*Image: Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Nancy McCabe
1. The Garden of Earthly Delights
The first time I saw a slide of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” projected on the screen in art history class, Marc and I had been married for nine months and I felt like I was viewing a metaphor for my own life. That painting somehow captured the creepy, trapped feeling I’d had at my first college party, the first time I’d kissed Marc. The painting seemed to capture my unease about the direction my life had taken. I’d known it was a mistake to marry him, but for some reason I’d walked right into it.
The painting’s central panel, with its pale, frail, writhing limbs and haunting juxtapositions of eggs and fruit, suggested a moral abandon that transformed, in the right panel, to the torments of hell. There, a man had been crucified in a harp, another shut up in a drum, slashed and confined as if in the grip of the same crushingly loud music I remembered. Hell was an indecipherable world of shapes that might simultaneously be outer-space vegetables or disembodied ears, nebulous images that made no distinction between human and animal. I stared at the broken egg in the middle—or was it a dressed chicken, or a stomach ripped from a body’s cavity?
I was mesmerized by what seemed to me a rendering of that Halloween party’s similar confusion of inanimate, beast, and human, civilization as I thought I knew it giving way to the savagery of multi-colored wigs and gauzy dresses, tails and masks and pointy ears. Why had I, given the desperation I’d felt at that party, married him anyway?
I’d been eighteen the night I found myself in the front seat of a car, wearing cardboard horns and a red jumpsuit, making out with a bearded man dressed like a nun. I found Marc’s costume a little offensive, and I didn’t like the way his hands groped my small breasts. His kisses were wet and sloppy and it grossed me out the way he kept sticking his tongue in my ear. I froze and pulled away, but he just followed, hiking up the tongue action.
How had I, a girl with a strict religious upbringing who’d recently been in love with a boy who wanted to be a priest, come to this? My mother, who’d grown up a Nazarene, forbidden to dance or go to movies because even ballroom dance could be too sensual and tickets to G-rated films supported pornography, had hoped I would attend a church college. “Maybe someday you’ll go to college here,” she’d said to me when we visited a cousin’s dorm at Mid-America Nazarene College, a school where girls were only allowed to wear pants on the most bitterly cold days. She said the same thing when, on a family vacation, we ascended the prayer tower at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. I couldn’t imagine applying to either of these colleges. I was by then growing more and more uncomfortable with their doctrine, but more importantly, I couldn’t picture going to those places because I was too afraid of the outside world, of being on my own.
And so, because I couldn’t fathom leaving my home with its crooked pictures and tilted lampshades and bug-speckled light covers and the iron fish symbol nailed to the front door that meant Christians live here, I was now a student at the local state university. That’s where I’d met Marc, working at the student newspaper. He thought it was funny when, at work one day, I told him about the copy of Cheaper by the Dozen on our family room bookshelf; all of the damns had been blotted out by my mom back in the fifties when she’d read the book to her fifth graders. His family was much more light-hearted, fond of practical jokes, like the time his mom had spent months dropping clues suggesting that she was pregnant, and then, when April rolled around, sent telegrams to everyone that said, “April fool!”
Marc didn’t know quite what to make of me, but we were even, since I didn’t know what to make of him, either. I knew that the outside world was full of frightening, sordid people, drug addicts and hippies like those longhaired young people we saw at the Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas, wearing short shorts and halter tops like the pictures of teenagers in my Living Bible. “Hippie” was our all-purpose word for those types. My parents didn’t officially disdain dancing, but in the presence of music, they tended to mimic the onset of rigor mortis. Among my aunts, a little toe tapping to music was okay, but they all frowned at the shoulder-shimmying hip-rotating abandon of hippie girls.
