Love Conquers All. Even Life’s Mysteries

IN September 1964, as a day-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin, with all the standard-issue anxieties residing in a suddenly oversize tongue, I spotted my future wife from afar — well, from the next table in the Rathskeller. Minutes later she was deep in flirtatious conversation with my new and worldly roommate from Westport, Conn., who had deserted me to sit down with her.

And thus it wasn’t until three years later — after finding myself a silent observer of their typical undergraduate jealousies and monthly breakups — that Patti Henderson and I had our first official date, on Dec. 10, 1967. I know the exact date because I had two tickets to see the great Otis Redding. That night Mr. Redding’s plane crashed into the frozen waters of Lake Monona while we waited in the Dane County Arena for the concert to begin. An inauspicious beginning to the relationship, but young, lusty and dumb as we were — and probably incapable of spelling inauspicious — we were married the following August in sweltering New Orleans.

Forty years later I still don’t understand. We have little in common, and certainly none of those hard-wired connections that dating services say married couples are supposed to share: background, religion, jogging, tennis, theater, music, crossword puzzles, bird-watching, literature, romantic comedies, slasher films. Not drinking. Not therapy. Nothing. (I later found out that she didn’t even like Otis Redding.)

And we don’t even fight well; our spats typically end without resolution, two stubborn souls sitting in silence, staring out into the abyss beyond the king-size mattress. So I speak only for myself then when I say I am drawn to her daily in vast unspeakable ways, a tick in my throat when we pass in separate cars. Or in the kitchen when I inhale her scent. And later in the living room, her shoulder pressed to mine.

Beyond that it’s pure mystery. If you had asked me to describe my ideal partner 40 years ago, it might well have been any number of slinky long-haired northeastern Jewish college girls dressed in black, but not Patti Henderson, who grew up in the Garden District of New Orleans with all its attendant civilities and who apparently liked brash boys like my roommate. And today I am confident that if Patti registered with some seniors’ dating service to match her with her “perfect mate,” it would not be me. How would a computer find someone who fails to fit her so well?

Over the years I have tried in vain to explain what it is about the connections and the confusion and the ambivalence and the roots of this counterintuitive relationship that not only connect us in unspoken ways, but have also somehow in equally mysterious ways led us to bring seven children into this harrowing universe. Sometimes in my more pretentious literary moments I deign to quote Stella from “A Streetcar Named Desire”: “But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark... ” Sometimes, even more grandly self-indulgent, I think of those screen couples who simply don’t seem to fit: Harry and Sally, Rhett and Scarlett, Harold and Maude. Mostly, though, I just shrug like the tongue-tied teenager I was in 1964. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

I only know it doesn’t seem possible that 40 years have passed, that our oldest son, Cael, is 39, that the baby, Elizabeth, is 20. I do know that, much like many others in my charmingly shameless generation, I am shocked when I see a grizzly 62-year-old man looking back at me in the bathroom mirror each morning.

Despite the obvious physical and emotional scars staring back at me, I think — no, I actually believe — that at my core, behind the aging mask, I am the young hipster poet still sitting in the Dane County Arena with my new squeeze awaiting the great Otis Redding (and, of course, the charms that might follow the concert).

But how does immaturity account for a successful marriage? Frankly, I’m not in a position to explain. This much I know, though: she is not the same girl I gazed upon longingly and mutely in 1964. And this: I am not the same boy who held her hand as we walked empty-handed out of the Otis Redding concert in 1967. We are wholly different people.

More confounding is that everyone thinks we deserve kudos for this loonlike behavior, as if we did something to make this happen.

“You did!” a divorced friend said to me recently after I dismissed his congratulations with a smiling shrug. “It takes work,” he said, wagging a finger. “I know.”

Well, as you already know, I don’t know. There have been no Women or Men at Work signs around my home all these years. Sometimes I think that if there was any semblance of a reason for loving this woman since I was a teenager, and, more impossibly, she me, my marriage would have been in big trouble a long time ago. What if she loved me for my dark locks or my flat belly or my bad undergraduate poetry or what might have looked like a free spirit back in 1967?

Even here at the end of this essay, I must admit I am still searching for something that makes sense (and something that will not embarrass my grown children, who often read my work with eyes wide open, waiting for some naked moment of hideous family disclosure).

Perhaps it’s best just to give up trying to explain, to accept all the unwarranted congratulations with some measure of grace — to be for all who care to care that cute older couple who still hold hands.