I lie on the very edge of the bed, as far away from my wife of 18 years as I can get. In the wake of another blow-up, I wish she were sleeping in the spare bedroom as she often does after one these skirmishes we still seem unable to avoid. I imagine myself off on a business trip, lying on crisp, clean hotel sheets, watching ESPN. I imagine myself 25 again, prowling the sidewalks of North Beach, alone and free, exploring the city night amid the squealing taxis, the buses’ hissing air brakes, the clacking cable cars. The headlights reflect on the wet city streets. The restaurants lining Columbus Avenue glow in the early evening, the rain-washed air smelling of promise.
This pleasant memory of my vigorous youth is interrupted by something my good friend Doug has often said about marriage: God brings into our lives spouses who will push our buttons, forcing us to deal with those places that need work. If so, Julie and I are certainly conforming to this plan. Julie sure does her part, anyway. Her temper is dry tinder waiting for any stray spark to set it ablaze. It is usually all hot flames, gone as quickly as they flare up. But, lying there in bed, I wonder how long, how many more years, I must endure these brushfires.
Not that I’m easy to live with, I acknowledge to myself, staring up at the ceiling. I came with loads of my own baggage, shambling into this union like a voyageur loaded down with four overstuffed Duluth bags — one strapped in front, another in back, two more piled on top, hanging from tumplines strapped across my forehead.
If you could boil down each of our myriad psychological issues to one thing, to each of our defining buttons so gigantic they sometimes make it difficult to fit in the same room, they would look something like this:
Raised by an abusive mother and an alcoholic father, Julie doesn’t talk much about her childhood. One of the few memories that hasn’t been blotted out is from when she was about 6 years old. Her mother was in jail for fraud and check-kiting. Her father, thirsty and tired of being burdened with his little girl, dropped Julie off at the matinee and headed to the bars. When the movie was over, Julie went to the appointed spot to meet her father. He didn’t show. She spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sneaking into different movies, returning again and again to see if her father had come to retrieve her yet. She doesn’t remember how she got home, doesn’t remember much about her childhood at all. She learned that no one can be counted on to come through for her.
I tasted abandonment as a child, too, watching my beloved father succumb to alcoholism and a host of other maladies. I remember being a young boy longing for his attention as he leaned back in his recliner, legs hoisted up, drinking long-neck Stroh’s and smoking Viceroys one after another. How I ached for those bloodshot eyes to rest on me where I sat on the faded, blue couch. The TV blared in the dark. He liked watching TV with all the lights off. The smoke wafted through the television beam, my father receding deeper and deeper into the recliner with each beer. I felt myself drifting away on the couch, my father oblivious as I was pulled out to sea.
As my father descended into his illnesses, I learned that I could be easily smudged out, a picture he’d grown tired of. My button is that I don’t truly matter, that I can be discounted. Julie’s button is the fear of abandonment. To put it another way, the master switches that define us at our cores are mirror images of each other: Julie is afraid no one will come through for her; I am terrified I don’t have what it takes to come through for those counting on me.
You can see where this is going.
To complicate matters, we have personalities designed to clash. My friend Doug would say this yin and yang is all part of the God-ordained selection process meant to spice things up a bit. I, for one, am full up on spice. Julie is a passionate Italian, expressing herself with a Sicilian, street-fighter vehemence. I am descended from a long line of taciturn Scottish Presbyterians on one side and self-righteous Puritans on the other. I have been accused of being aloof. Julie has been accused of many things but never of being aloof.
Lying in bed I replay the events that led to this latest fight, this time viewing them through the lens of Doug’s Theory of Divine Marriage.
Just home from work at the bank, I was in a bit of a funk over some perceived failing I’d had in the thicket of phone calls and emails, something I can now see was inconsequential. If I would have just left it alone, it would have burnt off like so much morning fog. Instead, I was in a gloomy mood as I changed, wishing Julie could give me some peace and quiet for a few minutes.
Julie was telling me the garage door opener was broken — again. Because she is Julie, much of the communication came through her hands, slashing up air as if working over a tough piece of meat. Because I am me, I perceived this intensity as accusatory: I should have greased the garage door track more regularly; I should know how to repair it myself; I should quit being such a tight-ass Scot and just buy a new one. I have failed yet again. Ever fearful of being shamed, I carry my shame around like a suit coat I can’t resist slipping into every chance I get.
