We weren’t supposed to be stuck in Christchurch. We were supposed to be driving around New Zealand’s South Island, in the camper van we had rented. The trip was a gift for Mike’s fiftieth birthday, our first significant time off in years, and the first time in a long time we had traveled together. We had both been traveling alone a lot—too much—for work, and in the parlance of currency, our marriage was overdrawn. The only place we met was to fall into bed after long days or weeks apart, and we were simply too tired to tend to each other. We knew there were problems, but we were never together long enough to work them out.
It was a save-your-marriage vacation. We were looking forward to spending long days and nights together, hiking, wine tasting, and fly fishing. But on the second day, camping near Kaikoura, Mike fell and rolled down a small embankment, breaking his ankle in two places.
We went to a country doctor, who left his Boxing Day dinner to take X-rays and wrap the ankle in a plaster cast. He told us to go to The Bone Shop at Christchurch Hospital for follow-up care.
And so I drove the camper south, along a sheer cliff on the left side of the road, with my husband’s foot, elevated, in the rearview mirror. I didn’t consult a map; for over a hundred miles, I just followed the signs to Christchurch and, once there, followed the giant H or cross signs, hoping they meant hospital.
The next morning, The Bone Shop buzzed with the sound of saw blades cutting through plaster. They gave Mike a split cast suitable for the flight home and took another series of X-rays. Nurses and physicians apologized profusely for making us wait, for taking so long, in spite of the constant stream of patients. “We always fill up after a long weekend,” said the jolly ward clerk, acknowledging the active Kiwi lifestyle.
A surgeon told us that Mike would need to be off his foot for at least six weeks and that he should elevate the foot until the swelling went down before flying home. “Good luck,” she said. “Sorry about your holiday.”
It would be a week before Mike’s ankle was airplane-ready, so we were confined to our hotel room. Our hotel, like the hospital, was at the outskirts of the “Red Zone,” a pile of rubble the size of a city that had been cordoned off after a series of earthquakes that had started in September 2010 and were still ongoing when we visited more than a year later, in December 2011. Inside the Red Zone, six hundred buildings had been demolished, with six hundred more to go. There were disagreements about how and what to rebuild. The thirteen-story central police department was still standing and structurally sound, but people who worked there were taking early retirement because they couldn’t bear going into the high-rise, with its view of devastation. It, too, would be demolished.
The Red Zone was littered with broken glass, tile, and bricks that continued to tumble from buildings. The aftershocks continued, sometimes a dozen a day. In our hotel the first night, the room shifted hard from left to right and back in just a few seconds, like someone correcting a sliding stack of books. There was no sense that the seismic activity was over, but one woman said cheerfully to me, “What’s going to fall has already fallen.” On a bus on the outskirts of town, I saw a mansion half-hanging from a cliff.
It looked to me as if things could get worse.
Each day, after checking Mike’s ankle, I feed him pain pills and breakfast then set out to explore. I walk the Red Zone’s perimeter. I skirt piles of bricks and buildings cracked in half. Behind the cyclone fence separating the safe from the not-safe are memorials: plastic flowers stuck into the concrete, commemorating some of the 185 people who died in the strongest of the aftershocks, on February 22, 2011.
On my second day out, I glance down a side street and see brightly colored shipping containers attached to each other near what used to be the center of downtown Christchurch. It takes me a few minutes to realize they contain shops—cafés, clothing boutiques, a bookstore, even a bank with a security guard—and are stuffed with people: the Cashel Mall. The shipping containers sit amidst sunflowers, in front of the crumpled and abandoned buildings the businesses once occupied. Concerned that the devastated city would lose business and its sense of community if the rebuilding didn’t come fast enough, its property and business owners’ group had set up the temporary shops.
Twenty-seven of the stores destroyed by the quakes had reopened inside the shipping containers—lime green, orange, turquoise, and yellow boxes that were attached to each other horizontally or stacked on top of each other. The site was designed to be temporary and recyclable, able to be moved to another part of the city as needed. But already, people wanted it to stay; they’d become attached to it, the phoenix rising. It was one thing that had become another, capturing their hearts in the process.