My whole childhood, I’d gone to church every Sunday and been a steady if somewhat lazy student and Camp Fire girl who never bothered to do anything challenging to earn my beads. I didn’t research African legends, make a marimba and play it in a rhythm orchestra, or construct a chemical hygrometer. Instead, I’d lit a candle, put it out by lowering a cup over it, and earned a bead for showing that fire couldn’t burn without oxygen. The next month I’d obtained another bead by demonstrating a relaxation exercise, pretending to be a rag doll for three minutes.
I’d eventually quit Camp Fire Girls to join a Nazarene kids’ club called Caravan, where I diligently memorized the Twenty-third Psalm from the King James Bible, with all of its thous and preparests and anointests and runneths. I didn’t last long, never being promoted from Pathfinder to Cabin Helper, Cabin Keeper, or the ultimate, Homemaker, but only because I had a falling out with the friend who’d first invited me.
I was not the sort of girl who was raised to let guys grab at me in the front seats of their cars. But here I was without knowing quite why, except that I kept catching glimpses of my bangs and forehead in the rearview mirror, my transparent self in the windows, and I’d think, with wonder: That girl looks like a normal person, making out in a car. Not like an awkward girl dumped nine months ago by the love of her life. And so I stayed and didn’t tell Marc to stop, because I thought that if I could pretend to be a normal person, eventually I would be one.
“You’re so sexy in that costume.” Marc pitched his veil and my horns into the back seat.
I looked at him skeptically. I was wearing a hideous double-knit red polyester jumpsuit that had been a last-minute purchase from the Goodwill store. I shrank into my bucket seat covered in fake fur, out of reach of Marc’s hands and tongue.
Out the window, couples in garish makeup and rubber masks came and went from a disintegrating Victorian house with loose porch railings and cracked siding. Inside, it reeked of pot and cigarette smoke. Inside, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin trembled the walls, and people yelled over the music until they were hoarse. I wondered if anyone from the party had seen Marc feeling me up out here, and I shrank away from him even further, pressing myself against the window.
“What’s wrong? I said you looked good,” Marc protested.
“Don’t make fun of me.” I peeled hair, stiff with dried sweat, off my forehead. It ripped away like the sticky edges of a Band-Aid.
When we’d arrived an hour before, smoke already hung fog-like over rooms with crumbling yellow carpet pads, big empty rooms with only a rickety kitchen chair here, a dingy mattress there. It was warm for late October and the windows were all shut tight, turning the air to a cloudy fish bowl. Music drummed from wall to wall. When people shouted, their mouths moved as soundlessly as goldfish trolling a bowl for flakes of food.
I tried to smile as a guy in a Groucho Marx nose sized me up, his gaze traveling from my knees up to my small breasts and then flicking away, seeking out more impressive cleavage.
The music died down.
“Hot,” said Luke Skywalker, voice loaded with irony as his eyes raked me.
Marc beamed proudly. “Bless you, my child,” he told Luke Skywalker in falsetto. “Hail Mary full of grace.”
I stabbed him with my pitchfork. I meant to be playful. My attempt felt strained.
A woman in a playboy bunny outfit and fishnet stockings twitched her little round tail as she pranced by, casting me a scornful look.
The music blasted again. When had Halloween stopped being about pretend? I wondered as I threaded my way past a cat, a streetwalker, and Audrey Hepburn. When had it become an excuse for girls to wear clingy black things?
I’d never been in the presence of an illegal drug. When someone passed Marc a joint, he pinched it between two fingers and sucked at it, then tried to relay it to me. I shook my head.
Marc looked a little abashed at my discomfort. On the second round, he passed. And then whispered, “Let’s get out of here.”
That’s when we’d escaped into the crisp fall air, where an enormous wave of grief swept over me for my high school boyfriend. Being in love with him felt like I’d lost my senses, literally, like I barely noticed anything but him, the expressions on his face, the sound of his voice. When I’d been in love, I’d never gulped in fresh air as thankfully as I did now, or noticed the way falling leaves surfed the breeze and rustled against each other as they landed, a constant shivering bustle that made it sound like it was always raining. I could still hear the murmur of leaves, sitting there in the car, away from the music that had pulsed through me like a headache.
