A few weeks after my boyfriend and I selected our wedding ring designs, the jeweler called to let us know the set was ready. “Before you pick them up, do you want anything engraved on the inside?” he asked.
We didn’t need to think twice. We had long used a specific pair of endearments for each other at our tenderest moments (and no, I do not intend to divulge them). Still, I hesitated. “It’s kind of goofy,” I began.
The jeweler chuckled. “Believe me, I’ve heard it all.”
Emboldened, I told him what we wanted. “Sweet,” he said.
Sweet, goofy nicknames were a hallmark of our relationship by then. But when I first met my boyfriend, I wasn’t used to a lighthearted approach. I’d had two serious relationships before, with very serious guys. Each had accounted for his share of romance, but neither was particularly creative when it came to nicknames.
The first clue that my new guy was different came early on, after a discussion of the Babar books we’d read as kids. In retrospect, we agreed, the Europeanized elephants were pretty disturbing.
“Good night, Hatchibombotar,” he said on the phone that evening.
I searched my mind for another denizen of Celesteville. “Uh . . . good night, Cornelius,” I said, smiling into my phone.
That was just the beginning. In my boyfriend’s mind, I soon learned, almost anything could be turned into an endearment. He came up with endless variations on my own name, as well as spontaneous terms based on whatever we were doing (“I’ll chop that spinach for you, Madame Lasagna”). When I complained about my high school students, I turned into a cranky character he addressed as “Mrs. Muckenfuss.” For a while, I became “Wookula,” a bizarre moniker whose origins remain an enigma.
This playfulness was emblematic of his joyful approach to our relationship, but it was a novelty to me. The divorce wave of the 1970s hit my family and my friends’ families hard. The breakups were messy, protracted affairs, typically involving other women for the fathers and therapy for everyone else. New, disagreeable vocabulary terms entered our lexicons: custody, alimony, child support, mediation, visitation. Relationships, we learned painfully, took work. Discussion. Constant vigilance. Counseling.
My beau’s family had avoided all that, and it showed. “It’s like a car,” he told me once, when I wondered aloud why we didn’t have long, involved conversations about the state of our relationship, the way my friends did with their boyfriends. “Why look under the hood, unless something’s wrong?”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
Apparently he was. But his cascade of affectionate monikers demonstrated his devotion more than any amount of “work” I might have expected him to put into maintaining our bond — and it still does. Do I attribute the longevity of our marriage to goofy nicknames? Not entirely. Trust, shared values, and a willingness to forgive each other for washing the dishes the wrong way have done more to propel us past the two-decade mark.
True, no couple gets this far without a breakdown. We’ve popped the hood more than a few times en route. Sometimes we were simply out of gas. A few occasions required more intricate repairs. But over all that time, my husband’s nicknames for me have quietly communicated the same message: that I am dear to him, that I can unlearn some of the vigilance I absorbed during those long-ago divorce years. That I can be playful, too.
I’ll admit that I lack my husband’s inventive flair in the nickname department. My terms for him tend toward the prosaic and descriptive, like “Mr. Tall Man.” But he doesn’t seem to mind. Because after almost 25 years together, we’re still calling each other the names I asked the jeweler to carve inside our wedding rings.
And yes, I’m still keeping them to myself.
Kate Haas is a writer and freelance editor in Portland, Oregon. Send comments to email@example.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.