The Last Laugh
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
My husband Jim and I recently celebrated our tenth anniversary. It feels like such a milestone to me--more than year one, or kid two. No longer newlyweds; not yet an old married couple.
I marvel at how much has taken place in our decade together--two moves; two kids; the loss of family members, pets, and jobs; the ebb and flow of income; graduations; old furniture thrown out; new furniture brought in; constant remarking about how much better our old furniture was; endless diapers; trips; tears; peanut butter sandwiches; cups of coffee; and a string of shows and movies we claim were our favorites at the time, but have now long forgotten their titles.
For ten years I've watched so much of myself change, change others could easily see. The birth of two kids, the earning of two degrees, the writing of two books, and the climbing up and into the career I have now at the university. Anyone around me could see how time, age, and motherhood changed everything about me from my belly to my mental state.
And yet, to the casual observer, Jim seemed more steady. More consistent. His weight, haircut, clothes, demeanor, it all seemed somewhat the same as it had been when we said, "I do."
But to think Jim hasn't changed, perhaps even more than I, is short-sighted indeed.
The first night I met Jim, over a decade ago, was at a birthday party for my sister. He and I instantly connected and, save for a few details, we were basically together ever since. I was immediately enthralled by his intellect, drawn to his kindness, attracted to his defined jawline, and impressed by how he was both incredibly nerdish and oddly confident. I replay that night, and my first impressions of him, constantly in my head. Even so many years later. But no matter how romantic I found our meet cute, or how often I've retold the story of my first impressions of him, I always leave out one part of that night.
Someone had brought over dessert. Baked Alaska to be exact. And as dinner died down, one of my sister's friends went into the kitchen and lit her culinary blowtorch to both sear the meringue and light the candles. But when the tiny flame ignited, Jim jumped. It was slight, but it caught the eye of a lot of the guests standing around in the kitchen, who immediately started laughing and poking fun at him. These were (and still are) his friends, of course, so the prodding was light at best, but I could see irritation on Jim's face. He neither laughed at himself or pushed back on his friends. Rather he stood there somewhat neutral to pissed. It was a fleeting moment but it stayed with me.
A few months later, I asked him about the incident. He seemed confused, even defensive about what I was asking.
"I wasn't pissed!" he said, hands and shoulders up like a super pissed person would gesture.
"Are you sure?" I laughed. "You seemed really irritated by that and I just wondered why."
"I mean, it's an open flame!" he exclaimed. "I think it's evolutionary that I have a healthy fear of fire."
"Yeah..." I smirked, "But it was like a half an inch flame. You get that right?"
He rolled his eyes but didn't laugh.
"Jim," I slapped his arm. "If you're going to survive in a relationship with me, you're going to need to lighten up."
"Okay," he said with a half smile. "But if you're going to survive a relationship with me, you must be okay with how serious I can be."
And with that we settled into a deeply committed relationship resting within the tension between humor and seriousness.
Over the years we found ourselves still torn about the level of seriousness and humor that we could find in certain things. Mostly, I'd get angry when he became too serious about work; he'd get mad when I'd make an inappropriate joke during a fight. But humor became the language we used in our marriage, and now with our little family. It became the barometer of so many things.
My lack of humor, and even the inability to laugh, after the birth of our first child alerted Jim that I needed to seek help for postpartum depression. We started a tradition of watching stand up comedy on Netflix after any tough, tantrum-filled day with the girls. He was there to help anchor the family with the seriousness of life; I was there to bring levity to it. And our children have followed suit. Lowery is often overly serious, while her younger sister London is constantly throwing her head back in laughter. They tether each other to a grounded center.
Last year Jim and I went to New York City. While there, walking in Central Park, he stopped and said, "Hey! I've got an idea! Let's call the Comedy Cellar and see if we can get into a show tonight."
They happened to have two spots left at the midnight showing. Having never been to a New York comedy club, I was fascinated by the process. You call in for reservations, then stand outside in line for an hour (and if you're lucky, like us, it will be snowing) until you get arbitrarily handed a seat number by a curt and scruffy guy wearing a Mets ball cap.
