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Love Alters Not

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They got married too young. Joseph was nineteen going on twenty, and Mary was twenty-two. Mary was pregnant. They'd gotten married on the beach at sunset, barefoot and giddy. Mary had hibiscus flowers in her hair. Joseph's lips had tasted of tequila and salt when they kissed.

Baby Kristin was stillborn three months after the wedding. It had rocked them like a natural disaster, unpredictable and unexpected. Mary had felt like she was playing house, sitting in a tidy little kitchen with shiny new plates and bowls and a margarita maker, everything they'd picked out for their wedding registry on a whim. Then a sudden lurching jolt skewed them sideways into the adult world, a blur marked off in increments by blood on the bathroom floor, bed rest, then a second pregnancy and a third, prenatal vitamins followed by endless diaper changes, loads of laundry, and pureed banana and applesauce on the kitchen walls.

They never named the baby Mary lost in between the twins and Crish. She was only eighteen weeks along. She told Joseph once, during one of their worst fights, that she'd lost her faith in God the morning she realized she'd stopped feeling those little, fluttering kicks. The baby had been the size of a green pepper. It was a Monday. The ultrasound appointment where they were supposed to find out the gender was on Wednesday. Instead, she had stared blankly at the ceiling while the technician tried to find a heartbeat.

Really, her faith had faded gradually, ground down by church politics, and a marriage strained by too many competing forces. It was her relationship with Joseph that had frayed from that point. Every time he buried himself in his work. Every time someone from his congregation told her that losing her baby had been God's will. She's not sure what she believes these days.

Mary knows she drinks too much. Joseph had loved her free spirit, he'd said, when they first started dating. They'd been young, and reckless, and partied hard. But after Chris was born, it was like a switch had been flipped. They had become parents, and there were a whole new set of impossible expectations and rules to follow. Now, they have four children under the age of ten.

Mary feels like she's been pregnant for the last twelve years, even though she knows it's not literally true. She loves her kids, fiercely and immensely, but sometimes she is just desperately sick of the demanding little fuckers. It's like her entire identity has been reduced down to The Bad Mom.

She gets the kids up in the morning, packs lunches for the older kids and for Joseph, drops everyone off at school, vacuums and tidies while Crish clings to her needily like a little spider monkey. She picks up the kids, administers snacks, corrals them into homework, feeds everyone supper, and wrangles the four of them through baths and their bedtime routine. About three or four nights out of seven, she looks at the laundry, the dishes, and the back of her husband's head as he preps Bible studies and youth group lessons, and feels the house close in around her. Only then does she text Robert, and head out to the bar.

Ironically, she and Robert only started hanging out because he'd fucked her husband, after her miscarriage. They are all horrible people.

She knows that Joseph dealt with his grief by sleeping around. Her husband is a huge slut, and it's one of the things she loves about him. They used to have an understanding about hooking up--it was okay solo as long as he called to ask permission first, and gave her a play by play afterwards. Mary thought idly about invoking their agreement for Chris's grade one teacher a few years back. That woman was smoking hot, and clearly not getting any satisfaction at home. She planned out an elaborate campaign of seduction in her head, but at the end of the day, it all just seemed like too much work to go through with it.

Mary picks her targets carefully at the bar. She's pretty sure Joseph thinks she's sleeping with someone new every night, and meanly doesn't abuse him of the notion, taking that hangdog, reproachful look when she gets home as her due. She'll never tell him what is happening, though. Inevitably she will get sloppy-drunk, and spend the next hour telling the guy across from her at great length about every dog at the shelter. She can't help it--it's deflect with dogs, stay silent like she does at home, or let all her messy secrets come spilling out. To date, she's negotiated eight bar stool pet adoptions that have actually come through the next day.

