From The New York Times, I’m Miya Lee.
Today’s essay shows that you can either resent your partner’s differences, or you can celebrate them.
And on a basic level, it’s about a husband embarrassing his wife. And I have to tell you, Miya, this is that rare Modern Love essay that I couldn’t identify with at all, because I’ve never personally experienced embarrassing my wife.
Yes. Yeah, that’s 1,000 percent true, I’m sure. The essay is called “My Husband Wore Really Tight Shorts to the Eclipse Party.”
My husband, Alex, strode toward me across the football field, wearing a white undershirt, black dress shoes and socks, and a pair of skintight, blaze-orange nylon shorts that fit like hot pants.
“Hi,” he said.
After a moment of stunned silence, I said, “Hi.”
We were at our children’s school for an eclipse party. Our city Columbia, South Carolina, was in the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse of 2017. Thousands of people had come from all over the country, from around the globe, to watch the moon cover the sun for two-and-a-half minutes on August 21. Restaurants handed out eclipse glasses. The local news had been warning us for weeks about burned corneas. Bars had opened at 8 a.m. Now, in mid-afternoon, the sun was high, and the temperature was nearing 100 degrees.
Alex was supposed to be at work, but he’d come here instead, unexpectedly swaddled in orange.
“Where did you get those shorts?” I said.
“I found them in a garbage bag in the back of your minivan,” he said. “Why?”
They were in the bag to go to Goodwill because they were too small for our 12-year-old son. Now my 6’1, 250-pound husband was wearing them. In public.
“They’re too tight,” I said.
“They feel OK.”
As my daughter’s teacher walked toward us, I shouted, “He just came from work and found those old shorts in the car!” She smiled and nodded.
He waved to some parents we knew from our son’s football team. I looked the other way. When another parent approached, I bolted.
Catching up to me, Alex said, “Why are you trying to make excuses for my shorts? Why are you running away from people?”
“Because you look ridiculous,” I said.
“You mean the shorts?”
“Yes! Of course I mean the shorts! What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking it’s hot today. Look, this is probably the only chance I’ll ever get to see a full solar eclipse. I’m not going to spend it sweating in a suit when I can put on a pair of shorts.”
“They’re skin tight,” I said. “Don’t you care about what people think?”
He looked surprised. “Of course not.”
This is why I fell in love with him half a lifetime ago. We met at a tiny college in the lap of mounding green and blue mountains. There was so much beauty in there and so much brutality. The college had been coed for only four years and still felt like a boys’ school that women were allowed to attend. I had come from an all-girls’ school and was utterly confused, unable to read what was going on around me. It felt like junior high all over again.
I was socially naive, nerdy and frightened. Someone had scratched a list of the 10 hottest girls in our class into one of the old seminar tables. I felt both appalled by this and sad, knowing I would never be considered for such a list, then appalled at myself for feeling sad about it.
I knew that I was judged on how I looked. We all were. I didn’t care enough to wake up early and put on makeup or style my hair. Yet, I was keenly self-conscious. I had not heard the term “the male gaze” then, but when I first came across it in graduate school, I knew exactly what it felt like.
I knew a boy freshman year who sometimes drank too much and talked about fraternity hazing, about being made to sit on blocks of ice or kneeling for hours on rice, about seeing another boy in the shower with his back and butt and thighs bruised and blistered. I loved going to fraternity parties anyway. My friends and I put on ratty jeans and old t-shirts and moved in packs, lashed together like people trying to survive a shipwreck with one life jacket, dancing in basements and drinking green punch from rubber trash bins. We knew never to leave a party alone.
On top of that, my father was dying, cruelly and slowly. I didn’t laugh much. But I laughed with Alex, who was neither constrained nor frightened. He exuded the sense of freedom I wished for myself.
To not care — to move through the world without stopping to consider how others might judge — was the rarest gift. And Alex shared it with me. But now, 25 years later, that freedom I once wanted so badly for myself was infuriating in him.
Alex’s ability to be unaware of the judgment of others has always been intoxicating, except when it’s embarrassing.
Over the loudspeaker, the physics teacher announced it was safe to take off our eclipse glasses. Suddenly the orange curve of light in the sky was gone.
There was a collective gasp and then screams squealing and shouts of, “Oh my God!”
I couldn’t process what I was seeing. My head shook back and forth in denial, even though I knew what I was looking at.
There is no comparing a partial solar eclipse to totality. They’re entirely different experiences — a hug versus an orgasm.
I didn’t worry about Alex’s orange shorts. I didn’t worry whether my children burned their corneas. All I could think about was the gaping hole in the world where the sun was supposed to be, the black disk surrounded by a ring of undulating white threads of fire that moved the way cream does when you pour it into coffee. It was too much, almost intolerable to look at. I had to look away and then back again immediately. It was impossible, and yet there it was.
And then, something shifted. Somehow, suddenly, it wasn’t intolerable. Somehow, it felt as if the eclipse had always been there and that the world would always be this way.
The two-and-a-half minutes of totality stretched into a new, seemingly eternal inside-out reality. Until an enormous drop of sunshine erupted on the edge of the black hole and grew bigger. Just seconds before, time had slowed to a halt. And now it sped up 1,000 times. Already, the sun was blinding.
“Glasses on!” the high school physics teacher bellowed over the loudspeaker. I felt as if I had been hit in the chest. I looked at my husband in his hot pants and lace-up oxfords and wasn’t embarrassed. How could I care what other people thought when the whole sky had just been turned inside-out, when time had sped up and slowed down, when the world had become impossible in a split second and then mundane again?
