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The Marriage Pact


I come to on a Cessna, bumping through the air. My head is throbbing, and there is blood on my shirt. I have no idea how much time has passed. I look at my hands, expecting to see restraints, but there are none. Just an ordinary seatbelt looped around my waist. Who strapped me in? I don’t even remember boarding the plane.

Through the open door of the cockpit, I see the back of the pilot’s head. It’s just the two of us. There is snow in the mountains, wind buffeting the plane. The pilot seems completely focused on his controls, shoulders tense.

I reach up and touch my head. The blood has dried, leaving a sticky mess. My stomach rumbles. The last thing I ate was the French toast. How long ago was that? On the seat beside me, I find water and a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. I open the bottle and drink.

I unwrap my sandwich—ham and Swiss—and take a bite. Shit. My jaw hurts too much to chew. Someone must have punched me in the face after I hit the ground.

“Are we going home?” I ask the pilot.

“Depends on what you call home. We’re headed to Half Moon Bay.”

“They didn’t tell you anything about me?”

“First name, destination, that’s about it. I’m just a taxi driver, Jake.”

“But you’re a member, right?”

“Sure,” he says, his tone unreadable. “Fidelity to the Spouse, Loyalty to The Pact. Till death do us part.” He turns back just long enough to give me a look that warns me not to ask any more questions.

We hit an air pocket so hard my sandwich goes flying. An urgent beeping erupts. The pilot curses and frantically pushes buttons. He shouts something to air traffic control. We’re descending fast, and I’m clutching the armrests, thinking of Alice, going over our final conversation, wishing I’d said so many things.

Then, suddenly, the plane levels out, we gain altitude, and all appears to be well. I gather the pieces of my sandwich from the floor, wrap the whole mess back up in the wax paper, and set it on the seat beside me.

“Sorry for the turbulence,” the pilot says.

“Not your fault. Good save.”

Over sunny Sacramento, he finally relaxes, and we talk about the Golden State Warriors and their surprising run this season.

“What day is it?” I ask.


I’m relieved to see the familiar coastline out my window, grateful for the sight of the little Half Moon Bay Airport. The landing is smooth. Once we touch down, the pilot turns and says, “Don’t make it a habit, right?”

“Don’t plan to.”

I grab my bag and step outside. Without killing the engines, the pilot closes the door, swings the plane around, and takes off again.

I walk into the airport café, order hot chocolate, and text Alice. It’s two p.m. on a weekday, so she’s probably embroiled in a thousand meetings. I don’t want to bother her, but I really need to see her.

A text reply arrives. Where are you?

Back in HMB.

Will leave in 5.

It’s more than twenty miles from Alice’s office to Half Moon Bay. She texts about traffic downtown, so I order food, almost the whole left side of the menu. The café is empty. The perky waitress in the perfectly pressed uniform hovers. When I pay the check, she says, “Have a good day, Friend.”

I go outside and sit on a bench to wait. It’s cold, the fog coming down in waves. By the time Alice’s old Jaguar pulls up, I’m frozen. I stand up, and as I’m checking to make sure I have everything, Alice walks over to the bench. She’s wearing a serious suit, but she has changed out of heels into sneakers for the drive. Her black hair is damp in the fog. Her lips are dark red, and I wonder if she did this for me. I hope so.

She rises on her tiptoes to kiss me. Only then do I realize how desperately I’ve missed her. Then she steps back and looks me up and down.

“At least you’re in one piece.” She reaches up and touches my jaw gently. “What happened?”

“Not sure.”

I wrap my arms around her.

“So why were you summoned?”

There’s so much I want to tell her, but I’m scared. The more she knows, the more dangerous it will be for her. Also, let’s face it, the truth is going to piss her off.

What I’d give to go back to the beginning—before the wedding, before Finnegan, before The Pact turned our lives upside down.


