Image: “Tranquility,” by Britnie Walston, oil on canvas, 18×24 in., 2018
Portrait of a Marriage as a Young Thing
By Kathryn Ordiway
When it’s trying, Liv reminds herself that everyone says the first year is the hardest. This helps.
She imagines the three hundred and sixty-sixth day of their marriage as a rosy winter day, fresh snow on the ground, sun glistening, crisp air, and all the tension gone from their bodies. She imagines what gifts they’ll give each other—ribbon-wrapped, thick vellum paper; fresh notebooks; exotic maps.
They move to the northeast for his doctorate. Science on the coast with other men and women who adore science and the coast. Both of these are things that Liv hates.
A third thing—scientists on the coast talking about science and the coast.
And thick tree and cloud cover, as well.
Rupert has always been a frowner. In all his baby pictures, he appears to have been informed that his stuffed animals have been put away and will not be taken out again until he eats his weight in Brussels sprouts. He looks this way in most recent pictures as well, but replace the stuffed animals with science.
In their wedding pictures, though, he glows—possibly more than Liv glows—and for this reason, she decorates her space at the library with wedding pictures, not everyday pictures, because she doesn’t want her coworkers to think she has married a grouch.
Rupert is not a grouch; he is introspective and worried about the world and always thinking about science. He is calculating and formulating and trying to puzzle the universe together in his mind. He is weary.
She knows her coworkers would not care. They are old and kind and eager to bring baked goods into work. They love reading to children on the weekends and pointing adult regulars in the direction of fresh, award-winning novels. These old women, they are just pleased that Liv is married, that Liv is open to having children in the future, that Liv will eat three cookies when offered three cookies, that she isn’t concerned about her waistline.
Liv is very concerned about her waistline.
Anyone who tells her the first year is the hardest also tells her, in the same breath, that a new couple must get through their first fight. If those people are particularly nosey, they’ll ask if Liv and Rupert have had their first fight yet, and Liv will notice that their eyes light up, their noses twitch, their fingers start to dance.
Always, Liv giggles, says no, says they don’t really fight. And this is true, which frightens her.
They have fought, of course. Of course they have fought. Once, they argued on and off for a whole month about whether going to Sonic for ice cream in the summer was an unnecessary expense. But then they moved to a place without a single Sonic—so at odds with the hot, flat world they had lived in where there seemed to be one on every corner—and the argument was moot.
But the Sonic argument didn’t qualify as a first fight, she was sure. It wasn’t worthy, it wasn’t large. There was no yelling, only eye rolls, sarcasm. There were no broken plates. There was no explosion.
This looming eruption in the center of their lives hangs over her. She expects it always, looks for it in topics that they disagree about—creamer in coffee, certain animated comedies, real or fake houseplants, the death penalty.
She has often wondered if the fight will be about the coast, if that damp expanse of salt and sea and sand will itself blow a hole in their world.
The coast, oh, the coast. It is gray and it is foggy and the waves and the sky and the beach all bleed together in varying shades of blandness.
On a miscellaneous fall day, Liv finds herself lounging on a pale beach towel, her skin pimpled with goosebumps. The black lycra of her bathing suit, damp with sea spray, sticks, cold and clammy, to her shivering form. She had pondered bringing a sweater to throw overtop her swimsuit but then panicked and wondered if it was somehow too juvenile a mood, or perhaps too old, maybe too rich or too poor of a decision. She had stood in front of her vanity mirror, pulling the sweater on and off, adding a sunhat, adding sunglasses, putting her hair up and letting it down, trying to figure out just which look was the most acceptable for spending time with scientists. She had asked Rupert what the best way to look was, what the other women would wear, but he laughed at her, said not to worry about it.
There in the shallows, waves lapping at ankles, stand the other women, baggy, long-sleeved shirts and sweatshirts over their one- and two-pieces. They share a glittering green bottle of something as they laugh and stretch and smile, fingers easy to brush against arms.
The men have taken to the hard, wet sand to toss a football back and forth. Around their feet, beers poke out of the sand like exotic shells.
Rupert runs to Liv, where she pretends to be sunning herself, though she hasn’t applied sunscreen. He runs to her, hair flopping up and down on his head, and when he plops down by her side, it is with a grainy wave.
“Grab me a water?”
His face holds all the joy of a puppy, and she takes her time rummaging through the cooler, as if it might dampen his mood.
“Grab yourself some fruit or something, if you want.”
