under-narrated

The last couple of years have been a busy season for weddings in my immediate circles. These seasons come and go, and I’m always thrilled when they come back around. Nothing else can move me so much as two people declaring such staggeringly uninformed promises to one another in front of people who love them, their wild optimism laid bare for a few open hours. What could be more impractical?

This month I’ll cross a threshold in my own marriage: I’ll have lived half of my life with Brian, and I’ll start a period where I’ll have shared life with him for longer than I had without. I’m not that old, so people find this to be understandably curious, even strange, and it’s admittedly hard to sum up the meaning and import of lengthy partnership. I often quote George Saunders in this (ridiculously charming, vintage GS) gchat interview in the Paris Review, where he mentions having been married to his wife at that point for 25 years—and casually saying that it’s “one of the great under-narrated pleasures of living: long-term fidelity and love.”

Under-narrated indeed. And it’s easy to see why: not that all happy families are alike, but that the stuff of narrative is so often productively made up of ruptures and cracks, interruptions in the status quo so as to construct plot, conflict, creative heat-and-energy. But I’m always on the lookout for macro- and micro-descriptions of what it means to know someone for years and years and years. Descriptions that try and approximate the mystery that you can be joined in such a way that’s nearly cellular and become, in the course of that, more powerfully and individually your separate self. It’s an experience that invites hopeless abstractions and platitudes. So I don’t end up talking about it much.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West isn’t about long-term fidelity and love; in fact it’s about a relationship coming apart! But there are passages where Hamid hints at the vicissitudes of a partnership and ponders the ways long attachments proceed outside of ordinary time. The whole book is full of so many observations that are worth reading, but I’m thinking today about this passage:

“Saaed and Nadia were loyal, and whatever name they gave their bond they each in their own way believed it required them to protect the other, and so neither talked much of drifting apart, not wanting to inflict a fear of abandonment, while also themselves quietly feeling that fear, the fear of the severing of their tie, the end of the world they had built together, a world of shared experiences in which no one else would share, and a shared intimate language that was unique to them, and a sense that what they might break was special and likely irreplaceable. But while fear was part of what kept them together for those first few months in Marin, more powerful than fear was the desire that each see the other find firmer footing before they let go, and thus in the end their relationship did in some senses come to resemble that of siblings, in that friendship was its strongest element, and unlike many passions, theirs managed to cool slowly, without curdling into its reverse, anger, except intermittently.

Of this, in later years, both were glad, and both would also wonder if this meant they had made a mistake, that if they had but waited and watched their relationship would have flowered again, and so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”