Back in my guide days, my group gathered around the supper table at the trattoria, the gelato behind us and nothing to do but order more wine and gatch, this was the question that most often came up. "Hey, Toby," someone would say, "what about marriage?" I mean, you know, in the abstract.
My first impulse was to laugh it off, keep it light. "Well," I'd say, "it's better than putting a stick in your eye!" Not necessarily.
Of course I'm the wrong person to ask, let's get that straight. I'm no good with opinions. It takes a great deal of effort to maintain an opinion. They're seductive at first but you're letting yourself in for a lot of work.
But, having said that, I do recognize an obligation to say something to illuminate your pain. To try to pound your imagination into the proper shape.
So. Get on the table.
You are, have been, or are going to be, married. Right? Even if you aren't strictly speaking a licencee, sharing a bed, a table and a toilet with someone is more or less being married to that person, can we accept that? The first step toward cure is being able to stand up and admit it.
O.K. Why are you (were you, will you be) married?
Well, you are the victim of your longings. You long. Ever since you first lay in your room listening to the radio your life has been a quest for some kind of closure. For The One.
You have always felt anyway that you should be related to something beyond the self. Women, you feel (I am addressing the men here) have something to tell you, something you don't know. Maybe it's just the woman thing they keep on their kitchen taps but there's a sense of mystery there, and you never stop dragging your net for her. You want, not Audrey Hepburn perhaps, but someone who admires Audrey Hepburn. You pass over the pushy-let-it-all-hang-outists. You learn to avoid the ones with more than two cats. Their-mouths-have-less-germs-than-ours types. Can't be reached. Better to just nod.
And having a body is a little like having a pet. You have to take it out and get it laid once in a while. You don't really approve of casual sex but what the hell. But your encounters are preceded by mutual clinical interrogations so probing that after you've run through the checklist you're not excited any more.
You give up. She's not there.
Then, she is. You know each other immediately. She is the tagliatelli al quatro fromaggi of women. Afterwards you lie together, your arm around her, or hers around you depending on her politics, and you know beyond all doubt that this is her.
Good. You are now at the top of the graph paper. You have become yourself. And, paradoxically, your self, your inconvenient, longing, out-of-it self, has disappeared. You have melded with The Other. Relax. Have a cigarette.
But watch it. No need for any undue cynicism here but look out. Already you are receiving subtle invitations to commit to a terminal involvement.
And by all means go that way and blessings on you. No I mean it! You want protection, right? You want indefinite in-loveness. Someone to bend over you with tender concern, someone to cultivate this desert you call your soul, someone to change the J cloth every week. Here she is! Go!
Trouble is, you don't know what you want. I have taken it upon myself to be your guide in these matters and I don't know what you want!
You're in like Jack the Bear now but a moment comes when her beauty is perhaps no longer quite crazy driving. She thinks you're giving her that come here and lie down look and you're counting her pimples. She takes off her sunglasses and you realize you wanted her to leave them on so you could see yourself in them.
RUN! You silly twisted fool, you! RUN! Opt not to follow through! Just when the sensuality evaporates is when you're most tempted to settle down and get serious. DON'T DO IT! You'll thank me later.
But you can't run. Too much is against you.
First, there is the tenderness of the young girl's heart. That can really destroy you, the tenderness of the young girl's heart. The great white, the hammerhead and the tenderness of the young girl's heart. Because the fundamental difference between men and women is—are you ready?—they feel it's been a waste of time if it's not going anywhere. You don't.
You discover this later.
You feel guilty about using her the moment you realize it will be a relief to part. In bed you have already allowed yourself to become excited by the feeling that you are using her, so it's too late to deny it. You will have to marry her to get her off your conscience. To protect her from yourself.
See how it works?
And why not, for Pete's sake? Don't you want to be a whole person? Do you want to go from impulse to impulse all your life?
You will have a place to fix your radar. You will live on easier terms with the collectivity. Has there ever been anything like her full protection pads for shining your shoes? You will have all that! Women are there to lighten the sentence, boy! Make the term go by faster! Choose one and give her everything!
You may find yourself in one of the following states vis a vis the actual person: You love her passionately and you like her most of the time. You are attached to the particular shape of her decency. You think of her with a not unerotic something or other when you think of her at all. (Say yo when you hear yours.) You have begun to be annoyed by her absences.
Women are all more or less inconvenient. That's a little brutal but there it is. Here is one a little less inconvenient than the rest.
Or, they're all one way or another upsetting. You figure if you marry one you can make them less so. This one. All of them.
Or, we are always a little bit wrong. Why not be wrong about this? Get your face right in the muff of life and work it around!
You gay dancing partner of disaster.
There is still time. Tell her you both said a lot of things. You are sensible of the honor implied, tell her.
O.K. Back to earth. We're here to face things.
You have now negotiated STEP ONE.
STEP TWO. You are married. It's too late to worry about how or why.
You are ready to share, care, bond and communicate, and slalom eagerly past the initial difficulties.
She overcooks the spaghetti. Fine.
She keeps a basket of wood shavings and dried flowers on the television set. So what?
She tacks folksy mottoes and wise one liners to the fridge door with little magnets. You move through quickly.
She sprays the phone with Lysol after you use it. You like women who are a little neurotic, remember?
The living room is too clean for actual use and cordoned off like a display in a museum. She puts the toilet roll on backwards and will not be corrected. You take it off and turn it around and when you come back it's on wrong again.
All the little rituals you resort to to deal with life have to be revised and smuggled into the new context, and you will not even know she is aware of them until she describes them before you to a gathering of your friends.
