How did you meet? A favorite question among couples who are getting to know each other. Ask any longtime couple and they will launch into their routine.
We met through friends. At a party. In school. On Match.com. Over years, these answers tend to become as synchronized as dance moves. Honey, do you want to tell the story? Or shall I? Still, the question continues to be asked. Perhaps it’s our unconscious way of urging one another to revisit that distant, shimmering moment in which we first began.
“At a Halloween party,” M. says.
We ’re out with new friends. Instead of waiting for the inevitable next question, I jump in.
“We weren’t in costume.”
“We aren’t costume people,” M. says.
“It was the day after Halloween, actually. Down near Gramercy Park.”
In the dim clatter of the restaurant, I am for a moment transported back to that crowded party. The introduction made by a journalist friend: Dani, have you met M.? I suppose M. and I shook hands. He was wearing a black sweater. Our eyes met and—neither years nor memory have altered this fact—I thought: There you are.
“It was a literary party,” M. says airily.
I feel a flash of annoyance. Is he trying to impress the couple across the table? What does it matter that it was a literary party? An almost imperceptible layer of fear has slowly settled over M. like a thin net. I have been watching him carefully, too carefully. How is he going to contend with these last few years of disappointment? He’s nearly sixty. When we first met, a jumble of awards for his war reportage occupied a corner of his desk. Then he changed course and became part of a long tradition of journalists-turned-screenwriters. Neither of us was expecting that this was what sixty would look like.
“M. had just gotten back from Somalia that day,” I rush on. I leave out the fact that he had been ambushed on his way to the airport in Mogadishu.
“I walked around the block three times,” M. says. “Finally I bought a bottle of scotch and went in.”
“And I was supposed to be in L.A.,” I say. “I decided at the last minute to cancel the trip.”
We continue this way, revisiting and revising the myth of us. Marveling at the odds that the whole thing could have been a near miss. There you are. My mother-in-law told me, years later, that M. had called the next morning and told her he’d met the woman he was going to marry.
After dinner, we bid our new friends good night on a street corner, then walk to the garage where our car is parked. Eighteen years. It hadn’t been a great evening. M. seemed out-of-sorts, flat and disaffected. There are times when I look at him, and it is as if he has fled the premises. I can read his mood like the weather in a wide western sky. When I ask, his responses vary: “I’m working,” he’ll say. “I can’t just turn it off the way you do.” On occasion—feeling cornered—he’ll snap. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The couple had asked M. a question that often comes up when we tell the story of how we met. Do you miss Africa?
“Sure, I miss it. But I met Dani and never went back.”
“Never? Were you tempted?”
“One time, after we were married. An editor called from Outside magazine. They wanted to send a writer into the Congo.”
“On a Red Cross plane,” I interjected. “Nobody else was flying in.”
“To report on missing Rwandan refugees.”
He glanced at me. “It’s no job for someone with a family. A lot of my friends were killed. I was getting too old for it.”
What he doesn’t say is that I didn’t want him to go. When he hung up the phone after talking to the editor I could see his eyes lit with excitement. What did he see reflected back at him? Fear. He saw fear. A fault line within me trembled—it felt impossible—as I imagined him alone, in danger, away from me. Out of reach.
He survived the ambush. Circled the block. Bought the bottle of scotch. Told himself he’d stay five minutes. I canceled my trip to L.A., along with a blind date with a Hollywood agent. Dani, have you met M.? We are a middle-aged couple driving home to Connecticut. Two hours to the north, a boy sleeps on his bottom bunk in a room that smells of dirty socks. We hurl through the darkness listening to NPR. I don’t ask what’s wrong. Or if everything’s okay. I don’t fill the car with chatter. I know that everything is both okay and not okay.
* * * *
M. and I go see a couples therapist. Eighteen years. Things come up in the course of eighteen years. Life has taken a toll on us both. Together we’ve weathered Jacob’s illness, my mother’s death, his mother’s decline. We’ve fought each other’s battles: my bad reviews feel even worse to M. than they do to me. A friend’s betrayal of him makes me want to come out swinging. We’re each other’s first readers. We have always been on the same side. When people ask if we’re competitive with one another—two writers under the same roof—the question itself seems absurd. We ’re together. All in. Deep inside the us of us.
So why—the therapist wonders—are we here?
M. sits silently so I begin.
“I’m frightened,” I say. And then I start to cry.
I feel M. next to me on her sofa. His body is my home. Yet lately, I have had flashes, unbidden moments in which I wonder who the hell he is. I secretly fear that I’ve been wrong about him.
While M. was making the movie, he let things slide. Bills piled up. I trusted he knew what he was doing. Then our Writers Guild health insurance elapsed, and he didn’t tell me. Ever since I found out, I’ve been in a panic. It feels like every step I take is fraught with danger. As if the earth’s crust might just open up and swallow me whole. What if something happened to one of us? Just yesterday I didn’t let Jacob go out for a bike ride. I was afraid he’d fall and break his leg.
I’ll take care of it.
M.’s head is in his hands. He knows just how badly he’s fucked up. His voice is low, muted.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I’m not interested in sorry.
