I sat across my friend at the local Indian restaurant. Our plates full and the tables too close together. I tried hard to not notice our neighbor giving us a little too much attention. We sat, her and I, talking about our daughters and exchanging notes on the local elementary school. This lunch would have been unremarkable if not for the fact that it was our first lunch date and she is white and I am brown.
“How did you meet your husband?” I asked as I dunked my vadai in sambhar and popped it into my mouth. She finished chewing and took a moment to respond. “The usual way, you know, my BFF and his BFF were friends from childhood…”
Problem was I did not know. It was not the norm for me. The conversation went on to relive much of her courtship and all of mine. We talked about my arranged marriage and ended the afternoon with a hearty laugh over how I should write a book about it. I nodded sagely and got into my car feeling pleasantly sated, both from the meal and the company.
Earlier this morning, I stood fuming at the stove, scorching the broccoli as I tried to understand why I was feeling defensive. It had been a normal morning, the school day morning rush, the kids in varying stages of undress with five minutes left for them to be out the door. His comment had flown under the radar, almost.
“You haven’t been to the gym in a week.”
It was a statement, not a question. I let it sit, playing with answers in my head until I burst. I fumed over the stove while he went upstairs. My thoughts were bulleted in my head. I knew exactly what I was going to say and the tone in which I was going to deliver my message. I heard him coming and steeled my face in anticipation.
He had a shy smile on his face, his arms were outstretched and he pre-empted conversation with a hug and “I am sorry!”
Our marriage of fifteen years has mostly been about the “sorrys” than the “i-love-yous”. We met one Sunday in February 2001. He was on a three week vacation from the US to be part of his cousin’s wedding. I was working in Bangalore, living the single life with abandon. We met under watchful eyes at the home where I was a paying guest. I wore a saree, a deep purple silk that undulated and fell with my contours. My hair was pinned back and a string of jasmine infused my hair and the atmosphere with its heady scent.
We sat across on my bed. I, perched at one end and he the other. That it was awkward is an understatement. When the silence turned oppressive, I launched into a tirade of sorts. One brought on by five years of relentless rejection by potential suitors and one painful broken engagement.
“I am not sure what you want from your life partner…” I began. “I have definite ideas. I will not be a door mat. I have an identity, one I will fight to defend all my life. I imagine marriage as a partnership, one in which we walk hand in hand as friends. You will not lead and I will not follow…”
It took me over forty-five minutes to expound on my ideas of marriage, partnership and love to a complete stranger. Ideas that had been cobbled together from watching my parents, my extended family and society. When I stopped, spent from painting a picture with words of the ideal life partner I wanted, all I could hear at the back of my mind was Savage Garden
“I knew I loved you before I met you
I think I dreamed you into life
I knew I loved you before I met you
I have been waiting all my life”
A week later, when my to-be husband and I met under less formal circumstances, he explained to me what it had looked like from his end. “I came to meet you with every intention of refusing you. Prior to meeting you, I had no idea of what I wanted out of marriage. All I knew was that I wanted the girl to look nice, be athletic and take pride in grooming herself. Now, I am not sure…”
I had been a pudgy girl all through my tweens. In my early twenties, each rejection from a potential suitor made a dent on my cylindrical frame. I dieted, worked out and reached an approximation of a womanly figure. At my best, I was still overweight. My body image took a beating it would take over fifteen years to reverse.
Our wedding was held that June in Madras, three months from when we first met. We had over a thousand people attend, mostly people I did not know. We stood at the reception dais, shaking hands and tirelessly putting colorful wrapped gifts away. His on one pile and mine on the other. My makeup was garish and my cheeks hurt from holding a smile in face. My feet were killing me. Our first night was mostly passing out from exhaustion. Our honeymoon an exercise in me educating my husband on menstrual woes. We walked, holding hands, talking about our past. We stood on fog filled bridges, staring into each others eyes, believing that someday there would be sparks and lightning.
Our first year together was marked by searching for similarities, for things that we both had a common interest in. The search was long and fruitless. He was chalk and I was cheese. I loved pop music and read voraciously. He loved to play outside and worked on Math problems for fun. His was an engineer at heart and I an artist. I pretended to be interested in the pigeon hole principle on our walks around our apartment complex while I talked to him about my favorite classics.
The next few years focused on the differences and long stretches of silence. We abstained from words when we felt hurt. I wrote long rambling letters using a pen and paper and left them for him to find. We would make up and it would happen again, a month later. If I believed in expressing myself ceaselessly, he believed in keeping it all in. The one thing we agreed on was to not carry our differences to bed.
“Agree to Disagree” became our mantra, our clarion call, the phrase that saved our marriage. When we finally settled into an uneasy coupledom, mostly described as sitting on the couch, him watching TV and me browsing the internet, the biological clock started ticking louder. I heeded the clock and wanted to start a family, he couldn’t care either way. Our battles with infertility lasted a good many years. Just when I despaired I was in it alone for the long haul, kids arrived by adoption, all of ten months old in the space of a week and he embraced fatherhood in a way that put me to shame.
I think I fell in love with him then. Ten years post marriage, the sparks flew and all I could see was the beauty beneath the sharp edges. As he embraced parenthood, I embraced him warts and all. If I respected him before for speaking his mind, I now felt the concern behind the words. If I noticed his smile before, I noticed how beautiful it was now. If I resisted his obsession with sports then, I gifted him tennis rackets now. If I appreciated his help with chores before, I now saw it as partnership. As we grew into our marriage, I finally saw him for who he was, not for what I wanted him to be.
We don’t discuss books or Math anymore. He plays tennis and I spend my time writing and reading. We have settled into a common taste in music. We cook together, he cuts and cleans and I make the food. He makes the money and I manage it. He engages with the children intellectually and physically while I nurture them.
“Life is beautiful” we often remark together, our eyes looking together in the same direction. We appreciate what we have, live in the moment and recognize the work it takes to keep this marriage working. The differences have not vanished, they have become grooves that mark how our relationship has grown.
The love we share now is of the in-between kind. It exists, in the crossed out items on the to-do list as he walks the aisles of the grocery store. It exists, in the tub of sorbet that arrives unannounced at the end of the week. It exists, in the cramped sleeping form of his as one child sleeps on his lap and the other on his shoulder. It exists, in the spaces between us, the pockets that need no language, in the hum of the air before speech, in the understanding that transcends words.
Some days, when I am mellow, I dream of the future, just the two of us on a bench in our backyard, listening to birdsong and watching the sun go down.
PS: Trying my hand at essay writing. Comments appreciated on what works and what does not.