May 24, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

The Kiss IV  Edvard Munch Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Kiss IV
Edvard Munch

The kiss was amazing.

But I knew I was falling in love because when I asked him if he had ever read Stranger in a Strange Land, he said “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because you kiss like that guy, Michael Valentine.”

“Valentine Michael Smith,” he corrected me. But he understood the reference, and seemed pleased.

Maybe you don’t. Stranger in a Strange Land is a science fiction novel written in the sixties by Robert Heinlein about a boy born on Earth’s first Martian colony. The colony is wiped out, but he survives – raised by Martians. Twenty years later, he’s rescued, and taken back to earth, where they discover the Martians have taught him a few things. Like the ability to pay complete attention to the experience of the moment. Girls liked this in the sixties. They like it now. So when I compared my date’s kiss to Valentine Michael Smith’s, it was a compliment. A geeky compliment, but a compliment nevertheless.

I was disappointed that his car had bucket seats, and I told him so.

I wanted to sit closer. “What good are these?” I asked. I was a little tipsy. He reached over me and flipped the seat recliner switch. I was flat on my back in five seconds. Impressive.

We met in graduate school, at an English teacher training, where we discovered both of us had been in the same play, John Guaré’s House of Blue Leaves, in our respective undergraduate colleges. He played Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper whose true vocation (he thinks) is songwriting; I played his wife, Bananas. I’m crazy, you see. But I’m the only one who notices that all the songs he is writing are actually new lyrics over old Broadway show tunes. In the end, Artie strangles Bananas. It’s a mercy killing, really.

We got married anyway.

And my husband discovered his vocation. He became a minister. I became a minister’s wife. The Bible says that in marriage the two shall become one. It doesn’t say which one.

Wedding Ensemble
Elizabeth Hawes

Mornings were hardest after the divorce.

Especially when the alarm would wake me and I’d fall back asleep. Those morning dreams feel so real, you know. I’d dream about the front porch of that old stone rectory in Sewanee, how we’d sit there after the kids were in bed and listen to cicadas, wave upon wave. About the snowstorm we drove through to get to my parents for Christmas, semis jackknifed on the side of the road, his knuckles white on the wheel. He was a good driver. About our vacations on Lake Superior, how he would splash through the waves with the kids at the Great Sand Bay, bellowing “Whale on the Beach!” A middle-aged man; the father of my children, the geek I married. In those dreams I could still feel how I loved him. And when I woke, I was not sure where I was, or how I got there.

Waking Up
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

There is a scene in the meltdown of my marriage that still haunts me.

We are returning from a storytelling event. He’s trying to become more interested in what I’m interested in, less preoccupied with his own job and more willing to let me be something other than a minister’s wife. He is enthusiastic about one teller, critical of another – but mostly he is thinking about what stories he would do, how he would perform this or that.

He does not seem to notice that I have gotten quieter and quieter, that my responses are increasingly short, until we have pulled into the driveway of our home in Eden Prairie, the one we would be selling a year later. And then he gets it.

He turns and looks at me, and I will never forget that look, that strange mixture of love and despair. “You don’t want me there, do you.”

I don’t know what to say.

“Because I colonize everything you do.”

And I think that is it, he is right.

But what breaks my heart – then and now – is the fact that I know with complete certainty that no one else in the universe would be able to come up with such a perfect phrase for what is happening to us.


A Couple in the Woods –
Tulio Diaz

Story first told in this form (minus images) at The Moth Story Slam, Amsterdam Bar, St. Paul, February 2013. Artwork courtesy of the online collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where images may be downloaded free for noncommercial use. 

24 thoughts on “Estranged

  1. Annecdotist says:

    I think the merging in marriage can be hard enough whatever one’s profession, but there are some like the politician or minister’s wife that make it especially difficult to be your own person. you express this beautifully, Paula


  2. I love how your choice of events condenses of a life of love and the pain of growing apart in this poignant piece of writing.
    Whether because of cultural influences or personalities, often the toll on one partner to surrender is higher than on the other, and there is a cost involved. I guess the question whether the price is worth it.


  3. Thank you, Teagan. A novelist I liked once said that love is when you are more yourselves together than you are when you’re apart. I don’t know whether that’s true – it sounds a little too pat to me – but I know when you are not able to be yourselves together, the trouble has already begun. Love is always worth it; it’s the choices we make in the name of love, I think, that we sometimes need to question.


    • Terry Tyler says:

      Crikey, that’s how I am with my husband – I’ve never thought about it before. But I didn’t meet him until I was almost 50 – I knew what to base the choice on by then, I suppose. Bloody well took a lot of mistake making, though!! I just read this article while having my dinner (my husband doesn’t mind me eating dinner at the computer if I don’t mind him playing on his X box for 6 hours straight), and thought how sad it is when you don’t want to be with someone anymore. When you actually admit it to yourself that it’s more than just a bad patch….. so hard. I’ve just been writing about the too little too late stuff in my latest novel :(


      • How you are with your husband is “more yourselves together than when you are apart?” I hope you mean this, and not that you’re at that cusp point of estrangement. I think the novelist who said that was Gail Godwin, and the novel was Father Melancholy’s Daughter, which was searingly beautiful, or perhaps it was the not-quite-as-good sequel, Evensong. Too little too late is one of the saddest things I know.


  4. Ray Defendorf says:

    Beautifully told Paula.


  5. I agree with previous comments, Paula. A poignant piece of writing, and beautifully told.


  6. Norah says:

    What a powerful story. I love the way you tell it through glimpses of scenes – showing the connected-ness and sharing, and how becoming one can take over and remove one’s individuality and separateness. It evokes such feeling.


  7. Thank you, Norah. One of the things the five minute story slam format does is condense things down to the barest of essentials.


  8. That was beautiful, Paula. Makes me realize that regardless of the reason, a marriage ending is a fracture felt by both people (and usually many more)…some of them just mend better than others.


  9. Charli Mills says:

    You’re such a masterful storyteller, sweeping us along right up to the point where we feel punched in the gut as you do. How powerful that he could name precisely what happened to your relationship and how poignant of a loss that becomes. Relationships have a tough time surviving transitions of the soul because, as you point out, which one transitions and which one does not.


    • Thanks, Charli. I guess it’s probably fair to say we both transitioned, just not together or in the same direction. It’s a familiar story, but all grief is in some way familiar, of the family, the human story.


  10. TheAnimatedWoman says:

    You drew me in. I found it interesting that the actual marriage is breezed over and then remembered in a dream. I loved that.


    • Thank you. There are multiple versions of this story, not all of which are this condensed; when you have to tell something on stage in five minutes, you have to focus on getting an emotional truth across, hopefully without sacrificing nuance. I’m glad the piece worked for you in written form.


  11. That is such a good post! It caught my attention from the beginning. Such a sad post.


  12. […] I’ve told a number of stories of varying lengths and complexity around this fact.No doubt I will keep telling them, like the Ancient Mariner, till I bless something unawares and the albatross drops from my neck. You can read the version I told at the Twin Cities Moth slam in 2013 here. […]


  13. jan says:

    Such a powerful story – pictures are perfect. I feel in love with my first husband because his name was Peter, he was Jewish and I had been reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Painful to think back on those impossibly idealist days! You did a lovely job.


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