Starter Marriage by Chelsey Drysdale
“I love that you can’t remember to turn the light off in the garage, but you can remember what Hamlet said. I love that I can’t beat you at Scrabble. I love that you have enough college degrees to make you a true scholar, and yet you’ll dress like a skater kid and listen to punk music until you’re 80,” I said, facing Troy, holding a microphone, wearing a layered ivory gown and beige leather flip flops. I recounted the reasons I’d loved him for three years, the majority of which we’d lived together. It was July 31, 2005, outside on a grassy hill overlooking the ocean that I vowed to communicate. I promised to ask for help and to teach our children to be adventurous like their father. I promised to listen and do whatever it took to make my marriage with Troy a happy one.
If I’d written vows to reflect reality, I’d have pledged to stay faithful as long as he quit rejecting me. I’d have said I would only communicate if it didn’t hurt his feelings. I would have had a stipulation: Learn to take care of yourself, and then we’ll talk about babies. My vows would have come with an asterisk, and in six months we’d be able to revisit the paperwork we were about to sign. It was my wedding day, and I already needed an out. I was trying to jam a round peg into a square hole because marriage is what you do when you’re thirty-two.
In front of one hundred sixty-five guests, Troy said he’d wandered around wishing his way through life before he met me. He said he’d built a fortress to stay locked up and secluded from intimacy, but I’d loved him patiently.
The word “patient” was thrown around to describe me more than once on my wedding day. Troy’s older brother said, “Did I mention Chelsey’s patient?” during his best man speech, after he already had once. Everyone laughed.
In his vows, Troy said his life before me was worse than he thought. He vowed honesty. He vowed to trust my judgment. He vowed to serve me as a friend and a lover.
On such a noteworthy day, we were both liars.
I grabbed the Mac notebook Troy shared with me and sat on our queen bed in the two-story condo we’d moved into about a year after we started dating. It was a warm August day in a dry, dusty canyon down the street from The Real Housewives of Orange County. We were far from the beach, where Troy and I had agreed we wanted to live, a place where he made the rash decision to buy property without consulting me. I went along with the purchase because I didn’t know how to say no.
I don’t remember where Troy was when I opened his computer, but I knew he wouldn’t be home for a while. I logged into my secret Hotmail account and opened instant messenger to see if Matthew was online. My heart beat quicker when I saw he was. I hadn’t spoken to him since before the wedding, and we had vowed not to talk after I was married. The last couple weeks were the longest we’d avoided chatting since we’d collided four months earlier in Las Vegas. Matthew lived in Georgia. I wrote to tell him about my unorthodox honeymoon staycation, about taking Troy’s nieces to Club 33 at Disneyland, getting mild food poisoning at Sea World—from seafood—the exhilarating jump out of an airplane, wine tasting alone while my new husband napped, falling asleep to the TV on my wedding night, and not having sex the next day either. I missed frenzied chats with Matthew on the sly, and I thought maybe we could have a friendly talk without it getting heated.
Messaging’s not cheating, right?
The walls of the bedroom I shared with Troy were freshly painted a trendy taupe because of an ill-timed house renovation we started before the wedding. I hadn’t put the last of the presents away. I had a load of laundry in the washing machine. Our vizsla puppy, Penny, snoozed on the bed next to me, curled into a rust-colored ball. Talking to Matthew was risky and wicked, but our chemistry had been undeniable, and dicey chitchat was enticing when my real world wasn’t. The wedding hadn’t altered anything for the better—of course it didn’t. My new husband had checked me off his to-do list and was focused on his recent promotion as an assistant principal. But that was no excuse for writing to Matthew.
Matthew was pleasantly surprised I broke our vow and contacted him. After standard catchup, we made a couple flirty comments. I’m not sure who started it, but it was on. I peeled off my clothes, threw on a bathrobe, and stretched across red throw pillows, a home-furnishing accent color Troy’s mom insisted we pick out before registering for wedding gifts.
What the hell am I doing? I thought.
This question didn’t stop me. As a newlywed, I was already neglected.
Again, no excuse.
Before the wedding, Matthew and I had gotten into a routine of sending playful, evocative instant messages. I managed to keep my conversations with Matthew private; it was easy to conceal a secret pen pal when my future husband wasn’t paying attention. I became adept at deleting messages and search histories, erasing any wrongdoing from the world, but not from my own psyche, which was learning how to compartmentalize my life.
