I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say relationships are easy. In my own experience, even the best, long-lasting ones were a lot of work. Seeing the picture of an old flame on social media under the heading “People you might know” brought back some memories in September, as I celebrated my 24th wedding anniversary with my wife, Miss Kitty.
No, I didn’t suddenly have a desire to kindle an old fire. It wasn’t because we had some terrible break-up, either. To be completely truthful, we never made it to the boiling point at all, settling for a low simmer for the entirety of the relationship. The key word in that last sentence is settling, and it’s what I will write about today.
Long before I was an old married man with a house, two cars, a house and children, I was a twenty-four year old who’d moved home after college and wondered when the good times were going to begin. Moving from dead-end job to dead-end job, I started to wonder why I had gone to college at all. Bumming around between theatre groups, picking up parts here and there, was what passed for a life. The relationships I had ranged between weeks-long and hours-long, a not unusual development for someone who’d recently been dumped HARD. It’s even less unusual for people involved in community theatre. Ask one of your actor friends to explain it if you don’t understand…there’s only so much space on my page.
In late ’88, I wound up in a bedroom farce, playing the ne’er-do-well, the second lead who would inevitably make every carnal mistake our virtuous lead did not. This, fortuitously, resulted in jumping in and out of bed with a sad-eyed young actress who had no qualms with performing in a costume that was, for most of the play, black bikini underwear. Eventually, what we were pretending to do on-stage became a rehearsal for what we were doing for real off-stage.
I’ll call her Ann Marie. Like me, she had just been through a bad break-up. We were both a little jaded, careful about who we allowed to get close to us emotionally. When the show ended and our relationship didn’t, we saw each other in another light. Most “show romances” cooled with the heat of the stage lights, going from boiling-hot to tepid in a couple of hours.
Yet we continued to see each other, our close residential proximity a great help. We ate out sometimes, but just as often, ate at home. She didn’t cook much, I was still learning, but when dinner was over, we’d both had our fill. Christmas of ’88, my gift was a cast-iron frying pan that I had picked out. Though we never set up housekeeping together, I had a drawer at the house she owned. We were, succinctly put, constant companions.
As we celebrated her 33rd birthday, the age gap didn’t bother me. I can’t go so far as to say we were in love. The words were never spoken. We were happy with each other. It was enough for us at the time. We were ideologically compatible on most issues, though she was more conservative than I. We shared a bed at least a couple of times a week and could pronounce ourselves satisfied. We both wanted, in general, the same things for our lives. A home, a family, comfort that comes from a long-term relationship. The past couplings that had started, as Johnny Cash sang, “Hotter than a pepper sprout” had diminished too rapidly. Could it not be fate that we had met?
I was still toiling in entry-level jobs, while Ann Marie had reached middle-management, making sixty grand a year (in 1988 dollars). As I said before, she owned her dwelling. She doted on me and I returned her affection. We could make it work. With all of the financial stuff out of the way, knowing that we could see eye-to-eye on most issues, we knew we could make a go of a marriage. Though we both wanted children, it was something neither of us wanted to rush into, which should have told us something. Still, though, I thought we were settled.
1989 was a different beast entirely, with a frenzy upon my writing partner (Mike Davis) and me. We were writing a script for spec for a fellow who was looking to produce a play as his Master’s project at Eastern Michigan University, as well another project for a group wanting a radio play to perform at the yearly “Fall Festival” in our hometown of Plymouth, Michigan. Shortly after a well-received performance of the latter, we got a green light for the former. When I told Ann Marie, her usual ready smile crumpled into a frown of sorts.
“They’re going to produce our musical!” I exalted. “Isn’t that great?”
The frown lines went deeper as she stroked my face. “Aw, honey, I think that’s great. But I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
It was at that moment I knew that we were over. I couldn’t go forward without getting my hopes up. I couldn’t LIVE without my hopes up. It was everything I had ever wanted, wrapped up in a neat little package. When I laid it at her feet, it felt like she’d said, “Meh…”
I’ll spare you the details of the break-up, as I don’t particularly want to recount them. I didn’t see her again until the summer of ’89. I was clearing the stage after a second production of that nascent musical, the house lights up, the audience long gone. The sad look in her eyes had returned and we tried to talk, but couldn’t find a topic that would keep us engaged. I came down from the stage and kissed her cheek as she left. The woman who had replaced her in my heart, the woman I would marry, had already cleared the table where they sold screen-printed aprons that advertised the show. She was waiting for me in the parking lot so we could get some post-show food and libations.
In a lot of ways, that long ago romance seems like a dream, something I was part of, but not really. The life I wanted, as a writer and performer, was the same. Yet, even though I never cracked the big-time, the climb was exhilarating. There were heart-stopping highs and lows. Not becoming as famous or well-known as my heroes was okay, because we, Miss Kitty and I, did it together. We gave it all we had for as long as we could.
My wife and I have afternoons like I used to have with Ann Marie. We will look at each other, curled up at opposite ends of the sofa on a serene afternoon and smile at each other. Yet, in each wink, in each twinkling eye, there is the story of what we did, of what we tried to do, what we dared to do. We believed in each other every day and did our best.
I sincerely hope Ann Marie found the person she was looking for. I found the one for me. I know I’m not the wild man I was way back then, the one that gave Ann Marie happiness. I am another man now, with a woman next to me that believes in the dream.
We accomplished as much as we could, Ann Marie, Miss Kitty and I. I am grateful to both of these ladies, who showed me the difference between hoping and trying. You can say many things are settled. “Settling down” is another issue.