The day we got married I went home and cried for six straight hours while my husband browsed used-book stores in San Francisco. I was sure I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. I was a gypsy witch who loved poetry. He hunted wild pigs, read bullet manuals, and drove a three-quarter-ton pickup with a Frank Zappa For President bumper sticker.
Now, years later, our youngest son is just beginning to talk, and our marriage is not only surviving but flourishing. Maybe it’s the right combination of humor, free-spiritedness, and love. Maybe it’s blind luck. There is a happiness now that we’re no longer “working things out,” and can just live and grow together. There is a quiet joy in waking up in the morning knowing there is no place I’d rather be, no one I love more.
My parents met at a displaced persons camp in Italy at the end of World War II. Like many people of that time who had suffered devastating losses, they married quickly to affirm life after so much death. I was born nine months later. My parents knew almost nothing about each other, especially how incompatible they were.
My father was a city boy who had left school to help support his mother and eight brothers and sisters after his father’s death. Quick-witted and strong, he later survived the Nazi concentration camps. A businessman to his core, he got back on his feet again after the war, starting with nothing more than a blanket from the Red Cross. He can strike up a conversation with anyone in a half-dozen languages and, in his late eighties, still travels abroad twice a year. He visited me on Maui and, with eager and awake senses, delighted in everything the island offers.
My mother was a village girl who grew up in the protection and security of her mother and grandmother; she never learned how to earn a living. She survived the war by hiding in the forest. Once in America, she followed all her old customs, took no English classes, joined no organizations, and refused to learn how to drive. Utterly dependent, she experienced the world from her carefully tended home. She ventured only as far as the grocery store or doctor’s office. During her visit to Maui, she stayed in my house and never saw the island’s incredible beauty.
My parents are more than opposites. They are completely ill-suited. They have rubbed each other the wrong way so often that only raw skin remains. It has never healed. Yet they stay together.
Fresh-mouthed, impatient, and weary of their bickering, I used to advise divorce. To me it always seemed so easy — stop the nastiness and go be happy somewhere else. They couldn’t break up the family, they’d say. But even after my sister and I left home, providing neither buffer nor excuse any longer, they wouldn’t budge.
Sometimes I think they stay together for reasons other than obeying a marital injunction passed on to them in eastern Europe. Sometimes I think it’s a penance they’re unconsciously paying for having survived their families and friends in the Holocaust. Sometimes I think they stay together because there’s nowhere else to go.
Asheville, North Carolina
Twenty years ago we met by chance at a high school dance. I was full of excitement; he was full of stolen sloe gin. I had been warned to stay away from him, but there he was, looking James Dean lonely, so I fell in love with him. (I was already in love with Love, so the transition was easy.) We went on picnics and to proms and ate ice cream on Sundays. I belonged to him and he belonged to me. But we both wanted to keep me a “nice girl,” so for years we didn’t “do it” until we got the license to do it. Then we didn’t seem to want to do it so much anymore. I was pregnant and tired most of the time, and there wasn’t much money. Then there were no more honey’s.
But he was right there with me through all three labors. He held my hand at my brother’s funeral. The night we moved into our new house, when I stayed up crying, thinking of our old little house empty and alone, he sat up with me, rocking the newest baby. The chair kept bumping into the door but he would just pull it away, start rocking again, and tell me that everything was going to be all right.
We spent fourteen Christmases together, and I was sure that he belonged to me until the night he told me he didn’t, that he had been unhappy for the longest time, that he had someone else he cared about, and that he had to leave. I wanted to die, but I didn’t. I was sure I could never love anyone else, but I was wrong about that, too.
Now we’ve been apart half as long as we were together, but when we are together — and we’ll be tied up till eternity through our children — now and then there passes between us a secret look that says we shared a part of each other that no one else ever will. We loved each other before we really knew ourselves, and so could hardly know what we might really love in someone else. Now we do, and I am happy for our new partners, and for the people he and I have become. But whenever I think of young love, young dreams, and April, I will always think of him.
Terri Watrous Berry
By the time I was twenty-eight, my brother, my parents, my stepfather, my grandparents, most of my aunts and uncles, and my marriage were dead. I had moved countless times. I had dated as many different men and explored as many lifestyles as I could. Reading my journal from that time is painful because, in hindsight, my hold on life and sanity seems so tenuous. I’m forty-four now, and it is still hard for me to believe that anything stays together. Mystics and physicists insist that almost nothing does.
