My sister and I tend to get confessional when painting. Which we did all of last Sunday. She is moving things forward with her boyfriend – a totally great guy – but has some worries. As we all do when we commit, I think. She asked me if Brian and I had ever considered divorce.
I was surprised. I thought the fact that we had was fairly common knowledge among my nearest and dearest, and my sister is definitely in that camp. But maybe I shouldn’t be that shocked. After all, there are a lot of things in relationships that people don’t talk about because they aren’t romantic, they aren’t fun, and they require incredible amounts of sweat, compromise, and tears. It’s just easier not to say anything.
I wrote the piece below as a final for my Creative Nonfiction class in college. I’ve tried to edit it many times, and nothing seems to take. This is the latest. I know it isn’t perfect, but I think it’s true. And I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because everyone should know that partnership is hard, despite the fact that it often looks easy from the outside.
It briefly mentions sex. Fair warning, family members.
Falling In Love:
I sat in the passenger seat of our first new car, a white Chevy Cavalier, and tears streamed down my face. “What are you thinking over there?” I asked my husband of four years.
“I don’t know,” Brian said. “Sometimes I think it would just be so much easier if I left and moved in with my dad for a while. I mean, you could do what you want to do and we could not worry about money anymore. I just, I don’t know. I’d have a hard time not calling you, maybe we’d get back together some day. It’s just that right now it’s so hard.”
“Are you divorcing me?” I said. My voice was small, and I had a hard time thrusting the words out.
I looked across at him, steering wheel wedged between his knees, mop of brown hair tousled, wet lines streaming from his eyes. I attempted to imagine a life where I didn’t wake up next to him every morning and failed. I wanted so much to put out a hand, to touch his cheek or knee, to convince him that he needed me, but I couldn’t force my body to move.
“No,” he said.
He pulled me close over the armrest, and I buried my face in his neck. We cried for hours together in that parking lot in downtown Claremont. When we arrived back at my mother’s house, our temporary home while we worked out our apartmentless situation, no problems had been resolved, but we both had the conviction that we would fight it out together.
In July, we will celebrate our thirteen year anniversary. I think of that moment in the car often and realize that we are not the same people we used to be back then, that we are at best approximations of those two who cried together under the streetlamp, the shift console the only concrete thing separating us. There is a movie I watched in a history class, The Best Years of our Lives, where a daughter in distress accuses her parents of having the perfect relationship and not understanding. “How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart?” the mother says to her husband. “How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?” I heard that, sitting in a dark room in a plastic chair with my notes before me, and thought yes.
I was fourteen when I met my husband. We were in high school theater together, both ensemble members with too much time to wait backstage before our cues. I used to be late to class because we would sit in the halls and talk until the bell rang. When my best friend told me he liked me, I said “ew!”
I asked him out the summer I turned seventeen. Brian drove down from college at Cal State San Bernardino to take me to a school dance, because my date cancelled on me at the last minute. We sat in a single chair together in the hotel lobby. He pretended my shoe was a telephone. Brian slow danced divinely, and I had to wrap my arms under his, reaching far to place them on his shoulders. By the end of the night I knew the fluttery feeling in my chest was love.
Three months later, I lay next to him at midnight on the pull out sofa in his mother’s mountain cabin. He had clandestinely climbed the stairs once we knew everyone was asleep. I placed my head in the crook of his shoulder and we talked until dawn. We knew that we wanted to get married, but we tried to pretend we didn’t, even to ourselves. Tales of high school sweethearts trapped in loveless marriages with too many children haunted my thoughts; and his as well.
I attended college as a music major, like my mother had, and like my twelve years of piano lessons had trained me for. Then I waffled to theater, and then officially declared that I was as undecided as I had been all along. Brian finished his English degree. I read his stories in my bed alone at night and told him how wonderful he was. I was the mascot of the University Dance Company, the only person to show up to every performance, cheer them on, and watch Brian turn pirouettes in a strait jacket.
We got married when I was 21, the year I fell thoroughly and completely out of love with my husband. We rented a two bedroom apartment in a neighborhood that could kindly be described as sketchy. A row of apartments lined the street, and in back of them was a long alley way full of potholes. After the alley was a neighborhood of decrepit houses. On the cinderblock walls, a constant fight was in play between those who sprayed graffiti and those who owned the white paint can. Things were constantly stolen from the neighborhood, including my car. Brian worked nights and I slept with a previously ornamental sword by my bedside, just in case. When he was home, we fought.
