A popular chain bookstore is about the worst place to be in the thick of the post-holiday rush. People with newly acquired gift cards pack the aisles and checkout lanes, sullying what’s usually a casual browsing experience. Where there was once plenty of room to linger over hardbacks and oversized coffee table books, I was now shoulder to shoulder with bustling strangers. Then, somewhere between glancing at The Economist and an enchanting book on home décor, I looked up and realized something: I’d lost my husband. My eyes darted up and down the aisle. Wasn’t he just here? I wondered.
I turned to face the maze of bookshelves, endcaps, and corner nooks. Even though the store was packed, I was confident I’d find him. After all, this place was like a second home to me. I knew it like the back of my hand. The magazines cozied up to the café, with its cafeteria-style seating. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted over patrons, lost in their paperback reveries. The rest of the store felt like an Old World library, shelves stretching skyward.
When I’d lived in the area years ago, I’d been a faithful patron. I’d rendezvoused here for dates when I was single, and met friends in the café for coffee. The bookstore was my go-to place when I was bored. Most times when I visited, I wasn’t even looking for anything in particular. “Just browsing,” I’d tell the helpful booksellers.
Ugh, I was supposed to be enjoying this time, I thought, annoyed. But as bothered as I was, the truth is that I’d lost my husband, Harry, long before we got here.
You’d think nearly 10 years of marriage means you know each other’s every move, but it’s funny how the longer you walk with someone, the easier it is to fall out of step. In those early days, we were a typical twosome, eager to do everything and anything together. We complemented each other. I was fresh out of college and tended to dress in a T-shirt and jeans, no matter the occasion. Harry was older, but not by much, and was comfortable in a button-down and khakis. As opposed to most of the guys in my crowd, he was clean-shaven and didn’t have a single tattoo. We were quite the sight when we went out, but we didn’t care. We were lost in our own world.
Harry had also visited this bookstore many times before. He loves nonfiction and magazines. I love everything, from the music section in the back of the store to the colorful bookmarks at the checkout counters. Back in the day, even if we wandered away from each other to pursue our respective literary interests, we met in the middle every time, usually with a cup of coffee in hand. Being so attuned to each other in those early days of dating meant we always knew where the other person was.
But that was then. Now, there are kids, a mortgage, two full-time careers, aging parents, and a never-ending to-do list that pull on us daily. A marriage filled with romance slowly gave way to one built around responsibilities. That’s why our annual post-Christmas getaway, just the two of us, had always felt important. And that’s how we’d found ourselves at the bookstore after having dropped the kids off at their grandparents’ house.
Since our dating years, the area had exploded with every chain restaurant imaginable, dive bars, and countless tiny shops. Surely we’ll find something fun to do, I’d thought. Maybe grab a cup of coffee to go, like old times.
Coming off the highway, Harry had rolled the steering wheel around with an open palm. “So where do you want to go?” he’d asked flatly.
I’d come to loathe that question. Date nights where I’d felt wined and dined were far in the rearview mirror, and now most of our outings involved driving around someplace fairly familiar and being asked if I had any ideas. I always felt pressured to come up with something good. After all, if I’m unhappy with the results, then there’s no one to blame but myself.
We exchanged the usual rounds: “How about that place?” “Nah.” “What about that one?” “Meh, I don’t know.”
Soon the bookstore had come into view, and we’d both nodded. We’d agreed on something! A Christmas miracle.
As soon as we’d walked in, Harry had made a beeline for the magazine section. I’d followed. As we’d stared at the rack, I’d picked up a copy of Better Homes and Gardens, and Harry had reached for the latest issue of Guns and Ammo.
“If this isn’t a metaphor, then I don’t know what is,” I mumbled to myself. Then, moments later, I’d looked up to find Harry gone.
The first place I thought to look for him was in the psychology section. My husband is a therapist, and our home is filled with books written by psychotherapy’s great minds. But having books and knowing therapy approaches is one thing. Fixing your own marriage? That’s another.
I randomly pulled a book from the shelf, Healing from Infidelity, and quickly nestled it back into place. Nope, that’s not the problem, I thought. I wished it was that simple. Some relationships implode due to a cataclysmic event. Not ours. Ours felt like it was dissolving, slowly fading into the atmosphere until only tiny particles remained—and then, before we’d know it, nothing at all.
No More Fighting! another title called out. I shook my head. I couldn’t recall our last heated exchange, although we still had them occasionally. It was more like lots of little disagreements, or offhanded comments that made the other person bristle. There were tense conversations, particularly after the 2016 election, when we realized we weren’t nearly as politically compatible as we’d once thought. Our values seemed to drift further and further away with each passing year. So no, there wasn’t fighting, per se. I knew that all the psychology experts in this section would tell me it’s common for people in a long-term relationship to drift apart, but knowing that brought me no comfort. After all, I’d literally lost my husband. Our drifting apart wasn’t a metaphor.
