In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Having been married for more than two decades, I sometimes wonder about the choices other women make. Planning a road trip to set up our son and his roommate in their college apartment, my husband and I offer to give the roommate’s mother, Karen, a ride. Slim framed and plain faced, Karen wears a Harley T-shirt. She’s fifty-something and in the middle of a divorce, her second — a divorce hastened by her having found a new man. With the last of her boys out the door, I imagine Karen was hurtling down the interstate of life when she saw that final exit and yanked the wheel to the right.
Alone with Karen in the car while my husband pumps gas, I ask about her decision. She says her soon-to-be-ex calls her a “home wrecker” and a “slut.”
“Well, are you happy, ‘slut’?” I ask.
She smiles with satisfaction.
My husband climbs back in the car and tosses a bag of corn chips at me. “Here’s the snack you didn’t ask for, don’t want, and will later eat,” he says slyly. I punch him in the arm and tell him that if he was going to get me something I didn’t want, he could at least have gotten me Munchos.
Karen laughs at our banter. “You two are perfect together,” she says. “You’ll be married forever.”
That word forever flutters around the car, representing both a lifetime of togetherness and a life sentence. My husband taps his gold-banded finger on the steering wheel, and I feel simultaneous urges to hold his other hand tight and to open the door and run like hell. I open the corn chips instead. When I eat one, I see his eyebrow go up: his prediction was correct, confirming how well he knows me.
A month later I run into Karen and her new boyfriend at a dinner party. They are living together. They don’t even have a couch or a TV, she says, just two plates and a few kitchen items. Her ex-husband took everything. Later I catch myself staring at them pressed snugly together, feeding each other bites of food. What feels like envy lurches inside me, and I wonder how long the excitement of their new relationship will sustain them.
At the farmers’ market I search for bananas that are only a little green: not so green that they leave a film on my teeth, but also not so ripe that they taste like candy. Just one more thing in life that has a limited window of perfection. The woman next to me palms an artichoke. She’s probably in her sixties, wears a linen blazer, and carries a designer purse. I want to ask her: Are you happy? I’d like to know, because in twenty years I will be her. I imagine she’s a woman who stayed in her marriage. No exit ramp for her. She has expensive clothes and hair that shines brighter than her years. At the holidays all her children return to one home, not splitting up between parents. There is a couch and a TV and plenty of plates at her house. She will not be eating cat food in her old age, because she has sacrificed romance for safety. She is a veteran of a war won. And she is the conquered, too.
I want to ask her how many times she contemplated taking the exit. Maybe never. Here she is with her manicured nails, her finger adorned with chunky diamonds few newlyweds could afford. I wonder if, like me, she weighs the well-worn life she knows against a tiny voice that challenges: So this is it? Crammed-in chats between running errands, getting to work, or ferrying the kids somewhere? I’m afraid that to speak aloud my secret longing for a life unchosen will make me a traitor. Is wondering about, or even wanting, something else a betrayal of what I have?
I am torn between becoming the artichoke shopper at the market and taking the last exit like Karen. The culture doesn’t seem to recognize this life stage in women. There’s too much talk about the “biological clock” and not enough talk about the other clocks ticking inside of us — and maybe inside of men, too, but I’m not a man, so that’s just speculation. It isn’t a lack of love. It is the reality of a “now” that will never again jolt you so hard that you’ll find owning a couch and a TV absurd.
It would be wonderful to know with certainty whether I’m a person who could live without a couch and a TV, but the question cannot be answered until the couch and the TV are no more. After the novelty wore off, would I be stuck asking myself why the hell I ever thought I could live like this? But if I never try it, will I — will my husband — be cheated of a life rich with reckless passion?
Falling in love is like single-mindedly performing a wholly unnecessary but wildly satisfying task, such as digging a large hole on the beach: Scraping out the sand and layers of shell until water wells up from some secret place below. The sun burning around the straps of my swimsuit like a branding iron. The hours on my hands and knees, chipping my fingernails, consumed by the desire to make the hole larger, to perfect its shape. Standing back, exhausted and spent, to admire an amazingly interesting hole, one that belongs to me.
Revisiting the hole the next day brings the realization that it was only temporary. Over the course of the night it did not so much fill in as erode, evaporate. Its elliptical shape diminished one grain at a time until the far wall weakened and collapsed. A wave came in and pushed the sand around. By morning the work of art has turned into a shallow depression. To keep it is to redig it every day, to commit to the work even when life deals me a thousand other tasks that demand my time.
