The state of your unions

Salon readers share tales of romance and grit from the front lines of the institution of marriage.


Salon Staff
October 22, 2003 9:56PM (UTC)

All I wanted was not to resemble my parents. Or my friends' parents. Or my parents' friends. Growing up, I always imagined an alien life for myself (surely inspired by TV movies): I would escape the stifling prison of conformity that was my dull Midwestern suburb and conquer New York City as a respected and stylish executive in some undetermined but extremely fast-paced profession, my spare moments spent gazing from a penthouse at the twinkling city skyline while fielding flirtatious calls from tall, handsome men I'd unwittingly mesmerized at recent business meetings and dinner parties. When I tried, as a child, to picture myself becoming someone's wife, I had a hunch I'd be too busy having affairs and therefore wouldn't get around to it until I was at least 35. Mr. Right would woo me and pursue me and I would finally give him my heart; a fabulous wedding on a beach or in a castle would follow. Joy and bliss would simply take over from there.

I am still not 35 but I have already been married for eight years. To my college sweetheart. Who is not tall and did not pursue me when we first met. Who I dumped early in our relationship (he relocated for a job, and North Carolina was definitely not in my plan) and who forgave me instantly when I realized I was crazy to break the heart of someone so good, funny, smart and sane.

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I remember walking down the aisle of my family's Catholic church, in a voluminous white dress I loved, surrounded by people I loved, holding my dad's arm in one hand and gorgeous red roses in the other, looking at my favorite person in the world, and thinking, "Well. This is all very conventional. And it's happening 11 years earlier than I thought it would." But there was no inner debate, no sudden second-guessing. To my surprise, what I felt most was deeply confident. I was proud about being so smart, keeping close to me someone who made me immeasurably happy.

We have not always had a happy marriage. We haven't "figured out" much about the institution, but we try. We do know this: Anger is bad. Affection is good. Both come and go, over and over. We make mistakes and cause wounds, but we know it's best to forgive, if only because more mistakes and wounds await, and we'll need our strength for those. Of course I have a mental list of little things I would change, but I keep it short and I keep it to myself (usually) because I know he must have a list too, and I don't care to hear it. We like and are both certain we wouldn't be who we are now, had we not met and married then. I was naive on my wedding day -- I had no idea how we'd change, how we'd wrestle to fit and refit ourselves to each other -- but I was not wrong.

I can never know for sure if I was right to abandon the detailed life I'd planned for myself, but I continue to believe through fights and faltering moments that I was. Why? Because I love to laugh, and he entertains me; because I love to do new things, and he loves to do them with me; because I love him and I love us. Caring about him changes me in good ways, so I continue to do it. I see now that being repelled by anything "ordinary" (such as my parents' long marriage) is just a normal impulse many children have, a belief that smart people reexamine when they're ready to grow up.

-- Christine Fenno

On the 4th of July, 1997, I was exploring Memphis. At the Beale Street Festival, I bought a beer and sat down to watch the world float by for a little while when the couple sitting to my right introduced me to Julie and Kate on the end of the bench. When the man, who asked us to call him Lil' Boss, started getting a little creepy (he confided to me that he was going to set me up with both women), they stood up and announced they needed some water. I asked Lil' Boss for the best place to find water and guided the young ladies across the street. We continued the conversation on our own and that led to margaritas, to dinner, and on to the fireworks over the Mississippi River. We planned to get together the next day, and after I found their motel, we had another lovely evening together. I spent the night in their motel room, platonically, though the fire between Julie and me had started to ignite.

The next morning the weekend was over and they were gassing their car for Chicago as I was gassing mine for Florida, when Julie invited me to stay with her in Chicago. I stayed for three weeks until I had to return to work in Florida and very little of the time was spent platonically. I timed my departure so I wouldn't have to leave a moment earlier than necessary to make it to Florida, 20-some odd hours away. At the end of those weeks together, we knew there was something indescribably special between us. We rendezvoused in Atlanta several weeks later, and the reunion was so powerful, we decided then and there to live together.

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On July 4, 1998, we were married in Chicago. On my desk at work I have the detritus of our years together scattered around -- my Graceland water cup from the day we met, pictures of the dogs we've added to our home, pictures from our rehearsal dinner, skiing with her sister, a Steppenwolf magnet from our old season tickets, books from the graduate school she encouraged me to attend, postcards of the Chicago we left a year ago to head for the East Coast and, most recently, pictures of our 7-week-old son. The years together have not been without trouble, but all the joy and love and adventure we've shared, and the excitement we have for the family we've started, have been more than worth it.

From a chance encounter in a city where neither of us lived to eternity: so far, so good.

-- Travis Sullivan

I was a university student in my early 20s, and he was a professor in his late 30s teaching my summer school studio art class. It was during the course of that six-week session that I gradually grew to see him as most wonderful, most talented, sweetest, strongest, gentlest, handsomest man in the whole world. When I saw his silver car drive up to class, my heart raced. When I saw him bent over a clogged drain, I ached with tenderness. When he sat next to me to help with a project, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. He was always very warm and friendly and sparkly and receptive to me -- certainly the nicest teacher I'd ever had -- but I never actually believed or realistically hoped there could be anything beyond that, but I just couldn't stop myself from thinking about him.

