The other day a local program was interviewing the writer of a book on marriage. I normally scoff at these, as well as other “advice” and “self-help” books on relationships, parenting, or personal fulfillment. Because I’m perfect already. No, not really. Because I never felt these had anything to offer beyond platitudes and just a philosophical stance that may or may not be that consistent. Plus, I have other things to read.
This book might be different. There’s science in it, of course, but there was also the admission of the author that she had the same problem with these kinds of books that I do. Maybe she was just trying to sell me a book. Regardless, it was interesting listening and perhaps it’s interesting (and even helpful) reading. One thing that specifically caught my attention was the idea of asking couples to describe the story of “how we met.” This is supposedly a standard prompt in counseling sessions and research. The answer, surprisingly, could indicate the health of a marriage, not so much in the actual circumstances of a couple’s introduction or even in how well someone remembers the details, but in how they talk about one another.
It’s hard to listen to this without thinking about how I would tell our own story. In fact, it made me feel apprehensive about talking about “how we met” at all, since it seems like the only outcomes were either the status quo — a fine partnership and a healthy marriage — or some harbinger of doom for our relationship. I don’t think there’s any problem to diagnose, so why dredge up something that might not even be relevant but could strike a doubt in our minds? Moreover, “how we met” is a complicated question.
I met Karyn in college.
I met Karyn our freshman year. I saw her in a dorm room window. Later, she’d tell me that she saw me too. She said I was always the one who was playing the piano in the lounge of the residence hall. She said I was the one with my head down, my collar up, trailing along in thought or at least in silence as a group went out to dinner. She was right.
I met Karyn the summer before our sophomore year, training to be resident assistants in that same dorm. “Training” to enforce alcohol policies that were reinvigorated that year, we all had a great party — cold beers all around. I’d left a chair, returned with a drink, and found her feet propped up on my seat. She moved them to return the seat to me, and as we recount it, I told her that “you can put your feet back there, if you want,” referring to my lap. Later, during some game in the newly remodeled building, we’d find ourselves paired and hiding under a desk in some version of hide-and-seek. We tucked ourselves in and talked. I considered it our first date.
I met Karyn on a backpacking trip in a wilderness area adjacent to Mt. St. Helens, after we’d been dating for months. I met her in downtown Portland at a Saturday market, or was it on NW 23rd? I met her on a fancy outing to a concert and dinner at Jake’s Crawfish.
I met Karyn that next summer, each of us tied to campus for different programs. We’d make dinner. I made too many peas for two 20-year-olds to possibly eat. I ate them all anyway because she said that I couldn’t. She dared me; I considered it a promise to stick with me. Who could resist someone who could eat a plate of peas?
I met Karyn in the Munich airport after a full day and night of travel. She had long hair and a cotton sweater. I met her again in Vienna, and Florence, and Venice. We traveled to each place side-by-side, but I think we were different people in each locale. Before Venice, my head had never been shit upon by a pigeon. Before Florence, I had never had a caricature drawn of myself. (Nor have I since.) Before Vienna, I’d never been so drunk. (Nor have I since.)
I met Karyn in the Seattle airport when she landed. It took a while to know her again, and her to know me.
I met Karyn when she printed out her thesis; and before when I came running out of the science building to find her, to show her that the convection cell, my own thesis, was finally working. I met Karyn when we graduated, when I was asking her to marry me on a beach during a sunset, and while she was laughing at me.
I met Karyn when we moved into a two bedroom apartment of a fourplex building a few blocks from graduate school. Our neighbors urinated from our roof, two stories off the ground. We learned how an evaporative cooler worked. After much deliberation and several months, we bought our first TV for $79 and put it on a plastic crate.
I met Karyn when we hiked to a lake and wrote our wedding vows. Really, we beat them into submission, after trial and error, and edits and redrafts. Creating the vows is not so different from being married, but you don’t realize that until years later.
I met Karyn when I returned from a trip and she told me — showed, me actually, via a stuffed kangaroo doll — that she was pregnant. And again when Anna was born. And again when Grace was born. Look at who we’ve all become, again and again.
I met Karyn when she came out of anesthesia after eye surgery. I met Karyn in a small restaurant from across the table we were sitting at. I met Karyn on a beach cracking the shell of a crab, heckled by seagulls. I met Karyn when I was playing piano — the one she bought me, or was it the one in the dorm, or was it somewhere else? — and she says she loves to hear me play. I met Karyn while we signed papers to buy our first house; when we signed papers to sell our first house; when we set into the ground each individual stone that became a patio from which we could sit and watch sunlight grace cliffs as the earth twists, day after day. And I meet her again, maybe tomorrow.
So, it’s hard, dear marriage counselor, to say when and how we met, because we keep meeting. There’s us as college students with acne and us a graduate students and us as homeowners and us with crises and us as parents and us as parents in crises. It’s always us, and it’s always new, and I wonder what the next day will bring, which us and which me and which you it will be.