10. Everyone told us it would be hard but no one told us how boring it could be. I can take hard; hard is a dare. But we look at each other, my husband and I, over the head of our daughter, over the dishes, over the stacks of uninspired student papers and dual twanging cell phones, and I imagine he’s thinking the same thing I am: “How did you talk me into this?” Subtext: where’s the freewheeling bachelor I meant to be? Where’s the carefree girl I was? When did I become this? When did you become that?
We are dully volatile: in that place when and where the cocktail of frustrations of our midlife is bitterly, newly surprising. Somewhere after ironic and long before poignant, in that ill-advised place which seemed so apparent as we saw it coming, and then as we crashed into it, that it must be someone else’s fault that we have arrived there. Our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our role models, anyone but us putting foot after foot into choices we make each day. And when we look up blindly now, the person we’d each latched onto back a ways is still there, and one of us has surely dragged the other all this way.
I am enthusiastic, or perhaps it could be called shrill. He is charismatic, or perhaps overbearing.
We look at each other, my husband Christopher and I, over years of past versions of selves we have known in each other, and we are uncertain which one we may be standing with at any time. Is this the one who may bolt? Is this the one who will stay?
9. Still, we have in common that we both view art in much the same way. We agree that the real drama in living an artist’s life is making the art, not making the drama of making the art. We can communicate to each other how we feel about that ephemeral state of creation, and how we crave it above almost all else. How bitter we become without it.
Our beliefs in the rewards of an artistic life are important, because this is the only reason we live where we do. We moved to Athens, Ohio because both of our graduate programs, mine in writing and his in theater, accepted us, and not only accepted but courted us. That seemed to bode well.
I had no idea how claustrophobic I’d find the place, a small town unrelieved by any grandeur of any sort, even that of smallness, and now he has no way to help me out of the place but to keep going. There is always a tension in our days between politely glossing the facts – “my day was fine” – and telling the bald truth – “I nearly got in my car and started driving after the sun as it fell.” It goes without saying that this doesn’t help a relationship; he always wonders (because if I haven’t been clear about it yet, I’m the theoretically taking-off one, I’m the bond-risk here) if he’d be in the car with me or not.
It was years before he knew that I had this metaphorical car. Apparently, I am reserved. Though I feel like a bundle of veins on a stick in the wind, apparently I “keep my cards close to my chest.” On the other hand, for someone who looks so counterculture as he does, covered in tattoos, who looks so rebellious, so mean, for someone, let’s just say it, who’s been in so many bar fights, my husband has a keen desire for being loved, for a well-communicated connection. Also, an absolute drive to be a hero to someone, although for a person who’s studied as much Greek tragedy as he has, not to mention Shakespeare, he should know those aren’t always the same people, the hero and the loved one. Also, he’s ready as long as the opportunity for heroic action comes at a convenient time for him, when he hasn’t been up too late or early with the baby.
But I have dreams about driving away. Not even jingling the keys at him, no ultimatums: just driving away. Once upon a time that might have meant I craved adventure of the predictable sort: meeting new men, getting more tattoos. Generally, however, along with stopping to sleep on the salt flats in the desert and to listen to trains rushing by, I basically mean that I intend to get all the metaphorical pee breaks and local historical society museum stops that I could wish for.
8. Two years ago, we had a baby. This complicated the theoretical driving away scenario, even theoretically. I already knew it was fairly imaginary, my driving away without leaving a windy wordy note that attempts to explain and resolve everything in one tidy fell swoop, drive away without packing my favorite tchotchke carefully in my favorite sweaters, or clinging in tears to the newel post about my “necessary choice” or some such nonsense (we have no stairwell, but this is a dream) before driving off to my remote and spare cabin or hacienda, either or both of which have a dock built out over dry scrub, reaching into the expansive view, where I will sit in my pajamas with no roof or telephone wire or road in sight.
But then there’s the baby. I’ll never drive away from her willingly.
Even in my dreams I go immediately back in the house, swing her into my arms and then tuck her into the car seat with a sippy cup, turn the rearview mirror to shine her face at me, and begin the drive again.
And anyway, here is what I know about this proposed scene: years into my imposed dismissal, if I ever were to reach out for another person,that person, though newly chosen, and for better or worse, would be exactly like the husband I have now.
When I was sixteen, I fell for a certain kind of guy. He was bad for me, but he was cool. The loner type that got followed all the time anyway. The stoic guy. The laconic begrudging speaker. The long walks at 3am guy. To a large degree, I outgrew falling for most of these qualities so imagine my surprise to discover years later that my husband outgrown being that guy.
