unhappy couple
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A sexy courtship, a marriage, a young son. And then a courteous drifting apart. But an icy glimpse into her future brought Jill Bialosky back to the love of her life.
I sat at an outdoor café with an old friend I hadn't seen in nearly a year. It was spring. The pond was beginning to thaw. The daffodils were in bloom. Triangles and rectangles of pale yellows lay patchwork style around the trees. A teenage girl with a series of pierces in her earlobe tucked her hand into her boyfriend's back pocket as they waited for a table, and I remembered the boy who had slipped his hands into the pockets of my hiphuggers and asked, "Do you want to?" before we lay down in the grass. At the table next to us, a couple hovered over their cappuccinos in intense conversation. I noticed the woman had taken off her slingback sandal and was rubbing her bare foot against the calf of the man across from her. My friend and I conversed nonstop. We moaned about how tired we were, between cupcakes to make for the class picnic, expense reports to finish, a novel that needed to be turned in. The long, lavish lunch was a brief intermission in our lives. We gossiped about mutual friends and fantasized about trips to Italy and France. During dips in our conversation, I found myself looking at the teenage couple now seated at a table, their chairs side by side. They kissed. The boy with the lean body underneath a V-neck sweater put his hand under the back of his girlfriend's shirt. Our conversation moved to our children, kindergartens, tantrums, bed-wets. We talked about our mothers and sisters. At the end of the lunch, my friend looked into my eyes as if she were peering into the farthest reaches of my soul and asked me about my marriage. "Are you guys having sex?" she asked bluntly. And this image blossomed in my head of D.'s face covered in pox marks as he lay on our couch, miserable and not talking, quarantined in our house like a leper, having caught chicken pox from our son. I wanted to burst out laughing.

It was not the picture I visualized 12 years ago, talking with D. long-distance from my office, when the sound of his voice made my body nervous and tingly. I had dated my share of men, but none of them were men I could imagine being the father of my child. When at dinner parties the conversation would come around to how we'd all met, ours was the story that made people smile. We discovered each other at our ten-year high school reunion. D. was a jock and I was a flower child. In high school our lives barely intersected. D. was athletic, boyish, possessed of a wry and sometimes angry humor. Both of us were middle children, and watching how he interacted with his family, I saw much of myself. We were both listeners and mediators, ambitious do-gooders motivated by the compulsion to make up for crimes we hadn't committed. He was going to law school in the Midwest. I was a poet working as an editorial assistant in New York. To this day we thank People Express Airlines, those $39 airfares that made it possible for us to sustain the long stretches where I thought I'd go insane if I didn't see the shape of his body leaning against the wall beyond the airline gate as I deplaned. After one of our weekend trysts, D. drove me to the airport and, just as the plane was about to board, convinced me to take the next flight. We sat in two seats facing the runway, mad with the inexplicable euphoria of two people in love, until the next flight began to board and D. tempted me to call in sick and stay another night. When we were apart, I fell asleep curled into the Princess phone while we talked long-distance. In the morning his was the first voice I heard as I reached for the phone and cradled it next to my goose-down pillow.

Once we moved in together, in my studio apartment just large enough for a pullout couch, our days and nights were fueled by adventure. We sat in bars and drank gimlets. We maxed out our credit cards over romantic dinners and weekends in front of fireplaces at bed-and-breakfasts throughout New England. We slept late. We awoke watching the moon slip into the sheet of the new light of morning. Or we didn't sleep at all. We went skiing, ice-skating, and to the movies any night we pleased. He pressed up against me in dark alleys. We made out in taxicabs. There was a volatile tension wired through our relationship that made my body catch fire, feeling his arm resting against mine in the dark cavern of a movie theater.

