When we moved to San Francisco I decided to drop my health insurance and transfer into Marty’s plan. We were moving because of her job and I figured her employer’s national footprint would allow for better support than the one of my little firm.
Over the summer, we received a form letter from a company called HarlanServices. The letter was dated July 25th but with travel schedules I didn’t receive it until it was forwarded to me in the middle of August. HarlanServices had apparently been hired by Marty’s company to do “dependent verifications”. The letter, hard to decipher because written to cover a wide variety of dependent types, identified me as a “dependent spouse” and advised that Marty and I were required to prove that we were married by September 7th or my healthcare coverage would be automatically terminated.
I would have put it aside as just some typical big company bureaucratic nonsense, but I was curious to see what they would require us to do to establish that were married.
I worked through the boilerplate and uncovered that we had to show a “government-issued” marriage certificate and, in addition, we had to provide federal tax returns showing our marital status. We could deal with the tax returns, but the government issued certificate could be a problem. We’d been married many years ago on a beach in the British Virgin Islands. It was definitely a legitimate marriage, but I doubted that we had any records. I could only imagine the complications and delay in getting a copy from BVI.
The letter didn’t provide any alternatives to a government issued certificate, but it did have the phone number of a “Dependent Verification Center”. I gave the DVC a ring. After waiting through the queue and then punching numbers to respond to the robo-speak, I finally reached a live person. Her name was something like Magra.
“Mr. Duret, how may we provide you with excellent service today?” Magra said cheerfully.
“I need a little help, Magra. You see, my wife Marty and I were married in the British Virgin Islands 16 years ago. I do not think we have a government issued record, but if we do it would be in our old files in Philadelphia and neither of us expects to be in Philadelphia in the next several weeks.”
“So, I have two requests. First, we would like an extension of the deadline from September 7th to allow us a reasonable time to establish the bona fides of our foreign marriage.”
“I am sorry. That will not be possible.”
“Excuse me. Perhaps you didn’t hear me. We weren’t married in the United States. Today is August 28th. If we can’t find our marriage license, there is no way are going to be able to get government records in the next 10 days.”
“I am sorry sir. Those are our instructions. We are hired to verify dependents; we don’t make the rules. The company we are working for makes them.”
“May I speak with your supervisor?”
“The information will be the same.”
“May I speak to your supervisor?”
“I do not think a supervisor is available, sir.”
“The information won’t change.”
“I don’t appreciate your tone. I am making a perfectly reasonable request. Your letter comes out of the blue and demands that we come up with a 15 year old piece of paper or you are cutting off my healthcare benefits. I think asking for an extension of time to try to come up with the evidence you want is completely reasonable.”
“I did not say it was not reasonable, Mr. Duret. I merely said that I could not extend the date. I don’t have the authority to do that.”
“Please may I have a supervisor?”
“I will see if one is available, but the information will be the same.”
I waited for 10 minutes or so. I was in an airport and talking on my cellphone. I did not have a lot of juice in my iPhone and feared I would lose the call.
“I have a supervisor, please wait …”
“I am waiting…”
“Oh dear. I am sorry. It thought I had a supervisor. Please hold, I am sorry…”
“Magra, I don’t have unlimited time…. Hello? Hello?” The music HarlanServices played on their call line came on and I went back into the queue. HarlanServices’s queue was of the annoying kind that bombards you with extra loud alerts every 20 seconds or so blaring that all attendants are busy serving other customers but your business is very important to them and someone will be with you as soon as possible and in the meantime you may want to check the website for helpful tips and other pertinent information. After I listened to it 10 or 12 times, Magra was back. I am sure she was stunned that I was still there.
“Still here. Still waiting for the supervisor.”
“Yes. Mr. Duret. I am sorry for your wait. All the supervisors are tied up with other customers. May I have your number? I will ask one to call you.”
“I would really rather wait. I don’t want to miss my chance to explain to a supervisor that you have kept me dangling for 20 minutes because I asked a perfectly reasonable request but you will not discuss.”
“I think it may be some time.”
“You know, when I got on this line they said the call would be recorded. Was that true?”
“Yes sir. All calls are recorded for quality control and other purposes.”
“How may I obtain a copy of the recording?”
“How may I get a copy of the recording?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I would like to be able to show how you have been trying for the last half hour to prevent me from getting an answer to the question of whether we can get an extension of time to obtain a government document from another country.”
