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Wedding Cake for Breakfast: Essays on the Unforgettable First Year of Marriage

edited by Kim Perel and Wendy Sherman
Contribution to the Anthology “The First Year Do You Want Fries With That? by Susan Jane Gilman

I was not at all nervous the day I got married. I had no second thoughts, no Bridezilla meltdown, no last-minute panic in a parking lot. I walked myself down the aisle serenely. Feminist that I was, I wanted to make it clear that I was giving myself away, thank you – and of my own, joyful volition. Standing beside the man who was now my husband, the Amazing Bob, I felt confident, radiant, and preternaturally calm.

It was only the day after the wedding that I turned into an absolute lunatic.

When the clerk at our hotel said, “Would you like me to put this on your credit card or you husband’s?” I nearly had a seizure. “My husband? Who’s the hell is that? ”

Then I realized she meant Bob. “Oh My Fucking God,” I said, turning to him. “You’re my HUSBAND?”

I was like Helen Keller’s dimwit cousin: my hand might’ve been under the water pump, but good luck getting me to grasp any connection between the words and reality: Married. Wife. Husband. For the first few days of our honeymoon, I kept glancing at Bob as he dozed on his beach chair. “Can you believe we’re actually MARRIED?” I said, nudging him awake. “Like FOR REAL?”

“Um, yeah,” Bob said. “Remember that big party we just had? Where you dressed up as a bride…”

At first, “being married” was a novelty: 3-D glasses, an Imperial yo-yo. But quickly, panic set in. Because “being married,” I realized, really meant only one thing: I was now that much closer to getting divorced.

My parents were divorced. All my uncles and aunts were divorced. The Gilman family marital track record had a 100% default rate. Growing up, I’d watched my mother rage through the house, slamming her fist down on the dinner table in frustration, my father turning gray and withdrawing from her more and more until his personality seemed to disappear entirely. Doors banging; daily resentments, betrayals, and nastiness; my cousins shuttled around under custody arrangements; my aunt and uncle arguing about money. I’d witnessed this corrosive unhappiness for years. When my parents finally separated after their 26th wedding anniversary, I vowed to myself: That’s it. I’m never getting married.

But then, the Amazing Bob arrived: a stunningly cerebral, handsome man equally capable of immense kindness and smart-assed wit. What’s more, he was at least as cynical as I was. Neither of us really believed in the institution of marriage. And yet, over time, it became clear that we were far better together than apart. We loved each other profoundly. We wanted all the tools available to take care of one another. And so we decided, finally, to take the plunge.

Albert Einstein, who was apparently also a very smart man, once observed, “Women marry men hoping they will change. Men marry women hoping they will not. So each is inevitably disappointed.”

But Bob and I were already hip to this. We were in our 30’s when we got engaged. Our student loans were paid off. The posters on our walls were framed. We could microwave popcorn without consulting the directions on the side of the package. Hell, we even read The New York Review of Books. We didn’t expect an engagement ring or a marriage license to magically transform us. At best, we figured, wedlock would entitle us to better health insurance and maybe a new Cuisinart.

Yet, to our immense surprise, the evening that we exchanged our vows, Roman candles ignited within us. Standing together beneath our wedding canopy, I felt something akin to bliss.

The problem was: who in their right mind trusts bliss? During our honeymoon, Bob spooned me and fell asleep every night in a cloud of contentment, secure in the knowledge that we were now fully committed as husband and wife. I, on the other hand, lay blinking awake beside him having a full-blown anxiety attack. Surely, this “happy ending” of ours had to have a catch. Surely it was just a temporary reprieve – the gods teasing “You want it? Psyche!” Surely, tranquility was always just a precursor to some inevitable tragedy. As Bob breathed sweetly against my neck, I catalogued all the potential domestic catastrophes awaiting us.

Married. Husband. Wife. How could this possibly last? Never mind life’s bigger traumas and losses: What if our love began to curdle, and all those qualities that once endeared us to each other another – his bad puns, my histrionics – started to grate? What if we ended up eating our meals in tedious silence punctuated only by chewing and slurping? What if we became sexually indifferent? What if I became a slovenly, menopausal woman in a track suit while Bob started sprouting ear hair and dressing like Mr. Rogers? What if we started calling each other “Maw” and “Paw”? What if we became one of those couples who constantly indict each other, treating everyone else like a jury, saying stuff in public like: “My wife’s idea of a ‘balanced breakfast’ is a donut and a martini —“ “Oh really? Well, you’d drink too if you had a lover like Harry. Lemme tell you, an ATM transaction lasts longer than he does.”