Next: The beginnings of something wonderful
I remember waking to the pull of desire in the landscape we shared the morning we decided we wanted to have a baby. The night before, we had argued, coming home from a New Year's Eve party in the midst of a snowstorm. Unable to find a cab, we walked from one side of the city to the other screaming at each other, convinced our marriage had ended. In the early years of our relationship our fights were passionate. The kind where one of us stormed out the door or slept on the couch. The kind where I'd be embarrassed the next morning running into our next-door neighbor in the elevator. Fights where I fell apart in the middle of a restaurant, tears falling into my too expensive salmon mousse. It was the intense warfare couples engage in to negotiate their commitment. What woman doesn't think, when she looks at her man dressed in his boxer shorts picking his toenails in front of the Mets game, Is this the guy I decided to end the quest for? And what man, I imagine, doesn't wonder as he tries to shave in the bathroom surrounded by drying Wonderbras and pantyhose, under the strain of a mortgage and car payments, if he'd have been better off a bachelor. What did we fight about that night of the new year?

It began when I balked at the idea of riding the subway at 4 A.M., and my husband retaliated with one of his "Who do you think you are, Queen Elizabeth?" remarks. By the time we made it home, we were cold and tired and wet, but it was New Year's, already the dawn of the new day, and in our one-bedroom brownstone with the kitchenette the size of a closet, into the third year of our entry-level jobs, life was good and D. was sexy in his white T-shirt and damp curls. We slept and we awoke. We were groggy and hungover and our bodies touched. We were burning like a patch of dry summer grass I once watched turn to flames as I held a thick glass close to the ground.

And then there were three. No one prepared me for what it would mean to have a baby in the house. Was it possible that I would ever sleep again? Truth be told, I didn't want to sleep. I wanted to perch beside my child's bassinet like an owl on a limb of a tree to make sure he was still breathing. I loved to study the perfect shape of his head. The way he crinkled up his fingers, shorter than the end of a Q-Tip; the size and shape of every yawn. He was like an extension of my body. The first time I was away from him I left the house for half an hour to get my hair cut, one block away. I was so anxious, I had to leave the salon in the throes of a panic attack, hair still wet, foregoing the blow-dry, and run home. Instead of my husband rubbing up against my body at night, I awoke to my son's hands gripping a clump of my hair or digging into a roll of my flesh. My body served only one purpose: It had become a vessel with which to sustain this child.

I kissed him all over as he lay on his changing table bare naked, while he kicked his legs and screamed for more. I rubbed his back as he squirmed and tossed and fussed himself to sleep. I cradled him in my arms like a football and walked him from one end of the hall to the other in the early hours of the night. I wiped his vomit off my shoulders, let him bite down hard on each one of my fingers to ease his teething. I nibbled on his fat, pudgy legs. I bit his cheeks. I kissed his little button nose, his eyelids, his tummy. His little penis sprayed me when I opened his diaper. I rubbed Desitin on my fingers and squeezed it between the crack in his buttocks. I tasted his formula before I let him drink from his bottle. I rubbed his little tummy when it was cramped with gas. I called him goose and boo and bandito ban dox and dolly and my little tulip. When he was sick I stayed with him all night, putting cold washcloths on his burning hot skin and catching his vomit in a little bowl. I pried open his lips with my fingers to get Tylenol down his throat. I kissed his forehead and let him snuggle against my chest. I sang him lullabies, made up stories. I kissed him all the time. I was so tired. I taught him how to kiss like an Eskimo. I rubbed my eyelashes on his cheek in imitation of a butterfly. He was mine. His body. He was all mine. Sexual desire vanished inside this intense kind of bliss. What more was there to crave when every part of myself was devoted to this child?

Next: Suddenly, their son was 6, and everything was different
And D. was also drunk on this new passion. He loved to take naps with our son perched on his chest like a cat. D. chased him all around the house and screamed Gotcha, and when our son said "Do it again, Daddy," he said "I'm going to get you, I'm going to get you," and he did it again and again and again. We tied towels around our neck and pretended we were Batman and jumped from one bed to another while this child wailed with laughter. We listened to music from The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast in our car until I found myself humming the tunes at work. We drifted in the land of this little boy. We read him stories, took him for walks, took him to the beach—we spent dinners staring at this child.