When I was planning my wedding, my routine included phone calls to Matthew on my drive home from work. I loved hearing his sultry voice, a mixture of Northeastern roots and Southern living. I held my phone against my ear and unzipped my pants with the other hand. I didn’t know what he looked like naked, but I knew the sounds of his orgasms. I could visualize his face in ecstasy. Once, I came in the parking lot of a busy California Pizza Kitchen in daylight, my sweater over my lap. I came in the parking lot of Pavilions at dinnertime as I watched suburbanites mill about, oblivious. I grocery shopped afterward to pick up dinner for Troy to account for the extra time it took me to get home.
Because we’d mastered phone sex, transferring the act to instant messenger wasn’t a huge stretch. We hunted and pecked one-handed, describing what we wanted to do to each other and what we were doing to ourselves in messages that sounded embarrassing and awkward if read out of context.
Matthew and I hadn’t explored instant message sex before. Why did we start after I’d pledged my undying loyalty to someone who slept in my bed every night? I’d only met Matthew in person on one four-day business trip. I barely knew him. Typing suggestive notes to him was pure fantasy.
Lying on my matrimonial bed, my hand deep between the folds of my robe, I didn’t take long to climax. I removed any trace of Matthew’s steamy words from Troy’s computer and hit the shower like it never happened. Breaking my vows in less than a month was simple and untraceable. I felt both alive and shameful. I rationalized this was somehow less despicable because Matthew and I weren’t in the same room when we were fucking.
At the beginning of my second and final year teaching, I met Troy. He had a shaved head, a round face, and a goatee. One of my students said he looked like a “cholo” the day he visited my classroom wearing a black button-up shirt and sunglasses, but he said he was 100 percent German. He was a giant kid like his students, but he was authoritative. I was envious of how he captured their attention. Despite my initial write-off of Troy as a romantic prospect, we had a lot in common, and I was impressed with his no-fear attitude and his ability to make precipitate decisions. I was drawn to him as a survivor, and his IQ was off the charts. His eyes twinkled when he smiled and recounted funny stories. We were both avid readers and liked similar music and films.
His shaved head was more necessity than choice. He didn’t like the soft fuzz that had grown in after his leukemia treatments when he was a high school senior. He was a sun-kissed, fit football player when he was diagnosed. But after, he had puffy cheeks that were prednisone-induced. He endured chemo, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant in 1992. One night in the hospital, he overdosed on morphine. The doctor instructed his parents to say goodbye, but he lived and became the apex of the family’s universe.
One night after Troy and I met, a fellow English teacher and I had a get-together at her condo, where I had been renting a room for more than a year. Candles dimly lit the living room, and Morphine provided the moody background music. Troy stood in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator wearing jeans and an unassuming hoodie. I stood across from him leaning against the cabinets. When I offered him a beer, he accepted, took a sip, and said, “I’m trying to cut back.”
We shared stories about our wild times in college. His were much rowdier. When I heard other women wanted him, I wanted him too. I excused myself, went to my bedroom, took off the sleeved shirt I was wearing, and threw on a tank top without a bra. I went into the living room and offered Troy another beer. He declined, said he had to go, and left with a quick goodbye. I spent the rest of the night perplexed about why he took off so abruptly. Later, he said he’d bolted so he wouldn’t get drunk. His best friend said it was smooth to leave the party early to keep me guessing. It worked.
A few months later, I invited him to a twentieth-anniversary screening of E.T. We talked on my couch after the film. I put my feet in his lap, and he slid his hand up my calf. That’s all it took. I grabbed his hand and led him to my bedroom. It was as if no time had passed since my last sexual encounter nineteen months before. It felt familiar and comfortable, like driving a manual transmission after a long hiatus.
“No one should have to go without sex,” I said as I got on top of him.
I awoke the next day surprised to see his tattooed back in the morning sunlight. I traced the black wings that encircled his fraternity symbol while he slept facing the window. But after he left that morning, I thought, He’s not it.
Later that week, while walking on the beach, I told him I only wanted to be friends. “Okay,” he said.
Okay? I thought. That’s it? And as soon as I let Troy go, I changed my mind. He had been too quick to agree. His best friend told him, “She doesn’t know what she wants.” And I wouldn’t for years.
I invited him to join me and two coworkers on a party bus to the Roxy. Troy said he came “this close” to bailing, but he didn’t because he’d already bought a ticket. So much of my 30s would have been different if he hadn’t gotten on that bus.
