There is a discrete point in life when you suddenly realize your parents look frail, you have wrinkles starting to spider out from the corners of your eyes, and practically everyone you know is married.
Now replace “discrete” with “traumatic.”
Replace “traumatic” with “revelatory.”
Replace the whole sentence with “What the hell is going on here, and how did it all happen so fast?”
This spring, I attended a bachelorette party for a close friend from high school. The celebrations involved electric pink spandex pants, several surreal MTA rides, marathon dancing in stilettos, and a tremendous amount of alcohol. A few months later, the same group of women, most of whom I’ve known for over twenty years, attended the lovely Quaker-Agnostic/Catholic wedding in a Unitarian church in the country. I’d rather not do an accounting, but my brain does that sort of thing unsanctioned: of my friends, two have kids, one is expecting, three are married or as good as, while one is living the fabulous single life in NYC. She and I may have been the only unattached people there over the age of twelve.
We as a culture spend a lot of time trying to figure out what marriage is and what it should be, how to make it last, how to make it better, how to deal with it when it ends, and who should be allowed to do it in the first place. We pass laws and then have legal battles about whether marriage should be exclusively an inter-gender thing. We produce scientific studies showing that women who don’t marry die early, and other studies that say they die richer, healthier, and happier. We punish people who marry more than one person (simultaneously, that is—we’ve long since gotten used to the previously scandalous remarriage) by taking away their children. We tsk at other cultures that do it differently. All this for a system that originated a very long time ago as a way to control women’s sexuality and fertility, construct dynastic alliances, and guarantee the biological legitimacy of inheriting sons.
Oddly, my main model of marriage is a positive one: my aunt and uncle, who are like second parents, have been married for over forty years. One is always tempted to put “happily” in a sentence like that, and they are happy. But I’ve also observed their relationship go through periods of conflict and of emotional estrangement. It has always looked to me like a nonstop intractable negotiation with incredibly high stakes. My aunt told me once that during a difficult time early on in their marriage, they instituted a ‘no talking’ rule. Hey, it worked for them.
But for many others, nothing works. I have friends, still tender in their late twenties and thirties, who are divorced and moving on to the second round. I’ve watched a few dissolutions close up, and it doesn’t look like something I’d ever want to do. And yet, watching my high school classmate and her fiancé tie the knot in a beautiful old church with weepy grandmas and friends looking on, all eager to celebrate the union of two great people, I felt myself getting teary-eyed too. Yes, marriage may be risky, but we jump into it, sometimes again and again, out of hope or hubris or both. It’s a cliff with an enticing lip—I’ve toed up to it too—and the water promises safe haven, promises security and love and better living, and perhaps sometimes what appears to be really is.
Tomorrow: mourning David Foster Wallace