What if, every day that we spent together, a little part of us just died?

Overnight, I became an emotional hypochondriac – on alert for the slightest shifts in my husband’s moods -- convinced that it was only a matter of time before some terminal rot set in. IF I WASN’T VIGILANT AND PROACTIVE 24 HOURS A DAY, I worried, OUR MARRIAGE WOULD DISINTEGRATE.

All those self-help books and triple-exclamation-point women’s magazines I’d once mocked; suddenly, I was scanning them in the supermarket for advice: Were Bob and I voicing our appreciation for each other daily? Were we having sex well above the national weekly average? How often were we laughing together? We were laughing, weren’t we? Was I funny? Please, tell me I was funny. I wasn’t worrying and second-guessing too much, was I? I took quizzes to find out.

I’d wake up sweaty and dry-mouthed. To pre-empt any domestic tedium, I became fixated, oddly, on tedious domestic things like tea lights and matching napkins. Every night when we got home from work, I decided, Bob and I had to have a candlelight cocktail hour –some wildly romantic “alone time” replete with toothpicks and breadsticks. I picked up smoked mackerel, pretentious imported cheese, herbed tofu spread, inedible candied kumquats. When Bob arrived home, he’d find a tray full of bizarre hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table alongside an opened bottle of Cabernet and a half-drunk wife.

“Well, well,” he’d say bemusedly. “I see happy hour’s already started.”

“What do you mean by ‘happy hour’?” I’d say anxiously, struggling to sit upright. “Are the other twenty-three we spend together miserable?”

Before I was married, I never bought lingerie. It was just glorified underwear; you were paying lot of money for what was, essentially, string. Plus, the way guys carried on, fondling my breasts was like winning the lottery. So why, I wondered, should I knock myself out?

Now, I went to Victoria’s Secret. Most of their lingerie is designed to make women with modest or regular curves look curvier. But if you’ve very curvy to begin with, you just look ridiculous. In the “Angel Collection,” I looked nothing like Stephanie Seymour or Tyra Banks and everything like two grapefruits stuffed into a sweat sock. But I thought of my mother, the artist, in her tie-dyed leotards, funky headscarves, and hand-crocheted vests. My father often wished she’d dressed up more. I bought three aerodynamic lace push-up bras with tiny matching thongs. Bob didn’t seem to mind – though he wasn’t nearly as dazzled as I’d hoped he’d be. “Wow,” was his reaction. “Can you breathe in that?”

Until my brother and I were in college, my parents didn’t taken a single weekend away together. By the time they began tromping grimly to Italy and San Francisco, they weren’t on vacations so much as rescue missions. And so I began planning little post-honeymoon getaways for Bob and me, obsessively reading reviews of “romantic country inns” on the internet. As soon as Bob walked in the door, I’d pepper him with questions: The Shenandoah Valley or Rehobeth? Beach front or garden view? The Laura Ashley Room or the Beatrice Potter Suite?

I arranged for us to attend plays, film festivals, women’s basketball games. I brought home porn. I baked cookies (okay: Pillsbury dough roll). I called Bob at work to see if there was any dry cleaning he needed me to pick up on my way home. Was he out of shaving cream? Should I rent a video? What did he think about ordering-in sushi? Did he see the article on the latest climate change treaty? Had he heard the story about Eddie Izzard on National Public Radio? What was he thinking? How was he feeling? “How’s your heart and soul?” I’d say. “Is everything okay? Just checking in.”

In a matter of months, I’d gone from being the bestselling author of a book called Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess to a post-modern geisha who was essentially tromping around our apartment with a feather duster and a pair of bunny ears, hovering over my husband and chirping 24/7: Do you want fries with that?

It would be easy to argue that I was selling out my principles– or reverting to some supposedly “natural” female state of subservience. But my behavior, as I see it now, transcended all permutations of gender. It was rooted in something far more basic and universal: That desperate, overarching desire. Please. Love me. Don’t leave.

Is it a surprise to anyone, however, that Bob was beginning to regard me not with increasing affection, but alarm? Love follows its own physics: the harder you try to attract, the stronger you repel. And yet, I couldn’t stop.

Finally, one Sunday morning, we sat together on the couch as we always did --he with his feet on the coffee table, me with my feet on his lap -- sipping coffee and reading the Times – when I noticed: WE WERE BEING TOTALLY QUIET.