And in many ways our relationship deepened, now that we had this child to protect. We had plans now, and they were plans for all three of us. We upped our workloads to save for a down payment on an apartment. The day we signed the papers for our first mortgage I called D., hysterical, fearful of the debt we had incurred. But we managed. When my first book of poems was sold and D. set up his own law offices, we toasted with Champagne and takeout. We were doing the big things now, the real things, living the future we had dreamed. We were parents now, with someone else equally or more important to take care of than ourselves.

And then one day this little boy was 6 years old. He was walking, he was running and climbing and jumping and talking so much we couldn't shut him up. He still came into our bed at night and wedged his body between the two of us, stretched out his arms and asserted his kingdom. He had demands. Read to me, he ordered. I want juice. I don't want that, and crash, his plate of macaroni and cheese and carrot sticks went down to the floor. Let's go to the park, the beach, Rugrats in Paris, I want this, Mommy, can I have that? How come the sky is blue, Mommy? Mom, come—when I was in the middle of cooking dinner, or stealing away for 15 minutes on a weekend to find the thread in a paragraph of the novel I was working on. At home, after a day at the office, there was no room for thoughts in my head, let alone any reason to feel sexy, to feel like a woman men desired. I was filling bathtubs, rubbing in shampoo, putting calamine lotion on bug bites, making dinner, trying to think up answers to my kid's questions. I fell asleep sometimes at nine o'clock squished into my son's twin bed, still in my T-shirt and stretch pants. Now that the boy, the lovely intruder in our marriage, was off to school, choosing his playdates, reading to himself, now that there was this little window in my life—was it any wonder, really, that it wasn't my husband's attention that I craved. The man I married got up in the morning as tired as I. He went into the bathroom, brushed his teeth, shaved, put on his suit and tie, and walked out the door. When he came home at night, usually after our son was in bed, I was too tired to ask him about his day and he was too wrapped up in anxieties about the office to ask me about mine. I was curled into the couch with a manuscript or asleep. He stayed in the living room watching the Knicks or talking to one of his clients on the phone. Sometimes we made love, but it was short and uninspired, more the kind of lovemaking where you're checking in to make sure someone is at home. I still desired my husband—sometimes watching him read my son a story or pitch a baseball to him in the backyard, my stomach did somersaults—but a little faucet had turned off inside my body. I didn't want to be touched.

Talking with other women at the same stage in their lives as I was, I realized that the lack of sexual desire I was experiencing was more common than I had known. Many of us were walking in the dark. It wasn't until later that I began to see I had entered a phase in my marriage that was about reinforcing a commitment to what we had built, and I understood, for the first time really, what it meant to be in it for the long haul. But back then, when I was deep into feeling the loss of my sex-charged youthfulness, I wanted the man I knew everything about, the man I had deluged with questions until he told me about every girl he had kissed, every fight he had with his mother, I wanted him to be transformed into someone new again, someone with whom I could start from scratch, someone who would pore over me as if I were some kind of intricate puzzle rather than the bitch I had become, the woman who nearly had a breakdown when she discovered at midnight there was no milk in the refrigerator, who complained that we worked too hard and still didn't have enough money, who freaked out if toys were scattered all over the floor, who was lonely putting her son to bed every night and had no qualms about making that loneliness known. I wanted to transcend what had become the routine of my life.

