So much of early romance is characterized by emotional crescendos: Falling head over heels in love, becoming exclusive, deciding you have a joint future, getting engaged, planning a wedding, getting married…. These events are transformative and transcendent and defining, and it can begin to feel like the projects are pulling your love into the future—labeling it with clear highway markers of progress. The energy and creativity and intensive emotion around them can feel addictive, and when they are over, you can be left wondering what is next? How will you know your love is growing?
As Brian and I have moved through these projects and moved on to a steadier, less adrenaline/tear-soaked/event-driven brand of joy, I have had to work on my do-er, achieve-er, intensity-junkie, project-oriented personality and learn how to just be in the deep warm joy of everyday love. It is the quintessence of The Good. This is my most personal advice to my most impatient self:
Wake up in the morning with a rain-soaked Nairobi breeze stroking your bare arm like cool fingers. Roll over and feel the extra warmth from his side and wiggle in close. Half awake, he will turn towards you, (he always does), and pull you close to his chest, to the inside of the spoon. Pull his arm tighter around you and breathe in the bedwarm clean scent of him as he tucks your calf between his knees and aligns the bottom of your feet on the surprisingly soft tops of his own. Pull his hand to your chest, his arm tight around you. Hear him whisper into your hair: “You feel so good—I love your body.”
Get up…coffee calls…and he’ll bring it up on a tray for both of you so that you can lounge a few more minutes. The Kenya AA with creamy whole milk and too much sugar will be smooth on your tongue and warm between your palms. He will joke he likes his coffee like he likes his women: strong, tan, and sweet. Snuggle into your bathrobe and the comfort of being truly known. Sip that warm heaven and talk about what’s on your mind…anything…everything.
Get separate bathrooms, when you can. Your mom once said that the two secrets to a long and happy marriage are nearsightedness and separate bathrooms. The latter is a luxury. You won’t need the former for a while—he will take your breath away every time he walks into the room dressed for a date and smelling of Prada. He’s the most handsome guy in just about every room. He’ll come kiss you goodbye and too often you will end up accidentally color-coordinated (the purple shirt, really?!) and take it as more proof. Do this ritual every day and let it center you.
Watch your nicknames evolve. It will start with baby, move to honey, then lover, then sweetheart. The names will begin veering into the ridiculous (but delicious)…sugarpie, baby cakes…skillet muffin. You like to bake. You will secretly like the names.
Name things together. Lots of things. A specific feeling will be Spinach (bitter, irony…), a special kind of sleepy morning in bed will be a Loll. The essence of a thing will be its “Ness.” You will buy a used Ford and baptize it Harrison. He will have a monster early-90s Land Cruiser project that you will call: The Millennium Falcon. The dog you will have one day is Rocket. The child you will never have will remain nameless. Soon you will have enough words for a secret language. You will keep a list of coffee table books that ought to be published (Nigeria: Scratch and Sniff; Sunburn; Impossible Pants). You will be convinced that certain songs on the radio each year were literally written for you.
Draw a map of the world. Mark towns you explore together, countries you discover together. Places you encourage each other to go. Places you escape to, alone, remembering what it felt like to be untethered. Make your together map of cities: the world may know Paris and Mumbai and New York, but your world will have its own capitals: Nairobi and Cape Town and Cairo. Rome and London and Lamu and Blue Hill, Maine. Mali and Bali and Dubrovnik… He will send you postcards from far-flung cities. They will arrive months later with random stamps and a single witty line; a geography of bliss mapped in squiggles of print from hotel ballpoint pens.
Become explorers of the most intimate topographies too. Your cheek will claim the curve of his right shoulder for its own. You will remove the staples from a nine-inch surgical incision, and the railroad scar chugging across his butt will transport you to the most special together time that came after that surgery. He will tag the arch of your foot he kneads absentmindedly when you sit, comfortably draped over the twin mountains of his knees.
Enjoy each other’s bodies in all of their impermanence. Pretend your body is the best it will ever be again, right now. Do a boudoir shoot and give him a little black book of sexy. Cuddle each other curvy, and admire each other lean. Push each other to work out then cast sultry gazes at the gym. Wrap yourself in wispy impractical things and impossibly high stilettos and believe him when he says you are irresistible. Get a “Do Not Disturb” sign and lock the door. Try everything you both have ever thought of. Research and read up and think of new things. And that thing you’re most curious and shy about? Do that thing. Giggle and hold each other. Get messy, silly, crazy, depraved, and insatiable. Weep sometimes. Whisper secrets. Get in the mood by starting. Repeat all of the above, over and over, and let it tether you together. Make it essential, like breathing.
Get to know his signs, your patterns, and the red flags. He will come to know your panic attacks and their triggers. He will walk out of meetings to take weepy calls when you are sure you are having a heart attack and hold you together with his voice. He will see your shadows and demons lurking in the corners and smell your fear and hold your hand. He will know your ugliness, your weakness, and your selfishness. He will see your best self, your true self, through the fog of those things and help you to wipe away the grime. He will sit on the couch with you, arms around you, small-talking you through an irresistible temptation to go make yourself throw up (damn demons), kissing your forehead and the tears off of your nose. You will see the clouds pass over his eyes, talk him off of his ledges, forgive him parts of his humanity he has not forgiven himself. You will encourage him to never miss a meeting. Tell and hold each other’s worst secrets, and feel the relief in no longer carrying them alone. See each other to the other side.
Bear witness to each other’s unfolding. Make him take the time and money to learn to fly airplanes and mountain bike, and surf. Cheer him on from the ground, from the beach—even when you are scared he will get hurt and leave you. Be generous about the things that are his alone. Decorate his office together. He will be there for you through a million work projects, and endless MBA classes. He will save you in algebraic emergencies and rescue you with extreme Excel skills. He is your hero in ways you can’t even know yet.
Tell each other “I love you” as often as you think it. Listen for the ways he is telling you—in the way he talks to everybody about his wife, in the light bulbs finally changed, in the lunch he packs for you in the Wonder Woman lunchbox he bought you. In the way he takes your suitcase up the stairs, in the way he looks you up and down, in the way he always calls, in the special gifts. Tell him in every way he might hear it: sexy kisses in the stairwell, home cooked meals, lavish presents, APW posts… Don’t say it because you need to hear it. Tell him because you can’t hold that much love in for one more second without bursting. Tell him because you are terrified of the day when one of you is not there to say it, or to hear it.
It will be work, all of this—or more accurately, effort. It is not an event, it is a slow unfurling. Growing love day after day, year after year, is not toiling. It is, rather, tilling. No one ever said it would be easy, loving someone so much…they said it would be worth it.
Be surprised at how easy it has turned out to be, this steady tilling. Be grateful for how very worth it it is turning out to be—more worth it than you ever imagined.