They eat beans mostly... --Gwendolyn Brooks
Fifteen years ago today I got married for the first and what I hope will be the only time. Hana and I had already been together for seven years, but on May 15, 2004, we made it official. Judge Anthony Miles married us on behalf of Cook County in Chicago’s Cultural Center in the Loop. I had a ring for Hana, but instead of one for me, Hana fastened my long-deceased grandfather’s watch around my wrist. Judge Miles was laughing and we were too. It was a Saturday. The ceiling was ornate and high but everything else felt mellow. There were five people there with us and we all went for eggs and pancakes at Wishbone to celebrate.
My parents were married for twenty-five years. Some good came of it but the marriage itself was almost never good. Finally it became so bad that they separated and planned to divorce but then my mother’s ovarian cancer showed up and interfered. My mother died a year and a half after the diagnosis, and my father remarried soon after. Fifteen years later his second marriage ended in a divorce that was even worse than the marriage had been. Today he’s a few years into his third marriage. This one looks like it will last but not because it’s quite what anyone hopes marriage will be. They seem to have an understanding, my father and his third wife, a clear sense of how each will take care of the other as they age. But still it’s not what marriage ought to be; they jockey for dominance at the start of every meal, and it feels explosive rather than electric. Another sign of trouble is that my father’s wife can hardly talk to my father’s sister, who is married for her fifth time, having come back, late in life, to the man who was her high school sweetheart.
Marriage on my wife’s side is even more complicated. Her mother was married three times, and only the third one seemed to work. Her father was married four times, and the last two were bad in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. His fourth wife died soon after Hana’s mother’s third husband had died. Now both of Hana’s parents—who were each other’s second spouses—are single again. On occasion they see each other at family gatherings, but there’s no threat of a second try. He’s too far gone and she’s too smart, and they may both, in their early eighties, with seven marriages behind them, have had enough. We’ll see.
This is the backdrop for Hana and my fifteenth anniversary. Today Hana is in Portland and I’m on the Oregon coast. She wrote while on the bus to work to remind me that today is our anniversary. We mostly haven’t kept track and have rarely celebrated.
Deciding to get married was the fourth big decision we made. First we decided to get a dog. Djuna was technically Hana’s dog but clearly belonged to both of us, and not too long after bringing him home from the shelter, we moved in together, our second big decision. But Djuna was our first deep, shared project, and prepared the way for the biggest project we’d yet embarked on—having kids together. Only after agreeing that in the coming year we would try to have a child did we start, a few weeks later, to talk about getting married. There was no proposal, no bent knee, no romance. Hana thought that if we were going to go ahead and have a kid, which I had suggested and Hana had eventually agreed to, then we should consider further firming up our commitment to each other by getting married. It took some talk and some time, but I came around to seeing Hana’s side. So Hana and I got married, bought an apartment on the Near West Side of Chicago, had our son, lost Djuna to old age or a heart attack, moved to a different place on Chicago’s North Side, had our daughter, got another dog, and then, several years ago, moved, the five of us, from Chicago to Portland. Hana and I have now been married, as I mentioned at the start, for fifteen years, and been together for twenty-two.
A few years after we got married, I lost my grandfather’s watch—the one that had stood in for my ring at our wedding. Hana bought me another watch as a birthday present, and soon I lost that too. I had also, early in our marriage, tried wearing a ring for a few days—a wooden ring made by a manic young guy whom I’d paid for two rings in case one broke. He liked the rings so much that he kept one for himself. I didn’t wear jewelry and, aside from a two-week stretch with a thin chain in sixth grade, never have. I thought the wood ring might be a way around this, but even the wood ring felt strange and large on my finger. It sits in a dark drawer somewhere. Hana wears the small band I got her on her left hand and one that was her grandmother’s on her right. Her grandmother was only ever married to her grandfather, and remained so, ring and all, even for the twenty-five years that she outlived him.
Hana’s grandmother’s wedding ring was second only to her thoroughly dogeared
Bible in representing, in object form, who she was. She died at ninety-seven. When
I see her ring on Hana’s finger—and the absence of a ring on my own finger—I
wonder about how sometimes the persistence of objects after our
death illuminates our essence.
