A Case for Getting Married
Asking me to write a Valentine’s Day column is an unconscionable bit of trolling, like inviting Michael Vick to speak at a PETA luncheon banquet. I cordially dislike “holidays,” especially Christian feasts that have become subsumed into our extended meta-narrative of consumption. I am the sort of reactionary ghoul liable to regale children tracing glitter glue around the edges of construction paper hearts with gruesome stories of Roman martyrdom, and to ask adults what medieval birds having sex has to do with chocolate and garish dinner specials. Besides, everyone knows that florists’ shops are a racket.
But in addition to being a more or less obliging contributing editor, I am at heart a romantic, and so instead of begging off Micah’s invitation, I will do as I was asked and use the occasion of next week’s holiday to say something about a subject of not inconsiderable interest to me. I mean, of course, my wife.
In the extended social circles to which I belong a great deal of agony surrounds discussions of the so-called “dating scene.” Men are so lazy and so childish, and just look at the icky things they tweet; women are impossible to approach, etc. My own belief is that beneath all the other difficulties real and imagined is risk-aversion. The longer people wait to pair up in the hope of finding the “right” one, the likelier they are to become so settled in their habits—and so neurotic about the opposite sex—that no prospective partner will be capable of ticking all of the ever-increasing number of boxes. It’s better to be young and poor and struggling.
This exhausts my abstract wisdom on the subject. Speaking for myself, I can only say that the case for getting married young is that I was comparatively young when I met the woman with whom I knew I wished to spend the rest of my life.
I first met Lydia ten years ago last fall, when I was 21 and she was 19. We were both students at the same undistinguished Directional State University, I because I had dropped out of high school and drifted into the university out of boredom, she because for someone of her background—daughter of the professional classes in the solidly upper-middle class Detroit suburbs—there was something quaint about living on the edge of the world in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I was an undergraduate tutor on the dime of the English department, she had charmed her way into a job at the library despite not being eligible for work study. I went to school in three-piece suits I had picked up in thrift stores or on eBay; her hair was purple.
To this day she says that her first memory of the stern, handsome older tutor (she exaggerates, surely: I’m usually gentle in conversation) was overhearing me tell someone that, actually, while it had been published during the Regency in 1813, Pride and Prejudice was composed much earlier in the reign of George III. Young men of letters take heart: Somewhere out there is a woman who will appreciate both your reading habits and your pedantry.
A few weeks after this exchange, of which I myself have no memory, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen walked into the undergraduate tutoring center, where I was sitting at a desk doing nothing in particular. She had barely begun filling out the sign-in sheet when I almost shouted, “I’ll take this one.” In retrospect these words seem to admit of an almost literal interpretation.
Curiously enough, I do not remember a single thing that I said about her essay on Anna Karenina, or indeed, anything else from that first conversation. Our second one, however, I will remember until the end of my days. It began in the basement of the library a few weeks later. (A strange trick of memory that I have begun to notice is that pointless details accumulate around certain events, such that to this day I can recall that the book I was not quite reading as she approached me was Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt’s Practicing New Historicism.)
“Are you happy?” she said.
I wanted to say a million things—to ask her to define “happy,” to tell her that happiness however defined had nothing whatever to do with the heavenly felicity that was man’s final end, to tell her that only someone with no social skills would say such a thing to a stranger, to insist that she was being utterly ridiculous. Instead, after what seemed like hours of considering my words, but must in reality have been no more than a few second’s hesitation, I simply replied, “No.”
“Why are you unhappy?”
This conversation, which, thankfully would move on to other subjects, including her hair color, lasted for the next 12 hours, as we moved from the library to a restaurant (I convinced her to skip her evening class) to the harbor and the pier and, finally, the steps of the old lighthouse where we sat until just before dawn.
I remember nearly every detail of that first and, strictly speaking anyway, only date, but three things stand out: that it was cold enough that I offered her my sweater and she took it, that near the halfway mark I took her hand in mine and did not surrender it until our parting, and that she gave me a piece of unsolicited advice:
“The world wasn’t made for you. You will never be able to change all the things that are horrible. You won’t even be able to do anything important in the world, not in the way you think when you read about Nelson or the Duke of Marlborough. The only thing for someone like you is family life.” To this day I still consider her the most penetrating psychologist I have ever met.
What else can one say? After I wished her a good evening—it occurs to me only now what an absurd thing it was to say this at 5:30 a.m.—I walked to a friend’s apartment where I solemnly declared that I had met my future wife. Considering that I had gone through three breakups in as many months, my friend responded to these declarations with what even then I realized was an appropriate if now long-refuted skepticism.
The path that led us from that night by the lighthouse to this year, the seventh anniversary of our marriage, was in some sense a long one. The abandonment of various long-gestating plans, including an expatriate stint in Japan, my arriving at more than one firm purpose of amendment, her reception into the Church, the birth of four children, the stillbirth of another, the difficulties of professional life in an expensive metropolitan area, the equal and opposite ones attendant upon a transition to a rural existence with which she was entirely unfamiliar: Amid all of these and many other things perhaps the only constant has been that we still prefer each other’s company to that of anyone else in the world.
She doesn’t know that I am writing this—from the sounds in the room next to my office it appears that she is making dinner—and she would probably be astonished to learn that I had actually agreed to do it. To our mutual relief, the days when she felt compelled to read every word I write for publication are long past. In case she does see it, though, I will conclude by saying only one thing: The flowers are on the mantel.
They were damnably expensive.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.