The alarm tolls at 3:45am. We groan our way out of bed, shuffle to the bathroom, brush our teeth, and jam deodorant, facial moisturizer, Sensodyne, and sample lotions into our see-through travel bags. This is an ungodly hour; we prove incapable of smiling at each other even though this, this journey, this honeymoon, marks the beginning our marriage.
The cab driver is chatty. I grimace; my husband squeezes his eyes shut and open and shut. She is new at the job, so it takes her a few seconds to start the meter.
“Everyone’s allowed to make mistakes when they’re learning,” she tells us.
Based on her skin tone and thin accent, I start guessing in my head: Eritrean? Somali?
“I’m from Ethiopia,” she says, and then proceeds to tell us her entire life story. Her sister has just given birth to a baby girl. When she delivered, the doctors inadvertently found a tumor in her brain, so this woman, our driver, has moved from Sacramento to San Francisco to care for her sister during chemotherapy and, God willing, surgery. She hates the cold and all the people crammed onto the steep streets here.
“What brought her to California from Ethiopia?” I ask, hoping to keep her talking so I won’t have to. I dig some sleep crust from my eye. The city still sleeps, the hills heavy and dark, a few dim lights blinking at every horizon.
“She was escaping an arranged marriage,” she says. “She ran away. To Oakland. Me? My parents arranged for me to marry at 14 to a man who beat me. I have two sons.”
My husband sits up taller.
“I’m happily divorced now,” she beams. We exhale slowly, in unison. We all three laugh.
“Flying home for Christmas?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “We’re going on our honeymoon.”
On the quick flight to L.A., where we’ll catch a connection to Kauai, I feel a dull pulling between my collar bones and my stomach rumbles. Something isn’t sitting right with me.
Yesterday we walked a mile in a steady downpour, tucked under the same umbrella, to City Lights Bookstore, where my husband perused the philosophy section and I grazed among the literary magazines, flipping through the tables of contents and making a note of all my friends and contemporaries in the writing world who have published this month. There are many of them—in one journal, I find five: two authors I graduated with and three others I’ve invited as readers for a series I help organize back home. When my husband meets me at the register he has Anne Carsen’s translation of Euripedes. I have The Virginia Quarterly.
“You okay?” he asks.
“I should be writing more,” I say. I nod again. “I’m okay.”
Am I okay? I’m married. I’m a wife. Does that make me okay? It’s funny—I have a friend who told me it never felt weird for her to use the term “husband” once she married. She had much more trouble, she found, hearing herself referred to as a “wife.” I have had the same experience. I wanted my husband. But I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a wife. The titles “mother” and “woman” and “author” our titles I have long coveted. But wife?
It’s not polite to say what I’m about to say. In our culture, we do not allow much room for grief. A blushing bride has no right to grief or worry. But every major life change requires grieving time. For every thing we gain as we grow, we also leave something behind. So I’ll say the impolite thing. Standing in the bookstore and listening to our early morning taxi driver, I found myself grieving, confronted by the conundrum of many ladies of my cohort. I know that “wifedom” isn’t always great for women (especially women from certain cultures and of certain less traditional persuasions); it’s one way to become tied to the “particular” as Aristotle and Socrates first referred to the domestic sphere where women supposedly reign, and which they used as a rationalization for keeping women out of the universal, the vita activa or active life. Generally, I loathe domesticity—I like to travel, I moved 12 times in my twenties, I let dishes stack up in the sink, I avoid buying clothing that requires an iron or a hangar, I balk at routine, preferring improvisation even when it means disorganization. I do love to cook, my one concession. Statistically, marriage improves men’s lives more than women’s. In a recent study on longevity, researchers found that, contrary to findings in earlier studies, single women live longest, beating out the runner’s up, married men. Single men have the shortest lives.
Alas. There’s this little bugaboo: I fell in love with a man who tugs me toward the domestic, in a good way, and at an age where some semblance of settling down makes sense.
But on the airplane I wonder about honeymoons. Traditionally, they mark a period of celebration before the hard stuff, the inevitable messiness of living with another person. Another friend recently told me “marriage is harder than having children. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” But I think she didn’t mean that living with another person is the hardest thing so much as living with one’s self in the presence of another self in another kind of life that might, even unwittingly, subjugate you.
I love my husband. I expect our partnership to be one of the less painful variety, even at its most difficult. I will not have to escape to Oakland. I will be treated with respect and decency. But for me this honeymoon is not so much a prelude to marriage with a man as it is a prelude to the greatest challenge of my life, a prelude to the Sisyphean task of living as both autonomous “woman” and committed “wife.” And I must be able to live as both. I must. Motherhood and wifehood are honorable, respectable, important roles, and I want them, but I must be a citizen in the world of women and the world of wives, and this dual citizenship--a straddling--is not always so stable a stance as my feminist foremothers evangelized.
In the plane, I hold my husband’s hand as I stare out the window. The backlit clouds hover low over the coastline, cloaking the land. They divide earth and sky with a fat veil. As we descend, my husband says, “I hate this part.”
“What part?” I ask.
“The part where you leave the open sky for the ground, but you’re stuck in the clouds. That’s where the turbulence always is.”
And then we enter the clouds. For a few moments we hang there, suspended in a thick fog that from afar looked impenetrable, but in fact holds our weight with ease. The aircraft barely stumbles.
“I don’t mind it so much,” I tell him.
This, after all, is where I will live.
P.S. For those of you who like the themes in this blog, I recommend an op-ed in today's New York Times: The Moral Animal.