Partying, it seemed to me, was designed to block the senses, to make everyone high and deaf and blind in the smoky air, and for no good reason. At least love had been a good reason to shut out the rest of the world. I couldn’t imagine feeling the way I’d felt about my first love ever again.
But the last few weeks, when I’d caught Marc’s intense dark eyes watching me across the college paper newsroom, I’d thought he was a sincere person, above false compliments and calculating lines. I’d liked him, but I hadn’t wanted to go out with him.
Now, remembering, I felt guilty about this. I smiled a guilty tentative smile. That’s all the encouragement Marc needed to descend on me once again, tugging at the zipper down my front.
“Don’t,” I said. Maybe, when we’d first left the party, I’d felt a brief hope that I could enjoy making out with someone who wasn’t my high school boyfriend, but now I knew that I couldn’t.
“Don’t you like me?” Marc asked.
“Yes.” I held his hands so he couldn’t unzip me. He looked cheerful, as if he were taking this restraining gesture as a sign of affection.
“Don’t you trust me?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure, only that I’d been flattered by his attention, which made me feel guilty, which drove my niceness up a few notches. I couldn’t tell him I wasn’t really attracted to him. I really wanted to be attracted to him. If I tried hard enough, I thought I could force myself to be.
“Just relax,” Marc whispered.
“We hardly know each other,” I said. “Let’s just talk.”
His habit tangled as he fell with exaggerated exasperation against the back of his seat. “OK,” he said. “Talk.”
“Talk about what?” He stared at my breasts.
I turned slightly to obstruct his view. “Why do you hold your back like that?” I asked. I had been wondering a long time.
He gave me a funny look. “I have a disease called ankylosing spondylitis. It’s kind of like arthritis in my spine.”
“Really?” Suddenly I felt tender toward him. Suddenly, I saw him differently, as someone with depth and courage and experience and wisdom. With my fingertips, I lightly stroked the thick hair on his arm, wondering it if could change directions like a cat’s fur, revealing a glistening underside.
“It was awful when it started,” he said. “I was sixteen. I’d get out of bed in the morning and my legs would collapse under me. I spent two years on pain pills before a doctor diagnosed it. It was the reason I kept dropping out of school. But the last few years have been OK.”
I squeezed his hand.
“One of my uncles has it. His spine froze and he ended up in a wheelchair,” Marc said. “That could happen to me, too.”
He watched me anxiously as if he expected me to be repelled by this revelation, but instead I found myself warming toward him. Maybe he seemed different from the other guys I knew not just because at 26, he was eight years older than me, but because suffering had deepened and matured him.
“I think I love you,” he said suddenly, hopefully, and I knew exactly where he was going with that.
“I’m not having sex till I’m married,” I replied.
My words had the desired effect. His hand, inching toward my zipper, stilled in midair, then dropped.
“You’re such a strange person,” he said.
For the first time ever, I felt completely comfortable with him. “I know,” I said. “That’s why you like me.”
“I think I want to marry you,” he joked, still looking hopeful.
I laughed uneasily and slipped back in my seat, putting distance between us again. Out the window, leaves tap-danced, shuffling on the asphalt, then hop-stepping and kicking up in the wind. This street, where just a few hours ago children had trick-or-treated, now was desolate. For a second, marriage seemed weirdly appealing—not marriage to Marc, just marriage in the abstract, as if it could be a refuge from the scary and unpredictable and unfathomable world.
“I’m never getting married,” I told Marc.
2. Being Saved
At the end of every church service when I was a child, the congregation crooned,
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling for you and for me…
It took all of my will to resist the gravitational pull of the backward-sloping bench, sitting forward as I fisted my hands over the rounded pew back in front of me and held myself stiff. My family, who occupied the back row, never sang or swayed or tapped a finger or kicked a foot in time to the music. Any fidgeting that had gone on during the sermon abruptly halted as we sat, impervious, attempting to appear unmoved by the haunting chords.