Slipping into Scorpio Books, I buy The Sheltering Sky. I intended to buy the latest Man Booker prize winner, but instead pick up Paul Bowles’s mid-twentieth-century tale of a couple, Port and Kit, who take their shaky marriage on a trip to the North African desert. An interesting choice, certainly. Perhaps I thought I’d channel my disappointment though the novel. Perhaps I’d find renewed gratitude for my marriage after reading Kit and Port’s bitter repartee.
I had to admit I was feeling depressed about the turn our vacation had taken, unhappy at being a nursemaid on the other side of the planet, checking my watch to walk miles back to give Mike his next round of pain pills and lunch. I feared I would return to our home uninvigorated, to even more work since my husband would be off his foot for five more weeks with only me to care for him.
Like the Buddhists advise, I decided to let myself feel the sadness and then watch as it passed and turned into something else, as things always do.
I was afraid, however, of what it might turn into.
We had both waited until we were in our forties to marry for the first time.
When I met Mike at a New Year’s Eve party, I couldn’t say why I was attracted to him, only that I was. On paper, he was all wrong: a Corvette-driving football coach who listened to classic rock. A man.
I was a lesbian. A butchy lesbian who rode a mountain bike and read poetry. My iPod party was bluegrass.
But I could see right away that he had a heart as big as a mountain, and I have always been attracted to kindness. And in truth, his penis didn’t bother me. It was just another organ, a bunch of nerve endings, the least mysterious part of the man. In panels or workshops on gender identity, I had often talked to college students about the fluidity of sexuality. My motto, inherited from my father, was: Who cares? Love who you love. We are lucky if we find it.
In practice, falling in love with a man was difficult. My years as an out lesbian, especially in Alaska, had taught me that male privilege, and heterosexual privilege, was a dangerous thing. I was afraid of losing myself to a world in which I took for granted that I could hold my partner’s hand in the grocery store and not be followed or beaten up or even killed. I was afraid I would become safe and comfortable, and forget how the world really works. And I was afraid I would lose my friends, a group of women so feral and free that I wouldn’t want to be on this planet without their company.
So I came up with all kinds of reasons that I couldn’t be with Mike, but mainly my objection was that he was part of the power structure, a pillar of the patriarchy. And that Corvette! Stepping into the Stingray with its furry red interior, I felt as if I was in a ZZ Top video, only wearing Doc Martens instead of Daisy Dukes.
Each day, I came up with a new set of reasons it would never work, but he continued to be kind, fixing my snowblower and considering me seriously with blue eyes the color of the lake where we lived. After a day apart at work, he would call to say good night.
I was confused.
My closest friend, Beth, a lesbian, asked me how I felt in my body when I was with him.
“Forget your head; you can convince your head of anything,” she said. “The body doesn’t lie. How do you feel when you’re with him?”
“I feel happy,” I said.
“Well, there you have it.”
By the time we got to New Zealand, we’d been together eight years.
Christchurch. Suburbs that look like Marin County. Long city blocks that could be Fresno. A downtown that’s a pile of bricks. I walk and walk since there is nothing else to do while my husband rests and elevates his foot in bed, doctor’s orders. He watches rugby and cricket.
Things that make me gasp: buildings missing their backsides, the rooms and their furnishings hanging out like entrails; restaurants, yet to be demolished, that still contain the tableware exactly as it was at the moment the lunchtime patrons fled. I peek inside one window, my hand shading my eyes so I can get a good look. I see dirty plates and cups, a pair of eyeglasses on a table. A hat on a hook. Coats and forks and upturned chairs, a still life in a ghost town.
Things that make me smile: benches fashioned out of earthquake rubble, a greenbelt along a river that never lost course. Flowers: magenta, fuchsia, lemon yellow. Lily pads.
Each night in our hotel room, while my husband watches rugby, I return to The Sheltering Sky. Something the character Port says sticks with me, and on my rambles through Christchurch, I return to it. Essentially, it’s this: we act as if we have forever, but we don’t really know how many sunsets, how many moons we have left.
I look at the man next to me in bed, with his foot elevated, and think about the full moons we have spent together, in the desert camping under a night sky or toe-to-toe in the Maui tide. Or pulling to the side of the road in our own town because of the moon rising from behind the mountains, so large and luminous we are struck blind.
I think about the full moons I have spent with women, doing pretty much the same thing.
