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“To live an extraordinary life takes money,” he tells me. I’m stunned. He and I have immigrated to another country, where we have brought up three children, spoken another language, and been novices of the culture and its ways. Are we not extraordinary? An extraordinary life to me means a life of inspiration, creativity and renewed knowledge of the human condition. Otherwise, it is ordinary with or without money. The blow came the other night, after thirty-eight years of marriage, and I’m challenged to make sense of it. What has happened to our relationship, from the tender beginning to now?
We were mere teenagers when we started out. Hormones pulsing through our bodies. It was easy to fall in love. He had noticed me as yet another girl to know, and I had noticed him as a cocky city boy in grey dress pants and a light blue shirt. He looked polished and I know I looked messy. Our first date was a double date with our friends who were dating. I only went because nothing was on TV. But I found I liked him and we quickly hooked up. He saw us being together forever two months into it.
I liked him too; as the matter of fact, I was in love with him and I couldn’t wait to see him at school. Often, we played hooky and walked to our favorite bakery not far from the school; sometimes, we even had lunch off campus at the department store’s cafeteria. Being like putty in his hands I followed him, listened to him, admired him, and said yes to every whim of his. His constant attention and care about me had me feel special, although I did not understand how he could know that we were meant for each other.
It’s his birthday today. We’ve been together since that time in school. Now, we celebrate, just him and I; our kids have families of their own and even live in other states. We live in California – for thirty some years now, with a couple of years in the North West – our adventurous spirit brought us here from Denmark, our place of childhood and youth. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had stayed in Denmark and then I think, probably not much difference: life happens anywhere and only desire will change it. But desire is costly and painful.
He doesn’t say thank you. He says: yes, I think I can use these shorts. He tries them on and confirms that they fit. I also give him a small book: Sit Like A Buddha and two pieces of hand soap, shaped like eggs. He loves the soaps, says, we were running out. He has a thing with soaps: lathering himself up, rinsing off, and lathering up again. A ritual of rinsing the day off, body, soul, and mind. Almost as if being close to other people means getting dirty. Shaking hands, negotiating deals, and risking emotional outbursts need washing.
He wanted to be a medical doctor and I wanted to be a journalist. He went to university and I to the School of Journalism. We moved in together right after high school, or gymnasium, as it is called in Denmark. A year later, I had flunked journalism school and he would try two more times to pass the exams that would put him towards the medical degree. We both failed: instead of studying we had long conversations about life, lounging on the bed, or over dinner at our favorite restaurant. Giving up academia, we turned towards the culinary industry.
“What do you think will happen?” “You’ll get pregnant, that’s what will happen!” “Just like that! It will be that easy?” “We are meant for each other and therefore, you will get pregnant.” I looked at my boyfriend of four years and tried to absorb his conviction. I had mentioned my wish to stop taking the Pill but not really told him why. To be honest, I was bored. We both worked at this top ranked inn: he as a chef’s apprentice and I as the pretty girl who served desserts. Unknowingly, my creative gene cried out and wanted more.
“It’s okay, I’m not ovulating,” I whispered in his ear. “It’s no problem, let me get a condom.” “Please don’t.” I had just had a baby, about seven months earlier, how would I get pregnant again, so soon after? Believing I was in control, I had no fear and nine months later I had my second child. This time, a girl. With two children in diapers and a husband, apprenticing to become a chef, I still went to school and finished my Correspondence degree in English and French business language. Five months later, all four of us emigrated to America.
“I want to go back.” “We will have to sell the restaurant.” “I know, but I want to deliver my child in Denmark.” Pregnant with our third child and not convinced California was our home; I planned to return to Denmark before my thirtieth birthday in September. “I will do my best to be there at your birthday,” he said, “but I need to close the sale of the restaurant.” The pregnancy had been a surprise: when the gynecologist pulled the IUD, the fetus was at risk to drop out as well, but he was born healthy end of November.
We have lived together in nineteen different homes over a span of forty-two years. On average, about two years in each home; however, we lived six years in one place, making up for the one year stays. We did choose certain areas, though, all on the West Coast of America: Los Angeles, Monterey, Seattle, and Napa Valley, besides our years in Denmark. The business of hospitality will do that to you: make you a nomad. This chosen life style demands flexibility and continuous adjustment, with the benefit of a greater sense of freedom but a lack of convenience and security.