Why should we tarry when Jesus is calling?
Calling, oh, sinner, come home,
everyone else sang, and here and there someone popped up, slipping out of pews to make or renew confessions of faith. I stayed rooted to the back row with my unsmiling, unsinging family, trying to look bored and nonchalant in the face of these gently seductive voices:
Come home, come home
Ye who are weary come hom-o-ome…
Soon the hymn would end and my family would tiptoe out, too shy to mingle, exiting through side doors to avoid handshakes and small talk, and all the way home my brothers and I would argue over who was taking up more than their fair share of space in the backseat. The mood left by the hymn’s mournful chorus was dispelled, and until the next week I’d forget how, as voices swelled on that three-syllable home, they curled over me like waves pulling me out to sea; they tugged like an undertow of longing in my heart; they washed over me like a reassurance that however adrift I might be, some comforting shore awaited me, some place I belonged.
I forgot until the next Sunday, when that hymn would once again invite me to come home, come home, and in those moments, my life seemed to unfold before me. I would grow up and get a job and fall in love and marry and have children and a career. I could belong to such a life so simply and naturally, if I could just hang onto my belief, watching my life proceed according to His perfect plan.
I made my own confession of faith at the age of twelve, afraid that I’d better go for it now lest my resolve weaken later. So I repeated after the minister, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of the living God…” and two weeks later, on Mother’s Day, I wore a white choir gown down the steps to the baptismal font. The minister said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and then the water closed over my head. In the minister’s strong grip, I came up, robe clinging, long hair streaming.
Photos from later that day show me in a short purple dress, squinting and smiling in front of the garage. I remember feeling not so much new or cleansed as relieved at having secured my salvation for some older, more skeptical self who had just narrowly escaped eternal damnation thanks to my foresight on her behalf.
In snapshots from eight years later, I am at home posing in my ivory wedding dress and knee socks during a fitting, and then, the day of the wedding, skinny and barefoot in the same dress, waiting for my maid of honor to fetch some hose. My normally wavy, light hair professionally tamed for the occasion, I laugh toward my husband-to-be. He shows off his hightop tennis shoes, dyed black to match his tuxedo.
Another picture: In her silk dress and motionless perm, my mother-in-law smiles stiffly at her son’s impropriety. A portrait: my parents and brothers and I pose, American-gothic rigid in formal clothes. Another studio shot: Marc and I stand before 100 guests, flanked by bridesmaids and groomsmen, my veil pulled back, Marc’s pants hiked up a little to make sure everyone can see his shoes.
What the pictures don’t show is the tears in my eyes as the soloist’s first notes struck up. Marc had threatened to request “The Thrill is Gone” but surprised me instead with Bob Dylan’s “Never Say Goodbye.” When I surreptitiously lifted the sleeve of my wedding dress, my runny nose met only scratchy lace. Hand in Marc’s, I swung his arm up to swipe my nose with the velvety sleeve of his rented tux. My maid of honor snickered.
“I will,” I said, and my marriage began.
The snapshots seem to finish off the story: framed by the truck window, hair speckled with birdseed thrown in lieu of rice, Marc and I wave and laugh as we pull away from the curb, like any other couple heading off to our happily ever after. There is no sign in my smile once again of the relief I felt, this time at having gotten myself married before I changed my mind, another favor I did for an older self who might lose her chance.
3. Honeymoon Reservations
Halfway to Harper, Kansas, our honeymoon destination, my new husband cracked the driver’s window of his Toyota truck and sighed with contentment.
I tensed, steeling myself to say the right thing if he told me he loved me or asked if I was happy. Warm air blew through the cab, lifting tufts of his thinning hair. To my relief, Marc didn’t speak after all. He just hummed under his breath in his tuneless tone-deaf way and kept steering one-handed as if the road were the furthest thing from his mind.