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung argued that when we fall in love with someone, what we really fall in love with are their characteristics that are in us, but that for whatever reason, we cannot access. What I love in Alex — that ability to not care what other people think — is something I want for myself. I have experienced that utter lack of self-consciousness only three times in my life: When I fell in love 25 years ago, the months I had untreated postpartum psychosis, and the two-and-a-half minutes of the eclipse. Three times, reality flipped.
So how could this be? How could 15 years of marriage turn the thing I most love about Alex into something I desperately want to change about him? How could the thing I want for myself become the thing I want him to lose?
This is what marriage does better than anything else. It forces you to look hard at what you want to be and acknowledge that someone else, someone you love, cannot give it to you. Even after spending 25 years with that person, the only way to get there is to change yourself.
Sometimes this change feels so impossible that instead of admiring the traits you want, you come to resent them. Falling in love shows you who you could be, but marriage shows you who you still are. Alex cannot give me what I want. He cannot imbue me with his not-caring-about-judgment ability. He cannot give me this freedom, though he shows me what it looks like daily. (Hint: It’s orange).
That freedom is so close, I can touch it. And yet it isn’t mine.
And so my anger at him that hot afternoon.
If I wanted to assuage my fear of judgment by asking that he fear judgment, it would destroy the part of him I love most. If Jung is right, the freedom is already available to me. I have felt it three times. If a seemingly impossible change can emerge in the sky and become normal, perhaps it can emerge in any of us, too.
When we got home that evening, I looked up the date and time of the next solar eclipse in the U.S., already wanting that freedom again. But that night, after Alex went to bed, I found those orange shorts and threw them away. I know where I want to go. I am not there yet.
After the break, a Tiny Love Story about being afraid to fall in love, but doing it anyway.
Hi, Dan. Nice to meet you.
I live in Bayside in Queens, New York.
Oh, OK. I really love your Tiny Love Story. And I was wondering if you would read it for me.
My name is April Silva, and I wrote the Tiny Love Story, “If You Need Light in Your Life, Call an Electrician.”
My ex left me with two young children and a house in disrepair. I couldn’t face my children’s searching eyes and endless questions, but I could call an electrician. John appeared the next day. Sharing a ladder, we struggled to mount the ceiling fan in the waning light of a summer evening. It was then, John said, in seeing my belly peeking from my shirt, that he fell for me, our shadows dancing on the walls. Apparently, the entire house had to be rewired. John made the right connections, and 18 years later, the light remains.
Can I take you back to the beginning when you talk about your ex leaving you with two young children and a house in disrepair? What happened?
I was in the middle of a divorce and then spending probably too much time thinking about all that. And my children were having a very rough time. Their faces — the pain and the questions, the endless questions that they had — I think I was in pieces, actually. I was just using the physical manifestations of my life at that moment. I was hanging on to them like a frame of a house with nothing in it. Because I felt empty. I didn’t know where I stood. I didn’t think I would ever have another relationship again. I didn’t think that anybody would really want to be with me with two children.
And I had trust. And somebody had come to me. So I started to fix the house. And I was looking for an electrician. I realized the house was from 1920. And no one had ever done anything about the electrical. So I went to my friend Gladys, and I asked her. I said, you know — I said, “You knew somebody, an electrician. I still remember. A person used to come to your house.”
She goes, “Oh, yeah, John.” So she told him that her friend was looking for an electrician to rewire the house. So he said, “OK, I’ll call.” He called the next day. I said, “What? In New York City, nobody hears from an electrician the next day.”
So he started the following week. He would see me come home from work. He would watch, I guess, as I fed the kids and took care of the homework, did everything. And many, many times he left late. He would leave often around 9:00 each night. Some nights, he left later, I thought to finish faster. And talking to me — talking to me about his life, just about things, I guess, that people who are in each other’s close proximity will begin to speak about. Work — more than the weather, let’s put it that way.
I think he gained a lot of information from the children. Because kids have no filters, and my kids were really devastated at that point. When he came in, they would start asking him questions, endless questions. And he would answer them.
Like, why did you become an electrician? My mom says that you’re really good in physics.
You’re not from this country, but why did you come here then? Did you want to be here? How come you don’t have a brand new car? Don’t you like red cars? And he would answer every single question with such patience. He’s this unique kind of person that can put other people before himself. And also, he has a lovely way about him — kind eyes, soft smile.
At what point in there did you start to think this was more than someone who was just doing electrical work in your house and that there could be something more?
Over time, I guess over a couple of weeks, I just begun to notice that he began to look at me differently. And then, shortly before the job is over, he was standing at the bottom of the steps from the basement one evening. And I came to the top of the steps to ask him a question from the kitchen. And it was just something in his eyes, the way he looked at me.
It was working on me, that look. I didn’t know what it was, but it was more. It was something different, something deeper.
And then right before he was done, we were in the basement. And he had said — he was sitting on the couch, and he putting some tools in a bag. And he looked at me that way again. And, “All right,” I said. “You’re on.” And that was it.
Afraid. Very afraid. Because I didn’t have a good track record with people. And here I was again, starting something that was so totally unknown. I didn’t know — I couldn’t know how it would end.
Thank you so much, April.
Thank you, Dan, very much, all right? I wish you well.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero with help from Hans Buetow and Elyssa Dudley. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. The executive producer is Wendy Dorr.
This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel; original music by Elisheba Ittoop. This week’s essay was written by Kerry Egan and read by Gabra Zackman. April Silva wrote our Tiny Love Story.
Special thanks to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Vicky Merrick, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick, and Ryan Wegner at Audm.