Maria wants to make mar­riage work against odds


It was the day of the birth­day party, and the hus­band and wife had in­vited every­one they knew. They’d spent the morn­ing buy­ing food — a sheet cake, jumbo hot­dogs, ground beef, soda, chips — and were now stand­ing around a pic­nic ta­ble cov­ered with it all, along a long lake un­der a cloud­less sky, hop­ing at least some peo­ple would show up to eat it. To­day was the first time both sides of their fam­ily were sup­posed to come to­gether, some­thing that hadn’t hap­pened at their wed­ding four months be­fore. On that day, not a sin­gle mem­ber of the hus­band’s fam­ily had at­tended — not his broth­ers, who’d called him a fool for mar­ry­ing like this, and not his par­ents, who’d told him the re­la­tion­ship would only get him into trou­ble. Just about the only peo­ple who’d gone that day, and were here so far on this day, had been the peo­ple in­volved in the wed­ding it­self.

There was Maria Var­gas, a shy and brood­ing girl who looked older than her 16 years, and her hus­band, Phil Man­ning, 25, who of­ten acted younger than his. And nearby, smok­ing a cig­a­rette, was a slight woman with long, nar­row fea­tures, Michelle Hock­en­berry, 39, the mother who’d al­lowed her daugh­ter to marry.

Even in an era when the me­dian age of mar­ry­ing has climbed higher and higher, unions like Phil and Maria’s re­main sur­pris­ingly preva­lent in the United States. Be­tween 2000 and 2010, an es­ti­mated 248,000 chil­dren were mar­ried, most of whom were girls, some as young as 12, wed­ding men. Now, un­der pres­sure from ad­vo­cates and amid a na­tion­wide reck­on­ing over gen­der equal­ity and sex­ual mis­con­duct, states have be­gun end­ing ex­cep­tions that have al­lowed mar­riages for peo­ple younger than 18, the min­i­mum age in most states. Texas last year banned it, ex­cept for eman­ci­pated mi­nors. Ken­tucky out­lawed it, ex­cept for 17-year-olds with parental and ju­di­cial ap­proval. Mary­land con­sid­ered in­creas­ing the min­i­mum mar­ry­ing age from 15, but its bill failed to pass in April. Then in May, Delaware abol­ished the prac­tice un­der ev­ery cir­cum­stance, and New Jer­sey did the same in June. Penn­syl­va­nia, which may vote to elim­i­nate all loop­holes this au­tumn, could be next. “Dev­as­tat­ing” is how the bill’s mem­o­ran­dum sum­ma­rized the con­se­quences of child mar­riage. Nearly 70 per cent of the unions end in di­vorce, re­search sug­gests, and for chil­dren in their mid­teens, it’s higher still — about 80 per cent. Teen brides are nearly three times as likely to have at least five chil­dren. Their chance of liv­ing in poverty is 31 per cent higher. And they ’re 50 per cent more likely to drop out of school, which was the out­come that ter­ri­fied Maria the most. The start of the school year was just two weeks away, and she still didn’t know whether her mount­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at home would keep her from re­turn­ing to the class­room.

“There’s your par­ents,” she whis­pered to Phil. Sinewy and sweat­ing, Phil looked up from the grill and saw a bearded man and a dark­haired woman. They slowly made their way to the pic­nic ta­ble, piled with presents wrapped in tin­sel pa­per to cel­e­brate the sec­ond birth­day of Maria’s son, Dou­glas, whom she’d had with an­other grown man. They stopped and looked down at the presents, then at Phil, then at his new wife.

There was a long si­lence as every­one looked at one an­other. “What do you think, Mama?” Phil fi­nally asked, but his mother only shook her head.

Maria wan­dered away with her son to play at the lake’s edge. Phil went to the grill and started serv­ing food. Michelle took a sip of iced tea and glanced at her daugh­ter’s new in-laws.

Even in the be­gin­ning, their re­la­tion­ship had never to her con­formed to the stereo­type — with her as vic­tim, him as preda­tor — but in­stead felt as if they were sav­ing each other.

“How you guys do­ing ?” she tried. “All right,” Phil’s mom said. “Hot?”


And that was the end of the con­ver­sa­tion.

