Couples Like Us

Laurie King-Billman

On the ride to the airport, I am thinking of the last scene of Casablanca. The part where the lovers embrace for the last time. My husband and I are Rick and Elsa, headed to different places, different worlds. Once we thought we were as close as two people can get.


I am crying. My husband of thirty-two years stops at a gas station so I can get coffee, and tissues to mop up my tears. It is four in the morning, and the dark shadows of lush trees and flowering bushes of a southern July dawn crowd the sides of the empty highway. In an hour I will be taking a plane to a place where vegetation takes a backseat to sky, and distant mountains surround my valley. A place where I no longer live with him.


I have bought a house on ten acres in Colorado and adopted six cats. I have a new job, but still keep my old name. The name I got from him. We are stuck in a hell of surrender and fight, where hope is slowly giving up but still letting out a few cries. A part of me wants him to try and woo me back, while another part thinks it is useless, imagining that another woman is on his mind in a way that I have not been in years. I am angry and hurt but am strong-willed enough to at least physically move on. He has found intimacy on the Internet, and I have been reluctant to even try flirting with other men. I do not feel like a more moral person, just a slower one. Despite how much this all has broken my heart, I feel disloyalty writing about it. None of his three “friendships” have stuck, or lasted, so maybe there is hope. That and those thirty-two years have kept me from finding a lawyer.


                                                                    ***


He is a wonderful person in so many ways. He is helping to raise our granddaughters who lost their father to immigration. He is insanely loyal to our daughters. A family man in good ways that have kept us being best friends despite this bitter wave of pain lapping up upon the shores of all our encounters. I have a stream of whys that I hurl at him like machine gun bullets; he lacks answers. When he says he still loves me and only me, I believe it. Reader, feel free to think I am a sucker, but to my own defense, I did move thousands of miles away to avoid being further hurt.


These days my anger is one of the main hurdles between us. I turn it on him in walls of flame that quickly turn inward, burn down my self-esteem in blazes of self-consciousness, and defy my resolve to cut this raving out. Did I depend too much on him for identity, as I made the compromises to raise my daughters, while he contributed the larger salary and moved further along in his career? We did many things differently than typical couples. I gave birth to one daughter in a third world country and adopted another from the same country. We became a biracial, bilingual family, and I believe we did it well. Yet here we are in such a damn typical marital impasse.


I have resisted turning for help to the industry of heartbreak fixers who offer up solutions on the Internet and TV. They cry out with quick answers to weight gain, offer elixirs to youth, claim they can tell you for a price how to keep your skin and love fresh. I am a feminist after all and never believed in too much artifice to maintain anything. However, I must admit to buying a few pricey creams that I forget to use. Could they have saved my marriage? According to the ads, yes.


My husband has also been a strong supporter of women’s rights and seems horrified at how late middle age has tricked him into the age-old wonder at youth. Some days he seems as distressed as me over what has happened and as surprised.


We have both had rewarding careers and are in the sage stage of recognition for our knowledge to most of our younger colleagues. Though I have found myself put in a few old folks’ corners and shunned for my years, usually I feel respected.


This situation has made me feel my years in a very painful way. We should be enjoying this time together, as we have always shared our separate fields with each other. I sometimes think that the developmental stage we have not made it through, however, is that balance of autonomy versus harmony. Did we grow too close for comfort and stop our individual growth? We did not have a perfect marriage, of course, but it worked for so long.


When we pull back onto the highway, from buying me coffee, he asks, “Haven’t you cried enough?”


Good question. How long does this kind of grief continue? How long before you give up and move on in both your body and your heart? I feel that I am dealing with a death.


The end of a marriage is the end of a unique culture, one with its own language, values, business, mission, and way of marking time. Our stories are held dear by our children. I have heard these tales repeated by my two girls to their friends with a kind of reverence: the way we met on a construction site—in a ditch, actually; the time my husband defended me with a lawn chair; how each of my daughters went to buy a swimsuit in separate stores and came out with the exact same suit. Like many families we have our own holiday rituals, the presenting of my husband’s apple pie at Thanksgiving being one of the best.


An anniversary got me stuck in this particular week. I had flown back for a few days to help one of my daughters with some legal issues. He was traveling but called to say, “Stay until I’m home so we can be together for our anniversary.” I agreed, not realizing how painful those extra days would be. Now, here we are, driving toward the end-game Casablanca scene where Elsa says good-bye to Rick, even though it is obvious she still loves him. The noble cause for us is to simply stop the world war we have been waging in our home for the past five years, ever since I discovered certain pictures on his laptop, and he began to long for more space in his life. It was, of course, cliché; she was young. For him it was the discovery of money I carelessly spent when he was gone. Money we desperately needed to assure college for our girls. Money, I hear, is the biggest cause for marital fights, a spender always paired with a saver. This certainly held true for us.


