The morning after I met J, I told my best friend Gail “I met the man I’m going to marry.” I believed this but – as the above entry makes clear – J hadn’t reached the same conclusion. Because it was a done deal in my own mind, I needed J and Gail to get along.
It’s a problem when your best friend loathes your significant other. Usually, I’m the one who detests my friend’s beloved. The friendship suffers when my friend chooses the love of her life over me, her jealous, bitchy buddy. Go figure.
I didn’t want to choose. Choosing means giving up an option, possibly forever. I avoid it when I can. Luckily, J and Gail clicked. Despite many miles and years since that night, we remain close today.
For the record, I did not get more aggressive and gregarious around Law House although J did get more irritable (and irritating) as finals approached. It didn’t matter. My premonition was correct. I’d met the man I would marry.
After such a rocky start, the last thing I expected was a magical wedding – but then, all of my expectations were wrong. I figured spotty attendance, at best. Aside from John, how many lunatics would brave freezing roads and icy wives to witness nuptials?
A whole lot, it turned out. When two people as well-loved as Phil and Sharon wed, their collective iPhone contacts show up en masse. When Sharon walked down the aisle in a gorgeous traditional white gown, I was moved to tears. There was something so unique and poignant about two people (in my own demographic yet!) who got lucky and found love again.
And how about the Tenaya Lodge, dusted with snow as the sun flickered toward twilight? I can’t imagine a more stunning site for a winter wedding. Surrounded by so much beauty, I felt compelled to snap a selfie or two while waiting for the reception to start.
The hits kept on coming. The bride and groom’s adult children were all ecstatic about the union because it made their parents so happy. The DJ played music I loved and and adorable grandchildren danced in wedding attire. John and I were seated at a table packed with fascinating people and lively conversation. Even the food was good!
Last but not least, in a rare moment of clarity I conceded most likely I wouldn’t have finished the great American novel if I’d stayed home instead of attending the wedding. John refrained from saying “I told you so” in words.
I strongly considered skipping this diary entry; I prefer the impression I have a perfect marriage and this entry shows the cracks. I decided to publish it anyway because – while I can’t see behind anyone else’s bedroom door – I strongly suspect most long-married couples suffer through periods when they are less than enchanted with each other – when one of them is so unhappy that walking out the door is an option.
I was miserable enough to fantasize about divorce more than once but I never followed through. I realize now that I blamed John for my deep dissatisfaction with myself and my life. This was particularly true early in our marriage, when I was stuck at home with a baby and a writing career looked like an impossible dream. I told myself I’d leave him as soon as I was self-supporting but when I became self-supporting, I was happier with myself so I no longer wanted to leave.
In 2003, we did separate – for a week. I think the reality of a split scared both of us; it scared me, I was a basket case. Things were significantly better when we got back together because we both chose to be there. That’s a big part of marital happiness, I think – the knowledge you chose and have been chosen.
Have things been all sunshine and rainbows since then? Of course not, we’re human. We disagree about many things. We can get on each other’s nerves. We know each other’s weak spots so we’re masters at sticking the knife in – although we do it far less often than we did when we were young. We’re old enough to know that most of the things we fight about aren’t worth it but that doesn’t always stop us. Both of us want it our way, all the time. Neither of us get everything we want.
That said, we get enough. We’ve been married 42 years and counting and I don’t see either of us filing for divorce anytime soon. If any young marrieds read this, don’t give up too soon. There are times when your relationship might look hopeless. That doesn’t mean it is hopeless. You’re not the first or last couple to feel broken. That doesn’t always mean it’s over.
Mary and Jack’s wedding was fun, which isn’t the first word I’d use to describe most weddings. Beautiful, moving, magnificent, and interminable, sure. In my experience, relatively few are fun.
As a pastor’s daughter, I was privileged – or required, depending on your point of view – to attend more weddings than most people see in a lifetime. My father married hundreds of couples and our family was usually invited.
I wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed about my future wedding day. Bridal magazines bored me even when I prepared to be a bride myself. Although there was zero possibilitiy my parents would divorce – divorce was almost unheard of on either side of the family – I would have predicted I’d get divorced and remarried several times.
Why? Because at the age of ten or twelve, fifty years of marriage sounded like an eternity. I was becoming aware – not proud, but aware – I could be capricious (all right, fickle) in matters of friendship and, later, romance. It wasn’t always a liability. I dodged some bullets and learned a lot from failed relationships.
By the time I married at a relatively young (for today) 24 – I was beginning to understand what makes a relationship work. (In a nutshell, it takes work.) The multiple marriages I imagined in my future never materialized. In a real sense, given the changes John and I went through in our 42 years together, we experienced mutltiple marriages with each other. Some better than others, of course. But we never wanted a divorce at the same time, so we went the distance.
So did Mary and Jack. Happy anniversary, Denoves. It’s been a blast.
I met Mary Bennett my first quarter at UCLA, when we both snuck into an encounter group for depressed Sproul Hall residents. (Neither of us were depressed enough, according to their survey – we must have hidden it well.)
Ten minutes into group, we cured our depression by deciding to be roommates. I did take the precaution of checking out her LP collection first. When I discovered that – like me – she owned Mason Williams’ obscure first album, it was a done deal. I’ve never regretted it.
Mary met future husband Jack Denove before I met John but they married five years later. Apparently they weren’t quite as impulsive. Since Mary and Jack went to Loyola Law School and J was in law school at USC, they were one of the first couples we socialized with. Mary and I served as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings and John eventually joined their law firm – now Bennett, Cheong, Denove and Rowell.
I didn’t know Karen Stuart well but I liked her. John worked for her husband, Tony Stuart, before joining Mary and Jack. In this instance, my first instinct was correct. I shouldn’t have let Karen read my book without doing a rewrite. Since writers generally get only one shot – one read – I should have made sure it was as good as it could be. This is Not My Beautiful Wife, the novel in question (title taken from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime) wasn’t ready. Karen was kind and gave me useful notes, but this once in a lifetime opportunity was over.
Maybe one of these days I’ll pick it up and try again.
Even as a child, I tried to get out of housework – so much so my mother warned me I’d better be rich enough to hire a maid or I’d live in squalor. John’s chivalry with regard to the mop notwithstanding, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Clean around the house either. My mother almost fainted when his mother expressed relief, “that John finally has someone to keep him neat and organized.” If I was supposed to play Felix to his Oscar, we were in big trouble.
Domestic situations aren’t the only ones where I feign ineptitude to avoid doing something I just don’t want to do. Almost anything technical or complicated involving computers or electronics qualifies. My children and husband accommodate me, more or less, although lately my daughter’s exasperated sighs are more pronounced. “Is it plugged in?” she always asks. It’s embarrassing how many times that turns out to be the problem.
I recognized my own “learned helplessness” in 2001, when I lived alone in New York. My laptop broke down and because I needed a laptop for my job there, I couldn’t afford to be without it. Basically, the hard drive needed to be replaced.
If I’d been at home, I never would’ve attempted such a feat but J and my children were in California and I was in New York. My back against the wall, I followed instructions, removed my old hard drive and replaced it with a new one. When push came to shove, I could perform and I was proud of it. I fully intended not to default to learned helplessness when I went home.
There were plenty of reasons both John and I felt uncertain about the future. He was in his first year of law school, finding his place in a highly competitive environment. If anything, my future was even less assured. At least with law school, odds are you’ll find work as a lawyer assuming you pass the bar. My MFA was in Professional Writing and there’s no guarantee you’ll make a living writing, ever. If anything, odds are you won’t.
Speaking strictly for myself, I was sick of dating. I spent entirely too much time obsessing about the state of my relationships. There wasn’t a snippet of male-female behavior, subliminal messaging, or secret motivations I didn’t ponder for days. A relationship I could rely on – i.e., a husband – freed hundreds of hours previously devoted to relentless analysis about how he really felt about me, what would happen next, what he really meant when he said I’ll call you later.
