The Fundamental Things: The times and tides of 33 years of marriage
By Roberta Israeloff
The day after our thirty-third wedding anniversary, my husband is putting his socks on. It’s six a.m. Up since 5:30—those who work in the public schools keep farmers’ hours—he’s already showered and selected what he’s going to wear. Only one light in the bedroom is lit against the pre-dawn September morning.
I’m up too, sort of. I had a restive night, falling into my deepest sleep between the alarm going off and now. I’m trying to hold on to the fragments of my most recent dreams, to remain in that suspended state, to keep the endless list of chores—pay the AmEx bill, pick up the prescriptions, email that report—from unscrolling like endless movie credits.
How many mornings have I studied the curve in David’s back? How many times have I smiled to myself at the way his mouth hangs slack as he ties his shoes, as if the task requires attention beyond his mustering? As he loops his belt on, I remember how Jake, our younger son, used to pad into our room about now to help Daddy with the buckle. How many times, I wonder, have we made love? (If anyone could calculate this accurately, David could.) For 34 years, we’ve been faithful, if you don’t count a few extracurricular kisses here and there on both sides, the memory of the actual faces and lips, even the circumstances, once so forbidden and thrilling, fading into dusty, dry oblivion.
As he pulls up the window shades before going downstairs to make breakfast, I see that the sky is as crystalline as the day of our wedding—which was extremely lucky because I’d insisted that it take place in my parents’ backyard. Our guests were treated to a buffet lunch and a jazz trio shuffling through the standards. I chose “As Time Goes By” as our first dance.
Neither of us knew the first thing about ballroom dancing; we basically swayed in place, feeling like two kids playing dress-up, wishing others would join us. But only David’s great-uncle Frankie sauntered up to us, martini in hand. He was a wedding-band leader and a clarinetist.
“Lemme tell you something,” he said to me. “The next time you get married, you have my band play.”
David smiled. “The next time she gets married, Frankie,” he said, “I don’t think you’ll be invited.”
I switch on my night table lamp, though I have no intention of getting up yet. I’m comfortable in bed, don’t have to be at the gym for another hour, and like listening to David rattle around in the kitchen. It’s reassuring to hear the same sounds each day, especially after the huge fight we had last night. It flared up out of nowhere, before we had a chance to douse it, during a game of Boggle with friends. I thought the scoring system he proposed fostered competition, so I became more competitive, and then I felt that he derided me, in front of our friends, for caring too much about my score. We remained civil until they left, and then erupted.
“You set a trap for me,” I screamed at him, after saying many other things and hearing back more than I wanted to.
“Why would I do that?” he asked. Until that moment, we’d both been sitting bolt upright on opposite sides of the bed, arms folded across our chests. But then he turned on his side, leaning on his arm, his head in his palm, to look up at me. The question stopped me cold. He didn’t completely understand how I felt, and I couldn’t understand how he felt, but I knew that he didn’t want to trap me, or hurt me.
“Let’s end this,” I said. I touched his hand, he squeezed my fingers, and the fight was over.
At 6:15, the phone rings—Ben, our older son, also a teacher, walking to work. He apologizes for not calling on our anniversary proper, and asks how we celebrated. “We played Boggle,” David says.
“I’m sorry it wasn’t more special,” Ben says, sounding a bit disappointed for us. “Did you at least give each other presents?”
“Mom gave me the best gift yet,” David says. “She told me I didn’t have to give her an anniversary card.” A musician, he always found writing cards onerous.
“I released him—not only this year but every year hereafter—because he gave me the best gift ever: a playlist of about a hundred songs I love so much that as soon as I hear the opening chord, I have to say, ‘Oh God, I love that song.’”
“That’s so cool,” Ben says. “You know, of all my friends’ parents, you’re the only ones who still like each other. . . .”
Ben’s 28, his brother 23, and both voiced a version of this. “Don’t idealize us,” is what I always want to say in turn. Maybe we didn’t do him and his brother any favors when we learned to fight quietly, behind closed doors, the same way we had sex. I mumble something about how we’re not perfect, about there being no such thing as a perfect couple, about how you also have to be lucky.
“But how do you know who you have the best chance with?” Ben asks. He’s been dating the same person for about six months, and I gather it’s time to take the next step . . . or not.
He has to hang up before I can answer, not that my usual answer is much help. “Look for someone who appreciates you” is the advice I frequently offer—someone from whom you don’t have to hide yourself. Look for the potential to grow together. Look for a partner with whom you experience headroom—a musical term, which, to me, evokes walking into a high-ceilinged room with a view, one in which you can stretch and breathe and explore.
