It was a weird summer.
In my last blog called “The Empty Your Bucket List,” I set the intention to slow down; to step away from the grinding pace and endless To-Do lists that ruled my life. I stayed true to my word.
We lazed about in the hammock,
Collected shells on the beach,
and watched a movie under the stars.
I expected to feel peaceful and content. But I didn’t. Because this summer I learned that when you empty your bucket, your are forced to see what is inside. Your life spills out onto the pavement and you examine the contents with a magnifying glass.
Nothing bad really happened. Ok, a little something happened. But it was far from catastrophic. It wasn’t even a big deal. But somehow this non-event caused the tectonic plates of my marriage to shift, and the walls of our new and shakily built life in PA to fall down around us.
July 4th was our 10th wedding anniversary.
Phil and I said no gifts. “Let’s save it for the
money pit house,” we agreed. The dining room ceiling was buckling from water damage caused by an unidentified leak, and a dark, amoeba shaped water stain was spreading across the wall of the mud room.
I felt good about the decision to conserve; proud, even. This is what people married a decade do, I thought. They make responsible choices. Couples married for ten years forgo gifts and fancy dinners to save for a downstairs bathroom.
It was raining on July 4th. I went for a run and then after my shower – wearing a robe and detox-face mask – curled back in bed with a book while the girls watched Lady and the Tramp. I couldn’t remember the last time I allowed myself this simple pleasure. I was relieved we had opted to keep the day low-key.
But Phil doesn’t follow the rules.
Typically, I love this about him – his refusal to conform, his resistance to being told what to do. But this summer was different. I needed us to be a united front, to show the girls that we can build a life anywhere as long as we work together. I needed us to say what we mean and mean what we say.
I was two pages into my book when he came into the bedroom and unceremoniously handed me a small box.
Inside was a ring. An expensive, sparkly ring that was much flashier than anything I would choose myself. I looked up and gave him what I intended to be a quizzical look, but my face was paralyzed by my blue detox mask.
“But,” I mumbled, the clay cracking on my face, “how can we afford this?”
“I know we said no gifts,” he said, his voice fast and nervous. “But then I felt bad and….anyway, try it on.”
I did. It was two sizes too big. “It’s just a loaner,” he assured me.
“They loaned you a ring? So I can wear it to the Oscars?” I was joking…but not really.
“I figured you could go back on your own and pick something you want.”
What I want?
What I want is a downstairs powder room so Phoebe will stop peeing on the steps. What I want is to understand how we don’t have the money for the soft toilet paper but we have money for diamonds. What I want is for my husband to know that I hate surprises, and that all I want is feel safe and settled. I want him to say, “Hey, this is all going to work out. The house, you, me, the girls….we are going to be ok.” What I want is to read my damn book.
But I couldn’t say these things. The words were caught somewhere deep inside, tangled up with a million other conflicting emotions. I wanted to love the ring, because I love the man that gave it to me. Shouldn’t that be enough?
But all that ran through my mind was how can we afford this but not a powder room? Does he think I’m dumb? AM I dumb?
But I didn’t say this, because I don’t make money and he does. I didn’t say anything because my lack of involvement in our finances is embarrassing. I didn’t say anything, because I was stunned and am not quick on my feet when it comes to emotional processing. My typical strategy is push things down until they inevitably come back up. I call it Soul Puke.
I told him to take it back, that we couldn’t afford it. So, he did. Then we tried to let it go. Move on.
But we couldn’t move on. The ring went back to the jeweler, but it’s memory remained – a pink elephant that followed us around and slept in the center of our bed each night.
You, my dear reader, may be thinking: “What’s the big deal?”
An expensive -albeit poorly chosen – anniversary gift is a First World Problem at its finest, and that makes this hard to write, because I feel ridiculous giving it such weighty significance.
But the ring triggered something in me; it opened up some trap door in my soul and out came this flood of hurt and doubt: Does he see me as some Real Housewife? Was this some kind of consolation prize for moving? I said I wanted to save money for a writing retreat – was he not listening? Or is the money not mine because I don’t earn the paycheck? Does he not take me seriously? Does he see me as someone who can be appeased or distracted with something big and flashy? What will he give me for Christmas – new boobs?
