Before We Met – My Story by Lucie Whitehouse

Before We Met – My Story by Lucie Whitehouse

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say I knew immediately he would be important to me. He is clever, kind and often hilarious: his dry commentary on things cracks me up. From the beginning, we had interesting conversations – spinsters and the Irish potato famine were two of the very first – and the more we talked, the more common ground we discovered.

There was a problem, however: Joe is American and I’m British, and I was only in New York on a three-month tourist visa. Six weeks after that first night, at the beginning of December, my visa ran out and I had to leave the country. Before I left, though, I’d promised to come back so, at the end of January, I did. For the next three months, we saw each other a lot, walking for miles around Manhattan and Brooklyn, stopping regularly for coffee or drinks, talking about books and films, our friends and family, the stories we were each working on.

Too quickly, though, my visa expired again so Joe booked the first of four flights to the UK. In September, his fourth visit, he proposed.

Fifteen months after we met, on a cold but lovely January after- noon in Oxford, we got married. We’d spent less than eight months in total even on the same continent. Ten days after the wedding, Joe flew back to start his new term teaching at New York University and I stayed behind to apply for a Green Card, a process I’d been advised could take up to a year.

In a lot of ways, it was an awful way to start married life. I never doubted I loved Joe but in the UK without him, living at my parents’ house or in short-term rentals, my former settled English life already feeling distant, there were times when I wondered whether I’d let my romantic streak talk me into a hare-brained scheme.

Our time together was very romantic. Because I had no real place of my own, when Joe was in the UK we rented out-of-season holiday cottages in Cornwall where we went for long cliff-top walks and spent the evenings holed up in village pubs. The time was heightened because it was always limited.

In October 2011, though, ten months after our wedding, I was granted my provisional Green Card. Two weeks later, I arrived in Brooklyn. There was no goodbye on the horizon now: this was it. Our ‘real’ life together was about to start.

One of the first things I saw when I arrived was a new desk in the corner of our bedroom. It was for me, a present: I could write there while he had the kitchen table, Joe said. I pictured a sort of Elton John/Bernie Taupin Two Rooms arrangement and was reas- sured: I’d worried about two writers in a one-bedroom apartment with a single table but this would work.

Instead, we encountered a different problem. Until you live together, it is hard really to know someone’s biorhythms, the times they naturally get up, go to bed, eat. Joe and I were 43 and 35, our routines established. He is always about three hours ahead of me: he works best before midday, when he’s ready for lunch but I’m on a roll then. At seven, he likes dinner while I’d prefer to have a glass of wine and write until ten. It sounds a trivial difference but it’s not.

I gave up the night shift, planning to work in the afternoon instead. It didn’t happen: my brain just isn’t very creative then. My productivity dropped off and I was frustrated. Writing was essential to me, far more than a job: I didn’t want to stop to cook dinner, for god’s sake. And who was this man who wanted to eat at 7pm, anyway? Didn’t we eat supper in bars at ten – if at all?

The threat went deeper than that, though. New York, much as I loved it, was a foreign city. Joe’s oldest friends live here; mine live in England. For economy, my friends email but Joe’s phone buzzes constantly. He has known most of his crew since his teens and many have nicknames with impenetrable histo- ries. Once on a five-hour car trip to Massachusetts, I sat in the back and listened to stories about people I’d never even met, unable to contribute. My husband had had over forty years of life before me, I realized.

Early on, Joe went to a gig with his best friend and sometime writing partner. It was a business thing – they were working with a member of the band – but listening to Radio 4 on my laptop on a Friday night while he was out in Manhattan, alone in a flat that felt like his (my possessions were still in storage), I felt desperately isolated.

I knew it was unfair but when he got home, I lost my temper. Didn’t he understand I felt excluded? Couldn’t he see what I’d sacrificed? Tired and having had a few drinks, Joe retaliated, making me sound selfish and unreasonable: I was putting too much pressure on him; he couldn’t breathe. I’d never seen the Joe who isn’t wise and calm before and it frightened me. If he wasn’t my friend, who did I have? I went to bed feeling utterly alone.

If something’s on his mind, I discovered, Joe withdraws. Once, worrying about a film, he barely spoke for three days and I couldn’t reach him. I felt powerless to help, irrelevant.

But I wasn’t the only one who had uncomfortable discoveries to make about their new spouse. As Joe quickly learned, I am very sensitive to criticism. Until we lived together I’d managed to hide this character flaw but if I’m feeling vulnerable, I can read criti- cism into almost anything, even – yes, I know, insane – into his enthusiasm for housework. (He once uttered the immortal words ‘You’re not taking the vacuuming away from me.’) Rather than being grateful for my domesticated husband, I felt reproached: why are you such a slob, Lucie, that I have to do this? We argued. Why was this about me? Joe asked. Couldn’t he like a clean house without my taking it as an insult?

I also found it difficult to adjust to sharing finances. We’d opened a joint account while we were engaged but I hadn’t received an advance for a book for a while and so Joe had put in almost all the money. It was months before I felt comfortable using the card even for grocery shopping: spending ‘his’ money felt like failure, as if I were no longer the independent woman I had always been. I hadn’t realized that he might interpret my reluctance to use the account as rejection. ‘Don’t you think I might enjoy you using it?’ he asked. ‘That it makes me feel like we’re actually a team?’

Little by little, however, we adjusted. We learned to argue in a kinder way – I stayed calmer and Joe stopped magnifying my misdemeanors into evidence of deep character flaws. He became more communicative and I stopped taking his quietness personal- ly. We still had tense days when I felt homesick but we always loved each other.

In 2012, we faced two big tests. First, my father became sudden- ly extremely ill; Joe bought me a ticket and drove me to the airport within hours of our getting the news. I was away for seven weeks and through the bleakest hours, his love, support and midnight texts kept me going. He was a calm voice from the real world, a reminder of life beyond hospitals.

Three months later, I found out I was pregnant. It was very exciting but my health suffered badly. I became so anaemic that I needed intravenous iron infusions three times a week and then, three weeks before my due date, I developed preeclampsia and our lovely daughter, Bridget, was delivered by emergency Caesarian. Joe held my hand throughout and was the first person to cuddle her, his face shining.

As I write this, I am reminded again just how lucky I am. Though immigration law stopped us spending as much time together as we would have liked before marrying, the process of getting to know each other on the deep level we do now has made us stronger and closer, and no horrible secrets have come to light on either side. Instead, feeling happy and secure, I’ve been able to sit at my desk in the corner of our bedroom and write Hannah’s story.