That advice sounds vague, verging on useless. There’s no way to help anyone else work through the thicket of existential doubt. Three months after our wedding, a close friend wrote to say that she was incredibly anxious about her upcoming marriage. Who isn’t? I wrote back to her, describing how I couldn’t sleep for a month, and when I did, I dreamt of monsoons washing out our ceremony. We all go through it, I told her. It’ll pass. Six months later, she and her husband separated and soon divorced. Who’s to say?
I hear the fridge open; David’s rooting around for the orange juice. The roughest patch in our marriage, I think, watching the sky lighten, occurred when Ben was two. I knew David hadn’t been happy—both of us felt trapped in a tiny apartment with a demanding toddler and not enough time or money to soothe ourselves. But one afternoon, he returned from his internship looking as if he might cry. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” he said. “I’ve been thinking that I should get my own apartment.”
Feeling as if I were having a seizure, I made an emergency appointment with my therapist. A day later, facing her, I repeated David’s statement word for word and asked, “Do you think he’ll really leave me?”
She took a deep breath. “I don’t know,” she said. She said it compassionately, but it wasn’t what I expected her to say, and that’s when I realized how grave my situation really was. I went back home, not knowing what to expect. David still seemed unhappy, but never mentioned the apartment again. Life went on. A few months later, he received the gift of two free tickets to a Giants football game and asked if I wanted to go. We deposited Ben with my parents, bundled up, and sat in the freezing cold clinging to each other. Driving home that night, stalled in terrible traffic, he reached over and squeezed my shoulder. We’d come through.
And the damndest thing about that episode, I think to myself, wondering if I should get out of bed and sit with David for a few minutes before he leaves for work, is that I’m the only one who recalls it. About a year ago, we were walking in the city near where we used to live. “Remember that time, soon after Ben was born, when you said you had to move out, that you needed your own space?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I don’t.”
He’d never said anything as astonishing. “You mean to tell me that you forgot that whole conversation?”
“I guess so,” he said. “I was never going to leave you. I just felt boxed in. I must not have known how else to say it.”
“It could’ve gone the other way,” I said. “You could’ve left. The marriage could’ve broken up. It happens.”
“But it didn’t,” he said.
Downstairs, he’s smelling the milk to make sure it’s still fresh. He’s about to ask me where the jam is, but then he finds it. I can see it all as if I’m sitting at the kitchen table.
Three weeks before our wedding, we went away for the weekend, renting a tiny, Spartan cabin on an Adirondack lake. We read, listened to music, swam, and one afternoon, went to play badminton at the community court. I’d played it throughout high school and college; it was the only competitive sport at which I could hold my own. Sometime during our first game, David hit the shuttlecock so that it landed on the far side of the line. “Out,” I said.
“Really?” David said. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure? What do you mean, am I sure? If I said it was out, it was out.” We walked toward each other, facing each other through the net. Why was he asking me this? Didn’t he trust me? Or was it a larger question, one neither of us had ever asked of each other before. Were we sure? How could anyone be sure? Could we still get out of this, return the presents, go our separate ways?
Listening to David find a paper bag to put his lunch in, I try to remember what emboldened me to marry him—what I felt I knew—and all I can come up with is that I liked spending time with him. It seemed like a pretty flimsy reason even then, when I was 25, to take such a huge step. He didn’t seem to have many prospects, a term my parents probably used. In fact, years later, a good friend told me she couldn’t believe I married someone who seemed so unambitious, so lacking in professional potential. But no matter how much time we spent together, he never learned anything about me that made him turn away. There was nothing we couldn’t talk about, nothing that we couldn’t fit into an ongoing narrative.
I’m still in bed, my pillows perfectly arranged, as comfortable as I ever am, still staving off thinking about the day. Downstairs, David’s making another cup of coffee, this one for me. He’ll pour it into a thin metal thermos for me to drink at my desk, three hours from now, when I return from the gym. Next, he’ll check to see how the Asian stock markets closed.
I open my book; this is my prime reading time. After a page, I hear David checking to make sure the stove is off, the windows locked. Suddenly, I reach for the red and black silk bathrobe, the one I bought for him but which has, somehow, become mine. The way it flutters as I put it on reminds me of the canopy we stood under during our wedding—one of our shared religion’s most perfect symbols. Our fathers and two beloved uncles held it for us when we exchanged vows; and now we have to hold it for one another.
It’s oceanic, our 33-year-old marriage, inexorably tidal, ingesting all that’s swept up on its shore, even refuse, even toxins, licking them up and whisking them away, always renewing itself, using even that which seems harmful as a source of nourishment, of fertility. There’s no gift we can give each other, or anything we can say to each other, that we don’t already have or know. All we have to do is not keep score, I think, as I go downstairs to keep him company.
Roberta Israeloff is a freelance writer who lives and teaches writing in East Northport, New York. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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