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To Have and Hold

Mary Ann McGuigan

His tastes leaned unapologetically toward what I can only describe as early convent. No color bolder than beige. No texture softer than wood. Bare, off-white walls pleased him. Before I moved in I assumed he was waiting to finish the look of the place, waiting for me to help decide on accents and finishing touches. There were, in fact, purchases afterward—end tables, vases for the bookshelves, small items that wouldn’t violate the boundaries of style. But the final decisions were his. I’d be brought into the process as if my opinion mattered, but I understood soon enough that I was meant to quietly tag along. He paid for everything, as if to avoid complicating the prenup, the efficient way of saying I love you but I don’t believe you.


I was kept at a similar distance in family matters. His son’s graduation and the dinner that followed were not meant for me. My presence would have upset the balance he’d achieved with his ex. His granddaughter was off limits till after we married. Aside from the wedding, the desire for get-togethers with my children and his confused him, as if the family unit had been defined, hardened into a mold that might crack if the atmospherics changed.


I’d taken the vows as if there was truly cause for celebration, as if the prenup wasn’t hissing like a timebomb. Togetherness—necessarily messy, not meant to be defined—became a no-man’s land, a terrain set with mines that could be triggered without intention. If we buy the new mattress, who does it belong to? Can any gift really be given from both of us? What’s the value of doing the cooking? The marketing? Should they count toward shared expenses?


Marriage late in life is like walking a tightrope without a net. A misstep could be fatal, a break may not have time to mend. So I’d remind myself of his kindness, his reflexive generosity. His breath visible against a winter sky, his hand ready for mine. His solid familiarity with the streets in SoHo, in the East Village, the few hidden places left in the city. Sitting close, still intrigued, aware of his cologne, as the long credits rolled in a theatre that didn’t want to let us go yet. Feeling small, inconsequential, beneath towering figures dislodged from ancient kingdoms, stone declaring a purpose long lost, as if a pedestal can truly make something last. One statue’s cold gaze examined something far off, whose distance gave it a power we couldn’t know.


Later, after the wine, we’ll forget how bewildered we felt near the stone, the shiver that traveled along our spines. We’ll enter the dark street, move quickly, the way the city insists, and settle back into the warmth of a bed that resists becoming familiar. The touch that still surprises, a sigh poorly disguised. Is this what becomes of a promise when it’s strapped down with clauses and conditions? Definitions. Here’s what’s yours. Here’s what’s mine. Here’s what happens if. Guardrails, as if no promise could be more reliable than a weather forecast.


And now here’s what’s left. Songs to be avoided. Photos erased. That sweater I got for my birthday given away. The first Christmas and even the second go by in a blur of pretense and long nights beside a tree that never gets finished, blinking crooked, out of place. New starts have a way of dragging their feet. Still, the days come along—sunny Tuesday mornings, fine chocolate, a college friend’s call, another grandson born. Life goes on, if only to say I told you so.


The ticket stub, rubbed soft, words faded, found in the pocket of a spring jacket pushed to the back of the closet brings back the smell of his cologne, the movie’s final scene, when the lead character discovers what’s been lost and I wondered if he knew I hadn’t shopped for his birthday, had been searching instead for a place to live, walls with bold colors and shelves with room to accommodate family photos and happy bric-a-brac that would claim no owners.     

Mary Ann McGuigan’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, the New York Times, Wilderness House, and other journals. Her short fiction appears in The Sun, Image, Massachusetts Review, North American Review, and other journals. McGuigan's second collection of short fiction, THAT VERY PLACE, is upcoming with Unsolicited Press. Her novel WHERE YOU BELONG was a National Book Award finalist. For more about her fiction, visit

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