One morning on your honeymoon in Montreal, after you’ve lingered in bed while light washes your face, after your new husband has drunk his black coffee, you set out to tour the botanical gardens—your choice, not his, but he’s given in without protest, looking up location and prices. He will not love, as you will, the formal gardens with their cement paths hemming in patches of magenta petals or the clipped grasses or topiaries sheared to make beauty from nothing. But he loves the freedom of the outdoors, air that’s never stale, a sky that shifts colors with the loosening of the day. This makes the gardens a good enough option, and you are on your way.
As the two of you stroll down one street, as you are crossing yet another, as the humidity and heat thicken the air, you say something to reach him in his quiet distance—like ask him to tell you he loves you—and he says in response he feels smothered.
Your eyes shoot to him. Your feet freeze in place.
Your heart thrashes in its cage.
“I didn’t mean it how it sounded,” he says.
“What did you mean?” you say.
“I just meant . . . .” He hesitates. He blinks a few times. He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“You should have married someone else,” you blurt, but later you will think you are the one who should have.
It’s not the type of thing you’ve ever said before: you are better at containing emotion, like when three months earlier, you’d asked him, tentatively, how much he loved you, but you’d asked obliquely: If he lived far away from you, would he travel from several states away just to see you, even if only for a day?
He had bristled, “Why are you asking me this?” And you had closed your eyes and told yourself to stop, that his love was plain—no frills, no fuss—but solid: you were getting married after all. You did not blurt out anything then; you held the panic in like breath.
And now, he apologizes more, and when you won’t look him in the eye, he falls into the kind of silence that if it had a color would be purple, like a bruise.
You both keep on. Your feet thud against sidewalk. Your arms don’t touch though you trudge side by side.
It takes hours of walled silence at the gardens—during which you don’t give him long answers, don’t ask him questions, don’t reach out to hold his hand—before you let it go.
* * *
Evening comes. In the last of sunlight hurling long shadows at your feet, your husband says he wants to rest a bit back at the B&B. You walk together to your room that now seems smaller than when you left it; on its walls, the brightness no longer lingers. You say you’ll be back, and you leave him motionless, alone on the bed. You walk out the door and force yourself not to hurry down the avenue, to amble instead to a public park some blocks away—because really you want to run toward something you at first cannot name because you do not recognize it, but you can feel the clamoring in your chest, a thousand hooves dusting up their wake as they pound toward it.
And then you see it: another ending, in another city, with another man had you made different choices along the way. You squint, and it’s your ex-boyfriend you see, a mirage in the haze of day’s end, certainty: he had shown up at your office from three states away two months before you married and said, “Marry me instead.” And you’d said no. But you’d shocked yourself when you wept for two days after, but only when alone in the car with the windows rolled up, only behind your office’s closed door, only when you could keep the sounds from escaping with your palms pressed, not together in prayer, but against your face. You did not tell anyone, not even yourself, you felt like you could not breathe. I love the one I am with, you told yourself then, until the words became a sort of steely thing you could nearly hold, and that could hold you. You repeat it now, but on this faded day, the words feel worn and wobbly. Still you say it. Again. Again.
This is one of the first brave things you will do in this young marriage—not lean on the idea of someone else when you want to, or at least, not for long. You know you have a choice, and you want to make it well. Is that bravery? Is it brave to want what you set out for? Is it brave to work toward the ending you imagined—the one you thought, when you were younger, you deserved? Bravery is facing that no one deserves anything, that half of whatever good is thrown your way is luck, not fate. Strong marriages aren’t earned from before; they’re made. If you’re brave, you don’t look too far in the future. You don’t imagine the worst, or if you do, you pretend you never did.
You and your new husband will leave this incident behind, as if promises can be bent and still not break. You’ll shower together, letting the days rinse off of you. You’ll hold hands before you fall asleep, letting go only as you drift away. New marriages can be such fragile fences.
You won’t talk about what happened in Montreal with anyone. Is that bravery, or denial? Maybe your real moment of bravery will come when, three years later, he will admit, “I lied that day. I did feel smothered, but you were so hurt, I took it back.”
You will not flinch. You will not cry. You will look him in the eye and tell him, “Let’s talk about it.” And you will.
Bravery, too, is what will come later, when you will begin to untangle your part in what has gone wrong, when you will stop interrupting him, when you will let the silence swell the air before asking him another question, when you will make sure he gets all the alone time he wants even when you don’t want it. By then you will love him far more than you did on your honeymoon, and his unhappiness will be a thick knot in your throat. Maybe bravery is what will happen one night when he says he wants to move to South America, the last place you ever want to move, and you will tell him it’s ok, that he can go. Maybe bravery can be giving up, or what you will shore up in the face of not knowing what else to do. After all, what will happen will be just the thing you did not imagine when you thought about getting married—it was never this ending, it was always the shiny bright other. Three and half years from now, he will move out one January afternoon, the sky a milky grey, a snowstorm gathering strength in nearby counties, heading your way while he packs his hiking boots, flannel shirts, a bedside lamp, and half the sterling flatware into the trunk of the car you will have helped him buy, sitting beside him as he bargained—because he asked you to help, even though you knew he was buying it to leave you.
He will not turn around, despite the storm. He will hunch over the steering wheel and inch his way away.
And it won’t be horrible, really, it won’t be cancer or poverty or natural disaster. It won’t be losing a limb. That’s what you will tell yourself. You will know, as you always do, how to coax yourself forward even in the face of this ending. Sure, it will knock the wind out of you, propel you to run in snow, in staccatoed rain, run harder than you’ve ever run because you will want to rid yourself of this feeling you will have never had before of wanting to scream and claw at the useless sky and fling a string of cuss words, to snap a whip to sting him with.
But you won’t. You will keep on running, hard against the streets of everything you know. Is that bravery, or survival?
You will hope that someday you won’t feel any of it anymore. And you’ll be right about that. After a long eventually, it will drift from your body like the last swirl of grey smoke lifting off from charred forest.
It’s all brave, if you think about it long enough, if you think about all the things you will wish you had done differently once you know the ending—all the escapes you could have made but didn’t: you would have broken the engagement, taken the first flight home from Montreal, kept the university job you loved instead of giving in to move, jobless, states away to start your starter marriage. It will always be the endings—the frayed and tired and worn out endings, the endings that end badly—that will make you see all the brave things you did that added up to moving forward, added up to tottering toward a life you wouldn’t have wanted had someone fessed up the future that lay ahead, then given you the choice of begging out of it—hell yes, you would have begged. You will say, four years from now, if only I had known.
But don’t you?
Do you know right now?
* * *
One of the last nights of your honeymoon, the two of you happen upon a stage flashing with disco balls and pumping with music. You sink down onto a hillside nearby to watch, and though the blades of grass scratch your legs, neither of you move for the entire drag queen show, of men whose thick thighs and knots of calf muscle strain in skimpy skirts and tight pants. The men try to raise their voices to sound light and airy, not deep like anchors, not deep like drifts of snow.
One man struts on stage, belting out a hit. His lips scream in bright pink, and he’s squeezed his feet into stilettos, but it’s you who might wince, imagining they will never fit quite right, will always hurt a little, will always feel too small.
[This essay was first published in Under the Sun, August 2014.]