Maybe this is why I sometimes find myself smiling at funerals, which hold
inarguable truths at their center. Weddings aren’t so honest. They’re exercises
in misguided hope, celebrations of collective and inexplicable delusion. We
should know better but we don’t, and we all know that and choose to behave as
if we don’t. And the putting on of rings, the putting on of rings: how the
knuckled finger slides on in, how the circle is an endless clamp, how what’s
essentially private becomes public and performative. I’d be fine never again
watching someone slide a ring onto someone else’s finger. I’d be fine never
applauding or sighing after the witnessing of this private, public act.
So I wonder, here alone on the coast, about our anniversary. Should we raise a glass to mark another year of seeing through our commitment to and contract with each other? If so, we’d have to do so some other day. I’m gone, working on a project, and my wife is home.
But just now, halfway through our fifteenth anniversary day, and halfway through this stretch of a few days alone, I happened to walk past a window and see something that caught me. I’d looked at the empty cupboard and decided to walk out into the rain to find some food. I’m near the ocean and the day is gray. Almost no one is about.
The small town that I’m staying in has a main street that runs toward the ocean and another street that runs parallel to the ocean. Right where the two intersect, there’s a small motel with a small parking lot and a small covered pool between the lot and the road. In the middle of the week on a day like this, the motel is a sad sight—gray, shabby, on the way to abandoned.
I was turning alongside this windfaded motel when a slight motion behind the window of the first floor corner room caught my eye. The shades were up and I looked in to see two people sitting at a little square table against the window. I had to be quick—I was peering into a motel room—but here’s what I saw: two doughy older people, apparently a husband and wife, playing cards. It might have been rummy. There were signs of the modest lunch they had recently finished – two thin white plates, an empty bag of potato chips, two mostly empty glasses of water. They both wore gray sweatshirts and wide shoes. They were similar in build—thickset, far from sculpted—and their faces were pouchy. Did I mention that they were playing cards?
They were playing cards as if it was the only thing they could possibly want to be doing on this rainy Wednesday in this bare motel room in this small town on the Oregon coast. They were playing cards with each other.
Of course I have no idea what they were thinking or feeling. I only know what I saw and what I made of what I saw. I saw two people who had spent their adult lives together and were now choosing to spend their last years together. I saw cards in the middle of the day in the middle of the week as a way to pass the time together. I saw many years and many card games, kids grown and gone, friends and parents passed. I saw two people who had settled fully into each other.
But again, this was only a glance, and a passing and unwelcome glance at that. It just happens to be my fifteenth wedding anniversary.
Before Hana and I got married, before we had any idea we would have three dogs together, or move away from our parents and siblings to the other side of the country, or raise two kids, or become middle-aged in each other’s company, I sat alone at an airport gate across from an old couple sharing one slice of pizza, both sets of hands trembling. Watching them, I suddenly found myself almost crying. I thought then of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” which I love as much as I had quickly come to love that old airport trembling couple. The poem starts this way:
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
In both cases—the poem and the trembling couple—I seem to love the very thing that raises questions for me in my own life: I love how settled the pizza eaters and the bean eaters are with each other. I love this glimpse of two lives becoming one. But I think I love it because in both cases the people are old—near death—so their full acceptance of the lives they’ve settled into with each other, their lack of interest in other possibilities, takes on the appearance of wisdom rather than capitulation or contraction. They’re like monks or sages, not saps. Why then can’t I see myself the same way?
In Portland and elsewhere I have friends who talk about and practice polyamory, a fancy word for an unfancy thing. Their card tables have several chairs and you’re never entirely sure who’ll be in them. I have a friend in Southern Oregon who married her childhood sweetheart and is raising a kid with him and continues to be married to him though he now lives with another woman, and she (my friend) lives without a partner and has brief and briefly satisfying encounters with a changing slate of women and men. I have a close friend across the country who is married for the first time to a man who’s married for the second time, and this friend stays in this marriage because her husband is comfortable with her going off a few times a year to spend erotic time with a few other friends. I have a friend in another part of the country who believes that political sovereignty and sexual sovereignty go together, that political liberation means foregoing exclusive monogamous relationships. She has started to want a child and has been in conversation about this want with a couple of men she loves. She is planning for the three of them to have one child, or maybe two, together. I have a friend in the nation’s capital who married his wife at forty and had a first child when he was forty-two and his wife was forty-three. Their marriage has included multiple blow-outs that have led to my friend sleeping on their couch and wondering with the side of his face against the pillow whether he will see his son regularly as he grows up. And I have a friend in Portland who has sex with his wife once a year, and during that errand, my friend only manages to fulfill his end of the deal by fantasizing about a former girlfriend. This usually takes place on or around their anniversary.