“I have not. You wanted to talk to a supervisor. I gave you an answer. You did not like it.”
“Because it is ridiculous.”
“I am sorry that you feel that way.”
“I do. And you are not sorry at all. Please let me talk to a supervisor right now.”
HarlanServices then told me few more times how important my call was and how busy their people were. My phone battery was down into the red zone. I was going to power off in a few minutes. Old Magra was going to win. Damn. I hate it when they win. I would have to start again from square one when my phone recharged. What a pain: first the queue and then the robo-speak and then the need to punch in Marty’s employee ID number and then I would need to speak to a robo-speaker who would want me to state my name and then I would have to listen to all the options because the menu had changed and then I’d have to guess whether it was button #3 for problems with benefits or #4 for all other employment questions and then I’d get another Magra with no more authority than the real Magra but now I would not be starting from square one but from someplace much worse because I would no longer be bemused but I would be seething and in that frame of mind I would say something with too much of an edge and the next Magra would no more give me an extension of time than she would give me her home phone number and by the time I would get to her supervisor there would be only a week left to deal with the impending loss of my benefits plus that supervisor would find a note in the robo-file to the effect that I was the kind of customer best addressed with a restraining order…
“Mr. Duret? Are you there?”
“I am still here.”
“I am still trying to find a supervisor.”
I took a deep breath. I wanted to blow a gasket; it would feel so good. It would feel so good but would get me nowhere.
I teetered there, on the knife’s edge. I took another deep breath. I decided to try a different approach. I dug in my travel bag and found my cell phone charger. I plugged it into an outlet on a column by in the gate.
“Magra,” I said gently. I smiled with my voice. I tried to purr. “Would you be willing to ask your supervisor if I could get an extension?”
I think Magra liked the purring. She said that did not know whether I could get an extension but – surely to get me off the phone – she said she would be pleased to ask. She repeated that HarlanServices worked for another company and they made the rules. She would be pleased to ask her supervisor but, well, Mr. Duret, don’t get your hopes up.
She said, “is there anything else I may assist you with Mr. Duret?”
“Actually, I have another request.” I purred some more.
“You see I am not confident that I will be able to get a copy of a government issued marriage license. Magra, it was 16 years ago, in another country. I am not confident that they will have copies at their fingertips.”
“Yes. I see.”
“I would like to prove our marriage in a different way.”
“Oh. How would you do that?”
“Well Marty and I could give you affidavits – under oath – explaining when and where we were married.”
“I am sure that would not count, Mr. Duret. I mean even if we didn’t require a government issued certificate. Our job is to verify the claim of marriage.”
“Our children could give you affidavits, stating that we are their parents and that we have always said we were married and acted like we were married.”
“Sir, I doubt that would be sufficient.”
“How about this? It was hard to get married in the British Virgin Islands when we did. I even wrote a short story about it. It told the story of us getting a marriage license. Can I send you that?”
“Excuse me. Are you asking if we can verify your marriage by a short story?”
“I shouldn’t have said short story. It isn’t fiction.”
“I had thought short stories generally were fiction.”
“Well, this was more like a short writing. Not fiction. Non-fiction. Well technically it falls in the category of “creative non-fiction”.
“Is that actually a category? I don’t recall that from school, but then it was a while since I was in school.”
“Oh, yes. It is definitely a category.”
“Well, I am sure it is quite interesting, Mr. Duret, but perhaps it falls a bit short of being a government issued marriage record, which is after all the requirement.”
“It is on my computer. I could send it to you.”
“I don’t think you should do that.”
“Let me read it to you. I have pulled it up on my laptop while we were talking.”
“I really don’t think that would be productive…”
“Here just listen to the beginning….
“No, I don’t think that would be…
“Its called Marriage License. I wrote it right after we went to Tortola to get the license…
“Mr. Duret, this isn’t useful…”
“Here we go. Its starts like this:
“Let me make sure that I understand,” I said. “We are going to get married in the British Virgin Islands. A thousand miles from here. In a different country. And this is going to reduce our stress level?”
“It’ll be so much easier, Bud.” Marty said. “We can be barefoot. We will invite just a few people and we will tell everyone that they shouldn’t feel like they have to go. We can get it planned very fast.”
“I am skeptical.”
“Get over it.”
“Okay.” I paused. “I am over it.”
