I Won’t Waste Your Time

by Rosalind Kaplan

When I started writing, I listened to the advice of teachers and other writers to write what you know. So I wrote about the world of medicine, being a med student, a doctor, and the things that nobody tells you ’til you’re too far in to turn around. I wrote about mothering, softness of baby skin, hardheaded adolescents, everything nobody tells you, the mistakes and screwups, and that they grow up anyway. I also wrote about family: about love and hate and familial trauma and the crazy ways we interact.

What I haven’t written about is marriage, though after thirty-four years, it’s much of what I know. You don’t see much nonfiction about ongoing marriage. I’ve hesitated to broach the subject. Not because it’s private. I’ve written about deeply personal things before; that doesn’t scare me. No, the reason I haven’t written about marriage is that I figure nobody is interested in it. Why would anyone read about a marriage that has lasted three or four or five decades, one that is not unraveling? That’s not the story that sells, not the one that screams “drama,” is it?

New love, the roller coaster of emotions when two people meet and there’s attraction, the flutter of the heart, the flood of happiness when interest is reciprocated, the happily ever after, an engagement and a wedding—that’s the kind of excitement and glamor readers want. Or the shock of a freak accident or a terminal illness, the pain of the loss, the details of death, the funeral—these, too, are the stuff of memoir. There’s not much to tell about what falls between these, though, unless what’s in between is divorce and destruction and infidelity and a family ripped apart by conflict.

A marriage that’s still a marriage is the divorce that didn’t happen, the absence of destruction. The love that isn’t new and fresh. The death that hasn’t occurred, not yet. There’s nothing much to say, is there?

Every marriage has a beginning. Okay, romance and engagement. Yes, I have a story:

My husband and I got engaged in the clean supply closet of the medical ICU, as ventilators huffed and hummed beyond the closet door and a bleeding patient received multiple transfusions on the other side of the wall. This was how our “real life” began—the beginning of a marriage, the beginning of our medical careers, the building of our life together.

I missed out on the fairy-tale engagement, complete with a two-carat diamond and my prince down on one knee. He told me to ask him to marry me. He wanted to say “yes,” to prove how committed he was to me, to our relationship. I asked him and he said yes. Then he handed me a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Super Fudge Chunk ice cream in a paper bag rather than a ring (though I did get a ring later). After that, I told him to leave because I had to check my patient’s blood count and adjust some ventilator settings.

It’s okay because I’m not the type to want a fairy-tale engagement. It’s a cool, quirky story, and I value that quirk. I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of it at dinner parties and story slams.

But look again and you’ll see a different kind of fairy tale, one that is darker and more twisted. In those moments in the supply closet, among the syringes and needles, we confronted so many conflicting and contrasting elements: elation and frustration, youth and death, love and loss, fantasy and fear, all inextricably bound together. That’s a lot for any human being to process. So many emotions that it’s hard to know what you feel. Or maybe it’s so much that, after a while, you really can’t feel anything at all.

You’re probably imagining a steamy scene, something out of Grey’s Anatomy, lust and consummation, the realization that we couldn’t live without each other. Maybe you get a little foreshadowing about the trajectory of our relationship. But that’s not how it was. We just had no  time to talk at home, and the only place to talk privately while I was on call in the ICU was the closet, and we’d been thinking about our future—a real-life relationship, not a fairy tale.

But still, I bet that’s the kind of story you want to read. So why write about the long marriage that came after? What is there to say about the times the two of us sit silent but for synchronized heartbeats, the cycles of closer and further apart that we no longer question, because we know they’ll repeat again and again, the disappointment of missed connections mixed with the moments when we’re so close that we could be one soul? I doubt you want to read about ambivalence, or dwell on the understanding that “ever after” isn’t going to be as simple as happy, that there is no such thing as a happy ending, but that there will be happy moments before the end.

Isn’t it the shocking infidelities that you want to read about? My friend whose college-age child returned home early for Thanksgiving to find Dad in bed with his twenty-one-year-old student, or the neighbor who ran away with the male au pair and left her husband to raise the kids alone. The acquaintance who contracted an STD after her partner was on a business trip. So I won’t write about the times within our marriage that we’ve betrayed each other, the thousand tiny infidelities that weren’t about sex, and were mostly unintentional but nonetheless eroded trust. The way that over many years we learned how not to hurt each other so badly or so often, the fact that sometimes we forget how to make each other smile, then remember again, and forget and remember.

