The financial crisis turned my husband into a modern-day migrant laborer—and me into a needy, horny, stay-at-home basketcase.
“There’s some hard times a’coming, ‘bout to hit these parts,” my husband said, tucking a strand of sun-warmed hay between his teeth, gazing forlornly over the scorched horizon. (Where he found the hay on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is anybody’s guess.) “Ain’t nothin’ ‘round here fer a fella like me. Way I see it, the most prudent thing is I start headin’ west, ‘fore this here Depression gets any worse.”
“No!” I cried. “Today you’re going out to California, tomorrow we’re homeless, living in a paddock on the side of the road, and I’m breastfeeding a starving man like Rose of Sharon!”
When a pipe burst, when the cat peed blood, when our cheap bed collapsed and I was forced to assemble the new one myself, my feelings about my husband ventured dangerously near hatred.
This was a year ago, before our economy had fully come to resemble The Grapes of Wrath, but the writing was on the wall. New York ad agencies were not yet hemorrhaging employees, but everyone knew what was coming. There were dark mutterings of a changing industry. My husband, who was freelancing, had been offered a position at a cutting-edge digital agency on the West Coast, and it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.
“This is for us,” he argued, passionately. “I don’t want to be unemployable and flat broke in three years. It’s an investment in both of our futures.”
Several heated discussions and screaming fights later, my husband and I reached an uneasy compromise: For the time being, he would live in California, and I would stay in New York. I had several of my own professional commitments to honor, a flurry of practical concerns—we had just signed a new lease, and what about the cat?—and I would visit when I could. In six months, we would reassess.
And so, my long-distance marriage began.
We had been married for less than a year, and most of what I knew about making a relationship work was cobbled together from women’s magazines, long-ago therapy sessions, and bits of dark, cryptic wisdom from my mother—all of which tended to take the position that what we were doing was a Very Bad Idea. I understood that physical distance translates into emotional distance, and that the temptation of infidelity (if not the act itself) is inevitable. I’d been taught that a relationship is like an infant, and if you leave it alone too long it becomes like one of those dead-eyed babies in Romanian orphanages who wind up murdering their adoptive parents because they were kept chained to a filthy crib from birth.
When my husband left for California, I found these maxims to be entirely true. I devolved into the worst-case scenario of the needy, insecure housewife. I devised witty comebacks to snide comments about my “imaginary husband.” I nursed soothing crushes on unavailable (read: homosexual) male friends. The night that my disappointment over a fallen cake morphed into terrifying, existential loneliness and I lay weeping on the tile floor for 15 minutes, I managed to restrain myself from any impulsive action involving kitchen knives or exorbitantly priced airline tickets. But these challenges I could prepare for. What caught me wholly off guard was the intensity of my own anger at my husband.
You see, I was absolutely, wholeheartedly, unrelentingly furious. I felt abandoned, forsaken; and when some domestic drama reared its head—when a pipe burst, when the cat peed blood, when our bed collapsed and I was forced to assemble the new one myself, throwing out my back in the process—my feelings about him ventured dangerously near hatred. Why was he doing this to us? I had been strong and self-sufficient when I met him; now, our situation had forced me to realize that I was no longer that person. It was as if I had gone through a divorce, except I didn’t get to date.
I hated myself even more. His absence was a humiliating reminder of my own impotence. As hard as I worked, as important and promising as I fancied myself, financially I just couldn’t cut it. I couldn’t tell him not to worry about the future and come back to New York, that if things got hard we could manage on what I made. We couldn’t. I had spent my life in thrall to the vision of my own independence, only to find that in the face of hard numbers, it was just that: a vision. His immediate earning potential was so much greater than mine that my vote didn’t count.
Ironically, when the economy began to tank (and I realize this is narcissistic to the utmost degree, but as a friend of mine says, “Of course I’m narcissistic—I’m awake!”), it actually relieved me of some of my terrible rage, or at least redirected it. This was no longer about him being a neglectful husband, or my being unable to pull my own weight, a failure to the tenets of feminism. This was bigger than both of us, and nobody’s fault—at least, nobody who lived in our house. I could be angry about something more powerful, more abstract than my husband or myself. And it no longer seemed, however incorrectly, that we were singled out for misfortune. As Tom Lehrer sang in my favorite ditty about nuclear annihilation: “ We will all go together when we go.”
Today, with my wrath at a comfortably impersonal level and my husband back home, I am able to see that, however difficult, the nine months that he spent in California were among the most productive of my life. I worked fluently and well, at all hours of the day and night. Without a human security blanket to loll lazily around the house with, I went out, met people, forged connections I might never have made otherwise. I remembered the person I was before I got married, and decided that I actually preferred the person I was now. And it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder—when we did finally see each other, for the first day or so at least, the sex was pretty damn good. Emphasis on the damn.
As the economic meltdown continues to wreak havoc, I can only imagine that there will be more and more stories like mine. I am also sure that they might not all end well. It’s horribly disquieting to realize firsthand the extent to which we are all the victims of circumstance, and we’re in for some rough times ahead. But it’s important (and comforting) to remember the extent to which we make our own luck, and unpredictability can be its own reward.
And if things get too rough, we can always pack up our wagons and head west. Look for me: I’ll be the wild-eyed woman in the paddock, selling breast milk to the weary by the side of the road.
Rachel Shukert is the author of Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories, and is currently at work on her second book, The Grand Tour . She lives in New York City.