it's complicated

Getting Engaged Felt Like a Death Pact

Photo: J.V. Aranda

We are out late. Happy hour at a new wine bar turns into cocktails with dinner turns into daiquiris for dessert at a tiki bar downtown. It is suddenly after midnight, the side street so dark and still that it feels grayscale.

“Should I call an Uber?” he says, pulling out his phone.

“Oh, man,” I reply. “This is really awkward. Did you think this was a date?” I rock back on my heels and wince.

He smiles, his eyes crinkling with sympathy. “Wait, did you think I was asking you to come home with me? I was just going to go to my house. Wow, this is really embarrassing for you.”

I laugh and kiss him, and he calls us an Uber to the closet-sized apartment we share where our dog is sleeping on our unmade bed and our wedding album lives on our coffee table.

We started this joke around the time we got engaged. He asked when I was free to get my ring finger sized and I made fun of him for having a crush on me. For the first time, poking fun at commitment felt safe, something solid that could withstand a little contact instead of a raw nerve. We’d been together for six years, sharing an apartment for three, and having the big conversations around our future for one marathon training cycle.

We spent our Saturday long runs talking particulars: how we see our finances, how many kids we want and how we’d raise them, what would we do if our parents got sick. We were in step but not making eye contact, exertion encouraging us to be concise, extended pauses and red cheeks blamed on the heat or acceleration. The goal wasn’t to have everything figured out, but to make sure we had compatible priorities day-to-day and a similar approach when planning for the future. We covered hundreds of miles over four months. The week before the race, he put down a deposit on the ring.

Once we decided to get married, there was no more downplaying how we felt about each other, no more fear about throwing an emotional line that doesn’t catch. All of the questions — if we wanted the same things, if we’d end up together — answered on long runs by the Charles River. I felt relieved. I’d been all-in for years and had been sure that we had something from the beginning, long before we were in a place to talk about it. I’d been so anxious, knowing that if we ended things, it was because there was some fundamental difference in how we saw the world, and that I would have been too love-drunk to see it before. It felt good to laugh about something that had weighed on me, to know that I had been right all along.

He proposed on a bright December Sunday, luring me out of bed with the promise of sunset views on the water and french fries. I cried and a few stoned MIT students took our picture. Everyone kept asking me if I suddenly I felt different. My friends who had gotten married under similar circumstances said that basically everything was the same, that a wedding was just a party and a piece of paper if you were already sharing everything. I couldn’t tell if I felt different. All I was certain of was that I was so, so tired.

Since the night of our engagement, I hadn’t been able to fall fully asleep. I’d never worn a ring before, and it felt heavier than I’d expected, sliding around my finger, catching me off guard when I moved my hand even a little. I would drift in and out of a fitful half-sleep, my eyes adjusting to the dark so the street lights outside our window felt as bright as the lamp on my nightstand. I had dreams that I was in a wedding dress and my teeth were falling out, fracturing into shale-like pieces in my lap. I’d been plagued with anxiety for much of my life, but this felt different. It had the familiar feeling of obsessiveness and irrationality, the standard hum of insomnia, but deepened by the dull ache of dread.

I started to think maybe it was because I wasn’t ready, or because something deep down was telling me that it wasn’t right, an internal beacon going off to alert me that I was making a huge mistake. But that didn’t seem right either. We truly were happy. I was so in love that I had a hard time believing that anyone else was this deep in love, the kind that feels so intense as to be crippling even six years in. It almost felt violent, like light beaming off the water in winter, blinding and sharp. How did married people get anything done if they’re all walking around feeling like this?

Anxiety started bleeding into my days, crystallizing into deathscapes. I felt like I was a breath away from having my spine broken by a car while crossing the street, getting sliced in half by a sheet of ice released from a high rise, or being blown off the Mass Ave bridge by a blizzard gust during a run. The ache started to feel more like a pull, gravity stretching my sternum toward the great beyond. I was supposed to be Pinteresting floral arrangements and workshopping wedding hashtags, but I was white-knuckling to stop myself from stepping into traffic. The loom of death, inevitable as it may be, felt like a real and present danger, like every moment took focus and effort to avoid it.

I’d felt the same sensation before. Our first vacation together was a road trip, nine states in six days, plus Canada, swinging from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. Halfway in, we drove through Niagara Falls. It was a hazy June with a damp cold that cut through my sweater. We parked on the New York side, the lot sloping gently toward the falls, looking out onto the roar. He held my hand as we walked across the slick stone and bridges that overlook the water, the wood buzzing beneath us. He led me to the edge to read about the stunt people who had gone over in barrels. Straight out, there was emptiness, a vacuum that pulled me forward.

“I could just jump right now,” I thought. All that was standing in my way was a fence that came up to my hips. It would have been easy, almost effortless, to hurdle over and let the water take me down. The pull felt physical, like I had a rope around my waist and all I had to do was stop resisting. I stepped back, grabbing a tree branch. Richard reached for me and guided me back to the car.

I feel the sensation whenever I feel like death might be on the table. Driving on bridges that stretch across bodies of water, I feel the urge to cut a hard right and careen into the bay. At the top of skyscrapers, I hug the brick at the core of the building, not for fear of heights but because I want to scale the safety rails and drop.

It’s colloquially known as the call of the void and referred to by scientists as the high-place phenomenon. No studies have been conclusive, but their best theory on why it happens is that you feel as if you’re in danger so your survival mechanism kicks in. You step back or tighten your grip on the wheel, and you rationalize why that happened. “I stepped back, therefore I must have wanted to jump.” It’s life affirming, your body making the decision for you to save itself before your mind has a chance to consider what it wants to do.

In this case, the void was the end of my relationship. The stakes were no longer staying together or breaking up, but death or litigation, with death as the best-case scenario. I wasn’t suicidal at all, but by establishing death as a promise, the endpoint of the journey, I felt tethered to it. By trying to protect myself from it, I became fixated on our mortalities and the inevitable pain that comes from a lifelong commitment. It’s not that I was having cold feet or a gut feeling that we shouldn’t be moving forward, but that I was so sure we’d go all the way that I was trying to protect myself from the inevitable end, constantly stepping back from the edge, mitigating risk in the name of self-preservation.

But, that’s what any degree of intimacy is: accepting risk of pain. You’re not risking death, necessarily, but loving someone means that their life can hurt you. Commitment means accepting this trade off, the fragility of bodies and precariousness of plans held up by hope that “till death” is far, and knowing that no matter when it comes, it will create a space in your life like a crag in the earth, empty air where the something you built your life around used to be. A new void.

The commitment weighed heavy on my chest, but it should have. It was the biggest decision I’ve ever made. It made death feel close, but it wasn’t actually closer than it was any other time. It was just explicitly part of the equation. We’d decided together that our relationship was terminal and that we would celebrate the official beginning of the end with white peonies and donuts, no cake.

The morning after we get married, we are the first people in line at Shake Shack, taking advantage of a late check-out to pick up burgers to eat in our fancy hotel king bed. At the intersection of a four-way stop, I cross the street without looking, picking at my cheese fries.

“Technically having the right of way is going to kill you,” he says.

“Why do you care? Oh my god, do you like me like me?”

“No, of course not. I just thought you were my sad, weird little friend.”

“I am your sad, weird little friend,” I say. I bump his ring with mine, a clinking symbol of our death pact. At the next intersection, I look both ways.

Getting Engaged Felt Like a Death Pact