After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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A week before my daughter Sara got married last year, she asked if I’d say a few words at her wedding about what makes for a good marriage. Sara knew that I’d been married to her stepmother, Norma, for nearly thirty years; that I’d been married twice before; that I’d been married most of my adult life. Surely I had some wisdom to share.
A wise man, I thought, knows better than to open his big mouth about how happily married he is. But I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter, so I agreed. The following night Norma and I took Sara and her husband-to-be out to dinner, and, with my assignment in mind, I reflected aloud on how far Norma and I had come. I said we no longer argued as much about issues we’d once found contentious. Norma agreed with me — up to a point. Then she offered an observation of her own. A clarification, you might say. A slight correction. After we got home, Norma and I had the worst argument we’d had in years. We barely talked to each other for the next two days.
On the night of the wedding, at the conclusion of my decidedly short speech, I quoted the great comedian and violinist Henny Youngman, who said, “The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.” Within a week, I couldn’t remember what Norma and I had argued about.
I can never tell when loneliness will drop by for a visit. It could be an overcast winter morning. It could be a gorgeous spring afternoon. I could be sixty-eight. I could be twenty-eight. Married or single. Barack Hussein Obama in the White House or Richard Milhous Nixon. Loneliness knows where to find me. It doesn’t knock. It walks right in.
The woman in my dream was tall, very tall, and young, very young, and happy, very happy. But what’s the difference if she was nineteen or twenty-nine or thirty-nine? What’s the difference if she was six feet tall or seven feet tall or as tall as a redwood in the forest of an old man’s longing? Impossibly young. Impossibly tall. And more than willing to welcome me into her happiness, even though I wasn’t young enough or tall enough to stay. Besides, I knew I needed to return to my life in North Carolina, where Sy Safransky — Mister editor and publisher, Mister family man — was waiting for me. As I open my eyes, he grabs my arm. A beautiful young woman? he asks. As tall as the sky? He wants to remind me about the rules. I tell him I know the rules.
I’m eating mindfully. I’m exercising regularly. I’m driving a hybrid with both hands on the wheel. If a sexy woman flirts with me, I tell myself I’m dreaming. If she shows up in a dream that night, I pretend that I’m asleep.
Instead of sleeping last night with the adorable woman who’s my beloved wife, I slept in the guest room with a furry mammal who’s my beloved cat.
Sadly, an uninterrupted night’s sleep with Norma at my side has become as unattainable a fantasy as reaching my ideal weight or getting caught up on my work. Norma didn’t snore when we got married. But — spoiler alert for newlyweds — many women don’t start snoring until after menopause. I would never have thought it possible that a petite woman like my wife, who has no discernible health problems, could snore the way she does. Author Joyce Carol Oates said it best: “Old women snore violently. They are like bodies into which bizarre animals have crept at night; the animals are vicious, bawdy, noisy. How they snore! There is no shame to their snoring. Old women turn into old men.” (When I read that passage to Norma, she laughed. I asked why she was laughing. “Because it’s funny,” she said.)
So what’s a man to do? Shake his fist at the Almighty? Write a letter to the president? Listen, Barack, it can happen to you, too. Your presidency will be a fading memory. Your girls will be grown women living on the other side of the country. You’ll come home after a hard day at the Supreme Court or the United Nations, and there will be time for only a brief chat with Michelle before she yawns and suggests going to bed. But remember, Barack, not to the same bed. You’re in the guest room, which is about as small and uninviting as your college dorm room, and Michelle is at the other end of a long hallway that stretches to the end of time — or, at least, to the end of your time on earth together. That’s right, Barack: one day you’re the most powerful man in the world; the next day, you’re waking up in the middle of the night with no one to turn to except a slightly overweight cat. Turn on the lamp. Get a little work done. There’s always plenty of work to keep you company.
Before Norma left for town today, she paused at the foot of the stairs and called out, “Goodbye, sweetie.” Here I am, not much hair on my head, a beard that’s mostly gray. Lucky guy: still someone’s sweetie.
It’s a cold, wet morning up and down the Atlantic seaboard. We got only a dusting of snow, but freezing rain is on the way. That usually means traffic accidents and power blackouts, so I’m going to stay home and either read a stack of manuscripts or try to convince Norma to spend an hour or two in bed with me. What can I say? I’m in love with my work, and I’m in love with my wife, and I’m pretty sure there’s some hidden valley under the covers we haven’t discovered yet, with a river running through it and flowers climbing up the riverbanks and maybe a small bed-and-breakfast whose owner would be thrilled to welcome us, if our lovemaking is passionate and our hearts are pure, because that’s what this innkeeper lives for, over there in that hidden valley.
I dreamt that Norma told me my penis was too small. This got me so upset that I phoned my dream lawyer to learn if I could sue for slander. “That depends,” he said. “On what?” I asked. “On whether what she said is true,” he replied. So I got out my dream ruler. Of course it wasn’t true!