“Mr. Duret. Please. That is very nice. I am sure it is a fine short story…”
“Short writing. That was a mistake. Non-fiction.”
“Yes. I really need to attend to other callers.”
“Come on. We are talking about my healthcare benefits. Do you know how important health care is? You can’t really spare a few minutes so I can establish my claim of marriage on this recorded call?”
“I am happy to ask whether you can prove your marriage by way of a short story. I don’t need to actually hear the story to make the request. I assure you.
“Just a little more:
” We were standing in front of a Government building in Roadtown, the major city on the island of Tortola. Marty was still angry.
She said, “I hate the name Roadtown. Every time I hear it I think of Roadkill.”
“Sweetie, there is an immutable rule: the more beautiful the place, the more petty the bureaucrats to whom it is entrusted. Besides, you wouldn’t want it to be easy to get married in a foreign country. There have to be hurdles. It adds to the romance.”
“Not to this one, Bud.”
“It’ll work out.” I patted her shoulder soothingly.
We had just come from the office of the Attorney General. It had not gone smoothly. There were difficulties with our paperwork. Certain papers were not certified when they should have been certified and because of that there was not going to be enough time before we left the island for the license to issue.
“It isn’t as if I didn’t call.” Marty said. “It isn’t as if I didn’t have three conversations with the Registrar about the license. How was I supposed to know that the Registrar would not know what papers the Attorney General would need?”
“Sir, sir. Please stop. This is really getting too involved. “
‘”Oh no. It can’t be too involved. You see. It’s all in the details. That’s what proves the truth.”
“But I don’t have the time to hear about Roadtown, what is Roadtown anyway?”
“It’s the capital of the British Virgin Islands.”
“Please. I just don’t have the time.”
“Magra. You seem like a good person. I don’t think you would want to say that you can’t take the time to listen to the facts. That HarlanServices would cut off my healthcare because you were too busy to listen to the facts. Is that what you are saying? I mean it’s a recorded call. ”
“Mr. Duret. I am just saying that I will find out about your short story, I mean short writing; I just don’t need to listen to it all the way through.”
“But if you don’t listen you won’t know what you are asking for. This isn’t some fantasy, this is a detailed narrative of unspeakable authenticity.”
“Perhaps a slight over-statement, but just listen, you’ll see:
In the office of the Attorney General there had been a grey haired West Indian woman, perhaps fifty, with a deceptively pleasant, musical laugh. Her laugh was deceptive for she was dour and inflexible when it came to marriage licenses. Her name was Pemworthy.
“What really makes me mad is that woman.” Marty said. “If she said one more time that ‘these are the requirements’ I would have throttled her.”
Ms. Pemworthy was firm on certified copies. She was unmoved by the argument that we had flown to Roadtown to get the license and it would be difficult for us to go home to Philadelphia to get certified copies and then come back to reapply.
“That is not my problem. These are the requirements,” Ms Pemworthy said.
“But seriously, isn’t there any way for us to get married here?”
“Of course. But there are requirements. You need to bring certified copies.
“Mr. Duret? Really. How much longer does this go on?
“It is very short. Really. And I am sure you see the parallels already?
“Never mind. I will read quickly:
We came back the next morning. We had hired a lawyer in the meantime. We had affidavits attesting to the veracity of our non-certified documents. Our affidavits were punched and notarized and stamped and actually grommeted in the upper left corners. There was an air of unspeakable authenticity to them. Our lawyer had even had the application for the marriage license typed up. We signed it in the lawyer’s office. The lawyer and her secretary served as witnesses for our signatures. We set off with our documents, feeling official, ready for any bureaucratic contingency.
Ms. Pemworthy was at the desk when we came in. I flashed our affidavits with their grommets. She inspected them very carefully. She held them to the light to check the watermark. She finally said that she would accept them.
I handed her the application itself, typed, neat, signed and witnessed.
“It must be filled out here. This is the requirement.” She gave her musical laugh and handed me a clean application. She watched carefully as I carefully, precisely, wrote by hand all the information that our lawyer had carefully, precisely, typed onto the other form. When I came to the signature line I called Marty over to sign.
“Where are your witnesses?” That musical laugh.
“They are back at the law firm.”
“You must have your witnesses here with you when you sign.”
“You appear to like that phrase.”
“Unspeakable authenticity. Pops up every few moments.”
