Having her adored husband around: comforting, engaging, fun. Having him away for a few days: pure euphoria. Cathleen Medwick on the fine art of staying together while staying yourself.
The taxi is just pulling out the driveway. He is on his way to Indonesia, a five-day business trip. Gone! I don't know what to do first. Take a walk outside with just a noisy bunch of tree frogs for company? Throw a highly objectionable CD (that would be Carousel or Show Boat) into the Bose and raise the volume to deafening? Turn out the lights, peel off some clothing, and dance? Or sing! I'm great on the choruses, even the solos, I've been listening to this music since I was 10.
Let me catch my breath for a moment. My husband has left the building. And I'm exultant; it's the way you'd feel if you landed alone on the moon and everything was cool and silvery and you knew you could go home to Earth again—just not quite yet. Because I'm crazy about Jeff, my husband of 32 years. We've had coffee together practically every morning all that time. We've bought dinged and battered antiques that nobody else would look at twice. We've lived congenially, for the most part, in a one-bedroom apartment, a rambling prewar classic six, and two drafty, centuries-old exurban farmhouses with sodden basements (doesn't every house have water seeping through its limestone foundation?). I've handed him a glass of vodka as he's obsessed about his dozens of orchids, his acres of flax, and shrieked at him as he's uprooted the tender shoots of our 50-year-old peony bushes with the rake of his tractor. I've seen his eyes close in rapture as he's played his guitar, watched him gaze with boundless admiration at our sweet, manic quasi-Labrador, and even at me. I've seen him accumulate a world-class collection of ties—enough to outfit a small company—and a pile of laundry so steep it finally collapses into the bathroom doorway, where he nimbly climbs over it, scattering clothing like rose petals in his wake. I've watched him sleep propped up on his elbow, head resting in his hand and blankets merrily twisted around his legs, as the eternal light from the blaring television flicks hectic patterns onto his face. I've listened to him snore so resoundingly that our neighbor's peacocks honk in solidarity. And I've tiptoed out of the bedroom, slippers in hand, to slide beneath the covers of our daughter's bed (she's long been out of the house), where the velvety night envelops me and I can hear the humming of my own reclusive mind.
In truth I have always been a loner. I love tiny, singular spaces where a body can sit quietly and contemplate. I was never happier than when I lived in my quirky basement apartment in a Manhattan brownstone, and Jeff, a stranger to me, moved into the parlor-floor apartment right above it. We began to meet for coffee, and at night after he got home from his corporate job at a major New York–based textile firm and I finished reading for my graduate courses in Renaissance poetry, I'd clamber upstairs and sip wine with him. I might stay over—or I might go downstairs to sleep alone. It wasn't exactly Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, maintaining separate apartments and perfectly calibrated minds. I have no idea what Jeff and I talked about in those early days, but it was probably nothing more complicated than how I could prep for my orals without falling asleep and whether or not he should paint contrasting trim around his ceiling. It didn't matter. What mattered was that we never stopped talking.
Then we moved in together, into his apartment. I had to get rid of my spindly Victorian furniture; it looked ridiculous with his chunky brown sofa and pragmatic oak table and chairs. The shag rug was a bone of contention; luckily, it didn't survive a sheepdog with digestive issues. Crammed in a claustrophobic space, we began to battle, one of us slamming the door and retreating into the narrow bedroom. We built a sleeping loft to escape to. Still, we not only survived the merger but married. We tried to become a "we," traveling for our honeymoon to the Paris I loved (and he hated), always seeing friends together, dragging each other to movies that bored one of us to death. His eyes glazed over when I tried to fascinate him with Middlemarch. I rubbed my temples while he replayed a Hendrix album into the wee hours or puzzled over some intricate business deal. We survived corporate dinners and foreign films, poetry readings and rock concerts. My role models were artists, his were entrepreneurs. We tugged persistently at each other's psyches and prayed for continental shifts.
As the decades passed, though, the tugging became less strenuous, more habitual. We perfected the fine art of needling. Our children, Lucy and Peter, grew up exasperated but also oddly liberated by our differences, which at the very least gave them options; one eventually became an editor, the other a musician, and both are avid readers who seriously love rock music. Gradually, it dawned on us that we, too, had grown up. Or we had aged out of social insecurity. We no longer had to prove anything to others or, for that matter, to ourselves. We knew we could trust each other. We could say goodbye when we went to work in the morning, maybe stay in town to meet a friend (someone the other could live happily never seeing), and reconvene at home later to compare notes. It was never boring. It's still not. Yet I have friends who tell me they do everything with their husbands. They push a cart together at the supermarket. (Jeff: "I'd rather be dead. Just let me do the shopping.") They never travel separately. If I ask a childhood pal (now married) out to dinner in hopes of some intimate conversation, she invariably answers, "We'd love to!" Calling a friend in California, I learn that "we" are dazzled by the new exhibition at the Getty; we're vegan now; we saw that movie and we were not amused. I relate more easily to my ex-roommate Ginger, who rolls her eyes in mock gratitude when her stay-at-home husband sallies out alone, to my grad-school friend Jane, who has a heady and deeply satisfying relationship with a man who lives in another state, but worries about what will happen to their blissful independence if the two of them ever move in together. I can see her point. Sartre and de Beauvoir lived apart until their deaths, after which some enterprising soul decided to plant them under a single headstone. They've got to be turning in their grave.
I walk out the door with a suitcase, on my way to speak at a weekend writers' conference in Texas, as Jeff, guitar pick in hand, laptop softly whirring in the next room, gives me the warm, sweet glance I fell for decades ago, and a parting kiss. He tells me to have a wonderful time as he gently and firmly closes the door. I know he's about to celebrate—three days in which the television never goes off, the dog sprawls on the bed, the lights stay on till 3 a.m. No one greets him at daybreak with a list of ancient grievances and a furrowed brow. No one smashes his concentration as he's putting the finishing touches on a complex lecture or presentation. No one gloomily reports to him about diseases he doesn't have and dangers he's too sanguine to fear. He's in paradise, and he's got it all to himself. When I finally return, exhilarated by the readings, the company of other writers, he will be delighted to see me. He will have already opened a bottle of wine, the porch chairs will be ready and waiting. We will have so much to say.