His hand began descending down my back, and he continued.
What, I wondered, had led us to feel so differently about each other?I suppose I must begin by saying that many people would consider our lives fairly ordinary. Like many men, I had the obligation to support the family financially, and my life was largely centered around my career. For the past thirty years, I’ve worked with the law firm of Ambry, Saxon and Tundle in New Bern, North Carolina, and my income—while not extravagant—was enough to place us firmly in the upper middle class. I enjoy golfing and gardening on the weekends, prefer classical music, and read the newspaper every morning. Though Jane was once an elementary school teacher, she spent the majority of our married life raising three children. She ran both the household and our social life, and her proudest possessions are the photo albums that she carefully assembled as a visual history of our lives. Our brick home is complete with a picket fence and automatic sprinklers, we own two cars, and we are members of both the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce. In the course of our married life, we’ve saved for retirement, built a wooden swing set in the backyard that now sits unused, attended dozens of parent-teacher conferences, voted regularly, and contributed to the Episcopal church each and every Sunday. At fifty-six, I’m three years older than my wife.
Despite my feelings for Jane, I sometimes think we’re an unlikely pair to have spent a life together. We’re different in almost every way, and though opposites can and do attract, I’ve always felt that I made the better choice on our wedding day. Jane is, after all, the kind of person I always wished to be. While I tend toward stoicism and logic, Jane is outgoing and kind, with a natural empathy that endears her to others. She laughs easily and has a wide circle of friends. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that most of my friends are, in fact, the husbands of my wife’s friends, but I believe this is common for most married couples our age. Yet I’m fortunate in that Jane has always seemed to choose our friends with me in mind, and I’m appreciative that there’s always someone for me to visit with at a dinner party. Had she not come into my life, I sometimes think that I would have led the life of a monk.There’s more, too: I’m charmed by the fact that Jane has always displayed her emotions with childlike ease. When she’s sad she cries; when she’s happy she laughs; and she enjoys nothing more than to be surprised with a wonderful gesture. In those moments, there’s an ageless innocence about her, and though a surprise by definition is unexpected, for Jane, the memories of a surprise can arouse the same excited feelings for years afterward. Sometimes when she’s daydreaming, I’ll ask her what she’s thinking about and she’ll suddenly begin speaking in giddy tones about something I’ve long forgotten. This, I must say, has never ceased to amaze me.While Jane has been blessed with the most tender of hearts, in many ways she’s stronger than I am. Her values and beliefs, like those of most southern women, are grounded by God and family; she views the world through a prism of black and white, right and wrong. For Jane, hard decisions are reached instinctively—and are almost always correct—while I, on the other hand, find myself weighing endless options and frequently second-guessing myself. And unlike me, my wife is seldom self-conscious. This lack of concern about other people’s perceptions requires a confidence that I’ve always found elusive, and above all else, I envy this about her.
I suppose that some of our differences stem from our respective upbringings. While Jane was raised in a small town with three siblings and parents who adored her, I was raised in a town house in Washington, D.C., as the only child of government lawyers, and my parents were seldom home before seven o’clock in the evening. As a result, I spent much of my free time alone, and to this day, I’m most comfortable in the privacy of my den.As I’ve already mentioned, we have three children, and though I love them dearly, they are for the most part the products of my wife. She bore them and raised them, and they are most comfortable with her. While I sometimes regret that I didn’t spend as much time with them as I should have, I’m comforted by the thought that Jane more than made up for my absences. Our children, it seems, have turned out well despite me. They’re grown now and living on their own, but we consider ourselves fortunate that only one has moved out of state. Our two daughters still visit us frequently, and my wife is careful to have their favorite foods in the refrigerator in case they’re hungry, which they never seem to be. When they come, they talk with Jane for hours.
At twenty-seven, Anna is the oldest. With black hair and dark eyes, her looks reflected her saturnine personality growing up. She was a brooder who spent her teenage years locked in her room, listening to gloomy music and writing in a diary. She was a stranger to me back then; days might pass before she would say a single word in my presence, and I was at a loss to understand what I might have done to provoke this. Everything I said seemed to elicit only sighs or shakes of her head, and if I asked if anything was bothering her, she would stare at me as if the question were incomprehensible. My wife seemed to find nothing unusual in this, dismissing it as a phase typical of young girls, but then again, Anna still talked to her. Sometimes I’d pass by Anna’s room and hear Anna and Jane whispering to each other; but if they heard me outside the door, the whispering would stop. Later, when I would ask Jane what they’d been discussing, she’d shrug and wave a hand mysteriously, as if their only goal were to keep me in the dark.
Yet because she was my firstborn, Anna has always been my favorite. This isn’t an admission I would make to anyone, but I think she knows it as well, and lately I’ve come to believe that even in her silent years, she was fonder of me than I realized. I can still remember times when I’d be perusing trusts or wills in my den, and she’d slip through the door. She’d pace around the room, scanning the bookshelves and reaching for various items, but if I addressed her, she’d slip back out as quietly as she’d come in. Over time, I learned not to say anything, and she’d sometimes linger in the office for an hour, watching me as I scribbled on yellow legal tablets. If I glanced toward her, she’d smile complicitly, enjoying this game of ours. I have no more understanding of it now than I did back then, but it’s ingrained in my memory as few images are.But how, I wondered, was I supposed to make this happen? Yes, I knew that I had to court Jane again, but I realized that this was not as easy as I’d originally thought it would be. Our thorough familiarity, which I first imagined would simplify things, actually made things more challenging. Our dinner conversations, for instance, were stilted by routine. For a few weeks after talking to Noah, I actually spent part of my afternoons at the office coming up with new topics for later discussion, but when I brought them up, they always seemed forced and would soon fizzle out. As always, we returned to discussions of the children or my law firm’s clients and employees.
Our life together, I began to realize, had settled into a pattern that was not conducive to renewing any kind of passion. For years we’d adopted separate schedules to accommodate our mostly separate duties. In the early years of our family’s life, I spent long hours at the firm—including evenings and weekends—making sure that I would be viewed as a worthy partner when the time came. I never used all my allotted vacation time. Perhaps I was overzealous in my determination to impress Ambry and Saxon, but with a growing family to provide for, I didn’t want to take any chances. I now realize that the pursuit of success at work combined with my natural reticence kept me at arm’s length from the rest of the family, and I’ve come to believe that I’ve always been something of an outsider in my own house.While I was busy in my own world, Jane had her hands full with the children. As their activities and demands grew more numerous, it sometimes seemed that she was a blur of harried activity who merely rushed past me in the hallways. There were years, I had to admit, in which we ate dinner separately more often than together, and though occasionally it struck me as odd, I did nothing to change this.
Perhaps we became used to this way of life, but once the children were no longer there to govern our lives, we seemed powerless to fill in the empty spaces between us. And despite my concern about the state of our relationship, the sudden attempt to change our routines was akin to tunneling through limestone with a spoon.This is not to say I didn’t try. In January, for instance, I bought a cookbook and took to preparing meals on Saturday evenings for the two of us; some of them, I might add, were quite original and delicious. In addition to my regular golf game, I began walking through our neighborhood three mornings a week, hoping to lose a bit of weight. I even spent a few afternoons in the bookstore, browsing the self-help section, hoping to learn what else I could do. The experts’ advice on improving a marriage? To focus on the four As—attention, appreciation, affection, and attraction. Yes, I remember thinking, that makes perfect sense, so I turned my efforts in those directions. I spent more time with Jane in the evenings instead of working in my den, I complimented her frequently, and when she spoke of her daily activities, I listened carefully and nodded when appropriate to let her know she had my full attention.
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