Marital sex, well, it’s not sexy, is it? Don’t you want to read about supple limbs and silky skin, bodies sculpted and muscled and newly revealed to worshipful partners? Scenes in which breasts are young and firm and erections are a rock-hard certainty? The lust, the carnality? So why would I write about tentative, Viagra-laced lovemaking after abdominal surgery, or a sudden surge of desire for the person who snores next to you in bed each night, the same one you sometimes want to smother with a pillow? I don’t think you’d enjoy reading that someday we will all have cellulite and graying pubic hair, and that loose, liver-spotted skin-on-skin can still bring warmth, even heat.

Court cases, contentious financial dealings, brutal custody battles—these are stories that beg to be told. Look at the tabloids. He accuses her of libel, she says she should have been paid for all the years of housework. Accusations of physical and emotional abuse. Knock-down, drag-out fights, throwing dishes, throwing punches. Black eyes, broken bones. The salacious and the sacrilegious.

That’s why I’m not going to mention the ordinary arguments we’ve had, over and over again, for thirty years, the one about his temper tantrums when he’s tired or the other about the way I turn my anxieties into accusations. The times we’ve gone to bed angry even when we’ve vowed to never do that, and neither of us really sleeps when we do. The evening I took the dog, drove away, and sat in the dark Rite Aid parking lot for hours, refusing to answer my cell phone. Or the time he threw a tuna melt at the kitchen wall and the molten cheddar cheese dripped onto the baseboard. How we remember the red-hot anger at each other, but not what caused it. How it sometimes takes a couple of days to lower the temperature to normal. How even after all these years, we can still rile each other, but we try harder not to.

If you are the kind of reader who relishes reading about grief, then you’d want to read the stories of young couples separated by a premature death from an aggressive cancer or a freak accident. You’d be able to appreciate the story of someone suffering from a terminal illness—ALS or leukemia or some sort of dementia—and the loving care a partner gives, the sadness of the loss when it is over. But if the marriage is ongoing, and somebody’s sick, but they aren’t even close to dying? Well, that’s not a story, is it? I won’t bother writing about the diagnosis and successful treatment of my husband’s prostate cancer, tiny tumor vanquished, or his torn ACL on a ski slope in Utah. The night I stood up too quickly and fainted on the bedroom floor, or that week I spent in the hospital for E. coli food poisoning. The way he has tenderly bandaged a wound or rubbed my neck or cleaned up my blood or vomit, the times I’ve fetched him ice or soup, or when I suddenly had to learn to drive stick shift when he couldn’t press the clutch after surgery.

What about the kids whose parents get divorced, who go from one house to another, have two sets of school books, two sets of clothing? Who are angry or hurt or confused, torn between their parents, though they realize that they’re better off because the fighting has stopped? Their mothers work two jobs because their fathers don’t pay the child support they’re supposed to, or maybe they love their new stepparent more than their biological parent, or the stepparent abuses them. Those are stories.

I’m not going to waste your time on a story about kids with two parents who stay together, parents who make lots of mistakes but somehow muddle through. Two parents who do things very differently, but who eventually figure out that the mom can deal better with the son’s anxiety but is really bad at helping her daughter with schoolwork, and that the dad is the one who handles stress better but tells them to go to Mom when they’re suffering a broken heart. Kids who grow up to think that a good partnership is possible, and you pray for them that this belief you fostered doesn’t crush them.

You see what I mean: marriages that last just don’t have the storyline, the kind of conflict a narrative needs. There’s nothing much to say, so I won’t waste your time.

A black and white photograph of a man walking a dog on a beach. A large rock looms in the background.

Walking the Dog and Dissolving into Haystack Rock

by Jim Ross

Rosalind Kaplan has been published in several literary journals including Amarillo Bay, Another Chicago Magazine, Brandeis Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, HerSTRY, Minerva Rising, Prompted, a Philadelphia Stories Anthology, The Pulse Magazine, Signal Mountain Review, The Smart Set, Stonecoast Review, and Sweet Tree. She is a physician and teaches narrative medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. Dr. Kaplan is a 2020 graduate of Lesley University’s MFA in creative nonfiction.

Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding research career. He’s since published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photography, plays, and hybrid in 175 journals on five continents. Publications include Burningword, Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Kestrel, Newfound, Stonecoast, The Atlantic, The Ignatian, and Typehouse. Jim and family split time between the city and the mountains.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s