Passion wraps us in its grip and creates a singular devotion, but it is perseverance that brings us before the hole the next day. It is perseverance that reveals the truth passion blinds us to: that every hole is filling in even as it’s being dug. And redigging the hole has to make way for vomiting kids, sports schedules, kitchen fires, dying parents. Wrung out and faced with the chore of digging again, we find it easier to shrug at the indentation in the sand.
I wasn’t prepared for this. Worse, the lack of conversation about it made me worry that I was alone, that something was wrong with me. Privately I wrestled with an unnameable yearning. Even now I vacillate between wanting something to sweep me into the storm of attraction again and an inexplicable compulsion to cling to this man who accepts my imperfections — sometimes with grace, sometimes with impatience. In my midthirties I would watch sad commercials about starving babies with flies on their faces and distended stomachs, and I’d think: Why can’t it be enough for me to have a decent income, to raise my kids, to go out to dinner sometimes and fall asleep in clean sheets to a TV on a timer? Isn’t this more than anyone deserves? Why should I want anything else?
The answer is unclear. I am both grateful for the life I have and drawn by the distant cry of Sirens. Passion seems like a pretty cashmere sweater with a thread caught on a limb, reminding me that if I walk away, there will be a great unraveling, leaving a hole of a different kind.
When I’d been married for four years, a new college graduate who’d joined our company’s engineering department came to my office to tell me he was planning to propose to his girlfriend. “You’ve been married a long time,” he said, because when you are twenty-three, four years seems like a long time. “What’s your secret?”
“Credit-card debt,” I answered, “followed by mortgage debt, followed by kids.” By the time he and his wife were able to separate, I told him, they’d be like two old war enemies stranded on a desert island.
“That’s depressing,” he replied.
Then I gave him the most critical advice I could give: that he should marry someone he could divorce with civility, someone who would muscle past the hurt and want him to have happiness, too. Marry someone for whom he would wish the same. “Do that,” I said, “and, whatever the outcome is, you’ll have a pretty decent run.”
“What about love?” he wanted to know.
“Love is not enough,” I said. “Take my word for that.”
The following week I took a business trip to Atlanta. Since my husband and I were working on our new house, I’d made copious lists for him of what needed to be done while I was away: The sod was being delivered and had to be laid before I got back. The tile man was coming to work on the guest bathroom. The builder needed to be reminded to remove a Port-A-Potty from the adjoining property. I gave my husband names, numbers, instructions.
In Atlanta I sat waiting for my client in a large conference room. He arrived with a team of co-workers. As he introduced the team’s accountant, I couldn’t speak. It was Peter. I had not seen or spoken to him since I’d ended our relationship years earlier. I’d left him crying in the parking lot of a bar.
Peter and I shook hands and traded furtive glances. Later he caught up with me at the elevator and asked if we could have dinner or drinks. “Please,” he said. I agreed.
I didn’t have a rental car, so Peter picked me up from my hotel. We went to an open-air cantina, where he drank a lot of beer and I picked at my tacos. Peter told me about his job and his girlfriend. He surprised me by rolling down the waistband of his shorts almost to his pubic hair to show me his new tattoo: an infinity symbol. Strait-laced, salutatorian, never-colors-outside-the-lines Peter had a tattoo.
He drove me back to the hotel, though he probably should not have been driving at all. On the way he took my hand in his and asked, “Is there any chance?”
I reminded him that I was married.
He said he’d just wondered.
I stared out the window, feeling the heat of Peter’s hand. Finally I said, “I love him, Peter. I married him, and I love him.”
For a while Peter said nothing. Then he squeezed my hand and said, “You loved me.”
I didn’t answer, but I didn’t pull my hand away. I had loved Peter, and maybe a part of me always would.
After we arrived at the hotel, Peter came around to open my door. How long had it been since a man had opened a car door for me? I stepped out, and he hugged me, putting his chin on my head, as he often had during the two years we’d been together. He wanted to come up to my room, but I said no. Then he kissed me on the mouth in a way that made me feel both free and scared. I backed away, but not as fast as I should have. He apologized and climbed into his car and waved to me as he drove off.
I went to my room and called my husband. I needed to hear his voice, to be reminded of what we had. When he answered the phone, he sounded distracted. An episode of The X-Files was playing in the background. He’d forgotten about the sod and the tile man. He’d left the whole list, every meticulous instruction I’d crafted, at the office. Then he said, “Honey, I have to go. We can talk about this tomorrow. I’m exhausted.”
