I am just a girl—twenty-two, in a too-short black dress littered with roses. My husband’s arm is around my back and he is grinning. I smile shyly, too aware this is my honeymoon. A coy deference seems important here. These pictures: they will last.
My husband and I cuddle in bed and flip through our honeymoon album one night. We talk about our appreciation for each blank space between the pictures; how in music, the pause is as vital as the sound. It feels right that the ellipses are equally valid to us. There is a privacy to this—You don’t, and shouldn’t, know what you’re missing, this book says.
We snapped photos on a disposable camera found languishing in a Walgreens’ aisle; I bought it in a rush before we boarded the plane. Traces of bookended private moments are in these photos—the slip of our smiles, the rouged, flush face of a woman in the morning on the veranda overlooking the ocean.
You can imagine my husband, Chris, behind the camera. There I am, in the “click” of his eyes on the plastic button. These appear to be private moments, but the fact of the picture betrays its purpose; we are aware of our creation, posing for public consumption.
This is the story we want to tell, packaged in the way we want to be packaged. We believe in something, I don’t even know what. This idealistic, wild, beautiful thing we believe in.
In our current house, I pass by one of these specific photos on a side table. The dress I’d chosen to wear was one I also wore at my college graduation. It is too short and tight, with dark red petals on it. I look stocky in it—round, soft, and pudgy. Different from how I look now, seven years later. It is hard to recognize myself. There I am, smiling into the wind. I’m drinking orange juice, index finger on the cup, with Chris brown and brazen. We look the part of honeymooners.
Glancing at it is accidental and disturbing. There is the jolt of meeting eye-to-eye with a stranger. A person with her own confidences. I try not to look at the picture too often even though it is the only one displayed in our house within a frame. It unsettles me. She unsettles me. The man in the picture, my husband, I love and feel I understand. At the very least, he is familiar to me. But the girl is not.
Then there is the marriage. Because that girl is no longer me, our marriage is no longer that marriage. It is like a piece of wood in a woodworker’s hands. Years ago, it had only just begun to take shape. Years later, certain parts have been chipped off. But it still hasn’t borne a recognizable image. That takes time.
Marriage is a long game. I say this with every bit of awareness of the irony that I am just at the beginning of that long game.
In our private life, I continue to be surprised by the differences between me and that girl in the picture. That girl’s private struggles are unlike the ones I face now. Her thoughts—from what I remember—would be embarrassing to me if ruminated on them now. What other mysteries reside in this marriage?
A few months before our honeymoon, I visited the White Cliffs of Dover in England. The cliffs are a picture of erosive processes that birth greatness. They are chalky behemoths travelers coming from far away would see upon returning home to England. They would catch sight of them and know they were only miles from home.
At the same time, those cliffs bear the story of constant erosion. Every year, certain sections fall off completely. They are lost to the grinding sea. Scientists say a centimeter each year is scoured away. But those same cliffs have birthed poetry and pathos, love and war.
The cliffs weather a centimeter each year into something even more strange and striking.
In marriage, we hope we can say, like Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach,” which I read once upon a time on those very cliffs before I was married, “Ah, love, let us be true // To one another!”
We say this amid a landscape of worn rock and silt; sometimes the landscape leaves a negative space wholly unfamiliar. Time must pass before a disintegrating landscape is seen as innately beautiful in its very broken fortitude.