No Roses, Please
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No Roses, Please

A non-romantic writes her own definition of romance.

For Courtship Only

I was nibbling at the edge of 30 when I got married almost 17 years ago. All brisk business, I went with the first dress I tried on at Saks (ivory, calf-length, long sleeves, drop waist) and made quick work of the flowers (pink sweetheart roses), the menu (stuffed chicken breasts, white cake with mocha filling) and the rabbi (the lesser of the long-winded).

Perhaps because of the energy expended by all that decision-making, I gave scant consideration to the song my husband and I would dance to at our reception, the tune that would perforce become "our song," which, years down the road when I heard it on the radio, would cause my eyes to mist and my future children to roll their eyes and make unattractive guttural noises.

The big moment came. Vince, the bandleader, gave me a quizzical look. It was now or never. "'I'll Take Romance,'" I blurted out. (If you don't know it, trust me, it's a really nice song, just the thing for a wedding.) He nodded approvingly, struck up the band, and Michael, my husband of three hours, twirled me around the floor to enthusiastic applause.

I'm aware that it is really bad form, and sets a really bad precedent, to enter into a contractual agreement with a lie, but that's exactly what I did. It's true I've taken my marriage vows to heart all these years, and not, like some other folks I could mention, viewed them as sort of a multiple-choice arrangement (I'll take richer! I'll take health! I'll take better!). But I have utterly strayed from the tenets of my wedding song: "I'll take romance/ while my heart is young and eager to fly/ I'll give my heart a try/ I'll take romance." I haven't taken romance, never taken to it, never will.

Indeed, I feel about romance as I do about so many things in life, among them folk dancing and karaoke: fine for other people. I just don't have the right clothes, or the right skill set. Let my husband bring me a dozen perfect roses and I am unable to arrange them nicely in a vase without losing the vase, the roses, or my mind. Let him come bearing a nice big expensive box of chocolates and I'm not thinking, Oh, darling. I'm thinking, Whoa. Dermatologist. I feel more than a little embarrassed admitting all this. Everyone is supposed to want romance -- it's in the same column as ice cream, chocolate, sex, blue cheese: What's not to like? So, okay, I'll grant this much. Romance definitely has its place during courtship. It's one of the key ways of closing the deal. But at the risk of sounding irredeemably cranky, it seems to me that romance is the fever that marriage puts to bed and cures.

I have more than a little support for my point of view, and it comes from men far more experienced in the field of romance than I, guys like the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Cole Porter. Their songs -- about dancing in the dark, dancing all night, hearts standing still, no, no, they can't take that away from me -- were the sound track of my adolescence and young adulthood. But the more I listened, the more I realized that these songs, with a few exceptions, are all set in premarital times. Now, this could be because it was just too hard to find a nice, credible rhyme for "Honey, are you getting the kids?" or "Your glasses are right where you left them," or "Yes, pasta again." But I prefer to think it was a tacit acknowledgment that the rules and the roles and the rhythms change after the "I do's."

Personal Romance

I feel the need to say something here: I love my husband. For the most part I regard myself as happily married, and I think -- I like to think -- he does, too. So I've had to ask myself: How can we be this content if our marriage is a romance-free zone?

Well, it's not. We've got romance, all right, but it's a romance requiring no special effects, one built on familiarity and shared history, one that grows more potent with time. I've finally come to realize that what I've been giving a wide berth to all these years is not romance, per se; it's institutionalized romance as embodied by the Hallmark Stations of the Cross: birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine's Day -- occasions when you can put out your credit card without putting out any effort. To these I say, thanks but no thanks. Like me, my husband is not overtly romantic. But he has made himself a student of me in matters trivial and large.

He knows I'm not fit company until I've had my morning swim. He knows how I take my tea from Starbucks (Venti, Tazo Awake, one tea bag), when I'm about to lose it with the kids, where to put the pressure during a foot massage. Before a recent trip that involved a stay at a hotel without a pool or fitness center -- anathema to me -- he called around to find a health club in the area.

I've been similarly educated about my husband. One Equal, half a finger of skim milk in his coffee; Merlot (never more than two glasses); no starch in his shirts; the New York Yankees; the New York Giants; not while he's reading the paper; not while West Wing is on; take yes for an answer. Stay the course.

Several months ago, my friend Stephen talked to me with admirable frankness about the demise of his brief, unhappy marriage. "My next relationship is going to be romantic, played out on a grand scale," he vowed. "I don't want it to be about trips to the hardware store."

That was where we parted company. To me, trips to the hardware store are exactly what romance is about. They're girl Viagra. I'm not going to start getting jiggy about grout and number-two nails. But a walk down the aisle of Ace Hardware with my husband spells a very particular kind of intimacy for me.

I remember, years ago, being in a relationship with someone and going with him to the laundromat. Reflexively, I began sorting out the whites and colors, and my beau became furious at what I guess he saw as effrontery. Sex was one thing. Wielding the Wisk was getting just a bit too cozy. We broke up soon afterward.

Just as well; it would never have lasted. When you live with someone for a long time -- let's say, almost 17 years -- the big thrills become infrequent (but oh, honey, it was magical last night, really). So it becomes infinitely useful to celebrate the small stuff and the small, miraculously ordinary moments. That romance, I'll take.