After Happily Ever After
“You could leave me. Divorce me. Seriously. You could.” I said to Nick, my husband of just four months. I slumped lower on the sofa and stared down at the blurry outline of a red wine stain on the orange cushion. “I mean it. You didn’t sign up for this. Find someone else. Find a healthy wife.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Nick stated with his trademark midwestern certainty, sitting beside me and placing one of his giant bear-paw hands on my lower back. His default is calm and cool, while mine leans toward hysterics and dramatic declarations. I narrowed my eyes, wanting to be mean and to be comforted at the same time. I slid away from him, adding physical space between us in case he took me up on my offer.
“I’m honest. I’m being honest. This isn’t what you signed up for!” Why was I saying this? Stop, I thought. Just stop. But I couldn’t. My eyes stung, my voice shook, and my heart slammed into my throat as I buried my face in the sofa we’d bought together. We’d decided it was cheerful and cozy, but also durable enough to withstand destruction from our big gross dog and, one day, our kids.
Hours earlier, following a routine checkup with my doctor, a genetics counselor named Violet, with a strangely chirpy upbeat tone, told me I had a good chance of developing the disease that was slowly killing my father--muscular dystrophy. For most of my life, my parents and doctors told me I couldn’t inherit his condition, but they were wrong. Violet went on to explain that this particular kind of muscular dystrophy could strike at any time in my late thirties (I was thirty-five). Once it starts, there’s no reversing its course. Your muscles, particularly in your legs, back, and face, stop working. Many people with the disease end up in a wheelchair and need assistance from a machine to breathe.
“It’s a fifty-fifty chance you have this disease.”
“Fifty-fifty you have it. You’ll do a genetic test and we’ll need to check. Do you want to know or not? Some people don’t want to know. By the way, I meant to ask you, are you planning on having kids?” Violet said all of this in the casual tone someone might use to ask if you’re planning on watching the new season of The Bachelor.
My father showed symptoms before he turned forty and the progression of the disease was long, slow, and excruciating. By the time Violet delivered her news to me, my dad was confined to a hospital bed in the living room of my parents’ house, unable to walk, to stand, or breathe on his own.
For my mother, the lines between wife, caretaker, and servant became invisible, a fact that eroded their marriage as well as her own mental and physical health. My mother’s life, one of a dutiful but miserable caretaker, wasn’t something I wanted for Nick--not now, not ever. I was trying to be humane, or maybe I thought that by creating a different awful situation I could make the current awful situation go away.
That’s why I told my new husband--a man who loved riding bikes, hiking, skiing, climbing things, and doing anything with a strong set of two legs--to divorce me, I felt ruined, damaged, and powerless. I didn’t want to ruin his life.
But let me back up a little. I set out to write this book six months before I heard from Violet. That was a happier time. And I promise this book isn’t all doom and gloom and crying on couches. I was in the middle of planning my wedding and after months of receiving unsolicited advice about “the big day,” I realized I had no idea what happened when the wedding was over. I had no idea how to be married.
Sure, there are plenty of books about fixing a bad marriage, but mine wasn’t broken yet--it hadn’t even started. Besides, none of them spoke to me. With their pastel covers emblazoned with flowers, sunrises, and couples who had perfect hair, those books were talking to someone more mature, someone more refined, someone who already owned napkin rings and didn’t kill houseplants.
As my friend Jessica put it, “There are lots of books on how to be married, but they’re awful.” Speaking at a conference in 2011, the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the crowd that the most important career choice a woman can make is to marry well. But there was no guidebook on how to be well married.
My other conundrum was that I loved my life. Before Nick. Adding him to it was wonderful, but I didn’t want being married to become the most important thing about me. I felt all tangled up inside when my engagement received more Facebook likes than that time I got a great job, or when I sold my first book, or made that excellent meme of Liz Lemon eating French fries with Leslie Knope. Everything else I’d ever done paled in comparison to the fact that I. Was. Getting. Married.