On better nights, she hangs with Robert, and they gossip fiercely and ferociously. She feels guilty sometimes that she only shares the worst of Joseph with him, but then she has another drink and it passes. She and Robert became drinking buddies after he sat down beside her at the bar one night years ago, and told her that Joseph was sleeping around. She'd laughed in his face, and bought him shots until the two of them ended up staggering down to the beach together, Mary belting out sea shanties while Robert told her all about sea monster cryptids. Robert's got his own heavy share of regret and angst, but at least the two of them can meet up at the bar and bond over Long Haul Ice Road Paranormal Ghost Truckers. Joseph won't watch it because it's too scary for him, the chickenshit. Christie has decided that she wants to be a ghost trucker when she grows up. Christian wants to be a ghost truck.

When she gets back, Joseph is usually sitting on the couch, reading the bible, the sanctimonious prick. For the last three months, he's quietly packed up and headed down to the yacht to sleep. Mary hates the yacht. She hates that he has an escape to go to that's all his, and that he's going without her. They had a.... conversation about it a few months ago. He'd talked to her like he was counselling one his parishioners, and she'd bitten back every horrible, messy thing she wanted to say. Mary thinks her marriage might be over, and the thought makes her furious.

Once a week after supper, she leaves the kids with their father, who gets to be the fun dad, and heads out to her volunteer shift at the animal shelter. She started volunteering at the shelter out of spite. Joseph had been after her to get out of the house a bit and volunteer, and assumed she'd do something with the church. Sunday school, or shit like that. So she'd picked something totally unrelated to any of the church's charity missions and drives, more or less at random.

She wants to believe that Joseph suggested it to make himself look better, with the perfect pastor's wife doing pastor's wife things. She might have said that to him. Just maybe. In the heat of the moment. If she's honest with herself though, she knows he was worried about her. It had been in the six months after she'd lost the baby, their fragile little unnamed hope, and she'd been sleepwalking through the days in a thick, smothering fog of grief. They had both pretended that there hadn't been a heartbreaking look of relief on his face whenever she dragged herself off the couch to her weekly shift at the shelter.

Damien is her Tuesday night shelter buddy. A month after Lucien's mother had left him, Mary had gotten fed up with the careful conversations and the brittle look on his face, and sat in his driveway in the car, leaning on the horn until he came outside and agreed to come with her. Puppies make everything better, and she's been looking out for Damien since middle school.

And of course Joseph has all the time in the world for the new neighbour down the street, and of course they need to throw a welcome barbecue for the whole block. Because Mary has all the time in the world to make potato salad.

Mary knows she's a bad mother. She knows Joseph judges her for it, and can't help but bait him. After thirteen years together, she and Joseph know how to push all of each other's buttons. The baby? She has no idea where Crish is, she tells Joseph, even though she had passed the sleepy toddler over to an awestruck Lucien not ten minutes before.

Damien's been reading up on Victorian child-rearing practices, to reassure himself that he isn't duplicating the worst of his beloved time period. Mary suspects Lucien's recent (brilliant) stunt with the brick wall has something to do with it. Damien has told her at great lengths while cleaning cages last week about how upper-class Victorian parents would only see their children for a few minutes a day, presented before dinner by the nanny, and how this fed into the concept of a new baby as a "little stranger" in the household. He decided that Lucien needs to be comfortable with small children to encourage his nurturing side, and has signed him up for a babysitting class. Lucien is hilariously terrified of babies, and could use some supervised practice with a toddler. Mary thinks the Victorian method has some merits, and has started daydreaming about having a nanny.

The twins? She taped over Veggietales with The Shining, she says flippantly.

Joseph keeps leaving his laptop on the coffee table. Two weeks ago, Chris had learned how to search the internet, and had obligingly, painstakingly, typed "t-w-i-n" into Youtube for his younger siblings. (Thirty seconds, she takes her eyes off them, while Crish is throwing a tantrum because he wants to wear his footie flannel pajamas in August, but they're too hot, and he wants them to be cooler, and they make him itch, but it must be THOSE pajamas, and why can't she make it better because Mom is supposed to fix everything... and the older kids are into new and exciting chaos.) They've been fascinated with that damn scene ever since. Stephen King has a lot to answer for.