I was twenty years old and didn’t remember living anywhere but the house where I grew up. I kept thinking about the echoing rooms of our new duplex with clean white walls and light neutral carpet, my boxes of books stacked in the basement, my clothes huddled together on hangers in a cavernous bedroom closet. I kept remembering how, after the ceremony in my childhood church and before the reception at my childhood home, I’d slipped into my childhood bedroom to struggle free of my wedding gown.
My little brother had already started obliterating my presence. A pyramid of brown plaid wallpaper rolls had been assembled to cover my rose and trellis pattern. I’d chosen it when I was twelve for its old-fashioned quaintness, like something out of one of my favorite girls’ novels. Heavy metal albums leaned against the corner stereo where my Simon and Garfunkel and musical soundtracks had been. My brother’s test of the quality of music had to do with its power to cause car windows to collapse and dishes to leap off of shelves. Ripped from its track when he had slapped on tape, the closet door now hung askew and was plastered with posters of bands with spiky hair and bared teeth. The room smelled vaguely of cedar chips and hamster urine; the wheel in the corner creaked under the hamster’s feet. I couldn’t understand how my brother could reconcile his love for small animals with his passion for bands that bit the heads off them.
Standing alone in that room, scratchy lace and satin dress pooled at my feet, the rumble of voices downstairs and the doorbell’s frequent interjections, doors slamming, more footsteps, I had fought the onset of the desolation that had since gaped wider with every passing hour. Now, in the quiet of truck tires sighing against the road, I felt as if I might fall into that trench and never climb out.
Marc reached out to comb his fingers through my hair, a husbandly gesture, affectionate and proprietary. Darkness pressed in on the truck, and my whole life was in boxes. My life was a box. I fixed my eyes on the moon, just a sliver like a glimmer of a frown, a moon that my uncles would say didn’t hold water. It held nothing; partial, downturned, it spilled out stars and darkness and memory.
I shut my eyes, a child again in the backseat of a powder blue Impala that glided silent as a spaceship down long highways, followed by the bright moon above. I was six, seven, eight, and not long before, a man had landed on that moon. My dad took blurred black and white photos of the black and white TV the day the Apollo 11 made its wobbly landing, the day the first man took his first small step. The bubble seat covers molded craters in my cheeks as I thought about a picture book on my shelf at home, You Will Go to the Moon, starring a blond boy who went on vacation to the colonized moon.
I didn’t dream of romance, that young. I dreamed instead of the friends I would find someday, people who felt as much like aliens in this world as I did. I dreamed of a wide-open future and my own giant leaps for mankind.
From the front seat the voices of my parents sounded as if they were transmitted from another planet. Someday, I used to think, drowsy and secure. Someday I will go to the moon.
“Don’t bite your fingernails,” said a voice close to my ear and I opened my eyes, twenty years old and on the way to my honeymoon. I had managed to bite and tear most of my nails to the quick in the last few hours; now I caught the last one in my teeth and ripped it off. Up in the sky hung that faint curve of moon. In my palm lay the curved sliver of fingernail.
“Look,” I said to Marc. “I’m in parentheses.”
He ruffled my hair. “You’re so weird,” he said.
As soon as I entered our room at Rosalea’s Hotel, a tulip-red building in downtown Harper, Kansas, I burst into tears.
“I’m just happy,” I assured Marc as I gazed around in horror.
I’d imagined an elegant suite—thick carpets, scented candles, fresh flowers. The walls of this room were papered in silver and gold foil that reflected the light. Mannequin arms and torsos lounged on top of the couch and dresser and in the middle of the canopy bed.
Gingerly I pushed aside a plastic leg and sank onto the vinyl fainting couch, examining the room’s centerpiece, a sandbox table. Magazine pictures of Lily Tomlin had been glued to Popsicle sticks and stuck in the sand. A whole choir of Lily Tomlins smiled slyly at me.