Last night, my husband Jim came home from four days in L.A. Over dinner we began to tell each other the details we leave out over the phone. We talked about the surgery he’s having on his knee with general anesthetic next week. I gave him a card to sign for a friend who just lost his partner to AIDS. I told him about our next-door neighbors’ big, beloved Rottweiler that was just diagnosed with cancer. Jim described to me his eighty-year-old dad’s slow recovery from surgery. When we finally went upstairs to bed as we have so many times before, it was just another night, just another miracle.
Staying together is what I dearly wish — for our health, our marriage, and our life with the people, places, and things that enrich it. Every night I clench my jaw as I sleep, as if I could hold everything together by will.
After I spent more than two decades in a 1950s marriage — trying to be nurturing mother, sexy wife, and business partner, plus an artist — being single and living alone turned out to be a joy. It was a time of healing, a time of creative and fulfilling solitude. I did not believe I would ever want to live with anyone again.
Four years later, I met a loving man, also an artist, who also needed solitude. For sixteen years, we have lived together with deepening love and enjoyment. We share one house and have separate bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. We shop, launder, cook, eat, and sleep on separate schedules. Silence is the house rule. We write to each other in a centrally located spiral notebook. We make dates to be together. This evening he is my dinner guest. And what a smart, charming, funny, and loving best friend he is.
Less is definitely more. Solitude is the magnet that keeps us together.
We live on nine acres of paradise, with woods in the back where we’ve made trails. My dog and I explore the woods every day. The three cats roam at will and avoid the coyotes. It is wild country, and I love every stone and blade of grass, every wild fern and mushroom, and the animals who trust that I will continually provide for them.
I do not love my husband. We live like mismatched roommates sleeping in separate beds, preparing individual meals. Every day I dream of leaving him. But we both love this property, and we run a business together. If I’m the one to leave, do I lose my home and my job? Sure, I’m legally entitled to half of everything, but that would mean selling the property. We’d both lose.
So much of myself is in this piece of earth. I’ve planted trees and flowers and vegetables, put up fences, hauled water from the creek when the well was low, watched things grow and watched things die.
Other people think we’re happy together. It makes me wonder just how many couples are duping their friends.
How many times I have hated him! He smells up the bathroom. I hate that. And he never seems to know when I want an orgasm, giving me instead words that are supposed to fill that void: I love you. You know that I love you. Fucking is out of the question. He has not had an erection in years. And I am so dry now that I could not tolerate the friction of intercourse. But we do still have a sex life together. I manipulate his penis in my mouth until he has his orgasm, strong still, but without ejaculate. He sucks me, knowing my body so well.
Despite our differences and quirks, I love him. We laugh at each other and at ourselves, make jokes at every horror life inflicts upon us. We stay together because, after forty years, we are best friends.
We met when he was in his mid-thirties and I was twenty-six. We were both still in our second marriages when we fell in lust with each other, a lust tinged with something more, some spell neither of us had expected. We spoke aloud our resolve to stay together. No matter what. Whew.
We share some interests: the desert’s mysteries, duplicate bridge, wanderlust, food, “Star Trek,” reading. When our youngest son died five years ago, we wondered if we could survive. Together, we have. Visits to the cemetery are more meaningful when we go together and hold hands. Sometimes he cries, sometimes I cry. Sometimes we even laugh ruefully, surprised that we are the ones still alive, he at seventy-five, I at sixty-six.
We have stayed together through love affairs with others. We have stayed together as we raised seven children (his and mine and ours). We have stayed together as I recovered from alcoholism. We said we would, and we have.
There’s usually nothing secretive about me. As much as I know about myself, that is what friends and family get. But when I moved out of the house trailer my husband and I had lived in for six years, with the understanding that I was to look for a house to rent and maybe a job in the big city of San Diego, I hadn’t admitted to anyone how stagnant I felt as an artist, as a writer, as a woman. When I got to San Diego, I found all my dreams coming true: employment, friends, wine in the afternoon, springtime smells on morning walks, new sights and sounds. My marriage felt like it belonged on a dead-end street in my past, in the dying town I wanted to leave behind.