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Summer session ended, and eventually my final school year began, and though I passed the time with work, school, my family, my longtime boyfriend (I didn't think he had to be jealous of a fantasy), and the rest of real life, in the back of my mind I only had thoughts of him. I just couldn't help myself. I couldn't walk anywhere within a hundred yards of the possibility of his presence without fluttering at the thought he might appear. I would think up almost any excuse to work in the wood shop across from his studio so I might catch a glimpse of him. I would go up to a third-story window and peer out to see if I might spy him taking a stroll across the courtyard below (and how beautifully he did stroll...).

I saw him occasionally with these subterfuges, and at various department functions, and he was always as warm and friendly and sparkly and receptive as before, and that was enough to keep me dreaming. I couldn't figure out how I could be so obsessed with him -- I had never experienced anything like this before, and I wasn't the type of person who fantasized longingly about people who were so completely out of my league. I told myself I had no designs whatsoever on him except to enjoy being in his presence once in a while, and maybe be a kind of friend, if that was possible. I really didn't believe or expect or even hope there could be anything more. But under it all I also had an ineffable sense about him and the way he acted toward me. He always seemed so happy to see me, always seemed to light up, so sparkly and warm, and maybe, just maybe, there just might be something more.

It finally happened the following summer. The relationship with my boyfriend had reached its final stages and I had another kind-of friend, not really a boyfriend. I had bought some manapua (a local pork bun snack) and went to share them with this friend in his studio. He wasn't there, so I strolled out to the mall where some construction was going on and stopped to watch. I then heard that voice and there he was standing next to me. We started chatting and, with the manapua burning in my hand, I offered him a couple, which he smilingly accepted. In idiot joy, I ate my manapua next to him. He asked if I had ever tried the manapua from this bakery nearby and suggested we have some for lunch together the next day. Sure, I casually said, and off we went to finish our respective afternoons.

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Four months later we were married, and 27 years, two children, one cat, and more than a sprinkling of wrinkles and gray hair later, I still think he's the most wonderful, most talented, sweetest, strongest, gentlest, handsomest man in the whole world. I just can't help myself.

-- Kathleen Sato

My husband and I love to tell the story of how we met.

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"We both remember the exact second we laid eyes on each other," we'll say. "I thought she was beautiful," Matt says. "And I thought he was incredibly good-looking," I say.

Then I quickly add, "But later I decided he was a total womanizer and realized he drove me nuts, so I ended up dating his roommate for two years instead."

Matt and I met when we joined the Peace Corps. The exact second we saw each other was in the hotel lobby in Chicago before we were to leave for Mali, West Africa. He was so good-looking that I remember having to forcibly keep my eyes off him: short hair, intense blue eyes, and chiseled face and body. But I was determined to not have a dalliance the moment I got there. Plus, although there was an undeniable connection, I also saw something dangerous in him. His eyes bore into me in a carnal way; he acted sarcastic and arrogant. In short, besides the physical attraction, he struck me as a jerk. And I was determined to not date any more jerks.

Instead, for virtually my entire two-year service I dated the guy he roomed with in training. His roommate was Southern and polite. He was extremely attentive and eager to keep us together. And, funny enough, he ended up being the biggest jerk I ever dated.

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In fact, during our first year in Senegal I kept finding myself talking to Matt about my relationship and the stress of being a volunteer, because -- although Matt remained just as sarcastic and antagonistic as he was at the beginning -- he seemed to listen and genuinely care. He smiled at my wild fears, supported my concerns, and didn't seem threatened by me. I could see understanding in his eyes when I gave passionate soliloquies about animals and people. But when Christmas came around and he predictably refused to join in our festivities, we put coal in his stocking as a joke. Matt might have had a caring soft heart underneath it all, but he was still impossible to be around.

Always the rebel, Matt decided to leave the Peace Corps early. We both like to write, so we kept in touch via letters. Although he maintained his aloof persona it was clear that he had never stopped liking me. And I was still unhappily dating his roommate.

Before I ended my service I finally broke up with my sick-o boyfriend. I came home -- culture shocked and without a job. I felt like I was seeing America through a kaleidoscope and felt terribly alone. One night not long after I returned, I had a dream.. Matt was there. I don't remember much talking, he was just quietly beside me, and I felt a deep and caring presence. I woke up with a powerful urge to communicate with him and wrote him a quick note about what I'd experienced. Later it turned out he'd written me the same day.

Coincidentally, Matt was coming out East and wanted to see me. He did and the connection between us was so powerful it left us reeling. Matt and I have now been together for six years. We have a joyful baby girl and are adopting two children from Africa. Matt can still be sarcastic and arrogant, but I've never met anyone who's more deeply sincere or hard working or caring. In the few tragedies we've suffered through together I can look into his beautiful blue eyes and see that same intense connection we had that first moment we saw each other -- a true understanding and a depth so profound it is as if we are of one mind and one heart. No one in our Peace Corps group can understand how we got together and I don't blame them. Sometimes I can't figure it out myself.

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-- Casey Luce

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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to marriage@salon.com.)


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