My wife has kicked me out five times. Another time I left on my own. Why are we still together?
Send any friend a story Screw Type Compressor
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Alone one evening in early spring, seated on a green park bench beside the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., I waited for Deb. The sun was setting and the temperature falling, and I was wearing my softball jersey and knickers and wishing I had remembered to bring my thick flannel shirt.
Now, decades later, at my home in Iowa, I search for that bench on Google Maps. Here it is. Riverbend Park. Here’s the bridge. The John W. Weeks Bridge. Here’s our bench. The bridge arches. The still water. It makes my body ache to see it again. The place where we were young.
We had agreed to meet there, in that ratty little park. I waited for her. And waited. I imagined her getting off work at Legal Sea Foods at the Copley Plaza. Cashing out. Boarding the bus. Walking along the path. Approaching.
I imagined someone watching us as she arrived. Would they think we were madly in love? Mistake us for Harvard students? People with illustrious futures? The moon was brightening. The sun a slur of color in the west. I was cold. My thick flannel shirt at home in my closet.
I had returned to college at 26 after serving my apprenticeship in the refrigeration trade. I first noticed her in my selected authors class. On the first day, the professor asked if anyone could give him an Emerson quote, and she, blushing, raised her hand. Three months later, I asked her to marry me. She said yes.
We shared my tiny, overheated Cambridge apartment and fell into a nightly bar-crawl routine. From the Plough and Stars to the Cellar to Drumlin’s. The Cantab. After the first three rounds, I would accuse her of being in love with her cigarettes. Then she would accuse me of not being truly in love with her. And I would swear on the Bible how I loved her with the intensity of ten suns while holding up my hand to order another round.
We knew we needed to end this childish routine. We imagined a new town unsullied by the likes of us. Someplace clean and innocent.
After less than a year of squirreling away cash in a Mason jar atop the refrigerator, we allowed the lease to expire, moved our furniture (a futon and a lamp) to the curb, paid our parking tickets, climbed on my motorcycle, and with no ultimate destination in mind, left town.
We had enough cash left by the time we rolled into Iowa to rent a small brick house adjacent to a hog farrowing pen on the rolling Iowa cornfields. Soon we found work and started a family.
By the time Deb kicked me out for the first time, she had already given birth to our first two children. I moved into a duplex on East Washington in Iowa City. The inside of the place reminded me of a rustic hunting lodge. The shiplap walls and ceilings were stained dark brown. I remember sliding into my Coleman sleeping bag that first night, settling myself on my camping mat and thinking, “Ah, yes, this is how I’m meant to be. Alone.”
We reunited after a month or two. Then we had the twins.
Saturday nights we would walk down to George’s, where, three beers in, Deb would once again accuse me of not loving her enough. And I would do my best to drum up the old enthusiasm, but I wasn’t fooling either of us.
Over the 32 years of our marriage, she has kicked me out five times. One time, I sublet a basement apartment across the street from a small park with a basketball court, which was a big plus. The basement was crawling with little white worms, which, when they died, curled up like pill bugs.
Another time, I moved into Le Chateau, a low-rent apartment complex. There was an outdoor pool on the property, but it wasn’t open when I lived there. I don’t think it had been open for a long time, hence the black mud and leaves at the bottom. There was a laundry room, which was my favorite room in the place. A single coin-operated washing machine and a single dryer. It was always warm and brightly lit, and there was a metal folding chair and the air always smelled clean.
The last time, the sixth, Deb didn’t kick me out. I left. Weary of our accusation and outrage routine, I rented another duplex in a quiet neighborhood on the south side of Iowa City. I shared the place with little red ants. They really liked the sponge I used to clean my dishes. I would boil water and soak my sponge in it to kill them, then dump the floaters down the drain.
I didn’t do anything in this apartment. Didn’t cook, read or listen to music. If I got home from work early, I would go to bed. If I got home late, I would go to bed. I would lie down under my blue and white duck blanket, turn on my side and think, “Yes. This is how I’m meant to be.”
According to the landlord, the young woman who lived there before me had once dated the young man who lived across the street with his parents. After she broke it off, the young man continued texting her. He even knocked on her door at odd hours. When the young woman moved out, I moved in.
Sometimes when it was dark, I would look through my front window at that house and think about the young man. I would wonder how one is supposed to find love. Where to look? How to begin?
On weekend mornings, I took walks around the neighborhood. It was still cool enough to need a hat and jacket. One of my neighbors had erected a book exchange. I chose a collection of Kafka short stories and then, later that day, sat on my front cinder block steps and began reading it.
But I kept thinking of Deb. I kept thinking how she would like this quiet, working-class neighborhood. With the book exchange and the red ants. And the Sycamore Movie Theater close enough to walk. And no traffic sound. And big deciduous trees. And rickety front steps. And cool air. And warm sun.
I called her and asked if she wanted to stop over for coffee. We sat at my little kitchen table and drank our coffee. She said she liked my little house. She liked my rickety front steps.
I have always thought of Deb wherever I am. Whomever I am with. Whenever I experience something good. I want her to experience the same thing. I can’t stand to watch a good movie without her. I’ll walk out after half an hour if I can’t turn to her in the dark and whisper, “Isn’t this great?” I can’t ride my motorcycle up into the Rocky Mountains. I can’t enter a small diner with worn pine floorboards and an antique, curve-glass pie case with slices of banana cream inside. I can’t take a flight without wishing she were occupying the seat beside me.
I think we have the wrong idea about marriage. It’s not like running a business, where there are recordable credits and debits. Or buying a house, where you pay your mortgage or lose it. Or owning a pet, where, in return for companionship, you are obligated to feed them and take them for walks and clean up after them.
It’s more like learning, after a thousand hangovers, to stop drinking so much. Or learning, after often being false, to be true just once, in the hope that you can continue to be true. Or learning, after habitually hating yourself, to love yourself just once, in the hope that you can continue to love yourself. And then learning, through loving yourself, to love someone else.
I will always love Deb. Even when she hates me. Even when I hate her. Not because she’s especially forgiving. Or pretty. Or pleasant to be with. Or well-read. Or spiritual. Not because she may or may not be any of those things. Loving her isn’t transactional. I love her because I can’t help it. There’s something in her that makes me weak. Something vulnerable and unconquerable. Something fleeting and unmoving.
After a few months in the house with the rickety steps, I moved back in with Deb. Soon enough now, I’ll be alone on the edge of sleep. Just as I am alone on the edge of all things. It’s how I am. It may be how we all are. Still alone. Waiting. And still in love.
Joe Blair, a writer and HVAC mechanic in Coralville, Iowa, is the author of the memoir, “By the Iowa Sea.”
Modern Love can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.
Diesel Rotary Screw Air Compressor Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”