Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved: A Quiz

Nancy McCabe


1. Which best describes your reasons for marrying him?

a. You have no idea. You were only twenty, too young to know what you were doing.
b. You have no idea. You were twenty, old enough to know better.
c. This is what you’re trying to figure out. You weren’t in love with him. You weren’t even attracted to him, even though he was a perfectly nice person, clean and wiry, his prematurely receding hairline and thick brows and goofy humor reminding you of a Muppet, sweet and cartoonish. You felt toward him a fraternal affection.
d. You were trying to somehow fill the emptiness that came over you at dusk the months after your first love disappeared.
e. Marriage seemed like a healthier refuge than drugs or drinking. You imagined escaping into it, like going to sleep and waking up a new person.
f. Your husband-to-be cried the day he confessed to sleeping with an old girlfriend. You were in bed with the flu, and you thought, oh, good. Now I don’t have to. He’d brought you milkshakes and roses; he’d played endless rounds of gin rummy. But now he was saying, “I’m so sorry.” You tried to shrug off the blankets, turn the pillow for a cool spot, but the bedclothes were weighed down by something: his head, burrowing into tousled sheets. That’s when you realized he was crying, pinning covers against your feverish skin. “It’s okay,” you said, patting his head.
g. You were saddened by his anguish, seeing in it your own anguish over your first love, seeing in it all the world’s unfulfilled longings.
h. He begged you to marry him, and you thought: he’s a good person. Someone in the world ought to get what he wants.
i. One evening you fell asleep while he was fondling your breasts, and you woke to find him wearing your bra tied to his head like a bonnet. And you thought: I could do worse than wake up every morning to someone who makes me laugh.
j. You came from a chaotic home with junk mail piled all over the kitchen counter, tilted lampshades and crooked pictures, dead bugs speckling light covers, a necklace of Christmas bulbs along the roofline year round. His parents’ home was always cool, with deep, soft chairs, fans of Architectural Digests and Home and Gardens on the coffee table, thick carpets, polished floors, gins and tonics in small heavy glasses. You thought: I could do worse than be part of a family so much more refined than mine.
k. You thought, won’t I regret it if my heartlessness drives him away and there’s never anyone else?
l. You knew that some part of you would always be out of his reach, a part that could never be touched or hurt, a part you could preserve just for yourself, and that seemed like a good thing after the devastating loss of your first love.
m. Your first love failed to reappear and execute a dramatic rescue at the altar, the kind in books and movies where right when you draw back a breath to say, “I do,” he comes running up the aisle, or leaping from the balcony, or shouting at the window, and you pinch up the sides of your wedding gown and run to meet him.
n. You told yourself that after the wedding, by force of will, you would be attracted to your husband-to-be, that his touch would melt you and give you shivers at the same time, the way your first love’s did.
o. All of the above.
p. None of the above.
q. You’re too confused by the tangled mess you got yourself into. You have no idea.

2. True or False: You sometimes feel like you don’t really exist.

a. Wait a minute—isn’t this a question from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory? What does it have to do with your marriage?
b. False. As a child, on a swing, the wind rushing by, your stomach lifting and dropping, you used to think, with a little thrill: I’m alive. I exist. I exist, you used to think, and the thought caused you to exist in that moment the way the world magically existed when God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.
c. True. Sometimes you suspected that the world was a cosmic joke everyone else was in on but you. What if nobody else really existed and you didn’t either and any day they’d all tell you the truth? “Surprise!” they’d exclaim, springing out from behind trees and bushes. Your existence, it would turn out, was an elaborate experiment, an illusion, a source of someone else’s entertainment.
d. False. Sometimes the mere fact of existence continued to startle and awe you. You imagined you were Eve in Eden, newly-created but fully-formed. In the center of the garden, her sorrows were healed, her eyes opened, in those moments before she became aware that her ribs formed a cage.
e. True. You felt like an object as hollow and disposable as a plastic bottle or a Styrofoam cup the day eight boys cornered you in a lab classroom. The details blurred: a snapped bra, groping hands, a fly unzipping, moaning, howling, vacant eyes, snarled teeth. You were caged but they were the animals. When a teacher’s footsteps approached, there was a hum of zippers, like a high pitched invasion of bees, as the boys shoved you aside and fled. You remained, shaking and askew, at a black-topped table meant for dissecting the delicate tissues and organs of something that was once alive.
f. False. When your first love looked at you, you were no longer a ghost. It didn’t make sense to you: he was an unlikely hero, scrawny, with plumped-up lips it took him a few years to grow into, a skinny, quiet boy with silky dark hair and long fingers. He wanted to be a priest or a monk, but he changed his career goals and gave you his father’s class ring, so big you had to tape around it twenty times to make it fit your finger. He scribbled in the margin of your class notes, “Hello my honey, hello my baby, hello my sweetie pie. What am I going to do? I’m in love with you.” You came across his scrawl while studying, and you existed.
g. True. You took refuge in marriage and then felt as if you’d erased yourself from the earth.
h. All of the above.

