A week after our wedding, Philip and I fell asleep on opposite sides of our bed. He was troubled by the needling realities of living with me. Having our backs to each other felt unnatural. Shimmying over and forcing a cuddle was odd. Thus began the real work of marriage, the little things.
It was September. The previous Saturday we wrapped up our two-year, long-distance relationship with a shotgun wedding. Philip was my college buddy, a Southerner with a ski jacket in a sea of peacoats. I was a girl from the Northwest whose anklet jingled as I struggled to keep up with New Yorkers.
After graduation, Philip and I kissed for the first time. Little did we know, twenty-eight months later I would field phone calls from his mother asking if a tea-length dress was appropriate for an afternoon wedding and if she should throw Philip’s old crib into the U-haul. We moved from kissing friends to long-distance-lovers to spouses at lightning speed.
Starting a relationship at the end of college was impractical; he was off to study at Oxford and I was committed to teach for two years in Phoenix. Facing life on separate continents, we shared everything in letters written on thin blue international paper and talked once each week on the phone. Between us there was pure candor. He reminded me to eat fruit and I chided him for taking himself too seriously. When Philip flew stateside, he’d cook in my tiny apartment or we’d stay at his parents’ in his bunk beds. Reunions and departures were heavy-laden with uncertainty and longing.
He fit my criteria for a life partner: an aspiring journalist who wanted to share the blessings and burdens of a large family and poked fun of how much money I spent on coffee and bagels when I could just “make them at home for pennies.” Whenever we fought, we both left with a deeper understanding of each other and ourselves. Philip had a check in each of my “big things required for a life partner” boxes.
It rained on our garden ceremony, the Oregon downpour declared a blessing. We huddled with our siblings, a groomsmaid and a bridesman, under the chuppah as long as we could. Once the pastor’s hair was damp, we led our guests to a porch where we were pronounced man and wife in a standing-room-only, Jewish-Christian sacrament. We had the reception in the mud. The posed pictures of our wedding party show off my waist, but the candids of our first dance reveal a bulging belly.
The weather, the sprint to the altar, and the discussion over hemlines at the wedding were little things. I didn’t worry about details, because the big things were in order. I was married to my best friend. It would be grand adventures and quiet nights together for eternity. We were moving to the Bay Area for new jobs and starting a family before any of our peers. I was all in.
Our parents made the best of our rushed union. Philip’s father, often reserved, welcomed guests with ease. My dad grinned through what he called the most emotional day of my his life. Neither one hinted at misgivings.
A few years earlier, on a visit to New Orleans, I marveled at the synchronicity between Philip and his father. After they hugged, they stepped apart and crossed their arms, looking down and smiling in tandem. Two men, genetically programmed to move together. They loved coffee ice cream. While they were genteel by nature, they violated the expectations they held for everyone else and ate ice cream directly from the carton, while standing. I loved them for this contradiction.
But no one is perfect. I witnessed Philip’s dad discover his son dipping into the ice cream stash. I assumed this would elicit a like-father-like-son chuckle. Instead, Philip’s father snapped, telling Philip to use a bowl. How could a guest be so crude? I wondered how this man could be so rude? His little tirade made me squirm. I knew Philip could be self-righteous in the same way.
Before marriage, I overlooked things I didn’t like about Philip. Once, as I jammed an oyster po-boy down my throat on our way to the airport, he’d exploded, “You’re grossing me out.” He was sick with anticipation of my departure and I was feeding my emotions, ketchup mixed with mayo in the corners of my mouth. Tears welled up in my eyes, he softened, and it blew over.
I’d seen this before. Father and son echoing one another. While the ice cream and po-boy incidents signaled what was to come, I told myself Philip was a muted version of the hypocrite insisting on a bowl. I chewed with my mouth shut and used a napkin. Little things didn’t matter anyway.
By getting to know my father, Philip surmised I, too, might be flawed. My dad and I shared the same legs and face, but my dad had a bigger belly, was bald and his eyebrows were two red, bristly caterpillars. We talked with our eyebrows. I know Philip worried: Could women grow eyebrows like those? If so, could they be plucked into lying down?
My dad, a college dean, regaled Philip with tales of his youth. His stories were variations on one plot–my dad took a stupid risk and got in trouble–cars totaled, nights in jail, fights provoked, or friends injured. He recalled these character-building lessons with pride.
Philip knew I was as gregarious as my dad and he loved my fearlessness as much as I loved his composure. I’d jump in 68-degree river water in my underwear and swim until I was numb. I was the only white woman in our college’s gospel choir. I cut my hair into a pixie on a whim. The worst consequence of my fearlessness was enduring the awkward stage of my hair growing out. A little thing.
These little things can add up.
On the night we first slept on our own sides of the bed, he started to see a dark side of my assurance. It started innocently enough. About ten o’clock, he closed his book and turned to me. “How do you deal with public toilets? They’re so waxy. So slippery.” He said it like he was asking for a friend.
I was used to his questions. For the first time in his life, marriage provided him access to female mysteries which previously left him wondering. He wanted to understand why hair conditioner was necessary and how I got in and out of a bra by myself.
I always answered these inquiries frankly. “Those covers are worthless. I do a check. If the seat is clean, I sit. If not, I hover.” With a nod, he turned to shut off his lamp and did not turn back. He was not asking for a friend.
I knew he knew more than he wanted to know. My toilet seat etiquette was brazen. The pregnancy, our meager income, the unpacked apartment, and the unwritten thank you notes did not trouble him. He was vexed by the full extent of my shamelessness. Where could we go from there? What a jerk to be worried about the small stuff.