My husband soon realized I had left him, and though he still loved me and wanted me back, he was tied to an important job. Meanwhile, I fired up an affair rife with poetry and pot. My lover was intellectual and older, played a guitar, and owned his own business. I discovered music and books I’d never known, and no one derided my new morality. I wanted to take back the vows I’d made to my husband. Wasn’t it enough to want desperately this new man and everything he represented?
But when I got pregnant with my lover’s child, I could not keep to the free path I’d been living. I didn’t have it in me to destroy my husband, who had given me his love, money, time, and energy. We were linked soul to soul by thousands of unbreakable tiny filaments. He’d known about my affair from its beginning, and he cried when I told him about the abortion.
It took a long time for me to lose the addiction to and the pain of that adultery. At last, on a windswept shoreline, as the sun played across the waves, I renewed my vows with my husband, an amazing man who still wanted me, and I slipped my wedding ring back on my finger.
Simi Valley, California
We have a quote hanging in the kitchen: “Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.”
The words have been in our life for as long as I can remember. In our early years, when everything we owned could fit into the back of an old Chevy van, the quote was on a piece of thin blue paper with crumpled edges, tacked to the side of our double bed.
Now, years later, with more things around than I care to admit, the quote is still hanging up, remade with watercolor leaves decorating the paper.
How many times in a year or a week do I wonder why we are still together? The longer I’m in it, the less frequently I ask. We’re more honest now; things that used to take days to resolve now take only hours. Getting emotionally naked isn’t nearly so painful anymore. Sometimes the honesty of it is actually freeing, like taking off a pair of jeans that haven’t fit in years.
I wonder what staying together would feel like without the constant distractions of our children hanging on our legs. It’s a moot question. They’re here and so are we. And I’m relieved that I can be here in spite of the doubt — having finally given up on waiting to be without it.
My first memory of him is of a dangerously wild-eyed, perverted little shit, recklessly trying to hit me with his Stingray bike. Now, thirty years later, he is the only person alive who remembers that I wore cotton panties with little flowers, who knew me when my butt-length hair was cut above my ears by the neighborhood barber.
As teenagers, we led parallel lives of bad acid trips, juvenile hall, overdosing, and drunkenness. Finally, we decided to have sex.
I fell in love. He fell in lust, with me and any other girl who showed interest in his bad-boy, fuck-you attitude. We separated when I was seventeen and, unbeknownst to him, pregnant. I kept track of him through his family, which wasn’t hard, since most of his life has been spent in various California prisons. I wrote to him for years. We’ve each had other relationships, marriages, and children. While there have been gaps in our communication for years at a time, it was never a problem to pick up where we had left off.
After our son turned eighteen, I told his father on the telephone that my son was also his son. He accepted it like an already-known fact of our strange relationship.
Prisons tend to make you anti-social, he told me. You have always been anti-social, I tell him, except with me.
Port Orchard, Washington
Violet and the baby are asleep in the front room. I am in the back room, listening to the toilet trickling. It’s a new morning, and cold. Today I woke up and read Ezra Pound:
As cool as the pale wet leaves of lily-of-the-valley She lay beside me in the dawn. (“Alba”)
Violet and I have always had it hard, as a couple. Two weeks after we met, we almost gave up.
Sometimes food keeps us together, sometimes the war against cockroaches.
“Love” keeps us together, but where does the love come from? Perhaps aliens are sustaining us, for their experiments.
New York, New York
I wear twenty-year-old T-shirts and a sixty-two-year-old coat that was my mother’s, and I coddle a fourteen-year-old Volkswagen van whose rear sags like my own. It creaks and clunks, but still goes, and I take pride in the fact that we both look pretty good for our age.
Despite the advice of experts that a stick of dynamite or can of gasoline is the best approach to remodeling my dilapidated and badly built shack of a home, I accumulate small caches of building materials like a pack rat with a credit card, and I dream of making a solid home that will outlast me and welcome generations of contented, tea-guzzling visitors who will settle into comfortable, well-worn chairs and stay for hours, if not days or months. I write long-winded epistles to legions of people who no longer bother to respond, and I still cherish memories of and occasionally dare to contact old lovers. I seem to lack the ability to dissolve emotional bonds, to let people go and forget them. Like a kid sifting through old baseball cards, I hunker down in my living room periodically and review the faces from my past, recalling shared moments and leafing through the mental files I keep of people’s preferences, families, hopes, and sense of humor. I sip from old coffee mugs and cradle other little friendship gifts from long-ago office mates and business acquaintances.