Next: "In my mind I mapped out an intricate affair"
I took the subway home from that long lunch with my girlfriend. I thought of those teenagers groping each other unabashedly in the café, and I wanted to feel that freedom again and that pulse quickening inside my body. I thought to myself, This is my life, I am an unhappy, anxious wife. I knew that on paper I was the luckiest woman alive. I had a great kid, an interesting job, a promising writing life, and a responsible sexy husband. But somewhere during the six years we were focused on our child, D. and I had lost the thread, the raw, tensile, electric current I thrived on. I was angry that my husband wasn't trying to win me back. I was furious that he wasn't interested in my life. I was afraid that if I became engaged in his life my own hard-won independence and autonomy would be over and I would never be desired again. Being desired had given me power and a strong sense of self. And D. was furious. Where was the compassionate, affectionate, and caring woman he had married? In my anger I had built up a fortress banning him from the house of love. Now it sometimes felt as if the only thing that connected us was our child. We had become strangers to each other.

I fantasized about other men. My friends confessed they did, too. Come to think of it, what married woman doesn't? Sometimes I flirted, but mostly I fantasized. The city seemed alive with possibility, and I imagined I could sample these men as if I were at a wine tasting. And like almost every other woman I knew who was juggling careers and motherhood and the complicated demands of marriage, I found myself wondering about my life. I asked myself a provocative question: Was I giving myself over to an unadventurous life?

In my mind I mapped out an intricate affair, because now that my husband and I were strangers, it was as if I didn't have a husband. I was a free girl again. A girl who woke up in the morning and took delight in what she was wearing and in the feel of a man's eyes as she walked down the street, and then—well, you fill it in. In my mind I created this wonderful, exotic life. It was as if I were on holiday from my marriage, on a grand vacation, alone with myself, free in my own thoughts.

Then one evening D. came home from work and delivered a bombshell. He blurted it out over our cheese-and-pepper pizza and glass of red wine. A colleague of his, a guy he'd known for a while, a guy he'd thought had a solid marriage, whom we had repeatedly socialized with as couples, had just told D. his wife wanted a divorce. It was as if the fantasy life I was living had leaped out of my head and manifested itself in our friend's wife. Why? I asked. He thinks she's seeing someone else, I heard D. say. And suddenly I was terrified. I thought about losing D., and I felt queasy with fear. I saw that all those weeks imagining an affair I had been tiptoeing across a minefield, and if I continued to traverse it, all we had built together would explode. I tried to picture what life would be like without my husband. I saw a lonely house. For months I had been remote and secretive with D. I felt ashamed. I looked at the stranger who was my husband, and in that moment I came back to reality. I saw the man I had fallen in love with. The man I watched agonizing over the goddamn bar exam now had built his own practice. Our friends envied the kind of attentive, loving father he had become. In his eyes I saw the two sturdy pillars I leaned against: He had given me the security and safety and love to become a mother, to go after my dreams as a writer. D.'s love and kindness had made me a better person. I thought about waking up in the morning without him and felt the chill of an empty existence—. And for what? It wasn't even sex that I wanted from a lover. It was the intoxication of being newly known. I had wanted to imagine that someone else could fall in love with me, but now, looking at my husband in his Speedo gym shorts and bleached-out T-shirt, what I saw was that the man I was married to was the person I wanted to have the affair with. I wanted him to wrestle me to the ground, to say he couldn't live without me. I wanted to see the world again anew through his eyes. I hadn't known that my husband could be the fantasy. That while I was in my head building new boyfriends out of snow, the man I had married turned other women on. All I had to do was walk out of my head and begin to talk to the man who sat beside me the nights we managed to make dinner.

For all my extravagant, wild, reckless imaginings, I had already chosen the one. Now what we needed to do was to figure out how to reinvent our marriage and become reacquainted with the singular person each of us had become along the way. I felt guilty for my fantasy affair. But I knew that my imagination and longings were central to leading an authentic life. I just needed to let my arm reach out so that my husband could run his fingers up and down the veins on the underside, and we'd be there, I'd feel it again, as if I were at the airport gate waiting to see his shining face picking mine out from the crowd. He was still there. I had to peel back the layers we had built around ourselves, all those years when we were desperately in love with our son and had lost each other, until I reached the exposed heart of our connection.

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