3. Think back to your early romantic relationships and the expectations you brought to them. Why did you fall in love when you were young?

a. You joked with him in seventh grade history class about how horrifyingly ugly you both found Hitler’s mustache.
b. A year later, you caught him across the junior high cafeteria, head propped on elbows, looking sad.
c. By high school, you had decided that he was your one true always-meant-to-be love, the one you waited for like Penelope, biding your time, weaving and unweaving metaphorical shrouds. If only you could find the courage to talk to him, you thought.
d. You memorized “Annabel Lee” and whenever you passed him in the halls you thought, “My darling, my darling, my life and my bride.” If only you could hold his hand, you thought.
e. After you read Wuthering Heights, you went around thinking, I am him. He’s always, always in my mind, not as a pleasure any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own soul. But why was it taking him so long to kiss you?
f. Because it did take so long, to talk, hold hands, kiss, make out on his basement couch, stuffing leaking from the cushions like the tissue of a wounded animal. You went roller skating together, ate at Taco Bell, stopped at a diner for carrot cake after movies. And all that time you yearned for him, each small step the fulfillment of a long-held dream. You learned the pleasure of wanting. You learned how it could heighten the pleasure of getting.
g. He was so patient and understanding when you remembered the eight boys, and never rushed you.
h. He gave you his father’s ring. He gave you a gold locket, a sweetheart locket, big and old-fashioned, carved with flowers.
i. He thumped you warmly on the back, slapping a paper there, and you twisted around to peel off what you thought was a “kick me” sign. Instead, it said, “I love her.”

4. What went wrong in your previous relationship(s)?

a. You were young. Immature. Insecure. Possessive. Hurt when he didn’t have time for you. Upset when he withdrew and didn’t want to talk. Why couldn’t you have been more patient with his moods, more understanding?
b. When he was five, he crawled into bed with his parents, and that night his father had a fatal heart attack. He’d always blamed himself.
c. His mother was dying of emphysema. A couple of times, she checked herself into a psychiatric unit.
d. Maybe one really bad thing had happened to you, but how could you possibly
understand this? What did you know about death, physical deterioration, or mental illness? You once did a project on Carry A. Nation, who hacked up bars with axes. She had an ancestor who’d mistaken herself for a weathervane and climbed to the roof to sway in the wind. This is how you pictured craziness. Your first love’s mother seemed pale and soft-spoken, thin and timid. She often called from her room in a quavery voice for her son to bring her Tylenol, a glass of water, a newspaper. You only met her briefly; she was so thin and angular, she seemed taller than she was, the bones in her face prominent, without softness. Maybe at night she turned into the hulking beast-like attic-bound Bertha in Jane Eyre, you imagined, renting wedding veils and setting fire to beds and lapsing into growling straggle-haired incomprehensibility.
e. You just couldn’t understand his pain, so much bigger than yours, although you would have gone on trying forever, no matter how fierce and impenetrable his anguish next to your own small, childish sorrows.
f. He seemed tortured and lost, retreating into agonized silences, emerging into anger at your hurt feelings, your tears. He told you he couldn’t deal with so much and you, too, and it seemed that something terrible inside of you had caught up with you again, that he had been pushed over the edge by the same awful thing that once drew to you eight groping, shouting boys in a biology lab room.
g. He said he didn’t love you anymore while you piled the curls of phone cord onto your finger, mummifying it. He said this awful thing, and even then, he managed to sound like the one in pain.
h. All of the above. Why should there have been anything more? Wasn’t all of that enough? How could you blame him for feeling demolished by his circumstances? Of course he had nothing left for you.

