Marriage Hunters: An UnReality Essay

What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up….
–John D’Agata

{Episode 2016}


An auburn-haired woman and a bearded man, both white and wearing glasses, shiver in a bubble-filled bathtub. They’re in casual clothes. The hardware on the tub is elaborate but rusty.

NARRATOR [perky, female]: Heather and Justin* have outgrown their current three-bedroom, one-bathroom marriage and are hoping to find one that fulfills Heather’s need for long conversations about her insecurities while accommodating Justin’s job burnout and fatigue. In an outdated floor plan of idealism and hope, they still occupy a space that reflects their dreams from 2001: Justin’s unfulfilled desire to become a teacher of meditation and Heather’s belief that she’d land a job as a tenure-track professor. Fifteen years later, Justin’s an overworked Episcopal priest with a broken copy machine and Heather adjuncts for poverty-level wages. Justin’s graying; Heather has crow’s feet. 

The characters Heather and Justin Lanier are real people. Any resemblance to actual Heather and Justin Lanier, living or dead, is purely intentional. References to real estate are 100% metaphorical.

HEATHER: [Ringing her T-shirt out in the tub.] We just need something more practical.

JUSTIN: Maybe a place with more natural light.

HEATHER nods. Bobby McFerrin sings from a speaker overhead. “Don’t Worry…Be Happy.” HEATHER cringes at the camera.

HEATHER: I’m sorry. We’ve been here fifteen years and have never figured out where that’s coming from.

NARRATOR: On Heather’s must-have list: more date nights, an equal share of household chores, and a renewed sense of hope about her career and overall self-worth. On Justin’s must-have list: more laughter.

JUSTIN: [Straining to focus over Bobby McFerrin’s mouth percussion] I just want her to be happy.

HEATHER: Aw, thanks, babe.

THREE-YEAR-OLD: Mah-mee, Mah-mee, come play Frozen with me.

A three-year-old grabs HEATHER’S arm and yanks her out of the water. On her way out, HEATHER bangs her shins on the tub.

NARRATOR: With two daughters, a strong-willed three-year-old and a nonverbal five-year-old with special needs, their new marriage must also accommodate temper tantrums, pediatric specialists, struggles with school professionals, and Disney princess figurines.

Cut to scene. A three-foot-tall brunette girl is shouting “A, B, C, D, E, F, G….” while spinning in circles on a white rug. The rug is soiled with brown stains. HEATHER is on her knees, scrubbing. JUSTIN lies on the carpet in his priest’s collar, arms spread eagle, eyes closed, mouth agape. A three-foot-tall blond girl is darting around them, from a bowl of arranged apple cores to a shelf of postponed dreams to a religious altar with several headless Buddhas. She picks up a bowl of incense ash and dumps it onto the white rug. She squeals with glee.


Both parents used to meditate daily. They also sometimes watched movies and slept straight through the night. Now they’re hoping for quick, easy commutes to their solitude, which span 30 miles each in opposite directions. Realtor Janine has her work cut out for her.

Cut to scene. A woman in a cream suit surveys the home around her. She notices an office filled five inches deep with sand and plastic shovels, a kitchen sink piled with dishes, and a white wall scrawled in lipstick with the words,Momma Needs More Alone Time!

REALTOR JANINE: Totally doable. I’ve worked in tougher spots.

{Commercial Break}


HEATHER holds JUSTIN’S hand as they walk uphill toward a two-story Frank Lloyd Wright style home overlooking a lake.

JUSTIN: Yes. This is what I’m talking about.

HEATHER: I don’t see how we could afford this.


I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s well within budget. And this marriage has just the kind of special feature that can be life-changing.

HEATHER: [squeezing Justin’s bicep, grinning hopefully.] We could go on dates again?

REALTOR JANINE: It’s a five-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath marriage, so it also has plenty of space for everyone’s solitude. The girls could each have their own rooms.

HEATHER: Well, no, because the five-year-old has seizures at night. So she sleeps in our room.

Cut to scene. REALTOR JANINE sits in an armchair beside a white orchid.

REALTOR JANINE: I did not expect that curve ball. I’d talked with this couple on several occasions, and not once did they mention they shared a bedroom with their epileptic kid. How will I solve this problem? I mean, what am I? A neurologist?

Cut back to Frank Lloyd Wright style house. HEATHER opens the door and walks into a grand foyer with white ceramic tile flooring. Our couple now stands inside an open floor plan with a living room on one side and a state-of-the-art kitchen on the other. The kitchen features stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. The living room is flanked by an entire wall of sliding glass, showcasing an infinity pool outside and, just beyond it, the lake. HEATHER and JUSTIN gasp.

