During a trip to New Mexico in January of 1999, Deb and Gail had a Pagan handfasting, a marriage ceremony where the couple promises themselves to one another for a year and a day. Deb planned the trip to do some research for a novel she was writing and Gail wanted to visit the legendary hot springs at Ojo Caliente. The two decided New Mexico was the perfect place to get married. Four minerals feed into the hot springs there, including lithium, iron, soda, and arsenic, and it’s said that Ojo Caliente has been regarded as a holy place for its healing properties for thousands of years.
The whole trip had an air of adventure. If, back home, driving gave them a new perspective on whatever situation they were in, travelling to New Mexico gave them a thrilling sense of agency about their lives. Both women are independent, almost to a fault, and choose to live their lives on their own terms. Gail had made that decision after leaving her second husband, and Deb had done so since outing herself at fifteen. They built the structure of their love on what they thought would work, instead of relying on society’s traditions to tell them how to live. They created their own traditions, and during the trip to New Mexico, the sense of cultural pioneering, of pushing the edge of what was possible, was elementalized into a potent essence that lasted for their entire stay.
Deb’s research revolved around the Penitentes, a sect of Catholic monks who used pain and flagellation to reach a higher state of consciousness. The two spent days hunting for old Penitente churches, and finding a few. They basked in the rejuvenating waters of Ojo Caliente. After dark, they would get in their car, turn on the radio, and drive out into the night. They let the dictates of the music determine their direction. If the songs were good, they would stay on a road, taking in as much as they could out their windows. When the music shifted gears, they would take a turn and head off in a new direction, talking and laughing all the while.
When the time seemed right, they climbed to the top of a nearby mesa on a cool, blustery day. The sense of excitement was nearly palpable, heightened slightly more by their fear of running across rattlesnakes, but none were seen. That moment was the culmination of what had been building for years. These two women, who never thought they would find someone to truly share their lives with, who had been repressed and abused into to a place of enforced solitude, came together in that moment to consecrate the love they cherished beyond all else. Above the sacred location of Ojo Caliente, surrounded by petroglyphs created millennia ago, they held hands, looked deeply into each other’s teary eyes, and said their vows. They struggled to be heard over the blowing wind, but promised monogamy, zero bullshit, to protect one another at all costs, and promised themselves for a year and a day, as the tradition demanded. “The [second] ceremony seemed like a good, very nice thing to celebrate with family, but the one in January, that ceremony…” Deb pauses to gather her thoughts which were quickly retreating into memory. Gail looks at her wife and states in a hushed voice, “It was ours. It was ours.”
When they returned to Chicago, preparations began for their public handfasting. During the process, Gail was overwhelmed with emotion. On the morning of their tasting, Deb picked her up from Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, where she was working the night shift, and they drove to Ann Sather, a restaurant in the Boystown neighborhood that was famous for its gay-friendliness. As the food was brought out for them to try, Gail began to weep. The caterer kept asking if she’d like a drink, but she refused. Deb couldn’t console her.
Both of Gail’s previous marriages had been a result of social pressure and the need to survive. The fact that she had found someone to love and love her was a shock all on its own. There seemed to be a huge risk involved in having such a public ceremony. It was if saying the words in front so many people would break whatever esoteric ties that held them together. It took time for her to process that what was happening between them was real. Gail continued to be inconsolable for the rest of the tasting. Deb picked a few dishes to serve, and they went home.