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? Continue Reading…