“Okay,” I leapt to my feet. “This isn’t working.”

“What’s not working?” said Bob, glancing up from the Week in Review section. “The newspaper?”

“All this silence,” I cried, gesturing wildly. “We’re just sitting here together on the couch. Reading. Without saying anything.”

“Um, isn’t that sort of how people read?”

“This isn’t a LIBRARY. It’s a MARRIAGE!” I shouted. “We should be making witty, intelligent conversation. We should be bantering like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year. We should be having quick, policy-based repartee like the staff on ‘The West Wing.’ We’re smart. We’re funny. Why the hell aren’t we talking like them?”

“Well, for starters,” Bob said slowly, “those characters you mentioned? They’re fictional. And the reason they’re funny and smart is because other people write their lines for them–“

“Stop being so goddamn calm and rational,” I said. “Look at us! We’re just SITTING HERE READING THE NEWSPAPER. We’re married now. Shouldn’t we be working at our relationship? Shouldn’t we be having sex all the time? Shouldn’t we at least be baring our souls to each other? I mean, is this what we’re going to do? JUST SPEND THE REST OF OUR LIVES TOGETHER ON THE GODDAMN COUCH?”

Bob set down his newspaper and stared at me. “Okay, look,” he said softly. He stood up and opened his arms. Reluctantly, I went to him. He drew me close and sighed. For a moment, he didn’t say anything. This is it, I thought. He’s going to divorce me. Then he cleared his throat. His voice was gentle and slow.

“You know, any two people can have sex,” he said. “And cracking jokes and being witty is great. But it’s also work. And it’s not real intimacy—“

I pulled back and looked at him. “So then let’s talk with more intimacy,” I said. “Every weekend, let’s sit down, and discuss how our marriage is going, and if we’re happy or not, and what our needs are, and what we think we can improve. We can call it our ‘State of the Union’ address—“

“Suze.” Bob took me by the shoulders and turned me to face him. “Stop, okay? You’re trying too hard. Please. Don’t try to manage my happiness.”

“But –“.

“Look.” He gestured around the living room. “The way I see it, for two people just to snuggle on the couch, and read the Sunday paper together – in a way, that’s more intimate than sex. Being quiet together – comfortably? That’s real intimacy.”

For a moment, I just started at him. Who is this person? I thought. Is this guy really my HUSBAND? Where I came from, people were quiet only when they were seething or discontent, or when something was wrong and they wanted to punish each other.

My parents had dated for just two weeks before they’d gotten engaged. They were only 23 years old and still living at home with their parents. It had been a different era. In photographs from that time, they look so wondrous and trusting, so innocent. My creamy-skinned mother with her bouffant hair; my father, baby-faced, despite his posturing with a guitar. They’d had no compass, no sage counsel. No sooner did they get engaged, than their families started to bicker and fight. Battle lines were drawn. My parents’ modest wedding was a nightmare. Their fragile love was heartbreaking.

Still, I hadn’t understood how they could’ve been married for 26 years and then – poof! The only way to make sense of their divorce was by assigning blame. Surely, my parents could’ve stayed together if only they’d just tried harder. If only they’d been more emotionally courageous and inventive. If only my mother had dressed more fashionably and my father had given her more thoughtful birthday gifts. If only they’d had sun-dried tomato spread and pita crisps together every evening and spent autumn weekends together in twee B&B’s. If only they’d gone to counseling sooner. If only they’d talked. If only. If only. If only.

My father had also read the paper every Sunday on our couch. But he’d read it alone, nervously barricaded behind the Sports Section. Feeling excluded and ignored, my mother fumed about the kitchen. “Why aren’t you talking to me?” she’d snap. “Why don’t you have anything interesting to say to me, huh? Where’s your wit, your imagination? Why aren’t we like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn?”

I’d forgotten this. Now, I snuggled against Bob and started to cry. The candied kumquats, the unflattering lingerie, the forced cheeriness: had I been insane? “I’m sorry,” I whispered. I was an accomplished career woman, a world traveler, an adult. Yet I still had so much to learn.

Bob looked at me. “It’s okay. Just relax,” he said softly, squeezing my shoulder. “Have a little faith.”

Wedding Cake for Breakfast: Essays on the Unforgettable First Year of Marriage
by edited by Kim Perel and Wendy Sherman

  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425247309
  • ISBN-13: 9780425247303