I was twenty-five and had just moved in with Jen. I’d lived with a bunch of people in my life; in fact, except for one six-month stretch when I was twenty-two and had my own apartment, I’d always had roommates, whether they were my family or friends. This was different. It wasn’t just that we were sharing the same bed every night, or that the apartment was so small, or that I had moved from Los Angeles to Seattle just to be with her. It was as if we were building the same jigsaw puzzle together all the time, building it whether we were going for a walk, eating dinner, having sex, getting dressed, or deciding what movie to see.
I had had a lot of girlfriends before moving in with Jen, but only one, Sarah, that lasted longer than three months. When I was with Sarah for that year or so, I dropped everything I was doing, dropped my friends, my writing, my reading, my music, everything that wasn’t Sarah or waiting tables. That was my life, and it was no good. I started my first attempt at a novel the day after Sarah and I broke up.
This would not be the case with Jen. She was a writer and an artist, and we loved to talk about stories and movies and just what it was like to look at a blank page or canvas and figure out what we wanted to see on it. It was Jen’s suggestion that I write first thing in the morning while she exercised, that I use the empty time before my lunch shift instead of trying to write when I got home. It’s a habit I have continued thirty years later, long after I stopped waiting tables.
But one evening I was sitting on our couch in the living room reading The Atlantic. I’d started getting the magazine back when I was living on my own, and ever since, when it came in the mail, I’d plop myself down and see what the Liberal Elite had to say that month. Which is what I was doing, having found an interesting article about why boys on average have more trouble in school than girls, when Jen did something wholly unexpected: she started talking to me.
She didn’t have a question she needed to be answered right then, there wasn’t a problem that needed solving, she just had something on her mind that she wanted to talk to me about. I liked talking to Jen, but I was reading. She knew I was reading, and yet she was talking to me anyway. I felt split in two. That puzzle we were building together all the time was important, but sometimes I wanted just to read.
“Jen,” I said. “I’m reading.”
“So, this is what I want to do now.”
“Can’t you just put it down to talk to me?”
“I could, but I was enjoying it.”
“It’ll still be there when we’re done talking.”
And so on. It was a discussion we’d have in one form or another for many years after. The truth is that we were both right: I didn’t have to read the magazine, and she didn’t have to talk to me. Both things could have waited. So, who would put their desires on hold at that moment? I mentioned that exchange recently to Jen, and she remembered it well. She said she’d learned to see how engrossed I was in something if she wanted to talk, and I reflected on how I’d learned to more easily put things down and pick them up.
In fact, I’m still learning. If marriage has taught me anything, it’s that no moment is too small to matter. You can try to tell yourself it’s just a magazine, but in that instant, you put it down or don’t you’re learning to find the balance of some internal scale that weighs the needs of your unique, separate, individual life–a life that existed before the marriage and will continue were to end–and those of the relationship, which must be fed with attention as much as your body must be fed with food. Every single moment together has the potential to wound or heal, to let you expand or send you retreating.
I think this might be why the divorce rate is so high. The relentless importance of every moment is so in your face in a marriage that it is easy to believe things would be simpler if that other person weren’t staring at you all the time. Except that other person is just a mirror. You can only learn to love them as you do yourself, as you do life, the very thing you cannot leave and that will never leave you.
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo courtesy iStock.