I’m not sure how I ended up being the go-to person for marital advice. I’ve never been married. I’ve never had a boyfriend even. I didn’t even grow up in a two-parent family. Was it listening so much to all those harpies at the weekly Saturday night Bingo games that “educated” me? Was it watching too much TV growing up? Or was it just common sense?
I’m from the Midwest. My name is Jane Smith. You can’t get much plainer than that.
People often asked me why I never married. It just never happened. How does it “never” happen? I don’t know—it just didn’t. No, I didn’t meet guys. I also wasn’t looking. Everything else in my life just happened—why didn’t this?
I could never understand women, even though I’m one of them. They would carry on and carry on that they just had to be married, but once they were married, they couldn’t say a nice thing about their husbands. The husbands were stupid in every sense of the word.
So why did you marry them? I never directly asked them, but I sure thought about it. Why pledge yourself to someone you don’t even like? I didn’t understand that.
I did ask this question, once, at work. I was an adjunct professor at a local university. It was a satellite campus of Central Heights University. I was teaching English Composition. The others were teaching English Literature, math, and Spanish. It was an eclectic group, which made it more interesting than it sounded.
Between classes we adjuncts shared an office, with several desks and a handful of computers. It was cozy enough—most of us didn’t spend that much time there. With luck, our classes were back to back and we could come in time for class and leave immediately afterward. We were obligated to have “office hours” in case a student wanted to talk about their grade. But with the proliferation of computers and other ways to communicate, most things were handled electronically. Between classes we would gather in the office, maybe have a cup of coffee, and compare stories of who had the dumbest students.
There were five of us, three females and two males, just talking and somehow the topic turned to marriage and the reason “why bother.” Erin, the married woman, simply smiled at Michelle and me, both of us single. The two men were a different story. One was thrice divorced. I figured the topic and the audience was safe enough, so I broached the subject. “Why do women insist on getting married when the guy is too stupid to start with?”
The other man, Frank, slowly backed up his office chair. He was in his late 50s as far as we could tell—men don’t age the same way women do. He had graying hair and was balding, so it was a safe guess he was that old. He wasn’t going to get in the crossfire. He was very tightlipped about his private life. This was the first time any of us knew anything about Frank—like if he was married or not. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. But he did have the sense to back away from controversy. His wife taught him well, or his mother did. Who knows?
Erin’s smile was plastered across her face. She was in her very early 30s and had been married about 5 years. Their son just turned 2. She was the first to reply to my query. “Well, I can’t speak for others, but it works for us because we work opposite shifts and we never see each other.”
That was true—her husband worked a night shift at a local factory, she taught during the day. No need for child care this way.
John, the divorced man, began to drawl. “Weeeelllll, let me tell you.”
We women all smiled at each other—this was going to be good. With three failed marriages, we surely didn’t expect him to be a fount of advice. Or maybe he could be—he could tell us what doesn’t work.
And he did.
“The problem is women don’t want to be talked down to. They want to be talked to. That’s why I have so many female friends online in the chat rooms. They want a conversation with someone who isn’t going to judge them. They have ideas and want to converse with someone—anyone!”
That makes sense. It’s a basic human need, isn’t it? The need to be loved, the need to matter to someone.
But that still didn’t explain how I became the Miss Know-it-All-of-Marital-Advice to my married students. This was how I got all of my information—bull sessions at work. And television, of course. Because we all know how realistic that is.
Little did I know this little discussion would be the impetus for Frank to test my skills.
I’m not sure why I became a teacher. One of the few words of advice my mother gave me (few as in it had some merit, as opposed to other things she said) was to get that teaching license. I loved to play school when I was little and my sister, who was 10 years older and already in high school, was at home, but it wasn’t that often and she wasn’t the model student (because she was always talking to the “other students” in class while I was teaching. Mind you, there were only two of us in the room at the time.) When it was her turn to teach and my turn to be the student, she wouldn’t call on me. And people wonder why I have an inferiority complex?
I was teaching a few college courses during the day at Central Heights University. It was one of the top schools in the nation and I was at one of the satellite campuses out in the middle of nowhere, it seemed. Imagine watching The Wizard of Oz, when the characters all see the Emerald City in the distance, surrounded by the poppy field. This was that place, except substitute corn for poppies. But it was also the butt of more than a few jokes. Often referred to by its initials, CHU (pronounced Chew, or Choo), its mascot was a choo-choo, I mean train. Pity the poor engineering students … What type of engineer do you want to be? Are you majoring in Mechanical? Civil? Electrical? Diesel? Coal?
As far as jobs go, this was a good one. Few hours inside the classroom, but plenty outside of it grading the papers. I did enjoy it. I love the atmosphere of a college campus. There is nothing like it anywhere. It’s a real proving ground for young people, an incubator of maturity. On the plus side, it really improved my copy editing skills—I rented myself out during my own college years for the foreign students on campus. So consequently my poor CHU students didn’t stand a chance. But, damn, by the time I was done with them they were good writers.
Hmmmm. I was editing papers for foreign students … and I still am. I detect a trend. But I digress.
