On a July afternoon with the scent of rosemary drifting into the dining room, my husband told me our marriage was over and that he was planning to marry someone else. “And we’d like the house,” he said, “so we can raise our new family here.”
I wish I could explain how it was that I had known for months that he was cheating on me. I knew where and when and with whom, and yet, periodically, an odd amnesia of unknowing would come over me. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
Call me a denial expert. Thirty years earlier I was the cheater. While we were engaged, I fell in love with someone else, and by some psychological sleight of hand, I continued to plan a wedding. It wasn’t that I was wildly impetuous, or stumbling through my days stoned or drunk. It wasn’t that I had a history of darting between beds. If anything, I was risk averse, careful, a planner. Even during my wild high school days, I’d never really been wild, just naïve. But that’s a story about teen-age pregnancy, not marriage.
My husband and I met at an audition for a one-act play at the end of our freshman year of college. Five years later, I looked into a set of blue eyes at an audition for a small theatre company in Los Angeles and fell for someone else. Billy was also the director’s boyfriend. That thing that happens in romantic movies when the lovers see one another for the first time happened to Billy and me. Fireworks, swelling choruses of stringed instruments, birdsong. Deep silence.
When rehearsals began, I made sure that everyone knew I was engaged to be married. Billy and I kept our distance from one another, speaking only when necessary and avoiding eye contact. If we’d ever had to play lovers, the theatre would have been consumed by a fireball.
A couple of months later our avoidance strategy failed, and Billy and I were the last to leave rehearsal. He walked me to my car and after we’d said good night from a non-incendiary distance, he stood watching me as I drove my car over a concrete parking berm and ripped off the muffler. The 20-mile drive back to my apartment would have been deafening—as well as expensive if I were pulled over and ticketed, so Billy drove me home.
The Western United States’ oldest freeway, the 110 or Arroyo Seco Parkway, was designed to keep the driver interested. Snaking through rolling hills, the narrow roadway is flourished with curves and tunnels and bordered by shorn-up unstable hillsides. Things would have been a lot simpler if Billy had floored it going into a 35-mile-per-hour curve or if one of Southern California’s notorious faults had cracked open and swallowed us.
“I’m going to kiss you,” Billy said as he jerked the car to the curb across the street from my apartment building. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Commission, 52% of traffic accidents occur within 10 miles of home. As a 16-year-old who got pregnant in her boyfriend’s car parked in the driveway of her parents’ house just a few yards from where her father dozed in his recliner, I suppose I should have known that the only safe choice would have been to leap from Billy’s car several miles back. Warning signs flashed behind my closed eyes, but I reached for him. The kiss that had been months in the making finally happened 40 feet from where my husband-to-be lay sleeping.
A wedding, even an alternative one, is a complicated affair. Instead of a wedding dress, I got married in a pair of green velvet trousers and a white satin tunic. My husband borrowed a suit from his brother-in-law. The morning of the wedding I bought bagels, lox, cream cheese, good bread, and a canned ham. A friend drove down the Pacific Coast Highway and contributed a homemade, slightly lopsided chocolate cake. There were no caterers, no rented tuxes, no elaborate flowers or centerpieces. Still I could not convince myself to call off the wedding. My husband’s entire family was making the trip from Nebraska to California.
The year 1976 was turned to its last calendar page when my husband and I exchanged vows. The days were short and dark when, a week or so after the wedding, I blubbered uncontrollably that I loved him and didn’t want to lose him, but that I loved Billy too. What was not surprising was my husband’s shock and hurt. What amazed me was that he bought a book called “Open Marriage” and read it. I think I read it too—or at least the parts he’d marked for me. A full-time day job, rehearsing at night, and scheduling time with two men didn’t leave much time for reading.
A letter dated 1-29-77 sits near the bottom of the plastic shoebox that holds the relics of my marriage. Only our handwritten marriage vows and the marriage license pre-date the letter that begins, “My dearest true lover.” My husband tells me that the authors of “Open Marriage,” Neena and George O’Neill, proclaim that sex and love can be had without jealousy. He tells me that our relationship can work. He tells me that open marriage makes more sense than closed marriage. So we did our best to make sense out of our life together while Billy and I went out on dates. A movie here, a dinner there, and the occasional overnight.
