I like reading the wedding announcement pages in Wednesday's Washington Post. I particularly enjoy looking at the 50- and 60-year anniversary photos mixed in with those of the mostly young newlyweds. Sometimes there's an old wedding photo, sometimes just one of the couple as they look now. My favorites, though, are when both the then-and-now photos appear side by side. And I wonder how they stay married so long.
I still have my wedding photo, just a faded black-and-white snapshot really, of the two people who were my husband and me in 1955. It sits on my desk upstairs, part of a collection of family wedding photographs. Two small Korean wedding ducks carved of brown wood share the desk, a frayed red ribbon tying them together.
My wedding photo is a candid shot, blown up to fit a 5-by-7-inch frame. My new husband and I are sitting in a diner somewhere in downtown Detroit. My hair is brown, short and close-cropped.
Alex sits at my side, a coffee mug in one hand, cigarette in the other. His fine blond hair rises from his forehead, the sawed-off military brush cut leaning a bit sideways now, yielding to the softer contours of the man below.
Side by side we are like two propped-up cardboard cutouts, waiting for real faces to pop out in place of our own. What escapes me now is what we might have said to each other that day, or what I felt as we looked toward the camera. I could have been starry-eyed in love, but all I recall is a vague numbness -- relief, perhaps, that we had settled the matter and had chosen a predictable 1950s route to adulthood. I was 21, Alex 23.
We were married by a judge in Detroit's City County Building. I had just graduated from Wayne State University and Alex was off to edit the Sixth Army newspaper at the Presidio of San Francisco. From this distance of almost 50 years, I search my memory and find only fleeting images of us and the landscapes through which we moved during those first years. Alex rented a small, furnished apartment in the Marina district of San Francisco, and I quickly found a job at a downtown publishing company.
We bought an old Chevy with bright headlights that aimed uselessly cross-eyed at night. In San Francisco we walked foggy beaches and wandered Fisherman's Wharf, drank our first martinis, and laughed at cynical new comics sprouting up at the Hungry I and Purple Onion comedy clubs. We shared cooking and cleaning chores, discovered California wines and stone crabs and giggled together over the thrill of attending our first cocktail party. San Francisco seemed a perfect backdrop for the people we were about to make of ourselves.
The birth of our two children, five and seven years into our marriage, and Alex's foreign service career in Japan would change our lives dramatically. I became an embassy wife, manager of our social life and sole caretaker of our two children. Before we knew it, Alex and I inhabited totally separate worlds. His job left him little energy or time to sympathize with my growing sense of isolation from a life beyond the embassy. I began to feel a great affinity to the gnarled and twisted bonsai trees I saw in local flower shops. Like me, I thought, molded, clipped, pruned and forced into a small container.
I turned out to be a bigger rebel than Alex had bargained for, and he became more my keeper than my partner. So, when we returned to Washington just as the women's movement hit its stride in the 1970s, I felt dizzily set loose in a world that was, finally, coming around to my way of thinking. Foolishly, perhaps, I expected Alex to come along with me.
I remember sitting down across from Alex in our living room one evening when we had returned to Washington. I wanted to find out who we thought we were when we sat in that diner 20 years ago.
"Alex, why did you marry me?"
"I don't remember."
"Oh, come on, you must remember something you liked about me."
"Well, I remember why I liked you. I liked you because you seemed so . . . .sweetly insecure . . . kind and gentle. Why did you like me? There must have been something there."
"Alex," I said, "you could have dated . . . " I named the girls we both knew in college. "Why me?"
He looked up at me and for a moment I felt just as sorry for him as I did for myself.
"I liked you because you were so competent . . . in charge, so . . . sure of yourself."
Alex got up and walked past me, through the hall and up the stairs. Like two martial artists, I thought, moving our energy swiftly past each other. We were divorced two years later.
Not long ago I took our wedding snapshot from the desk to a photo shop to have it restored. One of our children will want it, I thought.
Although the contours of our young faces are a bit clearer now, the two people in the snapshot remain as unknowable as the faces of those strangers in The Washington Post. I wonder how many of them will stay bound by the delicate ribbon that holds them together.