How long does it take culture shock to wear off? I wonder for the one hundred and thirty-ninth time since we left New York, this time from the checkout line at Target. The woman in front of me, checking out at the register, appears to represent the seventies both in age and era: she waits until her items are totaled and only then reaches into her Dooney and Bourke purse, pulls out the matching checkbook case, and proceeds to write a check. Using the ultramodern credit card scanner as a rest, she painstakingly writes out her total and signs her name. I imagine her adding, in the “For” column, a description: “groceries for the week.” Then? She flips to her ledger and enters the check for her records. Five full minutes later, her check is processed and she and her cart are headed toward the door. And I am pulling up to the register, scanning my Amex, and wondering how the hell I ended up here.
Here is actually only 250 miles from where I was born and raised, and my haughty attitude could be used as evidence against me in a courtroom if they ever decided to make Moving to New York and Developing an Attitude a traitorous offense. Only five years ago I was standing in similar lines, paying little attention to time and other people’s lack of hurry—that was just the way the world I knew worked. Then I moved to the city and, apparently, became somewhat of a supercilious asshole.
Or maybe I just miss it.
Nine months into my marriage, I find that I love my husband more than I did on the day of our wedding. This is a relief, since I could have grown rich had I been able to cash in every time I received a look of shock from someone who found out that Jack and I met and married in less than a year. It was the same look of shock I received from fellow Southerners when I told them, five years ago, that I was unmarried. Or that I was moving to New York. Or that I receive now, when they find out my husband is from…gasp!California.
Do you see why I left?
Jack has been more than a husband through this. He’s been my traveling buddy, my sanity, my anchor and rock. Had I known all that went into making a successful marriage back in my twenties, I would have had much shorter—and fewerrelationships. But I hit the jackpot when I found him. He has the patience of Job, which is convenient since I have little on good days and none on others. He manages to laugh at small-mindedness whenever it rears its ugly head (when chastised by coworkers about not belonging to a country club or hunting camp, he just shrugged and texted me: “Apparently we are weird for not paying 30K to eat dinner down the street or killing our own food”). Sometimes I think about how head-spinning it must be for him, being from the West Coast and living in Asia, London, and New York before landing here. Then I feel guilty that he handles it with more grace than I do. And that’s when I realize that all those years of waiting for The One, all those bad blind dates and horrible breakups, were worth it.
So here we are. And Atlanta is, honestly, not bad at all. For a Southern city, it is decidedly and overall un-Southern, representing a melting pot of transplants from all over the country and even a few internationals thrown in. Midtown boasts great restaurants, a few of which rival our favorites in New York (none of which actually beat them, though), and the sports teams keep Jack happy enough to endure going to the symphony or ballet with me from time to time. But that’s Midtown, a twenty minute drive from our house in the suburbs north of the city, and though we moved where we did because we wanted a house and yard and all those other things you can’t have in New York, it does take some adjusting when strip malls supplant skyscrapers as daily scenery.
As Jack and I have settled into our new daily life, we’ve been unwittingly starting traditions when it comes to the little stuff. We have the same few dinners on rotation every week; I’m in charge of cooking them, and he’s in charge of cleaning up. Whoever arrives home last is met at the door by the other and given a proper Ozzie-and-Harriet-style hug and kiss greeting. We both read before bedtime, then kiss goodnight and retreat to our separate sides of the king-sized bed we never would have had room for in the city. We go out to eat on Saturday nights, trying to escape our suburb and usually succeeding—but for when we don’t, Chili’s is always available to meet our copout needs. In the past nine months, we’ve built a real life, and sometimes I feel like I’m playing house—like I’m pretending to be a grownup after years of putting it off. Thank God I picked the right guy to be an adult with.
I talk to Kennedy, Abby, and Cara every few weeks on the phone, and more over email. It seems that Jack and I started a trend among our friends, who are all at various stages in their serious relationships and contemplating their own exits from the city. Cara got engaged last month, and I received that news with no small amount of relief—it seems she finally got her happy ending after a year that left her pretty scarred. Kennedy and Abby should be right behind her, which will make for an expensive few months if they all get married around the same time. None of them plan to stay in the city long after getting hitched: Kennedy and Abby have both mentioned the difficulties of raising children there without being celebrity-level wealthy; Cara hasn’t brought up the kids issue, but it’s clear from what she has said that her life in New York has an expiration date as well.
