Bill and I have been going on about life, and it’s been good. The same house for the last nine years, the same university jobs, slow increases in salary and in the quality of our cars, and slow decreases in our personal exterior beauty. Yes, we have our small dramas, emotional ebbs and flows, but we’re stable. Recently, I’ve been coming to grips with the idea that we’re aging, that now is a season for internal growth, adventures are for the young . . . and that this is okay because we’re happy, evolving, and growing deeper . . .
Then, six weeks ago, the President of Madagascar asked Bill to come and act as his Special Advisor.
“Are you shitting me?” I said, when he came downstairs from his office to tell me about the email. And then we laughed, because it sounded like one of those spam things . . . ten million dollars sitting in a bank account that only we could claim . . . except the email was from an ex-student of Bill’s, who had gone back to Madagascar and become, as it turns out, the President’s Chief of Staff. The offer was real.
“As long as it’s not one of those Last King of Scotland things, where you stupidly go advise a dictator and end up almost dead,” I said. But it wasn’t that, either. A legitimate offer from a sincere, democratically elected president deeply concerned about poverty and the environment.
Madagascar. I had to remind myself where it was. (It’s that huge island off the east coast of Mozambique, a mélange of African and Indonesian culture, where lemurs and the world’s best vanilla come from.) What a bizarre turn for all of us in an already fascinating life! And though Bill’s combination of leadership experience, consulting, teaching, and passion for hardscrabble world travel makes him the perfect candidate for this kind of work, it’s still a highly unlikely trajectory — from rock ‘n’ roll roadie in the Haight Ashbury in the ’60s to hangin’ in the palace of the president of a mid-sized nation in the 21st century.
On the other hand . . . life is filled with surprises. Why not this one? As I write this, Bill is flying home (Business Class, of course) from a whirlwind tour of Madagascar checking out the country, the President, and the job.
He’s stoked. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the most important work of my life!” he gushed to me over Skype from his hotel room in Antananarivo, the capital city. “Environmental issues. Leadership issues. Communication issues. Women’s equality issues.” Issues Bill has focused on his entire career. Then a moment later he back-pedaled, “Well, nothing’s decided. I have a lot of thinking to do.”
Yeah, right, I thought. Sounds to me like the thoughts have been thought, it’s just details now.
So anyway, he’s flying home, nothing is signed yet, it could still fall through, but even if it does, I’m so proud of him.
I met Bill when he was a hippie communications teacher at a state university, with the ugliest leftover ’70s clothing I’d ever seen, a shag haircut and (help me!) a bushy beard. Once he shaved he was very handsome. But he didn’t shave until our second date. It’s a miracle we even got there; it was something about the flash in his eyes.
I was eleven and a half years younger and deeply “cool,” an art student who did nude performance pieces in class (not his class!). For my Senior Project for my B.A. (in Interdisciplinary Studies in Creative Arts) I sang torch songs as the “fahbulous international celebrity LaRah Berlin,” then stripped down to lingerie and smashed raw eggs on my body while my taped voice ironically chanted “Art is Masturbation.” Hey, it was the eighties. For this, I was awarded the department’s Distinguished Graduate Award. Bill directed that Senior Project; it was our first of many collaborations.
When I met the President of Madagascar’s soon-to-be Special Advisor (“Hey, nothing’s settled yet!” Bill shouts from somewhere between Paris and New York), he was so broke from his divorce that, on our third date, and again on our fifth date, his battered old Toyota ran out of gas because the gas gauge didn’t register. By then we were already practically living together. I moved in with him officially with one condition — that we get rid of his trashed furniture forever. And we’ve been together ever since.
The questions have already begun. The gentle ones: “So, will you be moving to Madagascar, too?”
“Um, no. I’ll go sometimes — if he does this, it’s not settled! — for part of the time, but I have a job too, you know. And Annie’s still in high school, though she might go for her Junior Year Abroad.”
“Of course, of course,” they say.
But then they say, “How will that be for you,” though they’re thinking really loudly: “Your husband will be gone for eight months a year for the next couple of years and you’re not freaking out? What about your marriage? You’ll be a single mother! What about the daily hassles? What about . . . SEX?”
I could be offended, but I’m not. These questions aren’t really about Bill and me. They’re more about the questioners wondering how a divided life like this would affect their own relationships.
I honestly believe that it will be fine. We’ll be like one of those hip, bi-coastal couples. I’ll be on the West Coast, and he’ll be off the East African Coast. It’s only the other side of the world, you know! And hey, it took the astronauts three days to travel to the moon. It takes only half that time to travel to Madagascar.
I’m being flippant. The truth is, it won’t be like being a single mom to a baby. Annie is deep in her teenage years now. She still requires a lot of care and chauffeuring, but she’s pretty self-reliant. Yes, I’ll miss him, sometimes terribly. Yes, there may be hard moments when he’s off in the field or the power is out, and something will happen where we’d like to reach him and we won’t be able to. But Bill and I are married life partners, and in a lifetime of togetherness, a couple of years of part-time marriage might even be reinvigorating.
“But what about . . . SEX?”
“Did you really just ask me that out loud? How very rude!”
We’ll be fine.
Part of my flippancy is the giddiness of possibility opening out in front of us. The delight that anything can happen in life, even something as seemingly random as this.
Of course it’s not random — Bill’s spent his life building up to this point — if you add up the pieces, it’s really not such a stretch. (Well, maybe the part where they suggested Annie fly to Madagascar next year in the presidential jet, with the President, as he returns from his conference at the United Nations, maybe that’s a stretch.)
But after a hard few years where our surprises were all sad ones, it’s thrilling to me, this sense that the improbable can happen. That a broke hippie speech teacher can grow up to advise a Head of State, that in my lifetime I get to smash eggs on my body in public, and teach at a business school and live a creative life and publish widely and hike through Nepal and mother a beautiful daughter and witness the beauty and sadness of our world and be married to such a dynamic and passionate man.
It’s a wonder.