They had reached the age when all of their children’s friends, as well their own friends’ children, were getting married.
Luckily enough, the weddings were all lovely and tasteful, with good wine and fine food. Beautiful venues. Not a clunker among them, the two agreed as they drove home from a particularly nice one in early October—a country inn on Long Island Sound, a sunset ceremony in the solarium, a vegan menu that was nevertheless remarkable. The bride and groom’s four sets of parents and step-parents—both of the originals were divorced and remarried—were handsome and amicable, and the best man—the groom’s teenaged stepbrother—had given a brief, comically awkward toast: “Hey, you two are married now. Good luck with that.”
There was a harpist at the ceremony and an excellent pianist at dinner. No hokey dances or silly games. A marked improvement altogether, they agreed, over what had gone on when they were young, when tacky tradition still vied with loopy counterculture. When one friend’s wedding might feature tulle and pastel tuxedos, and another’s batik peasant dresses and embroidered tunics. Music from Mendelssohn, but also the Carpenters, or Dylan, or Ravi Shankar. Long-haired grooms, visibly pregnant brides, first dances to schmaltzy “More,” even as pot smoke drifted out of the catering-hall bathrooms.
Their own wedding thirty-eight years ago had been traditional enough, except for the few, unattributed lines from Lady Chatterley’s Lover that the maid of honor read from the pulpit, and the hash-laced brownies that were passed from knee to knee, under the head table.
“Totally schizophrenic, when you think about it,” Ellen said. “Trying to please our parents and trying to undermine everything that pleased them at the same time.”
Twice on this trip home to Virginia, Douglas had drifted toward a wrong exit and now she had the wheel. She suspected he was more hung over than he admitted. A problem with the bride and groom’s insistence on serving local wines.
“Your terrible beard,” she said.
“Your mad feminist refusal to be given away,” he countered.
She kept her eyes on the road. “It seemed like a big deal at the time.”
“It was a big deal,” he said. “Your father was crushed.” He said it bluntly, a fact of their past, but she felt something accusatory in it as well. As if she were still responsible for her rebellious, harebrained younger self, while he had somehow matured beyond his own role in their history. She felt, too, a muted regret. Her father sat alone in a pew as she walked herself down the aisle.
“He was,” she admitted. “I know.” And then she added, reminding him of their shared foolishness. “And we made the minister say, ‘As long as you both shall love.’ God, we must have been annoying.”
She glanced at him, smiling, but he was leaning forward, squinting at the road. She wondered if his good eyesight, a cause for much pride as he grew older, was finally failing. It would be a small enough concession to time, given how healthy they both were, had always been. But she knew, too, that he was vain enough to try to deny it for as long as possible. Thus, those wrong exits.
Now they were on the Jersey Turnpike, the altered Manhattan skyline—to her mind it would always be altered—as gray as slate in the midday sun.
“At least,” she added, “your brother didn’t say, ‘Hey, you’re married now. Good luck with that.’” She paused and laughed. “He said, ‘Be placid amid the noise and haste.’ If you remember.”
Douglas, still watching the road, said he didn’t remember. He said it somewhat impatiently—as if no one would remember such a thing—and his impatience made her insistent.
“Yes you do,” she said. It was once a running joke between them, early in their marriage, the way his brother had botched the wedding toast. Be placid, they would tell each other. Remember what peace there is in peacefulness...
“Desiderata,” she said now. “He copied it from a poster in his dorm room. High as a kite when he copied it down and even higher when he stood up to recite it. The first line was the only one he got even remotely right.” She laughed again. If you compare yourself to others, he’d said, you’ll be vain and vainglorious, for always there will be someone with another shoe.
Her three bridesmaids paralyzed with laughter behind their napkins and wine glasses and bouquets. Everybody stoned.
Douglas put his hand to the dashboard. Stirred uncomfortably in his seat. “How fast are you going?” he asked her.
She glanced at the speedometer. Eighty-five. She slowed down but said, “I’m fine.” And glanced at him again. “Be placid.” He did not smile, or take his eyes from the windshield. His criticism, his irascibility when she wanted to reminisce, annoyed her. She felt herself bristle. It was a symptom of their age, she knew, or of the age of their marriage, this bristling. She saw it in their friends—had seen it, in fact, at their table at the reception last night, where another long-married couple had bickered like adolescents throughout the dinner, arguing over almond butter, over Brussels sprouts.
This was not the bitter infighting of those bound for divorce—Ellen had seen that too. It was simply a general impatience, with themselves, with each other, with this time of their lives. Pre-decline, Douglas’s brother called it. He was fifty-eight now, paunchy and sardonic. Twice married himself. “That stage of life between the empty nest and the empty head,” was how he put it.
She glanced at Douglas again. “You really need to get your eyes checked,” she said. She might have been a mean older sister. “You’re squinting.”
He said, “I could use some coffee.”
THE RUSH ACROSS the parking lot, she could understand—men fresh out of their cars and pulling at their belt loops, women purposefully hitching purse straps to their shoulders or guiding flutter-footed toddlers toward the bathrooms, the quick opening and closing and opening again of the broad rest stop doors, thank you, thank you. But what she could never fathom were the people who lingered. Who sat leisurely alone at the tables—tables that were always sticky even as they were always wet with diluted cleaning spray—or who moved two or three tables together to accommodate a fast food feast. They made her impatient, these loiterers. Didn’t they want to be back in their cars, back on the road, nearly home, nearly there?
Even when their children were small, she and Douglas agreed that a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike should involve no rest and very little stopping, and so she knew with wifely assurance that he was taking so long in the men’s room now because his stomach was upset. Last night’s vegetables, no doubt. You can have too many Brussels sprouts, after all.