HEATHER: Amazing.

JUSTIN: What’s that smell?

REALTOR JANINE: There shouldn’t be a smell.

HEATHER: I smell it too.

JUSTIN: I can’t place it.

REALTOR JANINE: The living room features a modern fireplace in which you can burn previously set but unfulfilled goals. And because these tiles are slate, you can use chalk to write new goals!

HEATHER: I love that. I mean, so what if the job market for professors of creative nonfiction is as promising as a career in Cirque du Soleil….

JUSTIN: You could become a competitive yachtsman.

HEATHER: I could make a wildly successful podcast about low-glycemic eating!

JUSTIN: I could be a stay-at-home dad! And give meditation retreats on the side!

REALTOR JANINE: [looking up at a row of three skylights in the living room] There’s truly so much room here to dream.

Cut to scene: REALTOR JANINE in her armchair, beside the white orchid again.

REALTOR JANINE: I took a risk here. Heather and Justin are either going to love what’s behind one of the five bedroom doors or hate it.

REALTOR JANINE leads HEATHER and JUSTIN up a staircase wrapped with beams of brushed steel. Upstairs, the floors are scraped hardwood.

HEATHER: [sniffing] Breast milk!

JUSTIN: You’re right!

HEATHER: This is exactly what my sister’s marriage smelled like after she had my nephew. It’s like spoiling ice cream. Kind of sour and sweet. She didn’t even notice.

REALTOR JANINE: Again, five bedrooms. Just waiting for your creative use.

A fast-forwarded montage shows the couple entering large, empty, well-lit rooms, nodding approvingly. REALTOR JANINE leads them to a final door at the end of a hall.

REALTOR JANINE: And this is the master.

JUSTIN opens the door and hears the cry of a baby. HEATHER spots a crib beneath a window and, inside it, a swaddled infant.

HEATHER: Dear God!

JUSTIN: No! No-no-no-no-no.

The couple runs from the room and down the stairs.

REALTOR JANINE: But look! He’s got Justin’s eyes.

Cut to scene: HEATHER and JUSTIN pant on the front lawn. The Frank Lloyd Wright house is behind them.

HEATHER: I can’t. I can’t go back there. The last time, I was unemployed for a year. I spent the first months glued to a couch, struggling to get a tiny mouth to latch onto my boob.

JUSTIN: We never slept.

HEATHER: I had to wear nipple shields, these cone-shaped things with holes poked through them, and the baby sucked so hard that she pulled my flesh through the holes.

JUSTIN: [clutching stomach] I forgot about that.

NARRATOR: But it’s not only sensitive breast parts that keep Heather and Justin from wanting more kids. Cheerio crumbs, kid-sized potties streaked with poo, toddler tantrums over socks…

HEATHER: [looking up] Do you hear that?

JUSTIN: Someone’s narrating us.

HEATHER: Oh God. We’re living clichés. There’s nothing new under the sun.

JUSTIN: She’ll probably go away.

HEATHER: We used to be adventurous. We moved to California, to Japan. Is one of us destined for a mid-life-crisis sports car?

Behind them, REALTOR JANINE is running out of the house and down the hill, toward our couple.

REALTOR JANINE: But it’s a boy. Don’t you have two girls? Don’t you want a boy?

HEATHER and JUSTIN run out of frame, screaming.

{Commercial Break}


NARRATOR: With marriage number one quickly rejected because of the on-sight newborn, Realtor Janine feels the pressure. She’s hoping marriage number two will spark the not-quite-middle-aged couple’s formerly adventurous side.

Cut to scene: hand-in-hand, HEATHER and JUSTIN trudge over an arid landscape of rocks, brush, and succulents. They approach a cliff that drops down into an ocean. Cypress trees are hanging off, bent into the wind.

REALTOR JANINE: Little known fact: This location is just a mile away from the setting of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. And Heather, I know how much you love Jack Kerouac.

HEATHER: Loved. I mean, when I was twenty.

REALTOR JANINE: But you remember On the Road, right? And wild adventure? And… [breathless] reckless affairs with women who fell hard for Kerouac and wanted to get married? And how he had to keep moving, get back on the road. How he could never be tied down, other than to the page, where he wrote fast and honest and tried to reach the very bottom of his mind….

HEATHER stops walking and looks dreamily into the distance.

NARRATOR: Write without stopping, without thinking, just go, I want to hear what’s in the bottom of your mind….