In addition to the apartment Billy shared with his girlfriend, he had a place of his own, at least for a while. When money got tight and he let that place go, we sometimes met in the guest cottage behind his brother’s house. One memorable evening, by prior agreement, we stayed at the apartment where he lived with his girlfriend. The way I remember it, Billy and I were in the giant old-fashioned bathtub soaking in a bubble bath when the girlfriend stopped by with a bottle of wine for us.
The three of us were thrown into traveling together when the theatre company had out of town performances. Billy spent those nights with the director girlfriend, while I roomed with another member of the company. Leaning under a restaurant table one evening to retrieve my purse, I saw that Billy had a hand in each of our laps.
Things got crazy when the director got jealous. She wanted to marry Billy. It was only fair. I was married. She and Billy should be married too. While she drove the three of us for pizza after rehearsal one night, she threatened to crash her VW van into a wall. Perhaps we were spared since we were more than 10 miles from home.
My wedding took place in a Catholic chapel in front of a priest; Billy and Sunny (not her real name) married in our storefront theatre with a friend officiating on behalf of the Universal Life Church. Billy and Sunny’s vows were less than traditional. They pledged to one another a five-seventh’s marriage, thereby reserving two nights of the week for Billy to be with me.
It’s hard to say how long our poly-amorous antics continued. There are no letters to document the rise and fall of the various relationship arcs. As far as I know, neither Sunny nor my husband had other lovers, so things might have gone along rather simply. But even non-road rage jealousy hurts. Sitting on the kitchen counter in Billy’s brother’s kitchen after making love, Billy told me how funny and talented he found one of the other actresses in our company. Maybe that afternoon was the beginning of the end for Billy and me. Somewhere along the way, despite the fact Billy was a ridiculously good time, my husband seemed like the kinder, better person and the door to our open marriage inched its way shut.
Over the years, the subject of Billy occasionally arose, but the aftermath of any mention of him seemed like an affirmation of our love, rather than a point of tension. A friend likes to recount how he once saw my husband and me, skipping across Hollywood Boulevard, laughing hand-in-hand. We looked deliriously happy, he says. Billy was history by then. Weren’t we indeed deliriously happy? I might ask my ex-husband. If we were on speaking terms.
If our marriage were a roadmap and today my ex-husband and I stood lost on some dark highway twisting through the woods, our heads bent over this history of common ground, would we point to the same places and say, “Here. This was the bad turn. This was where the engine cracked open.” I wonder if he would mention Billy. What would I say? Would I point to the time he disappeared for more than a day (pre-cell phones) and thought I should have surmised that he had gone to the law school library to study for finals? Would I zero in on the burgeoning resentment I felt when he was often late to the childbirth preparation classes the hospital required for the birth of our first child? Would we both bow our heads over the way he couldn’t acknowledge my Thelma and Louise pedal-to-the-metal leap off the precipice of my post-partum depression? There are so many ways to wreck a marriage.
Currently, through the cosmic mercy of California alimony law, I am constrained from marrying. After 20-some years of stay-at-home motherhood, I was less than prepared to reenter the workforce as a 55-year-old. Following a divorce complete with a six-figure price tag and a restraining order, my 30-year marriage dumped me out into a stream of alimony that continues, though now substantially reduced, almost a decade later. Would I really ever want to get married again? Would I give up my alimony to do so, thereby throwing myself at the financial feet of another man? I can only conclude that I’m not the marrying kind.
“It takes two to tango,” my father said in our basement rec room the night my boyfriend, my parents, and I discussed my recently revealed pregnancy. Sixteen years old and a mere six weeks from the baby’s due date, a hurried wedding would not have fooled anyone. When my father asked if we wanted to get married, the look on my boyfriend’s face told me what I needed to know. Marry someone who didn’t want to marry me? No. We’d get married after our junior year of college and have a baby we could keep, we told each other the day I signed the adoption papers. We didn’t.
