I grew up thinking I would one day have a husband. Cleaning stubble out of the sink and shopping for a good price on men’s "dress" socks was simply a fact of life, something I’d do because that’s the way it was, sure, but also because it was good for me, like zipping up my coat before going outside. If I didn’t want to grow up and sleep outdoors in a nest made of leaves, I would need a man.
I pictured my future husband with Abe Lincoln’s beard and Pa Ingall’s wood axe, taller than I was, and reaching down to pat my shoulder in a slightly creepy way. I didn’t want him to get anywhere near me with that beard, but I figured I’d grow to see something in it I liked.
Then I grew up and fell in love with a woman. And a deep-down part of me became alarmed. What about my old man? It wanted to know. When I passed married couples on the sidewalk, the woman with her hand in the crook of her husband’s arm, both of them snugly buttoned into coats they probably had the sense to hang up in a closet, not leave in a ball on the stairs, my heart would race. The set of their mouths seemed to say: we know what to do when the furnace breaks. We have all our paperwork in order.
I couldn’t meet their eyes. Back in the apartment I rented, where I slept on a folded-over comforter on the floor, a cat I’d beckoned inside had chewed the corners off all my important papers. And now that I’d aligned myself with womankind, if someone in a serious-looking uniform ever came knocking on the front door, I wouldn’t have a man to stand up and say, "I’ll handle this, Betty," and latch the door behind him.
Hush, I said to myself. True, I had expected to have my own old man someday. And yes, it was also true that I’d been looking forward to it. My mother, who’d done as much parenting as she wanted to by the time I was in middle school, had eventually hidden all the keys to her house, so I’d spent a number of my teen years camping out in the guest rooms of kindly neighbors, thrilled to be encouraged to eat as many bananas as I wanted. It had worked out okay for the most part. If I wanted winter gloves, I rode my bike down to the Salvation Army, and I knew not to ride down there after dark, because then I couldn’t see the guys leaning against the brick wall of the halfway house across the street stub out their cigarettes and walk toward me, right around the time I bent over to unlock my bike. Their faces were always smiling, but the way I imagined someone who surprised you in an alley would smile, trying to keep you calm as they backed you into a corner.
So I liked the idea of riding in a car next to my husband. I could wear his gloves, and no one on the street would ask to pet my hair. I knew I was supposed to want to do everything for myself, but I thought it looked relaxing to walk into a restaurant and sit down and not have to be the one to talk to the waitress. To never be the one called upon to chase a skunk out of the garage.
I imagined my married self bringing in a stack of mail, handing over all the long white envelopes to my husband, and sitting down in a comfy chair to page through a catalog. I’d reach for the mug I’d had "made to order" at a mall kiosk — a sunglasses-wearing sun, most likely — and pick out for myself one of the quilted robes I had yet to find appealing. I wouldn’t even have to pay for it.
But the woman I fell in love with. That threw a wrench into my plan. Would she try to put her hand in the crook of my arm? I didn’t want that much responsibility. I didn’t want to be the one opening all the white envelopes. Shit.
The week we moved in together, a raccoon jumped onto the back of a house cat slinking across our backyard, the two of them biting and scratching and rolling around on the loose bricks of the patio. I was on the phone with my mother, and came to stand by the window, wondering if I should turn the hose on them.
"See! This is why you need a man!" my mother cried into the phone. "To protect you!"
An image of my most recent boyfriend came to mind: the long fingers he used to crimp the edges of a pie crust raised instead to shield his face. Certainly there were men out there who could protect me from a raccoon, but I hadn’t dated any of them. I’d always fallen for guys who trapped spiders under juice glasses and carried them outside. Men who were happy to let me shovel the car out and made very little money painting seascapes. But Christine, I realized with some satisfaction, could probably beat off a raccoon. Her shoulder muscles were just as big as the ones you saw on construction workers wrestling jack hammers. I felt reassured.
We got married. I got pregnant. And I didn’t regret not having a husband. But a deep-down part of me still suspected my choice to marry a woman meant I was going to miss out on something. I accepted it. I wasn’t going to have what the other girls had, but I could make do. In some ways, this way of thinking was typical for me. In college, where many of the women on my hall had pearl necklaces in their top drawers and lounged across their Laura Ashley comforters making as many long-distance phone calls as they wanted, I had a plastic bucket to do my laundry in and wrote out postcards, asking questions like "Did Tammy tell that guy about the baby yet?" and, "Is Lenny going to have to go to jail for knifing that guy?" I knew how to be second-class. And how to be grateful just to be in the game at all. What I didn’t yet know, though, was that my marriage wasn’t second class. Not even close.
I went into labor not thinking about any of this. So I wouldn’t have a husband. Who cared? I was down on all fours rocking side-to-side and moaning like a heifer. "Shake my apples!" I screamed, desperately. We’d read in a birthing book that if someone grabbed the meat of your upper thigh and shook it vigorously, it would make you feel better.
"Get off me!" I screamed a moment later.
"Do you want to try to have an orgasm?" Christine asked, snickering. It was a joke we’d gotten a lot of mileage out of — the advice that orgasm would make you bliss out at the crucial moment. The book actually had a photograph of a woman with a sleepy, far-away smile on her face, and below that…the baby’s head, its eyes wide open. I couldn’t think of anything worse than having someone snap a photo of me during orgasm or childbirth, and felt bad for her.
I didn’t laugh, so Christine switched tactics. She draped her body over mine and began telling me I could do it. The room was crowded with frowning nurses, all holding equipment they were annoyed not to be using on me — because I’d moved on from "No, thank you," to kicking out at them when they approached. One held an unplugged monitor trailing wires, one had an IV pole strung with a bag of clear liquid, and one held a sharp little stick used to "gently break the water," already slipped from its plastic sleeve.
All of this shrank away to nothing. It might as well have been just me, Christine and a mattress on the floor. I listened to her voice. She told me she loved me, that I was doing great and that we would soon have our baby. Her voice was all I could hear, and she didn’t stop talking. I believed her completely. And every little corner of doubt about not having a husband, about Christine being a woman and not a man, washed out. I understood that she would never throw up her hands and say she couldn’t do what needed to be done. Or, if she did, it wouldn’t be because she was a woman. We had as good a shot as anybody. And I never questioned my choice again.
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