I read fiction about suffering, madness, and death. Not brave quests to overcome seemingly-impossible obstacles. Not lovable talking animals learning valuable lessons. Not We-Disliked-Each-Other-at-First-but-Now-We’re-Falling-in-Love stories, unless untranslated from the original Austen. No happy endings. Fittingly, I am also a college English professor, down to my daily uniform of corduroy pants and up to my suede elbow patches. So the books in my American Literature class this semester represent Unhappiness’s Greatest Hits, especially marital misery. For all of its green lights, ash heaps, and eyes in the sky, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel whose plot boils down to adultery, filled with lines like this: “Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.” So far, no student has asked how I personally feel about the subject of marriage itself. They do not ask, Are you married? Or, What do you think? So thankfully, I don’t have to tell. As long as they don’t want to know, I can keep my personal life out of it. That’s good. If they did ask, I would be afraid to answer.
Instead, we stick to the stories. And I find myself in the position of persuading skeptical students—women at least as often as men—to see how, in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” from 1899, Edna must have felt trapped in her marriage, even as she strives to exercise some semblance of control through her questionable decisions. I need students to consider the possibility that, in the “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the care given to the unnamed, seemingly unreliable wife by her husband could be the cause of her illness, not the cure. And I want them to imagine that these stories’ turn-of-the century timeframe does not mean that their gender troubles have all been settled by our own enlightened turn of the millennium. The conventions of first-comes-love, then-comes-marriage, then-comes-baby-in-the-baby-carriage are powerful traps—for women, certainly, but, in Ernest Hemingway’s and Nathanael West’s work, men as well. Fortunately, students don’t wonder how I feel about marriage personally. They think they know.
In New York, where I lived most of my life, maybe marital ambivalence is well understood—fewer and later marriages are the norm. But where I now live in the Midwest, many of my students are engaged by their junior year. Many more marry upon graduation. When characters rightfully stand up to parents, my students say things like, “My parents and I are BEST FRIENDS!” I roll my eyes and think snarky thoughts and generalize about the Midwest as though I don’t live here, too.
Yet there is something about me my students don’t know. Something that few, except for those closest to me, can fathom or would even suspect. It’s a truth so clandestine, so potentially startling, that it casts a bright light over my dark, shiny veneer of authority and credibility as a writer, academic, and curmudgeon.
I have a happy marriage. I am happy.
Please. Don’t judge me too harshly. It’s difficult, not just in my line of work but in America in general, even in the Midwest once college ends and adult life begins, to admit to being happy. Before I decided to write this essay, in fact, I needed to consult with my wife to make sure it was safe with her to come out.
“It’s not something I can talk about with most people,” she agreed. “When my friends start talking about their husbands, I just smile and keep quiet.” For the record, she agrees that we’re happy. And like me, she was happy before we met. One person can’t make another person happy anyway. Being happy is not a choice. While we’ve managed to meet other happy couples over the years, they also tend to keep their business to themselves.
Of course, no marriage is perfect. My wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly. I don’t like that my wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly. As I keep having to explain, it’s temporomandibular joint disorder, and eating bagels is no picnic for me, either.
OK, our marriage is perfect. But it’s not as though our lives are perfect. We have struggled with money, with painful decisions, with bouts of dissatisfaction, with buying homes and raising three children, with health scares and the everyday array of American anxiety. But through everything, it was and always is the two of us, together, against the world. Never against each other.
We knew we were going to marry each other on the night we met, when we left Webster Hall, a loud downtown club, at its 4 AM closing, to walk and talk together. After stopping at an all-night diner for coffee, we went to Central Park to watch the sun rise as we sat in Belvedere Castle [top image]. Neither of us was looking to get married, so like an experienced screenwriter my wife threw in an obligatory Third Act conflict, declaring a few weeks after we met that she wanted to move to San Francisco, going as far as to fly there with an eye on an apartment in the Haight. In my memory, our story unfolds like a movie. What would be three quarters of the way through—or in real time, a month after we met and upon her return home—we were back together and soon engaged. At the end, we married, in Brooklyn, eleven months from our first night in Central Park, wondering why it took so long.
