New York Times / Life - Entertain

‘Happily-Ever-After Doesn’t Exist’

After 20 years, Suki John and Horacio Cocchi learn resilience and realism get them through.

Suki John and Horacio Cocchi in a tunnel beneath Lincoln Center. The couple, who met at a cafe on the Upper West Side, were featured in Vows 20 years ago. Kholood Eid for The New York Times

In a recent email, Suki John and Horacio Cocchi attempted to sum up their 20-year marriage in one paragraph, which read like a grocery list. It included: 8 homes, 9 housemates, 1 foreclosure, 21 jobs, 3 layoffs, 2 miscarriages, 1 birth, 3 parents and 2 friends deceased, 1 bankruptcy, 1 set of dentures, innumerable road trips, 3 days in Amarillo waiting for parts, 9 cars, 5 billion phone calls, far too many dance performances, 5 weeks in Europe, 17 weeks in Cuba, 1 summer in Vermont, 6 mattresses, 2 bread machines, 9 espresso machines, countless bottles of extra virgin olive oil, 5 tango lessons and 2 wedding rings.

The couple met 21 years ago, when she approached him in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side. “I saw him across the room and it was like a magnet,” said Ms. John, 58, who is as excitable as her wild, curly hair. At the time, she was a modern dancer and choreographer sleeping on a futon in a friend’s kitchen in Brooklyn. She traveled as often as possible. “I was totally uninterested in domesticity,” she said.

After she and Mr. Cocchi married on July 6, 1997, they moved into an attic apartment in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx. She became enthusiastically domestic, in part because Mr. Cocchi, 59, is such a good cook. “He’s always saying, ‘Baby, want some pasta? Let me cook you some pasta,’” she said. “He’s very nurturing and grounding. He tethered me.”

They are not a quiet or even-tempered couple. Living next door to them is probably akin to living next to trombone players. They argue often, about the symbolism of tango dancing, or which rug would look best in their living room, or whether God exists (she’s Jewish, he’s an atheist). “It’s noisy and messy and emotional,” she said. Mr. Cocchi describes their relationship as “marital blitz.”

Over the years, they have struggled with infertility, alcoholism, money, and have somehow remained lighthearted about it all. “My whole life, I have always had financial insecurity,” said Mr. Cocchi, who grew up in Uruguay and has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Connecticut. “It’s comic. I don’t pursue the goal of making money.”

Suki John, Horacio Cocchi with their son, Rafael. “I really liked the way I was with Horacio and a child,” she said. “I liked how the focus wasn’t on me. It was on the next generation. It felt really right.” Kholood Eid for The New York Times

While trying to conceive Ms. John had two miscarriages. “Devastating.” she said. “I was already what they call a ‘mature’ mom. It was not clear to me that I was going to be able to sustain a pregnancy.” She added: “I remember being in my garden in the Bronx and thinking, ‘Maybe I’m never going to have a baby. I guess I’ll have some plants.’”

Eventually she became pregnant with their son, Rafael John Cocchi, who was born in 2001. “I really liked the way I was with Horacio and a child,” she said. “I liked how the focus wasn’t on me. It was on the next generation. It felt really right.”

Soon after Rafael was born, they moved to Connecticut, and bought a house in 2006, at the height of the market. In 2007 Ms. John was offered a job teaching in the dance department at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Mr. Cocchi, who was happily teaching environmental planning at the University of Connecticut, did not want to move.

After a lot of arguing, he acquiesced. “My wisdom is, it’s very hard to have a long-lasting relationship,” he said. “For me, it was about how much am I willing to give up to keep this marriage growing?”

They tried to sell their Connecticut house, but the real estate market was crashing and soon their mortgage was greater than the value of the house. “We are poster children for the mortgage crisis,” Ms. John said. “We drained all of our savings to try to hold on to the house.”

They ended up declaring bankruptcy and losing it in a foreclosure. “We cried,” she said. “We felt shame. We didn’t tell anybody. But, I want people to know: You go through a lot when you’re married, and if you come out the other side, you are very strong.”

In Texas, things did not improve immediately. While she loved teaching at T.C.U., Mr. Cocchi couldn’t find work — he estimates he applied for 500 jobs — and began drinking. “I’d start cooking around 6 or 7, and drinking,” he said. “By midnight, I was intoxicated. It was part of my routine.”

She said, “It eventually became clear our family would not remain intact if he continued drinking.” So, five years ago, he quit.

“I was making everyone around me unhappy,” he said. “Nobody wants to be around a drunk.”

After passing their 20th anniversary last month, they reflected on how they have stayed together through so many crises. “Our commitment to monogamy was a big part of our ability to weather all the storms,” she said. “For me, that was essential to the idea of marriage.”

Plus, she finds Mr. Cocchi hilarious. “He’s very, very funny, and that helps so much,” she said. “We call him the ‘Naked Cowboy.’ Like, right now, he’s sitting here on my exercise ball with no shirt playing the guitar.”

Ms. John is currently creating a story ballet called “Havana Love Letters,” about the importance of resilience and realism in relationships. In conversation she often says, “Happily-ever-after doesn’t exist.”

He likes to say, “Bad times will be followed by good times,” which seems true at the moment. She now has tenure at T.C.U., and he is an adjunct economics professor at Tarrant County College. In 2016, they became homeowners again. They even have a swimming pool.

They also have a new ritual. They regularly meet at home in the afternoon, between teaching responsibilities, to take a “siesta” together. They lie next to each other in their dark bedroom. “It’s so sweet,” she said. “We just want to be with each other. I still think he’s absolutely adorable.”

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