“Can I not have a sandwich?” Her fingers are brushing the aluminum-foil packet of Waldorf chicken salad on wheat she brought for everyone, then they are grasping a bottle of water, fighting the urge to throw it at Rupert.
“Sure, you can have a sandwich.” Before the water is fully in his grasp, he is taking off the lid and guzzling it down.
This has potential, she thinks. This could be the fight. In a split second, she fantasizes about them screaming so publicly, all the other scientists witnesses to a nuclear meltdown. “You think I’m fat,” she tries.
He is supposed to respond, “I’m not doing this,” or, “You’re not fat,” but instead, he rolls his eyes and runs back to the scientists.
The rest of the scientists want to move farther down the coast to the tip of that particular stretch where the public beach becomes unowned land and the inland grasses pour into the sand—or the sand pours into the grasses—and mixes with the hightide seaweed and drying driftwood. The scientists want to find a wild beach. They start calling it that, and Liv imagines that it must require capital letters now.
She is the only one of them not pursuing a PhD. She is sure someone, somewhere in that department, has a wife or a husband or a partner or a secret ex hiding in an attic who hasn’t bothered to pursue science on the coast, but she hasn’t met such a person yet, and she doesn’t feel she ever will.
The scientists agree they should head home before making their way toward Wild Beach. They need better walking shoes, more beer, more food Liv won’t eat out of guilt. They peel off from one another, scattering across the sparsely populated parking lot, calling out to one another to remember speakers or matches.
Someone shouts that Liv should bring more sandwiches, they’re that good, and for a moment, her chest fills with warmth before she wonders if Rupert bribed them to say that.
It took Liv three months to find a job, enough time to paint the house several times over. She started with the master bedroom, painting it a soft buttercream. She moved to the guest bedroom, pale green, then the kitchen, a strong blue. For weeks, she paced between these spaces, furrowing her brow, trying to grab ahold of just what was wrong with the colors. She rearranged the furniture, closed and opened blinds, tried different levels of lamp lighting.
And then the kitchen had to be cream. Rupert didn’t speak as they painted, so they couldn’t argue as they ruined perfectly good t-shirts with their hurried attempts to finish. There was electricity in the air; he had taken a day off from work to help repaint the kitchen, and he felt it wasn’t right of her to expect this of him. She had made a barbed comment—”It’s not like it’s a real job. You don’t actually have to always go in.”—tempted him to rise, but he had gritted his teeth and pushed the roller up, down, up, down, in vague diagonals.
The aura of the kitchen became a regular point of contention. The blue wasn’t right, surely was far too aggressive, but the cream made it seem as if the room was trying to fade away.
Liv took to carrying various paint swatches with her around the house in different pockets of her clothing. If her hip twinged or her breast itched, she’d know, based on what was in the pocket, which color family whatever room she was in desired to be. In this way, she learned that the kitchen was meant to be mustard, the living room the buttercream of the master bedroom, and the master bedroom was supposed to be “Coastline”, which she found infuriating.
By this time, she was employed at the library, and she brought in each of the swatches to share with her coworkers. But when she explained how she picked the colors, the women pursed their lips, smoothed their skirts, shook their heads.
“Haunted,” they whispered.
“It’s the ghosts,” they said.
“Never trust Edwardian brick.”
And so Liv was back at square one.
Liv and Rupert are the first to arrive back at the parking lot, Liv finally wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Rupert sits on the hood of the car, his legs dangling above the ground, humming. He is at peace, she knows, content at this beach, with this group of friends he trusts to return to him, with his career and their marriage and the world.
By the time the other scientists arrive, it has been nearly half an hour, and Liv has chewed a crack into her lip from the effort of waiting quietly. If Rupert notices this, he doesn’t say, just hums, and she resents him for not commenting on the sliver of blood she knows must be welling in the split.
The scientists are eager to be on their way, and already, Liv can smell alcohol on some of them. She is envious of them and their liquid freedom.
The pack spills from the cracked and buckled parking lot onto the boardwalk that leads to the beach and into the sand. They pick their way along the shore, fingering seashells where they appear. High tide is coming in, and a discussion about the pros and cons of walking in wet versus dry sand ensues. They agree that the easiest sand to walk in is the wet sand, so their feet must get a little wet, for the benefit of the journey.
Rupert meanders along with the group, dividing his time between Liv and a man whose name Liv constantly forgets—Shawn or Shad or Shane. He laughs with the other scientist; ShawnShadShane has the football, and as the pair walks, they toss it back and forth. When Rupert returns to Liv, he doesn’t say much, just touches her elbow as if she can’t see that he has appeared beside him.