“What are you getting so intense about?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” Julie asked testily.
Finding myself suddenly on unsteady ground, I clammed up, a Y-linked response genetically encoded into the Gordon clansmen from whom I spring.
Julie, as hypervigilant to the smell of betrayal as I am attuned to being found inadequate, smelled my withdrawal.
“What’s the matter, Bruce?” she asked, beseeching now.
Looking back on the evening which has led me to the very edge of our bed, I see that instant as the moment when the inevitable could have been avoided. Her shift in tone opened the door for me to tell her what was bothering me. But I was blind to this invitation. It sounded like just another accusation.
“It’s a garage door opener,” I said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“Who said it was the end of the world?” she asked.
I hunkered back down in silence, a response reinforced at my childhood dinner table when I sensed people were about to start screaming, maybe even throwing things.
“What?” she asked accusingly.
I looked away.
“What is your problem?” she asked.
“I am not going to have some huge fight over a garage door opener.”
I just stared at her. I wasn’t going to let her drag me down into this trivial crap.
“God, you are such a condescending prick sometimes,” she said, a recurring theme in our relationship.
I kept silent, pretending she wasn’t there.
“You know what? Go to hell,” she seethed, stomping out of the room.
“Love you, too,” I said, finding my voice again now that she was safely out of the room. I sank into a chair and stared out the bedroom window.
This is how we talk to each other after all these years? I wondered. This is all it’s ever going to be? I rose and looked into the mirror, considering the man looking back at me. I didn’t like what I saw.
So you see how it works with Julie and me: Each of us is a perfect template crafted by God, Himself, to push the other’s buttons. And, in our house, when you so much as brush up against one of these hair-trigger switches, you’re in for a jolt — zap! And so I gave her the cold shoulder for the rest of the evening, because I wanted to punish her and because I don’t rebound from these flare-ups as easily as she does. I tend to retreat for a while to lick my wounds. Besides, I honestly didn’t want to have much to do with her. It wasn’t worth it.
Eighteen years, I think, lying there at the edge of our marriage bed like a little kid pushing himself to the farthest reaches of the backseat to avoid brushing against his sister’s leg.
“Lord, is this what you had in mind?” I pray silently to myself, looking out at our Adirondack chairs on the deck, white-washed in the light of the full moon. We bought those chairs for our first house, found them on sale and spent the better part of a weekend painting them with three coats of paint. It was a modest house in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, but the deck had a spectacular view over a wooded valley where peregrine falcons flew and the Milky Way filled the sky. We would watch for falling stars after the kids were finally down, enveloped in the cooling air and the insects’ nightsong.
And then in Denver, after Michelle, our oldest daughter, was paralyzed, we’d retreat to those same chairs on our front porch. Cars swooshed by in the quiet city neighborhood. We sipped wine and rested together in the warm evenings. Those were hard days right after Michelle was struck down. I was able to keep going each day because I knew we would be together that night, tucked away in our little refuge. Even after spending 12 hours caring for her quadriplegic daughter, Julie’s easy laugh would ripple through the calm quiet. She would sip her wine, the glass reflecting the light from our neighbor’s house, watching me with those still fierce eyes. In those eyes I found a way to keep hope alive.
We have endured so much, I think as I consider our Adirondack chairs. My cancer just a few years into our marriage. Years of infertility. The birth of our severely mentally retarded son, Matthew. And then poor Michelle’s illness, which left her a quad. The odds of a marriage surviving any one of those is miniscule, something like one in 10. I’ve forgotten my Intro to Statistics course, but the survival rate for families afflicted with all four must be something like one in a kazillion.
“What is the point, Lord,” I pray on the outermost edge of our bed, “if this as good as it gets after these long years of keeping a marriage alive?”
Not really much of a prayer, I realize. More of a gripe with Management, the One who created this institution called holy matrimony in the first place.
“It is just sad, Lord, and stupid. So much wasted time and energy. God, I am sick of it.”
So what am I to do? I wonder. There was a time when moments such as this would have led me to fantasize about leaving — actually getting up and walking out the door. That would show her. But I have picked up at least a little self-awareness along this journey. I know with a deep-seated certainty that my best days have been with this family sleeping under my roof. Although I am an eminently shakable man, this is a truth that does not waver. I reflect back on a scene that was painted in our living room just last night that affirms this conviction.