I turned the corner and peeked in the Young Adult section, even though there was a slim chance I’d find Harry there. He rarely reads fiction, let alone young adult fiction, but my ears picked up a conversation happening between a tall, lanky man, probably in his 20s, and a young woman with wire-rimmed glasses, her hair in a fuchsia-colored bob. He had that hipster, vinyl-and-paperback vibe I’d been drawn to many years ago. I’d met a dozen different versions of him in bookstores before. Guys like this linger here, waiting to wax philosophical with someone with whom they can, as Angelica Schuyler once said, “match wits.” This gentleman had found such a match.
“So what are you writing right now?” he asked the young woman.
She leaned awkwardly on the bookshelf, her tiny frame anchored by a pair of big black Doc Martens boots with thick soles. “Oh, it’s not done yet,” she said sheepishly.
“I’d still love to hear about it,” the man replied.
She went on to describe an unreliable narrator troubled by a haunting past. I could almost picture the female hero, fighting against a patriarchal regime and her own demons. I leaned in to hear a bit more. It was her New Year’s resolution to complete the story and submit it to a writing contest. I was kind of impressed, but not nearly as much as the hipster. When she downplayed her ability to get published, he quickly countered.
“You should definitely pursue publishing,” he said. “Your voice is so unique. People need to hear your perspective. I mean, I just met you and I want to read your book already!”
They both laughed. I smiled before a hint of sadness warmed my eyes. I’m self-aware enough to know when I’m romanticizing a situation. I knew these were strangers, and I’d only eavesdropped on a snippet of their meeting. But still, I longed for their moment, when you can feel someone’s enthusiasm for you. There’s a rush when you look into someone’s eyes for the first time and wonder, Did you just get me? I wondered when Harry and I had stopped seeing each other like this.
Well, he’s definitely not here, I thought. So I moved on.
At this point, I wondered if I should ask for help, but shoved the idea down as soon as it came up. Why would I do that? I thought. How embarrassing would it be for the bookseller to announce over the PA system: “Harry, your wife is looking for you in the romance section!” What grown adult loses another grown adult in a store? I know this place, I thought. I should be able to find him on my own.
I began to wonder if that’s how Harry felt the last time—of many times—I’d asked him to go to marriage counseling. The signs that we were growing more and more disconnected had begun to show years ago, and even though most relationship experts suggest an annual “wellness visit,” we never went.
Ironically, Harry’s being a therapist made it even worse. Have you ever tried to get a therapist to see another therapist? It’s like asking Malcolm Gladwell to take a college writing course. We’d had one disastrous attempt at couples counseling after our first child was born, after which Harry went on and on about how the therapist had no treatment plan or modality to work from. To be fair, he wasn’t wrong.
Time went on, and the divide between us grew. Last fall, the last time I pressed for us to go back to counseling, he finally admitted he wasn’t ready to talk about some of our bigger issues. In a way, I appreciated his honesty: he knows the vulnerability that good therapy requires and is self-aware enough to know he isn’t ready to go there yet.
But it’s left us to tend to our relationship alone. Together, yes, but still alone. So, we’ve simply continued to take care of our daily responsibilities of work and children. Amid days filled with domestic, career, home-improvement, and social obligations, ours was a quiet crisis, desperately needing attention but shouted down by everything else.
I’d walked every aisle twice. I’d checked the cookbook nook, the bargain bins. I’d even spotted the young man and woman as they left the store—not together. She was holding hands with someone else, presumably the boyfriend she’d arrived with and had wandered away from. I watched the vinyl-and-paperback hipster steal a quick glance at the woman. I felt bad for him. Perhaps we’d both had an imaginary love story in our heads.
Just when I was starting to think Harry had disappeared into the shelves and maybe I should just text him to admit defeat, I found him.
He’d been in the most obvious place all along: the café. I rolled my eyes. Of course he’d be reading magazines in the café! I thought. After all, that was his favorite bookstore activity. I wondered what else about him had slipped my mind, and for a moment, my anxiety soared.
Harry didn’t notice that I’d found him. His head was down, the brim of his cap low. When he’s reading, he can tune out the entire world. It’s something I’ve always admired about him. At no point had his eyes been nervously scanning the store as mine had been. He’d been absent for my entire existential marital crisis, blissfully absorbed in something else.
I decided to leave him there. He looked content, if not consumed. My breathless exclamation of “There you are!” would do nothing except jolt him out of his happy place. And despite my shaky feelings about us, about our marriage, I still love to see him happy. Maybe that’s part of the problem: we hold our joy and suffering in silence. Since he’d found something to occupy his time, I figured I should do the same. So I went back to browsing and let him be. We’re still not exactly where I want us to be, but now I knew where he was. Some days, that’s enough.
Campbell Gregson is a nom de plume.
Illustration by Adam Niklewicz