I’ll be honest—the wedding was my idea. Maybe not the location, the place, the food, the music, all the things Alice knew how to do so well. The idea, though, that was mine. I’d known her for three and a half years. I wanted her, and marriage was the best way to ensure I didn’t lose her.

Alice didn’t have a good track record with permanence. In her earlier days, she was wild, impulsive, sometimes drawn too quickly to a fleeting, shining object. I worried that if I waited too long, she would be gone. The wedding, if I’m honest, was simply a means to permanence.

I proposed on a balmy Tuesday in January. Her father had died, and we were back in Alabama. He’d been her final living relative, and his unexpected death shook her in a way I hadn’t seen before. We spent the days after the funeral cleaning out Alice’s childhood home in a Birmingham suburb. In the mornings, we went through boxes in the attic, work space, and garage. The house was filled with artifacts of her family life: her father’s military career, her dead brother’s baseball exploits, her dead mother’s recipe books, faded pictures of her grandparents. It was like an archaeological treasure trove of a small, long-forgotten tribe from a lost civilization.

“I’m the last one,” she said. Not in a pitiful way, just matter-of-fact. She’d lost her mother to cancer, her brother to suicide. She had survived, but not unscathed. Looking back, I can see that her position as the only living member of the family made her more loving and reckless than she might have been otherwise. Had she not been so alone in the world, I’m not sure she would have said yes.

I’d ordered her engagement ring weeks earlier, and it arrived via UPS moments after she learned of her father’s death. I’m not sure why, but I slipped the box into my duffel bag as we were leaving for the airport.

Two weeks into the trip, we called a real estate agent and had him come out to appraise the house. We wandered through the rooms, the agent taking notes, scribbling frantically, like he was preparing for a test. At the end, we stood on the porch, waiting for his assessment.

“Are you sure you want to sell?” the agent asked.

“Yes,” Alice said.

“It’s just that—” He gestured toward us with his clipboard. “Why don’t you stay? Get married. Have kids. Build a life. This town needs families. My children are so bored. My boy has to play soccer because we don’t have enough kids to field a baseball team.”

“Well,” Alice said, looking out toward the street, “because.”

That was it. “Because.” The guy snapped back into real estate mode. He suggested a price, and Alice suggested a slightly lower one. “That’s below market value for this neighborhood,” he said, surprised.

“That’s okay. I just want it over with,” she replied.

He jotted a notation on his clipboard. “It will certainly make my job easier.”

Within hours, a truck pulled up, guys got out, and the house was stripped of the worn furniture and aging appliances. All that remained were two lounge chairs beside the pool, which hadn’t changed since the day it was dug and plastered in 1974.

The following morning, a different truck arrived with different men—stagers hired by the realtor. They loaded a whole new set of furniture into the house. They moved quickly and with confidence, putting large abstract paintings on the walls and small shining knickknacks on the shelves. When they were finished, the house was the same, only different: cleaner, sparser, devoid of the pesky items that give a home its soul.

The day after that, a parade of real estate agents led a pride of potential buyers through the rooms, all whispering, opening cabinets and closets, studying the sheet that provided the listing details. That afternoon, the agent called with four offers, and Alice accepted the highest. We packed our things, and I made reservations for a flight back to San Francisco.

In the evening, when the stars came out, Alice wandered outside to stare at the night sky and say goodbye to Alabama for good. It was a warm night, the scent of barbecues wafting up over the back fence. The outdoor lamps reflected brilliantly off of the pool, and the lounge chairs felt as comfortable as they must have been the first day her father dragged them out onto the patio, when his wife was beautiful and tan and his children were small and rambunctious. I sensed that this was as good as Alabama could get, and yet Alice seemed so sad, immune to the beauty that had snuck up on us without warning.

Later, I would tell our friends that the idea to seize that moment to propose came as an impulse. I wanted to make her feel better. I wanted to show her that there was a future. I wanted to bring her happiness on such a mournful day.

I walked out to the pool, knelt down, removed the ring from its box, and presented it to Alice in my sweaty palm. I didn’t say a word. She looked at me, she looked at the ring, she smiled.