In college, I turned from my all-black, combat-boot-wearing ways to the full-length hippie skirt and organic food. My outlook remained somewhere in between. My husband reveals that in college he stopped dating nihilistic ballerinas and started dating hippies. But only the snarky, mean ones, who used to be perennially hungry ballerina types and/or sarcastic misanthropes.
What I’m saying is this guy, my husband, was unavoidable for me. When he walked up the sidewalk of my Los Angeles home, more than ten years ago now, holding the hand of my best friend, I thought slowly, dawningly, “Shiiiiiiit.”
So combining that seeming inevitability with the baby bond makes for real commitment. And she looks like both of us. She acts like both of us. When I think about her becoming a teenager, and what we were both like as teenagers, and the combustion if we’d met at the time, it’s absolutely terrifying. To be clear: a lot of parents put on a faux horror face at this kind of talk, throw around stuff like “Oh, she’s a firecracker” or fondly, “He’s a terror.” No. I imagine kicking down hotel room doors, dragging her out of crack houses and lonely bars.
My husband and I make a pretty good story now, individually and together, but we were not fun teenagers. He’s been to jail, and I don’t mean overnight. I got community service because I was a girl, and a first offender. Nobody was having all fun, not for long.
But here we are.
7. Before we had the baby, we’d moved from Los Angeles to Utah. We like to joke that it was something in the water, some mysterious mineral that turned us from selfish and myopic terminally juvenile Angelenos to parents, to non-swearing (all right, swearing-resistant, anyway), upstanding, volunteering type people who might be role models (I said might; I wouldn’t venture to guess to whom) instead of outright cautionary tales.
Of course it wasn’t a magic mineral in the water. I’d stopped takingmy birth control pills.
No, I didn’t tell him. Yes, I knew what I was doing. For nearly a year, I used those little ovulation predictor kits from the supermarket, and they worked like a charm: two pink lines, fertile. One pink line, not fertile right this minute. I was almost always very certain in my thinking, and in my timing, of letting sex happen. Almost always I let or made sex happen when there was one little pink line. But one month God and percentages and ambivalence and nature won and there I was standing at the fridge thinking, “I’m dying for something vinegary.”
You will think this is not fair. Perhaps particularly if you are a man. But you did not live in our house with us, two people within four walls for years and years and years. I can say with certainty, and perhaps if you are a woman, or perhaps only the luckiest of women, you can attest to a version of this certainty too: I was in a position to make this choice for both of us, he and I, the decision at least to be ambivalent and to play that roulette. To not make the choice to not get pregnant. I knew we’d be okay no matter what happened, and maybe I knew well enough to even hope. I know both of us in and outside the skin like science, like we were born together, like we’d spent every night and day together for more than a quarter of our lives. Which we have.
6. We got married when we’d been together nearly six years, and had the ceremony three weeks before we moved. I had been accepted to graduate school in Utah, and though we both knew I’d applied, of course, that application felt more … theoretical. When I told him I’d been accepted, he bristled visibly, horrified at being faced with an actual choice, confused, scared. He stalked out of the house in a huff, walked around the block and then came back in and said, “Okay.” I don’t know what I’d have done if he’d said no; I didn’t think about it. We’d been gliding along in that season-less place, Los Angeles, where no one will ever press you to make a choice of any kind, where if they did you could just walk away from their bad mojo into the sunshine and the nodding agreement of dozens of other people who refused to be pushed. It was the easiest thing you can imagine to not choose direction and not get married.
But finally we wanted to get married with the friends we knew around us, so we had to get it done right then. And getting married and then immediately moving together was exciting. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone; I cried a lot, lost all our bills, messed up a billion details of the way I’d wanted the wedding to be, nearly forgot to pack my computer and then nearly forgot to unpack it before the truck drove away, was extremely sharp with my new in-laws at the wedding when I discovered them feeding my dogs table scraps. I was not at my best.
But once you move away from all you know, the person you are left standing there with is your team. As in us against them. As in knowing where to pass the ball when the other one can make the stronger play.
As in go team.
I was automatically, instantly in love with Utah too. My brain was on fire being back in school, and I was not bored for one single minute. If I ever hovered nearer that state, I walked out the front door of the house and let the wind off our particular range of the Rocky Mountains blow my face nearly clean off, smelled the scrub sage right off the top of that mountain and then walked back inside and sat in front of my wood burning stove. If I was ever frustrated, I drove to any one of hundreds of dead end dirt roads, and walked until I was in danger of getting stuck till spring thaw. Walked until I was in danger of being well and truly lost, and then marched back in by choice.
