Week Two of a Six Week Series
I married my husband when I was 24 years old. This was very young. I only know this now, how young I really was. We met when I was 22 and he was 27.
But now I am at the age where I am unmistakably not 22, and he, certainly not 27. Next year is our tenth anniversary. Despite the fact that we are entirely different people, we remain together. This is not an effortless coupling.
Once my daughter, Elizabeth, and I made it to the south-eastern tip of Minnesota, crossed over into South Dakota and headed south to Sioux falls, I felt the west open up for me. I knew I was headed somewhere; newness, the unknown, the wild.
David flew into Sioux Falls, South Dakota on Friday evening to meet us. The road had not been not lonely without him. I know, this sounds unkind, but it is not meant to be. As the prairie opened up for me, I prepped myself. Without work, we would spend our whole week together fighting. That is the effortless part of our coupling: we dip into argument like a ladle through water.
The hundreds of miles of flat land is a place where you have no choice but to be yourself.
It was not disorienting, like I had imagined, but calming like the emotional stasis of physical movement. Flat. Unassuming, unsuspecting.
Change is not the word for our relationship. It is growth— not in the I’m in talk therapy and have identified some areas for improvement kind of growth. We are both children of divorce, three for me and one for him. Our growth is wild, like a garden left untended and spiraling up toward the sun.
Just as I seek out movement as distraction, our relationship has been perpetual motion:
We were engaged after 8 months.
We bought our first home after 4 months of marriage.
We then took on a two year gut renovation that had us living in a single room with no heat. This was cut short by my pregnancy.
And then there was a child; a bright, beautiful amazing child that made demands of us that we never could have prepared. It wasn’t until then we understood division of labor, gendered labor, and sleep deprivation.
I did all this while finishing my Bachelors Degree.
I started my MFA program when my daughter was two years old.
One year after graduation, we relocated to Washington D.C.
I had a difficult time letting him drive, letting him pack up the car, letting him be in that space with me. He would reach for my hand, and I would pull away. I would reach for his hand and he would pull away. My anger for him rises so quickly that I do not recognize myself moment to moment. I watch the same shifting of his body and jawline.
The constant arguing makes me insecure in my understanding of myself in this relationship and other relationships. I am highly susceptible to self-doubt on a good day. I would welcome the reflection if it wasn’t always rimmed with abasement. Do I just get through the days or do I struggle to communicate, struggle to be heard, struggle to be understood, feign understanding?
It is as though I subconsciously forced myself into working on my core relationships on this trip: my husband, my mother, and my friend of 15 years are all joining me for stretches and my daughter is with me for the long haul. I cannot do this trip alone. I want to be able to. I cannot afford all the motel rooms or the gas, I cannot physically do all the driving, and I cannot play the nomadic single parent. Ambition will kill me way before any vice.
But my need for control has had me driving 3,300 of the 3,500 miles we have traveled so far. My legs ache, my knees are swollen. It is difficult to walk in the evening. It is difficult to allow my mind to drift from the monotony of the road, inward.
It is too much. Maybe I am not ready to look carefully enough at myself in this marriage to understand. Maybe I don’t trust that he will take enough ownership for me to feel safe in the vulnerable state of admitting wrongdoing. So, just drive. Sioux Falls to the Badlands to Rapid City. Then Rapid City to The Black Hills to Deadwood to Thermopolis. And on through Cody, Yellowstone, and Gardiner. From thermal pools to grazing bison; the heights and peaks and depths of canyons, gorges, and plummets; from prairie dog mounds to The Devil’s Tower and back through the high plains and mountains. The high plains that open like arms unfolding. The high plains that acquaint you with storms, hours before you meet them, the vast rolling, roiling, living earth.
This terrain, this trip, this driving is going by so fast that I am not sure I am seeing what I need to see, learning what I need to learn—the country is compressing before me when I expected it to expand.
