Read exclusive content from Happy-Go-Lucky, the latest installment from bestselling comedian David Sedaris.
It’s July in West Sussex, and I’m at a garden party, talking with a lawyer who has two sons in their early twenties. The oldest is living in Scotland, and the other, a sullen college student, is home for the month, tearing everyone’s head off. “So, do you have children?” she asks.
“Oh no,” I tell her. “Not yet anyway. But I am in a relationship.”
She says that she is glad to hear it.
“My boyfriend will turn twenty-one this coming Wednesday,” I continue, “and you are so right about the moodiness of young men his age. I mean, honestly, what do they have to be so angry about?”
I do this all the time—tell people misleading things about Hugh. It’s fun watching them shift gears as they reevaluate who they think I am. Sometimes I say that he’s been blind since birth or is a big shot in the right-to-life movement, but the best is when he’s forty-plus years my junior.
“Well... good for you,” people say while thinking, I’m pretty sure, That poor boy! Because it’s creepy, that sort of age difference—vampiric.
“There’s a formula for dating someone younger than you,” my friend Aaron in Seattle once told me. “The cutoff,” he explained, “is your age divided by two plus seven.” At the time, I was fifty-nine, meaning that the youngest I could go, new-boyfriend-wise, was thirty-six and a half. That’s not a jaw-dropping difference, but although it might seem tempting, there’d be a lot that someone under forty probably wouldn’t know, like who George Raft was, or what hippies smelled like. And, little by little, wouldn’t those gaps add up and leave you feeling even older than you actually are?
It’s true that Hugh is younger than I am, but only by three years. Still, I thought he’d never reach sixty. Being there by myself—officially old, the young part of old, but old nevertheless—was no fun at all. C’mon, I kept thinking. Hurry it along. His birthday is in late January, which makes him an Aquarian. This means nothing to me, though my sister is trying her damnedest to change that. Amy’s astrologer predicted that Biden would win the 2020 presidential election, and when he did, she offered it as proof that Rakesh—that’s his name, Rakesh—has extraordinary powers and thus deserves not just my respect but my business.
“You have to make an appointment and at least talk to him,” she said.
“No, I don’t,” I told her. “I mean, my dry cleaner predicted the same thing. Lots of people did.”
I’m a Capricorn, and according to the astrologer Lisa Stardust my least compatible signs for dating are Aries and Leo. My best bets are Cancers, Scorpios, and Pisceans.
I haven’t looked at what astrological signs Hugh should avoid going out with, mainly because it’s irrelevant. Not long after he turned sixty-one, we celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. Will we make it to thirty-five years? To fifty? Either way, do I really need to hear about it from Rakesh?
My mother became interested in astrology in the nineteen eighties. She wasn’t a kook about it; she simply started reading the horoscopes in the Raleigh News & Observer. “Things are going to improve for you financially on the seventeenth,” she’d say over the phone, early in the morning if the prediction was sunny and she thought it might brighten my day. “A good deal of money is coming your way, but with a slight hitch.”
“Oh, no!” I’d say. “Are you dying?” I thought it was hooey, but in the back of my mind, a little light would always go on. I guess what I felt was hope—my life would change, and for the better! The seventeenth would come and go, and although I’d be disappointed, I would also feel vindicated: “I told you I wouldn’t find happiness.”
She never had her chart done, my mother, but she did branch out and start reading the horoscopes in Redbook and in Ladies’ Home Journal, a magazine that had come to our home for as long as I could remember. The only column in it that interested me, the only one I regularly read, was called Can This Marriage Be Saved?
You could have taken everything I knew about long-term relationships back then and fitted it into an acorn cap. I thought that, in order to last, you and your wife or boyfriend or whatever had to have a number of mutual interests. They didn’t need to be profound. Camping would qualify, or decoupaging old milk cans. The surprise is that sometimes all it takes is a mutual aversion to overhead lights, or to turning the TV on before eleven p.m. You like to be on time and keep things tidy, the other person’s the same, and the next thing you know thirty years have passed and people are begging you to share your great wisdom. “First off,” I say, “never, under any circumstances, look under the hood of your relationship. It can only lead to trouble.” Counseling, I counsel, is the first step to divorce.
I’ve thought of that Ladies’ Home Journal column a lot lately, wondering if marital problems in the seventies and eighties weren’t all fairly basic: She’s an alcoholic. He’s been sleeping with his sister-in-law. She’s a spendthrift and a racist, he’s a control freak, etc.
No couple argued over which gender their child should be allowed to identify as; no one’s husband or wife got sucked into QAnon or joined a paramilitary group. Sure, there were conspiracy theories, but in those pre-internet days it was harder to submerge yourself in them. A spouse might have been addicted to Valium but not to video games, or online gambling. I don’t know that one can technically be addicted to pornography, but that’s bound to put a strain on marriages, especially now, when it’s at your fingertips, practically daring you not to look at it.
I’ve watched a number of movies and TV shows lately in which the characters’ marriages dissolve for no real reason. I said to Hugh during Ted Lasso, “Did I miss the episode where he or his wife had an affair?” The same was true of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story: “Why are they getting a divorce?”
Don’t people who feel vaguely unfulfilled in their relationships just have too much time on their hands? Decide that you need to discover your true, independent self, and the next thing you know you’ll be practicing Reiki or visiting an iridologist. That, I’ve learned, is someone who looks deep into your eyes and can see your internal organs. My sister Amy went to one, who told her that she had something stuck in her colon.
She took the diagnosis to her acupuncturist, who said that, actually, what the iridologist had seen in my sister’s eyes was trauma.
Amy said, “Trauma?”