At the Roxy, Troy repeatedly slapped my ass when my friends weren’t looking. Then he whispered into my ear, “We’re going back to your place tonight, right?”
“Ohhh, yeah,” I said.
I didn’t know an acquaintance had slipped him Vicodin before we got on the bus, a pleasant pairing to go with the copious adult beverages he drank later. Our behavior was already shrouded in deceit.
On the party bus home, we held hands and dozed. I leaned my head on his shoulder. My throat was scratchy, but stronger emotions of comfort and safety trumped my budding cold. That night we felt like a pair, and I hadn’t been a duo in a long time.
Maybe I’m supposed to be with Troy after all, I thought.
Three months before my wedding, I jetted to Vegas on a business trip—where I met Matthew. He sent my pheromones into an immediate tizzy. He was tall and impeccably dressed. He stood wedged around a small cocktail table, sipping a Jack and Seven, chatting with colleagues. He exuded professional confidence. He was a man, and reminded me what a clear-cut physical attraction felt like. It was a giant red stop sign, given my impending marriage, but my attraction delighted me.
“Hey, congratulations, I heard you’re getting married!” an acquaintance said.
It’s really no big deal, I thought.
“I got married the first time when I was twenty,” Matthew said.
“You got married when you were twenty?” someone else asked.
“Oh yeah!” he said, throwing his head back as if to say, Doesn’t everyone?
The table chuckled. I stared. I twisted my engagement ring in circles.
A group of us moved to the VooDoo Lounge on the hotel’s roof. I sat next to the charming stranger on a swanky couch in the corner. The hip hop music and shrill voices were sucked into a vacuum as Matthew showed me wallet photos of his beautiful towheaded, blue-eyed four-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son with wispy eyelashes and sweet grins. He said his second wife had left him for the Pillsbury Doughboy. I continued to fiddle with the white gold princess-cut reminder on my hand.
We spent the next couple days brainstorming a how-to book. Matthew was a tech expert on the committee, and I was the book’s editor. We made eye contact off and on for hours during the meetings. Butterflies did summersaults in my tummy.
On the last night in Vegas, I prepped for the end-of-show soirée, a lively annual event where our president drank until she blacked out. I took extra time fixing my hair and applying makeup, refusing to admit it was for him. You’re being ridiculous. You’re getting married! I told myself. I should have asked, Why are you getting married?
I left my cellphone in my room on purpose.
At the party, there was dancing, a Frank Sinatra look-alike, fuchsia feather boas, and a decision to move the how-to book’s committee back upstairs to the VooDoo Lounge. Conversation with Matthew veered in an inappropriate direction.
“How many people have you had sex with?” he asked.
“Six,” I said, with no reason to lie. “How about you?”
“Seven,” he said.
At the elevator, Matthew stroked my hair, and upstairs, Matthew and I split from the group and leaned against the railing on the patio, surveying an aerial view of the Strip.
“Kiss me,” he said.
“Just one quick one. No one will see.”
I kissed him—a brief, seductive kiss. I peered over my shoulder to check. No one saw. It was easy. Why is this happening now? I thought. A long-suppressed stirring rose from my belly into my chest.
“I’ll be back. I have to use the restroom,” I said, tears welling.
I sprinted around the corner into the dark hallway near the bathroom. I turned to see Matthew barreling toward me. He placed his hands on my shoulders, thrust me against the wall, and kissed me again.
I staggered into the bathroom, my head spinning, more from lust than booze. Everything had shifted. My imminent marriage was amiss.
I went to bed alone and woke up rattled. I had to somehow go home and act normal. I had always done what I was supposed to do because I cared too much what people thought of me, so I spent the following three-day weekend at home painting walls trendy taupe, attempting to talk myself out of these new strong feelings for this other man. It didn’t work. And while Troy and I masked off crown molding and swiped paint rollers across our bedroom, I smiled. I kissed another man in Vegas, and it was glorious, I thought as I stared at Troy. He didn’t sense anything was wrong. If he didn’t see what was right in front of him, I wasn’t sure what I was capable of.
For three months after the Roxy night, Troy and I alternated between staying at his place and mine. He inhabited a mildew-ridden, kitchen-less studio next door to a volatile couple and their punk rock fights. I feared my clingy, jealous roommate would smother me with a pillow in my sleep. So Troy and I moved in together.