Once we went down the steep and narrow stairs and gave the attendant our number, we saw that we were seated on the front row. This isn't like theatre, mind you. When I say we were on the front row, I mean that the microphone stand bumped up against our table and the comedians would be resting their drinks on it all night.
The first comedian who came out to warm up the crowd was astoundingly charming and fun. But the second he got on stage, he pointed directly at Jim, who happened to be wearing a button up shirt, v-neck sweater, and a blazer with elbow patches on it.
"Hot damn!" the comedian said. "Are you some sort of millionaire with all those clothes? And is this your girl?" he said, pointing at me. "Damn, it seems well past her bedtime. Is this even legal?"
I blushed at the fact that in the dark lighting of a basement comedy club I look very young and hot. But I couldn't bare to look over at Jim. I could see everyone in that crammed room was looking at him as the comedian went on to make fun of Jim's hair, the drink he'd ordered, and his glasses. I still didn't look.
Then, without warning, the comedian swung around to the other side of the stage and started ribbing a woman in a white dress. Within a few seconds, she stood up, slammed her drink down and stormed up the stairs.
The comedian turned back to Jim. "They aren't all as good natured as you, brother."
And that's when I looked at Jim, who was laughing and slapping his knee. I didn't understand what was happening. I'd been looking over at him for over a decade by now and I'd never seen him like this.
Seven more comedians took the stage, and each one of them focused their act around Jim. Many called him out for his clothes, some made fun of the fact he was from Oklahoma, others tried to predict what his occupation was. And with each jab--some truly mean spirited--my husband laughed so hard tears were streaming down his face.
There I was, at 1 o'clock in the morning, watching my husband of ten years be heckled by some of the best (and most snarky) New York comedians I've ever seen. And there he sat, a decade past a time when a playful joke about his fear of fire irritated him, laughing wildly and getting shoulder bumps from other people in the audience. My husband, the serious man I married, was the center of a comedy show.
When the last comedian came on stage, I was overwhelmed by his size. Easily 300 pounds, muscular, an array of piercings and tattoos, and the meatiest hands I've ever seen. It became clear that he didn't have a bit prepared, so instead, he did five minutes of stand up about my husband. Jim answered the comedian's questions with ease ("No, there's no stick up my ass"; "I'm not in my 50s but I get that my hair says otherwise"; "Yes, I dress like a nerd because I actually am one"). Though I'd been having a great time, floored and impressed by my husband's sense of humor about himself, I began to lose my sense of humor as this beast of a man kept attacking my wiry, kind, serious husband. I suddenly felt the need to punch someone.
As the show finally ended my husband was surrounded by patrons patting his back and complimenting his good-naturedness about it all. As we rounded the corner to head up the stairs, we bumped into the first comedian, the one who warmed up the audience before the show.
He shouted out "Ah! You two!" And he embraced us both with a massive hug." We complimented him on his act, and all the comedians, and he hugged us again.
"You are such a fun couple!" he said. "But you," he put a hand on Jim's shoulder. "You were the star of the show."
We climbed up the stairs and into the cold night, the ground covered in snow, the air crisp and quiet. Jim was practically bouncing down the street, a giddy energy about him. We walked a while as he talked about his favorite jokes and which comedian he liked the best and what the guy at the table next to us had said to him after the show.
But then he noticed I was quieter than normal.
"You had a great time, right?" he asked.
"The best!" I responded. "That was easily the hardest I've ever laughed."
He nodded, still chuckling.
"And I gotta say," I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. "I don't think I've ever loved you more."
"Oh?" he said, smiling.
"You've come a long way since your fear of fire at Amanda's birthday party."
He laughed. "I learned a few things watching you over the years."
"Yeah, well, we may have traded places," I said.
"I don't know why, but that last guy made me nervous. He was just so big and mean and he kept going after you. In that last set I just felt a seriousness come over me. I felt really mad, like I wanted to punch him."
"Oh Meg," my wiry, serious, nerdy, husband of ten years said. "It was a comedy show. Lighten up."