She sat at one of the ticky-tacky tables with their two coffees. In front of her was a group of seven, a family group, their tabletop strewn with cups and food wrappers as if they had been picnicking for hours.
At one end, a couple her own age—he good-looking, with a military bearing about his broad shoulders, she with a wide and pleasant face, perhaps something of the hippie girl she might have been in the way she wore her hair, a little too long for her age, frizzed and curling. Their grown son—she guessed son because his eyes were the same blue as his mother’s—had a petite, efficient-looking wife, and the wife held a tow-headed boy on her lap. There was also a toddler girl in an umbrella stroller, a young man with Down Syndrome leaning over her, offering her a French fry. He was twenty, maybe thirty. Impossible to tell. He was toying with the little girl, offering her the French fry and then pretending to snatch it away. She was laughing. When he finally let her win, she took a definitive bite and he looked quickly to the older man—his father, no doubt. “She ate it!” he cried.
The older man patted his shoulder, gave him a high five.
“Hey,” he told the table. “Jamie got her to eat. She ate a French fry!”
The family cheered and the father ruffled his son’s hair, put his arm around him. The son bowed his head, grinning shyly.
Everything uncomplicated about the love between a father and child was in their faces.
The brother—she guessed the father of the two children was the young man’s brother—rummaged through the papers and cups. “Jamie,” he said. “See if you can get her to eat some apple,” and handed a green slice across the table. The game began again until the little girl reached out and the family once more cheered and applauded. “You’re a miracle worker!” the older man said. The Down Syndrome boy was glowing with delight, you could almost hear it hum.
Ellen looked away. Around them, the comings and goings of a hundred strangers—strangers hitching belt loops, guiding children, getting coffee, and getting on with the trip. She wished Douglas would hurry up. From the cavernous mouths of the two rest rooms came the roar of flushing toilets and the whoosh of hand dryers. There was as well the whine of the espresso machine behind them, coffee beans grinding. A kid skipped past yelling, “Dad,” running to catch up with the retreating back of his father. “Dad, wait up. I’m here.” There was the puzzling leisure of a pony-tailed guy with his feet on an empty chair, reading his phone, a young couple leaning toward each other as if they were in a Parisian café, this family.
She watched them again. Now the young man with Down Syndrome was talking to his father, a hand on the man’s broad arm. The father was leaning an ear toward his son, nodding. And then, suddenly, sitting back to laugh.
It was impossible, she thought, to know what it meant to be the parent of such a child. Impossible not to feel, ultimately, insufficient in imagining their pain or their love, or their resilience. Would you ever grow numb to the disappointment? she wondered. Would you ever grow immune to the daily tug of regret, the wish, hour by hour, that the child had been formed otherwise?
There was the older son, for instance, tall and good looking, married to a pretty woman, two sweet kids of his own. Did the parents ever stop seeing in him what might have been for their damaged child?
Did they ever stop hating what had been done to their boy?
She could hear Douglas reply. She had been, in fact—in the way of the long married—rehearsing this conversation with him, a conversation she might well begin when they were back in the car, after the coffee had cheered him. “It’s an extra chromosome,” he would say, ever sensible, ever—lately anyway—argumentative. “Nobody did anything to him, Ellen. Nobody’s to blame. It’s life. Biology. The luck of the draw.”
She looked toward the men’s room. Wondered vaguely if he were all right, if this delay meant they would hit traffic through Baltimore. She thought, Be placid—and recalled again Douglas’s brother as he’d been when he gave their wedding toast: lanky and long-haired. Not unlike last night’s best man—of another generation, but still, unmistakably, a slacker. Clearly, the kid hadn’t known he was supposed to give a toast. “You’re married now. Good luck with that.”
The boy with Down Syndrome stood suddenly. He wanted to push the stroller around the place but the little girl’s mother put out her hand. “Just around the table,” she said, and he obeyed. The older man following him with his eyes, leaning to untangle the wheels when they caught on a chair leg.
The luck of healthy children, she thought, sufficient wealth, immunity from accident, negligence, mistake.
A case could be made—this, too, she would mention to Douglas when they were back in the car—that the time had passed for sentiments like “as long as you both shall live.” These days (“Think about it,” she would say) a lengthy marriage was not necessarily the goal—every wedding they’d attended of late had included, after all, its fair share of happily divorced couples.
No extra chromosomes was really the wish, no drunk drivers at the crossroads, no buildings collapsing on your innocent heads. Good luck.
The kind of luck she and Douglas had had, really, coming this far with only simple regrets: a handful of bad investments, a childish habit of bickering, a summer house in the country rather than at the shore. The luck of love that had lasted, attenuated as it was. Untried in many ways. Love sufficient for a fortunate life.
She saw him leave the men’s room, but with the family between them, the boy maneuvering the stroller around the table, he didn’t see her. She picked up the two coffees and pushed back her chair. Douglas headed, quickly, toward the fast food lines—as if he might ever find her there, as if she ate that stuff. She bristled again, this time at his foolishness. She was about to call out to him when he swung around, searching the place. She saw him lean against one of the tables, steadying himself. She wished he wouldn’t. The gesture made him look old.
She caught up, handed him his coffee. His eyes had gone dark in his pale face. She felt the floor beneath her suddenly pitch. “Are you all right?” she asked.
He took the coffee, looked at it. Looked at her. “Yes,” he said. And then, “No.” He was on the verge of tears.
And then the beginning of their long fall. “Ellen,” he said. “I don’t know where I am.”