5. Which best describes why you were first drawn to your husband?

a. When you caught his intense dark eyes watching you across the college paper newsroom, you were sure he was a sincere person, above false compliments and calculating lines.
b. You were moved by those dark eyes and his stiff walk, suggesting some abnormality, like a visible manifestation of your own secret damage.
c. Walking across campus with him took forever. Everyone wanted to greet him, joke with him, query him for information, opinions, gossip.
d. He wore only natural fibers, baggy cotton pants and linen shirts, and only cooked from scratch, mixing his own pie crusts and ricotta manicotti filling. Next to your Betty Crocker cake mixes and poly-cotton blends, he seemed at once purer and more sophisticated.
e. One day, eating hamburgers in the shade of a wide-branched maple tree, he brushed a leaf from your hair. You were impressed by his ability to casually touch a friend without it meaning anything.
f. When you jiggled the Ms. Pac man joystick, gobbling dots and monsters, he rested his hands on your shoulders and you thought, how nice to touch your friends so easily without it meaning anything.
g. After the freight of your first relationship, of every gesture, word, and expression, you were relieved that there was no romantic undercurrent with him.

6. Which best describes your courtship?

a. When he bet you a steak dinner and then maneuvered to make sure you won, he followed you out into the shiny drizzly dusk and asked if you wanted to collect on Friday. And you thought, how nice to have a friend like this, with whom you could go out without any pressure.
b. He ordered red wine at a candlelit restaurant before taking you to an old movie at a refurbished downtown theater with deep velvet seats. And you thought, how nice of him to arrange such a fancy evening for a platonic friend, and then to insist on walking you to your door.
c. As you inserted your key into the lock, pivoting away from him to push open the door, a kiss apparently intended for your fast-moving lips landed on the side of your face.
d. You felt so sorry for him for misunderstanding your intentions, you patted his arm. Later, he said that’s how he knew you were interested.
e. You felt guilty about your lack of romantic interest, and your guilt drove your niceness up a few notches. Soon you found yourself with him at a Halloween party, dressed like a devil in cardboard horns and a red jumpsuit. Soon, you found yourself in a car making out with your husband-to-be, who wore a nun costume. And although it all seemed pretty weird, as if your costumes were mocking your religious beliefs, when you caught glimpses of your chin or forehead in the rearview and sideview mirrors, your transparent self in the windows, you thought: That girl looks like a normal person, making out with a guy in a VW bug with fake fur bucket seats.
f. As your future husband tossed his veil into the back seat, as he lifted himself to tug and straighten his habit, he held his back like it was plywood, a stiff, immobile board, and you asked him why. And he confessed to you about his disease. It had started when he was a teenager, he said. One morning, his legs just collapsed under him.
g. You were fourteen when eight boys cornered you in a classroom, and he was fifteen when his legs briefly gave out, and it seemed you had something in common, enough suffering between you to earn your first love’s respect, to deepen you. As if that would somehow bring him back.

