My grandma keeps company with spirits. A Dewar’s on the rocks every day at four o’clock on the button, and the spectral kind that rattle around her head. This isn’t some crackpot theory; it’s a matter of fact. They’re here, now, passing through the walls of her old house on Cape Cod, where I’ve come to work on this book. For a long time, I thought it was a book about divorce: a bedside companion for the boo-hoo
crowd, Chicken Soup for Shattered Souls
. But while I may have set out to interview people about their most brutal breakups, I’m realizing now, almost four years in, that like most marital spats, it’s never about what it’s about
It wasn’t always like this—Grandma’s spirits, I mean—only since my grandpa died, sixteen years ago, a few months shy of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. We talk about it often, this great love of hers, and as we do she sips her scotch, his drink, on her side of their bed. Still, always, on her side of their bed.
“To my Howard!” she says, toasting the ghost with his tumbler.
That’s what she calls him now, my Howard,
sometimes right to his face. It’s a much younger face than I remember, black and white and framed on their bedroom wall. Back when he was here, in color, she always called him “Daddy.”
To hear her tell it, she never had eyes for another. It was b’shert,
she says—the Yiddish word for “destiny.” They were neighborhood kids from the same side of the tracks of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a factory town that was known back then as Queen Slipper City because local workers manufactured almost 10 percent of the shoes worn in the United States. But the Cinderella subtext wasn’t lost on my grandma Rose, whose name no doubt influenced the tint of her gaze.
The first of eight children born to Russian immigrants in 1915, her head has been bumping up against the clouds ever since she could crawl. Where others saw dust, she found glitter, and she came of age air-trumpeting to Cole Porter, daydreaming of a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. And sure enough, as if her destiny had been written in calligraphy, she awoke one day in her teens to find that the love of her life was living just down the road. My Howard
“I got a car when I was sixteen years old, it was a convertible,” she tells me. “And for my first ride, I went out looking for him. I wanted to show off a little. He was always very standoffish when it came to me but I used to run after him a little bit, I really did. So I put on my hat, and I looked very nice, and I drove by this place where all the boys used to hang around. And sure enough, there he was. I knew he’d be there. And I asked him: ‘Would you like to go for a ride with me?’ And he said, ‘No. I’m busy.’ Just like that: I’m busy
“Well, I went home and I was hysterical. And my mother said, ‘Stop your crying—what’s the matter with you? If he didn’t want to go with you, so what
? You think he’s such a bargain
?’ And I said, ‘Well, Mother, he’s a bargain to me.’”
When my grandpa died, I went snooping through his dresser, looking for clues to his character, hoping to find that long-lost tchotchke that would reveal the secret longings of a man’s soul. His rusty dog tag from the war that earned him a Purple Heart now hangs from a chain on my office wall. His trusty flask sits on my desk, filled with a ceremonial shot of Dewar’s. And next to that, from underneath a cache of Russian letters, I dug up a glossy fossil dated 1994: a mint-condition Valentine’s Day card that he must have picked up at the pharmacy late that February morning. In flowery metallic script it says:
Hearts speak when words cannot.
Inside, written in an old man’s poststroke, shaky hand: Even though we have a lot of differences, and our communication is probably as bad as it can be, you have always been my sweetheart, and I guess will always be
. Please don’t be mad
. Love, H
It was a through-the-looking-glass moment. It’s not like I thought they were Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but “as bad as it can be”? Late one afternoon, about three fingers after four, I showed the card to my grandma. She stared at it for a moment before revealing: “He could be a very cold cucumber, your grandfather. Never showed much affection. But I didn’t care. I was perfectly happy when he was near me. I just loved him. No matter who I met—and I met some very nice guys—he always came first in my mind. Still, to this day.”
Asked why she never considered going on a date after he passed away, she glanced at his picture on the wall and said, “Quit lookin’ at me like that.” Then, to me, “He was my angel.” Pressed a bit about the practicality of fairy-tale phrases like happily ever after
and ’til death do us part,
she sipped her scotch and responded with uncharacteristic candor. “You think I was gonna go out and find myself another guy? What for? So he could fart in my bed?”