What about love? Isn’t that the reason to get engaged and married? We were very much in love, at least insofar as either of us understood what love meant, which is to say – not much. Realistically, we were in the grip of mad infatuation. We thought we knew each other but we didn’t really, not as we’d come to know – and love – each other over the next 42 years.
IMHO, love is nothing but illusion in those starry-eyed early days when you can’t see past the glorious magic of the other. Love becomes real when you realize your partner isn’t perfect – that is to say, she or he isn’t exactly the way you want them to be all the time – and you stick around anyway. Real love requires patience, compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy. It hurts sometimes. It changes both of you. It’s not easy – but it’s worth it.
That said, if I knew then how not perfect – how difficult and sometimes painful – love and marriage would be – would my answer still be yes? Absolutely.
This wasn’t my first – or last – fantasy about taking drastic measures to escape my life. I didn’t follow through on this brilliant plan or any of the others which didn’t stop me from devising new schemes to start over someplace else whenever I’m overwhelmed where I am.
Before my wedding, I thought about hopping a plane and disappearing in Sweden (because I took Swedish at UCLA, as if that would do me any good.) Thank God I lost my nerve – or regained my senses – and showed up at the church on time. Sticking around and seeing things through was always the right choice.
The fantasy of running away – starting a new life with a new name – is probably impossible in our high-tech surveillance-happy world. Even if I could, there’s no reason to believe my new life would improve on the one I’m living. As the saying goes, wherever you run to, you take yourself with you.
And of course, “myself” is the problem. The only way to change my circumstances is change myself. It’s an inside adjustment, not an outside one. I didn’t know that in ’69, as I sank into a bottomless clinical depression. I find solace in the fact that no matter how much I wanted to leave this life, I stayed – and you know what? It got better.
I served as a bridesmaid six times – all after being a bride myself – and this was by far the best dress. I was far crueler to the five women who participated in my wedding (below). The lace overlay, garden party hats, puffed sleeves – any one of these might be an unpardonable fashion sin – put them all together and this is what you get.
In my defense, the year was 1975 and I’d go with five different colors again today. I doubt my bridesmaids wore their dresses again aside from the occasional costume party.
While it’s an honor to be asked to serve as a bridesmaid – and I don’t mind admitting I was miffed on a few occasions when I thought I’d be an integral part of the wedding party only to find myself seated on the brides’s side with the rest of her friends who didn’t rate – it’s not all fun and games.
Standing up for your friend as she/he exchanges vows with the person they plan to spend their lives with becomes uncomfortable when you’ve got a strong intuition this union won’t survive the sniffles, forget until death do us part. I’ve been there and I’m usually right.
Not always, though. No outsider can fully grasp another couple’s relationship because we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. One of my cynical writing professors told me not to bother justifying why two mismatched people stay together in misery all their lives. “The same reason most relationships stick together. Inertia and fear of change.” Dramatically, he’s probably right. Realistically, he’s probably right about a lot of couples – but not all. I’ll never give up on the romantic ideal of people who promise “till death do us part” and mean it with their whole heart.
Usually, I don’t realize a particular day or night was auspicious – in terms of exerting a major influence on my life – until long after the fact. Not this time. Everything about meeting John for the first time felt intense, heightened, dramatic. At the same time, there was a quality of recognition – like, “There you are. I knew you were coming into my life.”
I have some corroborating evidence for my romantic premonitions. The next day I met my friend Denise Gail Williams for lunch. She said I looked happy, glowing. I told her, straight-faced, “I met the man I’m going to marry last night.”
I can’t explain how I knew this with such certainty and – in the interest of full disclosure – I must add that John did not know any such thing. He was in his first year of law school at USC and marriage was not on his mind (although it would be, a mere six weeks later when we got engaged, and six months later when we got married).
None of our fellow residents at Law House gave us a chance. Someone started a betting pool about how long we’d last. No one predicted forty-one years and counting. And after all these years – he’s still the One.