Standing in the Rathskellar with a tray in her hands, Patti Henderson was a 1964 Life Magazine vision of a college coed: red Wisconsin sweatshirt, red plaid slacks, red Keds. She was also drop dead gorgeous: sculpted face, long straight hair, the sway of her back creating an abiding yearning in the hollow of my throat. I was too shy, too thick-tongued to approach such a stunning creature before she disappeared.
Not my new roommate. Roommate abandoned me before I had a chance to tuck in my new madras shirt.
So it goes. And so it went over the next three years, as she and roommate did the make-up-break-up-dosey-doe dozens of times. Meanwhile, I was slowly gaining the kind of clarity about relationships that only a girlfriend with ulcerative colitis whose MD father specialized in ulcerative colitis could bring.
Late one evening, perhaps early morning—reeling down the middle of Langdon Street in a state of high clarity, I declared to none and all that I would never get married—and that I would never ever bring an innocent child into this corrupt world. I would live life as a hermit poet in Nova Scotia. There was no irony in that declaration.
A month later, the vision in red and the roommate had their final final final breakup—and Ms. Ulcerative Colitis had flushed me out of her life. Thus, in mutual commiseration, on December 10, 1967, Patti Henderson and I stumbled into our first date. I know the exact day because I had scored two tickets to see the great Otis Redding at the Factory on West Gorham Street—and that night his plane crashed into the frozen waters of Lake Monona.
An inauspicious beginning to a relationship, for sure, but a few mournful hours later, followed by one lusciously sad and stirring goodnight kiss, I officially abandoned all self-righteous declarations about marriage … and through the coming winter and spring I asked and I asked and, maybe, I begged until she agreed to marry me … and finally in August we tied the knot in steamy New Orleans. A month later, a full fifteen minutes after our first adult conversation about the necessity of waiting to have children, we were naked and making a baby.
Fifty years later, I’m still slack-jawed. It’s tempting to make a lame joke about not being old enough to be married fifty years, but here’s the unfunny truth: I’m seventy-two, old enough in body and spirit to be married fifty years. End of story. Or at least end of that story.
Then there’s the slightly more nuanced tale that begins with all the people who have been telling me, telling us, how lucky we are. As if we need to be reminded. In that storyline there are two narratives: one told by the sweet ones who, for their own private reasons, have romanticized our long love. They’re not talking about us. And then there’s a similar plotline told by others who, while reminding us of our good luck, betray a flickering sneer that speaks of some unspoken anger. Again, not us.
Both are right, though … about us being lucky. I am occasionally dumbfounded when I speculate on how my life would have been different had roommate and I arrived in the Rathskellar 30 seconds later. The vision would have been gone—and the likelihood of ever seeing her again on a campus with 40,000 students was beyond unlikely.
Then there’s the other kind of lucky. We’re lucky that we were born in America. Lucky that our parents could afford medical care and healthy food so we could grow up. Lucky that we made it through our late/extended adolescences and young marriage without blowing up the whole thing.
And skipping, less and less blithely through the decades, we’re lucky to have survived into our seventies. Cancer didn’t get us. Despair didn’t get us. War didn’t get us. Poverty didn’t get us. A Mack truck careening out of control didn’t crash into us. Our seven children, some of whom wandered close to the edge, didn’t fall off. So yes, we are so very lucky to be where we are—and together—today.
That’s pretty much where the luck ends, though.
“So, what’s the secret?” some folks ask after dispensing with the luck narratives, as if anyone is keeping that secret close to the vest. I don’t insult them with any of those insipid recommendations for happy marriages like, “never going to sleep angry;” nor do I offer “strategies for keeping the spark alive;“ or advise “sharing a hobby.” I just shrug, which I hope translates to, I honestly don’t know.
The shrug usually calls up a counter declaration, though: “No no no no no … you two share a special kind of love.” Well, we do. I love Patti, body and soul. I think she feels the same. But all love is special, whenever and wherever it comes to us.
After watching a long line of friends and acquaintances get divorced, I do know that lots of things tear marriages apart. Mostly, I suspect, the split comes out of dreamy or narcissistic expectations of “living happily ever after” and the entitlement that flows like a poison drip out of those expectations.
But love doesn’t get lost. In fact, I am pretty well convinced that falling out of love is impossible. Think conservation of matter. Just as the person I was (or you were) at 16, 18, 20, 22 … 40 didn’t just disappear—that younger me (and you) is still inside somewhere—and the love we felt back then has not disappeared. Love may get shrouded, hidden by circumstance, buried under the detritus of an incomprehensive world of endless human frailties. But it doesn’t die.
So now that I think of it, I’m thinking that the story—our story—my story—the real story of being married fifty years really comes down to that daily moment of standing in the doorway of the several homes Patti and I have shared over the past five decades.
No matter how many fantasies, illusions, delusions I have constructed about myself since I was a child … no matter how many masks I have worn out in the adult world ... no matter how carefully I have constructed notions of who I should or might be … standing right there in that portal is the ageless, imperfect, utterly flawed me: the me my wife Patti knows in her bones. And still loves. As I know her. And love her. On bad days it’s humiliating to be me standing there. Better days, most days, it’s simply humbling. Which is not a bad thing.
I’ve always known, as I think we all know, that turning heel and walking away—not from her but from myself—has always been an option. Escape into a fantasy of my idealized self. But every day for more than fifty years I have walked through that doorway. Right into that inescapable unavoidable me.
And once inside, I enter into the embrace of a woman and a home and a life and a love that is so real, so gritty, so true, so messy, so infused with earth and sea and sky and babies and sickness and health and betters and worse and, always, the inescapable past, all of it so delicious and so banal and occasionally so painful that being together for fifty years defies all the cultural clichés of high romance or dark drudgery. Or luck.
One cup of coffee after another. One glass of wine after another. One kiss after another. Dishes set. Dishes eaten on. Dishes washed. Day after day. After day.
Fifty years. One doorway at a time.
Steven Lewis is a former Mentor at SUNY-Empire State College, currently Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty, and longtime freelancer. His work has been published widely, from the notable to the beyond obscure (NY Times to Road Apple Review). New novel due out in December, A Hard Rain (Codhill Press).