Right now, my co-workers are debating the merits of the various flavors of soup at California Pizza Kitchen. The consensus seems to be pea soup all the way, chicken adobe something or other, not so much. I personally think go for the roasted vegetable salad or don’t go at all, but I’m keeping my mouth shut. Oh, I feel like giving a shout out to my favorite radio man, Thayrone – you can listen to his streaming show here: www.thayrone.com – Thayrone runs the Bone Conduction Music Show, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it is by far the best radio program in southeastern Michigan. If you like blues, jazz, Motown and the rockingest DJ on the radio, check him out.
ANYWAY. I’m working on the essay revisions for Literary Journal and it is rough going, folks – I have to cut out so much. But the editor is quite right, and I’m so glad I can say that and actually believe it since it’s my first time working with an editor. This particular essay is just covered in excess, so what we are doing (because she and I, we are a team) is sort of flushing out one section in the middle to really evoke a sense of place, and leaving all the rest in the garbage bin of nostalgia. But since I have a blog, I’ve decided to post the conclusion of this essay in honor of Valentine’s Day, all the while risking S.’s ego growing out-of-control, seeing as to how he’s the subject of my first accepted essay and the subject of my most-viewed blog posts, but what the hell – it’s a day to honor love, and while the nostalgia in the concluding parts of this essay have been remarked on by two different editors from two different journals, I still sort of like it. Mostly, as you will see, it’s about marriage. The essay up until this point discusses my first year with S. in North Carolina, and how it influenced the following years. If you actually intend on reading this, it picks up with the summer S. and I married – I think mostly it’s self-explanatory, after that. Maybe not. I can’t tell anymore – I’m all in the middle of drawing giant Xs through pages and trying to work in enough backstory to help the new version make sense…these pages definitely won’t be included in the new version. Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! (Oh, this will shoot to heck my attempts at not naming S., but whatever…it will be buried soon enough, right?)
We married the summer between his first and second year of graduate school, on a cool
Michigan August afternoon, the sun steaming through the church’s scarlet and gold glass windows, settling in a haze that felt like God’s presence. Both a priest and a Presbyterian minister conducted the ceremony, our two faiths joined together, and in that same spirit our officiates requested our guests promise, as a community, to help Sam and me when our marriage hit rocky spots.
“Do you commit to this couple, and God, to help Sam and Courtney succeed in their marriage, to pray for them, to serve them, understanding that marriage can sometimes be a community effort,” Reverend McCloud intoned.
“We do,” the congregation chorused.
In the six years since our wedding, I sometimes contemplated calling in this pledge from various factions. “Dear Mrs. Lancaster,” I imagined penning. “Just want to reiterate how much I love the goblets, we use them every day. By the way, do you remember when you promised GOD you’d help my marriage? Well, Sam and his friends are passed out on my floor and they spilled beer all over our new couch. What’s more, before coming here, one of them befriended a Rolling Rock waitress at the bar and she’s here too. Could you possibly come help us sort this mess out?”
Or Sam, emailing his cousin in
Wisconsin: My wife believes she has the bird flu, and her death is imminent. It’s time to keep up your end of the bargain with my marriage. What do I do with a wife convinced she should be quarantined? We don’t ask for that kind of help, though. It’s easier to ask for money than it is to ask for help with your marriage, except possibly from a neutral party like a minister or therapist, but then your relationship is so out of context, professionals are forced to navigate unknown martial waters. Is she unreasonable? Is he reckless?
Maybe we don’t’ ask for help from those we know because the nature of marriage is already so binary. Are you a guest of the bride or the groom? Complaining or struggling in marriage means shadows will be cast on the one you love and giving voice to your frustrations proves those right who thought the one you married wasn’t good enough for you, or, conversely, that you weren’t good enough for him. Cynicism, married or not, comes easily. Overcoming it, moving forward, does not.
For numerous reasons, Sam and I left
North Carolina when he graduated in May, 2001. Certainly, the fact that the South matched neither my preconceived notions nor his memories played a part, but in two years we grew to enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving in shorts. We never earned a lot of money, but our jobs eventually began paying the bills, leaving us with enough to enjoy the area. But Sam and I tend to follow a more rigid sense of potential ; we go where the jobs and graduate school acceptances lead us. We two together lean towards conservative living. We have retirement accounts, health benefits, life insurance policies. One semester eating from somebody else’s garden proved to us that the bohemian sense of carelessness we coveted as teenagers is really somebody else’s life. And so, when no job came through for Sam upon his graduation, we said good by to our time in the South and looked northward, towards the beginnings of a career for him, a graduate degree for me. Maybe we could have eventually grown into our southern surroundings, but we didn’t root ourselves long enough to find out. I’ve been out of the South for five years now, but every so often something triggers my muscle memory, a hot rush of warm air on a late July day, or the tangy scent of my mother-in-law’s barbecue, and I recall my Carolina days, days I remember, more than any other, through my senses more than memory.
Last spring, in
Pittsburgh, Sam’s favorite guitarist, Sonny Landreth, performed. Sonny Landreth used to play guitar for John Hiatt, but in the last decade or so he’s had a successful solo career. We see him whenever possible, and in the tiny
Theater on the South Side of Pittsburgh, we had our best tickets yet.
Sonny is Southern,
Louisiana Southern, playing blues, creole and zydeco, music that makes you dance. With him this time he brought a band called C.C. Braddock. Where Sonny is conservative, all tucked in white shirts, starched jeans and glasses, the band members looked like leftovers from monster rock, with big hair, ripped clothes, mega mascara. Inside the theater smoke filled the air, and right down in front, beginning to strum the first chords of “Gone, Pecan,” Sonny looked out into the crowd, on its feet, beer glasses and cigarette lighters raised high, eagerly waiting the next chance to dance, and Sonny leaned into the microphone, brushed the hair out of his eyes, smiled and said “Hey. Y’all. Y’all here in
Pittsburgh, you’re nothing but badasses. The last of the American Badasses!” Roaring, everybody started stamping feet, clapping hands, howling out declarations of love, Sam and I right there with them, Sam six and a half feet of gangly white boy and me a foot shorter, so much rounder, raising our beers, skin awash in purple strobe lights, swinging each other around, dancing, and for the moment we were at the Maison Creole, tucked away in a Carolina swamp, barefoot and carefree, the we that we’d become shed for the we we could never be, moved by a southern beat, dancing until the music stops, not students or employees, no longer even married, no, we were just two badass people swept away by a rhythm some small piece of them recognized, the beginning of the soundtrack of their life, the music they will end up returning to again and again, smiling and say, remember when? Do you remember when all we wanted was to be together, listening to the radio? Do you remember when we only ate tomatoes, okra, cherry cokes? My God, do you remember when we smoked? And if the music is great and nobody is sick or tired or anxious or overworked, if for that moment or day or week there is grace, they could look at each other and think, Oh my God. I did this one thing, this one thing in my life, completely right.