Mary confessed to Robert last night that she put it on repeat for them before supper so that she could get one more load of laundry done--Crish's potty-training exploits are not going well this week. Robert had thought that was hilarious, the fucker.

She'd meant to start the laundry before supper, but Crish had been clingy and fussy, and she'd lain down with him on the couch for just a minute. He'd snuggled in, flushed and damp from crying, and the warm weight of him had lulled her to sleep. She thought they'd made it through the potential hell of sleep regressions, but apparently, a two-year old sleep regression could be a Thing, and it's been disrupting the whole household lately. Mary does not have words to say how much she resents Joseph for leaving her on her own right now, no matter what's going on between the two of them.

An hour later, the phone had woken her, the school calling to get her permission for Craig to drive the kids home with his twins, since she'd been so late picking them up. He'd said he hadn't minded, but had been harried and distracted when he dropped them off. Chris told her proudly that he'd bitten Hazel because of what she said about Christian, but then Briar bit back, and Christie was going to get revenge. Mary started grimly baking apology cookies, but then the twins ate half of them in one sitting and both promptly threw up all over the living room, and Joseph swooped in, and took the other half to give to the new neighbours.

That was the point at which Mary threw the spatula at him, and told him he could bake his own damn cookies for the church bake sale. Okay, she might have screamed it. And she should regret it, but she really doesn't.

He had made brownies. With the kids. And left a disaster behind in the kitchen. Fun dad.

She'll find out what the twins meant by revenge next week, when she gets an awkward phone call from Craig about the capybara incident, and seriously start to wonder what else the kids found on Youtube in the approximately seven and a half minutes they were on the computer unsupervised. Joseph will install a deadbolt on the top of the back gate. Chris will figure out a way around it in twenty-three seconds.

Chris is having trouble with the other kids at school. He just can't to seem to pick up the knack of making friends, and keeps getting into fights. Some of it has to do with Christian and Christina's creepy twin routine. He's been sullen and withdrawn at home, too, and his teacher wants to talk. The twins have always bounced from one obsession to the next, with a scary amount of focus. And then in the next minute, they're all over the place, and won't settle down to a single solitary thing. Lately, they've started wandering from the yard into the woods at the bottom of the garden, which drives her nuts.

Her children have always seemed to have a harder time than everyone else's. Chris has always lagged behind the other kids his age, and doesn't follow directions well. Mary wants to believe that he's inherited her anti-authoritarian streak, but truly knows that he needs things broken down into smaller steps. He does fine at home because they all know how to deal, but there are too many distractions at school. The twins are powered by jet fuel and have never really gotten the hang of sleeping. Crish is a little bundle of sunshine, but Mary lives in dread of finding out some new and exciting issue that they haven't yet experienced with the other three.

Mary knows it's her fault. She drank when she was pregnant--before she knew she was pregnant. She may have lost her faith, but guilt is a habit that's harder to kick. Her kids, her flawed and precious and struggling kids, have borne the brunt of her sins. She hates herself for thinking it, but even though she still mourns both of the babies she lost, she's glad she never got a chance to ruin their lives, too.

Even when they get the dual diagnoses of autism for Chris and ADHD for the twins, a year from now, she will still blame herself. It will be another eight months before she makes a glib remark in the occupational therapist's office, who will give her a long, searching look, shut the door and compassionately and clinically take her through the statistical odds and causes, disassemble the notion that blame has anything to do with it, and silently hand her a box of Kleenex as she dissolves into wracking sobs. It will be six months more in therapy past that point before she shares her years-long fears and self-blame with Joseph, and will mark a turning point in their relationship.

Joseph loves his kids, and is adamant that there's nothing wrong with them. It will take him a while to understand that no-one is criticizing his children for needing help to navigate a world that wasn't designed to accommodate them. That the language of Individualized Education Plans in the classroom, ADHD meds (Mary's exact words in response are "just make sure you give my kids the good shit, doc,") and occupational and behavioural therapy, is a means to an end, and one that for all its flaws, is supposed to be an improvement and a help, and not a punishment. He and Mary start to make more progress advocating for their kids once he puts his considerable charisma to working the system instead of railing against it, after Mary realizes what's going on in his occasionally dense pretty little head, and knocks some sense into him. But that's still several years away.

