Up to now, we’ve had a marriage made in Costco. That was our joke about the day Walter put me on his Costco membership, and I had my picture taken for the ID card. What followed was a mature discussion of marriage.
“It’s the concept that bothers me, “ Walter said “You start out as a half looking to become a whole.” His hand rested warmly on my thigh while we drank our cheap berry smoothies in the car.
“Yes,” I said with a little gasp because I’d sucked in too much liquid and given myself a brain freeze. “The lack. It’s kind of like original sin.”
“And then the concept of marriage becomes the third entity.”
“I know. You don’t want to rock the boat, so you stop telling the truth.”
Right there in the Costco parking lot, amidst sweet-faced, big-assed Americans laying in stores for the zombie apocalypse, we decided that if we ever got married, we would remain truth tellers. We loved each other constantly and infinitely, if not unconditionally.
It was all well and good until I had a couple of intermediate cancers carved out of my back, and Walter developed high blood pressure, and my own father died suddenly. My dad walked four miles the day before he died, then dropped dead from a massive heart attack.
“I guess that was the number of breaths he had in him,” my yoga teacher said.
It seems every six months or so Walter and I hear about an acquaintance who went to the doctor with some mild complaint and came home with a death sentence.
I know I am trying to spur Walter toward marriage as a way of inoculating myself against illness, but I can’t seem to stop myself, even though he is the sweetest, funniest man I know. Last year’s cancer surgery left me white-coat phobic. Now I can’t put on any gown that opens in the back, not even at Macy’s, and especially not the paper kind you wear for a pap smear.
Walter suggested I keep my dress on and tell the doctor, “You can pull my panties aside, but that’s it.”
After that, I told my daughter, “Find a man who is amused by you.” Better to laugh away the years than gripe and swipe your way through them.
Who is griping now? Up until last night, Walter and I were having a perfectly fine weekend. Now it’s Monday, and I’m looking beyond the crumbling windowsill at his fruit laden plum tree, opulent and pendulous, and his flame roses, fiery and creamy at the same time. After we’ve had a fight, I like to run it back through my mind like a film spool, but with the volume off, so that it looks vaudeville funny: me, the belligerent one stomping backwards out of the room while Walter flails his arms in reverse. I’m sure this is not constructive behavior by the standards of any advice on how to stay married, and we’re not even married yet.
“Please don’t wreck our happiness by focusing on the one thing you think is wrong,” Walter said, “when so much is right.” I think of my friends who remain single despite professing to want a mate. Is their singlehood the result of men trading in for younger models or is that a myth? Are women my age too critical of men? Less tolerant about the cowboy boots on the coffee table or whatever the proverbial equivalent is?
I look at the kitchen counter where his empty wine glass stands, residual maroon rings at its center, blooming like a peony. He likes to swirl his wine, “volatizing” is the word he taught me. On Sunday, I heard the roar of the football game in the other room, the little gasp of the cork in spite of the sports announcers’ exhortations to the winning team on the T.V. It started out as nothing.
“Are you drinking in the afternoon?” I shouted from the bedroom, even though I know everybody drinks on game day.
“No, I’m practicing my Russian.”
I heard the squeegee of the cork going back in. “There, I put it away. You happy?”
“This time, maybe.”
“Oh, go take one of your pills.”
“Which prescription?” I hummed a few bars from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “The one that knocks me out?”
“Some women would be glad their man was out of their hair for a few hours.” His tone was mock hurt, and he drew out the vowels.
“Some women,” I said, “but I’m not one of them.”
“You’re in a class by yourself, baby. Come here.”
“No, I’m working.”
“You expect ME to get up?”
This is what we sound like most of the time—two kids poking each other in the stomach. Although I divorced in my late forties—and according to all the polls that put fear in your future, I had a bullfrog’s chance in a well of finding a prince—I had found someone. Well, not found him exactly because he’d been there all along, but I’d been too stupid to notice. I’d ruled Walter out—originally because he belonged to someone else, and later when he divorced, I forgot to notice This was before I realized I wanted a man who could be a boon companion, not some smoldering hulk who needed his emotions translated. I wanted someone who already spoke the language, who could talk with me about all the characters in a movie and what each one’s motive was. Walter was like that; he talked as much as my girlfriends did. And when I told him I was taking a mood stabilizer, he said “So? The world is wobbling a little more on its axis, too.”
