Alphabet for the First Year

26 ways of looking at marriage

Illustration by Anna Hall

On the Anniversary

I ordered General Tso’s and bought a bottle of Woodbridge Riesling. When we first sat on the floor, we were celebrating—something for M, a promotion at the bank where he was working then, I think. We talked about all sorts of things, although I think M will agree that he did most of the talking. He was so nervous, so surprised that I was actually interested in listening to what was going on in his life. He didn’t have, he told me that night, a lot of people he felt he could talk to. I remember being charmed by his openness, surprised by it. We’d both been talking to other people online, through Grindr and SCRUFF, and had come to expect a minimum of actual talking from a physical rendezvous. But here we were in real life, talking for hours. I’d grown up thinking that this is what most people do, that most marriages are based on this kind of moment of mutual recognition.

The General Tso’s was from a new Chinese restaurant called Zen. I ordered through GrubHub, which didn’t require me to talk to anyone, just open my door to the delivery person. I could even tip through the app, so no money needed to be exchanged. The food was crispy and hot and sweet. The broccoli was brilliant green. The riesling, which I’d never had before, was perfect too, although probably it’s too sweet for most people. What is it we’re doing, we both wondered. We still eat it, sitting on the floor, once a month, usually around the twenty-third, the anniversary of that first real date.

On Bread

When we first moved in together, I was astonished by how many loaves we went through each week. M loves enormous sandwiches loaded with cold cuts, cheeses, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and condiments. I could eat a loaf of cinnamon toast with tea in the morning, in the afternoon, and through the insomniac night. But in order to lose weight, we have had to give up anything that seemed extra, processed, unhealthy. Bread, pasta, soda, sugar, butter, anything made of flour, anything comforting from the old worlds of our childhoods, anything that increases the gravity fields around the couch, the bed, the television screen. At night, after the gym, we knead each other’s sore muscles. We rise up again and again. We worry about becoming doughy, as almost every couple we know has done.

On The Ceremony

My apologies to anyone whose marriage fell apart because I married another man. We tried to do it quietly, with just close friends and family, so we wouldn’t make a spectacle. We both wore suits that signaled we were completely practical and calm. No one was the bride. We’re both husbands. We husband each other.

We did hold hands. We did leak tears, half-nerves, and half-unexpected wellings-up of happiness for our serious purpose, both of our irony-shields collapsing there at in front of the judge’s enormous bench. My husband’s four-year-old niece held my hand for a little bit.

We met online in March, we were more or less living together by June, and we married that October. A whirlwind for sure. A mistake, my mother would have said, who never understood the way I make decisions. I’d made a life and living, after all, out of poetry and words. I bought a house I loved in a sketchy part of the city that soon became the next “place to be,” a house that has doubled in value in a decade despite a recession. I have a retirement account with more money in it than she ever had. I have done everything in my life differently than she did. Still, I wonder if I would’ve gotten married if she hadn’t died.

On the Doubts Around Us

Some people worry about the slippery slope we represent: If marriage doesn’t mean one and only one thing, what’s to keep any two things in the world from being wedded together: man and goat, woman and cat, man and chicken? Others worry that same-sex marriages will break Social Security. Some friends of ours worry that those of us who get married will slip away into the suburbs and start worrying only about our lawns. I can’t say I haven’t seen that happen. “Will we still be gay?” a friend of mine asked. What happened to the liberation?

On Eating with Someone Else Around

Apparently, I eat loudly. I didn’t know that about myself; no previous companion had ever remarked upon it, and I’d always thought I kept myself fairly unobtrusive. But one night while we were watching television together, I saw my husband’s face flinch. (Or did it clench? Maybe I just saw a change.) I looked around the room for something amiss. I thought maybe he didn’t like the program on TV or the sound was too loud or the subject matter was triggering something in him. I pictured myself asking, “Honey, what’s wrong?” And he gave me a look that meant I don’t want to tell you. He’d been excusing himself a number of nights to go upstairs to take a bath or read or something. I hadn’t seen the pattern until that moment—something was going on. Finally, after I promised not to be upset, he said, “You eat loudly, with your mouth open. It makes me kind of sick.” Here I’m paraphrasing. That’s how I heard what he said; he may have been more kind. But I heard it the way I heard it and felt the deep shame of it. It hurt, as it always does, not to know myself. Most of my life I’ve felt I’ve lived outside my body, or lived more outside myself than inside. First, I was a nervous kid who tried not to attract any attention. Then I was a gay kid afraid of being outed and beaten up. Then I was a young teacher, a grad student, a young poet trying to impress. Then then then. Only around age forty-five did I feel I was here, had made good, could rest. I’d lived alone for eight years before I’d come back to love again. God knows what had unraveled from my fine disguises in all that time. Now I was being summoned back to surveillance, which is at least as necessary in love as from fear.

