Something unusual happened last night …
My friend Aimee was at dinner. My husband, daughter, and I are in a small quarantine with her family, so once a week we put the kids at the hot dog and baby carrot counter, and the adults sit at the table, like civilized people, pretending to be anywhere but home: dinner, salad , wine. Bedding. Cloth napkins. He currently has an air of normalcy.
It all started benignly: Aimee asked my husband about the job. As embarrassing as it was, my immediate instinct was to vent my anger – she is really MY friend and I have so little time with her and I know all about your work! Can we talk about something else ?! But when my husband started talking, I felt something strange stir in me, something I didn’t even know I had been missing for almost a year: the excitement of looking at my partner through someone else’s eyes.
Much has been written about how difficult this pandemic is for marriage – forced union; the unnatural weight of becoming the only other adult in that person’s orbit; and for many of us a lonely parenting style without personal school or help. For months, I thought about how much it would help me to see my girlfriends, leave the apartment, and have a normal eight-hour difference from my spouse. “Go to your office!” I often want to scream. (No.)
But what I completely forgot about in this year of isolation is the joy of being with my spouse i other people. It never occurred to me that some of the difficulties were simply related to seeing your partner, day after day, month after month, through your same old, worn out eyes with absolutely no one else to help you see them differently.
Gone were the disguised glances at the party, when he would wink at me the way I like as he poured a glass of red paint. Gone were the noisy dinners where he would sit on the other side of the table, preoccupied with talking to someone (anyone!); when I would see his jaw line at a right angle or be reminded of how he listens carefully to others or how my friends are taken away with him. Gone are the days of seeing a spouse in his element – at work, in a social environment, even simply trained and complex, ready to leave the house. Those moments that for many of us primarily created heat, lust, interest and curiosity. Those moments that made you want more.
It’s entirely possible that if Aimee hadn’t been there for dinner, if my husband had told me this special story about his job over our usual rushed pasta (at the counter, a seven-year-old among us yelling at our attention), I would have half listened or even shortened . As far as work is concerned, we always seem to have the same conversation over and over again. “How was class?” We ask each other. “Good.” We joke that when I ask him how the business is going, he can only say, “I can’t complain,” not because everything is going well, but because I literally can’t hear another complaint from his mouth.
But here our friend was curious about the details and business of his job, which is why he retold stories about life in China during the outbreak of SARS; postponement of postgraduate studies due to an administrative error; the affection he feels for his hard-working graduates – and something happened to me. I got that little, old rush I hadn’t felt in years.
My love, his outer face, was exposed here again. He’s not the type who forgets to throw trash or make the bed or who plays the piano when I want Legos to play with our child. Here was a smart, kind, considerate, polite, adventurous man I married. Here was, to put it simply, the person I fell in love with. So often, in these difficult times, I forget that guy.
We get married because we want to go beyond covert views at parties, drunken conversations with well-lit dinners, one-day parties where not much is revealed, but everyone has a great time. We want real intimacy – that we can tell our partners eight times a week, “Do you think I have COVID?” and let them not divorce us.
But for intimacy to flourish, we also don’t need to look at each other endlessly through incessant months of intimidation, our public figure is completely cut off, life reduced to survival and housekeeping. For months I thought the solution might be someone to go away for a while. I would fantasize about leaving or taking him away for a longer period of time. I dream of being alone in the cabin, no one asks me what dinner is for or the credit card bill is paid.
But perhaps a solution is still impossible at the moment: it is easy to bring others back into our orbits. We need friends who force us to come together and get out of the literal and metaphorical pajamas. We need to see friends unmasked, up close, at dinner, with wine, during long and winding conversations not only because we love them, but also because of what they do for us. They provide this canvas, this phase. They allow us to breathe new life into our old relationships. They can help us remember why of all people we decided to get married at all.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. He teaches creative writing at Keck School of Medicine in the United States and writes a weekly newsletter, People + bodies.
PS Eight things I learned about marriage, i the secret of a happy marriage.
(Photo by Javier Díez / Stocksy.)