“Did you tell them that it was our honeymoon?” I sobbed.
“It’s the Lily Tomlin Shrine Room.” Marc sounded crushed. “We were on the waiting list. I thought it would be fun.” He hastened around the room in search of Kleenex and returned looking slightly desperate. “I guess it’s not very romantic,” he said, “but feel what good quality this toilet paper is.”
I blew my nose and attempted a smile.
Marc squatted beside me, dark eyes expectant. “Let’s go to bed,” he said.
I’d been too busy and nervous to eat earlier. Dizzy, I closed my eyes. White walls rose before them, the strange apartment that contained my whole boxed-up past, then white swirling like snow covering the field across the street from where I used to wait for the schoolbus, air glittering, snowflakes caught there like whirling dust in motes of sunlight, and the field stretching white, sun leaping, glinting, glimmering, panicking my snow-blind eyes.
“Are you OK?” Marc’s anxious face hovered above me, and I felt like some stereotype of a fragile woman, about to faint on my wedding night.
“I should have eaten,” I said.
“There’s some wedding mints in the glove compartment.”
I made a face. “Remember that hamburger place we passed on the way in? Please? I’m starved.” It scared me that I could become this girl who shamelessly wheedled, a tone I knew Marc couldn’t resist.
I’d thought that when the time came, some wifely instinct would kick in and sleeping with Marc wouldn’t seem so bad. Instead, all that kicked in was a dread so heavy with doom, my whole future felt blighted, concentrated in that one reality: I was going to have to sleep with Marc.
I told myself that I had no right to feel so repelled. Marc was a nice person, clean and wiry, his prematurely receding hairline and thick brows and goofy humor reminding me of a Muppet, sweet and cartoonish. Because he was 28 to my 20, the minister had scrapped the required counseling sessions. “You’re an older couple,” he said by way of explanation.
When I’d decided to marry Marc, my parents and friends responded with bland pleasantries. I felt abandoned—why didn’t anyone express any concern? But if they had, would I have admitted to the mistake I was making? Wasn’t it shallow to long for the tall, thin build of my former boyfriend, his fine, staticky hair full of cowlicks, his long arms? It felt wrong when Marc embraced me. I’d known him two years, but I still felt like I was forcing intimacy with a stranger.
Marc’s departure skimmed off the top of my despair. I gathered my overnight bag and a towel from the bathroom, which had a claw-foot gold-spouted tub but no shower. The shower room was at the end of the hall—the Jesus Shower Room, said a sign on the door.
There, I promptly fell apart again. Jesuses surrounded me: a laminated watercolor of Jesus on the cross, head drooping; a slick magazine picture in a plastic frame of Jesus herding sheep; a slightly warped wooden plaque of a praying Jesus on his knees; a red velvet Jesus, hands raised to reveal puncture wounds dripping red velvet blood. Stock-still among all of those bearded, wounded Jesuses, I fully understood that I had crossed into an alien new life.
Retreating behind the shower’s Plexiglas door, I turned the knob that unleashed a spray of hot water. I closed my eyes as more tears leaked out. Miles away, boxes of photo albums, vacation souvenirs, childhood dolls and stuffed animals, my whole history and identity, towered in the middle of a strange living room. I thought about how the four milestones of a woman’s life were birth, marriage, childbirth, and death, and how, at twenty, I was already halfway done.
As water poured over me, I cried over my meager belongings in precarious and temporary positions, my life that was almost half over, my first love who had failed to execute the sort of dramatic rescue at the altar I’d fantasized about but never really believed in. I cried at the way, during the reception, Marc and his friends had gone across the street to drink champagne because my mother wouldn’t allow it in the house; the way when Marc kissed me afterward, he’d tasted dangerous and forbidden. I mourned my lost safety, my new nightmarish life, and the way the mocking arrangement of pictures of Jesus blurred by my tears and the water-streaked shower door signified the loss of all goodness, truth, and reverence.
