Brad and I met making get-out-the-vote calls for an aspiring California State Assemblyman. In the beginning, our love for each other and for the city of angels was entwined. I’d moved back to L.A. after my breakup and was happy to be home again claiming my city. Brad lived in a neighborhood I’d never known existed – a barrio recently discovered by a few hipsters from nearby Hollywood. Rival gangs tagged the apartments along his street. There was a guy we thought might be homeless who sat on a nearby wall drinking tallboys, his belly hanging over his pants. We good-morninged him and the rest of the neighbors in the determined but naïve belief that being neighborly was all it would take to get past the recent Rodney King riots.
The first time we went out was a Friday night dinner, which turned into breakfast the next morning. Saturday biking in the Santa Monica mountains turned into slow dancing in his living room that led to Sunday brunch that led to the late show of Blade Runner at the Rialto – on a school night, no less. Sunday night led us to Monday morning carpooling to work. We moved in shortly thereafter. From the start everything was easy with Brad. Even that first weekend when I’d waited for an inevitable awkwardness – when surely we would realize we needed our own space – but that moment never came.
The night he proposed, we were having dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a kitschy Italian place on Vermont where the waiters served thin-crust pizza on tall table stands and sang opera. We were sitting in a red leather booth when he turned to me and said the very words: “Will you marry me?”
It’s all happening, I thought. Those words I’d anticipated all my life. “Yes, yes,” I said. “Of course. I love you. Yes.” Afterward, we went to the Dresden Room – a lounge next door – to toast our future over Manhattans.
But five months later, while talking with friends about our impending nuptials, he denied he’d been the one to say the words. I tried not to cry when he said it was I who’d asked him. Our friends tried to change the subject. Like a needle scratching across a record, the evening came to an abrupt halt.
Perhaps because we were so in sync about everything else, it didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme. The proposal became like a spill of red wine on new carpet, gasp-worthy in the moment, then a fading stain you winced at only when you made yourself notice.
We planned to go to Paris for our honeymoon. We chose rings, a cake, and a wedding meal to serve to family and friends. Along with nine other couples, we went to a Making Marriage Work class that was like a version of The Newlywed Game. At one point, we were asked to switch partners and converse with the opposite-sex member of another couple. “Notice your increased heart rate with a stranger,” our teacher instructed us. “Your quickening pulse, the flirtation, the intrigue, the pressure to seduce. That’s how it was when you first met your partner, right? Remember that. Keep it alive.”
Listening to the other couples in class, we counted ourselves lucky that we didn’t have the kind of meddling parents they described. Our parents, divorced and married more than once, cast a sober eye on the whole endeavor and gave us money – an equal share from each – to do with what we wanted. By then, my mother had married and left my father for the second time. I wasn’t even telling my father about the wedding for fear he’d show up drunk.
Our class teacher, who was a marriage therapist, told us that sex, money, and not agreeing on big issues (such as having children) before the wedding were always the underlying causes of broken marriages. We wondered who would be dumb enough not to agree about the kid question before getting married? Wanting kids was something we’d talked about early. As for money, we’d already opened a joint bank account and pooled our resources. And when the teacher read (anonymously) everyone’s answers to the question of how many times we wanted sex each week, I just knew that we were the two who’d given the highest numbers. We took satisfaction in the fact that, if we’d been playing The Newlywed Game for real, we’d be winning.
On a sunny September morning, we married. Making our entrance at the same time, we descended opposite marble staircases in an historic building in the heart of downtown. I wore a dress made of vintage French lace. The candidate we’d volunteered for when we met officiated at the ceremony. We had a wedding lunch on the deck of a low-key, but trendy restaurant off Vine Street in Hollywood. Instead of rice, our friends tossed environmentally-friendly birdseed. They gave us a pair of new mountain bikes festooned with bows. And when the Chateau Marmont where we’d planned to stay for our first night of marriage – another L.A. icon – felt more like a grandmother’s dowdy guest room than the elegant suite we’d envisioned, we made our first important decision as a married couple.
The bellhop had just left. Champagne was on its way. We turned to each other and said, “Let’s leave,” in unison. We practically skipped out of the lobby, checking into the Bel Age on Sunset instead. In plushy bathrobes the next morning, enjoying breakfast on the balcony overlooking the city, we congratulated ourselves for not settling. We were elated that we each knew the other’s heart and mind so well.
* * *
Five days short of our first wedding anniversary, I’d gone to bed early. I had a big day at work the next morning – alarm clock set, my suit, shoes, and jewelry laid out. I’d left my husband in the living room watching television after bending down to kiss him goodnight.
