A Husband for Home; a Wife for Away

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Modern Love

How do you know when you’re really married to someone? One easy way to tell is if you bicker a lot with that person.

Victoria and I were driving down Lincoln Boulevard on a sunny morning. As we pulled out of Santa Monica, Calif., where we had been vacationing, there was a salty ocean bloom in the air. We had been together nonstop for three days, day-drinking, looking at art and going for city hikes. We had gotten stomach cramps from laughing so much, as if we had been doing hours and hours of Pilates. Which we definitely hadn’t.

Vic turned up Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” a song we pretend to love ironically but we really just love. We felt pleasantly sad. Another trip was coming to an end and we were headed for the airport, on schedule to be about two hours early for our flight, which, in my opinion, is when decent people arrive at the airport.

Victoria thinks this is the travel schedule of a lunatic.

We stopped at yet another red light, and I started to get anxious. Frankly, I would have left for the airport a little earlier.

I aired this grievance to Vic, who answered, “You’re insane.”

As if to emphasize her point, she pulled into a gas station to fill the rental car tank. When she was done pumping, she went into the food mart to get a bottle of water. She appeared to be browsing. As if it were a lazy Saturday at the farmers’ market. I was about to lose my mind. She returned to the car, waving the bottle jauntily, and climbed in with elaborate, maddening slowness.

I glared at her. We drove in silence.

Finally, she glanced over and said, “How you doing there, Little Deedzie?” One of her many nicknames for me. It made me laugh, and peace was restored.

Clearly we are married.

The world is divided into two places: home and away. At home, I’m married to my husband, Bruce. Away, I am married to Victoria. She’s my travel wife.

This other marriage is wedged into the confines of our real marriages, our work, my motherhood — the way you jam one more book into an already full bookshelf. As a childless artist, Victoria is able to spend a lot of time away from home. My wifely pride compels me to add that she’s a real artist, the kind who makes a living at it.

She often leaves her own homebody husband to pop off somewhere or other. I’m always invited, implicitly and endlessly, the way a spouse is automatically invited. And sometimes I go, leaving my husband and our two children behind.

I go because I need that other place, away. I need its ozone of strangeness and new things and new people. Travel was a big part of my life before the captivity of marriage and kids; now I shoehorn it into two- and three-day trips, Victoria at my side.

I love my travel wife, though our relationship is nonsexual and nonromantic. She plans the itinerary, chats with locals, navigates perfectly when I drive, makes jokes when things get dicey. But sometimes, when we’re out in the world, I’m overtaken by melancholy. Sometimes I wish for my real husband. More specifically, I wish for a life in which I could have all possible things rolled into one spouse.

My husband travels extensively for his work as a journalist. Like, really extensively: to the Arctic Circle, to the Sea of Cortez, to Yap. When he travels, he prefers to get a byline and a paycheck and maybe an exotic rash. Leisure-time travel isn’t really his thing. He’s not interested in nighttime adventures or wild prowling. When we go places together, his focus is on putting food inside himself and then heading to the hotel bed for a snuggle and some ESPN.

Many nights I have stretched out next to him, feeling the pulsating life of a strange city outside the window and wondering what I’m missing. Wondering not so much with my mind as with my body. My body practically quivers with wondering, while the guys from “SportsCenter” chat wittily away on the television.

On the other hand, when Victoria and I travel, we rarely make it back to our hotel until the middle of the night. We’re busy getting in trouble. Wherever we go we are beloved, as a pair. We are given free food and drinks, invited to gallery openings, taken out to secret rock shows and led down hallways to hidden back rooms.

Victoria and I have been friends for decades, but the history of our travel spouse-hood exactly parallels that of my actual marriage. For our honeymoon 19 years ago, Bruce and I did an old-fashioned grand tour of Europe that involved a lot of going to bed early, a not-entirely-bad quality in a honeymoon.

Yet a small, precocious resentment grew in me. It was easy to forget all the perfect moments — my husband leading me by the hand through October snows on the lower flank of Mont Blanc; a golden afternoon wandering the Venice Biennale — when I considered our basic incompatibility as travelers. Bruce was happily reasonable; he wanted to explore a little, eat a little and, well, hit the hay with his new wife.

For my part, I wanted to step out into the city or town or countryside and get lost for hours. I wanted to stumble into a new landscape from dawn to midnight and never return to my hotel until the new world had finally, entirely broken me.

We ended our honeymoon in London, where Vic was spending a year attending graduate school at Goldsmiths university. When we arrived, she met us at a cafe near St. Pancras. She smiled her way through the cafe’s front door, urbane and black-clad and somehow delightfully busy-looking, a person to whom things were always about to happen. We all three had a lovely reunion, and Bruce and I learned how to drink builder’s tea.

And then my husband flew home, and Vic and I had a week together in London, the honeymoon of our travel wifedom. Our old friendship had been changed by my marriage, but for the better. Somehow, without saying anything, we, too, were more committed. We were making a new life as well, a life of stolen adventures.

Our London honeymoon took place in smoky punk rock clubs and flea markets; we hung out with grouchy, loony painters and stayed up all night. We lolled over the papers in the morning, hung over and indolent. It was my perfect trip.

On my flight home a week later, I felt obscurely sad. I didn’t want my perfect honeymoon to be with my best friend; I wanted it to be with, you know, my husband. I had stumbled up against the immovable truth of marriage. You have to do it with another person. And people are limited.

My solution — a husband for home, a wife for away — has been imperfect. This is not what I would have chosen, even though I seem to have chosen it. Ideally, though, I would be driving down Lincoln Avenue with my husband.

That’s not how marriage with my husband operates. Our marriage is built for the couch and a book and a shared blanket. Our marriage is built for goofy, all-day, amazed prattle about our children. Our marriage is built for watching “Dazed and Confused” one more time and saying all of Parker Posey’s lines along with her.

Our marriage is built for errands on the weekend, sex on the regular, and coffee in bed every morning. Our marriage is built for home. So travel hasn’t been part of our story. Instead, over the last 20 years, I have made, with Victoria, this other marriage, with its own memories — of London and New York and Los Angeles and the desert and the mountains. And with its own dreams: We plan to visit most of Africa and also Walla Walla, Wash.

My husband and my travel wife are both generous: He lets me go; she lets me come along. I’m not sure I could have had one marriage without the other. There’s a lot of talk about open marriage and polyamory lately, but marriage can be customizable and nontraditional in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.

Victoria and I made our flight that sunny day in Los Angeles. We played cards on the plane and chatted with the couple across the aisle. On the light rail into Seattle, we argued about whether or not we needed train tickets, and I glared at her.

We hugged goodbye, and finally I was home. As I crawled into bed next to my husband and rolled myself into the comfort of his long body, the glamour and strangeness of the world sloughed off me. Home.