How ‘Dawson’s Creek’ Shifted My View Of My 33-Year Marriage

Today is my 33rd wedding anniversary, and tonight, my husband Frank and I are going out to dinner to celebrate — a rare opportunity for us. More often than not, we mark the occasion with a phone call.

Frank is a camera operator in the film industry. For decades, he’s worked long hours, often on location, while I’ve worked from home, raising our sons, missing him.

But now, with the writers’ and actors’ strikes underway, he’s home indefinitely. The phone doesn’t ring with an offer he can’t refuse. His suitcase isn’t open, like a warning, on the closet floor. We have a chance to reconnect and glimpse how our lives might look once he retires in a few years.

It isn’t easy. For the first time since 1992, I’m the primary breadwinner, and as the strikes persist, our emergency fund has shrunk. Many of Frank’s colleagues in the camera department and other “below the line” workers such as teamsters, grips and electricians, are borrowing from their 401Ks, struggling to pay their union dues, hoping to hold onto their health insurance. Those with kids in college or unexpected medical bills are scrambling for other sources of income. Some are driving for DoorDash.

We’re nervous about the future, but we try to savor this unexpected time together. In the mornings, we drink coffee on the screened porch. At night, we snuggle in bed and watch TV, including a few movies Frank worked on — ”Bolden,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” and my favorite, ”Muppets from Space.”

The author’s Brookwood bungalow, in Wilmington, North Carolina, before her family moved in.

Courtesy of Rebecca Lanning

But a few weeks ago, when Frank cued up an old TV series, my heart sank. The five years that he worked on the show were the hardest of our marriage. We’d never watched a single episode, and I feared that tuning in now might trigger memories of desperation or send me down the rabbit hole of regret.

“C’mon,” Frank said, patting the space beside him. He wore sweatpants and a faded T-shirt, back propped against our tufted headboard. He’ll turn 63 in April.

“Okay,” I said finally. “But if I say stop, we stop.”

He clicked the remote. The theme song played. We were watching “Dawson’s Creek.”

Back in 1998, when the series debuted, we’d left Los Angeles and bought our first house, a broken-down bungalow in Wilmington, North Carolina, not far from Screen Gems studios. Our son, Will, was four and his brother, Tate, was four months. I was 35, a former magazine editor, drowning in diapers and VHS tapes starring Barney the Dinosaur.

Instead of tuning in to The WB on Tuesdays nights, Frank was still working, and I could be found nursing Tate, reading a bedtime story to Will, or scrambling to finish my monthly dating column for ’Teen. My headlines included, Is She Just Being Friendly…or Is She After Your Guy?! and From Boy Friend to Boyfriend: What to Do When You Want to Date Him.

The themes of my column and “Dawson’s Creek” overlapped, and I kept telling myself I should write a spec script for the show. Or gather behind-the-scenes gossip for my editor, under the guise of visiting Frank on the set. But I hated networking and felt out of place on the set. Everyone wore heavy, cow-pie-kicking boots, carried walkie-talkies and used lingo like “forced turnaround,” “day player” and “ditty bags” that sounded vaguely suggestive.

The author, post-bath time with her boys in 1997.
The author, post-bath time with her boys in 1997.

Courtesy of Rebecca Lanning

Frank was in his element. He’d work 14 ― sometimes 16 ― hours straight, then drink a beer with his crew mates on the camera truck before driving home, sleep six hours, and go back the next day.

Before we had children, Frank’s long hours didn’t faze me. In the evenings after work, I welcomed the extra time to myself, but now I hated his job, and I hated myself for hating it. I was lonely and jealous. With the crew, he’d formed another family. At night, after getting the boys to sleep, I’d sit alone on the porch swing, gazing at our neighbors’ tidy homes, imagining their perfect lives.

My life would be perfect too, I thought, if Frank had a different career ― one that enabled him to be more of a partner to me and a steady presence in our children’s lives. He often said he didn’t want to be in this industry forever, but the longer he stayed, the harder it was for him to leave. And the longer I stayed home, the more confidence I lost.

When I wasn’t working or tending to the kids, I threw myself into sprucing up the house, which had been sorely neglected by previous owners. Windows were painted shut. Swollen doors wouldn’t close. A prickly vine sprouted from a hole in the entryway floor. Most of our budget went to repairing the roof, so instead of laying tile in the kitchen, I painted a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern on the ancient subfloor. In my attic office, I fashioned bookshelves out of plywood. My most ambitious project was the boys’ bathroom, where I painted the clawfoot tub purple with leopard spots to match the animal-theme rug. The house, like my marriage, failed to live up to my sparkly expectations.

But little by little, things shifted. Will started kindergarten. I made a few friends and found a sitter for Tate. I stopped writing the dating column and started doing PR work for the local hospital. Eventually, we sold the bungalow and bought a house with built-ins and smooth floors. I grew roses, took the boys on road trips, and hosted the neighborhood supper club on my own.