* * *
Such is the romanticism on which I’ve been raised—Rose-colored, to be sure, but aware of its own rouge. I’m thirty-eight, a decade older than the average groom, and fast approaching that age when bachelors go from seeming curious to seeming weird. I’ve been single for the past two years, the longest stretch by far since falling for Lisa Newman when I was sixteen. We dated for more than three years, and since then I’ve had four more three-year relationships (the last two women, I lived with). I’ve been a serial monogamist for more than two decades, but I’ve never been engaged, my love stories inevitably falling victim to the three-year thud, that grounding period when it becomes painfully obvious that the honeymoon phase won’t make it to the honeymoon.
In response to allegations of commitment phobia I’ve always maintained that I’m romantic to a fault—an idealist—incapable of the “settling” part of settling down. Of course, that’s a classic idealist’s defense, and as Jung warns, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” H. L. Mencken (who once called marriage “the end of hope”) goes even further: “It is not materialism that is the chief curse of the world, as pastors teach, but idealism. Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously.”
It’s been almost four years since I started crisscrossing the country with an old tape recorder in an effort to avoid such trouble—to confront my addictions, my visions, and my hallucinations. With an open mind and a backpack full of batteries and microcassette tapes, I talked with hundreds of people, mostly strangers, asking them the types of inappropriately personal questions that you would never ask your friends. At times I felt like an embedded reporter, chronicling the lost battles of the sexes, filing dispatches from the front yards.
Amy likened the interview process to “telling war stories. I mean, how did
I do those things? It’s just unimaginable. I had a major fucking meltdown.”
John spoke of liberation. “Once you get separated, you move on to other relationships, and suddenly they’re wonderful. I mean, I’m not going to show you pictures, but I could.”
Tasha talked about her dishonorable conduct: “I know I sound like a total bitch. I really was just a selfish, immature asshole.”
I can relate. I, too, have been a selfish, immature asshole—work-obsessed, unappreciative, oversensitive, overcritical, prideful, withholding, defensive, and I’ve often attempted to appear taller by standing on ceremony. At some fundamental level, this project began as a self-help manual in the purest sense: I was trying to help myself. I wanted to know what was wrong with me, why all five of my three-year relationships had ended. I wanted to understand women. And so, inspired by the work of Studs Terkel and Alfred Kinsey—and taking to heart the oft-paraphrased line about learning more from failure than from success—I set out to live vicariously through the romantic tragedies of others, hoping to glean some wisdom from the wreckage and to ultimately become so fluent in such failure that I would be able to avoid it in my own love life.
The “lightbulb moment” to write a book on this topic occurred the night before Thanksgiving in 2008. I was back home in Boston, newly single, having just separated from the last of my long-term girlfriends. An old buddy and I met up at a bar and we started talking about women and breakups. I went first: We were perfect on paper, but we didn’t have that X factor. She was gorgeous, smart, and talented, but we weren’t telepathic—at all. You need to be at least a little telepathic, don’t you think
He offered a sly smile, ordered a round of tequila, and then let it slide that he was separating from his wife of three years. Apparently she’d been having an affair while popping fistfuls of prescription painkillers, both on his dime. His face was brave but there was no hiding the truth. He was devastated.
“You can’t change a person’s character—yours or
theirs,” he said with the clarity of a burn victim. “Behavior, sure, you can change behavior. But character, never
. So whatever it is you don’t like about the person, magnify it by a million ’cus it only gets worse. If you still love them after that—marry
them. If not . . .” He shook his head, disappointed, more at himself than at her. “What the fuck was I thinking?”
It was the fourth divorce I’d heard about that month. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty but instead we toasted to better days and glossed over the real issues. Later that night, as if living in a cautionary metaphor, I lay awake in my childhood room, too big for my bed. I stared at the blank ceiling that used to be stickered with hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars. I kept picturing my exes, magnified by a million. They looked pretty good. Why did I push them away? Had I made the mistake of a lifetime—five times in a row? Or had I dodged five bullets?
Unable to answer, I went downstairs to the breakfast table and made a list of all the people I knew under forty who had gotten divorced. I came up with fourteen names. It was a little early for the seven-year itch: What the fuck were all these people thinking?
