Life in a Marital Institution

Twenty Years of Monogamy in One Terrifying Memoir

James Braly

St. Martin's Press






If God had told me, “Go down there and find the woman least suited to walk this earth with you,” that woman would have been your mother. —my father


I’m standing on the sidewalk in Blue Hill, a tiny town in upstate New York, hands cupped around my eyes, peering through the plate-glass window of a Victorian house that’s been converted into a café, like a thief, or a real estate agent, or—given the crazed reflection looking back at me from the plate glass—an ex-husband spying on his ex-wife. All of which I may become. But first, I need to eat. I’m insane with hunger, having driven around for three hours now, since shortly after breakfast, trying to find food my wife, Jane, will allow our two young boys to eat. So that I can eat.

Jane is very strict about what goes into our boys’ bodies, and they are equally strict about what goes into mine: If I get it, they want it, too. Like father, like sons. Fair enough. Except, their mother is my wife. And my wife controls food the way other men’s wives control sex: I don’t get enough.

To satisfy my hunger, I engage in illicit, secret, gustatory assignations with sundry food mistresses: delis on the corner, drive-through windows, and, this morning, gas stations, leaving my boys strapped in their child seats while I wolf bags of potato chips and Combos in the gas station bathrooms, then (after wiping the crumbs from my face) walk back to the car and feign sympathetic hunger. It worked for a few hours, until I started to feel nauseated by the cottonseed oil, and guilty I was eating while my own flesh and blood starved.

Now I am literally sick to my stomach, in addition to starving. (That’s why they’re called “empty calories.”)

So I’m looking through my finger-tent frame as I lean against the plate-glass window, and I see these words: local, organic, seasonal. The Holy Alternative Trinity! My answered prayer! Even the desserts are enlightened: “Sweetened with agave,” whatever that is. It’s the kind of food Jane feeds the family: whole foods for a whole lot of money; everything we’ve been looking for in lunch, since shortly after breakfast—when Jane and the boys picked me up at the Amtrak station and we embarked on our relaxing drive in the country.

Jane and I moved up from the city recently, and we don’t know the culinary landscape yet. So we’ve been getting to know it together, for the past three hours, driving to and away from every restaurant in a thirty-mile radius. All of which, it turns out, serve “mainstream” food that lots of mainstream people eat—seemingly quite happily, based on what my boys and I saw through various restaurant windows while we looked on from numerous restaurant parking lots and curbsides in hunger and envy.

Until now, when, peering into the “local, organic, seasonal” café, my persistence and patience pay off.

But then I see, written on top of the menu in the plate-glass window, right under “Hours of Operation,” that the only “local, organic, seasonal” café in a thirty-mile radius is “Closed.” Evidently local, organic, seasonal waiters take the afternoon off, versus mainstream waiters, who work all day, serving food to people who get to eat it.

To say that I am irritated by this discovery is like saying the Ancient Mariner was thirsty: Food, food everywhere, nor any a bite to eat. We’ve passed at least thirty restaurants this morning, every single one of them open—except this one. And yet I am as far from having satiated my hunger as someone in the western hemisphere can get without starving.

But am I starving enough to get back in that car and try to find another acceptable restaurant, given the sound that awaits me: my two boys sitting in the backseat on either side of Jane, voraciously breast-feeding (they haven’t eaten since breakfast, either) while clasping hands like two little White Panthers at a Milk Power rally? Which they’ve been attending since they were born … four and six years ago.

Hence, the question Jane and I debated in the car as we drove here from the previous mainstream restaurant that we were not allowed to eat in. The question was not should Jane be breast-feeding boys old enough to have a tree fort. It was whether she should be breast-feeding boys old enough to have a tree fort while we are driving. The issue was safety, in other words, not mental health—a local, organic, seasonal twist on the mainstream argument that talking on your cell phone while driving is dangerous. Only the potential dialogue here was between boys and breasts, all four of which might have been seriously injured if we’d let the boys out of their large and extra-large car seats to suckle without restraints. These were country roads. You never knew when you’d see a deer. Were I suddenly to have braked and the boys to have clenched their teeth, some permanent, who knows what could have happened to all four of them?

This raised a second question in my mind on the drive toward Blue Hill: Which sound did I prefer? My boys in the backseat screaming with hunger, or my boys in the backseat satisfying their hunger by drinking my wife? The answer, I decided, was that I preferred to hear my boys in the backseat screaming, since screaming seemed like a normal consequence of starvation, and, in any case, normal, versus drinking my wife, a sound that, coming out of human beings, is definitely not normal, being somewhere on the sonic spectrum between lingerie sloshing in the delicate cycle and the sucking sound as the last drops of bathtub water disappear down the drain—again and again and again—in stereo. (Although, in fairness to the limitations of my senses, I can never tell whether what really upsets me is listening to the little guys suckling behind me, or actually seeing them chowing down in the rearview mirror.) So I let them scream while we hurtled through the backwoods in search of a local, organic, seasonal restaurant—until we pulled up to that Victorian café in Blue Hill and parked on the side of the road. Jane got into the backseat, the boys got out of their seat belts, and I got out of the car.

Then my cell phone rings. It’s my sister Kate’s boyfriend, Roger. “Hello, mate.” He’s from Australia, so I’m his mate. Though we’ve never met. “I wish I had better news,” he says. “If you want to say good-bye to your sister, I suggest you get on the next plane to Houston.”

