I love the story about how Julio and I met. It’s romantic and destined, but if I’m going to tell a story about what keeps a long-term marriage thriving, it would be the one about how my in-laws’ 30+ year marriage almost came to an end. Their experience, and our experience because of it sum up everything I know about being in a loving partnership for the long, long haul.
Mama Luz kicked Big Papi out of the house in December of 2009. For background, both are salt of the earth natives of the South Bronx – tough-as-shit people, but she’s all fire and he’s calm water. For the most part, combining those elements had made a powerful, united force. But that December Mama Luz called us to tell us that they were fucking done; it was over after 33 years.
To say we were floored is sparkles and sunshine compared to how we felt. We were stomped and pinned, breathless. Tears exploded out of us. They had been a solid, anchored boulder in our eyes. They were not perfect, but perfect for each other certainly. They had championed each other, for god’s sake, and this idea of championing seemed the absolute key to a relationship. I believed it was a cornerstone. But it was not enough. It is not enough.
Julio’s and my faith in love, in coupledom, mainly in foreverness diminished greatly in the wake of her words. How does anybody make it, we thought. We looked at each other and with no hesitation clung to each other, said I love you a hundred times as our understanding of a solid relationship crumbled and slid away. We could have questioned ourselves, our own relationship, but even more we felt, Fuck it, we’ll be the last couple standing then. That was our instant and gut reaction toward each other even when we didn’t know the details of his parents’ demise yet. The only important thing was that our belief in each other, in us, was all that was real because nothing else was, it seemed.
The grown kids — Julio, his sister Baby Luz, and me — took shifts talking it out with them, mainly with Mama Luz because she’s more vocal – lord, is she vocal. We took turns relieving the high-pressure steam that was her volcanic emotion, and Julio worked on luring out the petrified and frozen emotion buried so deeply in his dad. Julio chipped away at him in a way that made me well up. He was a progressive and well-adjusted man saving his father. It was so beautiful we ached from it.
At the surface, there had been an indiscretion. This time by him. In the past, by her. But the thing that drew the line — a line which had cracked into a gapping chasm after decades — was the most simple and complex of couple problems: an inability to communicate real feelings. She bulldozes. He withdraws. Both styles hem each other up. Over the years, they had glazed it all over with pleasantries and the mundane day to day. He retreated to the TV and she fixed and rearranged the house. Talk of intimacy, of appreciation, of basic and deep love became cemented and trapped under the glaze. I think many couples are just a few, quiet nights from getting there; a few sexless weeks, months, years and then it seems too hard to go back. Each year made it harder on them. Until that December when he decided to get some shit off his chest in what he felt was a strong way — a putting-the-foot-down kind of way — and it came out so rusty and awkward and hurtful, like he was vomiting sharp rocks. And that sparked her to come back with her raw, natural force, so hurtful and fierce. He tried to match her thunder, but that’s not his strength because usually he was the balance of calm and sweet. She’s the action and passion. They no longer wove their strengths together we found out.
What is the championing worth if after we’ve beaten back the hurtful world we can’t tell each other how wonderful we make each other feel, how beautiful they look, how sexy they are, what do you need mami/papi, I love you. I’m crying typing this because it hurts to know they went so long without this.
Big Papi began sleeping in his car in another neighborhood after the blow up, during the New York winter. We offered to pay for a motel for him, but he refused. We stopped insisting when we realized he was punishing himself. He knew her well because it was the only thing that cracked her so-tough veneer. Her conversations went from “Fuck that motherfucker” which we expected, to “At least he took his blanket,” and “At least it’s not that cold tonight,” which almost brought us to tears again. Old fashioned penance worked some sort of magic on her. And our hearts broke each time we talked to them and realized how much they did still love each other. But they had mistreated each other; their silence the biggest abuser. If they could only crack the glaze, move mountains of resentment, forgive, talk, weave, love again. I wasn’t sure they’d get there then, but we had a hope.
When I talked to her a couple days after she threw him out, she spewed F bombs and yelled shit to me I never wanted to hear about him. I told her she didn’t deserve to feel this hurt. I said that I knew she was angry, but we had hope for them; we knew there was love; they needed to talk it out more, get counseling. She said she’d cut him if he came by. It was the first seed planted about hope for them –before, there appeared to be none — and she went bananas, screaming, “I DON’T KNOW HOW YOU DO IT OVER THERE, BUT WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU EVEN TELL ME TO THINK ABOUT GOING BACK TO THAT MOTHERFUCKER? IF YOUR HUSBAND DID THAT TO YOU—” And on. I yelled, too: Hell yes, I’d be fucking angry and all his shit would be on the lawn too, but – I took a breath — I would want someone to tell me to just consider the years we’ve had, consider talking it out. There was a pause. Then I broke the news that he was sleeping in his car. She, not shouting, said, “Good.”
My husband was a hero. He had to track his dad down to talk it out. Big Papi was mortified by the whole thing, reeling in confusion, wishing he had never opened his mouth or strayed. He wished it would all go away. He wanted to come home; he wanted his life back, but Julio told him he couldn’t have it like it was. He shouldn’t want it how it was. Julio gave him such sound advice. The role reversal, son teaching father, was emotional. He was a beacon of light, a savior to a man who could have easily cocooned himself and faded away to crushing loneliness, poverty, sadness, nothingness. He said, “Dad, I’m your only son and I need you. I need you to talk more. We need it. Mom needs it.” Big Papi bawled his eyes out and so did Julio. The last conversation I overheard was so good, too, but more in a get-your-shit together kind of way. I heard things like, “That’s your woman. Go get her, and treat her like your woman should be treated.” I thought, yes damn.
It all broke so far down for them – so far that there was a possibility to try for something better, something much more solid and loving if they were willing. There was so much shit through which to traverse though. The thought of them losing their loves while in their sixties hurt. But in the end, it was not our relationship to save. We could help them see some light, some hope, help pay for counseling. We could let them know that we wanted them to fight. Julio gave tremendous advice, but it would be their work that would save them.
What I can do is simply love Julio fiercely with eyes open. I want to barely blink. I can tell him so, often and truly. I can appreciate him and support his ideas and hear him out and shoulder loads and debate him and be myself whether bitchy or loving, and I can have his back and rub my fingers through his curls and stare at his gorgeous face like it was only made for me. And absolutely champion him still.
When Julio called his dad a week later to check on him, Big Papi said, “Just sitting here watching the game with Mom.” And that was all he said about that. Julio called Mama Luz to get the full scoop and she said, “I told that fucking bitch from the laundromat to stay away from my man.”
Both sentences — watching the game with Mom and I told that bitch — meant the same thing: We love each other very much and we’re working it out. Big Papi could have easily said, “Still in the car.” Mama Luz could have easily said, “I told that bitch she could have him,” but they didn’t. We encouraged them to talk it out more instead of glossing it over. They said they were. And maybe they didn’t do it how Julio and I would – clutching and proclaiming – but they came to the same conclusion as we have: there is no one else we’d rather be with until the end of days.