On Farting with Someone Else Around

My husband loves the strange oddities of the body organic, loves to pop zits, coax the dirt and fat tubes out of blackheads, examine the scar, the cut, the ingrown hair. Most gay men I’ve known have wanted to hide those things away from sight, usually in an effort to seem perfect, which can easily become confused with being lovable. But M isn’t that way, so when one of us farted in bed—I don’t remember who was first—and the other laughed and farted back, I suddenly realized we could in fact live together. It’s one of those things, maybe: either you’re a couple who farts around each other or you’re not. It’s not easy to find a like-minded soul in this. There are so many other things one is looking for in a potential mate: attractiveness, stability, sensitivity, politics, goals, cleanliness. I feel like it’s one of the secrets I’ve stumbled upon, but which no one would ever put in an advice column or a self-help book: Find the one you can fart freely with and still love completely, and you’ve found your future.

On Getting to the Gym

Before I met my husband, I went to the gym regularly. After we got married, I put on all the weight I’d lost the year before. He didn’t have a regular gym, and since he was working a couple jobs and I’d taken on extra administrative work, there was almost no time for us to work out together. That first winter was cold and went on forever, and neither one of us wanted to go out into it, even the dog. So we didn’t. And then there was Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve, all of which required us to go to some sort of gathering with friends or family.  Before I met him, I had pared down my social commitments to only the very essential ones, but marriage doubles your obligations, and I was frequently feeling overwhelmed. As was, I assume, M. And we’re both eaters of feelings. Together, we grew fat and cuddly.

On Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs have become a symbol over the course of the year. M wants one but I don’t allow it. That’s how it’s always phrased, as something I won’t allow. The truth is Pennsylvania doesn’t allow people to own hedgehogs—to prevent the abandonment of them into the wild, where they might interfere with native species. Abandonment is a given, given the fickleness of most people. Escape is possible, too. It’s actually not that I wouldn’t like to have a hedgehog but that I’d be the one spending time with it, worrying about it, crushed by its tiny eventual death. I need large pets with agency, who can decide some issues on their own and in favor of a settled, stable home. A hedgehog wants to burrow, to escape. Even the state knows this. Still, my husband continues to desire one. Does he want to escape? Is he afraid I want to escape, so he feels the need to own me? Is this even about a hedgehog anymore? M has also expressed interest in a pygmy goat, a potbellied pig, a corgi, and/or a parrot, not one of which I’ve agreed to. Those have not become symbols, though. I think it’s because I secretly want a hedgehog, too, want to feel the warm spininess of it, hold the uncanny breathing of it, feel the tickle of its earth-moving claws. Give it a name like a child who will never grow up between us. Make it giggle with delight despite its armor.

On In-laws

Having an extended family is a big change for me. I’d gotten used to the liberty gay men of my generation have had. Because we often didn’t fit in in our own families, we kept our distance, which gave us freedom and often that useful mixture of solitude, boredom, and absence that breeds creativity. Now, there are invitations to holiday dinners and soccer practices and birthday parties—the normal family events that we gays, now that we’re normalized by marriage, are expected to show up for. I have people to play cards and Clue with, meet for pizza, shop for at Christmas. My new niece and nephew actually like me, too, which complicates not going to their events; I don’t want to let them down. I want them to grow up feeling like the adults around them are on their side. Privately, I find it exhausting. At times, I want back the endless solitude and boredom in which I’ve done the bulk of my writing. I remember in the nineties when one of my boyfriend’s brothers didn’t feel comfortable leaving his two young sons alone with us. We were hurt but we knew he was afraid, and we used it. It kept us from ever being pressed into service as babysitters, so we didn’t protest. We didn’t even have words then for why we should protest, grateful as we were to be included at all. Marriage has made us safe to be around children; it signals that we understand restraint, that our desires are focused on each other and no others.

On Those Joys that Marriage Does Not Replace

Jerking off together or separately is not a sin, nor a sign of infidelity or boredom. It is quite pleasurable, in the way eating a sandwich can be, or binge watching a favorite program. If sex is all there is between two people, then maybe that’s something to talk about. What is the role of pleasure apart from a partner, a lover, a husband, a wife? Must every happiness be shared? Only if marriage becomes the new self, the new answer to everything. But it’s not. It never will be completely. It’s not a cage. Not if there is real, by which I mean liberating, joy in it.

On Kindness

Kindness was what I was looking for. Or rather, it was what I was hoping for. I was also hoping for sexiness and intelligence simultaneously. What is the difference between vulnerability and kindness? I was used to invulnerable gays, invulnerable men, invulnerable strangers. I myself had lived alone for eight years, so I thought I was invulnerable. Kindness mostly came from women because I didn’t want to sleep with them. I could give kindness to anyone I wasn’t sleeping with.

On Laundry

I love to do laundry, the separating into whites and darks and colors, the measuring of detergent, the white warm noise of the dryer, the sorting, the folding of warm sheets, the ironing out of wrinkles. But I hate putting things away into drawers. As I type this, it is summer, and I realize I’ve been dressing myself out of two laundry bags full of clean, folded clothes and out of the dryer, where all our whites lie waiting.

On Mathematics

M loves math, is in school for mathematics, actuarial math, mathematical biology. Beyond the plus, the minus, the multiplication of, the division of, which I know, he’s deeply into the sine, the cosine, the function, the field, the vectors, all things super-and-subscripted. I see roofs in square roots, embraces in parentheses. He uses pencils whose points are precise and brittle. I can’t think of the last time I used an eraser. He’s blond and I’m dark brown. I can recite the formulas for iambic meters in my sleep but I don’t balance my checking account, which was the primary use of math when I grew up. He maps curves and points and parabolas and line segments. His father can estimate a barn out of pieces of lumber. His sister divides her time among two children, an engineer husband, three dogs, two cats. We have twenty-four hours a day, sixteen if you don’t count sleep. We need a new bed, because a good night’s sleep is an incalculable good. There’s a sale at Sears, 60 percent off the regular price. He’s twenty-five this year. I’m fifty-one. It bugs me still, that distance; it makes me nervous. I tried to calculate the reasons out to the billionth place early on, but he kept saying, Stop it. It doesn’t matter. There are people in his family who haven’t lived long. He might not make it to fifty. I might live thirty more years. And anyway, we’re always driving around, and 3,287 people die every day, on average, from car accidents. As I write this, sitting across from him at our favorite coffeehouse, he writes to say he loves me. It comes up as a text on my iPad, an object so complicated I could never imagine the reality of it if it was not here in front of me. I write back that I love him so an equals sign hangs between our own complicated selves.

On Names

He said he’d like to take my last name. It would simplify things. Mine is easier to pronounce, a common noun in English, conjuring in the listener’s mind a stand of beautiful trees that provide shade, food, shelter. Or beams of wood strong enough for building houses. As the simple name of a concrete thing, it feels natural, raises no one’s nationalistic hackles. It passes easily through boundaries, checkpoints, censors, critics. His betrays an Eastern European origin, most probably Russian back there somewhere, a place where there is still some suspicion. His sister married and changed her last name. His mother remarried and has a new last name, her fourth after her family name, her first married name, and then her second married one. All of which makes M the sole male carrier of his name, the last of his father’s line. As am I. We’re the ends of our respective branches. If he took my name, it might make a lot of things easier: hospital visits, bank transactions, wills, any institutional experiences where having the same names might not alert the local administrators to our (to many minor functionaries still disturbing) relationship. It might save one of us. Still, I hesitated to say yes. I stood there, suddenly stunned that anyone would want to give up his name and also, surprisingly, protective of mine. It was one of those half-second-too-long hesitancies that lovers interpret, usually correctly, as alarm. Honey, forget it then, he said. Don’t worry about it. I couldn’t see if he’d been hurt by my not embracing the idea. No, no, no, no, no, he said and I over-interpreted. Just let me think about it, I said. I never expected anyone to want to take my name, is all. To want so much of me, I might also have said.