My first semester at CHU might have been the formative one for this trend. It was my first teaching job, as an adjunct professor of English composition (the requisite freshman writing class). There was a method to the madness which took me a while to pick up on, but it was a great introduction to teaching. I had two classes that semester, both 50 minutes long, which met three days a week. Just long enough to not freak me out and short enough where I didn’t have to try to entertain. That was the nice thing about teaching college—you didn’t have to entertain and when you were done with the lesson, they were free to go. A win-win.
There were two students in particular in that class, the names of whom I can’t remember, but one was Greek and one was Vietnamese. The former was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, but did live for several years in Greece. The other was an immigrant with the rest of his family. One of the text books we used had various readings in them, designed more to provoke thought in students and to be used for writing exercises. One day we got on the topic of “What makes a person happy?”
But Larry the Greek and Sam the Vietnamese (those are as good a names as any) became the impetus for this writing assignment I used in class one day. I think the reading had to deal with getting a good education to get a good job, the “be all and end all” of Western Civilization. Larry couldn’t quite grasp that concept, for in Greek culture, your goal in life was to get married and have a home and family of your own. Maybe a car. But these were the very basics of a happy life—not money or education.
I asked Sam to share with us what life was like in Vietnam. It was even simpler than the Greeks—they would work each day, long enough to earn the cost of their day’s food. When that happened (whether at 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. or 6 p.m.), they were done working for the day. They went back home, ate, and had fun—playing cards, singing, whatever. But it was a communal effort—there were always others there to be with.
So that became my spur-of-the-moment essay topic—each of the students had to write an essay to explain what it is they wanted in life that would make them happy, or make their life complete, or fulfill them. Whatever. But three pages, due Friday.
Too bad I didn’t accept my own challenge. Here it is, nearly 20 years later, and I still have no clue what would make me happy. The world is my oyster and I come up empty. I just know I’m not happy. What is the cause of it? What is the reason for it? I don’t know. Can I fix it? Probably—if I knew what needed to be fixed.
This must be why people are so dependent on friends—they help you sound things out and also offer hindsight or an objective (or subjective) opinion on what your problem is. I don’t have many friends, most certainly no confidants, but there are plenty of people who tell me what my problem is. And it isn’t my problem, but their problem I am being blamed for.
My life really wasn’t bad. Lonely, but I was used to that. Once my sister left home, almost immediately after graduating high school, she married and they moved to California. They were doing all right for themselves. But there was nothing here in Indiana for them, except family. They liked the idea that this was their homestead, their roots were Hoosier through and through. But they had a life to live and who could blame them? I was too young to really go anywhere—this is all I knew. Life was good. My mother and I had a roof over our heads, food on the table, a color TV, and Bingo on Saturdays. What more could a person ask for?
I don’t know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.
Marriage and children were never an option—I didn’t want them. Growing up without a father figure, or even a male figurehead—I just didn’t get why they were in charge. They were fascinating creatures but I never really had a desire to own one. And after a few years of living alone with my mother, I realized I was stuck. Not in Indiana, but with her. She was raised to be a housewife and mother, before the term “stay-at-home mother” entered the lexicon. Women were expected to stay at home, raise the kids, take care of the house. She had no skills and now she was just old enough to be excluded from the workforce.She could never support herself. It dawned on me, at the age of 13, it was up to me to take care of her.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t keep trying to marry me off to any of the single men who played Bingo on Saturdays—marriage is what was expected for women. In her mind we were a package deal—she’d pick him out, I’d marry him and give her grandchildren, and she’d live happily ever after.
With two failed marriages under her belt, I somehow didn’t trust her on this. The fact they were spending Saturday nights playing Bingo with a bunch of old women, most often their own mothers, wasn’t a selling point. Besides—she had grandchildren in California. She doesn’t call them or visit them, why on earth would she need more grandchildren?
“Well, they’re not from you.”
Is that supposed to make a difference?
After I graduated from high school, it eventually dawned on me that the topic of most Bingo conversations was about expected grandchildren. Teenage daughters were pregnant, oh woe is us—what shall we do?
“Get her an abortion,” my mother would say.
The women would laugh—isn’t she funny? Always kidding around. They would look at my stoic expression and ask me directly, “Is she this funny at home?”
“No,” I would reply dully. “And she’s not kidding.” And they would respond with more peals of laughter.
Times were changing. Marriage was more of an option, not a pre-requisite for parenthood. But my mother was old-fashioned. A woman married, had children, and stayed home to raise them.
Silly me—I was working! Supporting myself! Who would watch the kids? Certainly not my mother. She needed the sitter herself. Actually, more of a servant—someone to drop everything and do her bidding when she demanded it.
And that’s when it dawned on me—the insistence on getting married and having children—she needed something to brag about at Bingo.
After one particularly annoying discussion at home, she once again asked me when I was going to get married and have children.
“You’re just jealous,” I replied. “You’re the only one at Bingo who doesn’t have an illegitimate grandchild.”
And just like that—the discussion was over. The only thing worse than my not having children was not having a husband to have them with.