Twenty years ago, right after my boyfriend presented me with his great-grandmother's diamond engagement ring, I decided to buy him a gift. I wandered into a men's store near Pike Place Market. The windows were filled with black leather vests and motorcycle boots, but a few mannequins were tucked into crisp linen jackets and cashmere turtlenecks. This was no stuffy department store. It was bound to have what I needed. "I'm looking for something for my fiancé," I told the salesman. "Clothes. He's kind of casual...you know. Not a tie guy." The salesman showed me silk Tees, blazers, khakis, crew neck sweaters. Nothing satisfied. He was patient. I fingered the lapel of a black wool suit while he waited, the weave was so fine I wanted to brush my lips against it.
Finally the salesman said, "You want to dress him up," no longer solicitous in his how can I help you voice. Now he sounded more like a shrink, flatly stating a truth his client has been avoiding. Within ten minutes he'd pulled together a gorgeous teal sports coat, charcoal pants and, yes, a tie. Nothing too conservative, but indisputably a knot-around-your-neck-with-a-half-Windsor tie.
My fiancé loved them—he swore he did. Twenty years later they are still in our closet, one of the two coats and ties he owns. I have a photograph of him actually wearing them. Somewhere. He did rent a tuxedo for our wedding and, in one of our pre-marital talks about blending our different lifestyles, he promised to wear a tuxedo for some event of my choice once every year. But it's OK—I made a few outrageous promises in the bloom of love, too.
After dating too many doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers, I loved the fact that my fiancé wasn't driven by titles or money. He was from the end of Vietnam, the generation that righteously rebelled against our parents' admonitions to do something practical and secure. After winning a full scholarship to MIT for his masters degree, he worked two years at a desk job before he walked out, chucking the medical insurance and pension plan. How cool was that?
By the time I met him he was earning a good living in real estate and construction, stripping the green vinyl siding and acoustical tiles and shag carpets off the original clapboard and inlayed floors and coved ceilings of 1920's bungalows and Victorians. He was a home restorer before anyone slapped the pejorative term "flipper" onto it. Shortly after we fell for each other he announced he was taking six months off to single-hand a twenty foot sailboat to Hawaii and back, navigating by a sextant and stars. I made him buy a survival suit (which, like some morbid joke, sported a money back guarantee). On the eve of his return trip his tiny boat engine gave out. After three failed repairs he pushed off from the dock with a "to hell with it. I'm leaving today!" I do believe that was the moment I knew I wanted to marry him.
I work as a part-time physician and part-time writer. With our incomes added together we did fine, even as our family rapidly grew. And then real estate in Seattle began its boom of booms and we did more than fine. We built a house. We bought a vacation home. We bought season tickets to the theater and ate out as much as my husband wanted, even if it was only half as often as I wanted. Several times a year we went to a fundraiser or opera and he wore a very decent black suit, if not a tuxedo. We had found our balanced lifestyle, a sweet spot where my tastes and his thrift could happily bed down together. We saved money and invested it in more real estate. We started adding up the numbers and realized that, quite without planning it, we were pretty rich. On paper. So when he discovered a turn-of-the-century farmhouse on the verge of being torn down, we borrowed against everything we owned and bought it, gutted it and restored it to glory. A sweet gem of charming history on the outside, with the best of brand new on the inside. It went on the market a month before the collapse and two years later it is still for sale.
I can hardly claim we were shocked by the crash. For years we had driven or bicycled past acres of spanking new seven thousand square foot houses and wondered how on earth there could be enough rich people to buy them all. Of course now we know there weren't. But we knew it back then, too, if we'd listened to our own reason. If I'd listened to him. If he'd listened to me. No, the shock has been coming to grips with the "for richer or poorer" line in our wedding vows; admitting that money made our differences a lot easier to live with, and now we have to accept each other with no separate-check-book cushion. His quaint fondness for garage sales begins to feel like a taunt. My appreciation for Italian high heels seems sybaritic. As children of the liberated age we were full partners in this marriage from the start. We were both committed to share equally in earning and childrearing and folding laundry, and when one stumbled the other would pull the load. So what is this evil worm in me in me that whispers, "but I don't want to be the only paycheck? I like nice restaurants."
As the interest payments began to scorch our paper assets to ashes we pared back. The first year Netflix replaced movies, take-out replaced restaurants, tent camping replaced the resort vacation. Last year I stalled on children's braces, dental work for my own painful tooth, my mammogram, a family wedding back east, even a visit to my aging parents. Last month I made my second, very successful shopping trip to Goodwill. As our standard of living has swung toward a new balance, it has clearly skewed toward my husband's comfort zone and away from mine. Now we argue about who goes to the grocery store not because of the work involved, but because of what will come home in the bag: the pricier brand of yogurt I'm addicted to, or whatever was on sale? We argue about driving the carpool because he insists we go ten miles up the highway to buy cheaper gas; I sting him with "my time is worth more than 13 cents a gallon." We have weathered enough in the past to learn that blows can be thrown, with the children out of earshot, but only above the belt. The belt, however, is dropping lower.
A long marriage is going to suffer unpredicted crises, it's a fact. It's probably why they stuck in the standard vows my husband and I are now testing: "sickness and health, better or worse, richer or poorer." All those generations of romantics who clawed their way back to love through the debris of wars and affairs and injuries or illness knew they should warn us, I suspect. Scariest of all, after living the first half of our marriage planning for a better and brighter future, is accepting that our financial roller coaster is heading down, and two years ago may have been its last peak. At least this crisis is shared in the company of many good friends. Some, tragically, are not surviving it as intact families.
Last Saturday we sat on the porch eating popcorn and drinking homemade Mojitos in a summer sunset, the music from a lavish party across the bay rebounding off the water-an anonymous, borrowed bash. The realtor might call tomorrow. Or next week. Or not at all. We may put our own house on the market next month, sell it for a loss as well. But really, I tell myself, there are too many bathrooms to clean for my tastes, even when he does half. The day I accepted his great grandmother's ring I was too naive to name the ingredients critical for a durable marriage. While I've never asked, I suspect he couldn't either. But some part of me must have known, because they have proved to be inseparable from his fiber. When I decided to change specialties and go through a second medical residency, he continued to love this exhausted, absentee wife. Or at least he faked it long enough to get me through graduation. When we had four children under the age of two he knew when to insist it was time for the bottle instead of the breast. Half comatose himself, he would take our squalling baby out of my arms so that I, his squalling wife, could sleep. He has sat through my favorite operas in his black suit (without falling asleep) so that he can recognize the arias I love. And really, he still looks pretty hot in his faded T-shirts. How can I trade a dinner at Campagne Restaurant in Ferragamo heels over that, I ask you?
So this time we are shoving away from the dock together and, even if I'm not sure where we'll end up, I know there is land on the other side of this ocean. Besides, with diligence you can occasionally find a quite decent pair of Ferragamos at Goodwill. Or at least on eBay.
Causes Carol Cassella Supports
Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Healing the Children, Operation Smile, International Rescue Committee