Sometimes something entirely magical just happens. Like you’re waiting in a long line of traffic, and this vaguely John Cusack-ish guy 2 cars in front of you opens his door and climbs out of the driver’s seat into the street and just stands there for a second, and your internal alarms start buzzing and you eye your surroundings for possible escape routes, but then he throws his head back, feet spread wide, arches his back, and triumphantly fist-pumps the sky. Then he jumps back in his car right as the light changes, and we all inch forward laughing, glad he got the girl or the job or the part, tickled to’ve been extras in his own personal “Say Anything”.
Fudge: “Mommy, can we have popcorn tonight?” [answer always no}
Fudge: “Really? YAY!”
Me: “Because an 8-yr-old died today. And fuck it.”
Rick: [nodding assent]
Heartfelt to Boston. Love to all.
By happenstance, I stayed up until 1:15 this morning finishing Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Somehow, I’d never read Yates before, and although I’m completely floored by his genius, I can understand why he’s not wildly popular. The book is a brutal, brutal dissection of married life. But it suddenly occurred to me it’s the perfect read for today, as the Supreme Court hears arguments on Proposition 8 and reflects on the very underpinnings of “traditional marriage” in our society.
Marriage is an intensely, almost preposterously personal endeavor between two adults, one filled with benign secrets and little lies; small compromises and bigger accommodations; a tremendous amount of love, and yes, a little bit of hate, the scale and breadth of which remain largely unrevealed to its participants before undertaking it.
I looked up the word “endeavor” and found the first definition was “attempt”, a perfect description of the current state of traditional matrimony. To attempt is to try, and even with the best of intentions, many attempts end in failure. “We tried but we just didn’t make it.” How many times have you heard such sentiments in movies, on TV, in books, in real life? I’m not here to disparage aborted marital endeavors, because I believe it’s true the alternative is sometimes worse. People marry for the wrong reasons, or even for the right ones, and find themselves unhappy, and that’s okay.
Because the “golden era” of marriage so surgically depicted by Yates left a good many men and even more women feeling trapped into marriage by judgmental notions of love and premarital relations, by societal pressures and workplace discrimination, by ill-timed pregnancies and the accompanying threat of ostracism. This was not a magical time, folks, and if this is your idea of the “foundation” on which our country was built, then you may need to consider having a contractor come in and take a closer look, because that shit is crumbling and on the verge of real collapse.
Marriage is difficult and beautiful, painful and exhilarating, but above all, marriage today is very, very much a personal choice. A choice, to take the hand of this person and edge out onto a ledge, a ledge that widens and thins without warning, leaving you dizzily euphoric or unsteadily teetering, sometimes holding on by just one or two fingernails. If you’re lucky, you feel your partner’s firm clasp mercifully enclose your wrist and pull you back up. But even if you drop, even if you spiral downward, failing in your endeavor, the danger is really only to you, to you and your private family unit, whatever that may consist of.
And if anybody, anybody is willing to take that kind of chance on love, on hurt, on triumph and failure, then they’ve certainly earned the right to call it a marriage. Gay or straight, they deserve the societal benefits that accompany a mutual decision to singular commitment. It’s time we repoured the foundation, and let love build the rest.
I can’t stop thinking about this guy’s face. If you’re local, you’ve probably seen him at that busy intersection of Ponce and Highland near the Majestic. He’s not young but not old, milk-coffee-complexioned, professorial in glasses and an old-fashioned navy cloth windbreaker. He uses his long legs to propel his wheelchair backwards, tippy-toeing hard into the ground while looking back over his shoulder, sometimes down the sidewalk, sometimes nerve-rackingly across the street. It looks exhausting, but from the set of his mouth and furrow of his brow you can tell he’s determined to make it happen. I always wonder about him, about his disability, where he lives and if anyone helps.
Today I was stopped at the light, idly staring at the blind woman from the checkout line at Publix, still in her uniform and waiting to use the crosswalk. I chat with her sometimes when she’s bagging my groceries, but the truth is I avoid her if I see her before choosing a lane, because she takes forever to do the job, reaching out and patting the receiving area off the conveyer belt, assessing items, searching for bags and so on. I never know how much to help, if I should say, “You missed some fruit over there to your right — no, down a little!” or “Watch your hand, here comes a big bag of dog food!” or if maybe that’s insulting and I should just leave her be. But I worry she’ll smush the bread or spill the cleaners, and I imagine us as a bad SNL skit, the inept bagger and the horrified housewife (I’m usually Aykroyd in drag). I want to laugh and then feel terrible and silently vow to purposely seek out her lane next time, my intention already fading as I remind myself I’m really in a hurry, even as my heart recognizes I’d just rather not deal.