Right now, she is furious with her husband, but she still loves him. She knows that he looks at her and sees a failure, and a problem to be fixed, and her bitchy, miserable worst self to be avoided. She'd give the world if he just, for a single second, stopped trying to fix things and trying to prove something by being holier than thou, and running away from the problems they should be sharing. She wants to curl up beside him on the couch, tuck her cold toes under his thigh, and mock late-night cable movies together. She wants to put her head in his lap, and share the silence, instead of letting it destroy the two of them.

If he asked her how she was, and waited for a real answer, and admitted that being a good parent and a good partner was fucking hard work some days. If he gave her any indication that he saw her, Mary, not the mother who was failing her children, or the wife he expected that she could never live up to, or the sharp-tongued drunk that she couldn't help but be. Just Mary, who loves dogs, and her kids, and Joseph, and wants to be a better person, but can't do it all alone.

*

Joseph doesn't know why Mary is so angry all the time. He tries and he tries, to be a good husband and father. To be the provider. To be a good Christian. He says yes to everyone, again and again and again. He tried to be selfless, but with every little piece of himself that he offers up to prove his worth, she seems to hate him more and more.

Maybe they got married too young. Sure, Mary was pregnant, but more than that, they were happy together. She was radiant on their wedding day, hair loose around her face. He could smell her coconut sunscreen and feel the warmth of her skin through the light cotton dress she wore, his hand at the small of her back as they kissed. He thought they made a good team--they've always fed off each other's energy and magnified the other. Unfortunately, this has also proved true in the bad times as well as the good.

Anyone who knew him pre-kids would tell you he's always been a bit of a flirt. He likes making people happy, and if he's honest with himself, he'll admit that he likes the ego boost of being wanted. In their younger, wilder years, they'd sometimes pick up a third at the bar. Joseph would usually pull them in, and Mary would orchestrate the whole encounter. The two of them would send the latest bright young thing on their way in the morning, happily well-fucked, plied with coffee, and fed with Joseph's famous blueberry pancakes.

For the longest time post-kids they were both too tired for anything more than late-night fumblings on the couch and Sunday morning quickies in the shower, let alone involving anyone else. And now, he worries more about what other people think than he did ever before. Some days, he hates himself for it. Other days, he hates that he put himself in a position where he needs to be respectable.

When Mary lost the second baby, she pulled in tight on herself, lost in an impenetrable bubble of misery. That's when they really stopped talking, and when he thinks he started to lose Mary too. Joseph threw himself into work, into the church, into romance novels. He's always been a sucker for a happy ending.

And then he threw himself at Robert for a bit. He doesn't regret the fling--the sex was fantastic--but he does regret how he ended it, by just ghosting the poor guy and never calling. He'd still like to apologize one of these days, but that ship has long since sailed.

He dreams about walking away from it all. He knows he never really could. He dreams about being someone else, with no responsibilities or connections.

He has nightmares about losing the children, in shopping malls, and on hiking trails in the ravine, swept away to sea. Sometimes they've been replaced, with perfect little soulless copies, his loud, messy, beautiful, chaotic children. Sometimes it's something else wearing their faces, blank dead eyes looking back at him. He blames the twins' damn horror movie obsession for this newest variation. He's never liked horror movies--he and Damien are united on that front, and Mary's been inflicting them on the two of them for years.

He has nightmares about losing Mary, too. She's drowning, or sinking in quicksand, or drifting away from him on the tide with her hair floating around her like seaweed and her face impassively blank and unnaturally calm.

Mary has always been clever, and quick witted. He's been trying to keep up with her since the first time he asked her to dance, at a beach party in Cancun. He was working as a waiter for the summer. She was bar-tending. Her wit has always skipped ahead of him. Now, she uses it to wound, and deflect.

