My husband sweeps in, catching me listlessly watching a video of hippos eating pumpkins, one hand clawed around my mouse, the other holding my slab of Desk Chocolate, a snack category I have recently introduced to my home office. Earlier I was putting it back in its packaging between bites, but this pretence ceased hours ago. I am busy, but achieving nothing, because I am distracted by the things I am not doing, the things I have failed to do previously, and those I will fail to do next. Also because of the hippos.
My husband, by contrast, is wholly in the moment. He exudes energy, purpose and other alien-to-me concepts. His arrival causes our ancient dog, which has finally stopped moaning about the general state of its life, to jump as if electrified, then start moaning again.
“You’re upsetting him,” I say sourly.
“You know my new watch monitors my blood pressure and cardiac function? Well, apparently I’m in the top 10% of my age group.”
“Jesus. Does that mean you’re never going to die?”
“Well, not of a heart attack anyway.”
“Marry a man five years older, you’re hoping for a few years’ peace, honestly.”
“Lot of dementia in my family, too. Imagine, I’ll be completely gaga and still able to run really fast.”
Then we laugh, with a manic edge. With our younger son about to turn 18, soon it will be just the two of us for ever. Of course, it’s debatable how empty any nest remains in these times of criminally unaffordable housing and education, but ours will definitely be emptier.
Casting around for what our life looked like 20 years ago, BC, I can only conjure fragments. Some are reassuring – we already watched lots of TV, I recall – others less so. We fought more: I remember sleeping in the bath to prove a (ridiculous) point, and shouting at each other in various holiday beauty spots. You can’t really let rip with other people in the house, and an atmosphere is horrible, so the walk fight, the hissed fight, the snatched, shortcut fight, replaced real humdingers. I don’t want them back.
Would we swipe right now? His current interests are freediving, climbing, monitoring household CO2 levels and humane rat traps. Mine are sitting still, fancy bantams and choosing what to eat from the online menus of restaurants I don’t plan to visit. But – at the risk of reviving the ancient curse of Hello! magazine – I’m excited. He’s suggested we go dancing (me: “Ugh”); I jokingly suggested we spend a month in Venice (him: “Yes! Book now, what are you waiting for?” – an excellent illustration of why I need him in my life). So far, we’ve only managed a few walks and a trip to look at rat traps, but there’s plenty of time, what with his superior cardiac function and the antioxidant properties of all my Desk Chocolate.
These are interesting times to be in a long-term relationship, with stronger daylight being shone on this ordinary, mysterious state. Perhaps it’s because more of our long-term relationships have taken place in daylight hours, during successive lockdowns. “It’s like retirement,” friends messaged, darkly, in their snatched alone time in the bathroom or taking out the bins. I don’t think they meant the laughing, cruising, pastel-cashmere-slung-over-shoulders retirement of the targeted ads I get now.
Whatever the reason, there are more unvarnished accounts of long-term relationships around. We can watch televised couples therapy; or read Lisa Taddeo writing in the New York Times about her husband’s inability to dispose of their dead Christmas tree.
US author Heather Havrilesky has just published Foreverland: on the Divine Tedium of Marriage. “Do I hate my husband? Oh yes, for sure, definitely,” read part of an excerpt. It detonated ripples of shock, with readers telling her to get counselling or a divorce, angry she hadn’t done the decent thing and lightly fictionalised the nesting dolls of love and loathing, frustration and gratitude that make up a marriage. The pushback, Havrilesky said, is “A piece of our culture’s insistence that all stories of love remain firmly grounded in sugarcoated, airbrushed fantasies.”
She’s right. We know the ever after isn’t a misty, idyllic fade out but, somehow people are still shocked to see it publicly, plainly told. That sometimes, long-term love is a confronting challenge: one of you gets ill, finds God or takes up golf. That sometimes a relationship can feel both irretrievably broken and rock solid within 24 hours; even an hour. That often, nothing particular happens, the ebb and flow of estrangement and rapprochement, the happy accident of never wanting to split at the same time.
Wouldn’t it be good to make this a bigger part of the stories we tell about love and marriage? Entering a new phase of my own story, I’m hungry to hear the ones about bins, rashes and resentments. They lack that obvious narrative arc of new love, or the end of love, but, often, so does life. Especially if one of you turns out to be practically immortal.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling