Often at night I dream that I’ve found some dangerous object lying on the floor and swallowed it. I sit up, coughing violently, trying to force it back out. I turn to my wife and tell her that I’ve ingested something potentially fatal, and what should I do? If she wakes up grouchy, she snaps, “Be quiet! I’m trying to sleep!” Startled, I recover myself, realize it’s just the same nightmare I always have, and feel acutely embarrassed, hoping my wife won’t remember the interruption the next morning. Other times, she rubs my arm and says gently, “It’s okay. You’re fine. You didn’t swallow anything. Go back to sleep, babe.” The next morning she asks me, “How do you even know I’m there? I mean, aren’t you dreaming? Why do you have to get me involved?”
Being left alone in my room in the dark used to be the scariest part of my life. I’ve been having night terrors as long as I can remember. At a pretty young age, I figured out that monsters hiding under the bed or even regular human intruders did not pose the greatest threat to my existence, and having seen a few too many episodes of Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven, about an angel who tends to the needs of dying children, I directed my fears at a more likely possibility: disease, and more specifically, Cancer.
One time, when I was around eight, I had a violent flu, and the whole time my older sister kept giving me significant looks, like she wanted to tell me something. Though I was pretty out of it, I couldn’t help but notice, and I became convinced that this was it. Dr. Elisofon had already delivered the news to my family: I had Cancer, I was dying, my sister knew but she didn’t want to tell me, and I was just going to have to accept it.
Eventually, I discovered why she’d been giving me all those concerned stares. A couple nights before, my father, apparently, had gotten in very late. Still awake, my mother had said, “I don’t expect you to come home for me anymore. But when your son is running a 103 degree fever, you might think about leaving the bar before 2 a.m.” To which he had responded, “If you knew where I actually was tonight, then you’d be really mad.” And thus it turned out that the big secret responsible for my sister’s displays of anxiety was not Cancer but Divorce. My mom had decided to wait until I was feeling better to tell me. I wasn’t dying, but my parents were splitting up. Life and death, marriage and divorce—ever since then, they’ve been all mixed up in my head, each one, at times, standing in for one of the others.
The problem with marriage, we all know, is the endlessness of it. Plenty of things we do will have long-term repercussions, but in what other situation do you promise to do something for the rest of your life? Not when you choose a college. Not when you take a job. Not when you buy a house. During childhood, you pick up many habits that are probably going to be lifelong, like walking, talking, reading, and sleeping, but once you’ve got those down, you start to feel like you’re at greater liberty to decide what things you want to do and what things you want to stop doing. Especially when you’re a young adult the apparently infinite multiplicity of possible choices—possible jobs, possible friends, possible cities, possible girlfriends or boyfriends—can sometimes fool you into thinking you have an infinite amount of time to try out everything. But once you’re married, you’ve significantly cut down the options, and it suddenly makes your life feel shorter—like now there’s a direct line between you and your own death. You’ve just gotten on a train and you won’t get off until the very end of the track. In your final moments, if you stick to your promise, you’ll still be doing the same thing you’re doing now, dealing with the same person, possibly having the same arguments. And that commonality between now and then makes that far-off time, when you’re old and sick and about to die, a little more imaginable. Which is scary.
Apparently even my father didn’t quite escape this predicament. Although they were no longer married, my mother was still there with him in the hospital on the day he died of lung cancer at age sixty. And she even managed to subject him to one of their old familiar rituals, though he wasn’t exactly in a condition to notice. Apparently after the nurse declared him dead and shepherded me, my sister and my two aunts out into another room, while we were all hugging and crying, my mother stayed in the room with my father’s body in order to give him a final piece of her mind. “How could you?” she asked him. “How could you take such bad care of yourself and abandon your two kids like this?” My parents had been divorced for over fifteen years, and my father was dead, but my mother wanted to get in one last good fight.
I was stunned when my mother told me afterwards what she had just done. You had to have some pretty strong feelings, after all, to stand there yelling at a corpse. Did my mother still love my father? Perhaps, but I also think his death had taken something important from her—something distinct from love that marriage offers to us all. Watching her two kids collapse into sobs, she’d looked at their faces and thought about how they’d have to spend the rest of their lives fatherless, with one less person really looking out for them. Though they were both technically adults, one pregnant with her first child, they’d seemed to her especially vulnerable and helpless, and she wanted someone to blame. The causes of their distress were too big to comprehend and pretty much beyond anyone’s control: disease, aging and death. So my dad, who could at least have tried to quit smoking, represented a much more tangible and more satisfying target for her grievances.
Marriage gives you someone to blame—for just about everything. Before you get married, when you feel depressed, you think to yourself, “Is this it?” And by “it” you mean life. Is this all life has to offer? Just one day followed by another? The same dreary routine? Etc. But after you get married, you think to yourself, “Is this it?” And by “it” you mean marriage. If your life feels monotonous, devoid of possibilities, static, two-dimensional, whatever, you don’t blame your life; you blame your marriage. As a thing that’s supposed to fill up your days until you die, your marriage becomes like an emblem of your life, like a kind of plastic insulation that’s pressed all the way up against the very borders of your existence. It’s much easier to blame the stuff lining the walls than the room itself. And there is, you sometimes remind yourself, just a little space between the lining and the outer boundaries, and thus it allows you to trick yourself into thinking if you could just get into that space between where your marriage ends and your life continues, or if you could somehow tear down the plastic, escape the confines of your marriage, life would suddenly be vibrant and rich and unexpected and mysterious again. So maybe the greatest gift marriage gives us is the chance to fantasize, to imagine that there’s more to life than there actually is, and it accomplishes this by assuming responsibility for all the misery and dullness that we would otherwise equate with life itself.
But it’s not actually marriage that does this: it’s your spouse. One saintly individual steps forward and volunteers to be the fall guy, to absorb the entirety of your existential bitterness for decades to come, so that you can think life isn’t quite as bad as you once feared, since everything that’s wrong with it is actually your spouse’s fault. Even if you don’t ever act on your feelings, from this point forward you can believe that you don’t have to die in order to escape from the dreary reality in which you sometimes feel trapped; you can just get divorced. Your marriage partner, in other words, allows you to hold onto your hope. It’s a profound gesture of total, thankless altruism, if you think about it, but you don’t think about it, because, by virtue of the particular service they’re providing, you’re too busy feeling resentful to feel the appropriate gratitude.
Much to her chagrin, and at the cost of her own hopes of sleeping soundly through the night, my wife’s presence intrudes all the way into my private nightmares. Even when I should be getting away from everything that’s troubling or annoying me, into some otherworldly place where I can forget who I am and what I believe my life has become, my wife is still somehow there. And not just an imagined version, but the actual physical person, right at the threshold of my bad dream, ready to pull me back into the room, either kindly or cruelly, so I can think, as I regain my sense of reality and watch her as she tries to get back to sleep: Thanks to you I’m no longer afraid. I thought I had eaten something deadly, but I was wrong. What a relief to realize that you’re still here, I’m not dead, and we’re going to be together like this for as long as I can imagine.
✶ This article was selected for the Best American Essays 2014 anthology. Three other essays from Issue 7 received honorable mention in the anthology. Purchase Issue 7 to get all these outstanding articles—and more—in print.