I spent four days and nights smashed against a bus window in transit to my first husband’s family reunion half nauseous from breathing in the diesel fumes and the aroma of the chemical toilet a few feet behind us. The vinyl seat stuck to the back of my thighs, as he seeped into my half of the bench I was sharing with him.
He was a big guy, Swedish-Norwegian and a lapsed Mormon. Six months earlier he’d announced it was necessary for him to move out so he could enjoy anonymous sex, drugs, drinking and stay up all night if he wanted. Marriage was cramping his style.
In early May, he stopped by to pick up his mail since he hadn’t changed his address after moving in with my best friend’s estranged husband. “My mom’s holding a family get together the third week of June. She wants all of us come.”
“We’ve been separated so long they aren’t my family any more. Why would she want me there anyway?”
We’d slogged cross-country so I could meet his Mormon dad in Southern California and his agnostic mom outside Seattle the summer after our wedding three years before in 1979. It was a ‘twenty states in twenty-one days’ low budget camping trip that included us nearly drowning in our sleeping bags during an Albuquerque flash flood and illicitly pitching our tent at midnight in a Safeway parking lot in San Francisco.
“My mom really likes you, Annie.” I hadn’t spoken to her in over a year.
“You haven’t told her about us, have you?” He shook his head. “You need to tell her. And I’m not spending a dime for a trip all the way out to Seattle.”
“By the way, you’re looking great. Very slim,” he said.
Since the separation, I’d lost the twenty pounds I’d gained during our marriage from birth control pills and eating the elaborate meals I cooked for us every evening. He’d gained sixty, which proves men will compete at anything. And I’d come to enjoy coming home after work again—not finding a half assembled motorcycle in the dining room or a new/used Firebird in the driveway or him sitting in the dark living room paralyzed by the immensity of the universe.
He showed up the following week with two unlimited Greyhound bus tickets good for 30 days and a promise to pay for everything. I folded. Part of me hoped we could work out our problems away from the everyday distractions of jobs, school, friends, decent food and daily showers.
We left from the bus depot in Trenton, New Jersey one morning and arrived in Bremerton, Washington a hundred hours later. It felt much longer. For entertainment, we had a window, a revolving band of fellow travelers, and each other.
“Did you tell her yet?”
He didn’t answer. We didn’t do much talking, but we should have. The first eight hundred miles went by quickly. We barely slept from the novelty of the adventure, secretly laughing at the odd looking passengers and the quirky greasy spoons we visited, but a few hours west of Chicago everything changed.
The bus became a local at the Iowa state line. People got on at one lonely corner and stood in the aisle as best they could with their grocery bags, tool chests, and chickens in cages for a few miles before getting off at another lonely corner. At first, I thought I’d caught a cold, but it was the feathers. Every five minutes, my husband crossed or uncrossed his legs brusquely and bumped against me to avoid the people swaying in the aisle. He sighed and clenched his fists like he was going to have a tantrum. Getting to Nebraska took a full twenty-four hours.
“I’m ditching,” I said as the bus pulled into a rest stop outside of Omaha. “Where’s the closest airport? I need a shower and a good night’s sleep.”
“Annie, we’re almost halfway there. If you leave we’ll miss seeing the middle of America together—the prairie, the Rocky Mountains, and the Salt Lake. It’s the chance of a lifetime. Please don’t go.” He took my hand and kissed it. I stayed.
I’d met him through mutual friends at a cold, rainy Memorial Day picnic. He was tall with red hair, a blond mustache and a laugh you couldn’t ignore. He was a great date always suggesting interesting things to do like an impromptu camping trip at Sunfish Pond, a rock festival in Philly or an archeological dig on the Delaware River, but he was often depressed for days. He was constantly on the search for the next great experience, new job, interesting course or brilliant friend that would bring him the contentment he craved. Jobs were gained and lost with the seasons and relationships with friends soured. It was as if he was sure a particular combination of components, when found, would deliver happiness, like a Wheel of Fortune game with lots of slots. I think I always knew my name would pop up eventually, but for a while it was a thrill living with him. Everyone has to come home from the circus sooner or later.
The steady hum of the bus made me drowsy in the afternoons as the AC strained and I’d have fitful dreams of drowning under an angry sea or baking in a small oven with the bakers telling jokes about me outside the door. My husband didn’t seem to need to sleep at all.
“It’s going to be great seeing everyone. We haven’t been all together since the divorce. We can go fishing everyday, if they still have the rowboat.”
“I didn’t know you liked to fish.” He seemed to enjoy riding motorcycles, fast cars and attending hard rock concerts when he wasn’t taking college classes that he’d drop before the final exam or quitting a job after two months and looking for a new one. We’d filed an amended return two years in a row because of W-2 forms from forgotten jobs arriving late.
“It’s what we do in Port Orchard. Plus we can take the foot ferry to Bremerton and see the shipyards, go into Seattle and eat dinner in the Space Needle. And my mom will cook all her specialties. It’ll be great.”
We’d stop every four hours, day and night to change drivers or buses. They made everyone get off, so no one got to skip a meal for a nap. We’d file into the truck stops like prisoners on furlough to eat and use the facilities. All the restaurants specialized in fast, fried, heavy food that lingered in my stomach like regret for hours.
On the dawn stop, we’d hover by the bus’s bay doors waiting for our bags, so we could grab clean clothes and our dopp kits. Then we’d line up at the Ladies or Gents for a spit bath under yellow fluorescents decorated with fried moths and dead flies. I dropped my toothbrush in the toilet outside North Platte.
