My hands were gripping my knife and fork like they were life preservers, my knuckles turning white. I looked down at my food, all messed up and burnt on the outside and raw on the inside.
I clenched my teeth and somehow forced my face into a smile.
“This looks… great…” I said, and I looked up at my new wife, who had just slaved over her first attempt at a fancy Shabbat dinner with our new fancy plates from the wedding on the first weekend after sheva brachos, the week after a Jewish wedding where everyone makes you fancy food and you don’t have to work if your job is cool.
Now we were on our own. All… alone…
Things had seemed so perfect during that first week. We had spent them hanging out on the floor of the living room and joking about how it felt just like camp. And everything was just so wonderful, we hadn’t fought or anything.
And they had to stay that way, you understand. I had read a book by this famous Hasidic writer who convinced me my job was never to say a bad word to my wife or, like, Hell or something. I had spent the week before the wedding (when you don’t have any access to your wife because something something) reading this book and going into these crazy spiritually ecstatic moments of bliss imagining how freaking God was gonna come into our home, and light would shine out of our butts every time we farted, and other such kabbalistic imagery.
Now, you need to understand, for the record, where I was coming from. I don’t know what it was (actually, I do, we were super immature), but there was something that compelled us to just be totally incapable of adapting to the other’s viewpoint. Which led to… some unpleasantness.
And so that week in which I read my Hasidic book that told me that I’m never allowed to complain or else Hell (and also that I can’t share these deep, deep secrets with the women folk or they may use it against us, oy va voy), was this sort of moment of redemption in my mind. It was pretty convenient that I didn’t happen to be around any women at that time (except for my mom, and arguing was kind of our favorite hobby, so it was all good), and so I could imagine any sort of perfect marriage without having to actually live it.
This was it. I had read one book, things would be fine. Not a peep from me, no self-expression, total abnegation of my ego, yes, that was clearly something I was capable of.
And during that week after the wedding where I didn’t have to work, man, I lived it out. I was the perfect man. Some might say I wasn’t even a man.
Of course it helped that everything was provided for us, from meals to my not having to work to us being accompanies as royalty wherever we went (that part was awesome).
So why, on that first Shabbat, did everything seem so wrong? Why had I let some very passive-aggressive complaints seep through my mouth? Why, when the dinner came, did I hold onto those utensils like they were the only things keeping me alive?
My poor wife. She didn’t know, she couldn’t know, what was coming. The storm brewing.
And poor me, little immature guy. Love that guy, but he was kind of dumb. He thought that, somehow, his nature had completely changed, that not complaining was something he’d master over night, that perfection was something you gained after some artificially-injected spiritual ecstasy.
And so he, I, didn’t realize that every time I held back a complaint, it was like adding air to a balloon. There was no release valve. And soon, so very quickly, I was ready to burst.
And, as these things happen, I picked the worst possible time. Shabbat. Wife working her butt off. Food I had no part in creating.
She looked at me with these big, Bambi eyes. “Please say something nice, please say something nice,” they pleaded.
“It’s… wonderful,” I finally got out, pushing it through my mouth with every bit of energy I had. I could see her relax even as I tensed more.
We ate more, and I was quiet, quieter than usual. Camp had ended, and I was suddenly back at home outside of the garden fantasy.
It started small. We started arguing about random things, I don’t even remember what. Then we’d follow it with moments of staring quietly at our food, which would just make it so much worse, what with the frozen on the outside business.
Then, somehow, it heated up. Bam, bam, bam, argument after argument. I didn’t realize it, but all that frustration from trying to be somebody perfect, to be some angel without an ego, was starting to erupt out of me.
Oh gosh, no, the Unpleasantness again…
And then, finally, she looked at me, like she could read my mind (a disturbing reality that became more and more true over time). She said, “Do you really like the meal?”
This was it. She was giving me an out, an option to make it all better. And, of course, I totally botched it.
“No, okay! I don’t like it! I don’t like this Shabbat at all! No!” I said, tears of pathetic frustration falling down my face.
Oh man, the crying. The getting up from the table and leaving the room, the putting away of the food.
I’d like to tell you that it was a hiccup, that really the real me was that good guy from the first week, and all I really needed to do was just tap into that dude again.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t, and never will be, that guy. I suck. I’m a screwup, and I’m not a good/perfect/refined person. For weeks we argued like crazy. Every detail could not be overlooked. Every moment a chance to just make things worse.
It continued on and on. Was this what my life would be? Was this what it would be like?
The happy ending/beginning
Yesterday, me and my wife spoke about that moment, and those weeks. We laughed. We joked about it, teased each other.
“How could we be so dumb?!” we asked each other.
“Because that’s what we were back then!” we responded in ecstatic revery.
But here’s the crazy thing: we actually laugh about it quite a bit now. It’s amazing to look back on that first year, the downs (there weren’t so many ups, you see), and just how silly we were.
There were so many aspects to it. Yes, we were dumb and young and immature, a product of a generation of people that extended their adolescence until after college. Neither of us were prepared to suddenly be thrown into a marriage where the dating took 2 months, the engagement 4.
But, then… what happened between? How could we laugh now?
The key, I think, may lie in something my wife wrote. Her last piece described our first date. And it started like this: “I would totally not classify myself as a romantic.”
I also happened to write about our dating process. And that post started like this: “I’m a ridiculous, emotional, over-sentimental sap. I guess that’s why I told my wife I loved her on our second date.”
Yes, we were immature. But there was more to it than that. We were immature because we each did not know how to handle someone so different from us. It was an excruciating experience to live with a person so very beyond our own world. We knew we had the basic ingredients for a beautiful, powerful marriage. But the tools hadn’t been developed yet. In fact, we didn’t even realize we needed tools, or if we did, we didn’t know where they were supposed to be used.
Why were my knuckles white as I held those utensils? Because I didn’t even know what was actually bothering me. To this day, I still don’t know. Poor guy. But I know that I hadn’t found the ways to articulate what was happening within me, let alone to articulate them to a person who had a completely different way of viewing the world than I did.
And the reason that book was so poisonous, and I’d say hurt our marriage for so long, was that it convinced me that listening to myself was a problem. That knowing who I am, who my wife is, isn’t as important as my duty to something something (I try not to think about it too much these days).
It’s hard to believe someone could survive a year of just pure insanity in marriage and one day come out strong and vital and in love.
But, the truth is, every day, I’m thankful it happened that way. Because the beauty of that quick marriage, the one we had no way of preparing for, was that it forced us both to finally confront this inability to make space for another, this lack of awareness of our own emotional needs and how to communicate them, this inability to give give give every day to the other.
Our marriage forced us to confront all those issues. It forced us to truly look at the other person for who they were. And, just as importantly, to look within at who we were, and to realize that people are not copies of us, and so we must learn how to express what’s inside in a loving, caring way.
It’s amazing, because I look at those two first lines in our pieces, and I realize that today, my wife and I have both sort of fused those realities. My wife has learned how to be more vulnerable, to express her love more. I’ve learned to be more grounded, to not try not let flying high in passion become a selfish pursuit, but rather a channeled energy to give to the other.
And the longer we stay together, the more our love becomes one, a new creation entirely. We are still ourselves, but our expressions of connection have started to dance together in harmony. Discordant at times, but always more and more elegant, always revealing that, yes, this was meant to be, more and more.
Everyone arrives at this place in different ways. But the realization that it’s not so much where we start, as much our motivation to always move forward that defines what our marriage really becomes, has been one the biggest gifts I’ve ever received.