“I didn’t want to disappoint you. I just wanted to fix things.”
My voice, too, sounds different to my ears. Reedy, shaking with rage.
“You put our family in danger,” I say.
“What are you most afraid of?” the therapist asks.
Just a short while earlier, as we walked to our appointment on West Ninth Street—a pretty block just off Fifth Avenue—I had noticed an elderly homeless woman pushing a cart filled with all her worldly belongings. Who had she been? How had she gotten there? It seemed a possibility that I could become that elderly homeless woman someday. That this life M. and I have built together is flimsy, the world merciless, and time, time unrelenting.
I see M. in my peripheral vision as I stutter out my worst fears. He flinches at my mention of the homeless woman. The therapist tilts her head to one side. She hardly knows me, and has no reason to believe what sounds like histrionics of the creative class. Really? That’s what you’re most afraid of? As if it were ridiculous. As if it were simply out of the realm of possibility.
* * * *
Late summer. At our local farmer’s market, I wait in line for goat’s milk yogurt, green roses, sourdough bread, fresh eggs while M. picks up some beef to grill. It’s a bright, sunny day—with just a hint of autumn in the air—but I’m not feeling bright or sunny. It has been a difficult stretch. I usually find the ritual of the farmer’s market cheering, but today it is as if a pane of glass separates me from the crowds of tanned, fit shoppers carrying their eco-friendly mesh bags. Well you’ve had a great summer. Seems like you’ve been everywhere!
A woman we used to know stops me to ask if it was M. she just saw—“I thought it was him, but nearly didn’t recognize him with that big white beard.” Does M. have a big white beard? I don’t think so. When I find him on the other side of the market, I look at him the way an outsider might. His hair is wild. His shirt untucked, the hems of his jeans frayed. Get a grip! I think, but don’t say. You look like the Unabomber! It’s true. He hasn’t shaved in days.
We’ve been working all morning—Jacob had a sleepover and we’re taking advantage of our empty house—each of us hunched over our laptops. M. is putting the finishing touches on a television pilot about which he has once again mustered high hopes. I’ve been on social media promoting an upcoming writing workshop. I post a photo of myself seated in lotus position on a small platform, in deep conversation with a student. And another: a panoramic view of the Berkshires. Come join me for an inspirational, generative retreat! I am not feeling like someone who knows how to inspire anyone or generate anything.
I stop into the bookstore before we head home. I’ve been searching for a particular poem Richard Wilbur wrote about his wife. I scan the Ws, but there is no Richard Wilbur. In its place is a mis-shelved slim volume called The Country of Marriage. Again, Wendell Berry.
In the car—waiting for M. to pick up our dry cleaning—I turn to the title poem: “Sometimes our life reminds me / of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing / and in that opening a house, / an orchard and a garden, / comfortable shades, and flowers / red and yellow in the sun, a pattern / made in the light for the light to return to. / The forest is mostly dark, its ways / to be made anew day after day, the dark / richer than the light and more blessed / provided we stay brave / enough to keep on going in.”
* * * *
Our first date: M. picks me up at my apartment on a blustery Friday afternoon in early November. The plan is to take a walk—perhaps stop into a museum or two—and end up downtown for dinner. He’s made a reservation at a small, dark Italian place in the East Village, near where he lives.
I invite him in. In the week since we met at the Halloween party, I have wondered if the powerful magic between us might have been a figment, a cruel illusion—but as soon as our eyes meet, there it is, unmistakable. It winds its way around us, pulling us together. We’re all over my apartment—in the wing chair in my office, the sofa in the living room—our hands, our mouths, ravenous. It isn’t just desire— though there’s plenty of that—but something else underneath. A sense of recognition. A sense of inevitability. It will turn out that we won’t leave each other’s sides all weekend long—or practically ever again.
We head out into the brisk afternoon. We’re walking down Broadway when M. tells me he needs to make a quick stop way west on Fifty-Seventh Street—the studios for CBS News. M.’s last trip to Somalia had been for 60 Minutes—as one of the only American journalists who knew the territory, he had been hired to help produce a piece for Christiane Amanpour—and now that he is back home, he needs to pick up his paycheck.
An envelope has been left for him at the reception desk. Beneath the watchful portraits of Morley Safer and Lesley Stahl, he stuffs it into the back pocket of his jeans. I don’t stop to wonder about any of this. It makes perfect sense. The check is large, and it can’t wait the weekend. He’s been out of the country for a month. His bills are overdue. It’s important that he deposit the check into his account before the end of the business day.
Back on the street, we find a nearby Citibank. He removes the check from the envelope, endorses it, and inserts it into the ATM. If he’s nervous—or relieved—at the close call, I am unaware of it. None of this seems precarious to me. It’s the most natural thing, part of the job.
And that it may be true, at least in poetic terms, that beginnings are like seeds that contain within them everything that will ever happen.
