The Tiny Rituals that Make a Marriage

Hopper, "Room in New York"

Hopper, “Room in New York”

My book discussion group talked about Alice McDermott’s luminescent novel Someone (2013) last evening. Among the virtues of this quiet story about the life of a woman growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1930s and ‘40s is the way that it captures small precious moments in ordinary lives. Because I have been married for 41 years, I was particularly attuned to its description of the routines that Marie and Tom settle into. Profound conversations often occur in the bedroom.

In one scene, Marie is worried that her brother Gabe is gay and, indeed, a mental asylum appears to have attempted to “cure” his homosexuality. Her big-hearted husband calms her with a wonderful plea for openness. The conversation has a special glow because of how the author frames it within the couple’s routines. To show McDermott’s touch, I quote here the frame rather than the conversation itself (although I do include Tom’s final words):

I went through my fusty bedtime routine. Turned the clock around on my night table. Poured some hand cream into my palms and spread it up and down my arms. Placed a pale blue hairnet over the back of my head. Turned off the lamp that had been my mother’s in the old apartment and slipped off my glasses. The room contracted and lost every edge. I got into bed and, as was our routine, turned on my side to face Tom as he read. I closed my eyes. As was his routine, Tom lowered his arm to the mattress beside me, giving it to me. I put my two hands on his forearm, moved to put my lips to his skin.

And later:

Tom flipped the magazine closed with one hand and placed it on his nightstand. He took his reading glasses off and leaned toward the light, keeping his arm on the mattress beside me, pulling away just a little to reach the cord. He sat back. It was his habit to ease himself into bed as a man might sink into a tub. He moved under the sheet just a little, keeping his back against the pillows that were piled against the headboard. Again, idly, he moved his hand against my breast.

And later:

In the darkness, I felt him sink himself a bit farther into the bed, as was his routine.

And finally:

I felt Tom lean down in the darkness to kiss the top of my head, and in doing so, he put his hand to my arm, my elbow. “Now, I’m not saying I know anything about this guy who was here tonight,” he said. “All I’m saying is, we should let Gabe be. He’s been poked and prodded and shocked and, worse yet, talked at till he’s blue in the face, out there in that place.” The awful name now forever expelled from our conversation with his turn of phrase. “I got sick of it myself, and I was only visiting, the way they wanted to reduce everything to a couple of easy words about sex.” He paused, as if to consider. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I see things too simply.” He eased himself down, into the comfort and the darkness of our bed. “Who can know the heart of a man?” he whispered, and pulled the thin sheet up, over my shoulders and his, as was his habit before we went to sleep. “Especially a man like your brother.”

I found myself reliving Julia’s and my bedroom rituals and our late night conversations as I read Someone. Fiction is amazing that way.

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