A few summers before, when a dozen of our friends announced their upcoming weddings, he asked me to marry him, like he was hoping for a slow dance at a seventh grade mixer. I said yes because I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no and I didn’t have any other immediate plans. After college comes marriage, right? He was looking for a savior after his restricted childhood and I was looking for someone to save, having spent my youth in catholic school collecting funds for pagan babies.
We watched endless amber waves of wheat and passed through hundreds of one Dairy Queen towns during the interminable days as we slowly crossed our huge country until Denver, where we lucked out and had a rest stop during lunchtime. We perched on the curb in the sunny parking lot for twenty minutes and ate liverwurst sandwiches on rye. The soaring mountains speckled with snow were gorgeous; the air was as brittle as dried leaves with a little icy kick. I could’ve stayed forever.
“Not telling is the same as lying, you know.” I gathered our wrappers for the trashcan.
“Who knows the future, Annie?” He shook out a cigarette and lit it.
By the time we got to our destination, my feet were swollen like a couple of sandbags. I hobbled off shoes in hand. My guts had turned to concrete somewhere between Dubuque and Salt Lake City. His mom met us at the depot in Bremerton and insisted I nap in the car while my husband and she shopped for dinner.
The house in Port Orchard was as small as I remembered it, a three-bedroom, one-bath cottage with a tumble down dock on the inlet clinging to a nearly vertical slope. There were two dead sedans in the yard and an overturned rowboat with a gaping hole in the bottom. His mom gave us a bedroom to ourselves, his brother and wife got the pullout couch, the two sisters shared a room and the other brothers camped on the porch.
His mom pleaded a bad migraine, so my husband and I cooked dinner the first night—chicken breasts sautéed in cream with mushrooms, which everyone enjoyed. Less than an hour later, a communal internal rumbling began and grew until six of us were outside projectile vomiting into the night air. We spread out horizontally in the yard to avoid puking on each other, like a demented lineup of cheerleaders at the pep rally before the big game.
We sent his older sister to the doctor the next day, as representative of our common affliction. Diagnosis: Salmonella. We were each issued personalized bottles of pills. It took a few days for the medicine to kick in. In between bouts we hosed down the yard.
“Annie, you know I don’t blame you for this?”
I pretended I didn’t hear him.
The week was a day/night blur of nausea, followed by trying to not get sick, offering God bribes, swallowing with great concentration, getting sick, washing up from being sick, feeling exhausted and taking a nap.
His mom cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday. Most of us skipped it, but not my husband. He never missed a meal, even though he’d lose it, literally, shortly afterward. Instead of talking to me about our future, he stayed at the kitchen table laughing with his mom, retelling old family stories, playing pinochle or jacks for hours. I sat very still outside in the sun hoping and not hoping he’d come out to talk.
My first grade teacher told me I should not actually sing; just move my mouth, when my class sang carols in the Christmas Show. I’ve been self-conscious and scared of speaking up ever since. I was miserable living at home after returning from college and convinced myself that marriage was the way out. Besides the road ahead always looked too daunting to travel alone.
“Are you going to move back in with me?” I rehearsed these words with slight variations at least a million times without saying them aloud. I didn’t want to hear what he’d say because either answer would hurt.
The washer broke in the middle of the week, so his mom asked my husband to take all our sick clothes and linens to the Laundromat in town. I went along for the ride. On the way back, he was driving like a crazy man, weaving in and out of traffic like he always did and pounding on the car roof when he had to wait for a slower car. When he pulled into the fast lane, the car in front abruptly stopped for a red light. He braked fast and halted just touching the car’s back bumper. The guy behind plowed into us, like we weren’t even there. We didn’t have much of a chance in her compact hatchback between two full size sedans. If it weren’t for the mass of laundry that enveloped us, we’d have been killed. I had a broken foot and a few cracked ribs; he broke his left leg and clavicle, and bit off part of his tongue. I realized his mom’s car was totaled as I stood on one foot on the side of the road throwing up.
I knew before we left New Jersey my husband and I probably weren’t going to make it as a couple. From the day we got married he kept getting bigger and stronger and I kept getting smaller and more timid. If he had a good day, I did as well. If not, mine was bad too. Friends would ask how I was and I’d report on my husband, sharing his triumphs and frustrations, forgetting my own.
“But how are you?” one asked.
I no longer knew. I realized my hopes and goals might disappear altogether and couldn’t let that happen. I’d always thought marriage was forever and a couple needed to stick together through thick and thin, but he had an unrequited adolescence to work out and a wife in tow would just pull him down. Marriage to him asked too much.
By the following week, I could go six hours without vomiting. His mom told me she knew about us on the way to the airport to send me home to Philly on a redeye.
“He’s a damned fool and an idiot. He always was. You’re the best thing that ever happened to him, but he won’t see it for years. It’s not worth hanging around to pick through the wreckage.”
On the plane I had the full row to myself, which was good because I cried the whole way. I cried for the time I’d wasted assuming I could carry a marriage by myself and make someone else happy. And I cried for the fool I’d been imagining marriage was the only choice. When I got back to Jersey, I crawled into my bed and slept like a baby for days.
We saw a counselor after he got back, but she said we didn’t have a marriage problem. She said he needed lots of time to work things through and I probably shouldn’t wait around.
She hugged me and said, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”
I lost a husband, as well as ten more pounds from the Salmonella, but going to the family reunion was the best bad decision I ever made.
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