On Online Love

We’re both the kind of men who clam up when we get hurt, cross our arms over our chests, turn away, leave the room. We believe we are containing an explosion, that there’s a danger of lashing out otherwise. Sometimes he leaves. Sometimes I do. Usually who stays depends on who was in the room first. The one who came late is out of luck and has to leave.

The first time we had an argument, I texted him after I’d cooled down to say hi or something equally small. It was an opening anyway. I had missed him, something I couldn’t have said to his face without my voice cracking, without feeling very small and stupid. And so much of our relationship was then already mediated by messaging. I couldn’t have called. I was too afraid of losing the control that had, as they say, gotten me this far. Fortunately, he texted back immediately. Over the course of the afternoon we slowly unwound the argument, our positions and anxieties, via texts. Then I invited him back and he accepted. It was thrilling to have worked out so much outside our nervous bodies with their tendencies to deflect and distract and squirm. That night, over Chinese delivery, we talked it all the way through.

We need the distancing texting gives us, or I should say it helps when one of our bodies closes down. Both of us come from families where we saw arguments turn to violence.

On Peeing with Someone Else in the Room

Since we have the same equipment, you’d think it would be easy to be in the bathroom together. Two men don’t need to hide anything, after all, right? But it turns out peeing with someone else in the room can be a challenge if one of you doesn’t relax when someone else is near. See Q for details.

On Quiet Things

There are things we’ve agreed to keep quiet about, so as not to embarrass each other.

On Roses

M sent me roses once at work. I think it was for my birthday. It was a sweet gesture, I thought. Strangely, the roses came in a box with three shards of glass, not even enough to reassemble a vase out of. It was a mystery. He was horrified and called the florist to complain. They promised to send out another dozen that never arrived. I don’t know if it was some local florist’s passive-aggressive homophobic reaction, plain laziness, or a set of omens. I chose the middle reason. I had a vase in the office, of course, and kept the big red flowers on my desk for the weeks it took them to die. I told him I loved him for the gesture, but to never waste his money on things that fade. Chocolates, however, are fine.

On Sleeping with Someone Else in the Room

I snore like a monster, I’ve always been told. When I was around seven and slept over at my aunt’s house, my cousin Nancy, with whom I shared the room, threw a pillow at me to get me to stop. I didn’t even turn over, or so goes the story. She was almost impressed by it. I don’t remember any other stories beside that one, and since I roomed with two people my first year of college, and then lived with three other people after that, with nary a word about my snoring, I never thought about it much. I knew of course that my father snored with a force that could be felt wherever you were in the house, but I blamed that on his drinking and in general on his own monstrous character flaws.

In my other relationships, snoring seemed at best an occasional annoyance, a thing I did if I drank too much or slept in the wrong position. My boyfriends would give me an elbow or a shove and I’d roll over and apparently that would be that. And M didn’t have a big problem with my snoring when we were dating. Then, as he says, we got married and my snoring got immediately worse. At first, he says, it’s just a change in breathing, deeper, longer, definite. If we’re reading in bed together, he’ll sometimes look over and see that I’ve fallen asleep, the book still upright in my hands. He gets a kick out of that. But when we go to sleep, I have a whole routine the precedes my snoring—first, there’s the change in breath, which begins to produce little snags of snoring, then normal exhales again, then a louder snore, then normal exhale, then the mighty snores, which go on for a bit then disappear. Then the whole thing starts up again. It wouldn’t be such a problem, says my husband, except I start waiting for the snores instead of falling asleep. It’s like trying to sleep in a small boat while the choppy ocean keeps banging on the hull. Most of the time, at least until we buy that new mattress we’re going to buy for the guest room, one of us goes downstairs to sleep on the couch—a couch, I should say, we both want to replace as soon as possible.

