When I hang his shirts next to mine in the closet, there are surf brands, the same ones he wore when he had hair bleached white by the sun and waves. When his skin was tan and his mouth tasted like wintergreeen gum and saltwater. When I spread my beach towel with arms wide and the tradewinds swooped down and lifted the corners from my fingertips like a magic carpet and I would nestle my body in hot white sand and lift my eyes to the sea and she would offer the lip of a wave for his surfboard and I’d see the arms I loved paddling into the white and blue horizon.
Love was so easy then.
We hadn’t yet cried over blood that shouldn’t have come and left the hospital with an empty womb and even emptier arms. Love was easier before grief touched us.
I hadn’t yet stood in line for orange prescription bottles to try to chase away depression and anxiety. It was easier before my face crumpled and my body sagged and my hair went unwashed while my mind unraveled. I’d turn away from him at night and cry into my pillow, and I was powerless to explain the sadness or make it go away. He hadn’t yet held me when I went limp like a rag doll and confessed my darkest thoughts in a voice that knew nothing but sorrow and shame.
We hadn’t yet raised our tempers and assaulted each other with unholy tongues, with faces flushed with fury, and lashed about with our words, slamming doors, and demanding that we be loved better while raging only in the wrong done to us. We hadn’t yet blamed each other for our unhappiness because we were both so dang miserable together. We hadn’t yet screamed, “I don’t even know who you are anymore! You’re not who I fell in love with!”
We hadn’t yet answered the door to the man with the past due notice there to shut off our water while I stood with a wailing baby on my hip and piles of dirty laundry stacked by the washing machine waiting for a break to shovel them in. And the angry red bills showed up far more frequently than the paychecks.
We hadn’t known he would want people over and the BBQ going and I would long for quiet and solitude and one moment away from the children after homeschooling all week.
We hadn’t known he would want me to sit next to him on the couch while we watched American Pickers or loggers or some other show with bearded men in the wilderness doing wilderness-type things. That he would want my hand in his and our thighs touching and that this would be enough for him. That touch would be a language that healed his aches.
We hadn’t known that I would need so much tenderness in his words, so much reassurance that I belonged to him and that I was lovely and that I was needed. That I would need to hear that my words and passion and purpose matter, that the suffering and beauty wasn’t in vain. That I would need him to look me in the eyes and believe for me when I couldn’t.
We hadn’t known that I would need him to take the garbage out and bring home takeout and ward off visitors on my bad days and when it was all done I would love him back by rubbing the burdens from his shoulders.
We hadn’t yet known how hard making a life together is: when he was a boy and I was a girl, and we were newly in love.
I hoist the laundry basket onto hips that have birthed his three babies into the world. Our oldest now stands four full inches above his father. He is almost 18- an adult- although it pains me to admit my child is a man. Older than his father and I when we first met.
I hang up the flannel shirts Josh now layers over his surf shirts because we are far from the waters of our youth and the cold sets in here.
I pile his painter whites into a basket. No washing will ever get out the eggshell pewter and semi-gloss antique white that form crunchy patches on his work pants. We replace them with new painter whites when he wears holes in the knees from kneeling along floorboards and masking off trim day after day. All of our married life he’s bent his back and stretched his arms as wide as the cross covering over the chipped and failing paint, and he’s filled in the cracks until his hands split and bled, until the walls were fresh and new.
He’s a simple man with simple pleasures. He drinks his Folgers black. He likes driving to the country store to pick up a styrofoam cup of worms and head to the river baiting his hook and casting his line and he doesn’t rush the waiting. He doesn’t overthink things or pace across the floor. He doesn’t carry words with him. His energy is channeled from his elbows to his fingertips. He likes to tinker with things, engines or earth or the lodgepole pine he’s cut and planed into projects. He’s only cried a handful of times and his deep gut laugh is rare, and you feel somehow chosen on the occasions you’ve managed to charm it from him. He only wants to fall in bed after he’s washed the sawdust off, pull me close, and wrap his arms around me. He falls asleep in seconds.
If we ticked off check boxes in an ideal mate or the perfect match at the outset, I’m sure the database would have calculated our chances at happiness and spit out a warning. We are not an ideal pairing.
I am a complicated woman with complicated pleasures. I drink my coffee sweet and milky. I rush the waiting of everything and it’s not in my nature to be still for long. I’m restless and anxious and I have worn holes in my soul from the pacing. I cry with abandon, plop myself on my bed and weep at times, when it feels necessary and right, and no other response will suffice. But I am just as quick to laugh with my head tipped back and my mouth sprung open, a loud cacophony of abandon. I tinge conversations with sarcasm and turn things into jokes we carry on for years like some secret inside society where a small phrase carries our memories and our moments. One knowing glance at the right moment and our children will howl with laughter. I don’t have the patience to fix things, or the mind to understand tools and gadgets. I drown under the burden of words and often find myself breathless. I only want to sleep with a mountain of pillows on my side of the mattress. His holding arms make me hot and stifled; I like space for my legs to wander towards the cool spots in the sheets. I toss and turn, and my mind never stills.
And yet, we’ve slept almost 20 years like this. Our queen bed hastily replaced with a king-sized one once we added children to the mix and we’d often find random limbs and elbows in our faces or ribs in the middle of the night. It was used and old and over the years it sagged more and more, finding us in the middle, rolling towards each other.
There were embarrassing stains we couldn’t fully get out from nights those babies ended up in our bed and we all woke up in the pitch dark to a soggy stain where the diaper failed. How many of those nights did we grab one of those ratty beach towels from our first days and throw it over the spot, change the baby, and climb back in bed bleary-eyed and exhausted?
I went on a trip a few years back and while I was away, Josh sent me a text of a new mattress he’d found at an estate sale. It still had the tags on, not the ones warning against removal that everyone tears off pillows, but the actual sales pamphlets. It was in the guest room and got no use. He strapped it to our minivan and drove it home.
I came home to a king sized pillow top, but our sheets didn’t quite fit.
“It’s a California King,” he mentioned casually. “It’s longer on the end but four inches narrower, but that just means we’ll sleep closer.”
He winked at me and smiled and I saw it then. The boy he once was, the man he had become. The way his whole body has served me and how his calloused hands soften the ache when he reaches across the space to find me.
My body speaks peace to him.
I know this now, these simple things of a life together. The inside jokes and the inside tears. The things we’ve fixed and the things we’ve broken, the things that have broken us. The dreams we carried and the cold realities we endured. The ways we’ve learned each other.
We were never an ideal match; we have been strangers as often as we’ve been friends. We grew up side by side but not always together. We’ve had to relearn what it is to make space for each other. I never thought the training grounds for hospitality would be in the welcoming of who we are.
I am not that girl anymore, the one with plumeria oil on her neck and no weight on her shoulders. I am a woman now with my laundry basket almost emptied. I rest it on the corner of our bed to match the random socks that are always left over.
We’ve made a life here and love doesn’t get easier but it gets closer. This past year we closed the gap another four inches.
There’s a hospitality in receiving the man you end up with. It’s in accepting the stranger you see on days when he’s so far from the boy you started out with. It’s the grace you have for the girl turned woman who always has one sock left over and no match.
And some nights, he’ll lay his body down next to mine and we’ll remember what it’s like to love like it’s easy. To love like it’s new. I’ll welcome you.
Hospitality is the space to say, “Come as you are, and I’ll find new ways to love you.”