Hours later, I remember waking with the moon shining gray-blue through the curtains. He was beside me, then over me, his randy mood obvious. He didn’t know that, in that moment, he’d reminded me of my ex—and the salty guilt I’d sometimes felt in my previous relationship when I would wake to find that other man taking off my clothes and I would go along with him just to keep the peace. Sometimes submitting timidly, victimized. Sometimes responding fiercely as if I could get back at him through sex. My husband also didn’t know how relieved I was that, in the dark of our room, I didn’t feel fear as I had with my ex. That I knew I could tell him I needed to sleep, and he would still love me.
The next morning, we were standing in the kitchen dressed and ready to go our separate ways, when I said, “I didn’t know who you were last night.”
In his starched white shirt and navy tie with the little green squares that I liked, he looked at me, startled. He’d been about to take a sip of coffee but stopped. “Why, what do you mean?”
“You know,” I said. “It was just kind of weird. You knew I had to get up early to get ready for my meeting.”
Through gold-rimmed glasses that always struck me as a Clark Kent disguise, his blue eyes searched me. He didn’t tell me then – coffee cup in hand, me on my way out the door – but he had no idea what I was talking about.
* * *
It wasn’t until after work that evening, sitting in our living room, that he told me his version of what had happened the night before. He had no recollection of coming to our room. He didn’t remember waking me. He didn’t remember me pushing him away or telling him no. I learned that morning had been like many other mornings we’d shared: him asking me questions, gathering intel, trying to piece together the previous night’s blackout. Only this time, I’d said something that scared him: I didn’t know who you were.
Then he confessed that he’d thought it would be different with me. That from that first weekend we’d stayed together, I’d become the talisman he held up to an addiction he’d been hiding since he was fifteen. He told me that after I’d gone to bed, he’d finished the wine we’d opened at dinner and then he’d finished another bottle. And then he wasn’t himself. And for the first time, I’d seen him that way.
As we sat on our Sven couch from Ikea, I looked at our wedding picture on a nearby shelf. I stared at my stupid smiling face and bouquet of gardenias. I’d been duped. I didn’t really know my husband at all. How had the child of an alcoholic, gambling, pill-popping family ignored the clues? Why hadn’t I noticed these morning interrogations as he tried to reconstruct our activities together?
Or had I?
Hadn’t I recently taken to downing his third bourbon with all its “tobacco, woody, smoky” bullshit he and the bartender discussed in loving detail at the bar we frequented? Wasn’t that the same thing as pouring my father’s booze down the drain the way my mother and I had? How had I intuited that three bourbons after the wine he’d already had was a line my husband shouldn’t cross?
It was like some preposterous Greek tragedy. You wonder at the start of the story how whatever the oracle is predicting could happen – no one would intentionally kill his father and marry his mother. No child of an alcoholic would intentionally choose one as the father of her children. But just like in Oedipus Rex, all the circumstances got changed around to make the improbable come true. My husband didn’t act like any of the other drunks I’d known, including my ex. He didn’t rage. He wasn’t broke with creditors chasing after him. He’d never been in jail.
It was only then that I understood why his memory of proposing to me had been lost in a blur. A shared moment I’d filled with so much meaning – a moment I assumed we both brought to every experience of “us”– wasn’t shared at all.
A few days later, we celebrated our anniversary in a French bistro without wine and with little conversation. He’d been to five AA meetings – one every day. At the time, I didn’t know how lucky I was. I didn’t know that a single event – his coming to me like that in the night, my calling him on it the next day – would change our lives forever.
I wasn’t prepared for how angry I was either. I sulked, feeling betrayed. To me, alcoholics were people who said sorry all the time for things they did again and again. Alcoholics were people who claimed they loved you and then left you. I wanted him to say it had all been a mistake. That he wasn’t an alcoholic after all.
For months while he went to meetings, I stayed home. He told me I should go to Al Anon. I told him I’d known about the group for “family and friends of alcoholics” long before he did. “Don’t fucking tell me about Al Anon!” I screamed at him. I’d already been there for my father, my grandmother, uncles, aunts, my ex. I didn’t want to have to go for him.
Yet finally with the kind of “I’ll show you” hostility I’d felt when I’d had sex with my ex, I went. Ninety meetings in ninety days was what they told AA newbies. If he could do it, so could I.
