Something unusual happened one last night …
My friend Aimee stopped by for dinner. My husband, daughter, and I are in a tiny quarantine pod with their family. Once a week we put the children at the counter with hot dogs and baby carrots, and the adults sit at the table like civilized people and pretend that we are different from home everywhere: dinner, salad, wine. Placemats. Cloth napkins. At the moment there is the air of normalcy.
It started benign: Aimee asked my husband about work. As shameful as it sounds, my immediate instinct was to throw a tantrum – she really is MY friend and I have so little time with her and I know all about your work! Can we talk about something else, please ?! But when my husband started talking, I felt something unusual inside me that I didn’t even know I’d been missing for almost a year: the thrill of seeing my partner through someone else’s eyes.
Much has been written about how difficult this pandemic is for marriage – the forced togetherness; the unnatural weight of becoming the only other adult in orbit of the person; and for many of us the lonely slogan of parenting with no personal school or support. For months I’ve been thinking about how much it would help me to see my girlfriends, leave the apartment, and be a normal eight hours away from my spouse. “Go to your office!” I want to scream a lot. (He can not.)
But what I completely forgot about that year of isolation is the joy of being with your spouse and other people. It didn’t occur to me that some of the difficulties simply had to do with looking your partner through the same old, worn eyes day after day, month after month, where absolutely no one else was there to help you make them different to see.
Gone are the furtive glances at a party when he winks at me the way I like while he pours himself a glass of red. Gone are the noisy dinners where he sat on the other side of the table talking to someone (anyone!) Else; when I caught a glimpse of his jaw from just the right angle, or was reminded of how attentively he listens to others or how much my friends take him with them. Gone are the days of seeing your spouse in your element – at work, in a social setting, even simply dressed and put together, ready to leave the house. Those moments that for many of us primarily aroused heat, lust, interest and curiosity. Those moments that made you want more.
It’s entirely possible that if Aimee hadn’t been there for dinner, my husband would have told me this particular story about his work on our usual rushed noodles (at the counter, a seven-year-old yells between us for our attention). I would have half listened or even cut it short. When it comes to work, we seem to have the same conversation over and over again. “How was the teaching?” We wonder. “Fine.” We have a joke that when I ask him how the work is going, he can only say, “I can’t complain,” not because everything is going well, but because I literally can’t hear any more complaints from his mouth.
But here our friend was curious about the pros and cons of his work, which resulted in him telling stories about life in China during the SARS outbreak. postpone graduate school due to a typographical error; of the affection he feels for his hard-working PhD students – and something happened to me. I had this little old rush that I hadn’t felt in ages.
Here was my love to be seen again, his external face. Not the guy who forgets to throw away the trash or make the bed, or who plays the piano when I want him to play Legos with our kid. Here was the smart, kind, thoughtful, polite, adventurous man I had married. Here was, to put it simply, the person I fell in love with. I forget this guy so often in these difficult times.
We get married because we want to go beyond sneaking glances at parties, drunk conversations at well-lit dinners, and one-night stands where not much is revealed but everyone is having a great time. We want true intimacy – eight times a week to be able to say to our partners: “Do you think I have COVID?” And don’t get a divorce.
But for intimacy to flourish, we also don’t have to look at each other indefinitely for an endless series of terrible months. Our public roles are completely cut off, life reduced to survival and domesticity. For months I had thought the solution might be for someone to leave for a while. I would imagine going away or going away for a long time. I dream of being alone in a cubicle, nobody asks me what to have for dinner or if the credit card bill has been paid.
But perhaps the solution is even more impossible at the moment: it is simply a matter of getting others back into our orbits. We need friends who will force us to pull ourselves together to get out of our literal and metaphorical pajamas. We have to see friends exposed, up close, over dinner, over wine, in long, winding conversations, not just because we love them, but for what they do for us. They provide this canvas, this stage. They allow us to breathe new life into our old relationships. They can help us remember why we decided to get married in the first place.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher who lives in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and writes the weekly People + Bodies newsletter.
PS Eight Things I Learned About Marriage and the Secret to a Happy Marriage.
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