I had a boyfriend once who claimed that serial monogamy is the best humans could hope for. It didn’t sit well with me, in my twenties and rebounding from a disastrous relationship. I wanted this new man to want me so much that he would forsake all others forever. A proposal would be “proof” of my self-worth – not exactly the stuff ideal marriages are built upon, but did I mention I was in my 20’s?
Of course, I asked Byrne about it. I knew that she and Duncan had been married for almost sixty years, and that not a day of that had passed without him watching her dress and tell her she was marvelous. I also knew that each of them had had affairs. Which was a contradiction I intended to resolve on a drive out to the beach. I was mad at her again, by proxy. Just like I had been when her philosophies on jealousy had backfired when I copied them, without being honest. This time I was mad because the boyfriend she had nicknamed my “Rolling Stone” had dumped me and my if-you-love-me-then-propose-already baggage.
We drove across the swing bridge over the Beaufort River and headed toward Hunting Island. There was no oncoming traffic, tomato season was still months away. I passed the turnoff to the road with the tree that an earlier boyfriend had aimed for, with me in the passenger seat. It was a mile marker of trials I thought had made me stronger but obviously hadn’t. The smell of marsh sulfur mingled with the salty sea air.
“I’ve told you Duncan and I had an open marriage,” Byrne began. “But it was nothing like this serial monogamy nonsense. The reason we began to take other lovers was to protect our own love from the stress of Alison.”
Alison was her real daughter, not an adopted one, like me. She had some form of schizophrenia since childhood, back in the days when doctors blamed such conditions on mothers. I didn’t ask for details of the sexual arrangement she and Duncan reached in these troubled times, and Byrne offered none.
“Neither one of us kept count. It wasn’t a game or a punishment,” she said. “It was just a way of getting away from it all, like going to a costume ball. Our various partners weren’t obliged to know the strain of what we ourselves could not escape. It was a physical release that kept us from wearing each other down. It saved our love.”
This was not the image of a devoted Duncan I preferred, the pure romance that I wanted to think possible. It was not the image of a martyr mother, undyingly devoted to her damaged daughter. But there was a truth in what Byrne said that settled like a curtain coming down. What matters, above everything, is honesty.