By Jennifer Niesslein
We met in the dim basement of a fraternity. The fraternity—we can’t remember which now, any one of those old columned houses lining Rugby Road—pumped music loud and we had to shout in each other’s ears to be heard. We were refilling our red Solo cups from the keg of cheap beer when we first yelled to each other. We were dressed alike, in tee-shirts and denim shorts. We joked later that we found each other because we were the two people who looked as if they shouldn’t be there, vaguely alternative kids in a sea of khakis and L.L. Bean.
We were nineteen years old. It’s funny to think that we danced that night—Hey, show this person your least impressive skill! We went outside to talk and stood close to each other. We didn’t want the night to end so we piled in with the others in Kathy’s little Honda; we slept in the same room that night, one of us in the bed, the other on the futon. From that night on, we were inseparable.
We both lost weight that first year. We woke each morning giddy that something good would happen that day: we would see each other. Of course, in the first few weeks, we were both a little cautious, consumed with a heady mix of romance and doubt. Was it completely reciprocal? Would we run out of things to talk about? Would some terrible, deal-breaking flaw reveal itself?
There was a certain kiss that tamped the doubts down. We were walking from a party, holding hands during the few blocks it would take us to get to the convenience store. We were going to buy a pack of cigarettes. We stopped and turned toward each other, savoring those seconds when our mouths were near but hadn’t yet made contact, the salty scent of our faces, the delicious nerves. We kissed. After that, we threw out caution. We took a sort of ownership of each other’s bodies, a jumble of legs and arms and mouths and love.
On the university grounds, there was another couple that looked like us, her tall and with a sheet of long hair, him taller with a mop of curls. They broke up before graduation, but we wondered if they got the same sort of comments we did. A mentally ill woman—the one who did somersaults on the pedestrian mall—told us that we were going to make beautiful children; strangers we’d just met would remark on how well matched we were. Our chemistry seemed like a force field.
We twined our lives together. We stood together outside the hospital room door and heard the first cries of our oldest nephew after his birth. We took cheap vacations to places like off-season Chincoteague, using our last ten in cash to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We stayed up late waiting for the other to get off shift waiting tables or tending bar. One summer day, we skipped work to go hiking at Sugar Hollow. It was a ways out of town and we drove with the windows open and the music pouring from the speakers. We found an easy sun-dappled trail that led through some streams, and we walked the gentle incline, bumping into each other just as an excuse to touch skin. We took pictures of each other posing on a rock that lay just beneath the surface of the water, an optical illusion of levitation.
That’s how we felt about each other: we walked on water.
We grew up to be the people we are now, shape-shifting together, holding hands like the Wonder Twins. We were the engineering major and the English major, morphing into the trumpet player and the local journalist, turning into the chemical engineer and the aspiring short-story writer. We became husband and wife, father and mother, good cop and bad cop, fly fisherman and Scrabble addict, quality assurance engineer and business owner.
We can see our flaws now, both in ourselves and each other. On the eve of our thirteenth wedding anniversary, a strong thunderstorm blew into town. A huge limb fell off our maple, hitting the yard with such force that it stuck into the earth at a forty-five degree angle. Worse, the city sewage line backed up into our basement.
We spent most of the night on the phone, calling the city and the sort of companies that clean up murder scenes. It was certainly grisly down there, the pipe in the recesses near the hot water heater spewing whole neighborhoods’ worth of filth. We rolled a dampened towel and placed it under the basement door so the smell wouldn’t permeate the rest of the house.
The next day, the city came to clear the wreckage and the cleaning company came back to scour. We lost nearly everything in the basement. We were tired and both missing work to deal with this minor catastrophe. After everyone left, we sighed, assessing our lost belongings—the antique chest that held sports equipment, a basket of laundry, the bright ceramic flowerpots bought on a long-ago Mother’s Day. Our Christmas tree and ornaments, including every one that our son had ever made and the Lenox china one of two doves, bearing in gold script “First Christmas Together 1991.”
“Did you at least save the ornament—our ornament?” one asked the other.
“No—the whole box was disgusting.”
Exhausted, we snapped then, reverting to type: one of us irritated and pragmatic, the other seething and sentimental. We didn’t speak for the rest of the day, not so much as a punishment but to avoid saying something that we couldn’t unsay. We took a nap; we came to our senses by dinnertime. It was our anniversary, for God’s sake. We had each other, even if our keepsakes, as we’d later put it, went down with the shit.
It’s been so many years, we might be the kind of people that some refer to as “smug marrieds.” We don’t know. Every partnership, it seems to us, is a locked box, knowable only to the people in it. We don’t feel smug. We feel grateful for the constant accrual of all these minutes together—the winks across a crowded room, the ass grab in the kitchen, the phone call from home, the car sex on a (whoops, not quite) deserted road, the arm to cling to at the funeral, the mispronunciations of words that our son made when he was little.
Last year, we turned forty. It sounds odd to say, but we don’t know what the other looks like anymore. We have too many associations—love, passion, comfort—to see one another with any degree of objectivity.
For people like us, forty is when you start to realize that you’re out of big beginnings. Unless something unexpected happens (or you force it to happen), there will be no new romances, no new weddings, no more of your own babies to nuzzle. You know very well that you’re not going to relocate.
Couples around us have started to break apart, tender bands of skin on their ring fingers, new apartment keys in their key chains. Even in the very best of circumstances—amicable, mutually decided, no kids—we find it sad for them, something with such a hopeful beginning coming to a close. No matter how much better off our friends wind up being—and they are, they always are, at least emotionally—there is pain.
On a more self-involved level, though, these break-ups remind us of something every couple loses sight of: that it only takes one of you to develop an itch for something new, and there is nothing at all that the other can do about it. It’s the lesson we learn from our newly single friends, over and over. We try hard to lose sight of the lesson for the sake of ourselves. As someone wise once said, “You gotta have faith, faith, faith.”
We got married on the grounds of a sprawling bed and breakfast, just beyond the koi pond. It had sprinkled earlier in the day, but by the time the pianist struck up “Here Comes the Bride,” the sky was clear and warm. We were twenty-four and wrote our own vows. The ceremony itself lasted all of five minutes.
It was a lovely beginning, but essentially it was just a party in celebration of us.
In novels and in jazz, the big squishy middle is where all of the interesting stuff happens. In our story, this is where we are now.
We don’t know which events will seem important years down the road, but we’re living the details right now. In 2013, in our big, messy house, our son practices his clarinet. Our Boston terrier mix is still alive, goofy as ever. We haven’t used a babysitter in a long while, and we usually go out to eat on Saturdays, just the two of us; weirdly, our son despises eating out. We laugh ourselves silly over a random lyric we hear on the radio. We eat lunch together most days in the TV room and finish off with a piece of chocolate. One day in February, you come home from work with Chinese food for us, and I ask you, my valentine, to read this, and you do.
This essay originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, which is an excellent site you should check out.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. Her website is jenniferniesslein.com.