Frank behind the camera on the set of "Hick."
Frank behind the camera on the set of “Hick.”

Courtesy of Rebecca Lanning

During the final season of “Dawson’s Creek,” when I visited the set, I’d observe the young cast members rolling their eyes whenever a train whistle blew. “There goes the one o’clock,” they’d joke. They were restless and ready for bigger projects. Who could blame them? They were growing up, just like the characters they portrayed.

By the time the series ended, I’d learned to let go of my ideal of marriage and focus on Frank’s good qualities: He was hard-working, funny and faithful ― the least pretentious person I’d ever known. I realized that, though I wanted Frank to work banker’s hours, I didn’t want him to be a banker. Finally, I stopped believing that his job was the only thing standing between me and happiness.

But I never adjusted to his schedule. As soon as we’d settle into a rhythm of family life, the phone would ring, and he’d take off again.

Binge-watching “Dawson’s Creek” with Frank wasn’t the sob fest I’d feared. While we watched, he regaled me with funny, behind-the-scenes stories. There was one about a mechanical bear taken from the props department and held for ransom, and another about the $500 bet he won by swimming, in a Speedo, in 65-degree water, at midnight, across Pages Creek.

No lore amused me as much as the photos of Logan, the show’s key grip, wearing sunglasses and a fez. As an ongoing prank, the cinematographer planted the photos on sets throughout the series: the wall of a record store, a shelf in Dawson’s bedroom, the refrigerator door of the beach house Pacey shared with his sister.

Eventually, instead of following the show’s plot, Frank and I searched for Logan’s photos. We called it, “Where’s Logan?” Each photo was like a secret photo bomb, and, upon spotting one, we’d laugh until our sides hurt.

The "Dawson's Creek" camera crew in 2003. Frank is in the red jacket.
The “Dawson’s Creek” camera crew in 2003. Frank is in the red jacket.

Courtesy of Rebecca Lanning

Laughter loosened the last of my guarded heartstrings until the other night, as we watched the final episode, I shared a behind-the-scenes story of my own.

“Remember that purple bathtub in the bungalow?” I asked.

“Who could forget it?” Frank said.

I described how I’d bathed the boys every night while he was at work. I set out towels, diapers and pj’s on the animal rug. Will went in first, then I’d lower Tate onto a baby-size sponge. I’d bathe Tate, then dry and dress him and put him in his bouncy seat so I could tend to Will. The routine was as complex as any action sequence.

My favorite part came afterward, when the three of us cuddled in bed. I’d turn the lights down and play soft music. While I nursed Tate, he’d squeeze Will’s finger, and Will would erupt in giggles. They smelled so sweet. I felt connected and complete. We were a ring ― a smile inside a cloud.

As I recounted this ritual, I understood that all those years, while I’d missed Frank, he’d missed something too. Perhaps the connection Frank and I experienced now, laughing as we watched an old TV series, was possible because of ― not in spite of ― the sacrifices we’d both made to be here.

In the final episode, Dawson has made it to Hollywood. He sits at his desk, talking to Joey and Pacey on the phone. The camera pans to a framed photo of the three of them, plus Jen. And there, beside it, the last shot of the show, is a photo of Logan.

The legendary photo of Logan that turned up on many "Dawson's Creek" sets.
The legendary photo of Logan that turned up on many “Dawson’s Creek” sets.

Courtesy of Rebecca Lanning

Logan’s photos brought levity to a series that sometimes took itself too seriously. And searching for those photos with Frank reminded me that even in those dark days, when I’d felt ashamed and alone, love was there, hidden in plain sight.

As Frank and I drove to our anniversary dinner, we reminisced about the old days in the film industry, before the internet and social media. The themes of “Dawson’s Creek,” considered racy at the time, now seem mild. Wilmington —and the entire entertainment industry — has changed dramatically since then, and with advances in technology and AI, bigger changes are in store. For the actors and writers, and all the crew, much is at stake with this historic double strike.

Though Frank and I hope agreements are reached soon and work picks back up, we felt grateful for the opportunity to celebrate our anniversary together, instead of connecting over the phone. Our dinner was simple and lovely. We went to a restaurant in Carrboro, North Carolina, aptly named Glasshalfull — a certified living wage employer committed to supporting their staff, who work hard and deserve an income that not only meets their basic needs, but provides the stability and financial independence required for a decent quality of life. Hopefully, the studio executives will give the same consideration to all the living, breathing human beings who work hard to inform, distract and entertain us all.

Rebecca Lanning lives with her family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Brain Child, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Barely South Review, Salt Magazine, Role Reboot and elsewhere. When not writing, she reads manuscripts for The Sun and watches the great blue herons that forage the wetlands near her home.

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