When people want to know the inspiration for my novel, Ten Thousand Saints
, the answer is easy: my husband. Without Aaron, I wouldn't have been exposed to the straight-edge subculture that is the backdrop of the book, the teenage boys who populated the Lower East Side of New York in the late 1980s with the most paradoxical of purposes: to play hardcore music and to Just Say No. It's not about
him, I'm quick to add, but it's about his haircuts, his record collection, the St. Mark's Place he grew up on.
The next question is inevitable: "So what does he think of it?"
For the first few years I was working on the book, the truth was easy enough. He was enthusiastic, supportive, helpful ? but the actual words, on the actual page? "He hasn't read it," I'd admit. I might explain that I was waiting to complete another draft, implying that I was the gatekeeper, unwilling to share anything unfinished. This was, to some extent, true.
As time went on, though ? year four, five, six ? it became more challenging to recreate the logistical scenario that must exist in order for this statement ? "He hasn't read it" ? to fly. If Aaron was present for the conversation, I might direct a loving dart across the table: "Yet." Our tablemates might chuckle, as though they recognized this little piece of husbandly procrastination, like putting off booking a plane ticket or cleaning the litter box. But behind our friends' laughter was confusion and pity. How could he not have read it? Is he just really, really busy?
My reasons for wanting Aaron to read the manuscript were, in part, practical. What if it contained some glaring anachronism ? some shop on St. Mark's that didn't open until, say, 1990? He would be my best fact-checker.
My reasons were, of course, also personal. I wanted to share with my husband this project that was consuming so much of my life. And I hoped it was something that would bring us closer. It wasn't a multigenerational novel about women quilters or something. It was about punks! This was the book for him!
Still, draft after draft, the manuscript went unread. Instead of bringing us closer, this book I was writing from the material of his world seemed to be keeping us apart. It was the elephant in our house, printed a number of times on a whole ream of printer paper, left on the coffee table, on his desk, growing dusty in his email inbox.
And at dinner party after dinner party, friends and strangers asked the same question: "He hasn't read it? Why not?"
The question was most difficult to answer when posed by writer friends, especially those pesky writer friends who are married to each other, the kind of writers who share each sentence the instant it's committed to the page. The look on these friends' faces suggested that reading your spouse's novel draft was practically a contractual obligation, in sickness and in health.
Of course, on some bitter, subterranean level, I was jealous of those writer-spouses. Of the Chabon-Waldmans, the Eggers-Vidas, the Foer-Krausses, whose lives appear, at least from this side of the book aisle, to be in glamorous harmony. When they lay down their heads at night, they dream in Times New Roman.
Aaron is not a writer. He is not a reader. And it's not just fiction. He doesn't even like reading recipes. He doesn't even like writing a shopping list. Instead of using a pen and paper, he texts himself our groceries.
And this is just one of many items on the long list of our differences. He's a Republican; I'm a Democrat. He's a Catholic; I'm agnostic. Smoker; non. GED; MFA. He is sharp-witted, talented, curious, with passions as strong as anyone's, but they have never equated to a career that he loves, or much of a career at all, while I've known since well before I met him, at 17 in a record store, that I wanted to be a writer.
"He hasn't read it? Why not?"
"Have three hours?" I wanted to answer. "Have a seat."
For months at a time, I put the novel away and, with it, any hope that he might read it. I numbed myself to the possibility. Once or twice, during our fights, Aaron would say, "Stop being a writer for five minutes."
A writer. Analytical but dreamy, broodingly independent, prone to conceive of our lives as a grand narrative.
"Why don't you read my writing?" I finally asked him one night, during one of those fights. We were curled up on the couch. We must have been talking, and arguing, for hours by this point; it had grown dark, and neither of us had turned on the light.
Aaron sighed. "Remember that story you wrote? The one with the couple at the doctor's office? Where the girl thinks the guy's having an affair and she resents him and thinks he's a big fat jerk?"
