Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:
“It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
Photo: Annie Leibowitz
The day Ken married me was like any other. We were just watching TV when I suggested it. “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots.
I dug out the yellow pages, where I found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher there reminded me of the blue-eyed old man in Field of Dreams, who regaled Kevin Costner’s, Ray Kinsella, with a story about Moonlight (Doc) Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia.
In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness the ceremony, and we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, till death us do part. Easy to say and to mean to say. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our own bodies and our selves. Oblivious to any hint of dark days ahead, we filled up that ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t even tell anyone. Young and wild, it was as though we had eloped to Gretna Green. And with this secret, we even went to work afterwards. Along with all the other rituals we performed every day, the act of getting married was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours. Completely ours. Private.
For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about other people. One hot Friday afternoon, when I was desperate to smell the sea, Ken just told me to get in the car. Off we went. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” That night, we were in Los Angeles inhaling the salty air. The next evening, we were in Pismo Beach, strolling along the pier. As if to put America’s vastness to the test, I asked him to keep driving. Eventually, we stopped by a lighthouse where we balanced the camera on the car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by our little girl. Then, for a decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.
We created hundreds of lovely little rituals and routines over the years. It was easy because, as my mother still reminds me, I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of things I did in my professional life and how much he hated the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He was my supporter, once telling the young me who used to get her feelings hurt easily and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some hard bark, because she would need it one day. Well, Ken, I need it now. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you wanted me to be tough. But it is tough some days to fully absorb the blow of your death, to anticipate your empty seat at our girl’s upcoming milestones – college, her first paycheck, perhaps her wedding – or to look up and expect you to walk in with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine for me, to inquire what I’m blogging about, to wonder aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon.
No doubt – each of us wrestled with the truth that the cancer changed me, as a brush with mortality would. It wasn’t bad or good. It just was.
It was not a perfect marriage, but it was an honest marriage. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff. One of our first arguments was over what it was he was thinking about. We never argued about that again. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, my honey”.
An unsatisfactory response for someone who has to know the inner details, the finer points, the “how are you really feeling” liner notes. But he never told me. Growing up and old by his side, I suppose I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us – not bad, necessarily, just private thoughts. Most people just wouldn’t say that out loud. But Ken did.
He said it the same way he once told the cashier at a Pep Boys, after he’d paid in cash for new windshield wipers, that she couldn’t have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list perhaps to be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected that she was annoyed because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should, Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, said quietly, “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live. The cops are after me.” And I had to walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t, when he would insist that I had somehow lost my sense of humor. My retort would be that he had lost his ability to be funny. It would maybe turn into an argument about some other thing, a trifling thing, or nothing at all. Then it would pass, like every other storm in a teacup. And we would be certain again. Fearless.
Laurie Anderson would understand.