Scenes From a Long Marriage
I am 62. I've been married since I was 20, same man, same marriage, same me. I got married five years after Michel and I fell in love, despite my parents' outspoken objections and their desire for me to travel, study, grow up and get a career. In South Africa you could not get married under 21 without your parents' consent. We needed that.
My boyfriend then, husband now, was 20 years old when he asked my dad for my hand in marriage. He, like every white boy his age, was a conscripted soldier at the time, forced to protect our borders from phantom enemies concocted to distract an elite electorate from the atrocities of Apartheid. He was hardly an argument for marrying off your first born at an early age. No career, no discernible future that featured on my parents' radar, no money, no maturity. The list went on.
One evening, six months earlier I was on the platform at Johannesburg Central Station tearfully seeing him off to 'camp' in sandy Namibia, then called South West Africa. On the drive home I sat in the front passenger seat doubled over, weeping. His brother was driving. I wore no safety belt so I was leaning far forward with my head almost touching my knees when a car ran the light at a major intersection and hit us head on.
In those days there was always a radio bracket fixed under the dash. You could slide the portable radio in and out as needed. At the time of the accident it was a brutal, hollow shell. The impact threw me straight into it, face first.
I was a diabolical mess that took a full year of medical and dental expertise to approximately correct. My jaw was broken in several places and my face was unrecognizable.
The train taking my boyfriend to the Namibian desert continued on through the African dark. Round midnight, it stopped briefly. Michel had a feeling that something was wrong. It wouldn't go away. He tried my number from a phone booth on the deserted platform. He asked for me. My parents were at the hospital. My sisters could not answer his questions. They sounded upset. He knew something bad had happened.
When we reconnected six months later on his 'seven-day pass' I had just had my jaw unwired. I was thin, shaky and unsure of myself. My reconstructive dental surgery was underway but far from over. I spoke with a lisp and felt excruciatingly vulnerable.
Seeing him set my world straight. He was strong, stronger than before, and upright. I was crooked and broken. Our love flowed effortlessly over all the obstacles, all the ugly bits, and transformed them. It was as present and vital as ever.
Michel had saved his army pay; it was a meager amount but it was enough for a very tiny diamond set on a very simple 18 carat gold band. When we got back to my parents' house we couldn't wait to tell my mom.
"Your father will never agree to this," she said. It landed on us like a bucket of cold water.
That night after dinner we were all sitting in the living room. Michel and I sat side by side on the faux velvet sofa. My father had a fresh whiskey poured, he was shaking out his newspaper, settling back in his chair. I nudged Michel, I couldn't help myself.
"Ahem," he blurted.
Everyone looked up, my sisters, my mom. My dad looked irritably through his reading glasses.
"I, uhm, we…Gail and I, we were thinking, we want to get engaged…"
My sisters were all keyed up, my mom too. All the cynicism of earlier gone.
"No," my dad said, "Absolutely not"
Now, let my grown up self interject here: My dad was a wit, he was popular, his staff on the Rand Daily Mail called him "sexy Rexy" but they all knew that when he said NO, he meant NO. He was 5 feet 4 inches short but he had presence, he inspired awe. He was mythically unswayable.
That was it then. It was over. I was the doomed eldest daughter. My dad was a liberal everywhere else but not with his daughter, not his firstborn. There would be no cohabiting for me, and now, no marriage. I would be alone forever.
"Uhh, but could I, could we, just talk about it?"
"We can talk until the cows come home. The answer is NO." My father was pale, angry.
This boy, this precocious, presumptuous kid. Not only had he deflowered his virgin offspring, he'd also had something, somehow, to do with her face being smashed in, something to do with her dropping out of university, something to do with her resistance to doing anything that didn't have him in it.
The womenfolk got up instinctively. It seemed the two men needed to circle one another. We backed out the room, down the stairs, into the children's lounge. We closed the door behind us. We couldn't hear voices, we couldn't hear anything.
Three hours later there was my dad, at the top of the stairs, a small tight smile in amongst his graying beard.
"I suppose we need to get the champagne out".
My littlest sister burst into tears, then my mom, then me.
And that was the beginning.