EVERETT, Pa. — 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 hot dogs, 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 percent of the unions end in divorce, research suggests, and for children in their midteens, it’s higher still — about 80 percent. Teen brides are nearly three times as likely to have at least five children. Their chance of living in poverty is 31 percent higher. And they’re 50 percent 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 now whispered to Phil, trying to put that worry aside on a day when they were expecting two dozen guests. Sinewy and sweating, Phil looked up from the grill and saw a bearded man and a dark-haired 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.
“How you guys doing?” she tried.
“All right,” Phil’s mom said.
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 hot dogs. 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 license 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.
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’ 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 $1,600 from a furnace of a factory making drill bits, and every month, they spent about $1,150 of it on bills. To keep them disciplined, she’d stuck a budget to the refrigerator. “Monthly savings: $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 enroll at a high school that had on-campus 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 4, 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 now 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 pajamas, 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 middle-aged 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 enroll,” 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.
— — —
Phil met Maria on Feb. 25, 2017, in a trailer on the other side of Everett, where a buddy from jail was living. He loved her hair, long and black, and all that night, she laughed and took pictures of him with her phone. Phil leaning back, giving her a weird face. Phil closing his eyes, drinking a beer. Phil smiling in a selfie, bare shoulder pressing against hers. To him, she sure didn’t look 15, but he never asked. What he did ask for was her phone number. “I’d caught feelings” was how he put it, and that was that. He was 24, and he had a 15-year-old girlfriend.
What at first felt innocuous soon became a terrible secret. They saw each other as often as they could but lived according to certain rules. Never hold hands in public. Never kiss unless they were alone. Never tell anyone anything, least of all the truth — that they were already sleeping together, that they weren’t just friends.
“U know I’m always only a message away,” one friend wrote to him on Facebook in early April 2017, trying to find out what was going on.
“I don’t think you want in on this one, really,” Phil replied, distraught. ” … It’s just this thing that won’t stop.”
He thought about breaking up with Maria all of the time, and about how it could end if he didn’t. With him in jail. With his face on the Pennsylvania sex offender registry. With his life ruined. But instead he moved into her mother’s house, started calling Maria “wifey” and concocted another cover story. He was living there to help care for her mentally disabled brother, Donte, and nothing more.
All of the lies, one after another. It got to be too much, especially after he’d come to see her son as his own, and especially after he’d ask her to marry that October, and she’d said yes. So he stopped hiding it. He changed his Facebook picture to one of him and Douglas. He called Maria his girlfriend online. He started telling people. His parents were furious: “You shouldn’t be doing this; she’s 16 years old,” his father said. His co-workers laughed: “Chester Cheeto,” they called him from then on, referencing the comic strip “Chester the Molester.”
“No one likes me,” he wrote on Facebook one night soon after the wedding.
“I’ll be your friend, Cheeto,” one man taunted in response.
“Mind your own f-ing business, if you don’t like our relationship,” Maria wrote on his wall, wanting to defend him. “And that goes for everyone: family, friends, enemy’s, etc. I’m tired of hearing every single day how he gets ragged.”
Phil tried to explain it to people. In many ways, she was more mature than he was. She’d already raised siblings and was now a parent, and a good one at that, which was more than he could say for himself. He’d rarely spoken to his daughter, 8, whom he’d had with a woman outside Erie, where he was raised, but Maria had gotten him to change that. Maria was an example to work toward, and something to work for, which had now become a means of absolution.
“I’m here to support my family,” he again explained to Maria one morning, when it was time again to get to it. He went to the bedroom. He put on death metal, felt it energize him, then fitted on a pair of work boots and a cutoff shirt. He filled an empty two-gallon jug of Hi-C with water, placed the sandwiches Maria had made him into his lunch cooler, then went into the living room, feeling good, ready for his next shift. The work paid only $15 per hour, and the hours were terrible — 3 p.m. to midnight — but he wasn’t running around, one more addict in a town full of them. He was here, providing, each day another struggle to convince himself and others that he wasn’t a bad guy. He’d married a child, yes. But he wasn’t a bad guy.
He looked at their wedding photos on the bookcase against the wall.
“It felt right,” he said, sitting down. “There was a special connection.”
“You pedophile,” Maria said, just joking, but he winced.
“Thanks, babe,” he said.
Then she said something else that hurt even worse:
“I don’t know, I don’t even think I should have gotten married with how young I am.”
“Do you think it was a mistake?” he asked softly.
“No,” she said, trying to backtrack. “Baby, you take things too personal.”
“I know, but that kind of put me down,” he said. ” ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten married yet.’ ” He thought for a moment more. “But I’m so happy.”
