Louis Begley had a lovely essay in the New York Times yesterday, on page 5 of the Sunday Review if you’re attached to the hard copy of the Times, called “Old Love” if you’re digital. He begins by remembering when he was 39 and wondering whether his beloved would still look beautiful to him when she had wrinkles and grey hair. He ends with a quote from Shakespeare This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well, which thou must leave ere long. Yes his beloved grew more attractive and cherished as the years went by.
This article set off a train of reflection. When I was young, couples usually married without living together or even spending a weekend away together. It was an abrupt change of living arrangements. I often heard that though marriage was scary, once married I would “learn to love love him.”(Such baloney. Two of my marriages ended in divorce.)
Even with compatible, happy couples, there is a learning curve. That certain smile which says “let’s get outta here,” the three-then-thousand gray hairs, the slightly off-kilter walk which you can recognize a mile away, the final defeat in the battle against midriff bulge — all of these things become endearing. They sink into your skin and become part of you. When I am away from my 68-year-old husband for a while I will occasionally see the 3/4 profile of a man whose grey hairs approximate my husband’s, who has not visited his barber in six months, who is standing just so. When he moves, or turns toward me, or speaks, he becomes himself, but for a moment there is hologram almost, an illusion of my beloved. It is not the attractive traits which entrance me, but the traits which belong only to him.
I once went into a shop and saw what I remember as the ugliest man I have ever seen. His body was short, weak, rambling. His skin was the color of dust. His eyes squinted, his beard was patchy, his fingernails dirty. It was unpleasant to do business with him, but of course I did. Then his wife came to the counter. She was the second most ugly person I have ever seen, with a long hair protruding from a bump on her nose, sloppy rolls of fat rolling from head to toe, a rasping voice, grey teeth, a numbing blank expression. The only sign of life as I know it came when she looked at her husband and brought forth a twinkling smile. Then their dog came from behind the curtain; yes, the ugliest dog I have ever seen. A wolfhound from the dumpster. I concluded that people love what they see in the mirror, and love secondmost what they see every day.
On a train in Italy I shared a compartment with an enormously obese couple from Calabria. They were pleasant and jolly and offered me some of their lunch, which I accepted. We chattered for a while, then she turned to her husband (?) with a warm smile, and lay her head on his shoulder. He kissed her forehead and put his arm around her shoulder and they took their siesta all cuddled up. Forgive me for wondering how they could overcome their bulk and have sex, but after watching their affection for each other, I imagine they did.
The movies dwell on lovely buns and rippling muscles, but the truly beguiling traits don’t appear until later — the way she peels a peach, the burgeoning bald spot, his goofy ears, her frizzy hair on a rainy day — and once those repeated rhythms begin, they hum inside you.