I’m not alone in finding my hard-won accomplishments outshone by a ring. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the Chinese diver He Zi did something none of us could ever dream of doing when she won a silver medal. Her boyfriend proposed immediately afterward. The BBC article celebrating Zi read:
“Chinese diver He Zi had just received a silver medal for the women’s three-metre springboard at the Rio Olympics on Sunday. But she ended up with an even bigger prize when her boyfriend Qin Kai, in front of a global TV audience, went down on one knee.” Emphasis mine.
Just as a ring can overshadow a woman’s achievements, personality, and identity, marriage itself can be completely eclipsed by the “twelve hours that change everything.” No matter how progressive we think we’ve become in America, we’re still a society obsessed with weddings. The New York Times allots premium real estate to dozens of wedding announcements in its top-selling issue of the week. Millions of viewers tune in to the Bachelor franchises, reality shows that toy with the viewer’s fear of not finding “the one” before forcing two panicked and inebriated strangers into an engagement ceremony on top of a precariously windy seaside cliff. And even though it has long been hailed for breaking television’s glass ceiling by portraying strong, independent women, three of the four heroines on Sex and the City were brides before the show’s conclusion.
Nearly every romantic comedy ever made ends with the wedding and leaves out the most interesting part--the marriage.
As a culture, we’re less interested in the machinery of a marriage, the quotidian challenges, the joys, pitfalls, irritations, surprises, and intimacies. No one would click on the headline: “Beyoncé Annoyed Jay Finished Watching Game of Thrones Without Her” or “Kanye Wishes Kim Would Stop Texting at the Dinner Table” or “Justin HATES That Jen Forgets to Put the Cap Back on the Shampoo.” Although all of these things are definitely true.
If the wedding is the fairy-tale ending then what is the marriage? A sequel? What do we actually do after “I do”?
I have to be honest. My own marriage was the “fairy-tale ending” in the mad cap romantic comedy that had been my life for thirty-four years. I’d long been in the habit of selecting all the wrong men, gotten myself into hilarious misunderstandings, kissed all the frogs, and drunk all the pinot grigio with all the gay best friends. In my early thirties, I was the last woman standing among my girlfriends from college . . . the spinster, the one who would have cats and affairs with other people’s husbands. And then, when I least expected it, I found my prince on a sightseeing boat during a business trip to the Galápagos Islands.
Yeah. I know.
I was working as the managing editor for Yahoo!’s travel Web site. Nick also worked in journalism, the serious business kind that sent him to the Galápagos to write about the stability of Ecuador’s tourism plans. I was there to write about how to take wonderful selfies with baby sea lions. Nick quickly became my favorite person on the boat. We’d each brought our own tattered copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos to the Galápagos. When we went snorkeling, he grabbed my hand and showed me midget penguins swimming beneath the surface. He had none of the arrogant bullshit that oozed from the boys in New York City. And even though I’d shown up on this ecocruise with no makeup, no agenda, and not a single adorable outfit, he kissed me on our last night at sea. Either that kiss was going to be the start of something wonderful or I’d never see him again.
When we said good-bye at the airport in Ecuador he looked so sad, like a Labrador retriever who’d misplaced his favorite ball.
“I want to see you again,” he murmured as we exited the security line to fly to our homes on opposite sides of the country.
“Maybe I’ll see you on Tinder,” I joked to make the moment less awkward.
“Can I call you?”
“Don’t you even want to play a little hard to get?” Who was this guy.
He shrugged. “What’s the point?”
I thought about it for a second, carefully considering my reply. “In a couple of weeks, I’ll be in Palm Springs for a conference. I could come early. We could go to Joshua Tree. I’ve never been.”
“I’ll take you camping!” he exclaimed with glee, kissed me, and ran to catch his flight.
As soon as I got back on the Internet, I Google and Facebook stalked him to ensure that he wasn’t a serial killer.
Nick promised to meet me in the parking lot of LAX, but I surprised him at baggage claim instead. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about seeing this near stranger again. But when he turned around, grinned, and enveloped me in an enormous hug with a full kiss on the lips, I knew I was a goner. He’d brought along a tent, a grill, two sleeping bags, and a first aid kit that included a foil blanket in case I got hypothermia.
