It’s a few seconds before Jes replies. “I don’t think that’s true,” she says.
We’re walking together, the two of us, along the back of a suite of fancy office buildings not far from our apartment. It’s mostly parking lots and service drives over here, not a particularly nice view. But to the left, the afternoon sun has flicked our shadows out long and crisp across a trimmed apron of grass, and ahead of us, Toph is zigzagging at the end of her leash, nose all but dragging against the pavement, docked tail twitching.
“I guess,” I say defensively, my pride flaring up, “I guess the word that keeps coming to mind is ‘sacred.’ Holy. Holy of Holies.” I’m not making sense. I keep trying. “Like, the closer you get to a person—the more you know them—the more you realize that maybe you don’t. Not completely, I mean.”
I’ve been trying to clarify the idea for a while now and doing a poor job of it. Just as well, I suppose, since now I’ve trotted out an incoherent comparison to the divine in order to explain to my wife why I’ve been struggling to write about her.
To her credit, Jes just listens. She’s smiling a little, sure, but she’s patient; she makes space for my rambling. Dressed in sandals and a YMCA t-shirt, she’s dividing her attention between me and the dog, who already lunged once for a pile of goose poop and is on the lookout for more. When I peter off, feeling vaguely embarrassed, she catches a loop of the leash in her hand and hauls back.
“But is that really what it feels like to you?” she says. “Really?” Her grin widens, and she pushes her glasses up with the tips of her fingers.
“At this point in my life,” Jes continues, “I’d say you know me better than just about anyone. Wouldn’t you?”
And like that, she lightly retires the point and shifts the conversation back to the project at hand—the actual reason we’re on this walk: to brainstorm an opening for an essay about her.
Jes is right, of course. After more than four years of marriage and almost five of dating, I know her better than anyone else on the planet. I know her sense of humor. I know her favorite TV shows. I know which side she likes to sleep on (her right side). I know what she likes for an after-dinner snack (chocolate with a spoonful of peanut butter). Mornings, I know that she’ll sniff her deodorant once before applying it, and I know that no matter how many times you ask her, she won’t be able to explain why. I know that she’s afraid of public speaking, but that she’s also brave, which is why she’s been going out of her way to find opportunities to improve.
I know, too, that conversations like the one above are exactly the sort of thing that drive her bonkers. Relentlessly practical, Jes has little patience for the kind of thinking that fascinates me—the kind of thinking where one idea inevitably contains or becomes its opposite. Where, for instance, the familiarity of a person you love might also and at the same time involve an intractable distance.
Honestly, it’s because of that practical streak that after hours spent in fits and starts, I finally, shamelessly asked Jes to help me write about her. She has a way of making problems that have ballooned all out of proportion in my head seem freshly and reassuringly manageable.
And yet for all that, I’m still not sure I want to concede to her that point. Yes, I can make a litany of what “I know.” Yes, I can trot out all the fascinating and banal little things I’ve learned about my wife in our near-decade together. Assemble them into an essay. Publish it online for family, friends, and people I don’t know. And if marriage hadn’t thrown us so closely together, I might even fool myself into mistaking the portrait for its model.
But that’s the weird thing about marriage. It’s the closeness of it—the sometimes uncomfortable proximity it involves—that reminds me, or should remind me, of the false equivalence between what I’ve learned and what is. Between the Jes I think I know and that other Jes, the inexhaustible Jes, the one who slips briefly into view whenever she offers an unexpected comment, a laugh out of place, a sideways glance.
A gently teasing grin.
Maybe sacred is the right word.
Still walking, the two of us have allowed the conversation to drift. Toph is crunching on something—a stick, I think, but I won’t look too closely. Meanwhile, Jes is describing plans for the end of the week. The two of us are going to start playing one of those legacy boardgames—a 200-plus-hour monstrosity that evolves as you go—and we’ve decided to make a celebration of it. Drinks. Food. Music.
“And why shouldn’t we?” Jes says, scooping her hair back with a hand. “It’s going to be a long time before we finish it. Assuming we’re both still around then.”
She laughs, then pauses. “Hey,” she says, cocking her head at me. “That might not be a bad place to end your post.”
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.