PORTLAND — When Norine Kotts and Cheryl Lewis first met 32 years ago, they felt an instant attraction.

That blossomed into a commitment and a longtime relationship, but neither of them ever thought they would marry.

“It wasn’t at all in the social consciousness” at the time, Lewis said. “I said to her, ‘Would you marry me?’ But it wasn’t real.”

Tuesday night, Kotts and Lewis gathered with friends at a family house in Scarborough and watched the returns come in on Maine’s same-sex marriage referendum. They hoped to celebrate with friends if the prospect of marriage for the couple became a reality.

It soon became clear that it would be a long night.

“We’re on the edge of our seats, not really sure how it’s going to go,” said Lewis. She had a bottle of champagne, hoping to use it for a celebratory toast, but it remained corked late Tuesday. Nonetheless, Lewis said spirits were high.

“We’re in it for the long run,” she said.

The couple was trying to keep their expectations low – Maine’s vote to overturn a gay marriage law in 2009 still stings.

Lewis said the couple went to bed three years ago when it looked like the law might have been upheld, but they woke up to find out it had been defeated.

“I’m trying to not get too excited about this, even though I’ve had a really good feeling about it,” Lewis said. “The last time was so depressing, because I couldn’t imagine people around me voting against it. It felt personal. It’s horrible to hear people say these horrible ignorant things.”

Kotts said the couple’s desire for a marriage has some practical roots.

Kotts said she and Lewis met in California in 1980, then moved to Maine in 1985, where they opened Cafe Always. They now co-own El Rayo Tacqueria, a popular Mexican restaurant on York Street.

They went to a lawyer in the late ‘80s, looking to solidify their business and personal relationships to the extent they could, given that the state didn’t allow them to marry.

They chose a lawyer who was a restaurant customer and knew of their situation, but lining everything up was still a struggle.

“He said at the end, ‘I wish this wasn’t so expensive, but there was a lot of research to do,’ ”
Kotts said.

Their desire to marry isn’t so much about commitment – they’ve got that already.

“We’re fully committed to each other,” she said. The couple has been through ups and downs, Kotts said, and has dealt with the same issues that heterosexual couples face. They’ve also dealt with the issues that are unique to same-sex couples, such as handling those who have a problem with their relationship.

“Fortunately, we live in a really open-minded city,” Kotts said, but the couple also knows that unless the law allows them to marry, they’ll face a sort of second-class citizenship compared to heterosexual couples.

“I don’t need to prove my love for my partner and all the people around me,” Lewis said. “They all embrace our relationship totally, so I don’t feel like I need to say in front of a lot of people, ‘I do.‘ What I need is, if I die, I don’t want her to have to go through the things that married couples don’t have to.”