When I took up tennis, my husband was happy to play with our two children and me, as long as we didn’t have to play by the rules. As Denis repeatedly explained to us, playing by the rules placed him at an unfair disadvantage because he didn’t know the rules, and he didn’t know how to serve.
Instead of learning the rules, he wanted to play a variation of tennis he had invented with another actor while on location in a tropical country. Their game involved no serving and a complicated but curiously malleable set of rules that often appeared, to me, to change midgame and almost always to Denis’ advantage.
This was a tricky time in our marriage. Though we had found tennis late, we had found each other early, and now we were going through a rough patch, one that had lasted for years.
When we met, I was 20, he 25. Our basic problem was, and is, that we are almost identical – in looks, attitudes and psychological makeup. Two Leos who love children and animals and are emotional and highly sensitive and competitive with everybody, but especially with each other.
Eventually we began to see a marriage counselor, who, among other things, suggested we have a regular date night. Afterward we sometimes went to a movie. One of the movies we saw was “March of the Penguins.”
This movie moved us to tears because whatever battles raged between us, we had these two very delicate fledglings that needed to be protected and carried along carefully, so carefully, because is anything more fragile than a preteenage girl or a growing, unsure boy?
These great children were the reason we were in counseling, the reason we were trying to keep the family egg whole. The time came when we met in our marriage counselor’s office and I said, “I think it’s over.”
“That’s it,” Denis agreed.
When we left, it felt as if we were floating, we were so calm. We had stormed out of those doors and stomped down those steps in such rages before, but now Denis held the door for me, and I thanked him. When we got to the street, it was snowing. I had boots with heels, and the sidewalks were icy. So I asked if I could hold his arm, if he could walk me home.
We went to the restaurant across from our building, a little neighborhood place. We sat in a booth in the back. Denis ordered soup.
There was nothing to lose, so I decided to serve up my final grievances, the things I felt he needed to know to understand that he was the cause of our marriage’s untimely end. These were the wretched rags of resentment so bitter and old, so petty, that I had been too ashamed even to mention them in therapy, so now I balled them up and tossed them onto Denis’ court.
Denis just ate his soup.
The Penguin Marriage
We both experienced this finality as a surprising relief. We were like the penguin couple in “March of the Penguins” that accidentally dropped and broke their egg. They looked at the egg, and then they parted ways, because penguins don’t mate for life. They court, commit each other’s voice to memory, produce an egg, devote themselves to its care, and when it dies, or matures, the parents part company.
This was how we had come to view our marriage: a penguin marriage, a partnership devoted to raising children. We had hoped to stick it out until they left the nest, but now it looked as if that would be impossible.
Denis carefully refolded his napkin, and then said: “I’m sorry. If I could change those things I would, but I can’t. They’re in the past. But, I’m sorry.”
I had expected him to cry foul, to react the way he did when I said a questionable tennis shot of his was out. But he just said he was sorry. His calm admission inspired me to exhale my own litany of regrets and apologies. That night Denis didn’t stay in a hotel; he stayed home.
Things got better. We went to our counselor. We went to our movies. We worked at treating each other more fairly. And we started playing a lot of tennis, just the two of us. Only now we played by the rules.
Though we were still ultracompetitive, we were becoming intensely proud when the other hit an amazing shot, and we didn’t hate the winner when we lost. We still played to win, but now we could feel joy for the other.
The final set
Which brings me to our last game of that summer, the last before we packed up our son and drove him to college. We had each won a set, and now it was 5-5 in the final set. There were other players waiting. So this would have to be the final, and deciding, game of the match. The games had been so hard won that neither of us could bear to lose the match.
Denis was serving in this deciding game. He served carefully, not trying to ace it past me for once. It was too risky.
I didn’t take advantage by slamming my return into his backhand court. I hit the ball into his court, and he hit it back into mine. I placed the ball in his court carefully, so carefully, and he placed it back in mine. We rallied, not with the adrenaline-pumping determination to win at all costs, but with the patience and control that came with not wanting it to be over: not the summer, not our son’s childhood, not this game, ever.
Back and forth we sent the ball. And it occurred to me there was some sort of grace in my husband’s form, and I felt it in mine, too, as we both worked to keep the game alive just a little longer, by trying to find each other’s sweet spot, by playing, for once, to the other’s advantage.
Ann Leary’s latest novel is “The Good House.”
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