“I married my best friend!” these couples declare, underneath a photo of themselves in matching Gryffindor scarves. Sometimes it’s a photo on a beach, the lovers in matching jorts, splayed casually on a picturesque dune. “Not only is this amazing man my husband,” the wife declares, “but he is also my soulmate and my best friend!!”
“Gross,” I’d say, showing the phone to my wife. “Look.”
“Maybe they’re insane,” Lauren would say.
Some brand of this nauseating sentiment is everywhere, from award show speeches to the Insta feeds of common folk. Everybody wants everybody else to know that their marriage not only includes sexual intercourse and a joint checking account but also rapturous friendship and the forced wearing of complementary Halloween costumes. Quite often, these amorous couples are actually kissing in the photograph, in public, which seems, I don’t know, a little perverted, two married people doing that.
“Try not to barf,” I’d say, turning my laptop around so my wife can see.
“Look how in love they are,” she’d say. “Sad.”
For one, my wife and I lack shared interests, which seems a requirement for best-friendship. I mean, sure, in the early years, our mutual beguilement had been enough: Lauren gleefully agreed to join me for canoe trips, despite her fear of drowning, and I pretended to enjoy watching The Sound of Music, despite my Julie Andrews allergy. Who cared? The hills were alive with the sound of our making out. But the Brownshirts of familiarity always turn up. Within a year or two, whenever I opined on the difficulties of writing comedy, she began turning on the loudest household appliances. When she declared her desire to watch The Music Man, I experienced an overwhelming urge to not.
We were comfortable in our marriage, which consisted largely of insulting one another and making sex for minutes at a time. Who cared that she wanted to binge-watch derivative crime dramas while I preferred an eclectic array of documentaries to fall asleep to? We still did all the things loving married couples do, growing haggard and sad and quietly seething with contempt.
Whenever she was slighted by a girlfriend, I should have sided with my wife, but instead found myself playing devil’s advocate. “I mean, she does have a point,” I’d say, while Lauren came to terms with the fact that she was now going to have to murder her friend and her husband, too. In these moments, I thought I was helping, when I was actually telegraphing to my wife that when it came down to it, I was not in her corner.
A best friend invites vulnerability, letting you be naked, emotionally, without fear of judgment, but this quality doth not come easy to two funny people taking turns as Mr. Warmth. One of us is always the butt of the joke, the anvil on which our shared mirth is hammered out. “You slurp like an animal,” she’d say while I drank my coffee and our daughters laughed and aped the sound. She’d go on, “I am finding it hard not to stab you with this spoon.”
“Not in front of the children,” I’d say, swallowing more loudly now, to further enrage her. In retaliation, I’d mock her fantasia that she is dying of something every day. Face cancer, leg cancer.
“What if I have spine cancer?” she’d say, clutching the back of her neck. “I think I’m dying.”
Every slight got raked into a sad little pile of hurt, which is why, I think, we both laughed with such obvious scorn whenever one of our acquaintances euphorically declared their marital friendship on social media. We laughed because we secretly wanted that friendship, too, and had given up believing it was possible in this particular marriage. But it was fine. Only a few more decades of this pathetic business and we’d be dead! It’s fine!
More than ten years into this comedy partnership, and it was not fine. Most nights, I’d lower myself into a box of wine while she’d be somewhere else in the house, strapped to a heating pad, lost in her phone, reading up on fingernail cancer. I found myself praying, seeking counsel from friends and professionals and holy books that might help me understand how two people who loved one another could be such jackasses about it.
Where had we gone wrong? I found my answer in a great big box under the bed. In it were so many forgotten photographs, one of me making coffee for her at our campsite, one of us laughing on a hotel bed before a concert, another of us hugging at a football game, back when we did all those things together, nonironically. I found a surprising number of photos of us kissing, in public, like a couple of pervs. Back then, we’d somehow managed to be funny, and kind, and in love. How?
Best friends, the kind you make in childhood and college, remain best friends because you can take a break from one another. Sleepovers, soccer seasons, road trips, these are intense moments of best-friend bonding, after which you can take a rest. But a marriage is the sleepover that never ends. Long ago, my wife had been my best friend, but somewhere, we’d gone from making out on city streets to playing the dozens.
I’m an asshole, I texted her, one morning.
Miraculously, she resisted the urge to make a joke. I could feel the comedic turbulence from all the way across the city. Instead, she replied with three simple words that would make any man’s heart beat faster.
So am I, she said.
I want to be friends again, I texted.
That would be nice, she replied.
We started by retiring old routines.
“Stop making fun of how I drink liquids,” I said. “No more. I will cut you.”
“Leave me alone about naps,” she said. “It’s not funny anymore. I like my naps.”
Like friends do, we shouldered one another’s burdens. I took over the bill paying, which had been her thing. She tried talking about her feelings, which had always been mine. She began texting for no reason in the middle of a workday to tell me about her daily aneurysms. When one of Lauren’s friends had a girls’ night without her, I stood in my wife’s corner, aggressively.
“Let’s burn her effing house down,” I’d say. “We could use voodoo. I know a witch doctor.”
We’d begun our marriage as a friendly comedy duo that had devolved into a pair of vitriolic solo acts, and so we applied ourselves to writing better, kinder material. So we started sitting next to one another on the couch again, for example, which triggered a federal investigation by the children.
“Why are you sitting next to mommy?” they asked. “What’s going on here?”
“Move aside, child,” I said. “I’m going to make out with your mom.”
Some veil had been rent, something holy set free. We went on dates. I brought her Cokes, she brought me beers. Occasionally, we made out in the kitchen, even when children were in the house. Who cares if they saw? Let the image of me feeling up their mother pollute their memory banks. Let it become a family joke, years from now—the good kind.
So much comedy is a kind of redeemed mourning, turning the dross of pain into gold, just as visiting Disneyworld in matching his beauty and her beast tank-tops is a kind of innocent psychosis. I no longer mock those lucky people; I thank them for reminding me that a good marriage often looks ridiculous to those outside it.
Not long ago, standing next to the Savannah River, right there in public, like a total weirdo, I pulled my wife close and kissed her the way I’d forgotten how, and she kissed me back, and I won’t lie: I felt baptized by love. The air hummed.
“We’re those people,” I said.
“Gross,” she said, and we kissed again.