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Does Marriage Mean Always Taking the Middle Seat?

Thoughts on marriage, one month out

I did a lot of flying in my twenties. My family and most of my friends lived far enough away that flying was the only way to see people I loved. I became excellent at cramming everything I needed into the carry on. I had a pair of light jeans with a big hole in the right knee that I liked to wear on the plane because they kept me the perfect temperature. I always chose an aisle seat. At some point in these years, I watched a couple snuggling across the aisle from me and realized that I nearly always traveled alone. There was never anyone with me to watch my luggage while I ran to the bathroom at the gate. Or to hold my own hand when turbulence totally freaked me out. At the time, this was more an observation than anything else. There was a world of couples of which I simply wasn’t a part.

Now Dan and I do a lot of flying together. I lean my head on his shoulders while we’re waiting to check-in. We travel through exit customs in Shanghai and puzzle over the fact we live in China, a thing that always astounds us. We left for the U.S. last week, both exhausted from the flurry of grading and packing that is the end of the semester, this time even more stressful because it was End of the Semester: Wedding Edition. When we return to China at the end of July, we will be able approach customs as a legal family for the first time ever.

Dan is marginally larger than I am and can’t fall asleep on planes, even on the long trans-Pacific flights. Which means it’s better for him to have the aisle seat, so he can get up and stroll economy class and stand at the back and look out at the people like me who actually can sleep. I took the middle seat on our flight from Shanghai to Chicago. The perfectly pleasant man next to me didn’t understand the rule that the middle person always has access to her two armrests (because fairness) and kept his left elbow on my armrest for nearly the entire flight, while I struggled to find a comfortable position in a space that seemed smaller than ever. Then I had a horrifying realization: Did getting married mean that I would be relegated to the middle seat for the rest of my life?

Over the past few months, I’ve had several of these moments, as the gravity of getting married has sunk in. Another is that I will never again get to choose my home on my own. Gone are the third floor studios in old Victorian houses where I spent my twenties. We’ll always need room for (at least) two. Gone also is the ability to select with absolute freedom where I will live and how much I will spend to live there. Dan and I are currently in an apartment stalemate. I recently took a new position at my university, and we are committed to two more years in Shanghai. I want to save money and stay in our current place. Dan wants to spend more money and escape the techno music blaring from the mall across the street.

Gone, too, I suspect, will be the hodgepodge collection of old floral plates that I collected in my graduate school days. Dan has a clean, mid-century, Marfa aesthetic. I like romance and turn-of-the-century floral. On a jet-lagged Saturday afternoon last week, we wandered through Crate and Barrel trying to find a set we both liked enough to ask people to buy them for us. As I might have predicted, we couldn’t come to an agreement. We stood near the flatware, looking up at the displays of plates while a Texas thunderstorm rolled in. “No,” Dan said to a glossy ceramic with an etched flower pattern. “No,” I said to plain earthenware. There were plenty of options to choose from, but also somehow not enough. “I have all those flowered plates in storage,” I mentioned. “I know,” Dan said. It wasn’t an enthusiastic “I know.” We didn’t register for plates.

And so we begin a lifelong process of negotiation, of balance and compromise. I know what marriages look like. I’ve seen dozens of them. But I don’t know what my own marriage to Dan will look like, not exactly. Right now, our current method of compromise is inaction. When we can’t come to an agreement, we often don’t do anything at all, a strategy that isn’t going to work much longer. Because we can’t avoid conflict forever, how will we negotiate? What are the compromises that we will have to make, as we balance our own desires and the desires and needs of our family? One desire I have is to make Dan happy, which is why I took the infamous middle seat. Still, even though his happiness is linked with my own, I don’t believe in being a martyr. What and how much of my own independence will I give up for this partnership?

Of course, we are never as free as we think we are. We have ties to others; we are limited by time, money, our own dispositions. But a bubble of panic rose in my chest as I stood in our elevator and realized that I would never get to choose my own apartment again. I’ve been on my own long enough to know that this is a loss. It’s a pleasure to organize your own life around your own desires, to decorate in whatever manner your fancy, to sit in the aisle because it’s what you want. But I don’t have cold feet. I know too that I’d eat off terrible lime-green plastic for the next fifty years if it meant I was having dinner with Dan.

Because I tell Dan everything, I told him I was in mourning of my dishware, of not being able to choose my own plates and sheets and rugs. “I’ll trade you the middle seat forever, to get rid of those flowered plates,” he said. I think I’m going to hold him to that.

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