The hamburger was cold and rubbery by the time I got back to the room, but I wolfed it down anyway and wished I dared ask Marc to go after another one. He was nearly asleep, though, so I unwound the towel, shrugged on my cotton nightgown, and crawled into the waterbed.
At least it was over quickly: my first knowledge that there was a fine line between pain and pleasure, and I had fallen on the wrong side. Marc went right to sleep, but I lay awake picturing the ivory gown in which I’d said my vows, a gown previously worn by my mother and two aunts who had had long, apparently happy marriages. I tossed and turned under the sheet that felt as heavy as the responsibility of that dress. Would anyone forgive me if my marriage ended and I ruined the dress’s symbolism? I could only remember two divorces ever in the history of my family, both due to the flights of unfaithful wives who left behind my steady uncles and their young children. One uncle was too embarrassed to announce the dissolution of his marriage. He just started showing up alone at gatherings, and after about five years, we all figured it out.
Marc stirred and snuggled up closer to me. I lay awake worrying and hoping I would grow to like the feel of his breath on my hair.
Sometimes, when I look back now as if from another lifetime, I am mystified: why did I marry someone with whom I wasn’t in love, to whom I wasn’t attracted, for whom I felt mostly a fraternal affection?
I’ve invented many answers over the years, each true in its own way.
Because, I used to say glibly, it was better than drugs or drinking.
Because, I remember, Marc distracted me from the emptiness that came over me every dusk in the months after my high school boyfriend had left.
Because I imagined marriage as an escape, as if I could go to sleep and wake up a new person. Instead I found myself face to face with my confusion and turmoil.
Back then, my reasons didn’t seem so complicated. I thought that I married Marc because he nearly cried the day he confessed to sleeping with an old girlfriend.
Because he told me this as if he believed it would hurt me. I’d been saddened by his anguish: in it, I saw my own anguish over my first boyfriend. In Marc’s despair, I imagined that I could see all the world’s unfulfilled longings.
Marc was a good person, I thought when he begged me to marry him. Someone in the world ought to get what he wanted.
Why did I marry Marc? Because one evening I fell asleep while he was fondling my breasts, and I woke to find him wearing my bra tied to his head like a bonnet. I could do worse than wake every morning to someone who made me laugh, I thought. Wouldn’t I regret it if my heartlessness drove him away and there was never anyone else?
Maybe, I thought, it didn’t matter that some part of me would always be out of Marc’s reach. Maybe it was a good thing, that part of me that couldn’t be touched or hurt, something I could preserve just for myself.
“Let’s get married,” I’d said, planning to stall sex till after the wedding, when by force of will I expected to be attracted to him.
The morning after the wedding when I woke in the Lily Tomlin Shrine Room at Rosalea’s Hotel in Harper, Kansas, the gold band on my finger surprised me. The day before seemed like a dream, all the professionally-wrapped gifts in shiny white paper, the little net bags of birdseed, the powder blue napkins with our names and the date stamped in silver foil.
As I eased out of the path of Marc’s moist, stale breath, he stirred, squinted open his eyes, and woke smiling.
“Why did you marry me?” I asked.
“So I could wake up to you every day.” He stretched and reached for me. I scooted away, then leapt out of bed and flung on my clothes.
That afternoon, Marc set up his camera on a tripod, then frolicked naked in the Ninnescah River. Shallow water ballooned my baggy T-shirt and shorts as I sat reading. Eight pages from the end of a romance novel I’d found at a downtown Harper drugstore, I watched Marc leap into the air and press the camera’s remote control. In pictures that have since been lost, Marc is naked and free and always in motion, with me in the background, clothed, cringing, and shielding my face from his splashes.
I am married, I thought, watching a shape dart through the water, a small fish, dark and fleeting. I am a married woman.
The day before I’d been a college senior who lived with my parents. Now I was a married woman. My transition from childhood to adulthood had come about with the jarring suddenness of that of my old Growing Up Skipper doll, who arrived in her box flat-chested, but when you twisted her arm, breasts appeared.
