It was a typical Saturday at the small neighborhood salon where I regularly go for my manicure and pedicure: a bevy of women giving and getting haircuts, perms and manicures, chatting in an upbeat banter over the background hum of classical music and blow dryers.
Across the room from where I was waiting, two young women sat side-by-side under a pair of hairdryers, giggling and pointing as they flipped through a dog-eared copy of Modern Bride.
“Look at this one!” one of them said as she held up a full-page photo of a woman in an enormous white hat that was covered in pearls. “Heavy enough to break your neck!” she said, slowly panning to the audience like a kindergarten teacher showing the pictures at story time.
“You wore something like that, right, Sophia?” I joked with the manicurist whom I been seeing for years. Sophia was married in a small village in Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Never mind a hat — Sophia was lucky to have worn shoes. And even luckier to have lived to be sitting here, given the atrocities to which she’d been subjected.
“My friend’s getting married,” the woman continued.
“Yes. We’ve come for the works,” the bride smiled. And the works it was: manicures, pedicures, cut and color, and an extra-long foot massage — a gift from the owner.
“Why not! You only get married once,” the young stylist proclaimed as she adjusted the heat.
“You hope,” called a voice from the row of chairs by the door.
Everybody laughed, though the bride-to-be looked more horrified than amused.
As I closed my eyes and relaxed into the warm bubbling of the foot bath, my mind drifted back to the Saturday afternoon before my own wedding, when I was still putting the finishing touches on my dress and picking up people at the airport. With all the planning and excitement and running around, I hadn’t given much thought to what I was actually getting myself into.
“When’s the wedding?” I asked the bride who had now come out from under the drier and into the stylist’s chair next to me.
“Tomorrow at noon.” she beamed.
“Congratulations! I just had my tenth anniversary,” the salon owner said as she passed through with a broom.
“My parents have been together twenty-two years,” added the young stylist. “I think that’s pretty good, given the odds.”
“My husband and I just celebrated our 35th,” I proudly revealed to a chorus of oohs and ahhs. “And you, Sophia?” I knew Sophia had been married even longer than I.
“Thirty eight,” she said. “No, wait,” she frowned and began counting on her fingers. “Almost forty!”
“So, what’s the secret?” the friend asked. “What does it take?”
Sofia stopped massaging my foot for a moment and made a simple gesture with her hand, zipping her lips and locking them with a key. The bride and her friend exchanged a quizzical glance.
“She means choose your battles,” I said.
“Oh, I thought she meant, don’t think you have to have the last word,” said a forty-something woman about to be shampooed.
“Both!” four or five of us replied in unison.
“My rule is to try and say yes as often as possible,” said one woman.
“Mine is to not be critical when I’m upset,” added another.
“Mine is to never go to bed angry,” said a third.
“That’s a good one,” the shop owner nodded, having returned with clean towels.
“You’re probably less stubborn than I am,” one of the stylists quipped and the owner agreed.
As people exchanged stories about various fights they’d had, along with their ways to make up, I leaned back in my chair and contemplated the notion of never going to bed angry, a seemingly good idea I’d found difficult to implement.
I then remembered a cartoon a client had given me: Two skeletons in matching night clothes sit in front of a TV set, with a caption that reads, “Mister and Mrs. Smith vowed never to go to bed angry.”
Yup. That would have been us, if we’d made that rule! The two of us started out being hot-headed and headstrong, far too easily hurt and slow to get over our injuries. The good news for our marriage was that both of us found the huffy silence to be almost unbearable if it went on for more than a day.
So, skills or no skills, wounds or no wounds, our desire to reconcile outweighed whatever need we had to keep our distance. Fortunately, that kept us working at it until we learned how to apologize and forgive, and how to truly repair.
The advice for the newlywed went on a while longer, with people agreeing that most fights are pretty silly, though there are a few that are important. There was consensus that it’s not a good idea to name call, that kindness goes a long way, and that, no matter what everyone says, even sixty-year-olds can still have great sex.
Around that time I heard the bride breathe a long sigh. Her face pinched with a look of mild panic, she hesitated, and then asked, “Even with all that… you’re not sorry, are you? It’s worth it, isn’t it?” she said, wide-eyed and expectant, as if her future hung on our response.
“Of course it’s worth it,” Sophia smiled.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” the shampooed woman assured.
“Neither would I,” the stubborn stylist concurred.
With a sigh of relief, the woman sat back in her chair and her stylist put the finishing touches on her now wispy blonde curls. Sophia applied the final coat to my glittery nails and moved me to a seat by the door to dry.
The bride stood up and did a quick pirouette as our small gathering of women applauded. The stylist gave a brief curtsy and the two friends put both hands together and started to waltz.
The secret to a happy marriage… if it were only that simple. Advice to the newlywed is like showing someone a photograph of a destination they’re soon to visit. A snapshot can never do justice to the grandeur and complexity of a place. Besides, once we get there, each of us will see what we see and do what we do.
Sophia will zip her lips, I will learn every day how to be more loving and more generous, the strong-willed stylist will have many chances to let go. Some will choose to not go to bed angry and others will need to learn how to fight for what’s important. Some will struggle with differences that seem insurmountable and many will think it’s just them: that marriage should be easier than it is and they’re simply not cut out for it.
Most will hopefully realize that marriage is an ever-changing challenge, that it isn’t easy for any of us, though if we hang in, we can find our way to a marriage that’s definitely worth the effort we put into it.
At noon the next day, in the presence of loved ones, under a shower of rice, the glowing bride from the salon would take her first step into marriage. And with all that lies ahead of her on that road, she’ll find her own answer to the question “what does it take?” — an answer as good or better than the ones that we offered her.
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