Jon and I were still newlyweds the year we found ourselves in Washington, D.C., the week of my birthday. Somehow he’d secured a reservation at a restaurant we’d been fantasizing about for months, which served works of gastronomic art — mojito orbs, popcorn in liquid nitrogen. We knew the meal would be surreal. We didn’t know the cab ride to the restaurant would be, too.
We were discussing Jon’s career as we hailed the taxi. He was in a rut, feeling unchallenged, uninspired. I told him, not for the first time, that I thought he should pursue something he loves; that if he wasn’t happy, maybe he should go to grad school, change careers even. He reminded me, also not for the first time, that he had a good, stable job, and leaving it for the unknown would be irresponsible. We hopped in, gave the driver the address, and continued the familiar debate — already well versed in the grand marital tradition of forever treading the same ground.
“How long have you been married?” the driver asked in a melodic accent, looking at us in the rearview. He barely glanced at the road.
“Stoplight coming up, sir,” Jon said.
“Six weeks,” I said.
“Six months — you’re just married!”
“No, six weeks!”
The driver let out a low vowely sound that conveyed how much he felt about marriage; it seemed like a lot. Then he began to sing: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz...”
Jon and I looked at each other. The driver’s song morphed into a medley of other Janis Joplin numbers, then into a series of ballads in a language we didn’t know. He serenaded us, occasionally looking back at the road. Jon put his arm across me as an extra seat belt.
“Do you know Janis Joplin?” the driver asked.
Yes, of course, we said.
“That is what I like about America. In Sierra Leone, each village has its own songs. Here, everybody knows the same ones. Do you sing?”
I’m nasal and rhythmless. Jon less so, but no, we said, we don’t sing.
“You must sing together!” The driver was emphatic, as though our marriage was lacking something as basic as communication or sex.
We’re terrible singers, we explained.
“It’s no excuse,” he insisted. “You still must sing. Any song, just sing! A-B-C-D...”
A beat passed. Jon and I acquiesced: “E-F-G...”
We continued from H, the three of us singing into the night, the car careening down Ninth Street. We made it to Z still miraculously alive, and invigorated.
“Once a week, you must sing together,” the driver said. “Be playful and you will stay united.”
We reached the restaurant and asked each other, did that really happen?
We’ve always thought of our love as a kind of religion, with its hallowed origin story (the steamy August night our friendship finally turned romantic) and annual holidays (the anniversaries of that first night, of the moment we became official, of our wedding) and occasional rapturous transcendence. But our love had been missing another crucial element: a weekly sacrament, a regular reaffirmation of the devotion and joy at the core of what we’d built together.
A lot has changed since that cab ride — changes of focus and priority, of mood and mind. Jon found a job he loves. We moved to another state. Yet the alphabet song is immutable. We’ve sung it every weekend, almost always on Saturday morning, usually upon our first eye contact of the day. We take a deep breath and hold it a moment, a kind of signal, and then begin. We sing the alphabet when we’re crazy in love, or stressed, or angry, during terrible times and happy times alike. When we’re apart, we sing it over the phone. And we’ll keep performing this silly, sacred ritual — inspired by a stranger — so that we may remain always playful, always united, always in tune.
Sasha Sagan is a writer, and an editor and producer of documentary films. She and her husband live in Boston.