"Just A Wife-Shaped Person In His Life"

Em Unravelling

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Last weekend my husband and I were watching Seven because well, what can I tell you — we’ve run through every single half-decent film on the streaming services now and we’re basically scraping the barrel, dead-eyed, hunting every weekend for new things to put in front of our locked-down eyes.

I was marveling at the way the whole film is made apparently with Instagram’s “Crema” filter — muted caramel browns and beiges and creams, even when there's a murder scene and blood is everywhere. “Do you remember when all films seemed to be made with this color palette?” I mused. “It seemed really classy in the nineties, didn’t it? Now it just looks like, well, an old film. But a classic, I guess. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it.”

My husband looked askance. “But you have seen it! We went to the cinema to see it together!” I said no, that could not have happened, because in the year that Seven was released we were both dating other people and we would not meet each other for another six years. (Also, I gleefully reminded him, I would have been far too young to meet the film’s age certification). “Ah,” he agreed. “Of course. I went with Rebecca.”

Rebecca is the woman my husband would have married if they hadn’t had an on-again-off-again relationship in their early twenties and if I had not unwittingly inserted myself into one of the “off-again” gaps. But I did, and when she popped back up (a carefully-worded birthday email that he showed me with genuine bafflement), I headed her off at the pass without difficulty and won my spousal prize. It was a long time ago.

I have joked many times about the way my husband locked his life to mine when we fell in love: like we were a pair of Sticklebricks, or as though we had formed a Bluetooth connection. “That’s my wife, that one, there,” said the switch in his head, “and I will love her for the rest of my life and my eye will never stray. Wife box? Ticked.”

I am definitely special to him, of course. We are kind to each other. But what if I’m only special because I fill the Wife section of his mental concertina file? What if the glow of special-ness would surround anyone in that part of his head? This troubles me. I look at his profile in the half-dark sometimes, and it’s as familiar as my own. But there are parts of his head that I still don’t understand. Why did he backfill the Seven cinema seat with me?

I said, “Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t split up with Rebecca?” My husband said, well, no, because he did split up with her, and then he met and fell in love with me. This answer did not satisfy me, though, and I would not let the chain of questioning go. (He had to press pause on Seven). I said “But what if Rebecca had stayed in the “my woman” box? I bet you had a pretty good Bluetooth/Sticklebrick connection with her as well, back in the day.”

Then with an additional pang, I remembered the other women he had dated during the time a few years ago when we were not together because I had broken the Bluetooth connection by cheating on him and I had moved out of our house. What if things had gone differently and one of them had looked the right sort of shape to be fitted into the Wife box? They might still be together today.

What if it’s all about nothing more than being in the right place at the right time? What if we never were love’s young dream and there was nothing particularly special about me at all?

He said all the right things. That he’d never met anyone like me (statistically unlikely. There were several people exactly like me just in my university seminar groups, so I imagine similar in his). That I make him laugh every day (this is true, but there are a lot of clumsy people around who also fall over their own feet, so I’m not unique). That we have fun together (sure, yes. But “fun” is the very definition of something that exists on many levels, isn’t it?).

He said that it was very hard work repairing the marriage after I broke it, and the fact that he did so, that he put the work in, is a testament to how much he loves me (and yes he is right that it was hard work, but also my name was already on the mortgage and house deeds and such. How much harder would it have been with a new person and her unknown credit history? Riddle me that).

Then he sighed deeply and said the wrong thing. “You know, I expect you’re right, darling,” he said. “You could be anyone. You simply happen to fall within a bell curve. Can Brad Pitt start asking Kevin Spacey what’s in the box now?”

That’s what I wanted to hear. I was cheerfully satisfied with his response and immediately happy to resume the brown-and-beige film. He’d given exactly the sort of reply, the half-sighed but resignedly good-humored riposte, that I needed to hear to prove how well he really does know me and that I’m not just anyone.

“Rebecca would never have spoiled a film with this inane sort of quasi-soul-searching,” is what I could clearly see that he thought at that moment but — crucially — did not say. “I can’t imagine, now, a life where films go quietly uninterrupted and I’m never woken at 6 am for a deep-dive into my motivation for a dismissive comment I made in 2011. Em is entirely irreplaceable in that regard, and for this and so many other thoroughly irritating quirks, I recognize her as the right person to remain my wife.”

Phew. To be special in some way was all I was looking for. I never said it had to be a good way.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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