By the time I met Val, I was deep into my habits: acute hypochondria, perseverating in private, both unwilling to articulate my worst anxieties to anyone and perfectly willing to entertain all of them. We met at a time of mutual vulnerability, both of us unknowingly dating the same woman who seemed to take great pleasure in exploiting our trust and undermining our sanity.
When we came together a few years after that — both free of her, road tripping across the Southwest, kissing sweetly on a friend’s fold-out couch in New Mexico — the philosophy that had governed my entire relationship history evaporated. How could it not? Val was lovely, funny, brilliant — the tenderest, kindest person I’d ever met.
When Val is anxious, she wears it on her face; she needs to talk about it, she cries. As for me, my adrenaline skyrockets and I begin to imagine the many ways death can come to me (liver cancer, aneurysm, stray bullet). Eventually, I shut down mentally and physically, as though the terrible outcomes are predators that can only see me if I move.
We are terrified of mostly opposite things. I am anxious about: insects, germs, disease and mortal injury and death, messy rooms, being late, not honoring my commitments. She is anxious about: rodents, money, her writing, her job, social interactions, conflict, people secretly hating her. There is some overlap between our fears: not being believed, being believed to be crazy, being crazy, the fear that one of us is 10 seconds from leaving the other.
Because of our mutual ex-girlfriend, the process of learning to trust each other was slow and deliberate. “You don’t need to keep me accountable of your whereabouts 24 hours a day,” Val would say to me after I came home late wielding evidence of the train slowdown that had caused my delay, frantic that she’d think I was cheating on her. “If I was angry, I’d tell you,” I’d promise her when she worried that I was squirreling away my rage until it exploded.
The first apartment we rented in Philadelphia abutted a restaurant’s back alley and was blessed with cockroaches and mice. The roaches agitated me; I hated their spindly legs and their constantly probing antennae, the way they darted and the sheer quantity and speed of them. Val became an expert at recognizing my whimper and dashing into the room with her sneaker aloft. But she was pathologically terrified of mice, who were fewer in number but larger and harder to kill and bolder the longer we lived there. She feared they’d run over her feet, and more than once dashed to a chair like a woman in an old cartoon lifting her skirts in terror. I became the de facto exterminator, chasing, catching and disposing of their bodies.
When we began wedding planning, we also performed our anxiety on opposite schedules: When picking a venue and buying our dresses, she fretted while I achieved absolute, meditative calm; when the date neared, she seemed suddenly relaxed. “Whatever happens at the end of the day, we’ll be married!” she reminded me as I sat hunched over a table in my pajamas, three days unshowered, hot-gluing centerpieces and nursing burns on my fingers and yelling about “Kitchen Nightmares” (“This show is entirely about toxic masculinity, and also if I ever suggest we open a restaurant please just divorce me”).
Back when we first moved in together, I worked a terrible retail job; when I got my first check, I stared at it with utter disbelief. I’d been on my feet for two weeks straight, commuting an hour each way. I was exhausted and barely functioning, and the check barely covered my student loans, much less rent or food or anything else. When she got home from work, I was staring at the wall in our bedroom. “I am useless,” I told her. “Look at this paycheck. I can’t make my half of the rent. I can’t do anything. I’m the absolute worst. Why are you dating me? I’m such a child.”
She covered me in a blanket, rubbed the inside of my wrist, brought me seltzer. “I believe in you,” she said. “I believe in your writing. You are more than your paycheck at this moment. I’m in this for a long haul, and if you are too, then we will make this work.”
I’d be in denial if I didn’t acknowledge the joke of our situation, the simultaneous stereotypes of the emotionally volatile artists and the continuously processing lesbians. But we’ve turned these heightened emotional states into engines for our writing and our marriage, a shorthand for the kind of give-and-take that makes relationships work.
We do a lot of sort-of-joking-but-not-really talking about the end times. Blame it on climate change (her anxiety), too many post-apocalyptic movies and video games (mine), and a healthy dose of terror about nuclear annihilation and antibiotic-resistant pathogens (both of ours).
Val laments: “I’m useless, I can’t hunt animals or anything. I have no practical skills of any kind. If the world goes to hell, I’d be dead weight.”
“You wouldn’t be able to be a vegetarian anymore,” I say.
“I know! I’d eat meat. But I can’t start a fire or build a shelter or ——”
“I’m here. I’ll teach you what I know.”
There probably won’t be Zoloft after civilization crumbles. And if the post-apocalyptic cockroaches are the size of mice — or larger! — then what will we do? Learn to throw knives with uncanny accuracy? Run? Until the waters rise, the government collapses and society falls apart, we do what we need to: deep breathing, weekly therapy and the hard, slow work of love.