by Anna Sorensen
by Elizabeth Spencer
It starts with an apple.
We’re crossing a bridge in Prague and you say you’re hungry. I reach into my pocket for the apple I always keep there and hand it to you, watching with satisfaction as you bite into it. It is the first time I feel this instinct to nourish, to put your need for the apple above my own. I will feel it again six years later when our first child is born and finally know what to call it.
Prague is also where we decide to get married. In a basement jazz cafe, we order fizzy drinks and toast to our future. The fact that our relationship is just two months old only gives friends and family pause. The ocean is a great clarifier.
We are engaged at Christmas and married the following October. I am 25 and you are 34. Having met in a writer’s group, we pledge to devote ourselves and our life to art. You will play jazz guitar, write poetry, finish revising your novel. I will use my lunch break at work to sit in my car and compose fiction.
Now, in our eleventh year of marriage, we sometimes argue about that vow. You ask why we didn’t devote our life to art after all. I say there is still time.
Instead of a shared writer’s life we have a family life, children and cats and a mortgage. You persist, staying up late or rising early to write and play guitar. At first, I try to write when the baby naps and when this proves impossible I give it up altogether. Then I turn 35 and decide my five-year break is over. We celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary in New York with bookstores and Japanese pencils and dinners in Little Italy. We walk for blocks and miles, remembering why we like each other.
I didn’t change my name when I got married. It had taken me 22 years to find the rhythm in all three of my names, to stop wishing I’d been a Melissa or Colleen instead. And I wanted to keep the name that was on my birth certificate and social security card, my high school and college diplomas. Maybe when we have kids, I thought. Now I hold onto my married name like a passport I might one day use. If I burn through the promise of being Elizabeth Helen Spencer I can shed my name like snakeskin and take yours.
The night Natalie Portman wins an Oscar for Black Swan, I find our beloved gray cat dead under the couch. I hear her acceptance speech in the waiting room of the emergency vet where we’ve taken his corpse to be autopsied. They won’t autopsy him but they examine him, give us a theory. He likely had a blockage in his urethra. Toxins built up in his bladder and he died.
The next day, we sit by the Schuylkill River and cry together. It is February; the raw gray landscape mirrors our grief. The sudden loss of this cat we found scrawny in an alley and nursed to health is a shock, an accusation. Why didn’t we take him to the emergency vet on Saturday, when we noticed he wasn’t eating? Instead, I made an appointment with our regular vet for Monday and carried on with the weekend.
We drove to Northern Virginia to see your old guitar teacher perform. Before the concert, we ate dinner in a fancy Indian restaurant in the District. I remember looking down at my hands, admiring the rings on my fingers. I felt pretty and lucky, able to take the ease of my life for granted. It was the last time I would feel that way. Now I knew how cruelly the ordinary could capitulate to disaster.
Three months later we go to London for a week. My grandfather has just been checked into the hospital for dehydration. When I see him before the trip, he’s lying on a stretcher in the medical center. He squeezes my hand, calls me Patooty, tells me to have a wonderful life. We’re just going on vacation, I say.
We get home and learn he’s been diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. He dies a week or so later, the day before my 27th birthday. I’m in the room when it happens, his breaths rattling, far apart, and finally still. John, where are you going? Karin, the woman he’d lived with after my grandmother’s death, calls out. Where did you go? I think as I stare at his waxen face.
I turn 29 and we decide to have a baby. After a year of trying, I finally take a positive pregnancy test. I text a picture of it to my mom while I wait for you to come home. The baby will arrive just before our fifth wedding anniversary.
For a few months, we are giddy with the news. We plan one last trip to Eastern Europe, flying into Prague to visit my friend Nora and then to Budapest. In the hotel room, I ask you to tell me how much you love my changing body. You run your hands over the new curves and we make love.
On Memorial Day we are back home and my father comes over. He has bad news, he tells us, and wanted to deliver it in person. While we were away my brother discovered a lump on his neck and that lump is cancer. At first, I don’t believe him. Then he cries. The family barbecue that evening is canceled.
Over the next five months, my daughter grows to term as the melanoma spreads from my brother’s lymph nodes to his lungs and brain. He is present on the night of her birth in October, waiting in the lobby and coming in to see her after the midwife cleans us up. He looked forward to being an uncle, teaching her how to play tennis. In December he goes to the hospital and never leaves.
You are in North Carolina where you moved our family two weeks after our daughter’s birth. An offer came for a higher-level job, a better salary. We couldn’t afford to stay in Philadelphia on only your income, you said. I was stoic, distracted myself with the planning. But after you left I packed a suitcase and cried, staying with my parents until the baby’s six-week checkup. It occurs to me that I don’t have to go. I could just stay here. There are so many small moments like this in a marriage. You either choose it again or you don’t. I chose to drive down to Raleigh with you after Thanksgiving, which will also be the last time I see my brother on his feet and smiling.
That winter I feel like a character in an Alice Munro story. Everything in my life has been upended. I find myself wearing the same two pairs of yoga pants and pushing a baby in a stroller over the hills in this new town. You say now that I threatened to divorce you. I don’t remember it this way. Marriage is a history two people share but remember differently.
The following spring you choose again, too. You take a job in Philadelphia and we move home, have a second child and buy a family house outside the city. Parenthood is a mirror reflecting your flaws and weakness. I never yelled at anyone before I had toddlers. I thought I was a patient person.
Marriage can be a mirror, too, though it is easier to look away from. I got married young and it freed me. Before you, I’d spent years lonely and lovesick. I wanted love more than I wanted anything else, a dangerous quality in a young woman. I met you just as I was trying to prove to myself that I could be wild and free, could move across the ocean and thrive.
I thrived under the conditions of marriage. Went to graduate school, practiced yoga almost every day, wrote fiction in the mornings and worked as an adjunct professor. We threw parties infamous for the gourmet meals you served. All that time, you were doing the same things you’d done since we met. You worked long hours and commuted up and down 95. Worried over our finances and didn’t complain.
Now I worry I haven’t loved you selflessly enough. I think that is the lesson of all love. How to give, how to serve, how to accept the person you married. There is still time. We dream of buying an apartment in Prague. Maybe we will retire there, live in our love’s original geography. The jazz cafe, the bridge where I gave you the apple.
Photos: At top, a view of Prague in 2017; within essay, Elizabeth Spencer and her husband in Prague, October 2008.