My relationship with my husband has gone through changes and upheavals, gliding like a canoe on a lake, then grinding at times like the transmission in my aging van. We worked together as well-paid managers and led conventional lives in a sedate, suburban neighborhood for a long time. Then, in a wrenching transition, we sold everything we owned and traveled around Canada, Mexico, and the United States for years. It was a journey of self-discovery: we kept finding out things about ourselves that we would rather not have known. We meant to free ourselves of the tyranny of material possessions and corporate conformity, and explore our previously smothered potential. I would support us by writing, and Jim would teach me how to live gracefully in ecologically sound poverty. In our liberated state, we soon found we were everything we thought we were and less. I was not a great novelist. Jim hated being poor and dreamed of expensive cars. We both worried excessively about money and our lack of medical insurance. And we blamed it all on each other. Nonetheless, we reveled in our adventures and learned to love each other for the empty and disappointing spots we’d thought were full of promise, as much as for the pretty pictures we’d painted of ourselves for so many years.
Since settling into insolvency and the green wetness of southern Oregon, we have gotten accustomed to minimum wage jobs and constant budgetary crises, and have launched a dozen different careers, supporting each other by turns, trying on and reversing roles, and beginning to accept the onset of creeping decrepitude together. We realize that “till death do us part” includes the uncertain road ahead through old age without health or life insurance.
We’ve been together for twelve years now, and our mutual love, liking, and respect have formed an unbreakable bond. But we are hardly serene icons of the Marriage Perfect. Jim is now an over-the-road trucker, as I am when I’m not home cobbling the house back from the brink of disaster. We spend most of our time thousands of miles apart and the strain is sometimes considerable. The smooth flow of our marital fidelity develops an occasional hiccup, as Jim copes with occupational temptations both professional (truck-stop prostitutes) and amateur (lonely female truckers). I am often alone out in the country, female, forty, and fully depreciated, and have more fantasies than opportunities, which is probably just as well. Neither one of us has ever succumbed completely, but sometimes it’s tough to just say no. We laugh about these moments, as when I staggered momentarily under a burst of lust for an attractive contractor who was working with me on our roof. For a moment I thought yearningly, “Right here, right now, on the roof in the sun in the middle of the afternoon!” Then, as I later told Jim, I said to myself, “What am I thinking? He’s happily married, I’m happily married, and these damn shingles are fiberglass!” Despite such episodes, we truckers joke that we’re together for the long haul, and we yearn for each other as earnestly and painfully as any teenaged Romeo and Juliet.
If I have learned anything about myself in the lonely interstices of a thousand rainy nights, it is that coming together and staying together are core principles in my life. I accept my own impermanence, but I don’t believe that people or things are garbage. Like a frustrated metal sculptor, I am constantly picking up diverse pieces from my environment and trying to weld them together with my experiences and reflections into a structure that endures and makes sense. It seems to me that if life is about anything, it is a striving for permanence in the midst of mortality, staying together with the earth, our mates, our friends, our integrity, and our own souls.
Although the divorce was official, I had to see him one more time. A romantic vacation in his new home in Central America helped to hold at bay the avalanche of grief.
It’s easy for outsiders to understand why we broke up: his son’s heroin, bad checks, and suicide; his own self-destructiveness in our last year together. Those practical reasons reassure me during the day. But at night, alone in the dark, I remember the fierce way he loves me, his loyalty, his enormous compassion, his incredible gentleness. Then the reasons we are apart seem insignificant.
I know that I must learn how to give myself what he gave me: love, comfort, support, protection. But I sit here in Connecticut afraid of feeling anything, afraid of becoming lost in an abyss of isolation. Perhaps I’ll be stronger someday because of all this. Perhaps I’ll make a better choice next time. But maybe there won’t be any reward for all this suffering.
I fear I will never get over him. I cannot let go, even though he is thousands of miles away. Right now, nothing would bring me more joy than to see his face in this room.