That night the restaurant had been slow. We had sent everyone home, and he and I were ready to close up. In walked a group of six – three couples – asking to have dinner. I was happy to accommodate them, since we needed the money. “Are you crazy?” he snapped at me, “I’ve put everything aside already and I’m here by myself!” “That’s okay, I will help you,” I said to calm him down. “You can’t help me here in the kitchen, you know that,” he ranted and that night, his entire personality changed from mellow to monstrous like never before.
After three kids he had a vasectomy. I, on the other hand, wanted a fourth one, to make it even, although I couldn’t count on a second girl, of course. He didn’t want anymore and efficiently closed off the possibility of he and I having more kids. He was thirty-one. Yet, another example of how certain he was that our relationship was the one, until death would us part. I mean, if our marriage didn’t work out, wouldn’t he had wanted children with another woman? Perhaps, he never really wanted kids, and because I did, he went along. Who knows.
What I’m doing right now: Writing about my main partnership with my children’s father I’m painting a picture of pure idyll, of wishful thinking, and of an ideal relationship. I am describing in mostly positive terms how our life has been and I’m avoiding the many conflicts we have. Why? Because I’ve always wanted it to be perfect! Putting my body and soul into a lifetime relationship must mean that it is meaningful! I am resisting the fact that it is not. That it is made up of both feast and famine. That his demons and my demons will collide.
Whenever I write or paint or do my own stuff I want to be by myself. Whenever he’s home: mornings, evenings, weekends, and even on his lunch breaks, I cannot work. I become part of his agenda, his space, his energy and I lose time, lots of time. Yes, I want to spend time with him, but it feels like I’m on 24/7 – even when I do my own stuff, like now, I anticipate him coming home, and I feel rushed. If our relationship were a house, my own stuff would take place in the nooks and crannies of it.
The fifteenth is our number, the date we met and the date we married, both on the fifteenth of January, with six years in between. He insists on celebrating each month, with a sincere kiss and a
. It seems neurotic to me, like a gesture out of fear of losing the fifteenth all together. He is a man of routine and celebrates that, while I’m a woman of spontaneity, on the look out for adventure, whether through my own creativity or through new relationships. He adores rituals: morning coffee in bed; lunch at home; drinks at five o’clock.
“The car won’t start,” I text him. For the past several months our car has been like that. It sits an extra day without being moved and just won’t kick in. The battery is fine and the starter is fine; both have been exchanged. It may be an electrical thing or a computer glitch, who knows? But to ask neighbors to jump-start the car almost every day gets annoying. “But that’s weird, I drove it last night to the market,” he responds. What gets me is that he does nothing about it, I mean, something that will solve the problem.
He looks at my nipples sitting like two hard and tight cacti buds under my fitted t-shirt, because I’m cold. I know what he’s thinking and I know what he wants and am not at all surprised when he steps towards me and reach for my breasts. “I cannot resist you when you are like that,” he says. I’m bothered, in fact, annoyed, because my body does what it does: reacting to the cold. I feel invaded, even violated. Why can he not just ignore it? Is it my responsibility to wear an extra layer so to not entice him?
The house is small, the furniture old and the people exhausted. She sits at her desk to connect on Facebook, and he putters around in the garden. It is a warm evening, and the sound of the geese formation, flying overhead reaches her through the open window. Every night they fly south and every morning back north to this end of the valley. She wonders why, but then, she does things back and forth, back and forth, like when she reaches out to other men, turning her back on her husband to when she embraces him and all he represents.
It flows beneath your skin within your blood at seven miles per hour. It calms the nerves but upsets your sense of balance; it puts you to sleep but wakes you up before you want to; it brings peace to your relationship but makes it seem one long repetition of the same mistakes. It becomes your best friend against feelings of insecurity, of questions not asked, of answers not said, of hopes and dreams gone asunder. It becomes the relationship over all other relationships. I feel like screaming; I feel like throwing up; I feel like jumping off the balcony.
My heart beats out of step and I sweat more; I roam the rooms to cool down. My senses are sharp but my mood is low. I promise myself: never again. And yet, it happens the following night and then the following night, nicely laid out and woven into a pattern. Do I accept the pattern I’m in but create my own small subset pattern to keep me going or do I dismiss this pattern completely and start a new one from scratch? He is still in bed, sleeping it off, while she gets up again, this time to write.