At 4:00 a.m. on moving day, Troy moaned and lifted his T-shirt in the twilight. He was covered in red, puffy welts. He scratched with no relief. Is he allergic to the hoppy beer he had last night or moving in with me? I thought. I gasped at the sight of him blanketed in hives and got dressed. He threw up. I drove him to the nearest hospital, where a nurse called me his wife. I sat at his bedside holding his hand while he shivered under a thin blanket. His wife, I thought. I like that. For once, I felt like a grownup. My parents said, “If it doesn’t work out, you can always move.”
The first sign of sexual incompatibility arose in Troy’s studio before we moved in together. One afternoon after school, he agreed to go down on me, but was tentative, like I was coaxing a fussy child to take a bite of steamed vegetables. He sat up after a couple licks.
“Oh god! Disgusting! Go clean yourself!” he said.
No one had talked to me like that before or has since. I was appalled. Troy said he didn’t like how women taste. Taste wasn’t the point. I think he blamed chemo. It was the start of a gradual sexual descent that made me feel unclean and self-conscious. After a while, I chalked up his indifference to something I’d done to make him apathetic, but his blasé reaction to my advances made me suspect there was something wrong with me. The emotional effects of his attitude toward sex would linger.
When Troy did want sex, it was about his physical gratification in the most convenient way possible rather than as a mutual expression of tenderness. I once asked him to tell me his fantasies, longing for kinky details.
“Just straight fuckin’,” he said with a grin.
I was disappointed. I often laid awake in bed feeling rejected and unfulfilled, watching him snore on his stomach, his arms shoved deep under his cold pillow. I resented his slumber. How can you sleep at a time like this? I’d think.
One morning I attempted to instigate sex, which I did less and less for fear of rebuff. We kissed. We both got aroused. He headed for the shower to masturbate.
“Why don’t you want to have sex?” I asked.
“Because I don’t want to lose my erection.”
His words hurt. But instead of telling him how I felt, like a mature adult, I acted out— slamming drawers in the bathroom, sulking. He threw the curtain back and saw I was crying. He said I was overreacting.
Three months after my wedding, I traveled to Chicago for a conference where Matthew would be. The night I flew in, I trudged up Michigan Avenue a mile and a half in the icy wind to see him. I waited in his hotel’s bar, questioning my motives and talking to a stranger about hockey as I glanced at the lobby door, eager and anxious. Are my feelings for this man real? I thought. Maybe I’m concocting a dream that doesn’t exist. I debated whether I would cheat on Troy in person. I paced and then parked myself on a sofa near the automatic slider, where travelers cruised in and out with their luggage.
Finally, Matthew appeared with a small black suitcase. It was the first time I’d seen him in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. He walked toward the counter. I wanted to leap up and embrace him. He caught my eye as he checked in. We froze and stared at each other from across the lobby. If it hadn’t been for the surreptitious backdrop, it would have been a movie romance moment.
He walked over and hugged me. I was flooded with that same intense attraction I’d experienced in Vegas. We hopped in a cab and found an English pub far enough away that we wouldn’t run into people we knew. We sat at a table watching silent sports on TV and held hands. I looked at my ring, at Matthew, and back at my ring.
The bartender glanced at us a couple times with a discerning look.
We cabbed back to Matthew’s hotel, holding hands. In the lobby, we silently walked to the elevator and headed to his room without discussing what we were doing.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” I said in the elevator.
“What is it?”
“I can’t have sex with you. I’ll explain in your room.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked as we lay on the bed, still dressed.
“It’s embarrassing. I used to have HPV, but recently my doctor said I no longer have the virus. But I found something that looks like a wart, so I don’t know if I have it or not.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
We kissed. I slid off his jeans and went down on him. Every time he almost came, he stopped me, laughed, and said, “No, huh uh.”
“I want to make you happy,” I said. He refused to have an orgasm in person before I had one. It was an unwritten code he’d formulated and mentioned in one of our phone conversations. He’s the anti-Troy, I thought. “Oh, come on,” I pestered him, but he wouldn’t relent, so I gave up and left him on the verge.
For the next few nights, we had the same routine: I’d walk down Michigan Avenue in the cold after sidestepping my coworkers, we’d take a cab to a bar, and then we’d make out in his room. I was crazy about him. But I felt tremendous guilt.
Matthew and I ended the conference lying on my hotel bed. We were flying home, and we didn’t know when we’d see each other again. I didn’t have intercourse with him, only because I thought I had an STD I no longer had, not because I didn’t want to. I wasn’t trying to be a good wife. I wanted out of my marriage.