"That's not how it went," I told him. I'd written it when I was 19 ? my first published story. So a few details were from our life. That guy wasn't Aaron! Aaron wasn't having an affair! That story was funny! It had a happy ending!
"Well, it hurt me," he said.
"Because I thought that's how you felt about me."
Of course. Aaron feared the reflection of himself he would see in my book. It began to make sense why my stories I'd left for him in the bathroom, in dog-eared quarterly journals, went unread, or at least unacknowledged. I began to see my writing as the narrator does in Alice Munro's story "Family Furnishings," after she realizes that a story she's published has angered the aunt from whose life she borrowed it ? "as an ever-increasing roll of words like barbed wire, intricate, bewildering, uncomforting." The story I'd written had, in fact, made my parents uncomfortable, too, Aaron told me. He'd talked about it with them, but hadn't felt he could talk about it with me.
Now that he had, it was a strange relief. I told him I was sorry. I hadn't meant to hurt him. Or scare him.
Eight years after I'd begun writing it, I sold my novel. Aaron and I danced in the living room. "If you want to read it before it's in print," I told him, "you'd better do it now."
So, two days before my revision was due to my editor, Aaron took the manuscript to the local coffee shop. He read most of it in one sitting. The second day, we went to the coffee shop together. I ordered my pot of black currant tea and he ordered his quad espresso, and there he read the last hundred pages of the book, handing each page across the table for me to edit.
He did correct a few details. This kid wouldn't need a fake ID to buy beer. These two bands wouldn't play a show together.
Then, when he finished, he said, "I like it."
I sipped my tea. He liked it? That was all?
"Are you freaked out?" I asked him.
The novel wasn't about him ? he saw that now. Instead, what had freaked him out, for example, was the scene in which a teenage girl, stumbling into an apartment of half-dressed boys, "had never felt so full of desire and so undesirable." Aaron wanted to know if that's the way I'd felt the time a band had crashed at our apartment.
"Uh, no." It was true: They weren't that cute. But that was beside the point. The experience was certainly drawn from our life; the emotions were what I imagined. And that act of imagination, I realized, was the problem. What made Aaron uneasy about reading my novel wasn't just what it would reveal about him, but what it would reveal about me.
Every time I retreated into a room of my own, I was imagining my way into a world that wasn't his, with people who weren't him, weren't us. Maybe it would have been better after all if all the characters in my book were Aaron, me and Aaron, the only lovers on the planet. How could he not worry about the bedrooms I was building in my head?
All novels, even the G-rated ones, are an expression of a desire. "Yearning is always part of fictional character," says the novelist Robert Olen Butler. "We are the yearning creatures of this planet." And, of course, each character's yearning is invented by a yearning writer, yearning to live someone else's life for a few pages. That act of invention doesn't necessarily reflect a dissatisfaction with the condition of one's life ? or with one's spouse ? but with the condition of mortality.
Still, maybe this, more than all our differences on paper, is what makes us most different ? the nature, the direction, of our yearning. Maybe anyone married to a writer, who's not a writer himself, feels that any yearning toward the page is a yearning away from him, a small act of betrayal.
In the coffee shop, I reassured him the best I could. "It's fiction," I reminded him. "And it's dedicated to you."
"I really like it," he said. And that was okay with me. If he'd thrown himself on the ground and declared his love of literature then and there, would I have believed him? "I like it" was honest, and enough. Even better was what he's said to me nearly every day that the book has made its way into the world: "I'm so proud of you."
"I want to write an essay about us," I told him. "About you reading my book."
"You should," he said. "Go for it."
Is it a shame that there are things I can say only to my computer, in Times New Roman, and not to him, face to face?
Probably. But eventually, I'll print it out and hand it over. Eventually, he'll read it. We'll sit under the romantic lights of the coffee shop, and as I sip my tea and he his espresso, I only hope he'll smile, and say, "I like it."