I am sitting in a hot bath, thinking about the decision I’ve announced: he must give up seeing her, or lose me. I know now what I’m going to do; why don’t I feel at peace?
The next day we are sitting in the counselor’s office discussing the terms of a separation neither of us wants. But I refuse to go on with this arrangement. His affairs have never been a secret, and I know and love the woman he is involved with this time, and the previous one as well. The honesty has sanctioned these affairs somehow — until now.
Five long and lonely nights later, I am crying in my separate bedroom. He comes in and sits down and puts an arm around me. “Would you like to consider a different approach?” he asks. Three hours of talking later, I am in our bed, in his arms, in our love.
After consulting the I Ching for months, I am giving in and listening to its advice: inner truth, perseverance, holding together. We are rebuilding our marriage with new building blocks that include his love for her. This is not the solution I was seeking, nor a situation that can be explained or defended.
I have chosen to trust the universal good that has helped me in this extraordinary relationship for all these years. I have chosen to trust my husband, his love and devotion and integrity. I have chosen to trust my family and friends, knowing I will be understood and misunderstood and that the bottom line will be their love and support for me. Most of all, I have chosen to trust myself, my heart and intuition, my place in the grand scheme of things.
She is immediate. I am eventual.
I sit alone on the floor, back against the couch, stockinged feet warming to the fire, and begin to make a dent in the meal we prepared together. I watch her move across the room, in and out of the kitchen, clinking her plate into the sink. Darting back into the living room, she punches some numbers into the telephone receiver and, dragging the cheap plastic phone mount behind her like a battered tin can behind the “Just Married” car we’ll never ride in together, she talks to her mom while opening the mail, paying the bills, wiping the counter, tossing not-yet-dry dishes into the cupboard. “Oh Mom, you just need to learn how to relax. That’s what your problem is.”
I smile. I wish that she could slow down, savor each moment, cherish not just each precious bite, but also each second of time.
That was more than a month ago, when I first began to feel that perhaps, after two years, the novelty of our hare-and-tortoise relationship was starting to wear off. I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me to learn that for the hare, it already had.
Now she is with someone else, having already forgotten about me. And I’ll forget about her, too.
On January 14, 1993, my partner and I got married after having lived together for almost twenty-one years. I needed health insurance, and he had it. We were already committed to each other for life, and had felt strongly that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” At sixty-four and forty-six, we were apprehensive that marriage might change us. I wrote the following after being married for a week.
I lay awake after J. fell asleep last night and felt something nice about being married, a security. Not that I felt insecure before. I didn’t exactly think he was going to run off and leave me; I sometimes wished he would. No, it’s that the bond between us before, because it was voluntary from day to day, took a certain amount of energy. You had to hold on, to resist with your own strength the centrifugal forces within yourself, in the other, and in the nature of things. This wasn’t even conscious. But getting married transfers the strain of holding together from your arms, as it were, to a stoutly built, almost material container. It’s like you can relax against a wall, knowing that even the natural forces of repulsion can’t drive you apart.
Marriage makes you related, rather than alien. It grafts you together. There is a peace about being part of a larger organism, a relief, that I hadn’t anticipated. In the event of illness or death, for example, we would be there for each other in a way that others and institutions would recognize.
Very curious, since all of this was essentially true before. But now we are two creatures sleeping on the same side of things, fathomlessly allied.
One day Miriam and I were driving through Del Mar, California, the sleepy affluence of the seaside town softening our weary spirits. The Honda was stuffed like a dusty attic with all the necessities of two months on the road. Then, suddenly and without warning, we were submerged in an argument so monstrous that the content was lost almost instantly in the explosion.
I stormed out of the car in a flamboyant rage. I didn’t care if I had to crawl back to Seattle on my knees rather than endure this insanity another second. I took off into the state park nearby, climbing through scrub to the dunes and sea cliffs above. Finally I was alone. It was over.
I rested on a knoll and scanned the horizon. Then I saw, out of nowhere, a young couple in full marital regalia, her white bridal gown sweeping the sandy path, his black top hat and tails a bookmark against the blue ocean sky. With them was an older gentleman in a somber suit, and all of them were walking very determinedly toward me. The young man casually asked if I would photograph their wedding. He handed me his camera.
