Can a woman who's always trying to get closer find happiness with a man who's happily curled up in his shell?
Last summer, in the low-tide shallows of Cape Cod, my young son and his best friend hummed a sea snail out of its shell. It's a trick they'd learned from a visiting marine biologist at their school: The children held the shell up to their peachy, softly droning faces and the snail craned its shy neck out to listen. The snail stretched up its tentative little horns and the children smiled back.
Oh, to be humming and gentle! Me? I'd more likely rap on his shell with restless knuckles: "Anybody home in there? Hel-lo?" I'd nag after his soft, hidden self: "Are you even listening to me? Hel-lo?" Perhaps I'd chide the snail for acting so withdrawn or accuse him of passive aggression. And I'd wonder, hurt, why he didn't reveal more of himself to me. There may be much to recommend fierceness as a style of devotion—what with its hunger and bared teeth, its constant crescendo of connecting—but patience is a virtue, and I am not virtuous. Silence is golden, and I am not golden. Fools rush in, and, oh, I can be such a fool.
The surest way to intimacy is to turn myself into a kind of whining, boring power tool. I trust I'm correct in my approach here. "What are you thinking? Why did you say that? What did you really mean? Then why did you put your fingers to your forehead like that? Yes, you did." The trick is to locate tiny, remote pockets of privacy and then drill at them—zjh zjh zjhhhh—like they're abscesses. The trick is to express love the way a cuckoo clock expresses time.
I have lived with him for 17 years. For 17 years, his dark hair has fallen into his dark eyes. Even now I might catch sight of him at a party and catch my breath because for a second I'm not even sure who he is. "Who is that gorgeous hunk of... Oh! It's my husband!" He's the kind of person who picks you up from the airport, makes you a cup of tea, and listens while you talk about your feelings, his eyebrows raised in baffled alarm. He's the kind of person whose affection is a wide and bottomless sea, only the water's maybe not as salty as you thought it was going to be. When he cares daily for our children and me—lunch, bad dreams, the to-and-fro of car trips and conversation—I remember the relationship between "tend" and "tender." His heart is a string of mild, sunny days.
And I have loved him like a hurricane. I have loved him like a scalpel. I have loved him like poison ivy on the dog's paws, like a rock in his shoe, like chewing gum stuck under the table of his heart. Every day for 17 years I have been Columbus sailing up to the continent of his being, and every day for 17 years I have tried to plant my flag on its beach. Some days the gentle people living there have grinned, turned their hands palm up, and offered me unspeakable treasures. Other days, when it seems clear that what I'm spreading is nonnative vegetation and disease, they've chased me away with canoe paddles; they've even suggested to me, through gestures and grimacing, that colonizing might be a funny way to express one's love. Indeed, it might be.
He is pressed flat up against the wall of our marriage, and still I'm saying, "Come closer, my darling." But there's no room for him to move, and I'm actually crushing his rib cage a little bit. It's not a Venus/Mars situation as much as an astronaut/moon one. "What's with your whacked-out gravitational field?" I'm asking. "Why are you so far away?"
I want to look at the photo albums from when we were young, from when we were first in love, from when the children were babies. I want him to say, "These photographs fill my heart with a thousand white and flying doves of nostalgia." And he does, in a way, but the words are about a lamp we once had or a canyon we camped near or the grunting baritone goose impersonation I did while I labored with our firstborn. He does not talk much about his mother's catastrophically short life, but he might remember suddenly the way she cooked zucchini. He is no fountain spraying silver arcs of feelings into the air, but he's a cupful of snow, and if I'm thirsty, I'd do better to thaw it with my breath than continue to curse the cold.
But sometimes I rail against his otherness as if it were a cage or the tiger in it or one of those wedding sheets with a hole sliced into it for intercourse. When really what I know is this: To chip away at difference is to make the mistake of a lifetime. You think you want him to serenade you with all your favorite songs—and you do, of course—but what you really want is to lie in bed and listen to the love of your life strumming the guitar, singing softly to himself when he thinks everybody's asleep. You think you want the topiary trimmed neatly into the shape of a husband, when what you really want is that wild and sheltering maple, all dappled starlight, its helicopter-seedpods fluttering down in the breeze.
Two identical flints lying side by side in the dark are not exactly going to make a spark now, are they?
For some reason, I am best able to value this—the difference and distance between two minds—when the person I'm talking to is a child. In the car, with K.D. Lang on, for example, I say aloud, "Her voice always sounds like something liquid and smooth—it makes me picture a river of heavy cream rippling down a mountain," and my son says, "I know exactly what you mean. Whenever you talk about time? About this o'clock or that o'clock? I think about lemons." I turn my face to look at him, and he smiles, all mystery and light. Who knew? Another person is like a geode lined with hidden glittering. On a clear day, I understand this: The crystals wink out at me here and there, and I am filled with gratitude for the unseen. On a foggy day, I wonder about taking a hammer to it, cracking it into a million pieces to get a better look.
Come New Year's Eve, I lie with an ear to his bare chest, talking. I'm talking about my resolution to talk less. I want to listen, accept, and cherish. I'm not a child on the beach, as sweet and sparkling with sand as a sugared pastry, but I'm thinking about the kids with their snail and I'm vowing patience. "What about you?" I say, when I am nearly done talking, "What's your resolution?" There's a moment of silence, his strong arms around my back, before he says, "You know when you tear off a piece of floss that's really too short to use but you don't want to waste it so you use it anyways? I'm just going to throw it away and start with a fresh piece. I'm not even going to struggle with it." I lift my face to look at him, and he smiles and winks. Then he ducks his inscrutable head to kiss me on the mouth.