“Okay,” she said.


Our wedding was held in a pasture along the banks of the Russian River, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. Months earlier, we’d gone out there to take a look at it. We drove right past it a couple of times, because it wasn’t marked from the road. When we opened the gate and walked down the path toward the river, Alice hugged me and said, “I love it.” At first, I thought she was joking. In places, the grass was five feet high.

The property was a huge, meandering dairy farm, with cows roaming the pasture. It was owned by the rhythm guitar player from Alice’s first band. Yes, she was in a band, and it’s even possible you’ve heard their music, though we can talk about that later.

The day before the wedding, I drove right past the site again. This time, though, it was because it looked completely different. The guitar player, Jane, had spent weeks cutting, shaping, and resodding the pasture. It was amazing. It looked like a fairway from the world’s most perfect golf course. The grass moved up over the hill, then sloped down to the river. Jane said that she and her wife had been looking for a project.

There was a large tent, a patio, a pool, and a modern pool house. A stage rose above the river shore, and a gazebo stood on a mound overlooking all of it. The cows still wandered around in their slow, meditative way.

Chairs were brought in, tables, equipment, speakers, and umbrellas. While Alice wasn’t exactly keen on weddings, she loved parties. Although we hadn’t had one in the years I’d known her, I heard stories. Big shindigs in ballrooms, at beaches, in her past apartments; apparently it was a talent she possessed. So when it came to the arrangements, I stepped aside and let her do her thing. Months of planning, everything perfect, everything timed just right.

Two hundred people. It was supposed to be one hundred for me, one hundred for her, though in the end it was a bit lopsided. It was a funny guest list, like any wedding. My parents and grandmother, partners from my wife’s firm, co-workers from the clinic where I used to work, former clients, friends from college, graduate school, Alice’s old music friends, an off-kilter combination of others.

And Liam Finnegan and his wife.

They were the last to be invited, 201 and 202 on the guest list. Alice had met him three days before the wedding, at the law firm where she’d been working day and night for the past year. I know, it’s weird, my wife is a lawyer. If you knew her, it would surprise you too. And we can also talk about that, but later. The important part here is Finnegan—Finnegan and his wife, Liam and Fiona, guests 201 and 202.

At the firm, my wife had been the junior associate on Finnegan’s case. It was an intellectual property thing. Finnegan was a businessman now. Years earlier, however, he was a well-known front man for an Irish folk rock group. You’ve probably never heard his music, but maybe you’ve seen his name. It’s been in all of those British music magazines—Q, Uncut, Mojo. Dozens of musicians claim him as a key influence.

For days after Alice got the assignment, we had Finnegan’s discs on repeat in our house. The case was as straightforward as an intellectual property case can be. A young band had stolen a section of one of his songs and turned it into a huge hit. If you’re like me and don’t understand music on a technical level, you wouldn’t see the similarities, but if you’re a musician, my wife said, the theft was obvious.

The case resulted from a comment Finnegan had made a few years earlier. He told an interviewer that the band’s hit sounded suspiciously like a song from his second album. He didn’t plan to take it any further, but then the young band’s manager sent Finnegan a letter demanding that he apologize for the comment and publicly declare the song had not been stolen. Things devolved from there, ultimately leading to my wife working a million hours on her first big case.

As I said, she was the junior associate, so when the judgment came back in Finnegan’s favor, the partners took all the credit. A month later, the week before our wedding, Finnegan paid a visit to the firm. He had been awarded an insane amount of money, far more than he wanted, certainly more than he needed, so he wanted to thank everyone for their work. When he arrived, the partners led him to a conference room, where they regaled him with tales of their incredible strategy. At the end, he thanked them, but then asked if he could meet all the people who had really worked on the case. He cited a couple of the briefs and motions, surprising the partners with the level of attention he had paid to the finer details.

The Marriage Pact
by by Michelle Richmond