“I can’t wait ‘til I get married, and I can stop having these confusing dreams,” I once told my older, married friend. I’d probably just dreamed of being with an ex, or something, or had one of those unsettling dreams where you’re with your current boyfriend, but he looks like an ex and acts like still another ex.
My friend just stared at me. “Oh,” she said gently, the way you talk to slow people, “honey, those dreams don’t stop when you get married.”
I now understand how naïve I must have sounded. Why would I think marriage would change my inner life, the life of the psyche? When I was single, I guess I always saw marriage as the cure-all. When I get married, I’ll never be lonely. When I get married, I’ll feel purposeful. When I get married, I’ll stop being anxious. I’ll suddenly connect to other people and won’t feel weird at parties. I won’t think about the loves I’ve lost.
None of that happens, of course. Yes, I feel happier, more purposeful, more connected, more secure, and more supported, but to think that marriage banishes regret and angst and guilt and fear…well, ‘tis folly. And so I still get teary when a song takes me back to a previous relationship, and I still have dreams that evoke the bittersweetness of life passing by. One night last week, in a dream, I was making out with a guy I couldn’t identify. We were both young, teenagers maybe, and when I woke up and remembered that feeling of ecstatic discovery, I instantly deflated. Because I realized I would never experience that feeling again.
Some people freak out before they get married—go off with a stripper or cut off all their hair with a steak knife or whatnot. I never did that. I’d waited a long time to get married, and the thought of making a lifelong commitment to one person didn’t scare me. But sometimes, when something springs from the deep and grabs me as I’m going about my responsibility-laden existence, I get scared because The Beginning is over. I’m in The Middle. And pretty soon comes The End.
If getting married is buying the coffin for your youth and freedom, then having a kid is driving in the last nail. (I mean that metaphorically, of course; I think they have fancy latches or something nowadays; I don’t know because I try not to hang out at funerals). Nothing drives home your own mortality quite like becoming a parent. As Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “Let’s make no mistake about why these babies are here. They’re here to replace us.” The excitement of discovery belongs to my son now. In the natural progression of things, I’ve ceded my youth to him.
I know there are still pleasures ahead of me, ones not to be found in youth: improving my home, watching my son grow up, savoring well-established relationships. Still, it’s incredibly strange and poignant to watch myself age, to know intellectually that years have passed, yet to be able to relive in dreams so keenly the exquisite joy of making out with a new lover. This, to me, is where dreams make perfect sense: I am both my current self and an ageless emotional self. It scares me to think of this ageless self inside a decaying husk, wondering what happened and screaming to get free. It’s this self that resists stepping aside for the next generation.
It was this self that balked, pridefully, at having her spelling corrected by one of her brightest students. In a hurry, perhaps thinking of adjectives, I’d written r-h-i-n-o-c-e-r-o-u-s. After that blunder, I couldn’t stop chastising myself for making the mistake; I knew better. But what’s more, I couldn’t stop imagining myself falling from some imaginary pedestal. There I’d stood, in a tiara reserved for the most eminent of spelling champions, lording my talent above the masses, when suddenly this young upstart had sneaked up and knocked me off. Just like that, the student becomes the teacher.
I fell ungracefully, protesting and kicking and screaming and complaining and agonizing, in slow motion—which is sort of how I’m aging in general. But that’s the thing about being married–you have a partner to fall with, to be scared with. “I misspelled ‘rhinoceros’ and I’ll never make out with anyone new ever again and my knees make noise when I go up the stairs and I can’t remember anything,” you confess, and he just takes your hand; he gets it.