They didn’t have a lot of money.
The added responsibility of a second household strained the seams of an already stretched budget. In the time since he started working in Portland, they’d only seen each other in person three times, twice as a result of airline tickets purchased for him by generous relatives. His job, and this new city, were their future, but they had to pay for it in the strain of this physical division.
By August, they would both be living in Portland, but the intervening 10-month separation was wearing on both of them. He was frustrated by his inability to directly handle everyday problems, quiet the rattling nuisances created — often — by his own absence. His anxiety about himself was nothing, however, compared to what he saw her going through, the loneliness, the deprivation, all the hard work she had to do on her own. But all she asked for was more of him, more connection, more expressiveness. She didn’t have to verbalize the request; this was her persistent complaint, the only one she had ever articulated about him. He was her Mr. Spock, as she liked to call him. And he didn’t object. Precise and exacting in all ways, analytical, a scientist at heart.
But a scientific mind doesn’t stoke the embers of romance. He knew what she wanted — a concrete, lasting expression of his love — but he had no idea how to do it.
Her focus was on keeping the kids stable while they went through this big transition. The oldest, now living on his own; the middle, who left for college just before her husband left for Portland; and the youngest, finishing his last year of high school. The last child was the reason she stayed behind, why they didn’t pack up the house and move everyone to Oregon back in September.
Each of the kids processed the move differently, all with sadness and fear that surprised her. Her own feelings about leaving her hometown — her kids’ hometown — were conflicted, but mostly she felt eager; she wanted more than anything to remove herself from the painful history here, the ill-fitting cloak of conformity. That her children felt comfortable here was a marvel, and she had to remind herself to be compassionate about their feelings.
Normally, their lean budget didn’t bother her, but she wished she could afford to send the kids out to visit their Dad. She knew having a fix on the place their nominal home was moving to might help them adjust to the next step in their family’s life. Such travel wasn’t possible, so she relied on video chat and emails to keep the kids connected to Dad.
But she found out how very physically bound she was to her husband. His absence left her cold, listless. There was freedom in her solitude, but no direction. Their target was concrete, but it was difficult for her to focus on it without him beside her. At loose ends, afloat, she worked, kept the house, parented the youngest child, but her mind drifted.
Christmas was coming.
With their impending move and attendant desire to divest of their belongings, he was torn about what to get her. Jewelry would be easy, but he’d gotten her “Portland earrings” for her birthday. He wouldn’t be able to slide by so easily. They’d passed the point of traditional gifts being acceptable. He had not married a traditional girl. He turned to his favorite resource — the hive mind that is the internet — and started to dig.
Two weeks before Christmas, he let her know her gift might not arrive on time.
“Probably after New Year’s,” he said sheepishly, “But I think you’re going to love it.”
Her mind traipsed through possibilities, “Okay…so…will I have to make sure someone’s home to receive the delivery?”
She was trying to squeeze him for hints, but he was onto her game.
“You don’t need to worry about anything on your end, okay?”
She pouted, disappointed that she couldn’t get anything out of him, but relented. “Okay,” she sighed.
Weeks passed. Christmas. New Year’s. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Groundhog Day. When she remembered the promised gift, a dark cloud of disappointment came over her, and she shut the thought out of her mind. He *never* promised something he didn’t deliver. If he couldn’t guarantee delivery, he didn’t promise.
One evening in February, they began their nightly post-work chat. She was exhausted and fighting a cold, still had work to do, and intended to keep the chat short.
“Hey, my baby,” he greeted.
“Hey,” she sniffled.
“Your present arrived,” he wrote, “Are you ready?”
She peered at the screen, baffled. Her present arrived? She didn’t see it in the stack of mail. The teenager said nothing about a package. Where? how?
“Ready?” she asked.
“Can you get on video chat?” he continued, “I want to share something with you.”
Great, she thought. He bought me a star. He donated to a charity in my name.
“Okay,” she initiated video chat.
His hooded, soft eyes smiled at her across the screen.
“Hi,” she grinned back.
“Okay, first, I want you to read this.” He shared a link to an article about a bridge in Paris, the Pont des Artes, which spanned the Seine and provided a connection to Notre Dame. On this bridge, lovers — couples — spouses — had started placing padlocks on the fence as a symbol of their love. Once the padlock was locked, they’d throw the key into the river.
As she neared the end, he said, “Okay, ready?”
She could only nod.
A video file arrived in her shared folder. She clicked, waiting for it to download.
At :30, she burst into tears. She knew what he’d done for her. Just for her, for them. He had put together a gift so personal, so glorious, yet so frugal and fitting…with careful planning and his geek connections, he had crafted a moment that gave her both a memory and a dream for the future, a vision of the days ahead that would include visiting their lock, their wedding picture, on the bridge to l’Ile de la Cite.
In tears, she watched as the sweet Parisian couple took their lock–which her husband had bought in Portland, had prepared with their picture, and then sent to Paris weeks before Christmas–to the bridge and locked it on the fence, throwing away the key. She saw the picture of them at their wedding, her husband’s hand holding hers, their faces smiling on their happiest day, and realized that *she* was in Paris right now, that part of her life, a part of her was in Paris right this very minute, that her husband — that adorable dork who couldn’t recite a poem any more complex than a limerick — had made this happen just for her.
And in that moment she knew that no matter what minor grievances she had about him, no matter how difficult their life had been or would someday be, that she was joyously bound to him for good. A man who could both understand the necessity of romance — after ten years of marriage — and work so adroitly within his own abilities to conceive of something so profoundly touching was a man she would honor and cherish forever.
As the video ended, she looked at her husband’s beaming face, as he too wiped his eyes. They were 1,800 miles apart, but she could feel the warmth of his hand holding hers. With this man, she could do anything.
Meg Currell is an extraordinarily happily married woman who met her husband in French class. Someday, they are going to Paris. She knows this because he promised.