He had his wife. He had his job. He had his house. His family even seemed to be coming around. There was only one thing missing. He loved Douglas, but he wanted his own son. A boy who would always and only know him as dad — not as Phil, or stepdad, but simply dad. So he’d been talking to Maria about it. Her birth control had been making her sick anyhow. And so she’d gone off it, and he was now trying for a son, and to him she didn’t seem to mind.
He knew he was being selfish, and some days he wondered whether they should stop. Maria had told him countless times about wanting to get back into school, and he recognized how smart she was. He had no doubt she would glide through, get a diploma without any special education, as he’d needed, and then become a certified nursing assistant, just as she’d always wanted.
But he still wanted a son.
When Maria had first started thinking about having another child, she had called her mother. They talked on the phone for a long while, and Michelle told her it was an awful idea. What about school? What about the child she already had? But Michelle didn’t know what more to do than that. Maria was married. She was emancipated. And besides, her daughter rarely listened to her advice, no matter that Michelle understood everything that Maria was going through, because she’d once gone through it, too.
She was a wife at 14. A mother at 16. A dropout at 17. A divorced mom at 18. A cocaine addict at 27. A prisoner of the state at 28. And now, at 39, she was here, a mother of six, driving through the mountains in a truck on empty, on her way to pick up her son from football practice, in an area she hoped was isolated enough to keep her youngest children from also following her path.
“Did you have fun?” she asked Roger, 13, as he climbed into the truck.
“I just want to take a cold shower,” he said.
“Well,” she said, touching his knee. “We’ll stop up here and get you something to drink, too.”
She’d do anything to protect him, particularly now. He was at the age when she felt like she’d lost Maria. Michelle knew her mistakes — the men who’d come and gone, the drugs she’d let consume her — had damaged her oldest child, Aaron, who was now locked up for felony arson. But Maria? Maria had always been her responsible child, the one she could count on. So when Michelle’s third husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and she was gone at the Pittsburgh hospital all of the time, it had been Maria whom she’d asked to watch her three younger siblings.
Michelle pulled up to a house down a dirt path, made sure Nadia, 10, and Moon, 5, had eaten the dinner she’d prepared, then sat at the counter, shaking her head at the thought.
How could she have known that the arrangement would last nearly a year? How could she have predicted that Maria would grow so resentful of the added responsibilities that she would act out? There were times when Michelle would return from the hospital and find Maria withdrawn and angry, or with a boy she was told was 16, and become scared. Maria could be using drugs. She could be having sex. Michelle tried to put her on birth control, only to find out it was too late — Maria was already pregnant — and that the boy wasn’t a boy at all, but 19. “Blindsided” was how Michelle felt.
She told Maria she could get an abortion, but Maria didn’t want to. She asked Maria to go to school, but Maria stayed home with Douglas. And then when she heard about Maria and Phil, she told Maria she couldn’t do this — not again — but Maria said she could. Lines blurred, family roles shifted: Was Maria the adult she often seemed, or the girl who still thought about prom, loved video games and sometimes needed mothering? And was Phil a “pervert,” as she’d initially worried, or a husband who seemed to genuinely love Maria and was nothing but decent every time Michelle saw him?
Michelle went outside and looked out at the mountains. She lit a cigarette, then another. Her two young daughters flitted in and out of the house, screeching and laughing. They were both wearing lipstick, which Michelle forbade whenever they were out of the house. She wanted them to remain children for as long as possible. She never wanted to confront another decision like the one Maria had brought to her late last year.
Maria said she was marrying Phil, and they needed more than Michelle’s blessing. They needed her signature at the courthouse. Michelle begged Maria to reconsider. Just look where her own child marriage had gotten her. But Maria said it was her decision — her mistake, even — and not her mother’s. In Michelle’s mind, it came down to this: Either a no, and they’d hate her for it, then marry anyway later on. Or a yes, and hope it would last.
Months later, the decision made, the wedding come and gone, Michelle was out on the porch, talking to Maria on the phone again. But this time, her daughter sounded scared, younger than usual. She was worried about taking medication her doctor had prescribed for heartburn.
“Honey,” Michelle said, voice tender. “What’s it called?”
“I’ll text you how it’s spelled,” Maria said.
“Go ahead and take it,” Michelle said, seeing it was lansoprazole. “That’s just a heartburn pill … Not a big deal.”
Expression softening with sympathy, Michelle leaned forward, and, as her cigarette burned down to nothing and her other girls disappeared into the house, she stayed focused on the phone call, speaking not with Maria the mother, or Maria the wife, but Maria, her 16-year-old daughter.
— — —
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 $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 $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 mold. It lacquered the inside and was now also showing on the outside.
“You can’t just scrape that off,” she told Phil.
“No?” he said.
“You can’t just do that,” she said. “You need something special.”
“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.
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