Being the first wife means that everybody hates you and those other wives are just waiting for you to fall from your perch, silently praying every day that you do. They won’t take any steps themselves to be rid of you but they won’t cry if you do go. Nothing good is ever said about you and nobody will ever back you up. You know this and you don’t like it, but the worst part is how cheated you feel. You originally married one man, not a man and several other women. But you wouldn’t give your spot up for the world. In a strange, small sense you nurture your bitterness and hurt. Being the victim can be a sweet pain. He treats you with extreme care and buys you nice presents. You’re the first, you know you’re the benchmark, and in the end, he always comes back to you. You’re the queen bee: the rest are just wannabes.You sleep in the big bedroom, you make the shopping lists and you have control of the money. You have his ear and ultimately, the final word on everything.Well, almost everything.
The problem with being the second wife lies in your stupid misplaced sense of entitlement. You feel like you are the one he really wants, you are the one who really understands him and if it weren’t for that first wife, you would be exactly where you should be in life. You’re two steps away from killing her except you know that you’d be breaking apart that whole twisted sense of ‘family’ that he keeps talking about and you wouldn’t forgive yourself if you disappointed him. Crack the veneer of the family and the whole thing falls apart. The others hate you almost as much as they hate the first wife, as you are loud and defensive. He loves your mind, he tells you, and you mistakenly think everyone else does, too. You’re rather obnoxious. You’re the first to decry the first wife as unsatisfactory and the other wives as unsavory. You’re in so much pain from loving someone you can’t have to yourself that you don’t even think about it anymore. But you’re satisfied with your role. After all, if you weren’t there, it wouldn’t be polygamy.
When you’re the third wife you realize what a pointless battle you’re fighting. Sharing part of a person is so ridiculous, but a third is such an absurdly small share. You can’t unseat the first wife and the second wife is just waiting to eliminate you quickly and cruelly if you move in on her. So even though you believe in following your heart you see what a stupid exercise this is. You don’t know what you’re doing but you do know that if you weren’t part of this, you wouldn’t be doing anything at all. But anyway, the sex is usually pretty good. He always seems relieved to be with you. Except for when he seems to act like you’re wasting his time. You often wonder at what point this stopped being fun and started getting too serious. One day you were temping and the next day you realize you’ve been working at the same job for five years. Maybe you need another husband on the side.
The problem with being the fourth wife is that you’re no longer part of the party. It’s a little boring. Who cares about the fourth-stringer? But on the other hand, you’re so removed from the fracas that at least you maintain part of your dignity. You feel like you’re watching the parade and you don’t mind at all. Little effort, little drama, plus a husband and family. Not bad!
The other wives are just babymaking satellites, but annoying and painful ones nonetheless. He collects them almost by accident.
The husband’s responsibility, meanwhile, is to keep everyone happy. Happy enough. He rarely succeeds. He is a very happy, very nervous man. He has to remember that Wife Three is kinder to Wife One than Wife Two is, but Wife Two and Three get along better than Two and Four. He knows that Wives Three and Four actually enjoy each other’s company but they will tease the younger wives mercilessly. It’s like chemistry.
The husband occasionally makes attempts to bring the wives together, because he doesn’t like conflict and mistakenly thinks that he can have them be friends. For instance, he will take wives Two and Three out to a bar. Wife Two dominates the conversation, quite loudly. Wife Three feels happy to be there but has the not-so-sneaking suspicion that Wife Two is thinking, “If she weren’t here, this would be perfect.” Wife Three wishes she could play pool or pick some songs on the jukebox but doesn’t want to leave her spot at the table. During strained conversation, Wife Two makes fun of wife Three’s musical choices and tendency to spend too much money. Wife Three holds her tongue because she knows that the quieter she keeps, the better the husband will think of her in comparison to Wife Two. She does not tell Wife Two that she has popcorn stuck in her teeth. Wife One is at home wondering how long the three have to stay out for before she can start getting legitimately angry.
The husband thinks that it would be nice if he and all the wives went to the library together, on an excursion. “Isn’t this fun?” he asks weakly, and they all have to agree through clenched teeth because if they don’t, then they’re not team players. Wife Two makes a point only to check out books that are classics or the hippest, newest, hottest books on the market. Wife Four checks out Oprah books and she doesn’t care when Wife Two makes fun of her. Wife Three would also like to check out Oprah books but she does care when Wife Two makes fun of her, so she selects some esoteric books that she knows she’ll never read. She wishes she could throw them at Wife Two’s head. The other wives run around the library giggling and shrieking because they’re practically still children. Wife One doesn’t even stay at the library: she has no time for this. She goes grocery shopping. The husband hides in the periodicals section and reads newspapers on sticks.
The husband made the mistake of spending time with only Wife One and Wife Two once, and he felt ill for weeks afterward.
He has the most fun when he’s with Wives Three and Four, because they are eager to please, but so much less competitive. They relax him.
Being only with the young wives, however, makes him feel old. Sometimes he thinks about giving the whole thing up, starting again with One, but he knows how much less fun that would be. He would miss the other girls. His girls, he thinks. He would think about them all the time.
The trickiest, always, is his birthday party. Every year he invites more and more friends to dilute the tension but they always show up to watch the tension unfold. Seeing Wives One and Two standing fiercely on either side of him as he blows out the candles alone is worth it, they say. Each wife spends all day preparing for the festivities, and when he makes his appearance, it’s as if the gun is being fired at a race, each posing, vying for attention, playing aloof, constant competition. Wife Four chats prettily with strangers. Wife Three rolls her eyes and sits on the stoop and smokes and waits for the husband to furtively pop out and see her. The young wives, meanwhile, dance and laugh and get too drunk. The husband makes sure to kiss all the wives goodnight and tell them how special they made his birthday. Each wife, except for the young ones, falls asleep either congratulating herself or cursing herself for that night’s performance.
For all, each day is like starting a race, and each day they vow that they will either drop out or win this race. It’s excruciating, the things that they go through but you can’t help it when you’re in love and in need. After all, there are plenty of men in this world, but only one husband.
(Divorce, of course, is out of the question.)
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