I wanted to peek through keyholes, rummage through medicine cabinets, read through deleted e-mails—anything to find out what really
goes on behind closed doors. The word “autopsy” comes from autopsia,
ancient Greek for “to see for oneself.” To that end, I set out in search of corpses. I was looking for evidence, for proof
. I needed to see for myself: Why does love die?
Of course, it’s tricky to go around prying into people’s private lives without seeming like some kind of pervert. Couples tend to put a Facebook face on their relationships, and you can’t just walk up to someone and ask them to drop the pose and start sharing their deepest secrets.
Unless you’re writing a book. Then you can pry all you want.
* * *
As is often the case, I knew very little about this subject going in. I’ve been a journalist, a novelist, and a filmmaker, but never a husband or a therapist. I’ve never even been to therapy. And I’m not a child of divorce. My parents are still very much together and they very much want a grandchild to bear their name. In fact, there isn’t a single divorce in my family (which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t have been). For better or worse, my only sister, both sets of grandparents, both sets of great-grandparents—everybody got married and stayed that way. If that makes it sound like a predicament I suppose that’s because I’ve often viewed it as such. A friend of mine, forty-four and single, says that getting married is like “breaking into prison to serve a life sentence.” As pessimistic as that may sound, it betrays a sunny assumption: that they’ll beat the roulette-level odds of actually staying together.
No, it doesn’t take a cynic to be down on traditional matrimony these days. We all know the odds—roughly 50 percent of all American marriages will end in divorce and it’s pretty much been that way since the second wave of feminism started leveling the sexual playing field in the 1970s. Of the 50 percent who stay together, you have to figure that at least some of them should
get divorced, which effectively tips the scales in favor of marriage being an empirically bad idea. This isn’t my opinion, it’s math.
And yet while marriage rates have been dropping for the past forty years, and we’re marrying later and later in life, the vast majority of Americans will choose to tie the knot by the time they’re thirty-five. That’s not a new trend at all: Marriage has been around for about four thousand years and it’s always been very popular (if more volatile) among the young. What is a relatively
new trend, however, is that almost all of these brides and grooms will marry for one reason, and one reason only: True love
We should indeed look back with pride at how far we’ve come as a culture since the days when marriage was a largely loveless, coercive institution, rooted in social, economic, and political practicality—and wifely subordination. But here we are at the dawn of a new millennium, enlightened, evolved, and yet the men look more like women, nobody has any pubic hair, and everybody’s texting someone else as soon as you get up to go to the bathroom. It’s like we’re living in an Age of Ish—wireless, metro, and wishy-washy. We make soft plans to meet at tenish; sex columnist Dan Savage says the ideal modern marriage is “monogamish”; and that open-ended suffix has even become a word in itself.
“Are you a vegetarian?” “Ish.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” “Meh.”
It’s dizzying. We’re connected 24/7 but eternally noncommittal, ever present and therefore never present, spending real time following fake friends whom we never, ever speak to and who wouldn’t come to our funerals if they lived next to the cemetery. Meanwhile, we speak in euphemisms (“benefits”), emote with emoticons (blush
), and we insist on making “’til death” decisions based on something as oxymoronic as true love
What’s the matter with us?
We all know the words to the songs: Love is blind,
in it—madly—head over heels
. It’s bewitching
. A battlefield
. An infatuation
. It stinks
. Cupid is stupid,
we go crazy
under his spell,
getting swept off our feet
—weak in the knees
like a baby. So what keeps us sitting on a bar stool with eternal optimism and wearing hookup underwear on blind dates? If we can’t even walk and talk straight during the courtship phase, then how are we supposed to bring out the best in each other over a lifetime? How are we supposed to deal with meddling in-laws, underachieving toddlers, and months—maybe even years—without making out?
The most important question of all, then: How can we make sure our love is actually true before
saying “I do”?
* * *
Some questions you can figure out for yourself. For others, you turn to those who know better. The people to whom I turned for answers knew best—they lived through it—and they shared their stories bravely and generously. I found my sources everywhere. Wherever I went there was always someone—or someone who knew someone—who was willing to be interviewed. They’re not “experts” or “gurus” or exhibitionist types looking to expand their following on Twitter. There was no glory to be gained, no revenge to be had, no money to be made. This is heart-to-heart, peer-to-peer sharing. The key to their candor: no real names (and all identifying details have been changed).
