For his birthday a few years ago I bought my husband Michael a hoodie with a rainbow-colored space shuttle on the back. He lived on Florida’s Space Coast as a teenager, could hear the rockets firing up as he biked to school in the mornings. He told me that so long ago and so many times that now it’s practically my own story, familiar like the little mound of his belly, the only thing not long and angular about him.
Michael is still my husband, but he's no longer my love. We've been separated for a little over a year, sharing custody of our two young daughters, renting places just a few blocks from each other. Though not perfect, it's far better than our last year together. In that roomy three-bedroom rental with the walk-in closet and the grassy backyard, we stopped listening to each other. We stopped trying, each of us retreating to our separate galaxies after we put the girls to bed at night, lost in the glow of our screens.
He'd play “Send in the Clowns” on the piano, such a mournful song, and there we were: One who keeps tearing around, One who can't move.
For years I knew that when he got depressed he needed me to hug him and hold on tight. And yet sometimes I'd refuse, fed up with his mood swings, his caustic complaints about stupid drivers and oblivious waitstaff. I'd take my annoyance out on the bathroom counter; once it shone, I'd move on to the floor. These days it's easier for me to lean in and be compassionate when he's down. The black hole of his depression no longer feels like a threat—just one of his many dimensions, part of what gives him a divine capacity for humor, the only person I know who could turn “Hakuna Matata” into “A Tuna Frittata.”
Sometimes we all have dinner together on his deck. He grills kabobs, the girls and I laugh at his corny jokes, the planets are in alignment. I practice playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” on his piano, his expert ear reminding me that I should be in E minor, not G. When we hug goodnight I do hold on tight, reluctant to let go of this goodness. Even when bad moods and petty grievances arise they just circulate like space debris, no place to lodge.
I cherish a memory from the first Saturday of spring after the space shuttle hoodie birthday, more than midway through our marriage. The day dawns warm and bright. Michael pulls out his straw hat, the one that still cracks us up, and takes our 5 year-old to Grab-N-Grow for dirt. He is alive and energized: gingerly carting snails to safer ground, protecting the baby lettuces from slugs, positioning stakes for pea tendrils. Our baby is napping and I’m dressed for yoga, but I haul out the reclining lawn chair, open my book and postpone being a warrior. He's always asking me to slow down, and for once I do. I might even doze off in the shade of our sycamore. And him—maybe he will unearth his roller skates and take a spin, maybe his spirits will stay afloat. The possibilities feel expansive.
But after another few years of trying and then not trying, of growing together and then stagnating, we couldn't ignore the root-bound pain. One night I collapsed next to our bed, staring at the high ceilings as he laid out the plan for our separation. “Let's not wait until we hate each other,” he said. We could split the week, have a shared bank account for the girls' expenses. We would still do things altogether, still be a family. I resisted, sobbing. How would we break the news? What about all the people who came to our wedding, who adored us as a couple? “You've always cared too much about what other people think,” he said for the millionth time.
He's right, of course. When I'm brushing my teeth and watering my deck plants at the same time—or any other ridiculous multi-tasking that would drive Michael crazy—I acknowledge how free I am to be myself now. How long before I dare let my new love glimpse these strange idiosyncrasies, I wonder. How long before I reveal the depths of my anxiety, propelling me into constant motion.
Then again, maybe my hyper-productivity was partly a response to Michael's heaviness. Maybe resisting his gravitational pull left me with scant places to land.
On a recent pick-up at his house, our 8 year-old puts on the Cyndi Lauper record. She can do it all by herself Michael tells me, proud. We chat about upcoming appointments as she croons along to “Time After Time” (a flash of us harmonizing one night in the old house on Tupper). Our little one, no longer a baby, flips through an old Berenstain Bears book. On the walk back to my place I think of something I once heard about galaxies, how they can collide and co-exist for eons before moving apart again, forever altered.
I stop to peer into a box marked “free stuff” on the sidewalk, but it's just junk—a couple of melted candles, jars without lids, CDs. I remember Michael telling me about that music shop up in Humboldt, the sea chill, his loneliness that season, the kooky owner who put out crates of free records on Wednesdays. Or was it a pawn shop?
The details are blurry, but the feeling snaps right into focus: when just the sight of his long lean forearms at the piano could ignite me and every tale from his youth shot straight through my gut and our romance was a rocket in perpetual liftoff.
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