7. What made you decide to marry him?

a. You don’t know, considering that you felt no jealousy, grief, or regret when your distance led him to sleep with an old girlfriend.
b. Because he proposed while the two of you sat in the window of his apartment and bells tolled from a nearby church. The bells lent portent to that moment, made it seem less like your life than a life from a story. Still, you said no.
c. When you said no, he promised anything, whatever you wanted—four children with Biblical names, like you and your first love had planned, a career change, a religious conversion, regular church attendance. But when you still said no, and he sulked in the kitchen, you curled up in a naugahyde chair in a circle of lamplight. You pretended his cozy attic apartment was yours, there above the streetlights as they popped on at dusk.
d. When his father died, he needed you. When you left together for the rosary, sunlight flooded the trees. When you returned, each leaf curved, cradling the remaining light. First the light had held the leaves. Now the leaves held the light.
e. Together you kicked the frothy heads off dandelions until the air swam with seeds, and you talked about the future. And back inside, his mother’s front hall was tiled with mirrors, so that a multiplicity of identical mourners kept coming and going. You thought, somewhat inaccurately, that these were people who weren’t afraid to see themselves.
f. That night he gave you a ring, a diamond too big, set too high, twinkling on your finger like a distant star, snagging on clothes and furniture.
g. When your first love’s mother died, he called to tell you and you didn’t recognize his voice.
h. Your first impulse was still to rush to his side, but instead your husband-to-be was the one who sat beside you in your first love’s church. Outside, wind whined and raindrops splattered.
i. You could bear your life if you thought of it as a story: bells tolling in a window, rain on the day of a funeral, slashing across car windows and blowing etherereally over the road. Church doors rattling and trembling, wind slapping rain under them, leaving puddles on the floor.
j. When your solemn and pale first love followed behind the shiny oak casket as it was wheeled up the aisle, you thought about how you would soon walk up another aisle to marry the wrong person. How right now you were in the wrong place, way in the back of the church, with the wrong person, and it seemed there was nothing you could do about it.
k. But still you inched toward your first love in the receiving line, imagining the strength of his hand clasping yours, your diamond biting into his palm, your breasts crushed between you in a hug. You imagined these brief touches awakening his desire. But when you were steps away from him, he whirled around and pushed out the side door. You surged after him with the rest of the confused crowd. He turned. He scanned the crowd with a gaze that never lit on you. He ducked into the funeral parlor limo, disappearing behind dark windows. Puddles rippled in the wind. The wind broke the stems of tulips and left them flattened along the walk.
l. Two days later, you drove under bulky, wind-pushed clouds to the mall bookstore where your first love worked. A clerk said he’d packed up and moved away hours after the funeral.

8. Why have you stayed married all these years?

a. When you walked down the aisle on your father’s arm, all the guests were tittering. Your husband-to-be stood before them in a tuxedo and hightop sneakers, dyed black. You told yourself that you loved his humor, even if at that moment he was too busy scanning the audience, enjoying his joke, to watch you. You felt unreal anyway, as if you were only masquerading as a bride. Later you and your husband cut the cake and you threw the bouquet, which bounced off the low ceiling, uncaught. And then the skies opened and everyone clapped and cheered, because rain on the day of a wedding was good luck. Secretly you felt beyond the influence of luck, unreal, like a character in someone else’s story, speeding into an unknown dark future. You stared at your bright little star of a diamond and remembered from astronomy class why it was impossible to travel faster than the speed of light: something about gaining mass the faster you went, slowing yourself down. But if you didn’t rush ahead accumulating the weight of all of your regrets, who knew where you would find yourself?
b. Even when the two of you argued because he came home too late, smelling of beer and smoke, you were married.
c. He missed your family birthday dinner, leaving you to blow out candles and make excuses for him, but you still took marriage seriously.
d. When his mother frowned at your piles of books, your stacks and tumbles of books, and you felt like a slovenly, promiscuous, gluttonous reader wallowing there, and you understood there was a standard you could never live up to, you reminded yourself that you weren’t married to her. You told yourself that again when she rearranged your haphazard place settings, replaced folded paper towels with white cloth napkins, and shooed you away from overzealously whipping the mashed potatoes. Her silk blouse shimmered like water in sunlight. She tapped polished nails against the counter. You looked at your own bitten nails and thought how insignificant her judgment was compared to the real problem: You had no desire for her son. But you were married, and you were religious, and you didn’t want to feel like a failure, and none of this was easily undone.
e. When his disease flared, it bowed him like an old man, and you understood how it felt to have your body betray you. You’ve never trusted your own body, the one groped by eight boys in a lab room, and now it longs for a memory, not the person before you.
f. To look behind him, your husband twisted his whole torso. To reach a low shelf, he climbed on a stool. He waved his hand out the window of his Toyota truck, vowing to get more exercise to keep his muscles from freezing. “Lifting the wind is like lifting ten pounds,” he said. His arm swayed from side to side, but not up and down, because it couldn’t. And you felt guilty, responsible for the stress that aggravated the disease.
g. When you longed for your first love, and other, more flexible men, you felt even guiltier.
h. But your husband still made you laugh. He was goofy, a practical joker, the kind who left messages for co-workers on April Fool’s Day: “Call Mrs. Lyon,” he’d write, or “Call Mr. Bayer,” with the number for the zoo. When he conducted editorial-page phone surveys about aerosol sprays, he polled only people from a town called Ozone. For opinions about rape legislation, he interviewed residents of Cherry Hill and Pencil Bluff. His flippancy about this survey made you a little uneasy, and you realized that the mildly amusing entertainment he offered was a thin basis for a marriage. But it was what you had, so you laughed.
i. When he talked about divorce, you were afraid. You didn’t know what would become of you.