Most of them had never before spoken about their breakups in such gory detail and they found the process cathartic. One woman, from Wisconsin, described it as “the last dance with those demons.” Others shut down and refused to revisit certain aspects of their past—and themselves. Some interviews were twenty minutes, some lasted more than eight hours, a few carried over for days. Five of these people are old friends of mine; two of them became friends; one woman I slept with (before the interview).
The material is divided into three sections—what I now consider to be the golden triangle of relationship advice: Accelerating the Inevitable, Discussing the Dirty,
and Engaging the Elephants
. While there’s no panacea when it comes to matters of the heart, if you can apply these practices of self-actualization, sexual exploration, and verbal communication, respectively, there’s a good chance you’ll stay together. Or break up. Sometimes, I’ve learned, getting to “no” can be just as rewarding as getting to “yes.”
This book’s title, You Can Be Right (or You Can be Married),
comes from an early interview with a thirty-six-year-old woman who heard it, appropriately, from her stepmother. At first she thought it was “ludicrous,” but the longer she was married, the more “right-on” she found it. To me, the saying has always meant that it’s dangerous to prioritize the good of the individual over the good of the couple. Needing to be right requires proving the other person wrong, and that type of competitive “told ya so” thinking can be extremely divisive and demoralizing to a union.
* * *
It’s getting late here on Cape Cod. I go upstairs to check on my grandma. She sleeps with a night-light next to her bed. I used to think it was because she was afraid of the dark—afraid of the spirits. But that isn’t it at all; it’s the opposite. The better to see them with
She’s lying on her side of the bed with her mouth open and her eyes closed. I wait for her chest to move, proof that she’s alive, and then head downstairs to the living room. I’m snooping again. On a shelf, I find a curious green book from 1927 called About Ourselves: Psychology for Normal People
by H. A. Overstreet. In a chapter called “Halting the Expedition,” he says that it’s essential in a marriage to “face each other as equals, each cognizant of the necessity and dignity of the other’s contribution.” He explains how “the ‘oneself’ becomes ‘ourselves,’ and the ‘I’ becomes ‘we two.’”
I like that: we two
. It seems like a much more breathable existence than what God said in Genesis—that man should “cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.” But the real revelation comes on page forty-seven, where, pressed between two pages, I discover an actual, dried four-leaf clover (chances of mutation: roughly 1 in 10,000). According to Irish legend, the finder shall be showered with good fortune, each leaf representing, in order: faith, hope, love, and luck. I take it as an omen, then, that this particular clover is marking a poem written by Overstreet’s friend who had apparently grown tired of the popular romantic authors of the day. Titled “Lines on Reading D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, et al.,” his plea (or protest) goes like this:
Friends, what’s the matter with me?
I’ve been married eighteen years
And still love my wife.
I wonder what is the matter with me!
Judging from these books I’m told to read,
I ought to be tired of my wife;
But I’m not!
I ought to fall in love with another woman,
With other women,
With lots of other women;
But I don’t!
Say, what’s the matter with me?
The next morning I ask my grandma if it was she who marked the poem with the clover. She says she can’t remember, but I like to believe it was. Or maybe it was my grandpa.
Incidentally, Sherwood Anderson, who published the novel Many Marriages
in 1923, was married four times. And D. H. Lawrence, considered by many to be a pornographer at the time of his death, had a torrid affair with his professor’s wife, with whom he eventually eloped. She was six years his senior, already a mother of three—and a translator of fairy tales!
Say, what’s the matter with them?
That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. It’s a mission that has raised a steady stream of concern from my family and friends. They regularly check in to inquire:
“Are you sure you really want to know all this stuff?”
“Why are you still single?”
“Don’t you think writing a divorce book is gonna make you jaded?”
I don’t think so. No, this really isn’t a divorce book at all. What rises above the adultery and the acrimony is something much closer to courage. Sometimes it’s the courage to stay and work things out; sometimes it’s the courage to walk away. If I’ve learned one thing from this journey, it’s that our capacity for debauchery and duplicity is matched only by our ability to forgive such transgressions and to find that pinprick of light in the dark. For better or worse, we’re a nation of hopeful romantics.
This, then—paradoxically, perhaps—is a book about love.