which came first: love or the love story?

I was sitting at my writing desk, about a year after my parents split up, when the pictures I’d taped on the wall above me caught my attention. There were four photographs:

J and I at our friends’ wedding: We were twenty-two, dressed up, slow dancing in the grass, sweating in the humidity. He grins broadly. My eyes gaze into the camera, glinting in the Tennessee sunlight. Our fingers are wrapped around each others’ like we’re afraid a great wind might come up and sweep us apart. What I remember most about that day is how, just before they cut the cake, he’d grabbed me and whispered in my ear, “You look beautiful.” He’d never said anything like that to me before. I don’t think anyone had. Because he lived in Ecuador at the time, and because I was just about to move to Florida, we’d been working hard to convince ourselves and the people around us that we were just friends. But when we were alone for a moment, he’d grab me and kiss me, like he was memorizing my mouth for the months ahead. They were the kisses I’d spent my adolescence dreaming about. I don’t remember being kissed like that before or since. Looking at the photo, I can see how blatantly our act must’ve failed. My round, red cheeks betray us.

The house I grew up in: It sits atop a small ridge. Brick with three dormer windows and a wrap-around wooden porch, it was my mother’s dream house. The green lawn is freshly mown with the perfect diagonal stripes of a baseball field. The sky is cloudless blue and the pear tree, its trunk just out of the frame, is a burst of white confetti blooms. Looking at the photo from our tiny one bedroom apartment in Vancouver, I could see, for the first time, the indulgence in such an expanse of property–three acres and four bedrooms. But from Vancouver, I couldn’t see the half-furnished rooms or the for-sale sign staked in the grass by the road. I couldn’t hear the way the tv echoed off the pine floorboards. From three-thousand miles, it looked like a kind of pastoral paradise with antique rockers on the porch and a dog lazing in the grass.

My parents at the prom: My dad was a chaperone again, twenty years later, but this time as a high school principal. Mom stands just in front of him in a black dress she borrowed from my closet. In perfect prom-photo style, his palm rests on her elbow; her hands are neatly clasped. Beside the piano, standing on an antique Persian rug, they are a handsome couple.

A postcard of a sculpture by Auguste Rodin: Two stone bodies against a black background. A man lifts a woman above his chest. I bought it in Paris, years ago, at Musee Rodin.

In Rodin’s Je Suis Belle, a man hoists the crouching, compact figure of a woman toward the sky. His every muscle is tensed, in exhaustion or ecstasy I can’t decide. She is delicate, almost inhuman with her frog legs pushed up into her abdomen. One arm hangs down, pinned against him. Her face turns away from his as he bears the entire weight of her body on his chest. His knees bend, his buttocks ripple. I wonder, is he bringing her down from the hands of God or offering her back up?

And I wonder why this image? Why these lovers? Why not Rodin’s The Kiss, a more popular, more conventional scene: a man and woman in a passionate embrace? What stories of love had I surrounded myself with? Or, was each image just another version of the same story?

I used to believe that the problem with my own relationship was that I expected it to look like my parents’ relationship–and it never would. But when they split up, I was suddenly free from that expectation. Here were two people who seemed to have done everything right, and they still couldn’t make it work. So maybe it didn’t matter that we kept making mistakes. A couple of months later, J and I moved in together. I remember those first weeks in our tiny apartment, walking around and saying to each other, “Isn’t this a happy home?”

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