And since we’re on the subject of kids…Jack and I have been on that topic for awhile. One of the benefits of getting married “late” (compared to the rest of the world outside New York, at least) is that you’ve already ticked off a fair amount of Life’s To-Do List, at least the part of it not involving marriage and family. In other words, the fun part: moving around, traveling, being selfish in general. One of the drawbacks to getting married late is that the subject of spawning comes up earlier than it would have in a twenties marriage, thanks to those damn biological clocks and their incessant ticking. Jack and I saw both the pros and cons of child-rearing. Pros: people to take care of us when we’re old, a legacy to leave behind, the joy of creating something that is equal halves of each of us. Cons: no more sleep, food and dirt everywhere, less time to focus on activities for just the two of us. Having weighed both options, we both knew we wanted kids more than we didn’t want them. Which may not sound like an enthusiastic affirmative choice, but at least we were realistic about it. We both had friends from high school and college who had ventured down the family path years before we even considered it, and though their Facebook pictures were all very cute, we knew that there was exhaustion behind those smiles. Not to mention the fact that whenever Jack spoke to his brother over the phone, it was either with the sound of kids screaming or the clinking of ice in his glass of scotch punctuating the background as he tiredly described life’s most recent milestones.
It’s not that we weren’t sure; it’s just that we knew what we were getting into. And we had both stopped believing in fairy tales awhile ago.
I knew that a baby was more than just a come-to-life doll to dress up in darling outfits or provide me with validation as a person. There was the shit-factory, all-encompassing neediness side of it, the encroachment on my decades of deeply-worn independence. And Jack knew that he hadn’t married a fifties housewife who still wrote checks and knew how to mix the perfect Old-Fashioned at the end of his long day of work. If anything, he was the one pouring me a drink most nights, having become a pro at quickly de-corking a bottle of red. We had agreed that parenthood would be an equal partnership between the two of us; at least, as much as it could be with Jack lacking a uterus and breasts. So after hashing out the reservations and the logistics behind it all, we still agreed that little versions of Jack and Merritt were preferable to more vacations. Then we agreed that we didn’t have much time to waste before we started trying to create those mini-versions. So, nine months after getting married, we’ve started having sex with a purpose.
The first month, when my period was late, I knew it was likely because my body was adjusting to being off the pill for the first time in fifteen years. But being surrounded by stories of women my age who had waited to have children only to find out that their bodies were no longer cooperative with that goal, I could see the benefit of getting lucky on the first try: none of the emotional roller coaster involved with questions of fertility. Then the cramps came, followed by my period, and I wasn’t sure whether to feel disappointed or relieved. Just because Jack and I had decided to try for kids didn’t mean we were necessarily ready for them; after all, who really is? Then another month went by and the same thing happened, and I began to wonder if I should contact Houston to alert them of a problem. Then, last month, I was sure that something was going on down there. And I was wrong. And when that moment showed up as a red ribbon in the toilet to show me how wrong I was, I began to quietly freak out.
First, there was guilt. Caught between the Southern-style morality of my upbringing and the savvy sophistication of my Sex and the City-worshipping generation, I had let time and insecurity wear away at the former until I was waking up in beds all over Manhattan (and one in Brooklyn) with a hangover of nausea and regret. Was I being punished for those now wayward-seeming years, the years when I doubted anyone like Jack would ever show up and settled instead for a cheap substitute? Maybe my vagina had decided it had seen enough action, thank you very much. Closed for business.
Then came the fear. If this was the beginning of a real problem, would it drive a wedge between me and Jack? Would we become one of those couples who only had sex on a schedule? Would we end up in a clinic where Jack had to fill a cup and I had to give blood so that fault could be dealt to the appropriate party? Would we see specialist after specialist, bouncing around doctor’s offices in between work and silent dinners filled with tension?
So I got a little ahead of myself. But the side benefit was that I was no longer afraid of getting pregnant.
Which is why, this month, we had our sex without any crazy contortionist moves involving my legs thrown over my head as a grand finale. And when it came time for my period to start, I let the day come and go without acknowledging it (much)—just a glance at the calendar, no speeding to CVS for a pregnancy test. And today, four days later, when I tell Jack I’m late, he glances at me before saying, “Let’s just wait a few days before we take a test. You know, not jinx it.” I agree, and we have dinner in front of The Office. Then he goes to pour my post-dinner glass of wine and we glance at each other.
“If I am…” I say.
“Then you shouldn’t have any,” he finishes, and sets the bottle down.
“How long did you want to wait?” I ask.
He pauses. “I don’t know…a few more days?”
I take a breath before deciding, “I can’t go that long without wine.”
And that’s how we end up heading to CVS after dinner on a Tuesday night, where the pimply-faced teenager turns bright red as he scans our one purchase. We drive home, the world looking either menacing or full of hope as each second passes through my currently bipolar mind, and we head upstairs, where I enter the bathroom alone and shut the door behind me as Jack waits outside in our bedroom. We may be okay with having a child together, but we still can’t pee in front of each other. I break the stick out of its packaging and take a deep breath.