. "Of course I will, you silly boy" was my answer. And with not much more said we hung up and began the 48-hour countdown until I could get on bended knee for wave three of our proposal process.
Apologizing to Doug for being a sobbing mess, I tried to get my day back on track before realising I did not have an engagement ring. That afternoon Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and London/Downton made chocolate bars from scratch with the guidance of a Key West wine and chocolate guru. My efforts whatever the result - would be my engagement ring. And it's not everyone that gets a mango and sprinkles chocolate engagement ring. Though it did appear everyone back home had already got there with the lewd jokes -- at which point I adopted a very Downton Maggie Smith disapproving face (but only because I had not thought of the gag first).
"I don't live at all when I'm not with you" simpers a Hemingway character in A Farewell To Arms - written at the very house I proposed in. It appears I can live when I am not with him. But even a makeshift bachelor party that very night at the kind hands of Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Key West's go-go boys and the offer of a 'one-song private dance' felt hollow without him. Not that I didn't allow myself the fantasy of what that one song could be. I mentally settled on the time-stretching MacArthur Park - so I could watch in amused awe as a lovely uni-twink tried his best to writhe seductively to Richard Harris's mournful lament about leaving cakes out in the rain.
Anyway, as the plane touched down in London and I am Artpopping (I always like to soundtrack a good take-off and landing - much to the dismay of the nervous Chinese grandmother I was Gaga-ing alongside) I walk through Heathrow Airport the most jet lagged I have ever been. But I also feel the proudest and tallest I have ever been. I had genuinely never been more satisfied to be a gay man than I was that week after Key West. I never anticipated how proposing to my boyfriend would be akin to that cathartic release of coming out. I had left London and Elliot with our relationship as it had always been. Yet I returned as one of two fiances facing that already unnerving, already overwhelming gay wedding monolith. And then Elliot innocently drops an H-Bomb with unnerving fallout. He calls me 'husband'. My nerves melt quicker than that engagement chocolate bar did in the Florida sun.
Next up in TALES FROM THE THRESHOLD.... the comedy smut fairies sprinkle their comedy smut dust over a day searching for the right engagement rings and how the final trenches of the gay marriage battle could be based within.
Mark O'Connell is a London-based writer and the author of Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan. Follow on Twitter @Mark0Connell