Maria walked back, straight black hair drip­ping from the wa­ter, and Phil met her half­way. He put his arm around her. He gave her a long kiss, and every­one watched them, ex­pres­sion­less. The kiss ended, and Maria went to the pic­nic ta­ble. She looked at what the few guests had left be­hind. The vanilla cake that, by the end of the day, would be only a third eaten. The dozens of hot­dogs. The barely touched potato chips. “Sup­posed to be a lot more peo­ple here,” Maria said. “I wouldn’t have got­ten so much food.” This is how a child in Amer­ica gets mar­ried:

It was a Fri­day, March 16. Maria woke early. She nor­mally hated any­thing fem­i­nine — “a tomboy,” Michelle called her, who smoked, swore ev­ery few words, had skull tat­toos — but to­day was dif­fer­ent. She wanted it all. Michelle did her makeup and hair. Maria put on a white dress and veil. Then, fear­ing au­thor­i­ties would ar­rest Phil at the lo­cal court­house, they drove into nearby West Vir­ginia, where they wouldn’t be rec­og­nized and which has one of the coun­try’s high­est rates of child mar­riage. Within an hour of ar­riv­ing at the Mor­gan County Court­house, her mother had signed the form, the mar­riage li­cence had been is­sued, an of­fi­ciant at the cer­e­mony out­side had said, “It’s my plea­sure to be the first to in­tro­duce Mr. and Mrs. Philip Man­ning,” and every­one had be­gun to cheer. Maria felt hap­pier than she’d ever thought pos­si­ble. And now?

Now it was nearly five months later. She was wak­ing once more, this time past 10 a.m., feel­ing ex­hausted again. She poured a bowl of Co­coa Puffs for Dou­glas’s break­fast, then looked at the mess around her. She swept the floor. Scrubbed the coun­ters. Pulled out a bag of garbage from the trash bin. Put in a load of laun­dry. Lit a scented can­dle. And checked on Dou­glas.

“I got to clean your room next,” she told him, sigh­ing.

Maria was a house­wife, in ev­ery sense. In this trailer at the edge of town, which she rarely left and which she and Phil shared with an un­em­ployed friend, she cooked most meals, swept floors, dis­pensed ad­vice and man­aged fi­nances. Ev­ery month, Phil took home US$1,600 from a fur­nace of a fac­tory mak­ing drill bits, and ev­ery month, they spent about US$1,150 of it on bills. To keep them dis­ci­plined, she’d stuck a bud­get to the re­frig­er­a­tor. “Monthly sav­ings: US$450,” it said. The sum seemed more hope­ful than re­al­is­tic, but it was what they had to save if they were ever go­ing to get the money they needed to move to nearby Bed­ford, where she hoped to en­rol at a high school that had on­cam­pus child care for Dou­glas. The pos­si­bil­ity of go­ing to school was the only re­main­ing shard of a child­hood that had long since splin­tered apart. She re­mem­bered the mo­ments. She was four, hug­ging her hand­cuffed mother, while Michelle was in­car­cer­ated for sim­ple as­sault. She was 13, car­ing for her younger si­b­lings, day af­ter day, as Michelle watched her step­fa­ther die of non-Hodgkin’s lym­phoma at the hospi­tal. She was 14, hang­ing out with a 19-year-old man who, ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports filed in the sub­se­quent crim­i­nal cases, had sex with her at least five times at the Janey Lynn Mo­tel in Bed­ford, got her preg­nant, be­came her boyfriend and then later ab­ducted her. Af­ter Dou­glas was born, and af­ter the fa­ther had gone to prison for the con­ceal­ment and cor­rup­tion of a mi­nor, school seemed to mat­ter less. Michelle told her she’d look af­ter Dou­glas. But Maria couldn’t bring her­self to trust him with any­one, not even her mother, and didn’t re­turn to the class­room that year. One of the first peo­ple, in fact, she al­lowed to care for Dou­glas was Phil, whom she’d met at a friend’s place when she was 15 and with whom she’d at first wanted only a phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ship. But soon she couldn’t imag­ine be­ing with any­one else, and still couldn’t. “Will you make me lunch to­day?” he asked, as a hard rain washed over the trailer park and they sat on the porch smok­ing.

“I al­ready made it,” she said of two tuna sand­wiches. She stood and, notic­ing the time, glanced down at her­self, still in py­ja­mas, then at Phil, still shirt­less.

“I got to get dressed,” she said. “And then get Dou­glas dressed. And get you dressed.” Dou­glas had a pe­di­atric ap­point­ment. Phil told her he was com­ing, too, and she was again re­minded why she mar­ried him. Even in the be­gin­ning, their re­la­tion­ship had never to her con­formed to the stereo­type — with her as vic­tim, him as preda­tor — but in­stead felt as if they were sav­ing each other. She helped him stay out of jail, where he’d twice gone on bur­glary con­vic­tions, and he helped her with Dou­glas, promis­ing to treat the boy like his son. “All right, we got to go,” Maria said. The room­mate, a re­cov­er­ing heroin ad­dict with short blond hair, drove them in his bat­tered white sedan through down­town Ev­erett, a drab col­lec­tion of Colo­nial houses be­neath a moun­tain, be­fore pulling up to a pe­di­a­tri­cian’s of­fice. They went in­side, and that’s when Maria saw her. The mid­dleaged woman in the wait­ing room with her own child, wear­ing a shirt that said “Ev­erett War­riors.” It was her old high school prin­ci­pal. Maria had last seen her at the be­gin­ning of the 2017 school year, when, fol­low­ing her time away, she’d tried out Ev­erett High School. Within weeks, the iso­la­tion of eat­ing lunch alone, un­able to con­nect with other stu­dents, and the an­noy­ance at seem­ingly im­prac­ti­cal classes had be­come too much, and she was back home. But did that mean 2018 would be that way, too? What would it feel like, she won­dered, to do some­thing, rather than hav­ing things done to her?

