With regard to Isabel’s marital commitment, the third time was the charm.

She wasn’t serious the first time, and Jack understood. They were in love: yes. They wanted to live together: absolutely. But it was 1972, and Berkeley; neither they nor their friends took the institution seriously.

Jack proposed to her one Saturday morning, after a good night’s sleep in his waterbed. They’d had excellent sex immediately before the good sleep. He clambered out of the sandbox-style bed and strode naked to his chest-of-drawers. He had a ring in there. Then he walked to Isabel, slid under the covers next to her, and asked her to marry him.

She said yes, but with conditions. There would be no emotional entanglements. Or financial ones. Jack didn’t understand. Isabel explained that there had to be a way out for her, with honor. If it didn’t work, she’d want to be able to break up without one of them going toxically needy, or wielding economic threats over the other. In other words, she agreed to love him and live with him; she just couldn’t commit to forever.

They married and had a few good years. They enjoyed setting up their apartment and starting real jobs. They bought a house in south Berkeley and spent off-hours painting, refinishing, furnishing and gardening. They were young and active, with long futures ahead. They didn’t plan to get pregnant after three years but they went along with it, and soon welcomed a perfect daughter into their lives.

They didn’t hit the skids till the baby was eighteen months old.

The way Isabel explained it afterward sounded weird. She said she freaked out because suddenly she felt trapped. She’s a very disclosive person, and she says that’s because (1) by talking about herself, she encourages others to talk and (2) by telling about herself, she eliminates the possibility that anyone can ever blackmail her. Well it occurred to her, when her adorable daughter was a bit over a year in age, that anyone could get control over Isabel by threatening little Addy. All of a sudden her protection fell away. She no longer felt able to leave the marriage.

Besieged by an unfamiliar combination of anxiety and depression, Isabel started meeting a girl friend in a local bar after work. Jack didn’t mind feeding Addy and doing the early evening care. It was fine with him when Isabel met Nan for a couple.

The bar was coed. Flirting occurred. Isabel felt herself blossom like she hadn’t for a long time. She found the experience irresistible.

She didn’t want to cheat on Jack. He was her closest friend. So she talked to him about her socializing.

When she tells the next part to people, most deem Jack to be a wuss, a henpecked Milquetoast of a guy. Isabel defends him. She would never describe him as alpha, but he was all-male and vigorous when young, and he was passionate about Isabel and about an enduring marriage, and the times (the late 70s) permitted more nontraditional sex than these days.

Jack said he understood. He stated that of course he wished Isabel were content at home, but he wanted her to be happy, and if it took talking to guys in bars to accomplish that, well, so be it. Even after she commented that talk might lead to activities, Jack allowed. But he set conditions: no one he knew; and never at home.

After that marital conversation, Isabel stepped out. Nan was her confidant. Nan was not surprised about the sex, but was about the rules. For Isabel had a few of her own. She wouldn’t flirt with single men. She figured she had a spouse and she wanted a fair playing field so her paramour needed one too. Better if he was a parent like her. And there was no way she’d do just one lover. That would make the guy too significant, too much of a threat (in her mind) to Jack’s preeminence.

Jack didn’t develop rules governing his own behavior. He intended to engage in the new marital arrangement even though it hadn’t been his idea. After all, he and Isabel agreed that each would be the absolute primary to the other, and that any dalliance would be superficial. And as Isabel opined, anything that made them individually happier was bound to increase the quality in their relationship. Jack didn’t see it that way – he always thought the pair of them was more significant than either individual – but he also didn’t have a counter-argument. He liked women, he liked sex, he figured he’d get around to exercising his extramarital rights, but he kept coming home from work as soon as possible. He seemed to have hay fever symptoms all spring and summer, and was bothered by hemorrhoid pain during the sedentary months, so he rarely felt well enough to get together with his old buddies. His plans for adultery just never shaped up.

Meanwhile, Isabel had mixed experiences. She frolicked more lightly and promiscuously than she had as a college student. That was often stimulating and sometimes fun. Over time she developed close relationships with two different men, both older than she, both better at drinking than she. They were married, of course, and that meant logistics were a challenge. No one felt comfortable paying for a room as often as would be necessary. Favors were asked of selected friends, and sometimes cars or parks were used in ways for which they probably weren’t designed. So there was a tawdry aspect to the activities that she never enjoyed.

But that’s not what compelled her to return to marital fidelity. Isabel noticed that her two significant other relationships were affecting her. She was receiving impressions and ideas that were contributing to her personal development. Then she wanted to describe some of the effects to her best friend. Jack. But she couldn’t. It was like the old story about the priest who violates Sabbath law by golfing on a Sunday, and then can’t tell anyone about the hole-in-one he scored. This was a penetrating glimpse into the obvious: one of several occasions in Isabel’s experience when she got hit on the head with a clear truth which had evaded her otherwise-functional intelligence.

She re-upped with Jack. She initiated a serious talk one spring evening and told him what she’d learned outside their home. She said she didn’t want to have significant heterosexual experiences with anyone other than him. Their reconciliation was more powerful than either anticipated.

They decided to seal the deal with another baby. This time they’d plan the pregnancy and enjoy it from the beginning.

Their enjoyment was unequal.

Isabel’s was about her personal fertility. Proud at how quickly she conceived, glorying in how strong and well she felt, she had good days during the gestation. Her hair was glossy, her nails were strong, she never felt ill, and she usually felt up to the project, then and later, of blending family, job, and art. She was fond of everyone around her.

Jack’s satisfaction was broader. He reveled in expanding their family. He focused his efforts on keeping her and Addy happy. He surrendered himself.

