You can’t separate the woman you fell in love with from your childhood. All those songs you listened to on your little solid-state transistor radio. All those love song lyrics you misconstrued. (You see the sky? The sky’s in love with you.) All those boring summer days sitting on the railroad ties popping tar bubbles, transistor radio playing Monkee’s tunes and the Mamas and Papas and the 5th Dimension.
The sleeping pill I took was just a waste of time / I couldn’t close my eyes ‘cause you were on my mind.
You know the preacher likes the cold / he knows I’m going to stay
And I’ll meet you at the station / you can be there by four-thirty
You listen to these songs, and you’re not sure what kind of guy you’re going to be. And it changes with every film you see. Will you be the Five-Easy-Pieces intellectual piano player that ends up working as a roughneck? Will there be a piano on the bed of a truck? Will you abandon your friend to jump into that bed and play that piano? Will you leave your fiancé at a truck stop? Will you hide your Easy-Rider money in that teardrop tank and set off for New Orleans? Will you blow it? Will you plan a bank heist and ride around in your Thomas-Crown-Affair dune buggy? Will you be round like a circle? Like a wheel within a wheel? Will you attend Harvard and throw your thesis out your Paper-Chase dorm room window into the wind? It all seems possible, sitting there on the railroad tracks. Throwing rocks at empty bottles. You will find the One You Love. You will find her. There can be no doubt. Every song points to the fact. You will become your own legend. Every film points to the fact. It happens for every single person in every single work of fiction. And it will happen for you. That’s what you believe.
You can’t separate the woman you fall in love with from your childhood. And you can’t separate your childhood from the people who raised you. Therefore, you can’t separate the woman you fall in love with from the people who raised you. Which is a shaky syllogism at best, but it is, nonetheless, true. I dated some crazy women at the end of my bachelorhood. The ecstasy-addicted one who contracted herpes in her eye. The one in the army who wouldn’t stop punching the shit out of the mattress while we had sex. I imagined myself married to each of them. I imagined us doing ecstasy and watching black and white films every day. Or working out at the gym and then doing urban maneuvers with live ammo past midnight.
Truth is, I was kind of square, and I didn’t want to be square, so I dated women whom I thought would nudge me toward some Jack Nicholson or Steve McQueen or Peter Fonda movie character. Of course, the square couldn’t hold onto such a misconception of himself. Such a misconstrual of the tealeaves. Just because he wanted to be the iconoclastic hero who becomes, himself, an icon of iconoclastism did not make him that. He was who his mother bore him to be. He was in the shape his father beat him into. And all the movies and songs in his history would not change the woman he would fall in love with.
I couldn’t help it when I fell in love with Deb, a beautiful Midwestern girl with ivory skin who could have been in one of those soap commercials. Solid. Sensible. From the land of hot dishes. Just like my parents. She even had that round-voweled accent. She was perfect for my parents, but they never took a shine to her. I know it’s my fault. Now that I have boys who have girlfriends, I have a notion of what it’s like to have this unavoidable connection between me, my son, and his girlfriend. The information passed to me through my wife from my son is the information that forms my opinion of my son’s girlfriend. It doesn’t have much to do with the girl, herself. I know that I whined and complained to my parents about my wife in the early days, hoping to gain some sympathy. And then, after the rough patches were over for the time being, I’d forget about any complaint I might have had about her. But my parents wouldn’t forget. And they would never forget. I presented to them, for my own reasons, a grotesque in place of my wife and, in doing so, denied my wife the good relationship with parental-type people she had always desired. It was my fault. But there’s no going back now. The die, as they say, is cast.
Of course, we don’t much care anymore. What my parents think of my wife. What my wife’s parents think of me. What my parents think of her parents. And etc.
A pivotal incident occurred in the late fall of 1990. Deb and I visited my parents at some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother made oyster stew and Caesar salad for dinner. We were sitting around the dining room table when my mother started grilling me about the wedding. “When are you getting married?”
“We’re not sure.”
“Not sure? I thought you already had a date.”
“So, when is it going to be?”
“We don’t know.”
She had lots of questions. What church? Where would the reception be? She needed to know these things. I kept shooting encouraging looks at Deb, across the table, too far away for me to touch. My mother was into the booze, which sometimes turns her into a soothsayer. “You’re not going to have a ceremony,” she said, her ice-blue eyes boring into mine.
“Yes,” I said. “We are.”
“No,” she said. “You’re not.”
I shot an encouraging look at Deb, who hadn’t touched her oyster stew. She hadn’t touched it because she hated oyster stew. And always had. And always would. Then I met my mother’s eyes and said,
“Yes, mom. We are.”
“No,” she said again. “You’re lying to me. You two are going to elope.”
I tried to look shocked.
“That’s not true!” I said.
“It is true,” she said. “You’re going to elope! I know it! Why can’t you just tell me?!”
“I can’t tell you,” I said, “because it’s not the truth!”
“You’re a liar! You two are liars! You’re going to elope, and you won’t even tell your father and me!”
I shot a glance at Deb again, who was scooping the oyster stew into her mouth now at record speed.
“You’re right,” I said.
“You’re right. We’re going to elope. We’re driving up to Niagara in a couple weeks.”
We thought we made this decision. We would get married. We would tell our parents, who wouldn’t let us alone, to go screw themselves, and we’d elope to Niagara. And then we’d sign the papers. And then we’d hit the road. And we’d never settle down. Never! Never! We’d always be free. Like. . .I don’t know like what. The breeze? Is the breeze free? Or is it kind of forced to go here and there depending upon the varying pressure of this and that area of the atmosphere? Anyway, whatever is free, that’s what we thought we’d be. But the truth is, we didn’t make any decisions. What happened between us was inevitable. We saw one another. We went out for drinks once or twice. Talked bullshit about moving west and being homesteaders. Fell in love. We didn’t give a shit about anyone else. And we did what we needed to do. Just like a little floaty cottonwood seed does. Just like ants do when they service the queen. We did what nature would have us do. And within a year of moving from Massachusetts, we had one child. That child, whom we named Sam, was injured during his delivery and Deb spent a few months in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Iowa Hospital. And just like that, the dream was over – the time of believing that we were movie characters; that the narrative of our lives could be set to music. We now plot the beginning of our adult lives to this particular point, when our first son was lying in that plastic crib, completely paralyzed, breathing tubes shoved into his lungs, oximeter clipped to his tiny finger, which made it glow pink and reminded us of ET, strangers in a strange, white, sterile land. It was at this point when we doubted one another. Resented one another. Strayed from one another in our minds. And it was at this point when we made the decision, for the first time, to be together.