But these two, on the other side of the window, on Hana and my fifteenth anniversary, were playing cards.
Hana doesn’t really cotton to card games or to games more generally. She’ll play dominoes with our kids and her mother and me, and she’ll play Monopoly or Yahtzee if our daughter insists, as she sometimes does, but when it comes down to it, my wife doesn’t care for games. Marriage isn’t a game, and contrary to what she used to say about it when we first got together, she cares a great deal for it.
In the fifteen years that Hana and I have been married, we haven’t yelled at each other much, and we’ve fought only a little bit more than that. I’ve been asked to sleep on the couch once, or maybe twice, and if I remember correctly, that was before we were presided over by Judge Miles. For fifteen years we’ve shed our clothes and climbed into our shared bed. We also share a bathroom, share the making and eating and cleaning up of many meals, share our kids, share the families we were born into, share our money, share our minivan, share our third dog, share our schedule, share many friends, share errands, and share our questions about what’s next. Occasionally, though less often than we used to, we share the shower. We also mostly share the tendency to ignore our anniversary.
When I first got to know Hana, she was putting a lot of energy into an organization called CPS: the Coalition for Positive Sexuality. She and others with CPS would show high school students how to put on a harness and dildo. At least that’s what a friend told me CPS did when he learned that I had started seeing Hana. Hana and I first connected around, among other things, our shared suspicion of marriage and traditional, exclusive, heteronormative relationships. The relationship Hana was leaving when we got together was with an androgynous female doctor who had a lot to say about shame and fat. I wasn’t leaving a relationship when Hana and I got together. I had mostly been alone, save some intermittent ten-weekers and some pining for people I could not have. The early lunches and walks and lie-downs that Hana and I shared were charged, in part, by our shared sense that we were doing something different, that what we had was more intense, less known, less bounded, more free than what other people had.
A few years after our first lunch together and a few years before we were married, Hana and I were sitting on a plane in the front row of coach, face up to a thin beige wall. Hana had her right arm across her lap, her hand lightly but unquestionably on my right forearm, which lay on the armrest between us. We were wearing seatbelts.
When the flight attendant asked what we’d like to drink, Hana requested a ginger ale. “Just water for me,” I said. The flight attendant handed our drinks to each of us and then said, mostly to Hana but also with a quick glance at me, “Do we want some nuts?” Hana’s hand on my forearm felt just a little bit heavier. She turned from the flight attendant to look at me, and she repeated the question, her face only inches from mine. “Do we,” she said, “want some nuts?”
My first thought, which arrived along with pressure from the inside of my eyes and against the whole front of my face, was this: We don’t want anything. My second thought was about what I wanted. What I wanted right at that moment was out of seat belt, arm free from hand, foot through beige wall, done with relationship, leap from plane. If you want some nuts, get some fucking nuts. If I want some nuts, I’ll get some fucking nuts. We don’t want some fucking nuts. Our taste buds and digestive tracts and preferences and hungers are separate and distinct. Even if most everything else is ceasing to be separate and distinct, you can decide for yourself and I can decide for myself if you or I want some fucking nuts. We neither want nor don’t want some nuts.
“No thank you,” I said to the flight attendant, “no nuts for me.”
Over time, of course, I learned that we do want some nuts. I sat quietly on that plane as I have often sat quietly over the last fifteen or twenty two years of my life, and I have, with my wife, thought about and acted on what we either want or don’t want. We’re married, after all, and part of being married is coming around to the idea that we matters. If the blunt force of time has taught me anything, it is that we do in fact want some nuts. The question, I guess, is which ones.
Now Hana and I own a corner house and run our dishwasher daily. We keep a small jar of roasted, salted cashews on the kitchen counter. Time—the blunt and irresistible force of time—has had its way with us. But fifteen years in, it’s still early. Maybe we’ll celebrate next year.
Adam Davis directs Oregon Humanities, whose work connects people and communities through conversation, storytelling, and participatory programs to inspire understanding and collaborative change. Davis used to live in Chicago, where he directed the Center for Civic Reflection, edited Taking Action and The Civically Engaged Reader, got a PhD from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and worked with the Illinois Humanities Council on community conversations. He also used to work on wilderness trail crews with the US Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family. He is working on an essay collection that might also be a memoir.