Christopher shook off L. A. like a change of clothes, charmed that he could do the blue-collar work he’d always loved and was so good at before he’d moved to Los Angeles. He snapped up his Carhartt insulated coveralls every day that first winter and went off to weld pieces of towers together in the freezing cold, both of us knowing he loved how macho it was, the derision with which it allowed him to peer inside other men’s cars at their lily white hands on their steering wheels and think “You can’t do this.”
5. Recently, someone who’d newly met my husband and to whom I had let fly a couple of vents about home life, asked me in what ways did I believe my husband was “masculine.” The third person with us, who had also just met my husband, actually laughed out loud, seemingly at the idea that I could even attempt to quantify that overwhelmingly male person who was my husband, before the sudden tension in the air silenced her. They had miscalculated my awareness, as I had their experience.
What they knew about marriage could fill my back pocket. I think they saw me making compromises – nights at home instead of with my buddies in bars, lunches picking up baby instead of lunch – and were confusing the compromises I considered necessary to a working marriage with what apparently old fashioned men “make” women do. I think the question was meant to gently turn me to face an apparently unpleasant truth; I think they thought they were alerting me to something, red flagging my presumably lapsed feminism.
Does it go without saying that both women were younger than me? And that they’d had more years of college than they’d had jobs? How gently that girl tried to say it. What a favor she thought she was doing. Now I know how my mother felt when I, newly an undergrad who’d just been introduced to Our Bodies, Ourselves and Violette LeDuc and Collette and Sontag and Steinem, ventured my unsolicited opinion of the marriage that produced me.
My husband is the most completely socially verifiably masculine man I know, in some good ways and in plenty of bad ways. I see this. It’s not like I’m smart about everything else and then married my blind spot. Know that I am deeply integrally supportive of all varieties of manhood (I don’t even like that there’s a “socially verifiable” version), as I am of the whole spectrum of womanhood. But I also knew what made my own personal clock tick in a way that would last longer than a few loads of clean dishes. I knew I wanted the guy who would be able to help us survive on a deserted island. I wanted the guy who’ll throw himself towards the wild animal while I pick up our daughter and run. I’ve already seen him lash out at anyone who hurts anyone he loves, catch loose horses, castrate calves, fix our roof (he’s been a roofer), fix our cars (he’s been a mechanic), build sections of houses from the studs and concrete up (he’s been a contractor), finish bar fights, start them in the name of stray underdogs he doesn’t know. Right after I met him, I saw him stick his hand far into scalding water so unreally hot no one else would touch it to turn off a broken water main (I wouldn’t know what to turn even if I could make my hand disobey my brain and reach through.). Not a big deal, I guess, but we were at a party in L.A. The rest of us stood around with our mixed drinks in our manicured hands and our mouths hanging open. “The house was going to flood, people,” he said, bemused, to the lot of us who’d been trained by the local culture to let hired help fix and touch everything not shiny and clean. The guy I was dating when I initially met my husband saw it happen, and when he saw the look on my face, I could as good as see that boy walk away.
The fact that my husband knows a lot about Shakespeare and Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett is just icing. He is still the bull in the china shop of every English department cocktail party I have ever been to or will ever go to. He is always on the verge of saying something embarrassing: “I think what all you writers mean to say is…” fill-in-the-blank, when he couldn’t possibly know, or the riskier “here’s how I feel about race relations in America,” or even “here’s how I feel about the sex rights of the differently-abled in hospice care” (nearly apropos of nothing; hospices may have been mentioned briefly, in relation to, say, Virginia Woolf needing one, or Jean Rhys deserving one), to a room full of people who are alone so much that the din of loud talking makes them wince until they’ve had a bottle of merlot, and who probably took one look at him on their way in and thought he was the janitor. From the expressions on their faces, I sometimes think they fear that if they disagree with him, he’ll ask them to “step outside and settle this.” But I find this potential for embarrassment he brings into a situation exhilarating. Embarrassing, but exhilarating. He’s a man often too big for the room he’s in.
So, was I surprised to find myself standing above a sink full of dishes over and over again, those evenings in Los Angeles, surrounded by our feminist and often lesbian friends, people who’d renounced patriarchy not once but twice over? Yes and no. I was surprised, but not at him. He’d never misrepresented himself, even in early courtship, which was something else I liked about him. He was a hot mess and I knew it. I was surprised at myself, my gut reaction to him, anachronistic and atavistic. He man, me woman. Oh, well.