When Peter called my cellphone an hour later, I let voice mail pick it up. I was afraid to answer.
I thought back to a moment when Peter and I were eighteen and sitting on a dock in the bright sun. Peter, the boy I had once loved so much it had made my chest ache, was holding my hand. The ice-cream cone we’d bought to share was melting, dripping milky drops into the river below. I lit a cigarette.
“I wish you’d quit smoking,” he said quietly.
I pitched the cigarette into the river and tipped the soggy cone in, too. A swarm of fish rose to nibble at it.
I told him I was late. As in, possibly pregnant. I asked what he wanted to do if I was.
He did not smile or laugh or cry. He did not drape his arm around me and pull me to him, the way he usually did when things were tough. The look on his face said, I’m screwed.
“I’ll do whatever you want to do,” he said.
Wrong answer. I pulled out another cigarette but didn’t light it. The ice-cream cone had drifted away.
“Say something, please,” he said.
I held the fresh cigarette between my finger and thumb, then told him I was quitting.
He half smiled. “I’m glad.”
Then I lit the cigarette and walked away.
Distance helps us to accept even the worst transgressions. Time allows forgiveness that’s difficult to grant to the people we confront day in and day out. Spending that much time together forces you to climb the mountain of each other’s faults over and over. Do I still love Peter? Yes, but only because the relationship ended. My love for him was never tried or tested or beaten up by day-to-day living. I didn’t have to get up every morning and fight with him over the children or money or who’d put the empty milk container back in the fridge. My love for Peter is pure because it’s protected from the elements of familiarity, frustration, and time. But it’s not a durable love. If unfettered from the amber that trapped it so long ago, it would soon begin to deteriorate. I never had to learn how to love Peter through weeks or months when I hated him. For me he is forever a boy in the sun on a dock with ice cream on his fingers.
I am standing in a coffee shop when a friend pokes me from behind. I turn to see her, and we hug the way women do. I push back from her to see her dress. “You look fantastic,” I say, and she nods across the shop at her husband, who is focused on picking out a greeting card. “It’s our anniversary,” she says with the kind of meaningful tone women save for one another.
“I’m sorry,” I say with a small laugh.
“Seriously,” she says, “this has been the worst year ever, and he knows it.” She tells me that the more he fears divorce, the clingier he gets.
She tears up, and I hold her hand. She clearly does not want her husband to see her cry, so I shift the subject to buying an anniversary card: how there’s never a card that says what you really need it to say. They have only ridiculous sentiments like “You are my everything,” or “I cannot imagine a life without you,” or “I love you more than ever,” or, worst of all, “Thank you for loving me.” Where’s the card that says, “Thank you for last Wednesday, when you didn’t piss me off all day long”? My friend laughs and regains her composure.
I’m convinced the makers of anniversary cards want me to think that I’m not in love enough, that love should be a perpetual roller-coaster ride of thrills. The worst cards have been read and rejected by so many customers that I can spot them by their bent corners.
This is not to say that I do not love the man I married; it’s just that what we really experience in our marriage is never spoken about in greeting cards, where social etiquette insists that passion is what we deserve, even though half of all marriages end in divorce. And second marriages end more frequently than first marriages, and almost three-quarters of third marriages dissolve. All that truth staring right at me, and yet I feel a pang when I see people my age starting over and experiencing that rush, coupled with the wealth of self-knowledge they did not have when they were young.
Maybe there are some sweeping, fantastic love stories, but they are the exception, not the rule, as the culture leads us to believe. I suspect there is some conspiracy afoot to make me think that other women are having sex seven nights a week and never dream of changing their names and moving to Texas. I live for the moments that remind me of why I fell in love with my husband in the first place, so that I can keep on.
I’ve been married almost longer than I was unmarried, and there are days when I don’t know what I’m doing in this life. I’m not sure if my husband has ever contemplated leaving me, but I don’t think he has. He tolerates my inclination to heal anything wounded or broken, from furniture to pets to stray children. He never questions how I spend our money or raise the kids. He’s self-deprecating, smart, and funny. Though he is generally incapable of figuring out the one thing I need at any given moment, I believe if he could figure it out, he might actually do it. He also annoys me by purchasing gifts for me that he wants for himself, like a new TV (I don’t watch television) or a high-tech coffee maker (I requested perfume). In early November I’ll hand him a magazine page complete with a coupon and a note clipped to the front: “For Christmas I want these jeans, in this size, from this store” — all but guaranteeing that I will not get those jeans. He will lose the note and buy me a toaster oven to replace the one I have, which I like fine but he doesn’t find aesthetically pleasing. For twenty-three years he has failed nine times out of ten to check the dryer and fold the load that’s in there, usually because he’s engrossed in some television show.
