A Good Marriage in 3 Acts
Act I: 1970
As the college choir’s baritone soloist, Steve Fiol stood directly in front of my alto row that fall. Curly black hair fell to his shoulders. I stood close enough behind him to smell his aftershave, Old Spice I think, mingled with the faint sweet scent of tobacco.
We were practicing a jazzy cantata Dave Brubeck had composed the prior year. “Gates of Justice” was a gutsy musical attempt to forge a bond between the American Jewish and black communities, both uprooted from their homelands. Our choir director juxtaposed Steve’s deep baritone voice to sing the most famous section of King's “I Have a Dream” speech, Free at last! I'm free at last! and a tenor cantor to sing Hillel's Jewish proverb, If the time for action is not now, when is it?
I knew nothing of these struggles in America, having just arrived from the remote country of Paraguay to attend college. But the brilliant choral writing fired shivers up and down my spine, especially when we all sang in unison Lord, Lord, what will tomorrow bring?
One day as I left the practice hall, Steve walked up beside me. He wore slim black jeans and a white shirt, a green army jacket slung over his shoulder. I didn’t have the money I needed to go to the second-hand store to buy a coat, so I shivered as the autumn breeze blew through my tattered black sweatshirt. A soggy layer of yellow maple leaves carpeted the ground. The rich scent of damp soil hung in the air. I sensed his musky presence and sucked in my breath.
“Where’re you from?” he asked. Why did everyone always know I wasn’t from here?
“Paraguay,” I answered, lowering my head. Just a stupid poor missionary kid from an impoverished, unknown land, if you really want to know, I thought to myself.
“What were you doing in Paraguay? What brought you to the U.S.?”
I normally didn’t want anyone here in the States to know that I came from a little Mennonite community in Paraguay, or that my dad had founded a leprosy compound there, or that I grew up among leprosy patients. It all made me so uncomfortable.
I stopped walking and turned to face this man with the long dark hair. His eyes never wavered, just kept holding mine in a steady gaze.
“Um…well…my parents are Low-German Mennonite missionaries who founded and still run a leprosy compound in Paraguay…Sorry…this is so embarrassing,” I mumbled, my head down again.
“What? Really?” Steve placed two fingers under my chin and lifted my face. For the first time I noticed the warmth of his brown eyes barely a shade lighter than his hair. “My parents are missionaries in India,” he said. “That’s where I grew up.”
“Really? I mean…” I stopped, suddenly feeling foolish about having mimicked him.
We walked for a while in silence. I marveled at the neatly squared off weed-less garbage-less areas of grass in front of each house we passed.
“Do you sometimes wonder why there’s no garbage in the U.S.?” I asked. Why did it feel OK to ask him a question I was sure others in this country would think was stupid?
He grinned. “Oh there’s garbage alright. People here are just really good at hiding it.”
Our eyes met and in that instant I knew I could find safety in the warmth of that gaze.
We married six months later.
The sixties had come to an end, but Steve and I continued to ride the wave of their spirit. We filled our home with the sounds of Dylan and Baez, but also Brubeck, Brahms and Coltrane. We were poor yet somehow managed to travel to India and South America. He sang opera. I studied French. Our kitchen was a favorite among our friends, always simmering with spices.
We were blessed with a healthy baby. Ours was a good marriage.
Act II: 1975
The three of us fell into a quiet routine. Up by 8:00 a.m. Steve at school. Our daughter Shareen playing in the back yard with the neighbor kids. Going to the park. Cooking supper. Steve back. Me serving drunk guys in the bar at Steak and Ale to make a few dollars. Crawling soundlessly into bed after midnight so as not to awaken Steve. Exhausted. Up again by 8:00 a.m.
I watched my body go through the motions of caretaking and waitressing as though I no longer inhabited it. It was just doing what was needed on automatic. I felt cut off from it, disconnected. My heart lay down and went to sleep, even though I continued, on the outside, to look like an ordinary waitress, or wife, or mother, or whatever role I was playing out at that moment.