This love affair with Walter is relatively recent, four years— but the taproot goes deep—he was married to my college friend Maureen—the couple ran a catering business right after graduation. They even catered my wedding to Guy. I remember leaning against the kitchen counter and watching how fast Walter chopped in the direction of his own fingers. He shooed me away. “If I cut off my finger, it will ruin your dress.” I always found Walter to be a merry maker, a raconteur, a man who liked feast and fest. At parties, I cozied up to him in the kitchen. One child and ten years later, Maureen tore her scapula chopping vegetables and went to Maui to convalesce, where she met somebody. Then she left Walter to become a trophy wife. Last time I saw Maureen, she was on the sidelines at a basketball game wearing a tennis visor and black Capris, surrounded by other women wearing tennis visors and white Capris. Her toenails were wine red and she wore gold toe rings, and she made a parade wave at me but never came over to talk. Neither did I. Walter, for his part, raised their son faithfully, occasionally dating younger women who punished him roundly with their little tantrums by leaving the party or leaving the country. I, on the other hand, only leave the room. My kids like me better when I’m with him; they know I have backup now. What’s really best for their young lives is not to have to think about me at all.
This afternoon, I am alone in his cluttered little house where piles of books and magazines rise up from the living room floor like high rise buildings. When Walter left to meet with clients, he did not give me his customary kiss. What was he supposed to do? I slept on the couch last night. The olive green blankets are lumped up on the armrest and vaguely suggest the shape of Barbar the Elephant. I am supposed to be finishing a legal brief and packing, not sulking and skulking about.
I called him a barnacle last night. I meant to sound like I was teasing, but the words were scorched when they came out, charry around the edges. I guess I am trying to goad him into moving up north. “You’re a goddamn barnacle,” I said. Very mature lead-in. That started the fight about getting married. I want him to pack up his house and move into mine, which happens to be 600 miles north of Oakland in a suburb of Seattle. In the last four years, I finished the paralegal program at Edmonds Community College, then I secured a job with benefits for a domestic law firm, and I typed up my own divorce from Guy, and his papers, too. I’m ready; I want to be with Walter, but I sense something lugubrious in him, sludgy. Could it be the sheer stuffage in his garage? He comes from a family of immigrants who lived in a Displaced Persons Camp after WWII. When your family has lost everything, you throw away nothing. Perhaps it is only his careful, protective nature, the very same that makes me feel so loved. In any case, he responded to the barnacle comparison in a formal-meted-out fashion that meant I had hurt his feelings.
“You’re right,” he said, “love between barnacles is difficult; the organisms cannot leave their shells to mate.”
“Don’t talk to me in metaphors.”
“I’m not. This is why I keep all those National Geographics that you want to throw away. Barnacles have extraordinarily long penises. I bet you didn’t know that. In fact, barnacles probably have the largest penis to body size ratio in the animal kingdom.”
“Well, your penis cannot get to me if we live 600 miles apart. It’s not that long. I want us to live together.” This from the woman who told him she would make an art out of missing him until he could retire.
“I thought we were talking about getting married.”
“Not true. Some people have commuter-marriages and live together part-time.”
I felt the subject getting away from me; I had the sensation that I was trying to cram a large wad into a tiny envelope.”
“Is that what you’re proposing?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not proposing anything.”
“Precisely.” I felt my unreasonableness reaching its poetic pitch. I was the winter witch sweeping in on a frosty breath. It felt marvelous.
“Why now?” he asked.
“Why not?” I countered.
He sighed audibly. “I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Not after four years.” There, I’d toted up the years and doing so made me feel righteously right.
“We’ve been planning our future together. When I retire, I can move to Seattle full- time.”
He did not sound like he was cajoling or bargaining. Infuriating.
“Why should I have to convince you to marry me?” I screeched. Dreadful noise. “You’re commitment phobic!” The phrase sounded like some bullet point in one of the women’s slicks under the heading, “Will He or Won’t He?”
“Is this a deal-breaker?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It could be.”
Today, I can’t tell if I am reacting to things Walter said because of things my ex-husband said and if I reacted to those things because of things my father once said a long time ago. Shit. It’s a tough go, being ding and dent models; Walter and I come “as is” after previous lives. What I love about Walter, besides his perfectly punctuated e-mails, is his flair for improvisation, his abundant silliness. If we hadn’t fought last night, his return from the university office of Event Planning would have been the perfect occasion for us to pretend we were in a telenovela. “La Senor Es en la Casa!” he would announce with mock severity, slamming the door slightly. “El hermano de ley está en el armario.”The brother-in-law is in the closet, I would say in a high breathy voice. Then he would stomp loudly across the living room and I would screech when he found me and we would carry on together.