During college, one of our bonds was our desire to make people believe preposterous things. While our classmates made conversation by dropping hints about their resumes, Philip created fictions about himself. Over a Stroh’s, he convinced an acquaintance his community service was arm wrestling through plexiglass with prisoners at Rikers. Maybe I could pretend my revelation was a joke?
What would that do to our relentless honesty? Before we fell in love, I was drawn to Philip’s criticisms of all things shiny: beautiful pre-meds, my much older boyfriend, and smoothies as a form of nourishment. His skepticism was sincere. I was the opposite, friendly with frat boys and feminists and believing that fat-free yogurt might make me thinner. Our authenticity was our intersection. Without it, who would we be? I couldn’t take back what I said, but he was slumbering dead weight, far from me. This was worse than a fight.
We didn’t speak of this little thing for a week. I almost forgot about it.
One night during dinner, he returned to the topic of toilet seats. He pleaded.
“It’s really gross. You have to start using them. Think of all the things on those seats.”
I told him he was paranoid, ridiculous, a germaphobe. I refused to use the covers and I refused to lie about it.
He threatened to tell my mom. Was he messing with me? He couldn’t tattle. He wouldn’t. Snitching wasn’t even a thing in marriage.
The next few weeks were filled with relentless unmasking. We hardly ever managed to get the dishes done. We spent nights playing gin rummy. After losing, I collapsed into tears. Once, when I burst into a victory dance, Philip locked himself in the bathroom. We’d end one day saying, “Here’s the real me,” only to find ourselves reconciled to a new, gutting discovery the next. Every day I set off to work with a hearty goodbye only to buzz back into the apartment, searching for my car keys. He took twice as long as me to do anything–eat, dress, read, or drive. We found a new impatience with one another over little things.
My belly swelled and strangers commented on it. I did not know how to pick ripe fruit or cook meat. I mixed up the words ‘weary’ and ‘wary’. He couldn’t mop a floor or fold t-shirts correctly. We learned about things like the Bradley Method and colostrum. We were getting to know each other all over again. He bugged me and I irritated him.
Sometimes things were good. I looked at Philip and saw Adrian Brody–sexy, lanky, intelligent, and half-Jewish. He commented how stupid bed ruffles were and I chuckled. I thought: how lucky I am. He went on a moment too long, questioning the moral fiber of someone who invests in “superfluous bedding,” and, in a blink, he was whining, obsessed, using unnecessary adjectives. When I opened my eyes I saw Woody Allen, neurotic and ridiculous.
Though Philip didn’t know pop culture, I liked to think he saw me as Jennifer Garner on ‘Alias.’ A girl-next-door spy, capable of anything.
He once told me I actually reminded him of Julia Child. “Young Julia” on the streets of Paris making friends with strangers in a language she hadn’t mastered. Also, built wide and rambling in her throaty, lyric way. I let this little thing go, but how many injuries could I endure?
Sunday evening was the appointed night to call our parents back home in New Orleans and Oregon. I exercised first. New to town, I was milking local gyms for their free trial memberships. I hit the yellow pages to see if I could find a treadmill to use without paying.
Philip dropped me at The Oakland Athletic Club. It was swank, the kind of place where towels, shampoo, and free combs are perched on the counters. There was a lap pool just for women and no swimsuit was required. Delighted, I stripped out of my workout clothes and dove in. I swam for 40 minutes, relaxed in the hot tub for as long as was safe for a pregnant lady, and took advantage of the complimentary toiletries.
When Philip picked me up I was ready to burst. I recounted every detail.
“I don’t believe it.” Unlike the victims of the tall tales he told in college, he would not be fooled.
The more I gushed, the more I seemed insincere. I wanted him to go for a skinny-dip. He wouldn’t fall for the truth. It was too good to be true. Anyway, it was time to call my parents and then his.
We sat on our only couch, both of us on an extension. We told my parents benign things–how it felt to have my students call me Mrs. Skelding and the new chicken and waffle place we discovered. Then, Philip informed my mom about the toilet seats.
I could hear her shaking her head. “Phil, I tried. I can promise you that every time she went to the bathroom with me as a child, her seat was covered. There’s nothing I can do now. At least she washes her hands. At least we can assume, or hope, she does.”
They went back and forth, lamenting my disregard for hygiene. My dad and I raised our eyebrows at each other through the phone. Their commiserating might take a dark turn, so I jumped in. “I went to the coolest gym today. They have a naked lap pool. Can you–”
My dad interrupted. “Oakland Athletic Club? I’ve been there many times on business trips with my buddy. Great racquetball. I love swimming at that place.”
As I turned to Philip, he smiled. His grin didn’t have a hint of reprimand or disapproval. I knew he wasn’t worrying about my lack of decorum. He didn’t see Jennifer Garner. He didn’t even see young Julia Child. In a blink, his bride vanished and he saw my dad and those bushy eyebrows.
I knew then marriage would forever be peeling back each other’s layers, working out the little things. It would be trying. It would hurt. I would disgust him again and he would never move fast enough in an emergency.
Author’s Note: I often say that the first year of marriage was the hardest because we figured out marriage is a long business of tolerating little things so we could dream up a life together. That year made it possible for us to walk through the sleepless years with small children, the half-dozen years of Philip’s medical training, the wild years of raising teens, and the years when our children faced medical crises and remain partners in everything.