My marriage is not one of those that will collapse when my kids leave for college. Ours will die a few years after that, when the dog does.
At the moment, we have two almost 17-year-old girls and an 8-year-old cockapoo. At the moment, we have school starting and ACT books strewn on the kitchen counter. We have the eye doctor to visit because one daughter can’t see, college tours to plan though neither daughter knows which colleges she wants to visit, and the carpet cleaner to call because the dog, yet again, threw up on our family room rug.
We are in the thick of it, of life. Our house is as full as it’s ever been, perhaps because the kids—their belongings, our conversations—are as full as they’ve ever been. I try hard to be in this moment with life and needs and laughter filling the crevices in conversation between my husband and me, but my mind wanders. I can’t help but consider these years like the grand finale of a fireworks show, a majestic blast of color and noise before everything falls silent.
I remember, twenty years ago, walking with my then-new husband down Orleans Street in Chicago. It was a Saturday in the summer, we’d gone to the gym, had breakfast and were strolling. Stopping to stare, like we always did, into store windows at furniture we couldn’t afford. My husband would say, “I wish we could buy some of this.” I’d say, “Someday.”
I was content just to look. I was happy with our furniture—his dirty black couch, my old wicker table—and the life we’d cobbled together. I got married at thirty, after a decade of living on my own and suffering through a trillion bad blind dates, and had no desire to rush the future. So when my husband said, “Do you want to start trying to have a baby soon?” I said, “No, not yet. I’m not ready.” So, we kept on strolling. For four more years.
Today, as I sit in my family room in my high-backed, heavily cushioned writing chair, staring at the dog’s throw up on the rug, I’m thinking the same thing. “No, not yet. I’m not ready.”
The irony that what I once feared losing—the time with my husband, the care-free Saturdays—I now fear gaining isn’t lost on me. The freedom is like the old furniture. What once seemed like more than enough now seems inadequate. I don’t want to go to the gym, I’m too tired. Strolling hurts my back. I’m done decorating. In fact, the chair I’m sitting in now, my writing chair, was acquired from a store on Orleans just down from where my husband and I had walked years ago. So was the rug with the vomit. And although I love my husband as much as the chair, it’s been twenty years. Without our kids, the dog and all their stuff filling our fully done home, what we will discuss?
In her beautiful memoir, Hourglass: Time, Memory and Marriage, Dani Shapiro talks about “the third thing.” She writes, “Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.”
This paragraph has mixed around in my mind since I read the book last year, not only because the concept of a third thing makes sense to me but because my husband and I don’t have one. I think it’s safe to say that none of the items specifically listed by Shapiro, from John Keats on down, are realistic third thing contenders for us. And I don’t think my husband’s other suggestions: Homeland, or the chips and guac from the Mexican place up the street count, either.
My husband and I are, in so many ways, opposites. In many respects, our differences have allowed our marriage to thrive. He is sane and in the moment. I’m a head case and everywhere but. However, in the quest to establish a joint interest—let alone “rapture”—I fear our differences won’t serve us. He likes to ski. I play tennis. He likes sci-fi. I watch sports. I read fiction. He picks up National Geographic.
I know I shouldn’t be thinking about third things right now. Not when I have real things to think about. Not when I know that bad things, unexpected things, like illness, can announce themselves anytime. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself. I’m a living a version of the children’s book, Are You My Mother? I’ll drive by a golf course. “Are you our third thing?” I’ll visit a lake house. “Are you our third thing?” My husband will mention owning a restaurant after he stops consulting. “Is a restaurant our third thing?” (God help me). Sometimes, I’ll wander mid-day into my husband’s home office and ask, “What’s gonna be our third thing?” He’ll put his call on hold to tell me that I’m such a pain in the ass that I’m his third thing. I’ll stare at our dog and pray he lives forever.
I tell myself I am not worrying, I’m just window shopping. But I know that my focus on the third thing is, in many ways, a distraction from unknown things, like what life will be like without my daughters on a daily basis. Like what marriage will be like; whether the love, the vows and the china will go the distance. Like whether wanting them to and hoping they do is sufficient. Like whether we will fill the crevices or perhaps become content, once again, with the quiet.
Who (besides my husband) isn’t comforted by clinging to artificial constructs in the face of such uncertainty? So yes, if having something, anything—even matching bowling shirts—is going to up our odds of survival, than you better believe I’m going to find ourselves a thing.
I’m also going to find ourselves another dog. Ideally one with a long life expectancy. Just in case.