It is a perfect summer afternoon, warm and dry with a slight, intermittent breeze. I am walking a wooded trail, my left hand in Dan’s right, his other hand held by a young woman named Jillian who gently leads him with a confident stride. Far ahead of us, ten year-old Ethan bounds with the most skilled hikers in our group. More than sixty others are walking, most of them teenagers, students in the high school summer program where Dan teaches each July.
Our guide through these woods has suggested we walk this stretch without talking, leading us in a communal gesture of lowering an invisible tent over ourselves, a veil of silence. The effect is powerful. I can hear wind in the latticework of leaves overhead, small branches crunching under our sneakers, birds calling to one another with their various songs in code. I believe I can even hear our collective concentration as we work our way over jutting rocks and steep inclines.
I’m proud of Ethan, not only for his physical confidence and ability, but for the ease with which he’s merged himself into this group of much older kids. And I feel proud of the trio I make up with Jillian and Dan too. During the school year, Jillian teaches the Deaf. Now she is leading a blind man, somehow cautioning him about drops and sudden turns without the luxury of words. He in turn leads me; well aware of how my cerebral palsy affects my balance, he instinctively knows just when I need a firmer grasp or an arm around my waist to get over a particular piece of terrain.
Only a week before, Dan and I practiced a very different kind of silence. I suggested we not contact each other for a few days. This was a first for us. Though we still live in separate cities, we’ve talked at length every night for two years. We don’t do this out of some strict idea of couple-hood or any sense of obligation. We cherish these conversations that are rich with ideas and shared insights and warm with humor and affection. They add a rhythm and symmetry to our days that we’ve come to count on.
Only once in awhile, we hit a snag, always the same snag. And this time, after two days of trying to slog our way through it, I finally said, “I need to stop and catch my breath.”
Ethan stayed with his dad over the weekend so I was free to spend the first evening of my hiatus with friends. Eileen, Julia and I talked a lot and went out for really good food after a really bad movie.
“This girls’ night out is exactly what I need,” I told them.
Afterwards, I slept at Julia’s house. We watched a benefit concert on television, spoke in low tones in the dark, and gorged on blueberry pancakes the next morning. In the afternoon, I went for a drive with another good friend. Wendy and I found a small riverside town and sat by the water exchanging wild stories from our youths.
“You and Dan will be fine,” she assured me when she saw a far-off look in my eyes.
When I got home, I had a phone date with Val, who lives 3,000 miles away but made me feel as though I was sitting at her kitchen counter commiserating over how thorny relationships can be.
That week, Ethan and I devoted our evenings to the long overdue project of cleaning his room. I held trash bags open while he filled them with outgrown action figures and palm sized cars, stopping periodically to exclaim, “I remember this!” and reminisce about the games he used to invent when he was younger. After he went to bed, I filled the time I usually spent immersed in conversation with Dan reading a thick novel and watching Sex and the City reruns. There were moments I saw myself as grounded and clear, but just below the surface I felt the way I imagine a runaway must: worried, disoriented, and often on the brink of tears. Still, I believed this time off was good for me. I knew I needed some distance, but it wasn’t until after Dan and I started speaking again that I could begin to articulate why.
I’d had a hard marriage, so it wasn’t unfamiliar to me to struggle with a partner. But with my ex-husband, I had learned early not to expect my point of view to be understood. He might as well have spoken a different language when I tried to explain my feelings. I simply grew used to the fact that Richard didn’t get me.
Things are different with Dan. He listens deeply when I talk and I feel heard and understood. Because of this, when we’re at odds, I’m nonplused. Our arguments become circular and relentless. He suddenly seems like any other obstinate guy and I feel literally abandoned because my very best friend is out of reach.
As much as I missed Dan in those days we weren’t speaking, it took that time apart for me to recognize the fact that I miss him most when we’re caught up in a fight. It felt like an important discovery, an answer to why my emotions get so amplified when we disagree.
After a somewhat bumpy first conversation, we fell back into the rich long talks we love. We’re even doing well discussing our snags. It’s not an easy task, merging two fully formed lives. We’re trying to figure out how to stretch each other without pushing too hard; how to have the closest relationship we can in which neither of us loses our self. Until now, I’d never had a partner who thinks about these things as much as I do. It’s a gift but it’s exhausting.
Dan grips my hand tightly to help me over some brambles. Earlier, the two of us rocked in a hammock, his head fitted perfectly against my shoulder. It was a luscious moment, easy and blissful. Ah love, I thought. But this challenging hike feels like love too. It’s hard work to discover the places that are likely to make the other stumble, to know when to offer extra steadiness and support, and when to try and make it on our own.
I look up at Jillian as she silently leads us. Her comforting presence reminds me of my wonderful friends. How much harder it would be for Dan and me if we had to walk this difficult ground on our own.