I was sitting on the couch watching the NFC playoffs when Matthew, my son who is mentally retarded, crawled into the room, pushing an electronic toy along the wood floor, holding a sock in his mouth like a puppy.
“Coming out to watch some football, Matty?” I asked.
He paused, perking up at the sound of my voice. He cocked his head, looking all the more like a puppy, tuning in to my voice’s location. Then he had me in his sights and made a beeline toward me, crawling up onto the couch and resting his head in my lap.
I heard the door to the garage explode open in the back of the house.
“Hello!” Isaiah, our 6-year-old, yelled. “Anybody home?”
I heard him running down the hall, his big, flat feet slapping the floors, heard him rounding the corner through the kitchen and closing in, and saw him jump to a stop in the living room.
“Hey, Sweet Boy.”
He joined us on the couch, piling onto Matthew, cooing in his ear, “Hey, Matty, Matty, Matty. Fatty Matty. Matty Boy. You watchin’ football? Huh? You watchin’ football with your daddy?”
Emily, our 11-year-old, came into the room, caught sight of the three of us piled up on the couch and smiled. She made her way over to the couch and joined in. The three of them were wiggly and hot, Isaiah, talking too loudly an inch from my ear, Matty awkwardly trying to make a little room for himself in the suddenly claustrophobic space into which he found himself stuffed.
So much for football, I thought, as I pried Isaiah’s arm up to tickle his armpit.
Lying in bed, I think about how good it is to come through that door at the end of a work day, entering the shelter Julie and I have worked so hard to build for our children over these many years. And this particular fight with Julie was nobody’s fault but my own, I now realize.
“I want to do better, Lord. I long to do better. What would you have me do?”
“Turn to her,” comes the answer, more of an awareness growing within me than a conscious thought.
I don’t want to turn to her. I am always the one who has to reach out first.
“Turn to her,” comes again, this time more firmly.
Fine, then. I grudgingly roll onto my back but then stop. Halfway there, I resist going farther. But I make myself reach the rest of the way to press my hand on the small of her back.
In the early days of our marriage she might have squirmed away from this tentative touch or, just to make sure I felt good and rejected, she might have gotten up out of bed and stormed off. But tonight she rolls onto her back and lets out a sigh.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
An apology. Something that does not come easily to Julie, something I don’t think I heard during the first 10 years we were married. And now she is saying it first.
“No, I’m sorry,” I say.
“Is something wrong?”
“Not really. Just another crappy day at the bank.”
“Nothing worth talking about.”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” she says, turning toward me. “They love you at the bank.”
“Yeah, they do.”
She smiles. “They’re lucky to have you.”
“Don’t shut me out like that,” she says, referring to our discussion about the garage door opener. “You know I hate that.”
“I know. You just get so intense sometimes.”
“You love that about me.”
I smile. She’s right.
“You like a challenge,” she says. “It’s part of my charm.”
I laugh. “Yeah, that’s it.”
After a time, it grows quiet and I look out again at the moon-washed Adirondack chairs. How many times have we had this fight, or some version of it? I wonder. How many more will we have? I think again of Doug’s theory. It’s not that God is some mad scientist, putting us together with a person custom-made to drive us crazy and then standing back to enjoy the ensuing mayhem. It seems to me that God makes us a promise, the flip side to this flawed scheme of His: If Julie and I are careful with each other within the protection of this union, we have the opportunity to help heal the broken places within us, all those tender wounds called up over and over again by the murderous proximity found only in marriage.
I feel her twitch, the first signs of sleep. We manage to get through these cycles so much more quickly now. There has been healing over these years of marriage, real change in both of us. Perhaps the day will come when we are evolved enough to give each other the grace to safely vent the ugly impulses hard-wired into us. When I feel accused, she will back off. When Julie’s fear of abandonment begins to color her vision, the intensity level ratcheting up in weird ways, I will draw her closer instead of shutting her out. In another 18 years, maybe we will be able to get through these skirmishes without screaming at each other. I smile. That would be nice.
In the meantime, I pray, help me reach out to her across the patches of temporary insanity we can’t seem to avoid. Hold us together when we can’t do it ourselves. Keep her near, for I long to turn to those fierce eyes of hers forever.
Bruce Lawrie lives in Moraga, California. His work has appeared in Portland Magazine, The Best Spiritual Writing 2011, Wabash Magazine and elsewhere.