Preexisting Conditions

by Lydia Crowell


My husband is at the DMV taking both the written and the behind the wheel portions of his driver’s test. I am not married to a 16-year-old; rather, this is happening because my husband’s been driving our family minivan without a license for the last four years.

We had planned to go hiking and grill out with our two young daughters today. We both work full-time and the two of us rarely have a free day that aligns. But he told me over breakfast that he had to go handle this — previously, we’d both found out at a court date for a previous traffic violation that his driving privileges had actually been suspended at the time of the incident — and I just nodded and took another enormous swig of coffee, scalding my tongue. None of this surprises me anymore.

When you choose someone with a spotty past as a life partner, you become accustomed to getting strange and unwelcome things in the mail. I dread hearing the dull metal thud of the post hitting the box, the mailman on his bluetooth bickering with his girl as he hops off our stoop. Sometimes it’s a notice from the city treasurer that there’s a lien against my husband from unpaid property taxes a few years ago; other times it’s an invoice from his stunning and extremely expensive attorney, who has thus far managed to minimize his legal woes. The most devastating by far are the tearful handwritten letters from his estranged mother who is by turns livid that she hasn’t met her grandchildren and wistful to reconnect with the man whom we both adore. Every ninety days or so, we get a check from a production gig he completed months ago: enviable, exhilarating, exhausting work that takes him all over the country and is as feast-or-famine as any other job in the music industry. In the meanwhile we stretch every dollar I make at my regular-person job to make ends meet. Sometimes we fall short. The mailman brings a fair number of “final notice before service interruption” correspondence, too.

Most of my husband’s issues stem from severe financial irresponsibility and personal negligence in the years following his tenure as a young serviceman. Upon returning to civilian life in his early twenties, he had expert knowledge of Marine Corps aircrafts and had logged thousands of hours of survival and crew chief training, but had never paid a utility bill or a written a rent check. The newfound lack of structure coupled with crippling bouts of PTSD proved to be a toxic combination for him, making reentry a rocky process. As far as I can tell, for about six years, if he didn’t have money to cover a bill, he tossed it in the trashcan. If he wanted a motorcycle or a fancy piece of music gear, he bought it on a smallish line of credit and then eventually abandoned the payments. He ignored traffic tickets and health insurance premiums, and stopped answering the phone when his bills inevitably went into collection.

Most recently, we learned of a troublesome outstanding warrant issued for his arrest after passing a bad rent check two counties over a few years ago. In our state, if you bounce a check larger than two hundred dollars, it’s considered grand larceny: a felony. He called me at work early one evening, his voice tight and flat. “You’ve got to come home right now.” When I turned onto our street, there were two cruisers in front of our house. In the living room, our children were bouncing a green rubber ball with a pair of officers while my husband shoved his feet into sneakers and pulled a ball cap down over his brow. They waited until they were around the corner and out of my line of vision before reading him his Miranda rights and cuffing him.

“I’m not a malicious guy!” he insists, and he’s not. He is a sensational father, a compelling musician, an adventurer, and a true bon vivant. He knows he has to go straight and he is endeavoring to integrate himself into the patterns of normalcy that I take for granted. He thrives in the high-octane world of the entertainment industry, where people run themselves ragged on a combination of adrenaline and caffeine and pure love of the music, man.

And I am happy whenever I see see him in his element, powerful and engaged, creating the ephemeral landscapes that surround live performers. I understand that the daily rhythm of regular mealtimes, bill-paying, and laundry-folding must seem trite by comparison, but how else does a family build a life? So I end up raging at him about the impracticality of his chosen career path, the lack of dark leafy greens in his diet, and the fact that we have managed to save exactly zero dollars for college or retirement. His eyes still gloss over, but less so: he is making strides. Somehow we truly co-parent amidst the whacked-out hours and gigs and general mayhem that hustling as a young family with two toddlers entails. We are in love, even still, ever more.

But the thing about being a recovering shithead is that even after you’ve made substantive changes to the way you live your life, unsavory flotsam continually drifts to the surface. He never did anything with the intention of hurting anyone else, and assumed that he was only flatlining his own credit and complicating things for himself in queue. In reality, the pre-existing fallout from the years before I even knew him limits our financial options and impacts our marriage every day. I am always worried, now, that someone is looking for him. This makes us both so sad.

“How can I apologize to you for who I used to be?” he asks. I don’t have an answer. I didn’t decide to spend the rest of my life with him because he was a steadfast beacon of responsibility, an understander of dividends, or an avoider of carcinogens. I gambled on a person who has a steep learning curve for achieving adulthood and heavy baggage to go with it because I like the way he makes me feel. He is passionate and deeply sentimental. This week he presented me with a souvenir from his recent travels: a deliciously crisp white panama hat with a sharp black band, kissing me on the bridge of my nose, on the forehead. I’ve always been drawn to his spontaneity, his minor rebellions, his wanderlust: the very same things that have driven a glacial rift between us. He’s my wildcard, and by choosing to play this hand, I’m just as guilty as he of having a thrill-seeking heart.

Every couple must have felt this long winter exhausting herself slowly. There were late-breaking snowstorms, frigid low temperatures. She took a long time to slip definitively into spring, and once she did, my husband and I bought and planted a trunkful of knockout rose bushes in a narrow strip of earth we cleared in our side yard. Neither of us has experience with cultivating anything grander than a basil plant or a succulent, so this was a real leap of faith, but we’ve been trying to make our funny little house feel like home. The gardener at the nursery promised us that these beauties would form a hedge of color for years to come if treated properly.

They looked fantastic for a week, flowering prodigiously in a shock of pink whorls and fronds of slick dark leaves. Then the heat pressed down, as it does in late spring in the mid-Atlantic, and the first blossoms browned and withered and the branches drooped. The earth cracked and sinuous green weeds crept slyly between our roses, threatening their tenuous rooting. I took swift action, pruning the bushes back dramatically and adding huge handfuls of rich black compost to their bases. The girls and I slunk through the soil on all fours, jerking the encroaching sproutlings up by their wispy roots, adding earthworms to the crumbling red clay soil, and whispering words of encouragement to our flowers. Then we waited, and hoped.

Last night after finishing an elaborate bedtime routine, I glanced out the window to the dusk-lit yard, expecting to see my husband by the back fence enjoying an illicit cigarette and watching the sun blaze down behind the treeline. Instead, he was walking slowly amidst our rose bed, gently showering each plant with a good long soak from the sun-warmed hose. When he came back into the darkening kitchen through the screened storm door, he grinned and said softly, “Baby? Babe. They are totally going to make it. They’re just about to bloom.”

Lydia Crowell is a pseudonym.

Photo via Wade Morgen/Flickr