Marc crawled toward me like a stalking animal preparing to pounce. “Stop!” I shrieked, laughing, as he leapt through the air and covered me with puppy dog kisses. My dread was back. I pushed him away. “Don’t,” I said.
“This is our honeymoon,” he protested.
I stared down into the clear water and lied. “I forgot my pills.”
Marc pulled back. I couldn’t stand to look at the hurt on his face.
“We don’t want to risk getting pregnant,” I said. We’d talked about children; Marc didn’t want to father any. There was a one-in-ten chance of passing on ankylosing spondylitis. Someday, we’d agreed, we would adopt or have a test tube baby or something—someday far in the future.
“I’ll get something at the drugstore,” Marc said.
More tiny fish streamed by.
“If you want me to, I mean,” Marc said.
“Well, we’re married,” was all I could think of to answer, giddy at even a brief reprieve.
That seemed to reassure him. He crouched low and crept toward me again.
“When do you think we’ll have kids?” I asked.
Abruptly subdued, Marc lowered himself to sit beside me in the water. “I don’t know,” he said. “I thought we already talked about this. I don’t know if I really want any.”
“I mean, adopt them or something.”
“Maybe in ten or fifteen years.” He shrugged. “I’m not mature enough to be a father. I don’t know if I ever will be.”
“Never?” I said. “But we said—”
We’d talked about this subject months ago. He’d do whatever I wanted, he’d said, desperate for me to marry him. He pulled out my chair at the dinner table, he brought me flowers wrapped in green tissue paper every week, and we sat up in the window of his apartment while church bells tolled nearby and he pleaded with me when I said I didn’t want to get married yet. We’d have babies, someday, he’d said, and he’d come with us to church. Now, married one day, a life I didn’t want stretched before me, a childless one of deflecting my husband’s advances.
Nearly thirty years later, I remember this honeymoon, this marriage, as if they were fiction, things I made up. Now, the mother of a teenager, no longer a churchgoer, I wish I had the photos to show my daughter. In one, I remember, I huddled around my book, all pale long limbs, while a spray of droplets flew up behind Marc, who had just splashed away. In another picture, Marc cartwheeled through the water, caught upside down, arms flung out, eyes and mouth wide, exaggerated astonishment, showing off for an invisible audience.
I wish I could somehow cross the years and say to the girl in the water, the girl who no longer exists even in photographs: you will be OK. You will grow older and braver and travel the world and raise a daughter, and Marc will raise a daughter of his own, both girls named Sophie: wisdom. I wish I could time travel to the past to rescue that girl who thought she was rescuing me, my middle-aged self, from spinsterhood, from hell. You will be OK, I want to say, but maybe she really did save me, in ways I can’t fully fathom. My Sophie looks at pictures of my younger self. My Sophie rolls her eyes. She is scornful. She cannot conceive of willfully throwing away her own life. Knowing this, I feel both diminished in her eyes and secretly triumphant that I have taught her to value her own life as she does.
Looking at wedding pictures that in no way resemble a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, I can’t begin to imagine or remember what that girl was thinking, in those pictures or later, staring past the book at the river’s wind-rippled current that polished small stones, tangled plants in its sway, and blurred infinite dark fish, so fast they always seemed to be fleeing. The camera shutter whirred, and Marc’s feet pushed against the current. Overhead an airplane left a vapor trail like a pipe cleaner, firm spine, fuzzy edges.
What I do remember is tamping down panic as I lowered my book into the water, pages turning heavy and inseparable. It briefly reduced the enormity of what I’d done to consider this problem before me, whether I would be able to peel apart the pages and read the ending, whether I even cared.
Marc clicked the remote. I recall a photo showing him standing on his hands in the shallows. You could see, just barely, my book, partially submerged, the title unreadable, bobbing along in the water, floating on past.