Together We’re One

Are you listening to me
When I'm talking to you?
Said together we're one
Divided we're through.

I remember a burly musician singing low while the San Marcos River wound by
outside the bar. His partner, who had a dancer’s leanness and grace, wove
his voice around the melody, tracing harmonies like constellations in the
night sky. I was nineteen and listening to folk music with my boyfriend
Nick. Everything in the dim room twinkled, my eyes misty with the story of
true love they sang. Shake Russell and Dana Cooper were the next big thing
and we were getting to hear them for five bucks, a real splurge for us. I
nursed a Miller Lite—the drinking age was just 18, too young to have any
taste—and fell in love with both those men and their ballad.

Back then, I understood the song to be about the ragged nights Nick and I
argued. I was jealous of the blond girl he was talking to or he was sullen
and withdrawn over some old injustice he was suffering. We said things, but
didn’t listen. We played the parts of an angry couple, testing our tactics
like actors on a soap. He slammed a door. I stormed out. Usually we ended
with lovemaking, the activity that had drawn us together in the first place.
Nearby, moths fluttered around the light bulb.

The stakes were so low, if we’d been a tent we would have blown away. What
did it really matter if my arty boyfriend with a British accent (he was
half-foreign, the half that attracted me no doubt) and I called it quits?
Together we were adamantly two separate people. Whenever we talked about the
future, it was a place as misty as the river in the morning when I ran
beside it. We envisioned a plot of land with three buildings—an art studio
for him in one corner, a writing studio for me in the farthest opposite
corner, and a small shared house in the center. We knew no one who had this
arrangement and thought ourselves clever to think of it. Soon we became
divided by my desire to transfer to a college 1,500 miles away and, like
Shake Russell and Dana Cooper, we were soon through.

The other day, twenty-five years later, the song “Deep in the West” came on
the radio and I heard the words as if for the first time. The slow wistful
tune is about two lovers banging together in the night like loose shutters
on an old house. Singing the high harmony just like I did back then, tears
came to my eyes in the car. Now I get it.

My husband Jim and I have been married 13 years and I’ve known him more than
half my life. We met when Nick and I moved out to the country to live in a
shotgun shack that nearly killed us. Jim was a neighbor down the way. For
the first five or so years we were just friends, always dating someone else
or falling out of touch. Eventually, we realized our love of conversation
over tea might be something to build on. Now, here we are—one house, one
child, and one home addition later. Over the years Jim’s beard has gone
nearly white and I’ve gained 15 pounds (pure muscle, I swear). Sometimes we
are like the old chair he owned when we began dating—a gigantic off-white
hulk with arms a foot wide. It was perfect for reading and cuddling together
to watch “Woman of the Year.” But it got ugly. One day we moved it out to
the street to be picked up by some other young couple with dreams of a
future together. We got a leather couch and realized how comfortable and
beautiful our life together could be.

But here’s the truth. Marriage is like exercise. Sometimes it gets to be a
real drag. One gray Monday I think all I really want is to eat all the Free
Trade 77% cocoa chocolate bars I can, while watching our three Netflix
back-to-back. But then I get a new pair of goggles to replace the ones that
are so foggy it’s amazing I haven’t swum into the wall yet. Or I try out a
new yoga studio or class. Often it’s enough to just recall what joy it gives
me to climb out of the pool at the end of a long practice, knowing I did the
impossible. Or I revisit the exquisite peace I feel walking across the
parking lot after a yoga class. I choose to pull myself out of my chocolate
buzz and get back on track.

To live in a life-long committed intimate relationship, is a constant
choice. Years ago, Jim and I composed our vows which included along with
sickness and health, “in chaos and in order.” We recited them for the crowd
of family and friends—many of whom have since moved or passed away. We
thought that was it. We were done. Sure, it’s gotten easier to share our
lives together, but when it’s hard—it’s much harder. Our two different and
wounded selves grind together like parts of a bad knee.

Recently I have found myself tangled up in my own thoughts. There is someone
I have a crush on. Sometimes in my head I am as lovesick as I was about Nick
when we were in the same Greek Civilization class. I recall that from my
chair I could sense the air that had touched his skin as it came to rest on
mine. I have no doubt that this man, the object of my crush, has had not a
single thought about me, a married woman with a child. That is how it should
be. Once I recommended to him a new CD, emailing him with the title I could
not recall when we spoke. He replied amiably with a movie recommendation. My
heart and fingers thrummed with delight. I hit delete.

A few nights later, Jim and I met in our bedroom, our son tucked in bed.
Dimming the lights, taking a bath together, we performed the same dance
we’ve done the past fifteen years, or variations of it. As we kissed, I
noticed the possessed monkey of my mind planning when I could rent the movie
my crush recommended. Back when Jim and I began dating there was nothing
that could distract me from his kiss. Familiarity is the saddest thing about
spending a lifetime together. I decided to set an intention to act as if
this was our first time together. For the first time I feel the heft of his
shoulder beneath my hand, for the first time I inhaled his scent, let him
brush aside my underthings. I told him what I was doing and suggested he do
the same. The outcome was much better than the first time—which was quick
and voracious, fueled more by appetite than history.

Silver friend at night,
Yellow friend you come
With the dawn
Back in my heart . . .

The song is about two lovers who, in their familiarity, have fallen apart at
the seams. Yet in their moment of distance and contempt, they remember to
call back to one another through a window called forgiveness. The
partnership that Jim and I have built is invisible as air, constant as the
river, delicate as a bird’s nest, and strong as our will to choose once
again to stand at the window of our lives together—and listen.

To sing along with “Deep in the West” visit: www.shakerussell.com
To watch the San Marcos River visit: www.sanmarcosriver.org
To buy your lover, or yourself, some Free Trade chocolate:
Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. She has
published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Boston Review and many other
places, picking up an O. Henry Prize along the way. Find her in recent
anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24
Tales of Motherhood
, and Grrl Talk: Sass, Wit and Wisdom. Bradford works as
development director at Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable
housing provider for families and homeless individuals. Being a mother,
wife, breadwinner, and writer are her Buddhist practice. Visit her at