Ten years ago, I pierced my nose for the first time. I wanted to flash a sign to the outside world that I was alive and well and still a little wild. I was 31.
There’s a selfie of me that day off South Grand. I’m in a shamrock green peacoat, pierced nose turned to the camera, smiling with a look of smoldering self-satisfaction. The way a person looks before loss, before giving birth, before understanding the seismic shift of time unstopped and love unfurled.
In the summer months before that mid-December piercing, I asked the man I loved to marry me. I was tired of waiting. We were in Madrid and in love while drinking tiny, cold beers and eating jamón while watching little girls jump from limb to limb in an old magnolia tree right outside the Royal Palace.
The first man I ever wanted to marry moved like a glacier, even though I burned like a wildfire, impatient to set everything ablaze.
But no amount of passion in a sunlit Spanish apartment or taking a midnight train to Paris or getting lost in the countryside and stumbling into a bar to ask for directions in broken French only to sip apple brandy was going to change his pace or my impatience.
Glaciers operate on geologic time. Wildfires notsomuch.
Maybe if I willed him to love me, I thought, that would be enough.
Turns out one-sided desire doesn’t overcome a weak yes. It would take months until I realized my error -- after I toured a prospective wedding venue, a Greek Revival mansion built above one of the many caves of St. Louis, and applied for a home loan.
Four months from the next December, we would call off the engagement.
There was a quiet pragmatism in our parting, as if we simply wheeled what little remained out to the curb.
Not many know I was engaged once before.
* * *
The second man I wanted to marry made me laugh and think and played games; far too many games, if you asked me later. At our wedding three years after my engagement to the glacier, the gamer vowed to keep things interesting. But interesting doesn’t mean dependable or loving or committed.
“Interesting” is quite often a euphemism for shitty or weird or problematic, isn’t it?
* * *
A decade later, I watch as the flesh of my seven-year marriage reverts to bone amid twinkling lights as Bing Crosby wishes me days merry and bright.
My divorce will be finalized in a month or so, but I can’t help but think of him on bended knee in front of a giant, glittering Christmas tree. I see the fog of his breath and feel my cheeks and fingers go numb as I say yes. We were once in love, truly, on that cold, dark night.
It is also true I no longer burn the way I once did. My hair is grey at the temples. My nose ring is long gone. I care less about flashing signals to the outside world and more about the profound pull of second-act interiority, about cultivating my own damn garden.
I have a young daughter now, whose very existence is wilder than a piece of metal through cartilage. She is everything I have ever looked for in another human being -- she grabs my face with both hands when she kisses me, runs into my open arms as she yells “Momma!”, and spits bath water at me as I wash her slippery body. She is pure possibility, and I pray every night not to fuck this up.
Ten years ago, no one could have told me that the greatest love of my life would be my child. That the love you have for a partner may dissipate or stall or die, or, for the lucky ones, be remade and reimagined, over and over and over again until growth is what bonds us.
* * *
In 2019, I’ll go back to the photo on South Grand, my fingers tracing the forgotten face of a woman who thought she was so badass rocking a nose ring. She has no clue what the next decade will bring. But who of us does?
Michaella A. Thornton’s writing has appeared in Brevity, New South, The Southeast Review, The New Territory Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and a University of Missouri Press anthology, Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference (2016). She loves her two-year-old daughter, all the cannoli, Hall & Oates, digging in the dirt, dive bars, and Jo Ann Beard.
Kella loves Parents as Teachers and has a PAT for her young daughter. She hopes you'll shower this organization with your generosity so they can continue to lift families up and ensure our children have healthy, loving families. Visit parentsasteachers.org.