Our emotional histories depend on little decisions which, however small, are irreversible.
One of the questions people often ask a married man is, “How did you meet your wife?” The question is loaded, of course, and an answer like, “Well, I was hanging out at this party in Linz and ran into a girl in a kitchen,” won’t suffice. Emotional histories fascinate us; the question is asking for a rich narrative. It’s a disguise for this: “What led you to fall for her?”
I was telling the story for the 5,000th time, now at a gathering of friends-of-friends.
The interested party was a pair of young women, both in their late 20’s. As I was speaking…Well, I had moved to Austria, and then I was in this dorm, and then I was in this kitchen, and there she was, her t-shirt wrinkled, her glasses crooked, and she was cooking pasta at an electric hot plate…it suddenly occurred to me:
What had led me to that point?
After I had left the gathering, I found myself trying to trace the path of events, like stepping stones winding through a garden, back to some pivotal, monumental point. After all, there had to be some grand decision, some knob that turned on the machine. I did not find this knob, but I did discover something.
Fate. I don’t believe in it. Not really. At least not in the form represented in Greek myths or Calvinist texts. I also tread softly and carefully through questions like “how” and “why”, even though I find myself asking them over and again. But I no longer entertain any possibility for clear, definitive answers.
Especially when questions of fate lead to such absurd discoveries. I realized, lying in bed and pondering my past, that decisions I had made in childhood led me to my wife. There are dozens of examples, but let’s look at a simple one.
In high school, I decided to take German. The decision was actually quite simple. German had something to do with my Northern European roots: my grandparents spoke German and had lived in Germany following WWII. My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany. So I thought I’d be learning something about my identity by investigating the language. I made this decision when I was 14.
That irreversible decision led to a path of study in college, eventually to trips abroad and a growing fascination with the German-speaking world.
One gleaming afternoon in Salzburg, 1994, I was drinking coffee in the shadow of a romantic castle, the Festung Hohensalzburg. I decided I would live in Austria when I graduated from college. The decision to visit Austria in the first place had been influenced by the film Amadeus, one of my favorites, and the music of Falco, the Austrian pop star who had been popular in America in the mid-80’s (a weird moment of synchronicity, as his hit Rock Me, Amadeus had been released right around the time when Forman’s Amadeus was all the rage, when recordings of the 29th Symphony were selling in Midwest Shell stations.)
In 1996, I found myself teaching in a high school in Linz, Austria. I met a beautiful Ukrainian girl in the kitchen of a dorm. One thing led to the next and soon we were married. We moved to New York, then to Bloomington, Indiana, and now find ourselves in Chicago with two children.
This history was determined, in very significant part, by the decision of a teenager to study one language over another. It was not pure or crystalline but tainted with all sorts of baggage I had inherited from elders, people blasted across a planet by a violent war. And yet it had been the only possible decision. It had virtually made itself. I simply had not been the boy who would have taken Spanish, no matter how many people told me I was being impractical. What are you going to do with German? The more they talked, the more I wanted them to fuck off.
Following high school, similar decisions kept on presenting themselves—and also similarly making themselves—much the way the landscape determines where the river will flow as the river’s force and volume determine how deep the valley will be.
So, to ask, How did you meet your spouse? is to ask a powerful question. Perhaps all married and divorced folk should consider it, attempt to arrange the stepping stones in the garden, look at them with sober eyes. We have all recalled the romantic stories when driving rain forced us to a new bagel shop, one we never would have entered, and then we saw that beautiful person seated near a window. There was the time we had given away our stamps and later, panicking over late bills, wandered into our beautiful person outside the post office. Before any of those pivotal moments, we had developed habits and taken paths as children, developed a taste for bagels or become generous with stamps.
I’ve come to believe we are led to our spouses, and to the states of our marriages, because of how we are. The stepping stones in the garden add up to a narrative full of variables. The turns we took, while irreversible, often weren’t really practical (or impractical) decisions. Much more powerful and consequential, they were expressions of ourselves.
Photo by David Pursehouse