It was December, and we’d been granted an unexpected night out. My folks were visiting from the West Coast and mid-afternoon my mom texted me at work, “Don’t come straight home. Spend time with your husband. Go. Get a drink. Gaze into each other’s eyes.” I thanked her and said that we would. It reminded me of those first weeks after we brought our firstborn home. I was besotted, doing nothing but nursing and watching her. My mom set a sandwich on the arm of my chair and whispered, “Save something for Sean.” Those words have come to me throughout our 12 years of marriage, particularly when the well is dry and he says, “What about us? When do we become a priority?”
I told Sean we had a pass for the night. He looked surprised, “Wow. So, what do you want to do?” Where there ought to have been flutters of excitement, I felt tired and oddly disappointed. We stood there looking at one another. Everything about us was tentative, from the way we left the office to how we slowly threaded our way across the snowy parking lot.
We settled on visiting a new restaurant close by. Climbing into the truck I wondered, “Do you think they can take us without a reservation?” He shrugged, one hand on the wheel, “We won’t know unless we go in and ask.” I envied his ability to slip into date mode.
NPR played softly on the radio as we pulled up in front of the restaurant, a massive old mansion with a wrap around porch. I thought of our own porch and how we hadn’t yet chipped away the ice on the stairs. There are also the two small trees in the backyard that split in the ice storm; the limbs need to be cleared. The trampoline is weighted down with snow.
He pecked me on the cheek before heading up the walk to see about a table. I waited, worrying we might be turned away. After a few minutes, he sent a text saying that we were all set. I walked up the path, breathing in the night air to calm my nerves.
The restaurant was unpleasantly crowded; hips and elbows grazed my shoulder as I sat in the center of the room. I imagined that if you were to look at the room from an aerial view it might resemble a pinball game, tables positioned for optimal crashing and pinging.
Sean sat across from me looking content, which made me retreat further into my unease, shifting my focus to us felt awkward. I wondered what our daughters were doing. Phantom pangs of things I ought to have been doing pelted me.
The laundry still isn’t folded.
I need to find that Frozen pajama top for Polar Express day.
I left the mail meant for our neighbors on the counter again.
Did the creamer get put away?
“Did you want to start off with something to drink?” I looked up to see our waitress smiling at us. Sean tapped the menu and said, “We’ll take a bottle of this sauvignon blanc.” He was beaming at me as he said, “Sound good, babe?” I nodded and smiled, taken off guard, “Yes, great.” She nodded at us and promised to be right back.
I watched her go, avoiding Sean’s gaze and feeling utterly unprepared to meet his hopeful face. How did this happen? How can being adored become one more thing?
The relentlessness of vulnerability in parenting and marriage startles me. Each day brings with it so many new ways that I can’t seem to stretch my reserves far enough to meet everyone’s needs. Mean girls, puberty, Common Core math, adult time, down time, me time—sometimes it feels like trying to choreograph a multi-course meal with different dishes that each require distinct and precise cooking temperatures, specific rest times and a delicate hand. If my marriage were a soufflé it would surely have fallen.
A question about work bubbled up, and I swallowed it. Talking shop is not for dates.
“Hey,” he whispered, “You OK?” His blue eyes scanned my face. I brightened, “Yup.”
He cocked his head and did that funny thing he does with his mouth when he knows I’m glossing over something. I shifted in my seat and decided to try. Our dinners came soon after the wine and we made short work of it. Little by little the din of the room slipped away, and I found myself looking from his eyes to his hands.
When he practices a new song on guitar he watches his fingers, moving them gently, yet deliberately across the fret. Usually the girls are in bed, and I am curled up on the couch. I love being able to watch him when he isn’t looking. It takes me back to Williamstown in July of ’99. That summer his forehead was sun-kissed and he smelled like clover. I’d press my hands on his temples and kiss his forehead, running my lips back and forth. When he looks up we smile at each other, in our 20s and flirting again, but the years since then still present. Sometimes he’ll grin and put a finger on the right side of my mouth, “Your fang is caught,” a reference to a tooth that catches on my lip sometimes. No one’s ever noticed that about me, and I still get a fluttery feeling when he mentions it.
“Are you ready?” he asks. I nod, and we make our way from the restaurant. “What next?” he asks. I bite my lip, suddenly realizing how much I want to be with him. These times when I am not actively grading my performance as a mom, not feeling conflicted about a checkerboard schedule are so few and far between. Desire blooms, and I am reminded that beneath the wrinkles of my 40s and the layers of my exhaustion, I am still inside.
“What about shooting pool?” I ask. He looks at me grinning. We both know that leaning over a pool table with a cue in my hand is one of the only things that lifts away everything but the next setup—I go from pursed lip, tight ass to smiling, smart ass in one shot.
I watched him chalk the cue, his shirt cuffs poking out from beneath the sleeves of his sweater. Half my mind considering the table and how the break may go, the other half realizing that sometimes you have to follow your instinct, I let my shoulders slip.
Forget that the combo shot may be a scratch. Blow off the fact that you may make a fool of yourself. Sometimes the ball sinks, or if you’re lucky, the flutters come back.
The tricks in my head of thinking there are “have-to”s more important than “I love you”s can get the best of me. I think maybe it’s that I always thought that it was supposed to come easy. If it’s true love, if it’s a strong marriage, if you’re a good enough person then it just comes. Turns out it’s more of a matter of being able to see your shot and trusting that your eye and your gut can get you to the sweet spot.