“How many trips to this airport have we made?” I ask, blowing my nose and sipping a latte.


“Probably about eighty,” he says, relieved not to be talking about our broken marriage.


It was usually me driving him to the airport, then immediately turning around to resume the life of raising our two girls alone. Was this one of the stressors, we asked each other? If so, why did things finally fall apart when that child-raising job reached a less intense phase with young adult children? Are we just another story of “empty-nest divorce,” where we just grew apart? It does not feel to me like a clean separation, as parts of us are still merged. Our children, our love of travel, our taste in music and quirky literature, but number one our humor all roll into a ball hard not to toss over and over at each other. I feel like I will need a very sharp knife to get it all separated out.


I have not lived with him eight months now. My life is lived two thousand miles away from the town where I was born. He didn’t believe I’d go, and it took me three years, three years since our marriage went into that stage where denial no longer worked for either of us. So what is holding us in this stage of still-married-but-living-apart? We are sickened by the thought of hiring lawyers, splitting up assets. I have had trouble with the idea of changing my name back from the one I have carried twice as long as my childhood name. He has had a strange conviction that I am his soul mate. We still love each other in our own ways, talking daily through instant messenger.

Once we were proud of our ability to outlast so many others; obviously this pride is false. When I am with him, I cry often, a very unflattering thing for a sixty-year-old woman to do. Are there other couples like us, painfully entangled, unable to part for good? Now that people are living longer lives, will it become more difficult to stretch love out over the years?


We do not hug good-bye when I go to the curbside check-in at the airport. We are just two people going our separate ways. He drives off without looking back. When the amused baggage handler types in my ticket and says, “Lady, your flight is for six p.m., not a.m.,” I am stunned. What to do with the extra twelve hours? I go for a coffee in a just-opened Starbucks and think about hanging out at the airport—not appealing. He does not have a cell phone, so I cannot make a “turn back” call. But in the strange synchronicity that develops in close relationships, my call goes through to him the minute he walks in the door at home. He laughs, says, “I’ll be right there.” The synchronicity can be a curse; we will often get sick or blue or elated at the same time. We both love to write and will call each other from all those miles away either in a good flow or blocked state at the same time.

When he picks me up, we are both less stressed and talk about our kids and our jobs in a light way, rare to these separation times. The day is filled with the weak light of early dawn, and having slept very little the night before, we tumble into the bed we have shared for many a year to enjoy a deep, relieved sleep. His snoring is like background ocean waves—a familiar comfort. A sound that means the world has taken on that old normal I often crave. When we wake, we reach out to each other and pull into that dance of bodies, once the glue that held us together. It feels absolutely wonderful.


That dance eventually became interrupted by high-stress jobs, children, illness, and the rupture such things as the Internet can cause to the seal of intimacy. We could have done better, but the years flew by so fast, it was hard to take stock before things went wrong, before it was too late.


On this morning we have back the harmony of other times. For the rest of the day, we enjoy an easy rapport and watch our granddaughters play in the warmth of it. My bag is ready when it is time to once again drive to the airport.


This time, when he pulls up to the curb, we embrace. We are still sad Rick and Elsa with a last kiss; that may be the last time we have this intimacy. Our problems are that hill of beans Bogie talked about, but to us they became a mountain we cannot climb.


Nothing has been solved. Our marriage was at one time an inspiration to the young people we knew. People need to believe that love is the one card that can stay constant. Now our marriage is probably a cautionary tale. As I board the plane back to my new life, I ask myself, Would I have dressed up in white, said “I do,” and continued to do for as long as I did, knowing how it all would end? Would I have stood and repeated the age-old words of commitment and love if I had realized just how long till death do us part could be? Had I known the eventual outcome, would I have said yes?


I decide I would. The plane lifts off. And I think of how in Casablanca Rick comforts Elsa as they part for good, by talking of the wonderful days of love they had. “We’ll always have Paris,” he said. My husband and I will always have the memories of the many towns and cities we lived in, of the crazy years from the seventies to now, of the beautiful girls we helped launch in this world. That thought makes me smile as my plane lifts off into a clear blue sky.




Nonfiction
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Fiction