4. Somewhere along the line we became the envy of even our nontraditional-lifestyle friends. “You guys are great together,” they’d say. I think they meant the way I didn’t mind if he talked too much at parties, relieved as I was to keep my own awkward mouth shut then. Maybe they meant, “I’d never do what you do for that person, so how lucky you found each other.” Maybe they voyeuristically enjoyed being part of, as in all honesty we surprisingly did too, the slow stacking of all those heterosexual blocks, rites of passage, just like a movie: date, meet parents, move in, get pets, joint checking account, do some dishes whydoncha?
But they were right about being good together. Really, once you strip away the worry and the homework and the responsibilities and the bills and the score keeping and sleep deprivation and the worry, they generally speaking still are right.
3. A few years after we’d started dating, Christopher quit drinking.
He’d been all bravado and balls till then, and we both wondered what he’d be like without the stuff.
I remember exactly what he was like with the stuff. I remember a glistening and fiercely alive and intimidating twinkle in his eyes. I remember the smell of the inside of his leather Navy-issue pea-coat, where I leaned many nights on his lap or against his shoulder in bars in cars on couches, the thrum of his speaking voice drumming through me while he told stories, drink in hand, and I drowsed past my bedtime. I was a little smaller then, and he seemed a little bigger. We were younger.
We sometimes – all right, often – also met in bars during the daytime. The lush potential in the hot-off-the-street dimness of the deep and narrow bars of Hollywood was always born out, for us; two whiskeys in and you’re going to be famous or at least rich any day now, just watch. As well as childish: what could we do today that would be bad for us? And aside from that, we both loved the city, the smog of the tour buses, the onslaught of humans, and rush of possibilities. The rush.
Under all that bravado, we both carried the same cards: a kid from back east who couldn’t believe they made it out. The black sheep of the family (in a gray, amateurish sort of way), a kid who had dabbled in badness and then got stuck there for a while and secretly wasn’t sorry. A kid who hoped she or he still had a heart of gold in there somewhere, but wasn’t sure, and wasn’t sure what to do with it anyway. I had long wavy hair, expensively threadbare tank tops that I wore without a bra, slinky long skirts, cowboy boots. He had an attitude, the hands of a boxer, sweet Seven-Up breath and that damn leather pea-coat that smelled like heaven.
I never did pressure him to quit drinking, but it’s pretty likely we wouldn’t be together now if he hadn’t. After a while, his extra-loud twelve-beers-in voice wore thin, and the know-it-all tone, not to mention the sleeping past noon. He called me one night from outside a burger place near Beverly and Fairfax, and told me he was about to go in to an AA meeting.
I wasn’t sure at the time what had made him stop then, that night, on a dime, but by stopping, he was both the crazy bad-ass temporary lover I’d never stick with, and the man I’d choose to father my kid and have my back forever and ever amen.
I know I need him to be as sober as he is now for our lives to work. I believe it is a sign of the strength of his character that he exerts his will relentlessly on this desire. But sometimes I remember vividly the in-your-face grab-you-by-the-shirtfront quality of our time then. We were amazed to have found each other, we were the two least responsible people we knew, we were hot and fast and fueled by whiskey and it was fucking fun.
2. At some point, I ask him not to tell me he loves me for the first time when he’s drunk, but he does anyway. But he really, really means it.
Everything else is a blur. Crisscrossing dirty sidewalks on Hollywood Boulevard, the parking lot of the Frolic Room, full sun on bedroom walls, a line of Jim Beam bottles, a drag review rock and roll opera night club, smoking cigarettes above sushi, the prissy sister spinster dogs I already loved joined by a new jointly-owned big messy dog.
1. He walks up the front sidewalk of my house in Los Angeles. I am 28. He is 25. He has arrived in L.A. from upstate New York, via Boston, and he looks it. He looks like an Irish Catholic thug, a beats-up-guys-and-then-goes-to-confession kind of kid. The combination of you-shut-up and vulnerability makes me want to sit down. I’ve just come off a string of really bad men who cheat and lie and take your car without asking; any real vulnerability at all smells like bait to me.
I can’t project what I look like to him, but it apparently is not bad either. He tells me years later that he loves artistic, creative, bossy women who are wicked smart, and he likes them complicated. Though he may have called it crazy.
My best friend has flown him out to L.A. because she has a crush on him. I know this. She’s described him to me: they went to art school together; he tows cars and plows snow for a living, even though he has an expensive private college degree, and even though he took people’s breath away on stage as an actor, wrung and stomped their hearts and then handed these gently back. I think this sounds like trouble, which is to say, good. She describes him physically, nice enough looking and all, no poster boy, not that I like those anyway, but all things considered, I think, for my friend’s sake if nothing else, I can resist this.
He drinks too much.
He makes no money, and who knows when he will?
He’s too loud.
He walks up the front sidewalk and we look over the heads of my boyfriend and my best friend and we nod.