Twenty years ago my wife worked for a law firm in New York that considered itself the best on Wall Street. It was not an immodest boast. When we set up house together, I quickly learned that the kind of work she did involved a lot of partners, a few of whom seemed to be glued together with high stress fractures showing. She told me that they were under a lot of pressure. One mistake could mean millions.

Her job, as an associate, was to do whatever the partners thought needed doing and make sure the “deals” went smoothly. There were days she went to work and didn’t come home at all. I knew she was at the printer, tortuously reading the proof of some prospectus letter by letter. I never harbored any feelings of jealousy because I knew that for the partners, work was sex.

During the time that we were together in the Big Apple, I created pictures in my mind that took the place of those elusive personalities known as “partners.” At the time, with very few exceptions, they came in only one color and one sex. Suffice it to say, I could pass. They were smart, driven and sometimes very, very demanding. But they called the shots and made the critical decision that determined upward mobility. “Making partner,” becoming one of the anointed, was the whole point.

From the outside, it looked to me like the partners were wage slaves as much as anyone else. It’s just that the wages were very high. My wife insists that this is far too simplistic. But, to me they were phantoms, brilliant workaholics who were aging prematurely, and heading for early graves.

My wife and I were not yet married at that time. I don’t know what we called each other, but it was certainly not partner. Probably something along the lines of “significant other,” that absurd term of endearment that must have been dreamt up by a pop psychologist for a T.V. interview. Partners were other people.

Not long ago we attended a reunion for the alumni of that law firm. It was held in one of the cavernous halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A full-size reproduction of a blue whale hung overhead and it did not seem disproportionally large in that room. We had booked into a shabby hotel off Union Square that catered to merchant sailors. We were downwardly mobile.

Since the event was black tie, I threw a raincoat over my tux to sneak out of the hotel inconspicuously. It had been awhile since my wife worked in New York and there were a lot of new faces. The photographer who was taking pictures may well have thought i was the illustrious partner, my wife the insignificant spouse. There were hundreds of handsome lawyers milling about like penguins underneath the giant whale with glittering spouses and others at their sides. The food and drink were fine and we enjoyed the evening.

the Wall Street

Little did we know that we would soon be heading down under, to partner land. In this sunburnt country the designations common to North American English do not apply. For some unfathomable reason, no one is known as husband, wife, fiancee, live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, spouse or significant other. Exes do exist. As if by common agreement, Aussies seem to insist that everyone you live with in some romantic relationship is a “partner.”

According to my pocket Oxford Australian dictionary, a partner is 1) one of a pair of people who do something together, 2) either member of a pair of a married or unmarried couple. I am dying to know how this peculiarity came about. If any of my Australian readers can enlighten me, please do.

As usual, your faithful correspondent remains completely in the dark. But he’s a happily married husband all the same.