What if I have only one full moon left? Do I want my remaining moons to be with this man? With any man?
In college, I had a teacher who was turned on by math. She’d throw her hands to the sky, pacing the front of the classroom, exclaiming that everything in the universe could be explained by math. If we understood math, she’d beam and sweat, we would understand everything!
Say I have thirty years left to live. That means I have approximately 360 full moons. Looking at it this way, it doesn’t seem so dramatic or risky to spend another six or eight or twelve trying to repair my marriage. But what’s the tipping point? A hundred moons?
I return to the hotel room throughout the day, bearing gifts: savory pies, chocolate, things I find on my travels that I think will please my husband, though he will remember little of it. I’m surprised to find that I’m an angry gift-bearer. How can I be so annoyed with a man drugged in bed with his foot up on pillows because of an accident? In the morning, I leave early to walk it off before he can see it, before it seeps out in my voice and body language. I help him bathe with too much roughness, my mouth set in a grim line.
My husband is a good man, a generous man. Solid. But it’s there, like the bone chip on his ankle, which we saw in the X-rays: the idea that our marriage was fractured before we got on the plane. By our time apart and by my struggle to accept being in a heterosexual relationship. And our currencies differ: his currency is not of moons, but of dollars and what they buy. He works hard and knows the exact day he will retire to maximize his benefits. And he will have another job lined up the next day. He values work and how it translates into a good life.
I have often told Mike that I would rather spend time together when we’re healthy than work until we drop into retirement. Let’s figure out a different way to do things, I have said. Let’s have more fun. He has smiled at me as if I’m dim.
“I could get hit by a bus tomorrow!” I say.
“Look both ways,” he replies.
“I could get hit by a bolt of lighting!”
“Don’t go out in a thunderstorm.”
A woman, I think, would understand the moon.
As I walk, my sadness over our ruined vacation is eclipsed by the devastation of Christchurch. Buildings with rooms full of stories and life have gone to dust. People have died.
From the street, I pick up a piece of blue tile from a mosaic that slid off a wall during a good shake, and I hold it in my hands. I think I might pocket it and, at home, make some sort of crafty monument to Christchurch, to resiliency or something. Staring at the ceramic chip, it strikes me that the problem with my marriage isn’t simply a lack of time together: it’s me. Although I love my husband, I have treated our marriage like a shipping container—sturdy and sometimes beautiful, but a replacement for the real thing, like the Cashel Mall. I believe I will end my days with a woman.
Perhaps I treat this marriage as temporary. Mike doesn’t.
My face burns at this realization, and I look around. I see other tourists with cameras, peering through the cyclone fence, sitting on park benches under gray skies staring at the wreckage, chatting. No one is looking at me; no one sees a woman going to pieces.
I let the tile drop back onto the rubble, as if evidence I want to hide. As I walk away, I look back at the crumbling wall with the pile of blue glass amassed at its base like sand in an hourglass.
Five days pass. My husband has become addicted to cricket. I finish The Sheltering Sky; it ends with Port dying. Only nearing his deathbed do he and his wife briefly reconnect.
This can’t happen to us.
After too much New Zealand wine, I grab a piece of paper and ask my husband to recall his top ten memories from our marriage, and I do the same. The list surprises me: nine of our favorite memories are identical, and they all occur outside, in nature. Not one occurred inside our home.
Perhaps we do share a currency.
Walking Christchurch, my heart opens and I want to ease the suffering of the man who can’t walk with me, but it shuts tight when I am back inside, when I close the door to our motel room on the edge of a disaster zone, and, later, when we’re back at home. And when I do the work that has been women’s work for generations: preparing food, straightening the wrinkles from the bed, placing a cool washcloth on his brow. Am I feeling the collective anger of womanhood or the limits of marriage between a man and a woman? That seems like a stretch, and it’s unfair to cast my husband as a man who reinforces gender roles: he broke his ankle, ending his vacation, too, while he was doing our breakfast dishes. There was no negotiation; I didn’t even see him go, just heard when he crashed to the ground and our plates and cups shattered.
And he married a lesbian, even though he knew who I was.
He tells me from his sickbed that he’s disappointed we didn’t get to stargaze in the Southern hemisphere.
I find a wheelchair and push him out under the moon. I don’t know why it makes a difference, but it does.