After almost seven months of domestic bliss as a married woman, I feel somewhat qualified to critique the boy-meets-girl fairy tales I grew up hearing and reading. Unfortunately, most fairy tales and other romances end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” stock ending. As a result, people are good at the courtship part, having so much in the way of example and instruction, but are left absolutely cold and on their own after the fairy tale wedding.
The good news is that I think the romances and fairly tales should start with the wedding. I had no idea what the true meaning of romance was until after my marriage ceremony. That is where the quest starts, not ends. The knights who went through all sorts of nastiness to win the hand of a beautiful princess didn’t know that that would be the easy part. They had their real test awaiting them after the vows were exchanged.
Real romance consists of what the world considers the most pitifully mundane activities, such as going to the grocery store, making breakfast, doing laundry together, and balancing checkbooks. My husband and I first went to the grocery together two days after we returned from our honeymoon. We had gone on emergency trips to the local store when I was living in the girls’ dorm on campus, but we had never actually stocked an entire kitchen before. Even when I was living on my own off campus, I was too broke to buy anything but Carnation Breakfast, peanut butter, and soup. Now we have to buy the things that had always mysteriously appeared in our refrigerators and bathroom cabinets thanks to mom or other magical powers. We were faced with asking each other such new and bizarre questions as, “What kind of toilet paper do you like?” that were never covered in pre-Cana conferences. In pre-Cana we were confronted with relatively simple questions like, “Are you willing to accept children?” and did quite well. I wished suddenly that our sponsor couple had explained not how to resolve the torturous dilemma of when to have children and how to control cash flow but how to decide what kind of milk to buy. I drink two-percent milk when I can manage to choke it down at all, and my husband likes skim milk.
We eventually compromised and bought one-percent, but that fateful first night at the grocery was not easy. It took us two hours to cover the entire warehouse-sized store, a discount place near our apartment we had chosen to be thrifty. We looked like bad stereotypical American tourists in Europe, squinting up at the aisle signs with baffled expressions on our faces, clutching grocery lists and wondering if this kind of excursion would ever be easy. Where on earth do you find baking soda in a place like that? How would we ever pick a single cereal out of three aisles of them? I began to pity the Russian immigrants who flooded the West. Having grown up with boring old corn flakes every morning at breakfast, how could they stand facing three aisles of cereals? Freedom of choice is a nifty idea, but it is also excruciatingly time-consuming.
Romance is not batting eyelashes and stolen moments in perfumed gardens, I don’t think. It’s probably more about making room for another person in your life. My clutter tolerance has risen since I now have twice as many worldly goods as I ever wanted. I can’t go to bed at two in the morning and get up at eleven, the way my internal clock wills my schedule to be. My husband has to set the alarm for 5:30 A.M. to be at work on time. Consequently, my sleeping pattern has had to experience a swift kick. I have had to abandon my freewheeling college girl eating habits because I am now responsible for his meals as well as my own. I don’t go to every party and fashionable artsy bar anymore. As a result, we’re both much healthier now than we were.
I have incurred the wrath of more than one feminist I know regarding cooking. I make my husband’s lunches when he works the day shift, something that seems perfectly normal to me but that sets these women’s teeth on edge. “These are the ‘Nineties!” they howl. “I thought you were a liberated woman! Why do you make your husband’s lunch?” As if by packing a nice sandwich and some yogurt in a little nylon bag a few times a week I am setting the status of women back a millennium or so. You will probably see me on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” one of these afternoons being grilled under hot lights about my crimes of domesticity. “You mean you do his laundry, too? And the ironing? And you cook dinner? Every night?” The guests who are Native American transvestites against capitalism and marriage who molest their children will probably receive a much kinder response than I. Over breakfast with my sister-in-law I jokingly remarked one morning, “Pete liked the dinner I made last night so much, he actually did the dishes. I feel like a real woman. All I have to do now is have a baby and I’ll be the perfect woman.” She cringed and looked around suspiciously at the other people in McDonald’s. “Feminists would puke to hear you say that, you know,” she whispered. Well, that is my job….
Divorced people are also the source of much bitterness about my ways. The same people who were tickled to death to hear that my husband and I were engaged are now shaking their heads sadly at us, saying that they can’t believe we sold ourselves into slavery so readily. We are now subject, they say, to all sorts of laws and rules, as if love itself is not accompanied by more rules than any other human endeavor. It is as if they can’t stand to see anyone happily married. Some of my husband’s divorced colleagues actually sneer at his homemade lunches. “That won’t last long,” they tell him cynically. “You just wait until the honeymoon is over, pal!” The fact is that because they make such a big deal about this little lunchtime ritual, I will deliberately make a point of doing it until I die.
I am also the bane of divorced women’s existence, I have learned. They can spot me in an instant as a newly married female, and I can spot the freshly divorced ones equally quickly. They wear too much make-up, entirely too trendy clothing, often a crystal hanging from a chain around their necks (to show how much of a New Age higher consciousness they’ve reached), have new hairstyles, and attend aerobics and yoga classes regularly. Not to mention appointments with their therapists, or “life transition counselors.” They are usually the ones who warn me that marriage will destroy my individuality, self-esteem, and spiritual growth. On the contrary, I hope being married to my husband will prevent me from turning into a self-absorbed flake with an unhealthy interest in the occult, the kind of woman Walker Percy warned us all about.
Another aspect of our marriage is that we are actually faithful to each other, something that often shocks free-thinkers everywhere. I had thought I would not be hit on anymore once I was married. Wrong. While it happens less than it did when I was merely engaged, it still occurs occasionally and always baffles me. “I’m married!” I gasp. The typical answer of the louts is, “So?” which wins my eternal enmity and distrust. If they think I am actually going to leave my new husband and adorable home for them, they soon learn that they are sorely wrong and that I will never again trust or respect them.
The most bizarre adventure I experienced after just returning from the honeymoon was the appearance on my doorstep of a literary acquaintance of mine, with whom I had never honestly gotten along, venomously railing at me for my decision to get married without inviting him to the wedding or consulting him first. He claimed that he had intended to give up his Kerouacian On the Road/Dharma Bum lifestyle and ask me to marry him himself, but that I had foolishly married someone else before he could get up the nerve to ask me. A pleasant fiction, and complete news to me, as he had always talked endlessly to anyone who would listen about how he would never let a woman tie him down, that he would never get married (least of all to anyone like me), hated children, and preferred the company of automobiles and the open road to women. He has now made several melodramatic and obviously well-rehearsed scenes about my alleged crime against him, and then mercifully disappeared. The moral of this story is that some people do not believe in or respect marriage; they will thus either try to make newlyweds feel like felons, they will pretend that no change has occurred in the lives of the married.
The quest, then, has begun. We have much more important things to battle against than the traditional dragons and monsters: the modern villains left out of the fairy tales and medieval fables. When they maintain that marriage kills romance, I think the way to win is to be happy anyway, knowing they have missed the point.