A few weeks ago, we were leaving the basketball arena, after watching the last game of the college season. Fans were still mingling out in the main hallways. As we rounded the bend toward the doors where we usually exit, there was a couple sitting on the floor right by the door. A young married couple, the husband holding a child on each knee, a baby and a toddler. The parents were in hot "discussion." I could hear their individual voices above the noise of the exiting crowd. She was saying something about, If I were in charge, and you said we would meet in the parking lot. And he was saying something about, But you said, and we agreed.
It was one of those moments where Julia normally has to nudge me and say, "Mom, stop! You're staring." I actually slowed down, then turned around and watched for a minute. I think I continued walking backwards, but I might have stopped altogether. The husband was holding onto the children like one would one of those padded arm things the canine unit trainer uses to teach a German shepherd how to take down a fleeing fugitive. One padded child on each arm.
I walked to the car wondering if that was how this couple wanted their life to be: sitting on the floor in the middle of a basketball arena arguing loudly about who was supposed to meet where in what parking lot while hundreds of people walked by and their children listened. If they stopped and considered, would they really want to be living their life that way? Why would they want to be married to each other that way? Because at some level, whether it's a deep desire to have a drama-filled life, or their sheer inability to imagine a life different than that they live now, their sitting on that very public floor was a choice.
Last week in Las Vegas, we stopped to fill up the car before heading back to Utah. The boys were in the MacDonalds built into the gas station buying lunch. I backed the car into a parking space next to the station, and right into the middle of a domestic dispute. The couple in the truck next to me had perhaps lost too much at the tables. Whatever it was, their argument was strung with profanities. Every second word started with f, and it was used as every part of speech imaginable. The woman got out of the car. The man followed her, alternately threatening her and telling her to keep her f----hands off him. He pushed her against the truck. I got out of my car, looked hard at them. They walked around to the back of their truck. I thought about calling the police. He pushed her again. She cowered and moved, incredibly, toward him. He threw her off, got into the driver's seat, swearing the entire time. She got into the truck with him and they drove off. To California, judging by the plates.
When I walked through the doors, a father surrounded by worried kids asked me what they were arguing about. I told him something about his money, her car, don't touch me, etc. He said he would have gone out there if it had gone on any longer, even though he was outweighed by about 75 pounds--by both the man and the woman. Then, as we both got drinks out of the cooler, he said, "Well, we can pray for her." I said I would. I believe he has.
I thought as I drove (and prayed) the five hours back to our hometown about that couple. About what would possess a woman to get into a truck with a man who could do her serious bodily harm. About what would possess a man to think that that kind of behavior was acceptable, in any situation. The couple in the basketball arena came to mind, arguing on the floor with a child in each arm. I wondered why it was they thought that was an appropriate way to be married to each other. I wondered at the emotional muscle memory one develops when the default setting in one's response to each other is confrontation. It's sort of like choosing as the base font for your marriage Courier 10-point when there is Garamond, Georgia or Century Schoolbook. Even the perfectly serviceable Times New Roman is better than Courier. Who wants to be married in Courier, to be loved and love in the blockish, mono-space font that smacks of WP 2.0, the blinking green cursor, and Alan Ashton's very first efforts?
Partnered love is a choice. For me, partner love is a different kind of love than the love I feel for my children. Unlike my mother love, it didn't take root in me. It didn't force its helpless way into my heart with that first angry cry. Partnered love, or married love as mine is, is for me a chosen love. Because it was my choice to love Kevin (okay, his calf muscles and dark, curly hair helped considerably), it can also be my choice not to love him. Choosing not to love--well or at all--is the equal and opposite reaction to choosing love. It is the other choice that makes our loving another an exercise of our free will.
Some might read this and say, "But no, we were meant to be; we were destined." You can choose to frame your love story as "falling in love." You might even feel as if you had no choice but to love your partner and to be with him or her forever. In other words, you were just a puppet in the grand play of love. Puppetmaster aside, or whatever wizard (kindly or disturbed) is yanking the levers behind your curtain, there are very real moments when you choose to stay, to love. The second week, or the seventh year, or the twenty-third and the fifty-ninth, you choose to stay. Either because you promised, or you cannot imagine another way of life, or because you don't want your story to be the alternative, or because you still believe in the two of you. Whatever the motivation, you choose to stay.
I'm thinking that if I choose to stay, I might as well choose to love well. I might as well love in Garamond, if I'm going to love at all. I might as well choose my response, rather than being stuck in, "He drives me crazy." I might as well choose my words, rather than reacting in the default sarcastic response, or shrug of the cold shoulder. I might as well choose to bend if my staying rigidly upright is for no other reason than I don't want Kevin to see me bend. I might as well choose to imagine what could be, what it is I want and need, and speak it across to him in the dark of early morning, or in the plain light of day across a bowl full of snap peas from Costco. I might as well choose to to say those words that will cause Kevin to look across at me in bewilderment tinged with hope. I might as well hold up his good and excuse his bad. Odds are better than even, he does the same for me.
After all, what do I have to lose? A hallway in a basketball arena, the parking lot of a Chevron in Las Vegas, and the cold side of a bed as I lie listening to his breathing as he listens to mine. I've spent a few hours like that. I don't want it, that love, ten-point Courier-style.
(Title: Nanci Griffith, Truly Something Fine, on Clock Without Hands)