I remember it like this: It's January 2009 and our infant son is sleeping. We are sitting in our rented apartment in Los Angeles, one of the most expensive cities in America, where we had dreams of "making it" in Hollywood. My husband, Dan, a photographer, is out of work; every freelance job he had lined up through May has suddenly been canceled. We are in economic free fall. I turn to Dan and say, "I just want you to fix this."
His face crumples like a smashed pumpkin at Halloween. "I can't, Cait. This goes way beyond what I can do with my own two hands."
What has gone so wrong in our country, I wonder, that this man—this can-do guy—can't fix this? He repairs our broken chairs with dabs of Elmer's wood glue, and, when I was pregnant, he made and flipped the perfect high-protein pancake—for breakfast, lunch and dinner because anything else made me nauseous. He's got a huge toolbox, for crying out loud! There must be some kind of wrench or pliers in there that will work for this problem. Over the next two months, he goes door-to-door looking for any kind of job. He applies for hundreds online. He is rejected time and time again with the words "No jobs available" or, worse, silence. Finally, we drive across the country and move in with my mother, in Maine.
Fast forward: It's the fall of 2011, over two years since that night Dan told me he wasn't Superman. We've moved out of Mom's, and Dan went back to school and received an MFA. I, miraculously, was able to sell a book I wrote and to secure a series of freelance writing and teaching gigs to support us. I've become, at a time when I least expected to do so, the primary breadwinner.
At night, as Dan undresses before bed, I can see, just in the way he hangs his jeans on the back of the door, that the recession has left its mark. And although he doesn't tell me half of what I wish he would, if he were to say anything, I think it might go like this:
"I can't fix this. I know you want me to. But I can't." So, right, my husband actually did say this one out loud, when confronted with the sheer panic of his hormonal, brand-new-mommy wife. But I know that this is something any man who's been out of work would want to tell his spouse. And he'd also want her to hear how hard it is to admit.
"I don't know what I'm worth if I don't have a job." When we meet someone new and they ask Dan what he does, he hesitates. He's not sure if, when he stacks up all the meals he cooks, the childcare he does (uncomplainingly, I might add), the cleaning he puts his elbow grease into and all the effort that goes into every single phone call or query letter—if when he explains all this to a stranger, if these things he does, actually do add up to enough for himself, as a man.
"Hold me. I'm trying to hang tough over here, but I could use the basic warmth of you against me, shirt to shirt, skin to skin—something, anything—to let me know I'm not alone." I remember this one night, back when the final phone call came in that canceled that last job in May 2009. I had started making dinner and our new baby was gurgling in his bouncy seat. Dan got off the phone, came into the kitchen and said, "Give me the spoon, Cait. I'm making dinner." I said, "I can do it, honey." "Nope, I need to do something for us right now, and it's dinner." I can see now, as I remember the slope of his shoulders that night, that if he could've asked for it, what he needed more than that wooden spoon was the longest, gentlest hug I could give. I'm chagrined to tell you that I handed over the spoon but not the hug.