Now what? Do I have to break up with him because he won’t marry me? Or did he even say that? Did he say he wouldn’t marry me? Maybe he will marry me after he moves up north, maybe we will marry each other, if I put down the gun I’m holding to his head. I pace the house. In a few hours, he will come home from work to give me a ride to the airport, and I don’t know how to fix it between us. On my second swing through the kitchen, I slap the cupboard doors shut (he told me once I was like living with a poltergeist because I fling the cupboards open and leave them that way). My teabag wrappers flutter to the floor.
I skinny into the small space between my side of the bed and the wall, grabbing my books from the bed stand. When he comes to my house, he leaves a pair of glasses on the nightstand, as though he were coming to bed presently. I usually leave a book, but now I gather all of them. One of the books in my hands is a compendium of marriage vows. I had thought we would read through them together, but no, that isn’t going to happen.
I thumb through it now in a masochistic fury. Protestants first. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Right…the wedding in Cana. Christ changed the water into wine, thereby resolving the first catering crisis. I’d seen the Renaissance painting in the Louvre, the Wedding at Cana. Napoleon had ordered it brought to Paris from a Benedictine monastery, which involved cutting the painting in half and stitching it back together. There it was again, those two halves. The wedding in the painting is extravagant, crowded with more than 100 guests, but not one is featured speaking. The Benedictines liked their vow of silence. Good for the in-laws.
Protestant vows seem to set off in the same fashion with God as the first wedding guest—we have come together in the presence of God. I don’t mind that. The presence of God can be a meteor shower, or the incandescent blue of a glacial crevasse, or the indwelling God that tells you you’ve been a nasty bitch to your perfectly loving partner. There, I used the word partner again. People assume we are a lesbian couple when I put it on paper, “Maeve Rowntree and partner.” They assume two women are showing up. Goodbye Walter Tabakov. How ironic: heterosexual couples are adopting a lesbian vocabulary and fleeing the institution of marriage at the historic moment that gay couples feel it is a victory to be allowed marriage.
I have reached the Catholic vows, which don’t really seem to require the presence of women. What God has joined, men must not divide. I picture women on burros or camels, the animals’ halter ropes pulled upon by men—fathers or husbands, it doesn’t matter. For thousands of years, women came to marriage as chattel. Even now the guest list is stacked with men: in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Still, the language is elegantly wrought and rings with solemnity of purpose. Eternal God look with favor upon the world you have made, and especially this man and this woman. This is a blessing I long for.I suffer from this terrible fear that now that Walter and I are free at last to love each other, one of us will be struck down before we can ever actually live together.
It’s a thorny thicket, wanting to be married but not liking the vows. I believe in loyalty and devotion; you can agree to see each other to the heavenly door without giving up selfhood entirely. Yet, I cannot answer the questions in the affirmative Have you come freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? The trouble is I believe in keeping my reservations, as a healthy tension on the line. And he can keep his, too, for that matter. I picture the burro balking, the camel kicking. For so many, marriage seems to be the grand gesture that absolves one of further effort. Is it fine to ignore the Temple God gave you, your body? To sink into the La-Z-Boy, to refuse the physical therapist’s exercises and make everyone else cut your toenails? Is a little bit of worry about staying attractive to your mate such a bad thing if it keeps a thousand and one behaviors in check? I thought “unconditionally” was supposed to refer to anything you couldn’t prevent. It doesn’t give you a free pass to be a slob.
My grandmother once said to me, “I never imagined I’d become a nurse with a purse,” though she stayed with her second husband, who was a testy, short-tempered man. I did notice that if he went too far, my grandmother would hold up one finger like an elementary school teacher and fix it in front of his face, and he would back down. I wish I knew what that one finger meant.
Maybe it isn’t too late to convert to Judaism? Those vows are better. Blessed are you unnameable God, source of the universe who created woman and man in your image and placed eternity in their hearts. This speaks to me; eternity has already been placed in our hearts, and our vows will be a recognition that this sublime thing has already taken place.
Last night was anything but sublime. “I’m not creating a conflict when there isn’t one,” I said. “You’re avoiding the subject.”
“I’m not avoiding the subject. There are practical matters to consider. If I leave now, my retirement will take a hit whereas two years from now—“
“Don’t even say that. Don’t say two years from now.” And so on and so forth it went.
I notice that the Buddhist vows mention anger. Courtesy and consideration even in anger and adversity are the seeds of compassion. Love is the fruit of compassion. Oh no…this is the big one: We take full responsibility for our own life in all its infinite dimensions…We are committed to embrace all parts of ourselves, including our deepest fears and shadows, so we can be transformed into light. It’s a call to a high order of love all right. I cast a glance toward the phone but I’m too mad to dial his number, and it isn’t going to ring just because I look at it, so I place the book of vows with the others in my suitcase, underneath my shoes. Vow or no vow, today Walter is the better woman.