I don’t even remember what the fights were about, save the first. That was a terrible row about laundry detergent in which the question of powdered or liquid stood for the family ideology we had each grown up with. He threw a small paperback in my general direction and it fluttered to the ground in a hail of pages. I gave him the finger, grabbed my purse, and went to my mother’s house. I had a vision of fifties matrimony, with dinner on the table every night and kisses in the kitchen. The fights murdered that ideal. I considered leaving almost every day, but I knew we would never have three hundred dollars to file for divorce. There were slim moments of redemption, like the night I made him an angel food cake from scratch for his birthday. The bright tissue paper from his present caught fire on the burning white tapers I had scattered over the table. Working out our problems was the only real option left, and sometimes it seemed possible.
We moved into a safer neighborhood a year later. It took every penny we had managed to save to do it. On my birthday, we had a total of twenty five dollars in the bank. Brian bought me a bouquet and we ate dinner on our new patio amidst a fort of brown boxes. I worked a soulless job as a telephone operator and took jobs designing costumes for the Methodist Church’s children’s theater program. I dabbled in college again, declaring fashion design and then costuming, then back again. Brian worked the front desk in the Registrar’s Office at the local college. Our jobs were five minutes from the new apartment, and we would make dates to tryst at lunch. Brian would bring home sandwiches and we would tumble into the sheets, eat turkey, and then rush back to work. Kitchen kisses materialized and so did dinners. Not every night, but often enough that the butterflies in my stomach came out of their coma. A friend introduced us to the Lindy Hop. We would spend Saturday mornings in class, and then we would rush home so I could roll up my hair, smear on red lipstick, strap on my vintage wedges, and go back for the dance. The sharp, full sound of the big band filled the church hall as Brian whipped me around in circles in the crowd and we watched my skirts spin wide.
Brian read Anna Karenina in those years. He insisted on reading me this quote about marriage: “At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy motion of a boat on a lake, he finds himself sitting in it himself. He found that it was not enough to sit quietly without rocking the boat, that he had constantly to consider what to do next, that not for a moment must he forget what course to steer or that there was water under his feet… it was pleasant enough to look at it from the shore, but very hard, though very delightful, to sail it.”
We visited my sister-in-law for Christmas. “It makes me sad that you guys had such problems,” she said, “I don’t want to hear about it. You’re the perfect couple.”
My grandfather died when I was twenty five. I sat by the hospital bed my grandmother set up for him in the living room of their Maine farmhouse and realized that I hated everything in my life except Brian, who was far away in California and had not made the trip. I could not continue to work at the telephone office and still like myself. I took a job with Disneyland costuming, and with it a severe pay cut. I barely consulted Brian, who took a better job with a college in Orange County at almost exactly the same time.
Six months later, we were living in a dank apartment in Anaheim and hemorrhaging money every month. Our bedroom window opened onto Ball road, one of the busiest in Southern California. The mushroom colored carpet was old and smelled musty, the light was dim. Our furniture did not fit. I tried to work full time hours, but often an extra shift wasn’t available. There was little fighting this time, only an icy rage that settled over us. He worked days, I worked nights. I spent most mornings crying in bed.
By the time we could get out of our lease, I realized something important. Brian was the thing that mattered most. Chasing dreams was fine, but Brian was the center, the needed element. If I could not fall asleep in the crook of his shoulder, fame and fortune would not satisfy me. We moved in with my mother. We contemplated divorce. We rented another apartment, this time in Claremont where we had been happy before.
This apartment had been built in a late 1940’s housing boom, with kitchen cabinets to match. It was light blue, with scrolling metalwork in white across the screen door in front and the column that held up the porch roof. It had a vast back yard, in which we held several barbecues and I learned that my black thumb of death was really greenish after all. I started a job search, sending resumes into the vast hole of the internet, but Disney promoted me and I didn’t have to leave. I started college again, this time in earnest.
We bought our first house six months ago. It is a yellow 1970s tract home next to an orange grove, and it has three bedrooms that we’d like to fill with more than just our cats. The house was just too expensive, once the realities of taxes and flood insurance settled on our heads; and so I cook for hours on the weekends, turning budget carrots and discount chicken into dinner, pickling sketchy leftovers, making my own jam, and sewing or stenciling the furnishings I want. I light the tapers on the dining room table and pretend the bank account is full enough. Brian and I have banded together this time in our fight against the world, instead of fighting both life and each other. The truce has brought great joy amid the stress, and for that I sometimes feel like crying huge tears of relief.
I have hopes that the truce will hold. If there is one thing thirteen years has taught me, it is that marriage is not about being in love all the time, it is only a stubborn determination on the part of both people to fall in love in perpetuity.
And stubborn determination is something the two of us have in spades.