“I also have iodine pills in case we need to purify water,” he said matter-of-factly. “They taste like crap, but you won’t get sick.”
This was someone who was ready for anything. Nick Aster was clearly a man who could fix my broken garbage disposal with his bare hands, one who would know how to keep houseplants alive.
He was also handsome and clever and funny. When I asked him to help me with things, he said, “As you wish.” This was particularly attractive to a girl whose first sexual fantasy was about Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride. But he wasn’t the kind of guy I usually dated. Nick is very, very outdoorsy. He had long hair, rode his bike everywhere, wore hiking sandals, and once, while backpacking in Colorado, was chased and almost killed by a mountain lion. I always dated guys who were indoorsy--bankery types who drank overpriced vodka and would rather have dated supermodels than me.
Soon after we met, I lamented to my shrink, Jen, that Nick wasn’t my type. She made a face like she’d swallowed a bad oyster.
“Your type isn’t working for you!” she shouted and rolled her eyes. She was right, of course, and I was smitten, and that was all there was to it. To misquote F. Scott Fitzgerald, we slipped briskly into an intimacy from which we never recovered.
We were engaged just three months after we met.
“I couldn’t wait to propose to you. The world makes sense to me with you in it,” Nick declared as he pulled out a slender gold band spiraled in very delicate (fair trade, conflict-free) diamonds.
“Gahhhhhhhhhhhh!” I yelled. “What? SERIOUSLY?” Then I remembered I was supposed to say yes.
By falling in love with Nick I learned all of the clichés are true. When you know, you know. When it’s right, it’s easy. Love happens when you least expect it. When I was single I thought the people who said those things were liars. I knew the truth. The truth was you dated someone for two to three years and then tricked them into marrying you. But I was the one who was wrong all along.
It took a while to sink in that I was actually getting married. It still hadn’t hit me in July, three months later, when I packed my yellow Fiat, no bigger than a golf cart, with all of the detritus of my single life. I was leaving New York, my home of thirteen years, the only place I’d ever lived as an adult, for San Francisco to live with Nick before our wedding. No matter how difficult life could be in New York, it was complicated and strange in a way that I understood and had grown used to, like Buddhism or New Yorker cartoons. Leaving terrified me.
Nick couldn’t get out of work for the week, so my friend Glynnis drove the 2,906 miles with me and my giant dog, Lady Piazza. Our journey would take seven ten-hour days. We’d be like Thelma and Louise without the sex with Brad Pitt, the murder, or the drive off the cliff, but with the red lipstick. There was something incredibly empowering about telling your almost-husband that you didn’t need him to drive with you across the country. I liked being able to say: I’ve got this.
I patted Lady Piazza on the head as I took a final look around my city and swiped at the sweat trickling down the back of my neck. I wouldn’t miss the smell of Manhattan during a hundred-degree day, that was for sure.
“You’re a good girl. We’ll like it in San Francisco,” I whispered to the dog. I looked over at Glynnis. “I’m moving across the country,” I said, in shock.
“Yeah, you are,” she answered as she fiddled with the radio and used her other hand to expertly apply a second coat of lipstick.
“And I’m getting married,” I added, staring at the traffic of New York City one last time.
Glynnis landed on a Taylor Swift song and turned to look at me. The sun caught her wild curls, illuminating them into a halo of flames. “Babe, is this just sinking in for you?” It was.
Now that I had my movie-perfect happy ending, I projected the face of a happy and confident bride-to‑be, but on the inside I was terrified. I was terrified I’d lose my identity and my independence by joining my life to another person. I was terrified I would fail--that Nick and I wouldn’t work and I would lose him. This made it all the more important not to lose myself in the process. The media tells us over and over again that half of all marriages in America end in failure. No matter how special and unique I believed my bond with Nick to be, I knew the road ahead was going to be difficult to navigate.