There is a point in every relationship where all of the fights, the petty jealousies, the vicious text messages, the violations of trust, the nights spent on the couch, push you to the point of no return. The point at which there is not sufficient fuel to return to the starting point. The point at which the flowers stop, the evening kisses are replaced by numbing cocktails or work woes, conversations you once had about politics and ideas turn into personal attacks, and the increasingly rare “I love you” chokes and cracks in the air. The point at which new colleagues hear all about your failing marriage at cocktail parties and family members advise you to “cut your losses” and “just leave” what has become a Bad Marriage. And neither one of you is innocent. So you find yourself approaching this point, clocking the mileage carefully, wondering if there is some way you could, on vapors if need be, sputter your way back to the beginning. You are willing to try anything.
But you don’t know where to start. On your anniversary, you had come up with a “safe word”—a word that, when used, was to stop whatever petty conflict was stirring immediately, upon which the two of you would kiss and all would be well.
You chose this word by blindly pulling a cork out of your wine cork collection and reading the first word you saw. It was “Patagonia.” A wild land, some of which is uninhabitable. Only for the brave travelers. It was a perfect word.
Except that this agreement, on which you pinky-swore, was made on your anniversary, while the two of you were drinking your favorite wine and eating the red velvet cupcakes you made because you had had a red velvet wedding cake. The fact is, you both said “Patagonia” several times during your latest fight—and somehow its magic didn’t work. You didn’t immediately drop the topic that was leading you down dangerous roads to places uninhabitable and inhospitable to love. And you didn’t kiss the next time you saw each other because by that point, the argument you had had by text while your husband was on the train coming home from work had become so heated that you were at the dining room table and your husband was telling you it was over. Your marriage was over. You heard the words but didn’t want to believe them. It couldn’t be over. But you saw, for the first time, a nothingness behind his eyes. You know that look well—it was the same vacant stare you had in your last Christmas portrait with your ex-husband. It is one of the most gut-wrenching, frightening looks you have ever seen.
Patagonia. It is over.
You go away for a reunion of alumni from your graduate program. Your husband tells you he is looking forward to your being gone. You need some space to breathe and to be alone in your head—“head space,” your friend Jayne calls it. You need head space. You don’t leave home on a good note. You are asleep when he leaves for work, and the few texts you’ve exchanged have been of purely an informational nature: “Please feed the cat” and “When are you coming back?”
At the cocktail party, people are eager to hear all about your life. “So, you are married now?!” one former classmate exclaims. “Lucky guy. So are you completely, head over heels in love?” You smile and say something to the effect that the year has been difficult because you had to move a few times and that your husband commutes five hours a day to work, which everyone around agrees is very difficult. But you know, that’s marriage, right? You shrug with a faint, understanding smirk to your classmate. The two of you smile and then you are thankfully on to another topic. These types of conversations continue throughout the weekend, to the point where you are discussing marriage and relationships with an old friend, and when he says, “I love my wife. I am so lucky to have her. We really do have something special, and I know not everyone is as lucky” you feel yourself on the edge of crying. “Do you and your husband fight?” someone asks you. You tell them yes, you do. “How often?” Once, twice a month you say. “Really? Big fights?” Well, I guess, you say. Yes. “That’s not good,” she says, and looks at you steadily. You know this isn’t good. “You have to think about whether it’s worth it if you are fighting this much in the first year of marriage.”
It’s not the first time you’ve heard that comment. The first year is hard. But you’ve also heard the opposite. The first year is a honeymoon. Your first year was hard: a month before your wedding, your husband lost his job and sold a company that gave him extra income for years; you and your daughter moved from your house to your husband’s house, and then six months later, you all moved back to your house when his house became too expensive and too isolated for you from your friends and family; your husband spent a week in the hospital for a staph infection that he probably picked up on the train, and you had chicken pox over Christmas; your husband took a new job—and then another new job. Add to this the adjustment period and the stress of blending a family, plus normal family drama and work issues, and yes, you had a hard year. Stress led to frequent fights, jealousies and mean-spirited texting during work hours, and somehow along the way you became adversaries. You are thinking about all of this while your colleagues are talking about their relationships. You wonder now if there is a point at which you can go back.
Back to the night you ate at the little French restaurant and then walked around the city. He kissed you at the waterfront, where the teenagers were making out around you and the moon and the dome light on the aquarium shone with equal brilliance on the river. You spent the night at his house, and the next morning you walked around the farmers’ market, holding hands in the summer sun. Or to the evening you were driving home from the shore, across the Commodore Barry Bridge. Brandon Flowers’ “Crossfire” was on the radio. You had the sunroof open, and the late summer sky was all gold and pink; your hair—for it was long then—was blowing freely in the breeze, out of the knot in which you normally wore it, and you smiled from what felt like the bottom of your soul. You had never felt so deeply or so happily in love.
But you are quickly running out of fuel. On the night you return from your workshop, he decides not to come home. He has spent a good part of the day warring with you over text, and somewhere along the way, he has decided that your relationship is not going to work out. We were a mistake, he tells you. This marriage was a mistake. You have gone beyond Patagonia and reached the point of no return. You spend the evening crying and giving your daughter sporadic attention in between responding to the accusatory texts he is firing off. You want him to come home so you can put your arms around him and remind each other what is really important. You want to pull him close and have him kiss you and say, “Don’t worry—we will get through this.”
And when he does come home, the following night, drunk and stumbling to the bed, you make the mistake of pouring out your heart to him and begging him to promise not to leave you—you can make this work, you know it. Yet, he turns over and says, “We don’t have to work anything out. I can walk away tomorrow and it will be very clean and easy. This will never work. We will discuss plans tomorrow, when I am sober.” You have never heard him talk like that, and as you sit on the couch at 1:16 a.m. with him passed out in the bed, you start to count the hours until tomorrow, wondering how many you have left together, dreading the ever-approaching point of no return.