“Total coincidence. I wrote that 16 years ago.”
“Are you always this persistent? Never mind. I guess I answered my own question.”
“Here is a little more:
We were back in fifteen minutes. We had two witnesses in tow. They worked in the office down the hall and, it was obvious, had been witnesses before. They were like so many of the people we met in Tortola; casual, friendly, nonchalant. They came in with us and signed nonchalantly and accepted our thanks nonchalantly and left us nonchalantly to go back to their office.
I handed the application back to Ms. Pemworthy. She studied it carefully.
“You haven’t specified who will perform the wedding. That must be specified.”
Marty jumped in. “We are not sure yet. My brother is a Minister and we hope that he will be able to come.”
“He must be authorized to perform marriages here.”
I thought Marty was going to boil over, but she continued to simmer. “It’s being arranged by the Church,” she said.
Ms. Pemworthy rolled her eyes and gave her musical laugh. “That may be, but you need to specify the person who will perform the wedding when you submit the application. This is our requirement.”
“You have to admit, Magra. This is convincing stuff.”
“You do not seem to have changed much…”
“Just stay with me. Here we go:”
Our questions revealed that it was not necessary to actually identify a name if you specified that the marriage would be performed by the Registrar. We so specified.
Ms. Pemworthy asked if we had the stamps. I could see by her look that she thought she had us. But in this at least our information had been correct. And so I produced -with a flourish – $110 in stamps. She paper clipped them to the documents and with that our application was complete.
I smiled at Marty. Our perseverance had paid off.
“May I see your passports?” Ms. Pemworthy asked.
I handed them over.
She took the passports and opened them to our pictures and then began to paper clip them to the pile of documents. I asked what she was doing.
“They must go to the Governor with your application.”
Marty and I sat down to wait. We had hoped that we could go to the beach before Marty’s flight but it was not a big surprise that they’d make us sit around some more. Ms. Pemworthy gave us a funny look. She realized that we were settling in to wait. She came over and told us that it would not be necessary to wait, “you can pick your passports up at the Registrar when the application is approved.”
“When will that be?”
“In three days. Today is Tuesday. Probably Friday.”
“Friday?” I said. “Marty is leaving at noon today.”
“You must be here for three days. It says it on the application. It is our requirement.”
“Did she have to change her flight?”
“Wait, you’ll see:
“No. No. No.” I said. I had read the application carefully. “You need to be on the island for three days prior to applying, not three days after.” I took out my copy of the application. It said: “Petitioners have for the space of three days immediately preceding the date hereof had their usual place of abode within the Virgin Islands.”
Ms. Pemworthy did not want to look at the wording. But when I pressed she said something to the effect that the “date hereof” was not the date that had been placed on the application and attested to by Marty and me (and witnessed by the nonchalant folks from next door), but rather the date three days in the future when the Governor would actually approve the application.
I could feel Marty behind me about to boil over. I was desperate. I knew that there would be new and more complicated problems if Marty boiled over.
“May I see the Attorney General?” I asked.
“You were kidding, I assume?”
“You actually thought you were going to talk with the Attorney General? I don’t know the British Virgin Islands. But there is no way are they going to let you talk to the Attorney General.”
“Magra, you must be reading my mail. They did not.”
“So did Marty stay?”
“No she couldn’t.”
“So what did you do?”
Ms. Pemworthy said, “The Attorney General asks me to convey to you her regrets that she is unable to meet with you, but she is currently extremely busy. She suggests that you can rearrange your schedule to return here three days prior to the actual date of your marriage so that you can apply then.”
“But we can’t.” I said. “I have children in school.”
“That is not my problem. These are the requirements.”
“But, but …”
While I was but-ing, Marty jumped in: “Are you telling us that we have flown down here from the United States; that we have bought $110 in stamps to file our application; that we have visited the Registrar not once but twice to get all the right papers, that we have hired a lawyer to prepare affidavits; that we have produced every single scrap of paper that you wanted and you still will not take our application.”
Marty did not wait for an answer. She turned to me and said. “Forget it. We can’t get married here.”
“Oh my. How frustrating. What did you do?”
I plowed on:
Ms. Pemworthy was fuming. Marty was fuming.
” Do you think,” I asked Ms Pemworthy, “that the Attorney General would discuss this matter with our lawyer.”
Ms. Pemworthy still fumed. “Yes, of course.”