I love your laugh, you say. Not for long.
Is any of this making sense?
There is sex. You know that. You may rub skins with her, if she says so.
Then, babies. The Wipey Dipey Diaper Service. A whole new schedule. Special insurance rates, everything.
You get home from wherever it is you go to pay for all this and the linoleum lizard is on the floor sipping light from a flashlight. Your valentine is standing at the stove in your shoes and a ratty robe with a cigarette in her mouth, jiggling a frying pan. You smile at the kid. He cries.
There is sex, yes, but the converse is also true. Sex is there. And only there. What did you think, you were going to eat standing up and go out whoring? That's all over now. Watch the news or something.
Indeed, life is now an almost unbroken series of evenings before the eye. You lie there paralyzed, a commercial jingle structuring your thoughts. You will be haunted to the grave by certain tunes for defunct products. You are nothing.
"We live like shit here," she says.
This is an eternal girl, you used to think. She speaks from forever. Then it changes. It's hard to say just where the cheese becomes rind but you come to a point. You no longer embrace her knees on the path at night. You are not yet embarrassed by sex but you are beginning to grope for inspiration. And when afterwards you lie glued at the heart by the wet there is nostalgia in it.
This is accompanied by a tendency to disagree. You argue about who got the crumbs in the honey, what speed to walk at. She sees something on television that rearranges her values and starts you on a program of regular criticism. You are unpersuaded by her taste in music and interrupt a particularly noisome record by gouging it with the needle.
At parties she talks about the difference between loving and being in love. "Don't get so drunk you can't fuck," she tells you across the table. You turn to the woman on your left and smile.
In fact bedtime is becoming a challenge. Scrounging and scavenging for a fantasy that will get you through it one more time you heave like a galley slave, wring yourself out into her and collapse heroically. She takes out a vibrator to finish with.
By day you explain each other's inadequacies, rationally. Your paunch, your hard on, your possible sexual orientation. Her uninteresting legs, the smell of her dental work. Things it's hard to take back. Your cigarettes, your carcinogenic kisses. You are tired of this edition of the daily argument and go out and sit on the steps. Sucks, right? Not what you had in mind.
This can happen to you!
Conversation is now a series of short bulletins. Terse monosyllables. Nothing for supper but hot tongue and cold shoulder. You curl away from each other on sharply defined halves of the Posturepedic.
It goes on this way for a while. You try to colonize the tension, you send signals, but she wants debts paid you can't even remember incurring. You couldn't possibly be that evil! She disappears into a sustained and bitter ya ta ta and you are terrified, cut off. You pace the exercise yard. You will just have to serve out your time in pain and misery.
Then, "I love you today," she says, and you proceed on her terms. Arch with diplomacy you tiptoe through the minefield of the new accord, rival powers separated by a narrow d.m.z. Your scant sexual encounters are grudge matches motivated by a perversity that shocks even you.
Remember those furtive conversations with your buddies when you were fourteen? "Yah, but what if she gets a mustache?" "Suppose she goes bald!" It all happens.
Still you persist, you survive, you keep your head down and trudge until some false step, some twig in the face on the path, some "Here, is this it?" in the endless household search, some "What do you mean where is it, yer lookin at it, you dumb twat" catches you off guard, too twisted up not to sproing suddenly back into shape and you run at each other, scratch, kick, jar the furniture around and it comes to you now that you have solved nothing! You have become a satellite of your main thrust! You have made the horrible discovery that you can live without her love!
"I can no longer blind myself to certain developments in our relationship," you leap to your feet and announce. "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you."
But that's not life. You can't just take her back to the store and get your money back. On the contrary, this is where you start paying.
You have, however, made it to STEP THREE. The reconciliation.
Sure! You wanted this!
This is the gummy phlegm stage of the cold. You and Irma go to group therapy together. It costs slightly less than support and you are interested in one of the other women there.
When your turn comes you stand up and tell everybody how she coughs while you're still inside her. How she feels holy about having children and it gets on your nerves. How she regards you as her moral inferior, not an easy thing to forgive. You ramble on in a sort of bag man's babble until you are reduced to tears. The others sympathize and support you, rub your back as you sit there with your face in your hands.
She gets up and talks about the turd stains in the toilet and your insincerity.
"Insincerity!" you gasp, though it is not your turn. "I give you my life, I give you my love, now you want me to be sincere?!"
"I don't understand you!"
"I don't particularly want to be understood!"
"Facile," the group murmurs. "Intellectually facile."
Gradually she wins them over.
But at least now you have the courage to admit that misery is addictive. You were willing to submit to whatever on a trial basis. This has been it. The kids are already living with her boyfriend anyway and you're banging the broad from the encounter group.
It can end in one of three ways. She meets you in a restaurant with a cat balanced on her shoulder. You take a gun out and shoot her.
She gets tired of lying awake while you chainsnore and fiddles the brakes on the hatchback. You go out for cigarettes and just don't come back.
She sues you for divorce and you countersue, citing the children as grounds. Also she has bought an eight by eight painting with which you can no longer live. She has joined a coven and now does it with vegetables. Throw the book at her.
(Again, this is all addressed to the men. I have no idea what you women are doing.)
O.K. You're out of that.
See, that’s where I’m smart. I avoid the long-term entanglement. Certainly I never sign anything. The problem, as I see it, is to embrace life without gutting yourself on an altar.
As for Marcie and me, we never mention love, which saves us having to hammer out escape clauses. And we are not, oh no, working on a relationship. Or on anything else. We are idiotically happy together. A pair of grasshoppers in a world of ants.