On Taking Care of Each Other

Today I am nursing a sinus infection brought on by my allergies to spring pollen, probably trees. I spent the whole day, except two quick passes outside to walk the dog, on the couch either sleeping, watching television, blowing my nose, or whining. It’s been a bad day, in other words. I am not a good patient. M finished his finals yesterday and spent most of the day in bed upstairs, sleeping, reading, or folding clothes. He checks in periodically to make sure I have everything I need. I do, I say, one eye weeping uncontrollably. At the end of multiple crises, now mostly done, we are in need of recuperation. Both of us want quiet. I eat almost a whole cherry pie. I finish off all of the leftover food in the refrigerator, because he won’t eat leftovers. I am hungry and fussy, and he knows to just let me be. We guard each other’s solitudes, which I think is Rilke’s formula for love. When he comes down at five, off to work tonight at the restaurant until two, we hug and tell each other we love each other. The dog, the only one of us unafraid to show he is bored out of his mind, comes over and butts his head into us and wags his tail.

Underneath Everything

Underneath everything is everything else. Underneath this desire is that desire, underneath which is still another desire. All the way down to the first desire, I suppose. Was the first life-itch to feed? To split? To run? To fight? What was it the first bodies couldn’t do without? Was it pure, a clarity? Sometimes I try to go down into it. Was the first marriage a splitting of a cell into its twin, twinning and twinning for eons until something small broke and had to change? Soon what was perfect rhyme everywhere became slant, off, half, eye, strange. I watch my husband look at me sometimes and I wonder who he’s looking at, what desire has turned him toward me. Sometimes a desire to bask in his desire stretches me out. Sometimes I feel an urge to clean my beard, check my nose, suck my stomach in. Underneath the promises of the wedding vows are the obligations to selflessness, whose trials can be tough to undergo. Underneath the ceremony lie the anniversaries with their various symbols—paper, glass, sunlight, struggle, wealth, patience. The dog understands that there are now two people who will feed him, on whom he can rely for comfort and exercise, but he also knows he’s the lowest beast in the house. He used to be merely lower than me. Or maybe that’s just what I think is underneath the reason he still howls like a wolf when M comes home late from work.

On Verbs

To wake. To throw off. To uncover. To take. To totter. To pee. To mirror. To return. To climb back in. To cuddle. To love. To sweet-talk. To real-talk. To imagine. To plan. To honor. To complain. To adjust. To touch. To smell. To comfort. To warm. To turn to. To have. To hold. To laugh. To surprise. To look. To retrieve. To turn on. To tell the time. To think about. To weather. To warn. To worry. To forgive. To gather. To name. To rename. To get up again.

On the Wok

That first Christmas we were given a wok. Which required us to go on a hunt for wok oil. Which led us to fish sauce, three kinds of vinegar, ten kinds of soy sauce, and then walnut oil, sunflower oil, truffle oil, extinct rhinoceros oil, the tears of albino alligators, tiger claw oil, dwarf porpoise oil, left-handed-virgin oil, kink-tailed shark oil, and invisible swallow oil. We stood for an hour in the grocery store just counting the kind of beings we hadn’t realized could become oil, could be ground down, rendered, or imagined into ooze we could use to make our chicken taste like anything living or dead or possible. With broccoli, of course. Or snow peas. We love those. Or carrots sliced into lozenges, buttons, cuff links. Or peppers, some of which now come in bags and so resemble small orange and red voodoo dolls that we dressed two in scraps of our clothes and wrapped them together tightly, burying them in a beautiful dark blue container in the backyard where they’ve begun to sprout—hallelujah!—magic realist fruit out of which an oil can be made that, when applied by lovers to lovers, makes all other light and heat unnecessary.

On Our Exes

Exes, like death and taxes, can’t exactly be escaped. One of mine is our next-door neighbor. M’s one long-term love, sadly, doesn’t exist anymore except in M’s head where he still refuses to answer one big question. Which experience leaves the better wound? Solve for Y.


Who the hell wants to hear about someone else’s happiness? What kind of world is it if everybody’s yawning? Therefore, this alternate scenario: if you yawn and your spouse doesn’t, check his basement for bodies. You may have accidently married someone without empathy. Even chimpanzees find yawning contagious.

On Zeugma

We yoke two unlike things together with a word that bridges both. It can be as simple as an and. There doesn’t have to be any ceremony to stand on. Zeugmatic, I held your hand and my breath one day. I remember standing there and hardly ever to dust.

About the Author

Jeff Oaks
Jeff Oaks

Jeff Oaks is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Mistakes with Strangers (Seven Kitchen Press, 2014). His poems and essays have appeared in Field, Mid-American Review, Creative Nonfiction, At Length, and Assaracus.

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