She was standing on the corner with her cane, waiting for the light to change, and her normally pulled-back brown hair was loose and flapping over her face in the wind, wavy where she’d taken out the ponytail holder then trailing off into long split ends. I noticed her skin for the first time, pale with angry red tulips creeping up the sides of her cheeks. She probably lived in that high-rise across the street, an old brick building with depressing florescent hallways and dented metal doors that secreted the melancholy cheer of daytime tv and the boiled turnip smell of the perpetually homebound.
I’d been there before, long ago, delivering boxed meals to AIDs patients during a lost post-college year, between jobs and before children, nights disappearing in swirls of smoke and bourbon, days stretched long with consuming self-doubt and aimless future angst. AIDs was still pretty much a death sentence then, and I’d wanted to help somehow, imagining grateful Hepburn eyes protruding from sharp-boned faces, maybe the clasping of one veiny roped hand over mine, a stoic nod confirming I’d done all I could. Instead, I stumbled into pill-cluttered tabletops and added more boxes to styrofoam-filled refrigerators, tripped over gnarled webs of extension cords and weaved around wheeled tanks, smiling and discreetly holding my breath, the stench of leaking urine and lurking death bleakly terrifying. The appreciative charges of my imagination turned out to be indifferent or sometimes openly hostile to my breezy comings and goings. There were grouchy directives from dank couches; resentful, hollowed-out stares in response to my phonily cheerful greetings; mocking half-smiles, gazes trained on TVs, as I brightly asked if they needed anything else. What they needed was everything else. They refused to indulge my little charade because they already knew my sad secret: I wanted to get the hell away from them as fast as my limbs could run.
I snapped back into focus as the man’s chair scuttled into my peripheral vision, tail-end first and weirdly crablike. He did a kind of parallel park move next to the blind Publix lady, and sat for a second, breathing heavily, glancing around and recomposing himself. Sensing another presence, he tilted his chin up and to the right, taking her in. And in that moment his entire face seemed to collapse at once and then soften, emotions shadowing across it with the intensity of a Broadway star playing to the back row. From across the street, I swear I witnessed the record of his life, the story of hers. I saw pity and love, sorrow and recognition, and such a deep-bone tiredness it felt as if his whole body sighed. I knew there was no “not dealing” for them, no running away, no running anywhere, ever. His face hardened again before he turned back to the flashing crosswalk sign, staring vacantly until the light changed. And I drove away, lying to myself I’d do better, as they tapped and toed into the intersection, out of my rearview mirror.
We fought all the way to dinner. By the time we spotted the sushi restaurant, on our second crawl through the night’s third uninspired suburban strip mall parking lot, I was mentally filing for divorce. How had we missed it, sandwiched between a Kroger and an “Irish Pub”, its windows generously bedecked in pink neon cursive and Liberace curtains? I silently vowed to ruin our night at all costs. I wanted the meal to suck, hoped we’d get food poisoning and die so he’d see how awful he was, dragging us 20 miles up the highway to some “authentic” shithole for my one night out of the house, my chance to be pampered, my time to be alone with this person I currently loathed.
We argued as the hostess brought menus, traded eye daggers as we placed our drink order, sneered straight-backed and cross-armed as we listened to the night’s specials. He threatened to walk out, so I rolled my eyes and gestured theatrically toward the door, maintaining a newly-settled-on monastic silence. It seemed to irritate him most. I declined to participate in dinner selection, pretending I didn’t care while raising a hostile eyebrow to every suggestion.
The first dish arrived, and to my extreme dismay, it was perfect. My husband became annoyingly animated, enthusing smugly over each bite. I did my best to remain dignified, struggling to maintain a flat affect as each flavor-melding, tongue-melting mouthful hit my palate. I vainly hoped the dish was a fluke, but when the second course arrived I knew I was beat. I was going to inhale every dish around me and then beg, drooling, for more. My plan was in shambles. I hadn’t come here to have fun, goddammit.
It’s true that marriage is filled with loads of seething rage, impotent threats and called-out bluffs. At a certain point, you know one another inside-out, which makes it a lot harder to fuck with each other. I mean, what good is a dramatic storm-out-of-the-restaurant moment when both of you know you’ll wind up sheepishly heading back in the same car, to the same house, to the same room, the same bed? And how can you sustain an icy silence with four kids at home, demanding to be fed and clothed, helped with homework and hollered at?