But he’s been gracious enough to allow me to do whatever I want to do, with the unspoken caveat that he probably won’t be there to cheer me on. He works hard to be the best of men in the areas in which he excels. And, almost imperceptibly, he’s changed in ways I hadn’t anticipated. After a storm, the kids found a dislodged bird’s nest containing a single egg and insisted on caring for it. I explained to them the odds were very low that it would hatch, but they were undaunted. My husband rolled his eyes and asked what we were going to do if the egg actually hatched. “You really should have left it on the ground where another animal would have had it for dinner,” he said. “Circle of life.” We ignored him and created a hatchery atop the dryer. Leaving for the gym one morning at 5 AM, I went to check on the egg and saw a bony beak barely breaking through the surface. We were having a baby! But what emerged was a hideously ugly creature that demanded food every three hours. One night I found my husband leaning over the dryer, talking gently to the tiny peeper. No, he hadn’t folded the clothes that were inside. But he was talking to a bug-eyed hatchling, telling it that everything would be OK.
He’s grown since we got married. I’ve grown, too. Sometimes we’ve grown together, sometimes apart. When my husband passes two days watching sports and movies while the laundry — most of it his — languishes in the dryer, I try to ignore it. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes the load sitting in there burns in me like a white-hot coal, and the dryer becomes symbolic of all the ways we fail each other. On Monday he will ask if I have any idea where his boxers are, and I will respond, “You’re almost fifty. Jesus. Try to imagine a world in which I ask you where my panties are.” By then he’ll have walked away, his attention span always limited, his hearing compromised by too many loud concerts in his youth. Later he’ll pop back in to ask, “Did you say they were with your panties somewhere?” and I’ll want to clock him with some heavy object, but instead I’ll shake my head at this adult person wandering around looking for his drawers. This is what’s real, what’s in front of me every day: the man who can’t find his own underwear and thinks it’s OK to pester me about it.
Still, I force myself to remember that this befuddled man is also the one who willingly committed economic treason with me as we pumped thousands of dollars into our terminally ill dog, trying to make her well. He would lie on the floor with our smelly, dying mutt, loving her when she was at her worst. And even after a million unfolded loads of laundry, some deference is owed to a man who didn’t object when I took in a teenage friend of our son’s, letting her live in our house. My husband came home, and she and all of her belongings were here. End of discussion. I’m not sure whether that’s a change on his part or just a hill he’s ceded. When I suggested we loan our new “houseguest” the money for a car to replace her twenty-year-old jalopy, he said I was a better person than he was. Then he applied every hardball-negotiating skill he had to brokering a deal.
Sitting in the dealership, there was a point when this ragged teenager looked defeated. The negotiations had been going on a long time. In the lot, before we’d entered the showroom, my husband had told us to take the car for one more test drive but not to say anything in front of the salesman, no matter how much we liked it. Now, done facing off with the immovable sales manager, my husband came to our table, sat down, and spoke in a low voice, never looking at us: “They’re posturing. Don’t look at them or me. Just sit still. They’ll come for me.” The girl began to say, “What if—” but I glared at her. Twenty minutes passed. Across the room the sales manager waved for my husband. “Here we go,” he said. The girl and I sat and watched. Heads nodded, and there was a handshake. The salesman approached and handed the teenager the keys to her first safe, decent car. In that moment I was thunderously in love with my husband, who was staring at his cellphone screen, typing away. He looked up at me and said, “Why’d you park your car so far from the door? You always park so far away from everything.” And the moment was gone. But for an instant I’d seen that hole in the sand, beautiful and expansive, carved out by passion. I locked my mind around it and took his hand.
My husband and I are retired and together most of the time. We’re very conscious of each other’s irritating habits — and of each other’s irritation with those irritating habits. I think we’re both pissed off at being seventy-eight, arthritic, and poor. At our age we can still hear the siren call of passionate adventure but are unable, or too tired, to heed it. Perhaps we’re pissed off at still being alive.
I want to thank C.J. Gall for her essay “Thank You for Last Wednesday.” I read it about eight times. Now I find it easier to be kind to my husband.
C.J. Gall’s essay “Thank You for Last Wednesday” [July 2014] is possibly the most accurate depiction of marriage in midlife that I have ever read.