He said, “Remember you told me you saw a mouse and a water bug in your kitchen one day last month?”
She said, “Yes.”
He said, “That’s trauma.”
My sister is not dating anyone—a good thing, as she’s got way too much time on her hands. And that, I think, is the number one reason so many relationships fail. Too much free time, and too much time together. I’m normally away from Hugh between four and six months a year, and when the pandemic canceled the tours I had scheduled, I panicked. We were in New York at the time, so I sought out his old friend Carol. “What’s he really like?” I asked her. “I think I sort of knew once, but that was twenty-five years ago.”
Trapped together for months on end, I learned that Hugh reads a lot. Like, every word of the Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books. Oddly, though, he doesn’t seem to retain much. Whenever guests came to dinner and the talk turned to politics, Hugh, who might have delivered an informed opinion on, for example, Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the WHO, would say, “I think we should line them all up and shoot them.”
“Shoot who?” I’d ask, though I knew the answer.
“All the jerks who think we should withdraw.”
That’s his family’s most damning epithet: jerk.
“Yes, well, that’s not going to happen,” I’d tell him. “It’s not a real solution to the problem.”
“Then I don’t want to talk about it.”
When not reading or cooking, Hugh goes to his studio and stares out the window, high on paint fumes, I’m guessing. I’ve never known anyone who can stand still as long as he does, moving nothing but his eyes, which shift back and forth like a cat’s on one of those plastic wall clocks where the swinging tail is the pendulum. He doesn’t listen to music while he’s in there, or to the radio. Once, I put on a recording of Eudora Welty reading a number of her short stories, and, though he claimed to enjoy it, after “Petrified Man” he said he didn’t want to hear any more. He likes to be alone with his thoughts, but me, I can’t think of anything worse.
When not reading or cooking or staring out his window at nothing, Hugh practices piano. He started taking lessons on a rented upright when he was ten and living in Ethiopia, but his father couldn’t bear to hear him practice. He wasn’t particularly inept, but noise, any noise, bothered his dad, a novelist with a day job as a diplomat. Then the family moved to Somalia, where pianos were hard to come by, not to mention piano teachers, and his father wrote another book.
After a fifty-year break, Hugh started taking lessons again, this time on a baby grand a friend gave him, and though he’s really committed, it always sounds to me like he just started last week. “I can’t play when you’re in the room,” he told me. “I feel judged.”
Then he decided that he couldn’t play when I was in the apartment.
And so we bought the apartment upstairs from us.
“So that you’ll have somewhere to go when he practices piano?” asked Amy, who bought the apartment upstairs from her just so she could get away from her rabbit.
“Exactly,” I told her.
“Makes sense,” she said.
I’m up there all the time now. We have no interior staircase connecting the two places, so Hugh emails me when he’s got news. “Lunch is ready.” “The super is here to fix your closet door.” That type of thing. We took ownership just as New York went into lockdown, and furniture deliveries were banned in our building. Luckily, the previous owner agreed to leave a sofa and a bed. I found a few chairs on the street, a folding table, a bucket I could overturn and use as a footstool. For months, it looked like a twelve-year-old’s clubhouse. Not that we didn’t both spend time there. Hugh can do everything upstairs that he does downstairs except practice piano. We call the second apartment Luigi’s. “Will we be having dinner on the nineteenth floor or up at Luigi’s?”
Luigi’s, we decided, is for casual dining.
Eventually we moved our bedroom to the second apartment. After thirty years together, sleeping is the new having sex. “That was amazing, wasn’t it!” one or the other of us will say upon waking in the morning.
“I held you in the night.”
“No, I held you!”
“You kids think you invented sleep,” I can imagine my mother saying.
But didn’t we? Hugh and I try new positions. (“You got drool on my calf!”) We engage in quickies (naps). Three times a week I change the sheets so that our bed will feel like one in a nice hotel. Pulling back the comforter, we look like a couple in a detergent commercial. “Smell the freshness!”
For a thirtieth anniversary, you’re supposed to offer pearls, but instead, for roughly the same price, I went to the Porthault shop on Park Avenue and got Hugh a set of sheets. The “Fabric Care” section on the company’s website reads, in part, “Do not overload the dryer, as your linens need room to dance.”
How did we become these people? I wonder.
Hugh says that if we ever get separate bedrooms, that’s it—he’s finished. I know this works for a lot of couples, they’re happy being down the hall from each other, but I couldn’t bear such an arrangement. “This is what I’ll miss after you’re dead,” I tell him as I turn out the light, meaning, I guess, the sensation of being dead together.
Hugh might be a mystery to me, but it’s a one-way street. “I’m sorry,” I’ll often say to him.
“That’s all right.”
“What was I apologizing for?” I’ll ask.
“Telling the doorman that my mother looks like Hal Holbrook,” he’ll say, or “Wishing I would get COVID just so you could write about it.”
He nails it every time! I didn’t need to tell him that after we’re all vaccinated and theaters reopen, he will never see me again. “I’ve asked my agent to book me solid—I’ll do three hundred and sixty-five shows in a row, take a night off, and then start all over again,” I said. “I want to make up for lost time, and then some.”
He accuses me of being money hungry, and I wish it were that simple. Honestly, it’s the attention I’m after.
“What about me?” he asks. “Doesn’t my attention matter?”
I say that he doesn’t count, though of course he’s one of a handful of people in my life—along with my sisters, my cousins, and a couple of old friends—who actually do count. I just don’t necessarily need him by my side every moment that I’m awake. Sometimes it’s enough to press my ear against the living-room floor of the upstairs apartment and faintly hear him practicing piano down below, frowning at the keys, I suspect, and at the music before him, a boy again. So determined to get it right.