Marriage is forced teamwork, character-building in the manner of a middle school group science project, where you resentfully assume no one else is doing their fair share while simultaneously schluffing off as much work as possible. It’s being paired up even as you try mightily to avoid each other, the square dancing partner you keep getting twirled off to in 7th grade gym class.
But teamwork has its rewards. As the saké begins to works its magic, I feel my shoulders loosening slightly, my body shifting forward a little in my seat before I think too much about it. My husband uses his utensils to buttress the tiny green chili that keeps sliding out of my grasp, and finally I manage to pick it up, our chopsticks crossing companionably over the plate. We continue in silence as I dollop a little wasabi onto my dish, checking to see if he needs more before setting it back down. I notice he’s eating around the pieces he thinks I’ll like best, even though I know he likes them too.
A heavily-perfumed woman, with overdone makeup and underdone clothing, makes a big production of getting situated beside us, and my husband facetiously widens his eyes and purses his lips at me. It’s a cheap target, but we’re on the same side again. He squeezes my hand and laughs as I remind him he’s still an asshole. The waiter looks relieved as he steps in to refill our saké glasses. Might as well have fun, goddammit.
My father died with sugar in the bottom of his coffee cup. I can’t remember how I know this - who would’ve told me? - but some details just stay with you.
The day it happened, like every other day, he walked up the driveway in his robe and slippers and retrieved the daily paper. It was his habit to heat the sugar and milk in his mug before adding coffee, but on this particular day, he didn’t get that far. Instead he wound up on the hardwood floor, gently correcting my frantic mother for placing the wrong kind of aspirin on his tongue. Baby aspirin, it turns out, is easier to swallow during a heart attack.
My father was a gifted doctor, and we all marveled at his ability to diagnose any ailment with spare, well-placed questions, even over the phone. He surely knew what was happening to his body that nondescript January morning, and I find it comforting, imagining him issuing directives to my mother from the ground. Perhaps it calmed him, treating himself, the illusion of control enough to begin relinquishing it. As a doctor, maybe he simply recognized a patient who couldn’t be saved.
From the days surrounding his death, I recall nothing and everything. The world splintered into silence and noise, color and shadow, fog and lucidity. My father was alive, making coffee, and then he wasn’t.
The second call came as I waited in line at the airport, trying to get home. My brother’s voice broke over the line: “He didn’t make it. He just didn’t make it.” I felt myself stumble around roped-off plastic poles, faces melding as I pushed my way back to the curb and collapsed onto my bag. I put my face between my knees and pulled my coat up over my head, yearning for darkness, smallness, nothingness. It felt safer to feel alone. Eventually I became aware of a hand prodding my shoulder. Still and focused as a shuttered horse, I tested the words, words my heart screamed were lies, on the nervously hovering Delta employee: “My father is dead.” I stared with wet, stony eyes as her stern face crumbled, glad to wound someone, anyone.
The rest comes in snippets. In the middle seat on the plane, cutting off an affable fellow mid-sentence by putting on headphones, unable or unwilling to share the truth with a new stranger. Stepping onto the escalator, an involuntary snort escaping my nose and lungs as I heard my oldest brother say into the phone, “I’ve got you. I’m here. I see you.” The silver-haired gentleman watching us embrace, eyes telegraphing compassion, face reflecting experiential knowledge. My brother and I, talking over each other in the rental car, laughing with giddy urgency, as if any remaining joy had to be crammed into these moments before arriving home, before grief swallowed us whole.
Once, about a year later, my dead father came to me. I wasn’t asleep. I’d just turned off the lamp and taken off my glasses, and was curling up sideways in bed. The bathroom door was cracked, and light streamed around the doorframe, dusty like rays from an old school projector. For no reason, I knew in my bones it was him.
He just stayed like that, inanimate, a door. But whatever made Dad “Dad” originated and emanated from the wood, transforming it into something soft and light and malleable. I thought maybe I should get up, but something about the whole experience made me feel so peaceful I just stayed where I was. When I was little, afraid of shadows in the night, I’d reach behind my headboard, banging on the wall separating our rooms until he came to soothe me back to sleep. He’d sit on my bed, waiting until I calmed down, and then he’d leave again. The next time I opened my eyes, the door was just a door.
A wall, a door, a death. Who’s to know if what separates us is permanent. I once saw a photograph of a bicyclist, moments after a fatal crash. It was grainy newspaper print, black and white. The rider was curled up fetus-style, the surrounding pavement darker and wetter and somehow warmer, for all the world like a womb. He looked pure - untroubled and untouchable. It made me think of space and time, but not of death. Years later, I came across the photo again, this time in color, and saw that the road was actually smeared thick with blood. All of the beauty had vanished.