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facts & arguments

Lindsay Campbell/The Globe and Mail

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The finger third from the thumb on my left hand is ringed by a pale indentation. It itches slightly. A close look (reading glasses required) reveals, through puckers and fine lines, a band of tiny bumps that cause, or mark, the prickliness. On the palm side there is one blood spot – barely visible, but enduring.

The ring that has left this impression lies in a wicker basket, painted cornflower blue and brimming with hair elastics and whatnot, that sits on a shelf in the bathroom. Every now and then I have to root around to be certain the ring is still there. I'm prone to imagine it dropping down the drain of the sink.

The ring has, for almost every day of the 34 years I've been married, surrounded that finger of my left hand. The thumb that gets drawn, now, to the indentation there habitually traces the ring's surface when I'm preoccupied or restless. Two operations and a couple of diagnostic tests are the only things to prompt its removal until this year.

In 1979, weeks before we married, my husband and I – then merely and hopelessly in love – drove to a jewellery shop his mother recommended, in Mildmay, to choose our rings. I had never heard of Mildmay, one of a profusion of tiny towns dotting Southern Ontario, but I loved how the name conjured up gentleness and spring breezes.

We chose with great care: plain but distinct bands, to my mind. (My search today yields an image of the exact pair of rings on Wikipedia. So much for distinction.) His was gold, mine white gold to match a beloved but long-gone silver bracelet. Opting for that difference felt dizzyingly radical. For us, no simple conformity, nothing ornate or showy; for us, simple, dignified, genuine and, of course, affordable.

I remember those new rings gleaming brightly, sliding onto those young fingers to reflect our new marriage. Today they still gleam, but not all that brightly. Mont's has a scratch along one edge, no doubt from an encounter with a power tool. The perfect roundness of mine has given way, slightly, to oblong, the result of resizing to accommodate the insidious swelling of arthritis. The golden bands have aged with grace, our hands not so much.

My husband's ring sits in the drawer of his bedside table unworn, but intact, despite its long proximity with hammer, chisel and crowbar through all manner of weather, dirt, concrete and caustics.

I was stunned to learn that it has been in a drawer for five years or more. Not so much stunned that he no longer wears it, given how rough building has been on his knuckles, his hands, his body. What stuns me is that I saw it, still can still see it, on his finger. Do I notice not what we are, but what I imagine us to be?

My husband: how easily that rolls off the tongue. Last October, while driving through the Northern Cascades, he apologized for calling me "his wife," saying he shouldn't do that: I'm not his. I feel cornered by the semantics, being wholly comfortable with my husband, and – until that moment – with calling him that.

I consider myself neither possessed (in any sense) nor a possessor. And if I am, either one, it's become so comfortable, so unassuming, a state of possession that I don't notice. If it leaves a mark it's less noticeable, less chafing, than this inverted ring on my finger.

I'm puzzled, too, about what brought the whole notion of what we call one another to the forefront of his mind. Maybe it had to do with the road trip being a celebration of our anniversary. We mark it lately with activities – biking or hiking – a reflection of my insatiable appetite for motion, and his for exploration. In the earlier, kid-filled years, we celebrated with an extravagant meal and a bottle of wine a notch above the usual.

The indentation on my finger has likely been a long time developing, but its irritation is new. Thank heaven for Google's fellowship of suffering, a sorority in which I am mute but take comfort. A search reveals that I am not crazy, and hardly alone in this.

Gold jewellery, it turns out, will suddenly and inexplicably cause allergic reactions, otherwise known as contact dermatitis. The culprit is generally assumed to be the traces of nickel that impart strength to the gold. Some blame stress (poor stress, blamed for every affliction) with triggering the reaction; others believe it's cold or dry weather, detergents or plain old dirt trapped underneath.

Whatever provokes finger to reject ring, the women (as most of the cyber voices on this topic seem to be) are alarmed at the sudden onset of the reaction. Why now? Who can say that, after five, 10 (or 34) years, the body might not be reacting to marriage itself – to the source of the symbol? Funny, though, that it's most likely reacting to the element that renders the symbol strong.

I will restore ring to finger soon. It no longer turns freely most days, but reassures me just being there. I like the solidness of it. Its distinctiveness – the dullness, oblongness – is a fitting symbol of our own way of being together. If this is bondage, it is to some human condition far bigger than us.

Elizabeth Templeman lives at Heffley Lake, B.C.