I was never a Cinderella girl. Never a fairy princess dresser or a tutu wearer or a tiara dreamer. Never big on unicorns or rainbows or frills, though I did harbor a desire to be a Rockette for a while, but I think that was mostly due to my height and the fact that I can tap dance. And shuffle-ball-changing your way across Radio City Music Hall isn’t a terrible way to spend the Christmas season. But I never harbored any fantasies regarding love or marriage or other fairy tale endings. That is not to say that I don’t believe in happy endings, in soul mates, in one true loves and love at first sight and Prince and Princesses Charming, it’s just that as I’ve gotten older, and yes, wiser, I’ve realized that there is no one happy ending. That one girl’s waltz at midnight is another girl’s tower rescue is another girl’s glass slipper.
Most young girls grow up on a steady diet of Barbie and Disney, supplemented by an Anne Frank and a Harriet Tubman, a Sandra Day O’Connor or a Billie Jean King here and there. We grow up on romantic comedies and true love triumphs and over the top weddings that feature wicker thrones and veils and trains of tulle. I tried on a wedding dress like that for my mom, just to prove a point about how ridiculous I would look, but I think she was so overcome by the idea of me actually getting married that she thought I looked beautiful, even with my sky blue sneakers and tattoos peeking out. We feed off of storybook love, get high on the slings and arrows of Cupid, mainline the myths and fairy tales until our own idea and ideal of what happily ever after really is are so convoluted they are nearly impossible to untangle.
My husband and I have been together for almost sixteen years. Not the longest of runs by any stretch, but as a friend pointed out, nothing to sneeze at either. And we had the fairy tale. Not quite star-crossed lovers but ocean separated. Love at first sight, secret filled letters fluttering across the Atlantic, mushy-gushy ickiness. Just like the movies.
But life isn’t like the movies. And it isn’t like books. Or songs or poems or installation art exhibits. Because while all of those things capture something about life and love and human interaction, they capture only a moment, only a glimpse, only a portion of what goes on in any relationship. Yet we too often let those moments define how we view our own relationships, how we perceive our own marriages and partnerships and couplings.
What if happily ever after means you go on separate vacations? What if it means you sleep in separate bedrooms every other Thursday? What if you renew your vows every year or don a wig and meet your partner in a bar and pretend that you are strangers meeting for the first time and then go home and have really hot, really raunchy sex? Or not. What if you find a new interest decades into your marriage, or rekindle the flame for a passion you’d long forgotten about after you’ve sworn to love and cherish? What if you flirt with a stranger or wink at an acquaintance, sit a little closer to an attractive (wo)man on the bus? What if there’s a little thrill, a little titillation, a little sense of excitement that makes you run back to your partner and remember what it was that made you fall in love with them in the first place?
What would Prince Charming do if Rapunzel cut off all her hair? What happens when Cinderella starts to go through menopause or when Jake Ryan grows a paunch and his hairline starts to recede? Love is not a fairy tale. Love is not a myth. Love is work. Not constant, not never-ending, not nose to the grindstone, chain gang, Oh-God-put-me-out-of-my-misery-work, but work nonetheless. Every fire needs to be stoked, every stock replenished. And there is no right way or wrong one or one way to make that happen. One man’s golf is another woman’s shoe fetish is another man’s fishing weekend with the boys. One couple’s therapy appointments is another’s dirty weekend away without the kids is another’s open marriage.
The point is, there is no happily ever after….not one that works for everyone. Our own ever-afters depend on who we are and who our loves are and where the journey takes us. Together.
Because happily ever after means figuring it out side by side, even if you aren’t always hand in hand like the story books show.