Isabel found that boring. Jack insisted that what they had was as good as it got, daring her to look around and compare, and she’d agreed with him when they recommitted, but she was finding it hard to reach the old Jack, if he was still in there under the uxorious indulgent parent. She missed him and she felt like the only adult in the house.

She didn’t intend to have another affair. She still had her reasons for refraining. But midway through the pregnancy she developed a friendship with a client, and when Max was six months old Isabel strayed again.

It was Bill’s idea. Not that Isabel ever tried to excuse her behavior by blaming him, but it was the only time in her life when she felt seduced. Bill was a client with interesting questions. Answering him led to conversations, which produced a lunch appointment, which both found stimulating enough to repeat. After that Bill proposed a regular lunch date. He told Isabel he didn’t make friends easily – his wife and his college roommate were the last he’d acquired – but it felt like they might be developing a friendship. Isabel was charmed. And after nearly a year of monthly lunches, Bill suggested they add what would now be called “benefits” to their relationship. He was logically persuasive on the subject, but what sold Isabel was the power of his passion. He was ten years older than she and a successful lawyer. He seemed like such a grownup to her, compared to Jack at home. And he really wanted her. She consented.

Their sex-as-friends experiment failed. Bill surprised her and fell in love. She felt dazzled by his ardor, and returned it. Within two months they made plans to leave their spouses. They even timed the announcements so they were having the hard talk on the same evening.

Isabel told Jack she wanted a divorce. That didn’t come as a total surprise to him. It wasn’t like she’d been acting happy. She frequently complained that there wasn’t any “there, there,” with reference to Jack. She said he always tried to guess what she wanted, instead of openly stating his own desire so they could discuss the subject. She accused him of looking for some manual to follow with regard to pleasing her. He always countered by objecting to her objections. He said she wouldn’t be happy no matter what. All his own happiness lacked was hers. He wished she’d just settle down and be content.

Jack wasn’t surprised about the divorce announcement, but he was stunned at the abruptness. Isabel refused to go for couples counseling. She told him her mind was made up and there would no point. Jack warned her that if she persisted, she’d get what she wanted, but there’d never be any going back. He gave her a couple of days to reconsider.

She didn’t think she needed the days. She was wrong about that. Bill surprised her again. He reneged.

Isabel never really knew why. Bill made statements about Barbara’s anger and her financial threats. He looked at Isabel across that last lunch table with an expression that was probably chagrin. He advocated that they continue but as something other than they had figured they’d be, and neither of them believed those words. His firm remained a client of Isabel’s for several years, but he passed the contact on to his junior partner, and Bill and Isabel never engaged in genuine communication again.

She recommitted to Jack and their home, for good. Although she and Bill had agreed that they had to get out of their first marriages even if their own relationship didn’t work out, she returned to the marital fold with a sense of relief. Her life was less exciting. Her life was less confusing. But when she felt ill or insecure or sad, she was grateful not to be alone.

Eventually Jack and Isabel worked out their deal. It seems that all couples do, if they agree to stay together. Isabel suffered spates of frustration and boredom, living with a passive/aggressive spouse, and the kids experienced far too many occasions when their parents bickered and sniped and even yelled at one another, but by the time the children were through early adolescence and Isabel was done with the hot flashes, she had settled into an enduring marriage. She couldn’t imagine life without Jack.

Looking back from the vantage of fifty, still in the first house they bought but now empty of offspring, Isabel spent an afternoon wondering what if? How would it have been if she and Bill had married fifteen years back?

Of course there’s no way to know. If one’s future self is a stranger to one’s brain, then the alternate self, the one based on the experiences that didn’t happen, must be a thorough alien. But Isabel has her suspicions. She’s pretty sure that Jack is a better person for the marriage and she’s a worse one.

Jack is a hippie. When pressed about what he wants to do with his time, he always says smoke dope and dance in the sun. That’s basically true, but not precisely. Jack can be careless that way. It’s like his characterization of his maleness; he told Isabel that when he sees a woman he wonders what it would be like to fuck her and when he sees a guy he wonders if he could beat him up. Isabel’s brother characterizes the male libido differently; he says it’s like he’s prancing around women, semi-erect, nagging “Now? Now? Can I?” Based on her knowledge of Jack, Isabel thinks he’s more like her brother than like his own self-description.

So Jack is more productive than his dope&sun line, but he’s not an ambitious man. He never was driven. He lacks motivation. He performed adequately in his engineering job but he wasn’t stellar. And he got tired of the travel.

When Jack was forty his father died, and five years later his mother did too. Jack and his sister split a comfortable inheritance. Isabel is pretty sure Jack would have retired then, if they weren’t together. He probably would have found another wife to try to keep happy. It is unlikely that he would have accomplished much, seen his children a lot, or traveled for pleasure.

She thinks Jack is a better father because they remained together. He’s more available than he would have been as a divorced dad, and Isabel doubts he would have made all the camping and fishing trips without his family.

She’s almost sure she wasn’t better off in her chosen lot. She always meant to write, and somehow never found the regular time. She kept trying to modulate her personality – to yell less, to experience fewer bouts of frustration – but no matter what she tried, she had the family reputation for being difficult, demanding, shrewish. Maybe that situation increased her writing reluctance, for she came to despise the role she occupied at home.

Isabel is fairly sure the marriage has been good for Jack and not so much for her. She can’t tell about the kids, though. Addy married, happily as far as Isabel can tell, and has two children, and seems to be enjoying herself. Max is single and in therapy. He says he has issues with the father-son relationship. He doesn’t want children.

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