Part of the reason he leaves is because he knows Mary won't drink if she's alone with the kids. He can't stop her altogether from disappearing into a bottle of wine, sitting in the kitchen with the lights off after the kids go to bed. She gets louder at first, sharp and abrasive. Then as the bottle empties, she gets quieter, icy-cold and a million miles away. He wants to keep her here, tethered to the earth with him, safe and warm. He wants to wrap her up in one of his grandmother's quilts, and make her hot chocolate, and rub her feet.

He's been sleeping on the yacht lately. It started as a stupid, passive-aggressive move. Partly, it was so Mary will come home at night to stay with the kids. He hasn't known in months who she's sleeping with and what she's doing. She's always been the more adventurous, daring one, but lately she's had a fatalistic, reckless streak that scares him right down to the bone. When she's gone, he pours himself a glass of wine and camps out on the couch until she comes home, distracting himself with a bodice-ripper mystery tucked into the cover of his study bible.

Partly, it was a desperately selfish move to pretend he's someone else, and escape everything he's failing at home.

He'd tried to ask Mary what was wrong, and how to make things right, but he'd gotten all tangled up in his own justifications. Mary had been icily distant, and he'd retreated into politeness. He thinks their marriage might be over, and it just breaks his heart.

He loves his children, and God help him, he still loves his wife. Even if she hates him for every time he's failed her, even if she looks at him like a stranger, and even if he can't hold together all the pieces of the life they should have. All it would take is for her to trust him and tell him what she's really thinking, and let him be her partner again--in bed, in crime, in parenting, in life.

He's always been genuinely interested in other people. It's part of why he really does like being a pastor. Mary compares him to an overgrown puppy sometimes, although he'd like to think he has a bit more dignity and discernment than that. He likes meeting new people, though. He takes cookies to the new neighbours, and plans a welcome barbeque, and hangs out with the new guy in the neighbourhood. It's the friendly thing to do.

Joseph is tempted by the boy next door. It's not just the idle lust, but the offer of companionship. He remembers what it's like to truly have a partner, and feels like he's the closest to adultery he's ever been, no matter how many people he's slept with.

But he is going to come home one night very soon, and find Mary sitting by the phone, tears streaming down her face. His heart will stop for a second, until he realizes she's laughing so hard she can't breathe. The story comes out in fits and starts. The twins have been running an elaborate revenge scheme against Craig's girls, who said something unkind about Chris, culminating in a kidnapping and dissection. For a second, he thinks she means Craig's baby, but Mary chokes out the word "capybara," and he remembers the stuffed animal. It starts with an undignified series of giggles, and ends with the two of them sitting on the floor, leaning against each other.

Mary is warm against him, and her hair smells like coconut shampoo, just like the girl he married so many years ago. She reaches up, and pulls a bottle of wine off the counter. She passes him the bottle first. They progress from wine to margaritas, to tearful confessions, followed by some drunken making out on the couch before they both pass out for the night. 

It's a stupid thing to be a tipping point, but that poor capybara just might have saved their marriage.

Joseph is going to struggle with his faith, and with his service to the church over the next few years. At the end of the day, he will come to terms with the two. He's always been an idealist, but he needs to realize that a church is made up of people, in all their flawed and human glory. He can't be perfect for them, he can't give everyone everything, and he doesn't need to. He will take a step back, and take some time for himself and his family. Joseph is going to learn to care a little bit less about what other people think, and a little bit more about how to listen to what the people he loves really want, and not just what he thinks they needs.

And really, he will let go of the idea at the back of his head that he isn't the kind of guy who becomes a youth pastor. He's not the same person he was when he was twenty, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. He loves his job, and there is no shame in that.

Mary and Joseph will make a series of choices, large and small, to change and to lean into each other instead of away. Once they start talking again, it's hard to stop. It takes months and years to build a marriage, and everything that's broken can't be fixed over night. But Mary is sharp, and clever, and fiercely protective of what she loves. And Joseph is warm-hearted and wants to make the world a better place. They need each other's best selves, some space for the two of them, and the time and energy to fuck around a little bit. And they're going to find it. Together.