I’m unloading the dishwasher when my husband comes up behind me. “You’re making chaos out of my stemless glassware,” he says.
“What are you talking about?”
He rearranges the glasses I’ve just put on the shelf. There are only six of them, so it doesn’t take long. When he’s finished, there are two of each kind nestled together like animals on Noah’s Ark.
When we both reach into the dishwasher for the clean plates, I step back. “I’ll leave you to it,” I say, and go out on the balcony to not scream in frustration, reminding myself that this is Dan’s condo. He has a right to be anal about the glasses. I don’t live here.
Well, technically, it is our condo, and I do live here. Once in a while.
Otherwise, I’m at our home in Massachusetts, where we experience different versions of this same power struggle whenever Dan comes back. Last time, he grumbled, “Why did you move the spatulas?” and put them back to the left of the stove, where they’d been living before he took a job in California six months ago and I moved them to the right side.
“Because I’m right-handed and so are you. It’s more convenient this way, so you don’t have to reach across a hot stove to get one.” I moved the spatulas back.
“It clutters the counter if you put them on the right,” he said. “That’s my food prep area!” He moved them back to the left.
What are we, five years old?
No. We are sensible people in our third decade of marriage. We are also parents to five adult children who are all, bless them, living independently. That’s why, when Dan was excited about this job offer on the west coast, I blithely said, “Go ahead and take it. We’ll figure it out.”
The logistics were the easy part. He moved to a condo two miles from his job in Huntington Beach, CA, and I stayed in our house. “Why doesn’t your wife come with you, if the children are grown?” Dan’s colleagues ask now and then, mystified.
On the surface, the answer is easy: My whole life is in Massachusetts. Most of our children live on the east coast, plus we have two dogs and a garden. My friends are here, and so are nearly all of my ghostwriting clients.
“Doesn’t she at least love the California weather?” Dan’s colleagues want to know.
Dan certainly does. He has always been a fan of sunshine and palm trees.
Me, I love a good snowstorm. Or a thunderstorm. Or autumn leaves. I even love hot, sticky summer weather. Mostly what I love is all of the green spaces around me. In Huntington Beach, I drive down the street and see this: shopping plaza, shopping plaza, condo complex! Shopping plaza, condo complex, highway! The poppies and cactus flowers are certainly beautiful in spring, and now that it’s summer, the roses and jacaranda trees are doing their thing. There’s a long, long beach, which is why surfers like it. But there are oil pumps even in the wetlands and the whole place smacks of commercial excess. Orange County highlights everything humans have done wrong in the last half-century.
But I digress. The real point of this piece is to describe what it’s like to live apart after nearly 30 years of marriage. Let me start by saying Dan is my heart, my everything. The only reason I’m married at all is because I’m with this particular man.
Now, however, as we navigate living apart, I find myself remembering what it was like to be young. At 30, I still maintained that I would never marry or have children, because I wanted to be free. I was headstrong and ambitious and curious. I wanted to keep an overnight bag packed in case the urge hit for me to travel to Java or Spain or Nova Scotia.
I’m experiencing that kind of freedom again. The kids are out of the house. My mother, who I took care of in her last years, died recently. After Dan left, the house felt too big, but gradually I’ve expanded my reach. One of the upstairs bedrooms is now my office. I sleep in another. Bill paying and gift wrapping are relegated to the dining room. At night, I lounge in front of the TV with the dogs, each of us occupying a separate recliner.
Some days I talk to nobody but neighbors. Other days are filled with phone calls or friends who come over for dinner or even spend the night. I miss Dan when I’m not busy, but I’m busy most of the time.
So now I find myself asking if this is still a marriage. We talk every night, sharing our days across the miles. When we visit, though, there is always this new power shuffle: Oh, right, you like to sleep on that side of the bed. And do you really have to clutter up the entire bathroom counter?
Dan, like me, is feeling the push-pull of this divided married life. He loves living in a condo he can clean in an hour instead of an old New England house where there’s always another thing that needs fixing. He can binge on Sci-Fi shows to his heart’s content and hit golf balls every day after work. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll lose him to that life of bachelor ease, to that California promise of constant sunshine and a store on every corner.
Meanwhile, we’re exploring who we are without each other. “It’s good preparation for widowhood,” I told him the other day, because that’s on my mind these days, too: either of us could drop dead tomorrow, so it’s good for me to know how to change the batteries in the remote, fix the thermostat, and clean the filter on the septic tank.
What’s the point, really, of a long-term marriage? Obviously, if you want to have children, marriage can provide stability. It’s easier to raise kids with two parents, especially if both of them are bringing in money. For the partners, too, there is presumed stability. You know who you’re sleeping with at night, for better or worse. You have somebody to take care of you if you’re sick. You’re never lonely. But what about later, after the kids are gone?
Dan and I talk excitedly about our upcoming hiking trip in Spain and visiting our daughter in Israel. We also rely on one another. If I had cancer or a heart attack or fell down the stairs, I have no doubt that he’d care for me, just as I’d care for him. We are an uncoupled couple, figuring things out one day, even one hour, at a time. And maybe that’s what marriage is, in its simplest form: a commitment to keep saying yes to each other even while living apart.