Weíre driving toward San Francisco on a crowded gray freeway, 15 years and an entire continent away from where we met in grad school. Laurel was the only one among us who was beautiful in a normal way -- no dyed hair or morose eyeliner and she wrote poetry as beautiful and strange as a bouquet of red poppies. While most of us aspiring writers stared out the window all day at home, or more socially, in coffee shops or bars, she worked with autistic children. Though Laurel had her moments of romantic turmoil, when I arrived a year behind her she was clear of all that. On the other hand, the first person I met in Rhode Island was her alcoholic ex-lover who I immediately slept with.

Now she tells me as we cross the Bay Bridge that sheís fallen in love with a female student, her husband says he doesnít care if she gains all her fulfillment outside their marriage, and sheís seriously considering doing it. What stops her from saying the word weíre both thinking is her two boys, her husbandís magical fathering, the cozy home they share in a hip neighborhood she loves and lack of a job of the supporting-a-family variety. Iím incredibly sad to learn that the life Iíve been imagining her living is all wrong, but mostly Iím shocked that someone so kind and beautiful and rich in all the ways that count could end up unhappy, dependent, alone, trapped and scared.

Of course, Laurelís situation -- a beautiful brainy woman with a heart open a mile wide married to an emotionally elusive man who doesnít realize heís losing the best thing in is life, his wife -- reminds me of my friend Maura back in Austin.

Maura has the kind of natural but charismatic beauty that once made people like Mikhail Baryshnikov ask her out. Only Maura would take the high-jumping dancer to Rubyís Natural Barbecue for dinner. Only Maura would fall in love with a frog counter headed to Costa Rica and hold an awesome garage sale so she could follow him to the canopy. Upon their return, Maura and her boyfriend forged dreams of moving to Mexico but got side-tracked by the usual thing -- a baby.

The other night Maura dined with us sans enfant for the first time in four years -- her son Max is spending his second night with Daddy who moved down the street last week. Her husband is under investigation for tax evasion and she might lose her home. Sheís raised their son nearly entirely alone while Maxís dad travels and spends money they may or may not have. They havenít shared a bed in years.

Divorce. Iíve known two in my life and one that threatened. None, luckily, were mine. At nine years and counting, Iíve been married longer than my motherís three marriages combined.

Growing up, I decided to avoid divorce by not getting married. Jim dodged nuptials because he didnít want to relive his parentsí distant version of matrimony. Yet practically the morning after we "old friends" jumped in the sack at ages 29 and 43, he tossed me a book with the uninspiring title Getting the Love You Want. Excuse me, but whoís talking love, baby? We started do-it-yourself marriage counseling before we even got engaged. We knew from the start that I "avoid" by reading or talking endlessly and he "avoids" by watching TV or clamming up. Iím overly sensitive to noise, light and sound and he loves having the TV and radio on at the same time all the time. Iím an avid reader and heís dyslexic and canít spell "weather" on his speed-dial. And still we bravely marched down the aisle.

I keep meaning to frame and hang our wedding vows in the kitchen where we most often wage our battles about "who does more," "where does the money go" and most recently "why you continue to wash that red shirt that turns everything pink." My favorite line of our vows is about how we will stay together "through chaos and order." But itís not the vows that keep us together -- or our attempts to follow them.

Itís a lavender bookmark.

It used to be on our fridge, many fridges ago. It said basically that at any moment you can choose to act out of love or fear. It sounded too simple. After all, I was the woman with the "NO FEAR" sticker on my Toyota. But beware of those who protest too much. It was fear, I came to realize, that fed my anger. Fear that made Jim go silent. Fear that made us turn away from each other when we were tired, preoccupied or overwhelmed. Love, on the other hand, demands courage. It makes you ask when youíd rather not. Think when youíd rather play dumb. Be honest when skirting elusive truth takes less time.

The other night I met my friend Ed, visiting from Canada, for dessert and I asked him what he thought about divorce since heíd had one twenty or so years ago. He told me a story about traveling with his then-wife when they were in their 20s. Theyíd hit all the European postcard stops and even settled in an apartment on a Greek island. But he was hungry for something more foreign and strange. On New Yearís Day he left her for a month-long journey into the Middle East. It was during an endless bus ride across the gray desert of Afghanistan that he felt himself inexplicably draw away from his marriage. He returned to Greece and they went home to have two kids and were married for another seven or eight years, but things were never again the same. He still canít say what scared him in the desert.

Since Iíve become a mom, I sometimes turn to my sonís view of things when Iím in search of wisdom. Cope is graduating from kindergarten next week, so it occurs to me that marriage is like being stuck in elementary school forever. You may finally reach sixth grade (or some other special anniversary) but thereís still a never-ending curriculum unfolding before you. You can stare out the window or hide under the monkey bars. Or you can pay attention. Sit in the front row. Volunteer to turn out the lights. But it takes the whole class -- you and your partner -- to pass. Sure, on certain days or long nights Jim may take the high road while I wallow in my shit, and there are others when I carry his 200 pounds on my back, at least spiritually speaking. But mostly weíre sitting side by side, passing glances, passing notes, best friends, trying to get whatever the world throws at us, making educated guesses and sometimes, oh, sometimes just sailing through.

Why on earth would anyone sit cramped in one of these tiny chairs forever?

"Ah," my dear husband says as he brings in a stack of folded laundry that looks suspiciously pink, "So you can grow."

About the author:

Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West and Boston Review, among many other places. Born in Japan and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she lived in Delaware and Rhode Island before settling in Austin in 1988. She works as communications and development director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. Bradford lives with her husband, their son, three cats and a dog. Being the motheróof a child over the age of threeóis the best thing that has ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net