My husband has told me loves me without telling me three times. The first time was two days before our wedding.
“I’ll miss you.”
“But we’ll only be apart for two days!”
I realized later what he was trying to say. But we were still new to each other. Those were blue jean days, planting flowers in the ground with my baby and her new stepfather, crafting Christmases out of popcorn and worn out trees. Days when we fought because I didn’t know anything about the news and he thought I was stupid, and I thought he had mechanics where his heart should be.
Years and babies passed, I finished my residency and spent hours listening to lives, he moved us to West Virginia where coal dust from the south settled over crooked streets. He’d still only told me he loved me that one time, but if I wanted adoration I shouldn’t have married an economist. Sometimes I wondered if marrying me had been a utility calculation; if my smile had been stretched over x and y coordinates and marked up with chalk. But we were together for ten years now and he had softened. He remembered birthdays and told me the names of the flowers he bought me for Valentine’s Day, tapping the petals of each and reciting Latin till he had reached the center of the spiral.
Before our last daughter was born, he travelled to Russia and said he loved me a second time.
“The food is disastrous, the state of the economy is in crisis, but the women have such high cheekbones. I see your face everywhere.”
My fingers held suspended over the keyboard after I’d read it, and I didn’t have to realize later what he’d meant to say. I see your face everywhere. That’s five whole words that mean I love you, not the meager three that most women get. I plucked the sentence from the screen with my fingers, careful not to rip the tissue text, and deposited it in my jewelry box with “I’ll miss you.” Two rubies to unravel later.
Now after thirty years of marriage he’s left to teach in Hungary for a semester. When our last baby flew away I cried over my morning coffee and he watched the news. Now we go to dinner on Friday nights at Café Bacchus or Madeleine’s, and if a musical comes to Morgantown we go to that. We host dinner parties and read our books at night, side by side. We call our children on separate floors so we can both be on the line. “Tom, are you there?” “Yeah, I’m here. Jennifer?” We tried being vegetarian for a few weeks, because Bill Clinton lost twenty pounds when he did it. First the chicken made its way back in, then the pork. We have happy hour at 5:00. Instead of sex, we read our books and snuggle over to tell each other what’s happening in them, about the fall of the Soviet Union or the battles of the Peloponnese. These are the stones that make up our lives.
And we work like always. He has his students, I have despair. My patients walk through the door in different ways: some slink in with their eyes on the floor, others wipe down the doorknob, still others jerk through the room with their hands kneading the air. They don’t tell me stories, because no one has any. No beginnings and ends, just moments upon moments that they feel or forget.
Tom teaches his students to graph out how we think, how the nuts and bolts of minds and matter fit together and sputter to life. I listen to hours of entropy and sort through the wreckage with words and medications. When we come home at four or five or six, we meet somewhere in the middle. He sees me laugh and cry, and I learn the secret names of plants.
Saying goodbye when you’re sixty is a quiet affair. We close our books and look at each other, and he starts taking off my clothes. After thirty years I’m used to his hands, but after so long wearing clothes I feel like they’re being peeled from my body. My underarms sweat lightly into my sweater, and my old underwear has left a vague imprint of a waistband in my wilted belly, marching all the way around my skin. I realize I forgot to shave my legs. I used to feel sundrenched when sex was a regular occurrence. My body dried in the stale air of our bedroom, my lingerie was smaller, clothes hung around my breathing body and fluttered away when he wanted them to. But now my body is fused with fabric, and my skin shudders and cools in the acquainted air. I hug him close to feel warmth again, and he’s changed too. Arms with Seurat spots you can see from further away, a bald spot in his hair. “Why is Daddy bald?” “One day God licked his thumb to turn the page, and rubbed off a bit of Daddy’s hair. I guess he was sick of reading West Virginia.” Oh, and teeth yellowed by coffee. But we still move together.
Afterwards, in the dark, we talked about Hungary.
“Can we visit Estonia? Slovakia?”
“I don’t know… If we have time.”
“Of course we have time! I’m visiting for three weeks.”
“Yes, but we have to see Hungary.”
“And other things. I want to see the Tatras.”
“Ok, but... I’ll be living in Hungary, I don’t want to go to the Tatras. They don’t mean anything. I’ll be in Hungary, that’ll be my life… I want to share that with you.”
So I stopped, and looked at his shape in the dark. Because he had just said he loved me again. I caught the words before they disintegrated and placed them in my box with the other rubies, gathering dust. I hadn’t looked at them in a long time. I smiled at them resting in my hands. Really the years were filled with gemstones. He couldn’t say I love you but he could push in my chair and take my coat. He could drive me to the airport and walk my first daughter, who wasn’t his, down the aisle and catch my last as she came wailing into light. We met in the middle between reason and romance but everyone makes a kind of sense in the end. Every so often he slips back into himself and hides behind a door I can’t open. He sinks into silence at dinner while I stare at my food. But then he fixes my computer, kisses my hair, and wakes up to tell me about his day.
At the airport the next day he hugged me and disappeared into security.
I kissed him quickly and walked back to my car. Goodbyes aren’t a place for emotion. They’re too obvious. But Tom feels things and loves things, just very quietly. Sometimes you can see it at the sides of his smile or hear it in his sudden laugh. Or if he’s in Hungary, and you’re alone with your dogs in a big house, far away from his face, you can feel them in three lines of love he whispered once timidly in my ear.