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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 Perhaps I'd chide the snail for acting so withdrawn or accuse him of passive aggression.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?"