By Lawrence Raab
Years later they find themselves talking
about chances, moments when their lives
might have swerved off
for the smallest reason.
I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?
What if you’d been out,
as you were when I tried three times
the night before?
Then she tells him a secret.
She’d been there all evening, and she knew
he was the one calling, which was why
she hadn’t answered.
Because she felt—
because she was certain—her life would change
if she picked up the phone, said hello,
said, I was just thinking
I was afraid,
she tells him. And in the morning
I also knew it was you, but I just
answered the phone
the way anyone
answers a phone when it starts to ring,
not thinking you have a choice.
(I’m having trouble formatting this poem in WordPress, and formatting is so important here. Apologies. Please see the proper formatting in the photograph below.)
Here’s a poem possible only once upon a time when everyone had a landline and the one way to know for sure who was calling was to answer the phone.
If the couple in this poem had courted more recently, he would have called her cellphone, then texted, emailed and left a voicemail. There would be no we-almost-lost-each-other-forever. Either he would have tracked her down or he would have known she was ignoring his calls.
But even with the outdated technology of the poem, his version is overly-romanticized. We don’t know the whole story, of course, but surely he would have kept trying to reach her after she didn’t answer. Surely there would have been another opportunity to connect before their lives/might have swerved off/for the smallest reason.
Years later, happy years it would seem, she demolishes his version of their love story. It turns out that the single moment when their lives might swerve off course is not the missed phone calls so many years ago, but the telling of her secret this late in their relationship. It wasn’t kismet, she tells him, it was a choice, at first a conscious one formed in fear, and then an unconscious one formed out of habit.
You can just see the poor fellow’s face fall. It’s not devastating news—nowhere close to I’m in love with your brother and I’ll let the IRS agent in on my way out–but it’s deflating. He doesn’t know her as well as he thought. His treasured romantic-comedy relationship is going to have to be re-cast.
It reminds me of the last beautiful scene in James’ Joyce’s The Dead. Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta are in their hotel room after his aunts’ annual holiday party. Just before they had left the party he had watched her listening at the top of the stairs to a song played in a distant room. He couldn’t decipher her strange expression but it excited him, made him look forward to a night of intimacy. As he takes her in his arms in the hotel, he asks what she’s thinking about. The song, she says, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Then she throws herself on the bed, sobbing. Blue balls to follow.
She tells him what he’d not known before. When she was a young girl, a sickly boy named Michael Furey had fallen in love with her and used to sing “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. The night before she was leaving for school, he came outside her window in the rain and told her he did not want to live if she left. He died a week later.
After this revelation she falls asleep, and Gabriel is left alone, humiliated, angry, then by turns tender and wistful. Just before the story ends with the immortal lines about the snow falling faintly and faintly falling upon all the living and the dead, there’s this:
He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love
That’s marriage, right there, that bittersweet understanding. Maybe I’m putting a more hopeful spin on Joyce’s story than it merits, but understanding that your spouse is not you, and that your spouse is not the person you thought they were early in your romance, can be the beginning of real love and a real union.
Years ago when my husband and I were moving to Michigan and arguing about every house we looked at, our 80-year old realtor, now long dead but at the time long-married, told us that married people are like two trees. She used her forearms to show us the trees side by side. Separate trees, Millie said, but always growing beside each other. She was so right, that Millie. Any happily married person will tell you it takes years of marriage for the old idea of who you married to make room for the actual person who shares your bed and sometimes farts in it.
The title of Raab’s poem covers not just this little vignette of a married couple’s life, but what happens after the poem ends. Yes, marriage can be the bliss of shared memories, but it’s also the negotiation of differing memories. Romance is a construct; marriage is what happens after deconstruction. Or doesn’t. We don’t know where this marriage is headed.
I love how the structure works with the content of “Marriage.” The poem begins with the stanzas going back and forth between the speakers, like dialogue in a story. But after the first exchange, the poem is all hers, the conversation taken over by her secret. As his dream deflates, so do the stanzas, shrinking from four lines to three to a mere two at the end.
I left the poem outside a hoity-toity bridal salon, the kind of store that you don’t step inside unless you’re convinced it’s a good idea to spend half a year’s rent on a dress you wear for a few hours. I didn’t leave it there just to be snarky. The poem sheds light on the reality of marriage, and that’s a better place than fantasy weddings for any bride to begin preparations.
Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.
Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.