We walk—arms wrapped around each other—downtown. The romantic dinner, candles dripping, his East Village apartment, the two of us tangled up in his bedsheets. The tiny wedding; the Provencal honeymoon; the birth of our baby; the close call. The raising of him, the reveling in him. The Brooklyn town house, the Connecticut saltbox. The lung cancer, the Alzheimer’s. The bar mitzvah. The triumphs; disappointments; terrors; risks. The books; films; teaching; travel. The smart moves; the idiocy. The sheer velocity of it all. I want to bless that young couple as they cross Union Square. I want to deliver some kind of benediction upon them as—drunk on love—they meander the narrow streets of Alphabet City. I want to suggest that there will come a time when they will need something more than love.
On the Valentine ’s Day 1998 episode of This American Life, Ira Glass interviews Cornell Professor Emeritus of French Literature, Richard Klein. They’ve been discussing Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura. In the thirteenth century, Petrarch encountered Laura as he walked by a fountain in the south of France. He looked into her eyes, and in that instant, his life was transformed. He wrote the first lyric love poem ever written.
But eventually the conversation takes a semidepressing turn: “Psychologists have estimated that you can only stay in love for eighteen months,” says Klein. “That’s the limit. After that it becomes admiration, respect, affection, but—”
And here Ira Glass interrupts him: “The dream of it dissolves and it becomes something else.”
* * * *
For nearly two decades I have become almost synonymous with M. I can hardly attend a party or gathering solo without the question being asked: Where’s M.? We have formed ourselves over the years as two branches form, twisting, rooting, growing, stunting, pushing, budding, stagnating, reaching ever farther, together. Who would I have become without him?
Until M., I was good at leaving. If you find yourself in the wrong story, leave—a piece of online folk wisdom. I wasn’t so skilled at avoiding getting into the wrong story to begin with—but once there, I knew how to extricate myself. Houdini-like, I would test myself to see just how far I could go. With hands and feet bound together, I would slither and slip my way out of mess after tangled mess.
One rainy afternoon, an invitation to a high school reunion leads me to the discovery that my first boyfriend is the math coordinator at a prep school less than a half hour from my house. Surprisingly little information is available about him beyond this fact. I peer at the stamp-sized photo on the school’s website, searching for the boy in the man. I close my eyes and inhale the scent of damp earth, the mossy bark of trees in the woods where we hung out when we cut school. The sounds of a basketball game—bank shot echoing through the gym. A long shrill whistle. He has no Facebook page, no LinkedIn profile. This makes me wonder whether he’s isolated and unhappy, though it may signify the opposite. I can’t tell if he’s married or has kids. I hope he does. I wonder if he’s ever looked me up—I am nothing if not visible online.
Without moving from my spot on the chaise in my office, I embark on a virtual tour of my romantic history. My first husband lives in New Orleans with his wife and young daughter. He runs a World Music record label. No surprises, here. I knew all this before running into him in the corridor of the Mark Twain Museum. There is a kind and gentle light in his eyes. I’ll bet he’s a good family man.
The toxic married boyfriend with whom I spent my early twenties is recently dead. His face peers out from an obituary notice that fills my screen. Dead! He died just around the time I began writing this book. A few swift clicks lead me to the discovery that he split with his wife—the one he cheated on with me—and married a much younger woman with whom he has a boy around Jacob’s age.
I look up my second husband. He’s a financial adviser in New York City and is married—but leaves virtually no digital footprint. It takes effort to lead such an untraceable life. I find him only because his stepdaughter is a prima ballerina. I do manage to figure out that he and his wife live in a very nice Park Avenue building. Judging from his campaign contributions, he continues to be a Democrat. I can discern nothing in the way of his happiness, his level of contentment. Did I leave a trace on him? Did he leave one on me? This man once told me he had never made a mistake in his life. You’re looking at her, I thought at the time.
There are various flings. Keith, Gary, William. I certainly remember them better than the names scrawled in my red cloth journal, names from the years that seem to seesaw backward. The actor now sells residential real estate in South Africa. The television writer is listed on Wikipedia as a folk artist. The photographer is still a photographer.
In the jumble of memory, I see flashbulbs. A New Year’s Eve dinner around a table in Southampton; a late-night motorcycle ride down a dark stretch of lower Broadway; being backed against a wall for a first kiss. Near the end of Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a minor character turns to the twenty-one-year-old narrator of the story and chides him: “You can’t carry on like this, it is not right, you will find that out soon enough, everything you do matters too much.”
* * * *
The years. They ran through my open fingers like a trickle of water, streaming faster, faster. On my twenty-fifth birthday, I wept in the outdoor garden of a café on West Seventieth Street that no longer exists. I was sure my best years were behind me. At thirty, my second husband threw me a party in our apartment high above Madison Avenue. I wore a blue sparkly minidress. I left him two months later. At thirty-four, I walked into the crowded party near Gramercy Park. At thirty-seven, I gave birth by emergency cesarean section. At thirty-nine, I left New York City. At forty, my mother died. And then a long, merciful stretch of ordinary days. What will be next on the list? There has always been more time.
From the book HOURGLASS by Dani Shapiro, copyright © 2017 by Dani Shapiro. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Listen: Dani Shapiro talks to Paul Holdengräber about the grueling nature of book tours, the difficult task of writing while reading, the “unthought known,” and… marriage.