A few years later, I was telling anyone who asked that I had no intention of ever getting married or having children. That’s a tough sell when you come from a town of 3000 Catholics and are dating a guy who almost became a Catholic priest.
Though I did not re-marry after my divorce, I fell in love. It was mostly a weekend thing, but it was a seriously devoted monogamous weekend thing. My boyfriend was not the marrying kind either. He’d somehow managed to have a backyard cottage where he often sequestered himself while he was married and raising a child. A person who can pull off a stunt like that is not likely to invite you to move in. Until he was near the end of his battle with lung cancer, he never left so much as a stray sock at my place.
“’Til death do us part,” is a noble and romantic pledge. According to the Live Science website, “Only 3 to 5 percent of the 5,000 species of mammals bond for life, including otters, beavers and wolves. When only primate species are considered, the rate is slightly higher—6 percent of the 300 primate species in the world, including gibbons, are considered monogamists.” This quote seems to equate staying together for life with not cheating. It’s not the same thing. One could pledge lifetime fealty to more that one person if, say, one were five-sevenths married, but good luck researching that.
Marriage has existed throughout history for a variety of reasons: legitimizing heirs, sustaining the work ethic required to maintain a household or farm, and to cement diplomatic, political and commercial ties. Marriage did not become a sacrament in the Catholic Church until the 16th century. According to the New York Times, citing the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, an estimated 28 percent of American Catholic adults who have ever been married have since divorced. My ex-husband and I are part of that statistic. The rate for non-Catholics is not that much higher. According to the New York Times Upshot blog from the end of 2014, “About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.”
Leaving divorce out of it, marriage rates themselves wax and wane. According to the Washington Post, citing data by Randy Olson, in 2015 marriage rates in the U.S. were lower than anytime previously since 1870. When I began planning my wedding as a 24-year-old, researching divorce rates or marriage rates never occurred to me. I agonized over the concept of marriage. In 1976 I was not familiar with the term social construct, but I knew that I was entering into the precarious zone where societal expectations entangle themselves with deep personal yearnings. As an unmarried 17-year-old, I’d already sustained a grievous injury on a previous collision course when I gave up my first child for adoption, thereby subverting every natural physiological, psychological, and emotional urge that comes with giving birth.
But like childbirth, the divorced forget the pain or at least find that liminal netherworld of unknowing. My ex-husband has been married to his new wife for eight years, thereby proving wrong the predictions of all my friends. He and his spouse have two young sons and successful careers. Having mingled with him at family weddings and looked into his eyes across the alimony mediation table, he looks far from happy. He looks almost as miserable as he did the night we killed the dog.
My husband was running late—a habit so common that it had eroded his driving habits dramatically enough that I complained to friends that he was trying to kill me. We were skimming city streets 10 to 15 miles per hour over the limit when I saw the Chihuahua and a little girl running along behind it. She was four or five years old—young enough to impulsively run into the street after a dog. There was a four-way stop at the intersection, and we were barreling up to the stop sign. My husband stepped hard on the brakes. I closed my eyes, but felt the thump-thump under the tires.
The little girl stood on the corner, her mouth and eyes open wide as a man ran up to her from behind. He stepped into the street and picked up the dog, cradling it in his hands, his arms outstretched like an offering. “The dog ran out in front of me,” my husband said as we got out of the car. The man still held the dog. The girl was wailing.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the man.
The man said nothing.
My husband said nothing. We got back into the car.
Six weeks later our marriage was over.
It’s this night I think of whenever I ponder the question of marriage. I don’t want to forget the trickle of blood from the dog’s mouth or the girl’s cries. I don’t want to forget the two people who drove across the country in an ancient Dodge propelled by love and good intentions, until they found themselves standing on a tree-lined street just a few miles from their house with a trail of triumphs and mistakes behind them, spreading their pain among the innocent.