Sometimes late at night, my feet still stinging from the long shift at the bar, I sat at the edge of our bed and looked at my sleeping husband. My mind wandered to the day we met just weeks after my arrival in the States. To the warmth and safety of his embrace. Steve was a good man, always ready with a smile or a joke to brighten the moment. And yet…like Matthew Arnold said in a poem I loved, The Buried Life, my husband’s “light words” and “gay smiles” didn’t reach the places deep within me that longed to be touched.
What happened to us? I mouthed the words silently. Do you even know who I am? Do I?
Steve and Shareen were usually sound asleep when I got home from my evening shift at Steak and Ale.
One night, as I pulled our VW bug into the driveway, I noticed that our bedroom light was still on. I slid my key into the door, schlepped my sore feet into the house and kicked off my shoes.
Steve stood in the middle of the living room, dimly lit from the light in the bedroom. He looked like he had just stepped out of the shower. His dark hair, now cut short, was combed back from his high forehead. He wore only a lungi, an Indian cloth tied around the waist, fastened with a double twist knot in the front.
“Steve, what are you doing up? It’s late. Are you OK?” I asked.
“It’s been so long,” he murmured, awkwardly placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Oh…” My voice faltered. He was right. It had been a long time. And I hadn’t even thought about it. I felt the weight of my guilt pressing down on me.
Steve led me into our bedroom and closed the door. Gently he pulled me toward him.
I closed my eyes as his weight came down on me. This is so sad. We don’t even pretend to be passionate anymore, I thought.
After, I lay wide-awake beside him, listening to his deep and regular breathing. I inched my hand toward him and placed just one finger lightly against his hip. A single tear made its way down my cheek, then another.
How did our love become so flat, I wondered? When did we stop reaching for each other with fire in our eyes and butterflies in our stomach? Did all marriages inevitably end up like this? A small sob rose in my throat.
Steve stirred and then awakened. When he saw that I wasn’t asleep he sat up. “Are you alright? Do you need me to get you anything?”
“No, I’m fine, honey. Go back to sleep,” I said, kissing him lightly on the forehead.
Soon we were blessed with another healthy baby.
Act III: 1980
We sat across from each other on our deck, sipping on beers and smoking cigarettes. The children were playing in the backyard with two wild cats they had adopted off the street. It was late fall, my favorite season. The rich, moist smell of dying leaves hung thick in the air.
“Please, Steve, I’m so unhappy. Can we find some help?” I pleaded.
Steve turned toward me and sighed. “I don’t understand what we need help with. We have such a happy family,” he said.
I tore my gaze away from those dear sad eyes. How do I convey the cavernous well of emptiness inside of me even though we get along so well? Happiness must mean more than that, I thought. “I know...” My voice faltered. “Everybody says that. But I’m not happy, Steve. I feel hollow and empty.“
Steve pulled long and hard on his cigarette. “I don’t know how to help you. I don’t even know what you’re asking of me.”
I was silent, not knowing what more to say.
A few months later, I chose a coward’s way out. “I’ve had an affair,” I announced late one night, certain this would mark the end. The affair had been a senseless one-night stand that I knew would have enormous consequences. I did it anyway, incapable of a more honest way to break free. How does one leave the kindest man one has ever met?
But the end felt terrifying, not freeing.
It was a chilly starless night. The children were in bed. Steve and I sat side-by-side in two antique rocking chairs in our living room. We hadn’t bothered to turn on any lights. A dark blanket of sorrow wrapped itself around both of us, its suffocating weight pressing down against us.
Tears spilled over my cheeks. “Please, Steve. Would you reconsider? I feel terrible about the affair, about what I’ve done to hurt you. I can’t bear the thought of losing this family,” I said.
“I’m sorry. It’s over,” he said quietly, his hand ever so gently reaching over to touch mine.
About the Author: Marlena Fiol, PhD, is a world-renowned author, scholar, speaker, and a spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Summerset Review, Under the Sun, and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available here.