I kissed the man I would marry one night when I was not quite 23. We had been out at a bar in San Francisco where you could smoke, and then we went to his apartment and drunkenly ate stale bread and butter, and then we made out. I had known him for several months in a friendly way — we lived near one another — but a few days before the bread and butter I noticed, out of nowhere, an insistent desire to be near him.
This was during a short period in my life when I really felt like I had “It.” After a protracted gastrointestinal issue, I was finally the level of thin I always really wanted to be. I had two part-time jobs and three roommates and one pair of expensive white pants from Anthropologie. I had absolutely no sense of consequence, although I was plagued by intrusive thoughts and knocked constantly on wooden tables and doors. During this period, a man at a bar told me I looked like Sean Young in Blade Runner and I was embarrassingly gratified. I had always craved the attention of men, and it was thrilling to feel that, for once, in such abundance that I could take it or leave it. I was so fleetingly confident in my ability to bend a man to my will, in fact, that when I realized I was pining for the man I would marry, I invited him to my grandmother’s 75th birthday party — a bold strategy for courtship. By the time the birthday party came around, we had eaten the bread and butter; I think we were already in love.
In the 13 years since, we have lived in four different cities and seven different dwellings. We have two cats and two small children. He is 37, and I am 35, which is not old, but my period has gotten weird and I have to take Prilosec to keep acid from flooding into my esophagus.
It is strange now to think that a formative era of life took place between the ages of 15 through 22, the years of boys. Until the moment I kissed my now-husband, I was restlessly promiscuous, always scheming, always on the lookout, always in love or lust, always rushing headlong into something or regretting it, always meting out or receiving some form of romantic cruelty. You are not supposed to say that you had unfulfilling sexual experiences because you tragically wanted a boyfriend, lest you end up enforcing the credos of the Moral Majority and subverting the gains of Third Wave feminism, but in my case it may have been true. My experiences were often negative and rueful, and so my promiscuity seems in hindsight to have been a means to some elusive end. I craved stimulus — I never wanted to end the night quietly, always wanted to have another drink, another cigarette, go to another place. Maybe what I wanted was feeling, full stop. But what better feeling is there than love or what sex promises it might be?
I have many friends now who have never known me as a single woman. When I mention the wilder years before, they seem incredulous. It’s dangerous, this gap between past perception and present reality. You insist you’ve been around the block, but it’s a block in a town you no longer recognize and the windows are boarded up. I notice now that the period of time I once thought of with a grimace is probably, if things go as I hope they will, the last time that I will have been at liberty — free to sleep with other people, but more important, to go wherever I wanted, move cities, change jobs, without having to run it past anyone else. I had no domestic obligations, no real sense of mortality. Nobody is telling me, now, that I look like a replicant. Youth is wasted on the young, as an old person once said.
The curious mix of nostalgia and embarrassment I feel for that freewheeling version of myself coexists with the present reality of my marriage, as it must. Mostly it is an easy coexistence. I am afraid to write this because it is the height of hubris to say that your relationship is a source of strength and happiness or to assume that it will last. (Nor should I be revisionist — it’s not that I’ve never looked at another person and seen something to admire.) But from the moment I first kissed my husband, I have never not wanted to be with him. I continue to find him kind, interesting, and slightly enigmatic. “Keep the mystery alive” is a thing they tell women about abjuring sweatpants or farting in front of a man, but that’s not, I think, the productive mystery of marriage. We are coming to the years where things happen. His father has died; my grandparents and aunt. We are collectively entrusted with the lives of our children, something that carries the capacity for profound joy, boredom, frustration, and the eternal, heart-clenching possibility of devastation. “How will this person be when things happen?” is the romantic mystery that matters.
Now that we have children, now that our relationship sometimes feels less like a romance than it does a small business involving spreadsheets, I understand how the monogamous, nuclear-family unit is a bourgeois entity, an impediment to social reform. I make myself laugh with retrograde analogies about what romantic commitment has meant to me: The tumult of girlhood flowed into the orderly irrigation channels of civilization.
I understand the danger in assigning a feeling of safety to a man — any man, a specific man. It is a risk to bind up your notions of home and comfort inextricably with another person, but it is especially fraught for women, for reasons too obvious to be enumerated. I have seen how a woman can tie herself up to a man who cuts the rope and leaves her to drift. The risks of interdependence are not only emotional but practical: What I have accomplished professionally I have done with my husband’s faith and love but also with his health insurance. I have small children and an uneven 1099 freelance income, and this makes me vulnerable. My emergency plan consists of a Nordstrom credit card I once opened to buy bras.
Even if you accept interdependence wholeheartedly, the idea of safety in a relationship is antithetical to popular notions of romance — on its face, the opposite of the thunderbolt. But how do I describe the way that an almost instantaneous feeling of safety, of comfort, of contentment, of trust, that I felt about my husband when I was 22 and wild can be a thunderbolt of its own kind?
I am not very kind to the early version of myself, even though sometimes —when I am feeling stifled, worn out, matronly — I envy her. But I have to give her credit or at least credit her with exceptionally dumb luck. I made so many stupid decisions during that time it literally takes my breath away to think I might not have made the truly great one, the one that has shaped my life more than anything else: to notice a good and beautiful man, and follow the feeling wherever it led.