“Might I use a phone to call our lawyer?”
Ms. Pemworthy gestured me to a phone at the far end of the countertop. When I got there I found that one of the young women in the office was already placing the call for me. I muttered below my breath, “it is hopeless.”
The young woman looked at me, concerned. She had heard what I said. She whispered at me emphatically. “Do not say that.” I looked at her a little surprised. She whispered again: “You must not say that.”
“Why did she say that? It sounds like she was rooting for you.”
“She was, it was the damnest thing. I was ready to give up.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I did not.”
“What happened next?”
I turned again to Ms. Pemworthy. “I have asked our lawyers to call the Attorney General. I will leave the papers with you in the meantime.”
Marty and I left.
We drove to the Airport in our Jeep. Marty was morose. She said, “I hate the name Roadtown, it reminds me of Roadkill.”
“Oh, it’ll work out. Its just bureaucracy. Its the same all over.”
“Well she dissed you pretty good.”
“She did, didn’t she? But it’ll work out. Don’t get discouraged.
Marty was talking – mostly to herself – trying out things that she might have said to Ms. Pemworthy. “I just think it is a sad thing when two people come all the way here to get married and then they run into someone …” She stopped abruptly. “We’ll never get married here.”
“Of course we will.”
“I can’t stand that woman.”
“But every other person in this entire country that we have talked to has been great. We can’t let one bureaucrat decide where we get married. You and I decide that. You just need patience.”
“Not my strong suit, Bud.”
“That’s my contribution to this marriage.”
“I am, frankly, counting on a good bit more than that.”
“I can’t believe you are the patient one. You must have a fiery marriage.”
“Oh no. But there are occasional blow ups.”
“I kind of like Marty.”
“Yeah. Everybody does. I get a more mixed reaction.”
I waved goodbye to Marty’s plane. I had lunch and I hung out on the beach. Patiently. In the late afternoon I called our lawyer.
“Oh good,” she said. “I am so glad that you called. I was calling everywhere. I spoke to the Attorney General. She asked me to tell you that she was most terribly sorry that she was unable to see you. She also asked me to convey to you her sorrow that you have had so much difficulty in applying for a marriage license. She asks me to assure you that your application may be processed.”
I waited to see if there was a catch.
“The only thing is that we need to prove your date of birth. If you would just take your passport back to the Attorney General’s office, they will make a copy.”
“But Marty has gone.” I said. “I can’t take her passport.”
“Its okay. I took a copy of her passport when you were here the other day. They will accept my affidavit. But I have to hurry to get it there by 4:30.” My lawyer rang off so she could prepare the affidavit and get it over there by closing time.
I drove over to the office. Ms. Pemworthy was waiting, thin lipped. I gave her my passport. I said, “My lawyer said that I should give you this.” She left the room for a long time to make a copy. When she returned she handed me back the original. She looked at me. “You had better have your lawyer make an affidavit to go with the copy of this passport.”
I wondered why an affidavit would be needed to explain that the copy Ms. Pemworthy had made was a true and correct copy of the passport that Ms. Pemworthy was holding in her hand, but I didn’t say it.
“Yes,” I said, “I will tell her.”
“I have already spoken to her.”
I decided I had best get out of there. I turned and left. From the stairs I looked back briefly and saw the young woman who worked behind the desk. She winked at me.
I said, “That’s it. We got the license and a couple weeks later we got married on the beach.”
“All that really happened?”
“Mr. Duret. I don’t mean to find fault. But your short writing doesn’t actually say that you got married. It doesn’t even say that you got the license. I mean it sounds like you might have got the license, but it doesn’t prove that you did. Even if we could accept a short writing as proof.”
“Oh, I know that. It doesn’t matter.”
“I thought that was your whole argument. That your short writing would prove you were married? That’s what you were saying.
“Yeah, but that wasn’t really my point.”
“Now I am lost.”
“I figured that if you saw how hard I had to work to get married, you would agree that HarlanServices shouldn’t think that it can take it away so casually. I mean, really, do I sound like I am going to stand still for it?”
“I get the message.”
“So wouldn’t it make sense to come to an accommodation here?”
“I have no authority myself. As I told you 20 minutes ago. Before you read me your wedding story. But Mr. Duret, I will be happy to check for you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate you listening.”
“Is there anything else that I may help you with?”
“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to provide you with excellent service.”
– Jay Duret