A benefit of being married 20 years is you stop trying to be seen as anyone other than who you are. The odds that self-promotion will succeed decrease with each passing year.
CHRISTINE and I were on one of our first dates. This was 25 years ago, December in Seattle, cold and drizzling and dark. We had just exited a performance of “The Nutcracker,” with sets and costume designs by Maurice Sendak, toy soldiers and gigantic rats like characters from “Where the Wild Things Are.” Walking to a bus stop on Queen Anne, I felt oddly charged, daring, Tchaikovsky’s eerie bassoons and the rattle of snare drums resounding in my ears.
Outside the QFC, a homeless man asked if we could spare some change. I was 22. I had recently completed an undergraduate degree in philosophy and sometimes quoted Aristotle. I was in love with Christine. She was beautiful, wore oversized cable-knit sweaters and loved coffee. After college, she had lived in Guatemala and worked in an orphanage. It hit me that here was a perfect opportunity for me to do something valiant, something big, a grand gesture of my character and sure to impress.
I told the homeless man I wanted to buy him some groceries. The homeless man happily accepted my offer. So we went inside, the homeless man got a cart, and led us down the aisles. I remember he grabbed a jar of peanut butter, which I felt good about. The cart was filling up when the homeless man reached for a quart-sized plastic jug of Valvoline.
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I said, “What’s the motor oil for?”
The homeless man said, “My lawnmower.”
I fell silent, too surprised and innocent to admire his audacity. I didn’t ask him to put the motor oil back. I did not think of the syllogism, “If you have a lawnmower, you have a lawn. If you have a lawn, you have a home. Therefore, rarely do homeless men own lawn mowers.”
But it was too late to change course. We had come this far, and I had brought this upon myself. I avoided eye contact with Christine. I said, “I think that will just about do it.”
I remember that the bill came to $33.
Christine and I have been married for 20 years. She likes to tell “The Homeless Man and the Lawnmower Story.” For a long time, I’ve understood that Christine enjoys poking holes in my poses of moral authority or virtue. She’ll catch me holding forth about Trump’s latest contribution to the world’s misery, and “The Homeless Man and the Lawnmower Story” is retold.
A benefit of being married 20 years is you stop trying to be seen as anyone other than who you are. The odds that self-promotion will succeed decrease with each passing year. You carry too many homeless-men-with-lawn-mowers stories.
So you take out the garbage and recycling, unprompted. You become a professional middle school carpool driver. Maybe you pick up a sign and march. You don’t expect this to count for much, not domestically, anyway. No single act is defining. At its best, marriage is selflessness and sacrifice, and a judicious balancing of resentments.
That winter, 25 years ago, Christine was working at, yes, a homeless shelter. As the homeless man walked away, his grocery bags loaded with sundries, Christine turned to me and laughed. A raucous, full-throated laugh. I laughed, too. I shrugged my shoulders. She was on to me. I wasn’t fooling anyone.