K came home the other day with her face drawn. A couple she’s known for a long time, two good people who have gone through a terribly difficult time, have announced that they are separating. She said she couldn’t stop thinking about it all day, and she tried to explain why over a salmon cobb salad: “I’m surprised because they made such sense together.”
We sat there for a long time, picking the good bits out from the lettuce, and talked about the news. About how she really liked both of them, and that they seemed like such a match. About how we both know people who are working hard to stay in situations that seem, from our outside perspective, at best baffling and at worst damaging, and how different this particular split seemed to be. There didn’t seem to be any reason for the separation that we could identify, even as we reasoned that this was a naive assumption. Those who are not involved in the intricacies of a marriage cannot even really know it. Are there things that people just cannot survive, we wondered.
It was a sobering conversation. Here we are, two people who dearly love each other, who are good for each other, in a million big and inconsequential ways. What could happen that would make us decide to leave each other? And what can we do to prevent that, besides keeping communication open, being honest with each other, avoiding condescension, and dreaming up ways to stay intimate? If we cannot reasonably take vows of love’s permanence, then what do the vows even mean?
“I really, really do not want to get divorced,” K vowed. As a child of divorce, I agree with her. I don’t want to go through it, and I don’t want my future kid to go through it. But then I think about my own parents, who are much better not married to one another. My world was rocked when they broke up, but even with all the hurt, I wouldn’t want to stay in a bad situation either. Does that mean I’m not as committed to the cause?
After dinner, we sat down and started a small wedding registry, but couldn’t think of anything to add besides a pressure cooker from this century (we use an antique one we unearthed from the Chincoteague shed that seems MOSTLY safe). It was as if we were looking for some reassurance in the tea leaves, in sheets and towels and pans. As if registering for expensive things, and promising extra hard to be married and stay married, meant we could control all the possibilities of a lifetime.
People ask me why we decided to get married, and one of the things I say is that I realized I was starting to wonder what K would be like at fifty, sixty, and beyond. And I realized I hoped, very much, to be there to see it all unfold. When I’m living in the retirement community that my college friends are planning to launch, K’s the one I want in the bed beside me, holding hands.
She always falls asleep before I do, and that night I tucked my forehead into her shoulder blades and stayed there for a long time. I remembered being twenty-four and following an earlier love to this city, a rolling stereotype driving a U-Haul into Park Slope with two cats on the seat next to me. My twenty-four-year-old self could not have possibly predicted what this looks like now: this house, this girl, this life. How could I know what forty-four and beyond will look like, what I will want and need? How do you know when you know? What if it’s not forever?
Emily Dickinson says hope is the thing with feathers, that hope is what will weather the storm, that will keep singing, even in the chillest land and strangest sea. That’s how I want to remember my wedding day and start my marriage. Surrounded by people I love and the person I love most, recognizing the impossibility of predicting forever, and hoping for it anyway.