Feet grainy, their skin begins to appear gray, another part of the landscape bleeding into everything else. Liv fears that if they walk too far, become too gray, she will be permanently stuck between beaches, stuck with the scientists who will certainly be content to stand in their spots forever, examining each grain of sand on their shins, between their toes, comparing notes eternally.
Her biggest worry used to be that Rupert would fall in love with another scientist and leave her. It was stupid, because she knew he was too competitive, a bit too superior yet insecure to actually do that, but she was so certain that one day there would be a beautiful female scientist—well-tailored pencil skirt, perfect silk blouse—standing at a poster presentation, just waiting to sit at a scrubbed kitchen table with Rupert, discussing their work.
Now, she understands that the real threat is not another scientist but the science itself and the way it crawls under his skin, inches into his skull, and lodges there for hours on end, long after he’s made it home from the university. The danger is his home office, the outrageously large guestroom walk-in closet where he’s put his old college desk and a chair he stole from the event staff during a drunk undergrad night, where he’s stacked up relevant textbooks on the shelves, an army of knowledge looming over him. The thing that might take him away is that cave in the very core of the house, that cave where he is warm, surrounded, safe, and where he can think without looking out a distracting window or getting caught up in another marathon of reality tv.
Two of the scientists slow their pace, let the others get ahead of them. Liv glances over her shoulder to see them hunching, curling around themselves to light cigarettes against the wind, and she feels a pang in her stomach, an urge, a longing. She stops mid-stride, stops while Rupert continues, and stares back at the two scientists. One of them notices her and holds up the pack in welcome, but she shakes her head. She doesn’t want a cigarette; she wants a scientist, any one of them, to hand her a beer or a slimy clump of seaweed or a rotting fish and say it’s enough now, she belongs.
One morning, she woke to find heaps of eggs and toast sitting on a tray on the opposite side of the bed. Rupert was standing there, boxers- and apron-clad, a grin splitting his face like ripe fruit.
“Happy one hundred and forty-seven days of being married,” he said through the steam rising off the plates, and from behind his back, he produced a bottle of champagne. They spent three hours in bed, splitting the bottle, eating the eggs quickly and taking their time with the toast. They had their fill of each other once, then twice, and flipped lazily through the texts they were reading—Liv, a Trendy-for-Tweens pick she wanted to recommend at the library; Rupert, a journal article printout. Every now and then, they’d share a line with each other.
It rained on and off all morning, and when the champagne was done, they made their way downstairs, article and novel in hand, to keep reading in front of the fireplace.
Liv got the fire going, Rupert got coffee, the rain pounded and pounded on the roof, and not once did they think about the fact that it needed replacing.
Liv has lost track of how long they have been walking. The half-light hasn’t changed much, and thus she knows it’s not been a significant amount of time, but her legs ache from the effort of walking well on sand, her feet are cold, and she’s parched. There are coolers, of course, coolers filled to the bursting point with ice and drinks, but she can’t bring herself to ask for one. Every now and then, when Rupert returns to her, she’ll lick her lips, look at him desperately, but she can tell he’s misinterpreting her eyes. He responds with smirks and hand squeezes, he looks happy, happy to see her happy, and that is not what she is.
Two months after Liv and Rupert moved into the Edwardian brick house, they found a box that neither of them could remember packing. It was full of mugs they had collected from various vacations, but the bottom was blanketed in tarot cards they didn’t recognize. Liv thought it was an omen, demanded they burn the box. Rupert called it a gift and sat down to read.
While he examined the cards, studying the names and the artwork, Liv had busied herself with getting the mugs into a cabinet, picking each out of the box and naming the vacation to Rupert to see if he’d stop what he was doing. He didn’t bother responding.
She is trying to grapple with everyone’s happiness, trying to make today into a good day. How many times has she read that each day is a choice? How many times has she read that it’s all about attitude?
He shuffled the cards like they might play Gin or War or Go Fish. He called to her to join him, and she did, a glass of white wine clutched nervously in her hand, condensation moistening her fingers. He laid cards in a row in front of her, and then another row in front of him, poker-like. The room felt tight, and her body felt buoyant but bloated, as if she might float away, a weather-balloon version of herself.
