Before I met him, I was happily single. I liked my own company and going out with my friends. I liked dating, especially the thrill of a first date, the dance of it all. Sure, disappointments often followed, but those near-perfect moments of connection shimmer as the less perfect ones fade into the haze of unnecessary memory.
Alvaro changed all that. Not in the found “my soul mate” or “other half” kind of way, but in the “I like you and the person I am around you” kind of way. Some people say marriage is hard, but that hasn’t been our experience. Invite us to a party sometime and you’ll see: we’ll be the ones hovering in the corner talking only to each other, looking for the first opportunity to exit gracefully, unless there is enough alcohol involved, in which case, Alvaro (the designated driver) keeps giving me the Can we go yet? eyes, and I pretend not to see them.
At a holiday party recently, my friend said to him, “Do you just wake up every morning thanking God for this amazing person?” Alvaro smiled, saying yes, of course. “Why do they always say that about you?” he asked afterward in the car. “What am I? Chopped liver?”
Our first Valentine’s Day was in 2007, and we were a few months into living together. I wrapped his favorite cookies and chocolates, putting them in a Valentine’s gift bag along with a sweet card. He looked panicked when it was waiting for him and said, “Uhhhhhh. . . yours is coming this afternoon,” leaving the apartment soon after to “run errands.” Four hours later, he came home and ran quickly into the office, shutting the door. He emerged after fifteen minutes with the same gift bag I’d given him earlier in hand along with a hastily written card he’d penciled on typing paper, dropping it in my lap, beaming. We were still new enough that I thought it was cute. When I opened the bag, I found a set of binoculars.
“Oh, it’s binoculars,” I muttered, perplexed, as if saying the word would help it make sense somehow. His face fell, seeing that this was not the gift I’d imagined, and then he reminded me that earlier that morning, we’d seen seven police cars rush to a restaurant/nightclub up the road, and I’d said it was too bad we couldn’t see what happened from our window. Hence, the binoculars.
It was truly a romance like I’d never known before.
In addition to not being great at gift selection, he drives me bananas. He spills things all over the place, so our carpets are a disaster that the dogs are not responsible for. He is even messier than I am, which makes my mother worry for us. He breaks things all the time. He forgets so, so much, coming home with half of the things on a written grocery list. “Where is the tarragon?” I’ll ask, midway through my dinner preparation, and he brings his hand to his forehead as he panics. Sigh. He also gets church laugh (uncontrollable fits of laughter at the most inappropriate times) as he is unable to handle raw emotion, which includes people breaking out into song, so that means no musicals for us, and the symphony is not a place we can return to. Poetry readings, plays, and most recently, a talk about racism in America, are places where his laughter starts bubbling up because he’s so uncomfortable. Eventually, we reach a point where he can’t hold it back anymore. As a consequence, we stay home. A lot.
He completely ruined our tenth wedding anniversary, and I was so upset I almost left the restaurant before the entrée arrived. But I had to get over it because the truth of our relationship is that he is the one who gets over it 90% of the time. So it’s not all rainbows and heart emojis, but what relationship is?
We met at the university. I was working as an adjunct at the time in a couple of colleges, piecing together a living, and I took a few shifts at the writing center there. He came in for an appointment with me, out of breath, a little late, handing me a paper about managing a baseball team. I asked what areas he wanted help with, and he sat back in his chair, shrugging. I pointed out areas where I thought he could be more specific, and he didn’t seem to be listening to me most of the time. He left without saying much, so I was surprised to see his name in my appointment list the following week. When he came in, dressed in his clothes from the gym, I asked how I could help him, and he pushed an essay my way. There was a writing center presentation going on at the same time with a few people in attendance, so I kept my voice down as I asked him about this essay. He told me about the class it was for, and I began pointing out areas that could use more support, but he wasn’t making eye contact and barely seemed to be listening. Frustrated, I asked if he really wanted my help because some instructors forced their reluctant students to come to the center, and those students didn’t get a lot out of consultations. He looked pained and took the essay back, writing a note at the bottom before returning it to me. It said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”
PSA: that query is usually followed by something offensive, so I shook my head, no, you may not. He pointed back to the written question with his pen, underlining it forcefully. “No,” I said again, this time out loud, getting irritated. “Not if it’s going to offend me.” He took the paper back, writing another message, and shoved it across the table. I was disarmed when I looked at what he’d written: “I just want to get to know you better.”
Working in a writing center, people can get the wrong idea. It’s our job to be helpful and encouraging, and people sometimes mistake that for something else. But there was something different about him, somehow, and I was intrigued. He took the paper back. “Can I have your phone number?” he asked. I paused because I’d never done that before with someone in the writing center, though the question had come up other times. I decided to go for it and wrote down my number. He smiled. “Do you want mine?” he asked, and I shook my head again. “No,” I said. “You can call me.” His surprise showed, and I felt like it was the smoothest thing I’d ever done. He still brings that up, by the way, usually with admiration in his voice about my confidence.
Two days passed with no call. I figured he thought I wasn’t worth the effort. And then, on the third day, a Sunday, he finally gave me a ring in the evening, showing I wasn’t the only confident one. The rest, as they say, is history.
We’ve been through challenges, like every married couple, but none too serious, nothing we weren’t able to find our way through. And then my body turned on me, and I was thrown into a gauntlet of tests and scans and doctors and uncertainty before finally being diagnosed with MS. It took a long time to get our lives back to something that looks familiar, but that’s where we’re grateful to be for now, rediscovering the everyday pleasures we knew before. The truth is, however, that things will get worse for us someday. That is the reality of life with MS. Alvaro has adjusted to the obstacles we’ve faced so far, and I know he will in the years to come.
So for Valentine’s Day, I’m glad to share more here about my person. He won’t see this as he doesn’t read my blog, and that’s fine with me. We each have our own things, our own spaces in our little world. When I am impatient, cranky, and sometimes cruel, he forgives me. Quickly. He doesn’t hold onto grudges, though I have been known to cling to them like flotation devices. We balance each other out. Alvaro still looks at me like I’m brand new, getting adorably—if irrationally—jealous about any hint of attention I get from other men. He sees the best in me, always, even when I fail to acknowledge the same in him.
It doesn’t take binoculars to see the value of a love like that.