There I was with the rabbi and his blissful pair, snapping away — zooming in on the young man’s lips as he said, “I do,” on the golden ring as he slipped it onto her finger. The kiss. The breaking of the glass. The fusing of the bond that was to last for eternity. Before long I was submerged in the beginner’s mind of my own marital commitments, my own vows. Then, as the couple embraced, over the next hill came Miriam. She burst out laughing, seeing me standing there a little bewildered, camera in hand, surrounded by such an unlikely trio in this sparse and beautiful place. We moved slowly toward each other, laughing and shaking our heads, and then walked arm-in-arm back to our car.
I was once in a relationship that felt as soft and warm as a nest of newborn puppies. We were perfectly comfortable with each other, and everything had a fuzzy and familiar feel. I hauled myself out of there as fast as possible, fearing I’d lose all my edges, that the map of my life would begin to blur.
Now, in a marriage of ten and a half years, I’m in a nest of porcupines. We’re not alike at all. In fact, our all-time best fight was in a motel in Malibu, both of us raging about something neither of us remembers now. At the height of it, Richard shouted, “Well, I finally realize you’re not me, but I’m not forgiving you for it!”
Lately it’s been harder than ever and better than ever. Harder because we’re older and our bodies ache, and the stress of our work and our lives is the most intense it’s ever been. Harder because all this time has gone by, and we’re still not as easy and happy together as we think we should be — it’s not what the movies tell us to expect. It’s better, though, because we have less pride and more tenderness, and we haven’t lost our sense of humor. There are little romantic miracles of imagination and willingness, like today, Valentine’s Day, writing about “staying together” together. Last night we sat on the couch with our legs interwoven and said some of the hard things, the “it-hurts-me-when-you . . .” things that we used to say only across big rooms. We cried, but we didn’t get lost in it. Richard couldn’t stop shaking, but kept saying it felt good. It does feel good, this loosening, these small walls coming down.
The anger in Mama’s voice reached us from the kitchen, making bird talk out of Andy and Opie and Aunt Bea on our TV. Betts and I slid off the couch and tiptoed to the kitchen doorway.
“So, do we stay together or not?” Daddy’s voice was ragged. He stood near a corner of the table. One of his large hands rested on the yellow formica table top.
Mama sat in her regular place. It was almost supper time, but nothing was cooking. She had two fists on the table in front of her. My sister and I each hugged a side of the door frame. As usual, neither of them noticed us.
“If you want me to go, I will, Sapphy.” Daddy’s voice was low, and the way it sounded made chill bumps come up all over me.
At first we thought Mama was not going to answer. We had seen her get quiet after an argument before. It made mealtimes miserable, but didn’t usually last long. When she clammed up you knew just to leave her alone until she got over it.
“Don’t call me Sapphy,” she said. “Don’t ever call me that again.” Then the stiffness drained out of her, and she took a long, trembly breath. Betts and I looked at each other. Betts was six and her eyes were all teary. I was ten, so I just shrugged and my eyes stayed dry.
“Children,” Mama said, looking at us, studying each of our faces. “Go to the living room and shut the door. Your father and I need to talk.”
When he came into the living room a long time later, Daddy told us Mama had a headache and was going to bed, and that he’d take us to the Dairy Queen for a cheeseburger.
“Mama is really mad at you, huh, Daddy?” Betts asked. I didn’t say anything, but I knew it was more than just being mad.
Daddy closed his eyes and frowned, like he too had a bad headache. “Yes,” he said, “your daddy has done something very, very stupid and hurt your mama’s feelings.”
Betts looked at him for a minute, then asked, “Did you say you were sorry?”
He almost laughed. “Yes, ma’am. I sure did.” Then he sighed.
“Then won’t it be all right?”
“I hope so, honey.”
There were other arguments over the years, but we never again heard anything about not staying together. And I never again heard Daddy call my mother by her pet name. My parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary before Daddy died of a heart attack at seventy-one.
We stayed together, but that crack in my childhood ideal of home and family never quite healed; it ached like a bad bruise every time my parents argued. I carry it with me as an adult who argues. I see it in my son’s eyes when he comes on his every-other-weekend visits.
Jean Langston Burgess
Lake City, South Carolina