9. Why would your husband say that he married you?

a. Because, he said the first week, he liked being in love.
b. Because, he said the first week, he wanted to wake up to you every day.
c. Because, he said five years later, he was afraid of the future.

10. Why do you doubt the future of your marriage?

a. Your husband secretly opened a bank account, deposited $800 worth of freelance checks, rented an apartment, and spirited away dishes and towels, planning to disappear.
b. He said he married you because he was afraid of the future.
c. He stayed after all, but suddenly you were wildly attracted to other men, men who leapt and twisted in their pursuit of a basketball, men who casually reached up for kitchen plates, men with wild hair and long arms and intense thoughts, and your religious faith began to reconfigure itself. Some would say that it had slipped. You tell yourself that you have just let it take on a new, less severe, form.
d. Trying and trying to understand how you had ended up here, you come across a quote by Emerson: “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” You want to be strong, not shallow, but how can it be that for every effect there is a cause? Within days, your life unrolled behind you like paper towels falling downstairs. You would stop saying, who, how, why, and start saying because, because, because, and it all seemed as simple as those quizzes in women’s magazines that you were fond of taking, except that the causes seemed like they would never end. They might go on unwinding behind you your whole life.
e. You were tired of everything being about the past, tired of the hold of those eight boys who mattered less and less, tired of your first love’s hold that had been tightened by the mystery of his disappearance. So you tracked him down, requesting a forwarding address from the post office, calling information in Kansas City, his brother in Chicago, and his new number in New York City. Finally you were determined to find out what was so wrong with you that you drove him away, made him disappear. Why you made men disappear.
f. Your first love told you what you somehow never knew, a fact that absolved you in an instant of years of self-blame: “I’m gay,” he said. “Oh,” you answered. Your head went light, all of you was light, like in the final moment before an airplane touches ground, when the body lifts slightly from the seat, levitating. Then you landed gently in your life.

11. How could you never have suspected that he was gay?

a. Because you were teenagers in 1970’s Kansas, and no one you knew talked about this possibility. Ever. Except once he did tell you that he doubted his sexuality, and you thought it meant he didn’t have any.
b. Because, he told you, he hadn’t wanted to be gay, hadn’t wanted to admit it.
c. Because you assumed it was normal for two shy people to take so long to kiss. You thought his nervousness was understandable and easily explained.
d. Because his many problems seemed almost like enough to make sense of him.
e. Because you had such a talent for thinking everything was your fault.
f. Because you didn’t want to know.
g. Because back then, unlike now, you weren’t ready to understand how you could love someone but feel no desire.

Answer Key:
If most of your answers were A-Q, you and your husband will be mature and civilized as you set each other free. Released from stress, his health will instantly improve. You will try not to feel guilty about years of flare-ups, stiff joints, rashes, restricted movement. You will help him pack. You will transport boxes to his new place. As you leave for another load, he will flick on the porch light. That light will glow in your rearview mirror as you drive away, shrinking to the size of the diamond you still wear. That porch light, not you, will greet him at night from now on.
You’ll both be kind and sad. You’ll talk about how you’ve outgrown the relationship, an easier explanation than that you were never really in love with him. You will type your own divorce papers, which require that one of you sue the other. You’ll apologize profusely but secretly enjoy the power of being the one who sues him. Taking decisive action is such a relief, you’ll feel inspired. You’ll pick an argument on the phone. He’ll get so angry, he’ll hurl the receiver, then the entire phone. His line will go dead.

At 3:00 a.m., you’ll meet in the parking lot of a 24-hour IGA whose sign blinks steadily above your heads. You will yell at each other while he shakes the ruined phone at you, its innards a visible scramble of metal, curly cord lassoing the air, detached rotary dial frisbeeing across the lot. All at once you’ll feel alive. You’ll exist. You’ll accuse him. To punctuate a point, he’ll slam the phone’s remains onto the car seat, but there is no crash, no cacophony of trapped bells, just the pathetic little ding of a fading ringer. And suddenly you’ll double over laughing and laughing, and after one bewildered beat he’ll join you. And there you’ll be, alive, existing, afraid of the future in a 24-hour grocery store parking lot at 3:00 a.m., laughing and laughing.