Elaine Neil Orr

Shared History Is the Chimney that Doesn’t Burn Down Even if the Rest of the House Does:
How to Stay Married

Over the Rooftops by Felix Nussbaum

Start with good sex.

Agree on coffee.

Or start with good coffee and agree on sex.

Count the years in cars: red Audi, blue Mazda, brown Toyota, white Hyundai, metallic Subaru.

Marry a photographer for the pictures.

Get far enough in that you don’t take your partner’s quirks personally.

Acknowledge that your own quirks are not, in fact, charming and what make you special.

Stick with it until you have been down and out so many times that you see the pattern, which is that you always come out of it together. Over the years, this practice will amount to something like faith.

Have at least one child so you can reminisce ad nauseam, looking at old pictures with your gobbling parents’ eyes and cherish all the awkward ones—when he got put in right field, when she was chubby and her cousin lean, when he sunbathed in the drive way in third grade—in fact, loving the awkward pictures most, telling the stories to each other over and over, doubling up in laughter, nearly crying.

Alternately, don’t have children, keep all of the worst pictures of yourselves. Drink wine, look at old photos, and laugh at yourselves.

Let your partner be wrong; don’t point out that he is, and just go along on your way.

If you grew up in another country, say Nigeria, take your spouse there once. Within a day, the half of you he hasn’t seen will become visible.

Buy each other the same Birds of the American South book for Christmas and watch the birds in your yard and in this one way become your parents.

Get a dog.

Encourage the buying of flowers but early on, wean your partner of red carnations.

Think of yourself as a pointy object that needs to be sanded into curves to bring out your inner beauty and think of your partner as a kind of artist of you. Instead of imagining that your partner ruined your life (which is easy), imagine your partner risked his or hers, living with pointy-you.

Don’t divorce.

Put up a Christmas tree every year and collect ornaments so that you have a story of each Christmas, beginning with the first, when your partner bought home a Styrofoam Woodstock-in-his-nest glider that has always taken pride of place.

Kiss, really kiss, once a day.

Live through a couple of hurricanes so that you go without electricity for ten days and you are both heroic in your efforts and Beanie Weenie warmed on the grill tastes good.

Agree on Coca-Cola, not Pepsi.

Spend a season learning that bushes pruned badly will grow back. Just don’t whack the tops off the crepe myrtles.

Reminisce frequently: over all the places you’ve lived: in Louisville, Atlanta, Nashville, and North Carolina, all the bad apartments, the cocker spaniel, the gardens you made, the concerts you went to (Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac), the beach trips. In short, create an encyclopedia of knowledge you share with no other human being so that you collect a set of possible jokes (“We thought you was a toad”; “this is not the Droid you’re looking for”; “who are those guys?”; “you know you like me, you want to kiss me”) and these allow for explosive laughter every time you pull them out.

Shared history is the chimney that doesn’t burn down even if the rest of the house does.

Recall how your partner was there when you were sick, throwing up every morning for two years.

Get to the point that you’re a little bit tired and less likely to argue for argument’s sake. This is the plateau. You still have sex but not because you fought to get there. The world spreads out around you on all sides. You are high above the general fray. The view is astonishing. You could be on Chief Joseph’s Highway, driving through Wyoming and up into Montana, headed for Cooke City and a dinner of fresh caught salmon.

On the way you stop, get out of the car, and look out across a hundred mountains. Here they are not so steep and craggy, but more curvaceous. An entirely red, sloping cliff stands to one side. It would take a day to walk across it even if you could. The sky in the distance is purple and finally you understand oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountains’ majesty, above the fruited plane.

A mauve swath of hill, if you can call a mountain a hill—you are so high it seems a hill —rises below you. Yellow, yellow mountainsides everywhere, pink valleys, green green fields. Blue splotches of rock. You can’t believe you have come this far. It’s amazing. That labyrinthine black road you took up here winds down and away. There are parts of the road you can’t even see. It disappears and reappears. Up here the sun shines. It’s three in the afternoon—summer in Wyoming—so there’s still lots of day light and the air is pleasant. The breeze blows your hair every which way. Get real. It’s not a breeze. It’s a strong wind. You are going to look crazy in the pictures he’s taking (be grateful again for all the pictures your partner has taken over the years; you look damn good in a lot of them; no one can deny you have great legs). And so here you are. It’s breath taking, the long and winding road up, this arrival, this view, this land that curves around you, this one other human being who holds you.

You get back in the car and head to Cooke City, which will look like a movie set. And this is your life and your marriage.

Give it time.


About the writer:
Elaine Neil Orr, a U.S. citizen, grew up in Nigeria. She is author of Gods of Noonday: a White Girl’s African Life (memoir, UVaP) and two novels, A Different Sun and Swimming Between Worlds (Penguin/Random House). She teaches at N.C. State University and in the MFA in Writing Program, Spalding University.

Image: Nightly View from the Workshop with Dishcloth (Over the Rooftops) by Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944). Oil on canvas. 72.5 x 59.5 cm. Circa 1940. Public domain.

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