The afternoon I returned home, Troy lured me to our neighbors’ house. He was motocross buddies with three couples living on our street. They loved to ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers in the desert. I had no interest. I didn’t care if he went without me, but he wanted to include me. He’d even taken me motorcycle shopping. I tried on a helmet and made him pull it off because I was immediately claustrophobic.
“Check out Lisa’s new quad,” he said, standing in front of the neighbors’ garage. All his friends stood around a shiny new four-wheeler. It was canary yellow with big, black wheels.
“Cool,” I said, trying to be enthused.
“Sit on it and check it out,” Troy said.
I straddled the seat and gripped the handles. “Nice,” I said.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s cool.”
“Good, because it’s yours!” he said, and everyone cheered.
“What?” I asked, confused. While I was in Chicago, Troy had bought me an expensive motor vehicle I didn’t want. I was furious he’d spent so much money on a giant Tonka truck. Why didn’t you give me that money to pay off my credit cards? I thought. “Why did you buy this now?” I questioned, remorse flooding my veins. I don’t deserve a new toy. I just blew a guy in Chicago.
A year and a half into our relationship, Troy quit drinking after sneaking extra margaritas at a family friend’s party overlooking the ocean. My mom said it was the most comfortable and funny she had ever seen Troy. She had seen the side of Troy I loved, the carefree, witty storyteller. My family was used to seeing him scowl, irked and apprehensive.
Troy disagreed with my mom’s assessment. He started attending twelve-step meetings at the nearby megachurch. I wasn’t sure how best to be part of his recovery, and I wasn’t sure he needed me. I felt left out, and I was secretly disappointed we wouldn’t be able to go out for a couple cocktails on occasion. I was concerned we’d grow farther apart if he became religious. However, he stopped attending meetings at step nine because he was scared to make amends. He said he’d continue sobriety on his own. I was relieved and foolish. I wanted him to drink like a “normal” person. I often hoped the nonexistent off switch missing from his brain would magically develop.
I denied his addiction, even after he blacked out and trailed whiskey across my friend’s beige carpet on New Year’s Eve, asked me to lock up my codeine cough syrup when I had a cold and my Vicodin after I had nasal surgery, and even after stealing pain pills. We convinced ourselves everything was manageable.
Once, I returned from work to find Troy face-down on the sofa, asleep, unmoving. His right leg and arm dangled off the side of the couch. I was suspicious. Maybe he’s sick, I rationalized. I made dinner, and he stirred and arose in a fog. He staggered to the kitchen sink to wash his hands. They were shaking. His eyes were glassy. I pressed for answers but didn’t get any until he stumbled to the bathroom and started vomiting. I debated whether to call an ambulance or not. I didn’t want to overreact, so I didn’t call 911.
“I figured if two Somas were good, four Somas were better,” he said the next morning, smiling. Then he went to work.
I snooped through Troy’s checking account for shady withdrawals, finding puzzling purchases. Troy was wasting his money on online drugs. I questioned him later and received partial truths. I searched his pants pockets and nightstand drawers for random white pills. I searched his internet history for pharmaceutical websites, sometimes finding innocuous porn instead. I once found pills floating in the toilet.
One night, he asked, “When are we going to get you knocked up?” I tensed. You can’t even take care of yourself. How can you take care of a child? I thought.
“I don’t know,” I said. Before the wedding, we’d discussed “next summer.” We’d even named our unborn children. But having children would only make our problems worse. It was the one right thing I knew. I thought of the naïve young girl who believed she’d marry her first love, have babies, and be happy. Where did that girl go?
After the holidays passed, in January, I tiptoed around the house with the words ready: We made a mistake. I want a divorce. But I had trouble disclosing what I wanted to say. Instead, I planned a thoughtless trip to Atlanta. I had an alibi—my cousin lived there. I removed my wedding ring in the bathroom at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and spent a long weekend sleeping in Matthew’s warm, high-thread-count sheets. We had sex for the first time on his massive oak bed. We ate steak dinners with Cabernet, followed by cappuccino crème brûlée. Matthew was passionate in every way Troy couldn’t be.
I returned home, and the following Friday, Troy and I had sex for the last time. While walking Penny that weekend, I finally said, “We made a mistake. We never should have gotten married.”
He halted on the sidewalk and cried. I didn’t realize you cared that much, I thought.
“Is there someone else?” he asked later while we made our bed.
“No,” I said, “this is about you and me.” It was the truest lie I’d ever told.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Ravishly, The Manifest-Station, and several other publications. She is a Best of the Net nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.