“I have to en­rol,” she whis­pered to Phil.

“We are go­ing to Bed­ford,” he promised.

“If we don’t, I’m go­ing to be a sit­ting duck,” she said, left at home do­ing noth­ing. “I can’t put Dou­glas on my hip and take him with me, or I would.”

The name of the prin­ci­pal’s child was called. Maria watched her dis­ap­pear into the back. Re­lieved that the woman hadn’t seemed to rec­og­nize her, she leaned her head against her hus­band.

Days be­fore the start of the school year, the trailer was quiet ex­cept for the mur­mur of the tele­vi­sion and the run­ning of the faucet as Maria washed dishes, wor­ry­ing. She thought about the car the fam­ily didn’t have, and how Phil needed to bum a ride ev­ery day to work. She thought about the new phone he needed. The re­place­ment she’d bought off a guy on Face­book for US$230 the day be­fore had wound up be­ing bro­ken, and now they were out the money and he still didn’t have a phone. She fin­ished with the dishes, then looked at the black kitchen rug, cov­ered in crumbs and dirt again. “Do you know what we re­ally need right now?” she asked when Phil emerged from the be­d­room past 11 a.m. “A vac­uum.”

“I know,” he said, apolo­getic, al­ways apolo­getic.

“You’re go­ing to want to spend at least US$150 for a vac­uum. Any­thing cheaper and you’re work­ing with a stick that does noth­ing,” she said, stand­ing, then turn­ing her glare back to the rug again. “I hate this car­pet.”

“What’s wrong with the —,” Phil be­gan, but she was al­ready onto the next thing she dis­liked about this place, which was the wall, where they’d re­cently dis­cov­ered black mould.

“It’s been rain­ing,” he said. “And those win­dows, they didn’t caulk them right.”

“Look at this! Mold on the car­pet,” she said, con­sid­er­ing one more un­planned ex­pense, one more rea­son she’d taken down their bud­get, be­cause what was the point in try­ing to save if they never could? She sat on the floor. She let out a frus­trated sigh. She looked at Phil. “We can’t move right now,” she said qui­etly. “We don’t have the money.”

“I know,” he said, nod­ding. Nei­ther said what Maria feared that meant. They wouldn’t be mov­ing to Bed­ford, not in time. She would not go back to school. She would not grad­u­ate. This trailer, these walls, Phil want­ing a baby: All of it would be her life in­stead. “I can’t go to school,” she told Phil, feel­ing it clos­ing in, and he nod­ded, silently ac­cept­ing what she, as weeks went by, could not. She would de­cide to find an­other way, to change things. She would tell Phil she couldn’t have an­other baby, not now, and they would get back to us­ing birth con­trol. She would call Ev­erett High School, and they would al­low her to go part time in the morn­ing, while Phil watched Dou­glas at home. She would start classes two weeks late, tak­ing the ninth- and 10th-grade cour­ses she’d missed. She would seize con­trol of events. She would be­come an adult. She had years to go and knew the del­i­cate alchemy of this mo­ment could sud­denly evap­o­rate. Dou­glas could get sick. Phil could lose his job, or switch shifts. She may never grad­u­ate.

But right now, early one Fri­day morn­ing, those con­cerns seemed re­mote, as Dou­glas and Phil slept side by side in the be­d­room, and Michelle wrote her a Face­book mes­sage, telling her she was proud of her, and Maria headed out by her­self for school, the child bride who didn’t drop out.

If we don’t (go to Bed­ford), I’m go­ing to be a sit­ting duck. I can’t put Dou­glas on my hip and take him with me, or I would.


Maria Var­gas, 16, takes a kick in the face while play­ing with her son Dou­glas, 2. Var­gas is mar­ried to a man who is 25.

Maria Var­gas glances out the win­dow of her mo­bile home to watch her hus­band Phil Man­ning mow the lawn. Phil Man­ning wipes sweat from his face af­ter spend­ing the af­ter­noon do­ing yard work on a hot and hu­mid day.


“I have no sym­pa­thy for you,” barks Maria to hus­band Phil. She warned him not to swipe a bite of pork from the fry­ing pan while she was still cook­ing.

Maria gives a good­bye hug to her hus­band Phil be­fore he heads off to work.

Phil works with his fa­ther, Joe Man­ning, to re­place mouldy wall­board in Phil’s mo­bile home.

Maria is fo­cused on her phone as Phil plays video games af­ter din­ner.

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