HEATHER: [looking to the sky] She’s quoting Kerouac now?

JUSTIN pulls HEATHER forward. Ahead of them are a few circular tents with redwood lattice frame and a deck that faces the roaring Pacific.

JUSTIN: A yurt?

REALTOR JANINE: [shouting] A yurt! It’s actually a yurt community. You can interact with the neighbors as much or as little as you like.

JUSTIN opens the door. Above them, like spokes in a wheel, wood beams extend from the yurt’s outer canvas walls toward the center of the ceiling. California sun pours through a skylight, illuminating pine floors, a double bed, a futon, small wood table and chairs, and a utility sink.

JUSTIN: So it’s just the one room?

REALTOR JANINE: Simplicity at its finest! I know you might not have originally considered a marriage so unconventional. But let me list the benefits. You would be totally off the grid. And because you’d downsize, expenses are minimal, which means you’d work fewer hours. And the kids could run feral. Nobody would even care here.

Cut to scene: REALTOR JANINE is seated beside the orchid again.

REALTOR JANINE: Listen. I know very few couples want to live in a yurt. But few can pass up a particular feature of this property.

JUSTIN: [opening a flap on the canvas that serves as a window] What’s that?

Cut to JUSTIN’S line of vision: Fifty meters away, three naked bodies are writhing on a woven blanket beside a small campfire. A fourth naked person is seated cross-legged, playing bongos.

REALTOR JANINE: Oh yes. I almost forgot. This yurt comes with what we call an Open Marriage, which is when….

The couple looks at each other, aghast.

JUSTIN: That’s not something…

REALTOR JANINE: Most buyers would be very pleased with…

HEATHER: We’re not. No way.

JUSTIN: Definitely not.

REALTOR JANINE: If you want, you can choose to forego that feature. But then you’re not getting your money’s worth. Because this unit will cost you nearly everything. Ambition, sobriety, possibly sanity. But think about what you’d gain in adventure!

Cut to scene: The couple stands in front of a bent cypress, talking to the camera.

JUSTIN: I love my wife.

HEATHER: We don’t want affairs. We want childcare!

JUSTIN: We live five hours from extended family. We’re exhausted.

NARRATOR: You only live once. Carpé diem. Only the good die young. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…

HEATHER: [looking upward] I don’t even like the Beats anymore. Sure, they were artists and dreamers but they were also misogynist pricks.

{Commercial Break}


NARRATOR: While the freewheeling yurt paid homage to Heather’s former literary favorite, our couple is hoping Realtor Janine can deliver on something less devastating to their monogamy.

JUSTIN: [to the camera] We’re looking for tighter boundaries, not looser.

HEATHER: I want to pee without any three-foot-tall people in the bathroom.

JUSTIN: And more sex, but with each other. And without a child sleeping a few feet away.

HEATHER: Here, here.

Cut to scene: HEATHER, JUSTIN, and REALTOR JANINE ride a Jeep across a prairie. The sun is high overhead. Other than tall grass and a thin line of mountains in the distance, there’s nothing for miles.

REALTOR JANINE: We’re not too far off now. See? The property’s up ahead. Just another hour or so.

JUSTIN: Is that a dome?

Cut to scene: The sun is now low. HEATHER, JUSTIN, and REALTOR JANINE pile out of the Jeep. They approach a gargantuan, translucent dome as tall as a skyscraper, encompassing a village.

JUSTIN: This thing must be a mile in diameter!

REALTOR JANINE: Point seven eight miles, to be exact.

JANINE walks to a door in the dome, opens a discreet box beside it, reveals a keypad, and types in the letters ITAV.

JUSTIN: Itav? Is that the name of the selling broker’s agency?

The door slides open.

REALTOR JANINE: The motto. ‘It takes a village.’ Look. This is a unique place. I don’t show it to just anyone. And there are certain…inconveniences. The residential properties are small, for instance, and rickety.

Inside the dome are clusters of thatch-roofed, A-frame buildings. Besides some buildings are rectangular fields for farming. Dirt pathways twist around the buildings. People walk along the paths, carrying baskets. Inside the baskets are vegetables and linens. Children play beside a pond outside.

REALTOR JANINE: Two bedrooms, a common space, a bathroom. That’s all you get. No wi-fi. Lunch and dinner, you eat in a community with others. You’d be responsible for cooking three huge meals a week. The other meals, someone else will cook. The village is responsible for growing its own food. There are offsite locations for some of the agriculture. [She turns her lip up, sneers, and looks around.] Otherwise this place would smell like a Porta-Potty.

