Dispatches

Marriage on the Download

CONNIE KUHNS

My friend Lori asked me one day if I had ever given my first husband a blow job. We were eating hotdogs in Costco at the time. I told her, quite honestly, that I couldn’t remember. It had been over fifty years. Too bad you can’t call him up and ask, she said. But sex wasn’t that deliberate then. At least it wasn’t that deliberate for me. Back then, it was stressful enough just to be naked.

What did come to mind, though, was that night in Yuma, Arizona, a few months after I met him. We had gone to visit his sister and she put us up in the same bedroom. That was unheard of then, as we were not married. We had never been in a bed together alone for the entire night. The sheets were so cool against my legs. We toured the old territorial prison. The desert was burning up.

Jack had picked me up hitch-hiking, or rather he had picked up Lisa, my roommate. I was selling tickets at the Rivoli Theatre and she was a cashier in an office parking lot. We would meet every night after work in front of the post office on Long Beach Boulevard to hitchhike home. Jack and his friend Charlie had stopped for her. Their destroyer was dry-docked. They had just returned from a salvage mission off the coast of Vietnam. Jack told me they’d dropped explosives off the ship, day and night, to prevent the Vietcong from swimming out and blowing them up. They were stoned on mescaline and listening to Jimi Hendrix.

I slept with him right away and often. Lisa was a virgin and expected me to be one, too, so I pretended (to her) that I was. That meant that Jack and I had to go across the street and dodge helicopters patrolling the beach if we wanted to be alone. Ashamed yet determined. I lied to Jack, as well. I told him that he was only the second guy that I had ever slept with. He also wanted me to be a virgin.

During that summer, Jack got busted with a couple of lids of marijuana. He insisted to me that they belonged to somebody else until that moment in court when the judge asked him if the “contraband” was his. He said yes. He was sentenced to the LA county jail in Newhall where Charles Manson was walked through in shackles while being processed on his way to hell. I went to see Jack every weekend; there was a “jail bus” that left downtown on Sunday mornings. And when I couldn’t afford a ticket there were always others offering rides on the cheap. I once caught a ride with a woman who was also on her way to see her boyfriend. I couldn’t take my eyes off her massive underarm hair. I had never seen such a thing. It was like a nest hanging from her branch-like arm. When I hitchhiked, I carried one of my grandmother’s kitchen knives which I turned over each time the guards searched my purse. I talked to Jack over a phone, while sitting in a booth. We looked at each other through bullet-proof glass.

A year after meeting on that street corner, Jack and I got married. There was really no way out. Back home, all my high school friends were married. I was fast becoming an old maid. I was barely twenty years old and he was number four.

The morning after our wedding, when we awoke in my grandmother’s bed, which she had lovingly given to us for our wedding night, I was a different person. The lights were on. The fog had lifted. What have I done? But I had made my bed, whatever that means.

Jack was jealous. He didn’t like me talking to his friends or attracting too much attention to myself. He found the journal that I kept that first summer I arrived in California and tore it up in front of me, saying it made me sound like a whore, which, at least in the context of this story, is a loss to the literary world.

If our marriage had been something like Love American Style, a popular television show at the time, it might have looked like this:

Episode One: The Guest. I invite the insurance man to our home. One of Jack’s ex-Navy buddies shows up stoned a few minutes before the insurance man arrives, and is sitting on the floor in the corner of the living room pretending to drum to the Doors. I just keep on talking about premiums, pretending Charlie isn’t there.

Episode Two: The Angry Wife. We are supposed to leave for San Francisco when I get off work, but I can’t find my unemployed husband. When I find him, he is on the beach tripping with Tina’s husband Chuck, who offers me some acid. I get very, very mad and I make Jack drive to San Francisco anyway. I won’t include the part about his difficulty “transitioning” from the military into civilian life because that wasn’t a concept back then. The sunset is spectacular, apparently.

Episode Three: The Movie Critic. It’s the rape scene in “Straw Dogs.” I have never seen a movie like this before and I hate it. “See, I told you women liked it,” Jack whispers to me. We are sitting in the Belmont Theatre and I suddenly feel sick.

Episode Four: We’ve Only Just Begun. We buy a season pass to Knott’s Berry Farm and go there at least once a month for a year, thinking it to be one of the most magical places we have ever been. I think we are just like the young married couple in the Crocker Bank commercial who drive around listening to the Carpenters.

Episode Five: Say What? My husband asks me why I don’t make him homemade soup for his lunch at work like this other guy’s wife. I say I won’t have his children because his brother-in-law is racist. His father calls me long distance and tells me to start letting Jack make the decisions. I yell out during a fight, “You think you were number two, well, you were number four!”

But Jack loved me. He made me spoon rings and once swiped some fire hose nozzles for me to use as candlesticks when we couldn’t afford the real ones at Cargo West. He made tortillas from scratch and dedicated special songs to me by Chicago and Seal and Crofts. His arms were smooth. His body was warm. He made sex normal. I learned how to steam pork chops, which in a way answers Lori’s question. While our husbands did their thing, Cindy and I exchanged recipes and Tina and I decorated our tables with baby’s breath in brown pottery; we were married couples like everybody else.

Our marriage started coming apart sometime after I bought the album Tapestry. I suppose I could blame Carole King for putting words to feelings not commonly spoken by women. I know I was a lot of work, especially for a guy who looked like George Harrison and just wanted to go home to Missouri. I suspect I was “transitioning” as well.

Season Finale (imaginary): The Truth Is Always Beautiful. A young wife starts a fire on the beach and burns her copies of Be Here Now, the Kama Sutra, Open Marriage, Cosmopolitan (although there were some good articles about the tricks husbands use to get out of doing housework), The Art of Sensual Massage for its horrible illustrations, any book about orgasms written by men, and the theatrical release of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. She’s tired of everybody telling her who she is supposed to be. She keeps her three volumes of Carlos Castaneda.

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CONNIE KUHNS

Connie Kuhns has a forty-year history as an essayist, journalist, photographer and broadcaster. Her essay “Strange Women,” (Geist 95), about women in Vancouver’s early punk scene, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award;  “Last Day in Cheyenne” (Geist 84) was named a “Notable Essay of 2012” in The Best American Essay series and a finalist for a Western Magazine Award;  and other essays have been finalists in publications ranging from the LA Review to Prism International to the New York Times Modern Love column, and the Southampton Review Frank McCourt Memoir Prize.  

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