The “pull of the west” is part of American mythology. And with each new curve and twist, I wondered what it was like for the first people who ever walked the Americas, who came upon The Badlands, who traversed the Black Hills, who saw the land over the mountain ranges open up and spread toward a new horizon. My instinct is to picture settlers, prospectors, wagons, and frontier towns because this is what I have been taught. These were the brave souls who dared to carve out a small piece of the earth for themselves.
America was founded by violence, not wanderlust. America is sustained by violence: from the celebrity killing of Wild Bill Hickok that still captures our imagination, our elevation of the second amendment to biblical standards, and the white faces carved into the Black Hills. What is the lone wolf gunman but the manifestation of violent individualism?
The great American road trip—I had no idea.
The dominant narrative in NYC was and is one of immigration. New souls come to and through the city each day. It is vibrant, it is loud and colorful and it is full to the brim with bodies navigating one another.
As I have driven west, the narrative has changed. Among the lauded pioneer tales are stories of native and non-native conflict. My dreamy idea of America as “all of us” or a representation of the world is shaken back into reality— this land was not an empty vessel for immigrant dreams. There were people living here, there were cultures thriving here, and there was an actual Native genocide during westward expansion.
We waged war on native peoples.
We hunted down and killed off their primary food supply just to kill them.
We banned their religious practices.
We outright raped and pillaged.
Who is we?
Am I, we?
We signed “treaties” and made strange bedfellows of one another.
My family came here to escape the genocide through starvation taking place in Ireland. We have been considered white for the past 100 years or so. I was taught the terms “cultural assimilation” and “assimilating into the dominant culture” as explanation of this shift from other to in. If non-white is painted with a broad brush, then white must be as well. But then where does that leave me? This isn’t about me. The truth is not contingent upon my understanding.
I am not America. I represent a piece of its history and demographic, which represents a piece of world history and colonization. We practice an idealized version of this union, as though there is a version to reach for, or an ideal to attain.
Our union is shifting again, as we speak. There is a resettlement, a reverse migration of native peoples— South America to North America. They are walking across rivers and deserts to reclaim ancestral homes, to assert that there is something to be reclaimed, and they come unarmed. After 300 years, native people are resettling the land of the free and home of the brave.
My husband has said that if we were to meet now, as this Jen and this Dave, we might not make it to a second date. But I choose not to believe that. I choose to believe that the spark of familiarity, the glimmer of comfortable love lives on in him in all incarnations. This is because I need an idealized version of us to exist somewhere.
In any relationship, if the past is not acknowledged, nothing can be healed. There will be no “moving forward,” only a resentful cycle of self-perpetuation. Each party must be elevated to eye-level, ear level because if we can’t look one another in the face, then what are we even doing here?
I give up nothing of myself by validating the suffering of another person—current and past suffering.
The stretch from Rapid City to Thermopolis kept us on the road all day. Driving west at 85 miles per hour, we were chasing the sun. When the light ahead of us finally failed, just to the right, summer glowed in northern latitudes. Elizabeth slept in the backseat as we kept the conversation about the terrain, safe.
Into my field of sight from the north, came a glowing, red light. It moved with the speed of a low-flying plane, getting brighter, then dimming, brighter, angling over the car. I pointed it out to Dave and we watched it burn out completely. “That was a meteor!” he said. And I quickly knew he was right. We marveled at what we had just witnessed, how rare a sight—how lucky we were to see it, together.
The meteor had traveled millions of miles, burned through the five tiers of earth’s atmosphere, shedding layers of itself on the way, to burn brightly and then fade out just before impact. We watched the last burst of light from something that will never fly again, never reignite its deep red tail.
We get more than one shot at this— we can choose to run the course again, pick a different trajectory. The infinite ability of humans to forgive, to have compassion, and to love keeps our relationships moving toward our version of a finish line. We fall, restart, fail, drag our sorry asses back to the beginning, grab hold of the other’s hand and take the first step in sync, again.