HEATHER: [inhaling ]It smells like cedar!

JUSTIN: [looking up at a cluster of pines] How many trees did they fit inside here?

REALTOR JANINE: And there’s no retail shopping as you know it now. The village is self-sustaining. It doesn’t get Target throw-pillows in chevron prints or any of the things that Heather and I know and love. But here’s the perk: you’ll always have responsible adults around to help raise your kids. You can have regular date nights, the camaraderie of like-minded people, and at least twenty scheduled hours a week for leisure and personal development.

HEATHER: Without the kids?

REALTOR JANINE: Without the kids.

Five or so Jeeps screech up to the dome’s outer walls.

REALTOR JANINE: [looking at her watch] Two o'clock. Right on schedule.

Another dozen vans and trucks follow.

JUSTIN: What’s this?

REALTOR JANINE: The nuclears.

People begin pouring out of the vehicles. They wield signs on sticks. “VILLAGERS ARE UN-AMERICAN!” read some. “PRESERVE THE NUCLEAR FAMILY!” read others. The crowd grows to a few hundred, shouting indecipherable things. A man in a suit pulls out a bullhorn.

MAN IN SUIT: Whores! You should be ashamed of yourselves! Get back to your subdivisions where you belong!

A woman with a baby in a pink Moby wrap presses her red face up to the dome. She looks at HEATHER.

WOMAN: God hates you! [Flecks of spit shoot from her mouth, land on the dome’s clear wall.] Who’s taking care of your children right now!? Get back to the desperate struggle of parenting in isolation!

Crowd chants: “SHAME. ON. YOU! SHAME. ON. YOU!”

HEATHER: Is this a daily thing?

REALTOR JANINE: The villagers are used to it. See, nobody’s even flinching. It’s sponsored by Wal-Mart.

HEATHER looks around the dome’s interior. Twenty meters away is a park where a dozen kids are sitting in a circle beside a pond, clapping and singing. An adult sits in the center, nodding and smiling. Two women are standing in a pathway with baskets, chatting. A man on a bike rides by them, pulling a trailer of chopped wood.

HEATHER looks back at the nuclears. Twenty-some women, each with a Moby wrap, are now pressed up against the wall. They’re weeping and singing “Amazing Grace.” In some of the wraps are babies; in others, plastic dolls. The women are all comforting the contents of their wraps, patting real or fake backs, kissing real or fake heads. One makes eye-contact with HEATHER, shouts, “You’re murdering the American Dream!” A woman with a basket appears at Heather’s right.

WOMAN: [looking at nuclears]I used to be her. Working forty hours a week. Rushing in traffic to pick up my kids after school, driving them to oboe and karate. Reading up on screen-time limits and language acquisition skills in the evenings. Freezing my week of dinners every Saturday. Protesting the villagers on Sundays. Best side hustle I ever did, the protesting. Better than selling essential oils. The day I hired a maid to scrub our toilets twice a month, I sobbed and made myself lick the dirty toilet rim, just as punishment for my inadequacies.

Then, for no good reason, I took the kids to Target and bought a set of chevron-printed throw pillows. They were teal. I loved them so much. They were spunky. On-trend. Uplifting. I put my faith in those throw-pillows. I decided that they could change me. Change us. Change our family. They’d enable times of deep connection between my husband and me. They’d split the domestic work evenly. They’d vanish guilt about video games. But after I brought those pillows home and arranged them on the couch, my son took a Sharpie marker to them. He wrote, ‘My penis, my penis.’ That’s when I did the unthinkable. I left the house.

HEATHER: You left your kids?

WOMAN: For two whole minutes. I stood on the porch and cried and told myself what a shitty mother I was. [She pauses, stares at the nuclears.] Anyway. Now I only cook a few meals a week. Now my kids roam the village freely with other kids, getting all that healthy, age-appropriate exploration and interaction and play, without me fretting about dance recitals or suburban commutes. Some evenings my husband and I have a house full of other people’s kids. Many nights, the kids are playing at other villagers’ homes. We talk for hours without interruption. We act out lengthy sexual fantasies my former self would only dream of. Moving to the village was the best choice I ever made.

HEATHER: [looking up at the tops of the pines] This place isn’t real, is it?

WOMAN: You know what they say. There’s nothing real about reality TV.

HEATHER LANIER is the author of the memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Longreads, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The Sun, Salon, and elsewhere. She works as an assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University, and her TED talk has been viewed over two million times.