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Modern Love

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Modern love: The messy truth about love, marriage

By Heidi Basarab
New York Times
MODERN-LOVE-MESSY-TRUTH-FEB07
Brian Rea for The New York Times - BRIAN REA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

After two decades of saying I would never get married, I did. I changed my mind one Sunday while sitting at my desk in front of my computer, as happily unmarried as ever.

Bryan, my boyfriend of 13 years, was sitting at his desk in front of his computer, also happily unmarried. Or at least I think happily. I feel safe saying so because we had a lot of smug conversations over the years about how pointless marriage would be for us. Neither of us wants children. Bryan resents religion. I resent patriarchy.

Our desks were only eight feet apart. Hello, studio apartment. We had recently moved from Denver to San Francisco after selling two-thirds of our belongings, including our Craftsman bungalow. We had bought it to grow old in together but ended up hating it.

Bryan was writing code, sticking out his lower lip the way he does when he concentrates. I had put a record on, Ashkenazy playing Mozart’s K. 576. It galloped along in D major, streaking the air with little bursts of wonder and hope.

“Hey,” I said. “Want to marry me? After all?”

He looked up and stared. Bryan’s eyes glint a lot: smartass glints that make me grin, earnest glints that make my stomach hurt, did-you-know glints that come right before he shares a scientific fact (something about the skin of a T-Rex or the capabilities of modern-day rockets). But there were no glints after my proposal. Just surprise.

“Really,” I said, the Mozart galloping.

Bryan paused. “Sure,” he said finally.

My mother displayed less equanimity. “What?” she kept saying into the phone. I heard her relay the news to my father. I could tell this would fuel their mealtime conversations for at least the next three days.

She appreciates practicality. And she loves Bryan. She said she and my father would fly out for the 10-minute ceremony at city hall we were planning, adding, “I’d like to see the redwood forest.”

Still, telling her felt like a betrayal. When I was growing up, she repeatedly and vehemently said I didn’t need to get married, didn’t need a man, didn’t need anybody to take care of me. This mantra carried so much weight in my childhood it was almost physical, as if she had braided it into my pigtails, sprinkled it across the buttered layers of potato strudels she baked, and knotted it into the smocked pinafores she sewed.

In college I took a women’s studies class and intellectualized my mother’s predicament. Had second-wave feminism fallen short partly because a generation of mothers warned a generation of daughters about the kind of sacrificial lives that had resulted in, well, our own existence?

And then there was Bryan

While mulling this over, I chased men who wanted nothing to do with me.

Finally there was Bryan. It started with a Brazilian voodoo bracelet. A friend tied it onto my wrist and told me to make a wish. “When the string erodes and the bracelet falls off,” she said, “the wish will come true.” I wished for a man who would understand me and love me anyway, and the day the bracelet fell off, Bryan picked me up in a bar. He was wearing a cap with embroidered chiles, and a corduroy jacket that was too big in the shoulders. He was from the Deep South but didn’t have an accent, which made him irresistible to me. I always trust people who don’t pretend to make sense.

When he called me the next day and asked me to dinner, I knew I was saying yes to more than enchiladas, beer and an embarrassing mariachi band. In a prescient moment at my kitchen table, right after I hung up the phone, I saw that I would love him, and that loving him would mean saying yes to the self I would become by loving him, and no to the other selves I would never become by not loving him.

My mother was partly right: I didn’t need a man. Instead, it turned out I needed one particular man. It took me a ridiculously long time to recognize the difference.

I guess it happened over hundreds of trips to the grocery store together, Bryan always returning the cart and grousing about the people who didn’t. It happened adding countless ice cubes to countless cups of tea so he wouldn’t burn his tongue. It happened while pretending to be upset when the pets I rescued ended up on his lap instead of mine, while bracing myself in the passenger seat as he tailgated or pulled an ill-advised turn in his ragged-out Volvo wagon, and while listening to his stories about the silver-tongued preachers and insect-ridden peach orchards of his youth.

Love came, suddenly

At the same time, it happened suddenly. My desk in our apartment is under a window overlooking an area where cars could pull up to the building’s main entrance. We had come to the conclusion that a lot of divorced fathers lived here because every Sunday afternoon a sad litany of children’s voices would waft up to us.

“Bye, Daddy!” we’d hear, over and over. Sometimes I’d look out and watch a child with a colorful backpack climb into a mother’s SUV. The child would wave as the car pulled away. The father would wave back. He might be smoking, rubbing his beard or reaching for a phone in his pocket.

Did I witness one such goodbye the Sunday I proposed? I think at the very least a child’s voice cut through the Mozart, a reminder of what my mother had tried to protect me from: Things fall apart. But even if they did for Bryan and me, I wanted to find out what, if anything, loving him and needing him might have to do with marrying him.

I wanted the whole messy truth.

Heidi Basarab is a business writer in San Francisco.
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