If our lives had really been that movie, I would not watch it. Too Hollywood. It would feature a long musical montage of us: walking up First Avenue with ice-cream cones, then ordering pasta dishes with different color sauces so we could mix them together at the table, to the cook’s dismay. Flipping through bins of second-hand CDs, perusing stacks of used books, watching “Stomp” on Second Avenue, taking the L to Brooklyn, fumbling coins for our laundry, sitting on the floor and drinking a bottle of plum wine for so long that we missed our restaurant reservation and didn’t notice. All while a Foo Fighters—no, worse, a Goo Goo Dolls—song played in the background of the scene. Laughter, smiles. An uplifting romantic comedy, when the only romantic comedy I like is “Annie Hall.” But we really did do all that in our first months together, and the night we met was the first of thousands of beautiful, magical times we would spend together.
Ugh. You see the problem. I wrote “beautiful, magical times.” I know, I know: what people like us do behind closed doors, in private, is our own business. We have no right to flaunt our happy lifestyle, to shove it in other people’s faces.
Since then, every Valentine’s Day my wife cooks a heart-shaped meatloaf. When our first son was born, I wrote Welcome Home to mother and child across the living room with dried rose petals. For reasons I still can’t fathom, I was once singing the “Annie” song into a banana: “The sun will come out, banana, bet your bottom dollar that banana, they’ll be some.” I looked up to realize I was not alone in my foolishness, only to hear my wife join in singing too: [together] “Banana! Banana! I love ya, banana.” Giggles and hugs. Our cars are matching colors. And so on. These and many more are the joyful, shameful secrets I must never reveal if I want to be respected, for they push the limits of tolerance, even in a free, Western, supposedly open-minded society such as ours.
Great thinkers, artists, and writers are supposed to struggle in their loves. The best someone should hope for is the marriage of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, passionate at first but then tense and drifting later on. It could be worse: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre’s drunken turbulence; or worse, Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy union with his thirteen-year old first cousin, Virginia Clemm; or worse, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s catastrophe. Actually, I’m not sure which is worse. But it’s not a contest; it’s like the opposite of a contest. Of course, there are renowned literary romances. Just not literary marriages. The story of Darcy and Elizabeth ends once they marry, Catherine and Heathcliff marry others, and Romeo and Juliet, you know. For every novel like Ian McEwen’s Saturday, including a happy marriage, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy fictional marriages. From the impression I get from journalism, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy nonfictional marriages, too.
Yet even Tolstoy, who famously warned readers of happiness’s narrative monotony—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina, another great and terrible novel of adultery and death—was, by most accounts, happily married. Or at least, like Joyce, he was happily married for most of his life, before the marriage finally soured. Thankfully, my wife and I have been married for only fifteen years, so there is still plenty of time for us to have the dramatic and tumultuous relationship we envy in others, the kind of traditional marriage that we can admit to in the open, without fear of intolerance or ridicule.
For now, until the rest of the world is ready, I live in fear that one day, my literature students will find out who and what I really am: someone who makes them read only about misfortune in marriage, when my own is inappropriately happy. And that I secretly hope my children will think we’re still best friends when they’re in college, too.
Time: OK, this requires some explanation. I originally wrote a 60 minute version for last Valentine’s Day, but when I was done I thought I might try to do something else with it. I spent a lot more time on it, in exactly the way I promised myself I wouldn’t for the blog, made it longer, edited it more carefully, and sent it to the New York Times Modern Love column. Which, um, didn’t want it. If you read “Modern Love” regularly, you’ll notice that they like stuff that’s far more depressing than this piece, missing the point that SO DO I. Oh, well.
It’s coming out in hard copy next week in Maryville’s literary journal, Magnolia, which is fine with me. Unless someone wants to buy it. Then email me.