It’s the not the first time I’ve heard this. Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, and since then she and (for the last few months, since they met on the beach at a bar during happy hour) he have been calling to say her cancer has spread, then to say it has shrunk, then to say it has spread again. Resulting in everyone in my family shrinking in disbelief and spreading conspiracy theories. Like maybe the cancer is a ploy? Maybe Kate just wants attention?

Last year when I flew to Houston to see my mom’s new face, which was her seventy-fifth-birthday present to herself (an acceptable way of attracting attention in my family), I met with Kate’s oncologist and said, “Tell me the truth.” He said, “Four years ago, I had thirty-five patients with Kate’s diagnosis. Today, three of them are still alive.” That was a year ago. “Your sister has inspired me to write a book,” he said, “about the relationship between life expectancy and humor. Kate is hilarious—and I believe that’s why she’s still here.” I reported this to my family, and we all agreed: The thirty-two patients who died of metastatic breast cancer had no sense of humor. As opposed to Kate, who was obviously sick, definitely funny, but not terminal—or she would have died already.

But here’s Roger, who’s saying she’s been admitted to the critical care unit and is not expected to live. And if I want to say good-bye, “Get on the next plane…”

I don’t want to get on the next plane—or any plane. Because as upsetting as the news is that Kate may die, even more upsetting is the possibility that I might die first, in a plane crash.

I’ve hated flying ever since my parents divorced when I was in kindergarten and my dad took me up one alternate weekend in the company plane. He taught me about the gauges: “This measures altitude. That measures speed.” Then he shut off an engine, nodded at the sputtering propeller, pointed to the red needles in the round glass case that indicated we were losing altitude and speed, and asked me, as though I were the retired decorated bomber pilot and he was the kindergartner, “What do we do now, son?” To this day, my father insists this never happened. “Your mother told you that,” he says—to help her win custody, in the event the judge put a kindergartner on the stand. But even if this near-death experience is imagined, the product of my mother’s “scheming” instead of my father’s “sense of humor,” I hate flying. I already risked my life last year to see my mom’s new face. I don’t want to risk it again.

I call my big sister Corinne. At ten years older than I am, she’s the problem solver in the family, unlike my big brother Earl, seven years older, who’s a problem dodger (it runs in the male line) and Kate, five years older, who’s currently the problem. Corinne lives in Houston. She can drive to the hospital and hopefully discover it’s another false alarm and therefore I can stay here, starving on the sidewalk in Blue Hill, where I am telling my sister, “Roger says Kate is going to die.”

Corinne says, “I’ve heard that before!”

I say, “So have I!”

She says, “I’ll drive to the hospital right now!”

I say, “Good!”

She says, “Stay tuned!”

It’s thrilling. We’re detectives cracking a case: The Sister Who Cried Metastasized Breast Cancer Wolf. It’s such a relief to be dealing with possible pathological lying rather than potential death.

I pocket the phone and get in the car, the air fragrant with fresh breast milk, which, depending on my mood, is somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between vanilla pound cake and tube socks after three sets of tennis on a summer day, and it hits me: I may never see my sister again. Because as much as I hate to fly, I know Roger’s telling the truth.

I start the engine and drive off. A car passes us on the road—a family wagon of the kind Jane and I have debated buying, to go with our new life in the country.

Jane says, “I really like that car. What do you think?”

I say, “I don’t want to talk about cars!” I’ve wounded her without warning. It’s partly due to hunger: I have by now metabolized all my fat, and all my patience. Partly it’s resentment that Jane is so strong-willed about what food our kids can eat—and I’m so weak-willed about forcing her to compromise in the face of starvation. And partly I snap because Jane’s priorities seem so petty compared to my life-and-death concerns. Which Jane doesn’t know about, because I haven’t told her. One of the things you do after smelling breast milk on the same child for six years is defend yourself—lower the portcullis, close the gates.

One of the reasons for breast-feeding the same child for six years (and another for four) is because you defend yourself—lower the portcullis, close the gates. “Why should I stop doing what I think is right,” says Jane, during one of our regular arguments, “if you’re not … here?”

I answer the phone.

“I’m at the hospital,” says Corinne, whispering, electronic beeping and metal-on-metal clanking in the background. “Kate’s in intensive care.”

“How is she?”

“I haven’t been able to talk to her,” says Corinne. “They’ve got her all drugged up. I’m looking at her through the window.”


“I think you better get down here,” says Corinne. “Maybe not right away. But … tomorrow?” Sugar-coating the difference between “Life as you know it is going to end tonight” versus “in the morning.” Which actually does make me feel better, less urgently afraid, like there’s still a chance that life and death will magically trade places. There’s a reason why Corinne runs a makeup shop called Facade: She has a gift for putting the best-possible face on the worst-possible news—whether it’s your looks or your sister on a ventilator.

I put the phone away, tell Jane what’s happening, and stare at the road, picturing my suitcase in the trunk. I’ve just returned from a business trip. We’re halfway to Albany. I could keep driving to the airport, buy my ticket on the way, be at Kate’s bedside in a few hours. But this feels too … easy. Like God is trying to get me on the next plane out to kill me.

I should drive home, like a normal guy who thinks God is trying to kill him—someone who doesn’t have his clothes with him and therefore has to go home to pack.

I’m not a normal guy. I’m a guy with a wife who, faced with two starving boys old enough to help their father build a tree fort, would rather breast-feed them than let them eat a cheeseburger. I need to get out of here. Even if it means I’m going to die today. The good news is, I won’t die of hunger. They serve burgers at the airport.




Copyright © 2013 by James Braly