All this – over a ring?? Ahhh…but it’s never about the ring, is it?
Maybe this is just how marriage works. Since our swift but bittersweet move from Scituate last February, Phil and I had been standing on the hairy edge of this marital canyon, and all it took was one misstep to send us plummeting into an abyss of fear.
Fear of what?
Fear of not knowing each other anymore. Fear of moving in different directions. Fear of having made a mistake, or a series of mistakes. Fear that we shouldn’t have gotten married when we did – that we weren’t ready. Fear that we wasted a lot of time and money on couples counseling.
But I think the deepest fear was that maybe the person we married was not the person we thought. Or that maybe we married the possibility of who the other person might become, rather than who they are actually are. And to cover this up we created roles to hide behind, roles that no longer fit.
And when we outgrow these roles, do we outgrow each other?
A few days after the Ring Incident, I was cleaning out the linen closet and found a package of old blue surgical pads, and I cried. In that moment I realized that – in addition to the ‘normal’ craziness of life – the first decade of our marriage was built around crisis: hospitalizations, surgeries, endless medical tests and appointments. After one of my surgeries about six years ago, Phil (who could have been a male nurse) had to straight catheterize me for TWO WEEKS. Not the kind of vag-action he was hoping for when we said our “I do’s.”
What if the constant crisis was the only thing keeping us together? Did we build a marriage based on changing houses and catheters? If you take those things away, is there nothing left?
This thought rocked me to the core. I went from emptying my bucket to wanting to drown myself in a bucket. Or drink wine from a bucket. I was not in a good place. I watched Katherine Heigel movies.
Last year, on our 9th anniversary, I had daydreamed about our 10th. I envisioned a magical summer, with us renewing our vows on the beach in Scituate. But instead I was hiding in my room under the guise of folding laundry, zoning out to reality TV, and over-identifying with the problems of Derek, the gay boyfriend character on Million Dollar Listing NYC. The well of sadness felt bottomless, like my feet would never find the ground.
But eventually, they did.
I read an essay called “For Better and Worse” by Lynn Darling. Her words shot through my heart like a cupid’s arrow, piercing the exact spot I had been trying so desperately to access. In the essay she describes the meltdown she has when her husband gave her towels for Valentine’s Day, and the perspective she has gained years later. She writes:
I smile now when I remember this story, set back in the phase of life when marriage is still a mirror, reflecting back only one’s carefully constructed, easily shattered conceit. Now my husband gives me bath towels every Valentine’s Day, and every Valentine’s Day I laugh. It has become part of our mythology. But the laughter is its own edgy commentary on how things have changed, how we have changed each other, how the two people who smile at this joke are indelibly stained with each other’s expectations and disappointments.
I love the concept of couples having their own “mythology.” Perhaps our marriage is like the movie Benjamin Button – the one when Brad Pitt ages in reverse. Phil and I have the geriatric stuff down cold. We are DOWN with bodily functions and post-op care.
Now we just have to figure out the stuff that typically comes first for couples – like romance and equality and making a budget. And if there is any truth to my Benjamin Button theory, the honeymoon is yet to come. Maybe 40 years from now, when other couples our age are changing each other’s diapers, Phil and I will be doing body shots at the Atlantis pool bar.
With this guy, anything is possible.
So maybe our 10th year as a married couple was not what I had envisioned. I have the choice to look at that as a failure or as an opportunity. We can lament the decade spent in crisis, or celebrate all that we were able to survive together. But more importantly, we can choose to start the next decade with a sense of newness and possibility.
Phil and I went back to our couple’s counselor and set the intention to do just that.
“What’s the big deal about the number “10,” anyway?” I said to Phil as we left the counselor’s office.
“This one goes to eleven,” Phil said in a British accent, quoting a line from one of our favorite movies This is Spinal Tap.
I laughed the kind of laugh I reserve strictly for Phil: half silent, half snort.
We are going to be ok.
Because This One Goes to Eleven.