Coming home from a meeting one Saturday, stuck in traffic on the 101 Freeway, I glanced at my Al Anon books lying on the seat beside me. So far, all the stories I’d heard had been about dealing with the kinds of addicts I’d known before – mean, scheming, itinerant. That was not my husband. As I waited for the car in front of me to move, I picked up one of the books and began thumbing through it. The phrase, “suffocating grip of self-pity” jumped out at me.
The woman in the story had come to Al Anon when her husband was already sober. Rather than fearing his drinking, she feared him seeking solutions without her. Would he get better and leave her? I thought about how angry I’d been for the last several months because the picture in my mind of our happily ever after wasn’t turning out the way I’d planned. Nearly all my life a refrain had wafted through my head like a line from a poem or a song or a cry to my mother: I want to go home it sang to me, even when I was home. It rose up in me even when I was with those I loved most. It rose up in me now.
Lost in thought, my foot lifted from the brake without my noticing. The front of my car nudged up to the car ahead, pushing repeatedly at its bumper. The other driver craned his head around. We looked at each other in anger and confusion. For a panicked moment, I didn’t know how to stop the bumping and pushing. I’d forgotten how to operate the car. Finally I stepped on the brake as if only just then I’d discovered its purpose.
Like the woman in the story, I had always depended on others to make me whole and happy – my mother, my best friend in high school and another in college, my ex and now my husband. Yet my reliance on them had never been enough. It kept me uneasy, not quite at home in my own skin.
After that, I started going to meetings for no one but me.
* * *
Early in our recovery, Brad and I rode the mountain bikes we’d gotten for our wedding. High into the sage and chaparral covered hills above the Pacific Ocean we climbed steep grades in low gears. I watched his calves work the pedals in front of me, feeling sidesplitting pain sometimes as I toiled. I liked the uphill climb best – something I knew I could control. After miles, we’d rest at a crossroads where several trail systems merged and the vista stretched from ocean to valley. He’d check on me to make sure I wasn’t overheated, make me take my helmet off so my brain didn’t cook, cool my neck with water.
Then we’d jump back on our bikes for the descent. Downhill was his favorite part. For this he rode behind me, urging me to go faster and faster. Our voices echoing through the canyon, sometimes I’d yell at him to stop pushing me. But invariably I laughed, giddy when the tires lost traction for just a moment and we hung midair above bumps and dips.
During our Making Marriage Work class, we’d filled out individual questionnaires in preparation for a private session with the instructor. “She’s stronger than you think. She can take it,” the therapist told my husband. I’d waited expectantly. But my husband had denied knowing what the guy was talking about. Something in the way he’d answered the questionnaire must have revealed my husband’s addiction. The therapist had been trying to get him to tell me.
On those bike rides, I sometimes wondered what I would have done if I’d known before we took our vows. I might have walked away. Once we were married, it was too late. Neither of us wanted to give up the way our parents had. We’d thrown our lot in together and there was no turning back. Brad was the first person in my life who wouldn’t let me have a tantrum and storm off when we fought. Grow up, he always seemed to be saying. That was new.
Duped though I may have been by his secret, I was glad I hadn’t known he was an alcoholic when he asked me to marry him. Ignorance literally had been bliss. I never could have known that his addiction would put each of us on our own paths to saving ourselves and that I would at last find a sense of home within myself.
* * *
We hadn’t talked about our disagreement over the marriage proposal in a long time – not since our recovery was new. Then one day, our ten-year-old daughter – in the thrall of watching a rom com on television, no doubt dreaming of her own future proposal – asked, “Daddy, how did you propose?”
My husband and I looked at each other. The truth was that he had asked me in the pizza place next to the Dresden Room, where we’d gone after for drinks to celebrate. The truth was also that I had pushed him to set the date, scared the happiness I felt with him would shimmer away if I didn’t pin it down.
I wished we could tell her that he’d gotten down on one knee, arranged violinists or skywriting, opened a velvet box before me. That’s what she wanted to hear. But that’s not our story. Only we know that our story holds within it the best of our marriage: his unguarded love and my love in gushing return. It holds, too, our commitment from the beginning in spite of—and later, because of—the thrilling impossibility of ever completely knowing one another.
As I waited for him to answer our daughter’s question, I saw him just as he was when we first met: the handsome stranger. I wanted him even more because of the secrets we’d shared since, the secrets left to know.
“We both sort of asked each other,” he finally said.
My heart raced, my pulse quickened.
Andrea Jarrell’s personal essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” Column; Narrative Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; Full Grown People; The Washington Post; The Huffington Post, and the anthology My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friendships, among other publications. She is at work on an essay collection.
Featured image courtesy of Tifafny Lucero.