Can she write herself a new pattern; if she writes what is happening, can she then see it; this feeling of dread; of hopelessness; of wanting to give up? What makes a person persistent? What makes a person believe that it will change? Perhaps the change has already taken place, but she cannot accept it? She lives her life according to what it has always been: one relation, many drinks; but at the same time, she lives her life as she wants it to be: more relations, few drinks. Moving on means writing, to protect and preserve what she has.
My father was an alcoholic and my mother a co-alcoholic. Now, I’m married to an alcoholic and I’m a co-alcoholic. I cannot help my husband and it makes me sad; I wish we could live without alcohol, but we can’t. Our relationship is tied up with alcohol, and it has been from day one; I just didn't notice for a long time. To have a drink is to have a good time: a time to talk and feel safe. Then, what does it matter that the world is full of pain and suffering out there?
“You’re such a radical. You always change your mind!” I told her while sipping on my gin and tonic. It was summer and hot and dry. We found shade in the backyard under the fruitless mulberry tree. She was drinking a glass of rosé. “And why does that bother you?” she asked. I had to think. Why did that bother me? Well, how to rely on anything, if things constantly change? How to rely on her, who always changes her mind? “I just think that when you have an opinion about something, then you stick with it,” I smiled.
“But new information may pop up and you have to change your mind accordingly, right?” she insisted. “I guess that may be true sometimes, but in regards to one’s values, don’t they stay the same?” “Oh, I don’t know. Where do your values come from? From your parents? From peers? Are they in fact totally your own? How do you know that?” Not this again. Now she’s on a roll and I’ve heard it so many times. I just want to sit here and relax and enjoy my gin and tonic after a hard workweek.
“You’re not commenting? Did you hear me?” she continued. “Yeah, I heard you. But I really don’t want to go there right now, I want to relax.” “So, how was your day?” she asked. “It’s been a tough week, and I’m exhausted. I don’t know how long I can keep up with this. Especially, the hazing from the owner.” “The hazing? What do you mean?” “Well, he asks me to do a report that takes me all day to put together and then he doesn’t want it, anyway. That wears me out big time!"
“Are you standing up to him? Are you asking questions? Are you letting him know what you think of the matter? Why he asks you to do things and then he doesn’t follow up? Are you fucking expressing yourself?” she pushed on. “No. You know I have to think about it. I can’t react right there and then. That is not my style.” Shit. She always gets to the core of things and it’s beyond annoying. She always makes it look like everything is my fault, when it’s not, because my boss is a fucking idiot.
I need to find another job. And then what? Will she leave me? Why is she still with me? I’ve changed jobs like underwear these past few years, or at least, that’s how it looks, and I know she’s upset. I keep upsetting her, so why is she still with me? It’s time for another drink. “Are you having another one?” it came from her. “Yes! It’s my weekend and I need it.” She looked sad, no, not sad, she looked annoyed, and so what? I have a right to feel good on a Friday!
“What do you really want?” she asked him when he came back with his second drink. “What do you mean, what I really want? I’m doing what I want. I’m working with stuff that I know about. I service people. I cater to people. I make them feel good. That is hospitality and that is what I do.” “But what about you? What do you do for you?” “I don’t know about that. I have to think about that. Can I get back to you?” Another silly question. I’m working so we can live comfortably, right?
We need to make money. I can’t afford to think about what I really want. “Do you want me to take a job again?” she asks, “because I can, you know that.” “Yes, I know that. You’ve done that. Plenty of times. But you don’t have to. I don’t want you to. This is your time, your time to write.” “I wish you would pursue your dream,” she whispers. “My dream is that we live a comfortable life and are together,” I sigh. “I don’t understand that,” she says. “You don’t have to understand.”
I know we are different. She always says that. But I love her and don’t want to lose her. I will do anything it takes to hang on to her. Anything. What I really want is to do business with her. She’s so smart with social media and all that stuff. We have extensive knowledge of hospitality, food and wine. We can start a destination business and set up folks who travel here with the right itinerary just for them. I know we will be a great team! But then she has to give up on her dreams.
It’s tax time. A sore time for the relationship. Joint filing. Hooked up. Connected for almost forty years. His income. My income. His expenses. My expenses. NEVER the same. Each year is different. New jobs. Children. No children. Home ownership. Renters. Now empty nesters. Always a time for quarreling. We have to pay tax again? Painful. Living from paycheck to paycheck. Living off credit cards. Withdrawing 401’s to survive. Paying taxes on them. Always a hassle. Every year in April our knowledge or lack of on how to handle money is in our face. It never seizes to amaze me.
The Tip Jar