A 25th anniversary is a big deal in marriage time. It’s like dog years, in that every year of being married seems to be culturally weighted with the expectation that it will fail, or at least be miserable, and so one year counts for five and twenty five is like, well you do the math, a lot. People look at you funny when you say it. Astonished and disbelieving at the same time. This is a modern thing since the advent of divorce and choice, and its twin specter: the refusal to die in quiet misery. People who did it before had to do it, but you, so young, how? Why? The astonished expect you to look older, more weather beaten; somehow what you have been through is supposed to show on your face. Being married that long is old-fashioned, and therefore, you should be a lot older. The awed and congratulatory feel compelled to ask, once they have ascertained that you are in fact happy and not filled with regret, “So what is the secret?” But of course you can’t tell a secret without, well, giving away the secret, but you could try to tell the truth. My husband and I met twenty five years ago ( March 27) and were married six weeks later (May 18th). I wasn’t pregnant, we were only 22 and 23, and the world was full of warning against it. He was a recent arrival to the United States. I had just graduated from college. There are no viable facts to offer in the case for why twenty five years later we are still married, in love and following our passions and dreams together as if we had just met. Why in many ways we continue to be a sanctuary for each other.
Then, of course, there is the reality that there are no secrets, only lessons learned and love exchanged and piles of ego and laundry discarded along the road. I have never really written about my husband or our marriage. I mostly don’t write about my children either. I am superstitious that way. I feel like the bolt of light that pierced my heart and world when he arrived, followed by my two sons shortly after, is a mystery so deep, and a gift so startlingly beautiful, that it would be bad luck to try to wrap it in words that always fail to catch the very splendor of a thing, even as they chase it around the block. There is also the tricky issue of not wanting to write anything nice about someone you get mad at from time to time. They will surely use it against you in an argument. ‘Remember when you said I was amazing’ is bad enough, but when they can pull out a piece of paper and say well that is not what you wrote here. Who needs that kind of stockpiled evidence? However, twenty five is a big number and if nothing else I want to tell a story that can’t be told. I will tell it in warnings I received and how the opposite was also always true.
This is a bad idea. He is only marrying you for your money or his green card.
That was a fun one. Imagine someone marrying me for my money. I secretly loved this idea. I fancied myself a precocious sugar mama. I had been poor my whole life. I did not have money. I had a job. I had also been working since I was fourteen and had paid for my entire prom including my date’s tux and the limo, and I had frequently demanded to split the bill on dates to keep it clear I didn’t owe anyone anything and I could pay for whatever I needed. A green card? Cool. He could have it if he wanted it. I had never really known a happy marriage up close and personal. It didn’t scare me that it could fail. It was more frightening to contemplate what it would mean if it didn’t. That kind of permanence is daunting.
You are too young and you’re going to get hurt.
Love stories are always incomplete. Especially the good ones. No one has, at least to my mind, ever actually shown the part where your guard falls apart at your feet. Where all the armor you pack on in a day is suddenly left clanking and rattling on a door hook in the bathroom because you simply forgot to put it back on. They show the passion, the lust and they try to tell of the euphoria, but do they ever really tell of the shocking vulnerability? The way you allow yourself to be so exposed, that another human you hardly know can lay waste to you in seconds flat. For women this is a particularly terrifying reality, as most women who are killed in a homicide are killed by a lover, husband or former lover or husband. To say falling in love involves taking a risk seems a serious understatement in this context. The stark and naked truth about love is that it demands this kind of reckless exposure. You can try to play it safe in a hundred different ways, but you are only ever exposing yourself to a different kind of danger. Women and men use all sorts of measures to try to avoid what is clear: falling in love can kill you in more ways than one. It can be literal, figurative, or metaphorical. It can be spiritually, psychologically or materially, or all three at once. It is shocking the amount of damage that can be done in the name of love. Mal de amor is serious business. I was ready for the risk, or as ready as anyone ever is. My father had taught me to have my own apartment, with the lease in my name and a job to pay the rent. “The rest,” he said, “ is up to you, but always be the one standing on your feet.” I took this to mean that I could fall to pieces emotionally, so long as a I understood how to take care of myself on the ground. I still think this is good advice.
How can you marry someone who doesn’t speak English?
This came from more than one direction. It didn’t seem to matter that I spoke three languages fluently and so had choices in that department. People simply could not comprehend intelligence existed in other languages, even languages they themselves spoke. It was my first confrontation with the bias that my own English dominance had created. I had to explain over and over to people how English was my first formal language of schooling and intellectual thought, but I had learned to love in Spanish, in my grandmother’s arms, and under the sound of boleros as she raised me. I was the only one not even a little bit surprised that I would fall in love with someone whispering to me in Spanish, singing Felipe Pirela, Julio Jaramillo and Tito Rodriguez while making me yucca con bacalao in the middle of the night..
A Dominican. You’re done. No sirven.
This one was complex. I had not known many Dominicans growing up, except the one happy couple I did know, my grandmother’s best friend Nina and her husband. Also, this warning came mostly from Dominican women. Funny enough he got his own version of this when he called home and told his mother and she said, “Ay mi hijo ten cuidadado con esa gringa.” He also had more than one person warn him about Puerto Rican women. Esas mujeres no son facil. Fear and love are bedfellows. Even today people say, “Oh what is the secret?” and I laugh and say, “Just know he could be gone tomorrow and make your peace with that.” It is clear that is not the answer I am supposed to give, but that is the truth on both sides. We both know that and honor the difficult in much the same way we enjoy the pleasure. All the warnings, about Dominican men and Puerto Rican women, were meant to make us somehow imagine that there was something especially dangerous in either one. Our cultural complexities are relevant, but they are not destiny. These simplistic warnings fail to take into account the alchemy of two people transforming and transformed by their contact with each other.
It stands to reason that when love does in fact last, and lift instead of demolition, it feels like the most magical force in the world. All you need is love. Right? Well, not exactly. Love is rude, demanding and oblivious. Yes, I know about that other kind of selfless love, the better love, the “real” love, but I am talking about the love that knocks you on your knees and takes you by surprise and has you doing shit you would never do, like, you know, getting married six weeks after you meet a cute Dominican in Washington Heights who can dance and who loves to read. Others may have more requirements. My list was short but inflexible, and he met the requirements. For six weeks we danced, we read, we walked through Central Park and eventually all of Manhattan, we talked about books and fought about raising children we didn’t yet have. We fell hard. We fell fast.
Falling, however, requires getting up. You can’t just lay there for the rest of our life. That is a coma. Being married for twenty five years is not about how you fall in, but how you get up every day and honor that fall. You don’t hold grudges against the bruises and the scars to come, you tend to them, you expect them, you respect them. You remember that falling down always hurts, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. The falling is the first part, and the getting up every day and dusting yourself off, with the deep memory of what an honor it was to fall with such impact, is the being married for twenty five years.