I’d probably just dreamed of sex with an ex, or had one of those unsettling dreams where I was dating an inexplicable hybrid of exes.
My friend stared at me. “Oh, honey,” she said gently, “those dreams don’t stop when you get married.”
How naïve I must have sounded. Why would I think marriage would change my inner life, the life of the psyche?
When I was single, I saw marriage as the cure-all: When I get married, I’ll never be lonely. When I get married, I’ll feel purposeful. When I get married, I’ll stop being anxious. I’ll suddenly connect to other people and won’t feel weird at parties. I won’t think about the loves I’ve lost. None of that happened, of course. Yes, I feel happier, more secure, and more supported now, but to think that marriage banishes angst and guilt and fear…that’s folly. I still get teary when a song takes me back to a previous relationship, and my dreams evoke the bittersweetness of life passing by.
One night last week, in a dream, I was making out with a guy I couldn’t identify. We were both young, maybe teenagers, and when I woke up and remembered that feeling of ecstatic discovery, I deflated. I realized I would never experience that feeling again.
Some people freak out before they get married—go off with a stripper or cut off all their hair with a steak knife or whatnot. I never did that. I’d waited a long time to get married, and the thought of making a lifelong commitment to one person didn’t scare me. But sometimes, when something springs from the deep and grabs me as I’m going about my responsibility-laden existence, I get scared because The Beginning is over. I’m in The Middle. And pretty soon comes The End.
If getting married is buying the coffin for your youth and freedom, then having a kid is driving in the last nail. (I mean that metaphorically, of course; I think they have fancy latches or something nowadays; I don’t know because I try not to hang out at funerals.) Nothing drives home your own mortality quite like becoming a parent. As Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “I can’t get enough of my baby, but let’s make no mistake about why these babies are here. They’re here to replace us. They’re cute, they’re cuddly, they’re sweet, and they want us out of the way.” The excitement of discovery belongs to my son now. In the natural progression of things, I’ve ceded my youth to him.
I know there are pleasures still ahead of me, ones not to be found in youth: the pleasures of improving my home, of watching my son grow up, of savoring well-established relationships. Still, it’s incredibly strange and poignant to watch myself age, to know intellectually that years have passed, yet to be able to relive in dreams so keenly something like the exquisite joy of discovering a new lover. This is where dreams make perfect sense: I am both my current self and an ageless emotional self. It scares me to think of this ageless self inside a decaying husk, wondering what happened and screaming to get free. It’s this self that resists stepping aside for the next generation.
It was this self that balked at having her spelling corrected by one of her brightest students. In a hurry, perhaps thinking of adjectives, I’d written on the board r-h-i-n-o-c-e-r-o-u-s. I chastised myself for making the mistake; I knew better.
There may be many things wrong with me—I’m unathletic, plagued by anxiety, highly irritable, and somewhat socially impaired—but damnit, I can spell. I was even in the National Spelling Bee! In my imagination, I was The Spelling Queen, reigning over all from atop a pedestal made of dictionaries and draped with human skin (which I’d obtained from lesser spellers in combat). And suddenly this young upstart, a mere 12-year-old headed to the National Bee himself, had sneaked up and knocked me off.
Just like that, the student became the teacher.
I fell ungracefully, protesting and kicking and screaming and complaining, in slow motion—which is sort of how I’m aging in general. But the great thing about being married is having a partner to fall with, to be scared with. “I misspelled ‘rhinoceros’ and I’ll never make out with anyone new ever again and my knees make a creaking noise when I go up the stairs and I can’t remember anything!” I agonize, and he just takes my hand. He gets it.