I look about the house for some penance I can perform. Organizing the books on the floor? No, I’ll start reading them as I sort them. The bathroom? I definitely feel my greatest resistance there. I arm myself with gloves, brush, and Bab-o.
It is a threshold to consider…the first time you clean a man’s toilet. Must it signify submission? I wonder, since chances are he’ll never notice it, though the smell up close is pungent as a pissoir in Paris. It’s my deal, I rationalize. Don’t expect applause. Isn’t that a Buddhist expression? I’ll do it for myself. The choice of where and how I plant my ass is my dominion after all, and therefore not degrading. Because I am not his wife, because this is not a permanent designation or duty; I am here on holiday, for a long weekend.
Like yolk slopped over the edge of an egg, urine trails runnel down the outside of the toilet’s basin. I must face myself here, at the underside of the bowl, where the s-shaped porcelain finds egress, goes underground. Not a pretty place for reflection, the underside of the bowl, not one where memories of Alexander Torte and champagne hold up for long. Oh no, not down here in the dribble and dirt, the dead moth wings.
I am not prepared to see my mouth stretch open in the chrome bolt covers as I wipe up hair stuck in urine. Is this the meaning of the Buddhist wedding vow? “I take you to be my equal in love, as a mirror for my true self.” My true self is butt-ugly from down here. The cleaning supplies are raising a ring of welts around my mouth.
But I commit myself to this act of humility, of lowering myself, and I spray and erase the besplatterment around the rim, chastising myself for being bourgeoisie. If I were a true voyageur, I’d spit in the bowl, throw cigarette butts at it.
The wife kills the adventurer every time. Haven’t I learned that? Escaped domestication in favor of the feral? Gloria Steinem said, “I don’t mate in captivity.” Do I really want Walter calling me “his wife?’ Or worse yet, “the wife?” “The wife this and the wife that.” Yada yada. The men guffaw. “You know how the wife feels about that.” Hardy har har. Maybe they have those little plaques with witticisms above the kitchen sink: “I’m the boss around here, and if you don’t believe me, just ask my wife.” Or I can join the carpool mothers who stand around complaining, “My husband thinks he knows how to fix the plumbing…Well, my husband…” It’s a dumb and dumber contest. Do Walter and I want to be claimed by all these clichés?
The sewer treatment plant claims that it discharges effluent into the bay; you have to marvel at how the word shit can be transformed into something as poetic as effluent. Better to stick with the word shit, close to the source, and fuck for the same reason. It isn’t that I don’t love Walter; I love him most of all; and often we do make love, but sometimes I want to say what I mean, I want to say what I need. Then we fuck each other silly, laughing afterwards at our mad middle-aged exertions.
Ye gods, the bowl is mildewed on the backside between the pipe and the wall. I spray bleach solution copiously and swab with paper towels. I keep myself amused by thinking of Seattle’s founding fathers who built the town so close to the Puget Sound that high tide blasted those tycoons right off their thrones. Enough already. The bleach solution is dripping down my wrists and back inside the gloves. Abruptly I stand, banging the crown of my head against his shaving mirror, which extends from the wall on an expando arm. As I shove it away, the mirror falls out and shatters into the toilet. I kneel to pick out the magnified pieces of my face.
Scrubbing his toilet has altered our relationship, I am sure of it, though I wouldn’t venture to say how, but at least I will have the wit when he comes home, not to ask him to notice his nice clean toilet and thank me for it. I hear the creak of the front door and stare down at the last of the mirror shards.
“Honey, I’m home,” Walter shouts in an exaggerated tone.
“I cleaned the bathroom,” I shout back, “as a way of doing penance.”
“Good. Then you’ve only got a few Hail Mary’s to go.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I broke your mirror, and I’m almost done fishing my face out of the toilet.”
“Not that,” Walter says, “I can handle anything but that.”
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of the poem “The New Wife” by Madeline Tiger.]
Kathryn Trueblood’s most recent book is The Baby Lottery, a Book Sense Pick in 2007. She was awarded the 2013 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, judged by Jane Smiley and sponsored by the Bellevue Literary Review. In 2011, she won the Red Hen Press Short Story Award for her story “Fuck You! Till Next Christmas,” and was selected for a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the oldest feminist funding agency in the U.S. Trueblood’s latest story, “Diary of a Slut,” was published this summer by SheBooks, a new digital publisher of women’s writing. Her stories and articles have been published in Poets & Writers Magazine, the Bellevue Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, Glimmer Train, The Seattle Review, Zyzzyva, and others. A professor of English at Western Washington University, she lives in Bellingham, Washington. Her website is kathryntrueblood.com.
Image by dirtyboxface.