Against All Odds
Three writers reflect on the myriad challenges—and untold rewards—of romantic relationships.
Away with Words
In love, there is more than one way to be known.
By Cara McDonald
We hadn't seen each other in a few days, and we were doglike in our single-minded anticipation of being together again. And so Igor wrote, at the end of his e-mail: "I will be at the door, waging the tale, waiting for you."
I file this away like I do other written treasures, to read again for their meaning, both literal and implied.
Igor is Czech, not a poet, although sometimes the one makes him accidentally the other. And while he begs me to correct his English, I can't bring myself to do it; I'm afraid he'll tuck the right answer away in his mind and that no tales will be waged again. Likewise the extra articles, the malapropisms, the sweet little confusions that upend his meaning—which am I, he asks, "suspicious" or "superstitious?"
Though I delight in these words turned sideways, our language difference has been a source of concern—can he keep up? Will we get each other? I have always identified too much with words and their ability to express the mind behind them. I couldn't throw a ball from the outfield to first base, but I read a lot, I wrote a lot, and in time came to believe that my thoughts, and the ability to articulate them, were who I was.
Certainly words had determined the course of my life. The reader became a writer and a teacher, and I found myself working in Japan as an English instructor. There was one student, a young woman, whom I taught for three years; by the time my suitcase was packed for the trip back to America, she was fluent in the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel, could discuss politics and gender issues, negotiate, tell jokes, and share deep feelings all in English. Triumphant, I asked her how she felt now that she could speak so beautifully. "Well," she said, "in English, I now can say 10 percent of who I am." The other 90, I realized, would take more than a lifetime. I left more convinced than ever that to be fluent was to fully exist.
It's no surprise that I looked for love, or at least a tribal belonging, among readers, writers, those who treated their verbal dexterity and skill as holy. I would have no sooner looked for a partner in a sports bar than I would have looked for someone whose language ability wasn't the same as mine. The halting, childlike sentences, the lack of shared cultural references—how on earth would we ever be whole to each other?
But then: I found Igor to be beautiful, with an unvarnished kindness and a habit of showing up for dinner with daisies or a six-pack of Pilsner in hand. We met in the mountains; he stuck with me politely while I gasped through a nasty stretch of single-track. And though our early conversations were filled with the usual eager sharing, I wondered out loud if we'd have anything in common once we'd burned through our stories of difference.
Our early dating became a series of conversations about Where We Stood, and What Our Intentions Are. Everything was said, said, said again—but I want to be clear, I insisted, I want you to know me. Igor wanted to show me his favorite place on the side of a mountain, and make me fried cauliflower and schnitzel, and recite a Baudelaire poem he still remembered from school.
So he did, and I followed, and ate, and understood, little by little, what it meant to be with him—on wooded trails soaked with spring snow, on the couch watching documentaries about grizzly bears, in his arms at night where I finally learned to fall asleep letting myself be held. I came to evaluate each day as its own thing, the stack of good days always outweighing the bad, and love becoming clear no matter what I wanted to call it.
We spent our second Christmas together with the knowledge that he had an engagement ring with him, somewhere; we'd discussed marriage, even the ring itself, but it hadn't been presented, not on Christmas, and not on New Year's Eve, as I expected. The holiday season made him homesick and withdrawn. "You know," he said, "you're not Czech, I am. You'll never understand."
I would hold onto him until I could, then. I cracked open a book, one with the 200 questions every couple must ask before marriage, and we grimly worked our way through them at the kitchen counter. Joint bank account or not? How much is too much to drink? Do your parents express affection? The coffee cooled as we hashed out our expectations, me sketching a life together, painting it for him with words, hoping if we talked it over he would see it too. At last he stood up, pushing the bar stool behind him, and left the room.
Then he came back. Igor pulled me down next to him on the couch and took a small wooden box out of his pocket. Quietly, he held it out to me. There was nothing left to be said.
E-mail Cara McDonald at email@example.com.