Rupert is ahead of her, side by side with his friend, when she feels the dense heat of her bottled fury inching up from her stomach to her esophagus. First, he couldn’t tell her what she was supposed to wear, and then he couldn’t bother to offer her a sandwich. Now she is thirsty, now she is lonely, now she is afraid to talk to anyone else because she can’t think of a single thing to say to one of these scientists with their advanced degrees and impressive-sounding titles, and all Rupert does is occasionally return to her and slip his clammy palm into hers.
“Do you want to trade in one card?” he asked, thumbing the deck remaining in his hand.
She wanted to point out that certainly that was not how tarot cards worked, and they didn’t know where they came from, and the women at work had told her that their house—and really, any brick home on her road with a tired-looking roof and white window boxes in need of a fresh coat of paint—was haunted, and that she should be wary of cooking steaks too bloody because that was what really attracted ghosts, that and fresh marriages ripe for a first fight. She wanted to point out that there was no reason to do it, to know the future. That she’d never want to know what was coming. Because it could be horrible. Because she could never unknow what she learned. Because she, they, would forever be hurtling toward some cursed ending. Because she’d know the time and the reason for the explosion, whatever corner it might be around.
But she didn’t want to fight, not then. She didn’t want the first one to be about tarot cards. And besides, they’d had wine and were both pink in the cheeks and swaying, so she said, “No, no. The fates have given me my cards,” and she could tell that it thrilled him, that all of it thrilled him, that for once, he was so happy to be out of his cave, away from his cave, and he couldn’t wait to see what this very unscientific thing had in store for them.
The wind off the sea picks up. This, she thinks, is it. This is the beginning of the end of the waiting, the beginning of the fight, the beginning of the rest of their marriage. It’ll happen here, on the cusp of some wild beach, here, in front of all the other scientists, and then it will be over.
She’s trying to prepare as they walk. She’s lagging a little behind, stopping every now and then to place a hand on her hip, the other sheltering her eyes as she looks to the horizon. She never would have guessed that it would happen like this, so public, in such a wide-open space.
“There’s a sail boat out there,” she hears someone ahead of her say, and she scans the sea for the pop of white. She is preparing to be remembered as the crazy wife, what she imagines the scientists will see her as forever. These are her last moments as the translucent sidekick of their lives.
His finger quivered above the cards.
She felt the first of the accusations quivering on her lips.
He was cross-legged on the floor in thick black sweatpants and a shirt that barely fit, and he was shaking with the excitement of flipping over a piece of lovely cardstock.
She is standing on the softer, dryer sand, watching everyone else pick their way around increasing natural debris, and she is shaking with the excitement of letting everything out.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked him, but he didn’t reply, because he had his thumb and index finger around the first card, and he flipped it and then the next one and then the next one and then the next one, all the while saying this looks promising, and ooh, and ah, as if any of it meant anything to either of them, as if they’d always been doing this, living a loose and unscholarly life.
As suddenly as the walk starts, it ends, and the scientist who is walking a little ahead of everyone else does a cartwheel, her humidity-frizzed ponytail dancing behind her, her legs hardly straight at all, her knees almost knocked. She shouts, “We’re here,” just as Liv opens her mouth, and everyone looks up from their feet, which they have been watching out of fear of twisting ankles or impaling themselves with sharp-edged shells.
For a moment, Liv forgets herself, and she can’t help but agree that they are here. Here, which is in fact a wild beach, which is littered with grasses, lost planks from wooden fences, seaweed, and shell fragments. There’s a chunk of dead and forgotten crab near the water, its remains lapped at by tongues of sea foam. There is an overturned, equally forgotten rowboat amid the narrow blades of grass, sand blown up against it, and with a pang, Liv wonders if it’s hiding a rancid, decaying corpse.
High Priestess in hand, Rupert reached for her.
Without a word, one of the women grabs Liv’s hand, is pulling her along, squealing, “Oh, look at this,” and dragging Liv to what materializes as a full conch shell. The other women join, and Liv feels one’s hand on her own shoulder as they all admire the unblemished specimen from the sea. For a moment, she knows that what she is seeing and what they are seeing are two very different things, that the lens they’re using couldn’t be more opposite, but all of them are giddy with joy, and Liv finds herself searching for Rupert, finding him standing, smiling, knee-high in the sea, his eyes right on her, his mouth wide, his lips disappearing in the vastness of his smile. And she knows that if she went to him now, if she had him in bed, she’d find him briny and cold and fresh and new and she would fight with him about everything that’s been roiling inside, and then collapse, tingling to numbness, ready to wake up on a rosy winter day, expecting nothing.