349: Valentine’s Day 2008
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From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Love, love, love, love, love.
[MUSIC- "LOVE WALKED IN" BY FRANK SINATRA]
What do we talk about when we talk about love? Well since the 13th century, this is what we talk about. This very moment.
Coup de foudre. Coup de foudre in French means the bolt of lightning, seeing someone and in an instant falling in love, love which happens in the moment of a flash.
This is Richard Klein of Cornell University. In the 13th century, he says, Petrarch is walking by a fountain in the south of France, turns a corner, sees Laura. Petrarch looks into her eyes and in an instant his life is transformed. And he writes the first lyric love poems ever written.
He says, before this moment, one lives in a state of distraction. And things come and go, experiences, fragmentary, and chaotic. And all of a sudden, at the moment at which you encounter the eye of the other, it turns you into something else. You suddenly become-- your whole being becomes-- focused on that experience. And all you want to do once you've had that experience is to return over and over to that.
30 years later in Florence, Dante goes through the same thing when he sees, at the top of a flight of stairs, Beatrice. He writes about it. And the idea of this moment, the bolt of lightning, gets repeated in literature, and song, and theater all through the Renaissance, up through the 19th century, and into the present day. Today, people who have not experienced that bolt of lightning in years, people who have been married for decades go to the movies, watch TV, to see it reenacted over and over. This is what we talk about when we talk about love.
In ancient Greek, the Greeks had two verbs for seeing, [? taorain ?] and [? drachain. ?] [? Taorain ?] is a way of seeing that we ordinarily understand as observation. [? Drachain ?] refers to the look that eyes can flash like lightning, like dragon breath, that not only illuminates the eye, but sends out a kind of fire that penetrates the eye of the other.
And they Fhas specifically a separate word for that?
That's right. For the moment when eyes flash. And flash in a way which implies some kind of faithful encounter. I was struck looking at those tapes of Monica Lewinsky embracing the president on those rope lines. The thing that's most compelling about those images is the way her eyes flash at him. And one can't help but be struck by the light that's coming from those eyes.
OK, now here's the crazy thing. Everybody knows that that moment of initial rapture, that instant when your eyes meet and you're obsessed with the other person, thinking about them all the time-- everybody knows that that feeling doesn't usually last, that in some way it's just a dream, that over time it changes into something different. Here's the thing, even on the day that this romantic myth of love was born-- that day in the 13th century when Petrarch saw Laura-- even on that day, it was clear that it was just a myth. It was just a dream. Petrarch doesn't get the girl.
No, the usual story is that the guy doesn't get the girl. But maybe you never get the girl. Maybe that's the sort of condition of falling in love. It always remains something sort of inaccessible. At the moment that desire is fulfilled, desire dies. Psychologists have estimated that you can only stick in love for 18 months. That's the limit. After that, it becomes something else, becomes admiration, respect, affection, and so forth. But the--
The dream of it dissolves and becomes something else.
I wonder if you would be saying this and explaining this in these terms if you, yourself, were falling in love right now.
Well, as a matter of fact, I think I am.
Well then, you're going to get in trouble when this goes on the radio, aren't you?
Oh, I'm going to be in so much trouble. You have no idea.
So you're falling in love right now and you're holding to the idea that this is an illusion and a sort of illusory experience?
Oh, but all I want is more, more illusion, more illusion.
So today, beloved listener, we come to you with a mission. Since stories of love-- in fact, our whole idea of love-- these things are usually about how it feels during those first moments of falling in love. Today, for Valentine's Day, as a public service, we make an attempt to understand another side of what love means. We bring you stories of couples that all take place decades after the moment their eyes meet.
Act One, "Before and After," the beginning of love as viewed from a moment near its ending. Act Two, "The Over-Protective Kind," in which a husband worries about his wife's safety on a very dangerous undertaking she's about to go on, to a beach resort. Act Three, "Istanbul," Ian Brown talks about what it means to stay monogamous. Stay with us.
Act One: Before And After
Act One. "Before and after." Well as a kid growing up in the east coast in the 1970s, for me, the most romantic songs in the world-- and this is kind of a corny thing to admit now years later, with retrospect-- the most romantic songs in the world were Bruce Springsteen's. Songs about falling in love in rundown beach towns on the Jersey shore, songs about hitting the road together to who knows where. But once Bruce hit a certain age, he stopped writing songs about that moment when lightning flashes between people, when their eyes meet. And he wrote a series of songs where basically every song takes place long after the couple fell out of love. And the narrator, or the singer in these songs, is remembering that exhilarating moment of falling in love and then describing the moment he's in now, the drudgery of his marriage now. And he's laying these two moments side by side, trying to make sense of how one of them has any connection in the world to the other, how one of them led to the other. Well, this next story is something like that. It's by Richard Bausch.
It's exactly 20 minutes to midnight, on this, the eve of my 70th birthday. And I've decided to address you, for a change, in writing, odd as that might seem. I'm perfectly aware of how you're going to take the fact that I'm doing this at all, so late at night with everybody due to arrive tomorrow and the house still unready. I haven't spent almost five decades with you without learning a few things about you that I can predict and describe with some accuracy. Though I admit that, as you put it, lately we've been more like strangers than husband and wife.
Well, so if we are like strangers, perhaps there are some things I can tell you that you won't have already figured out about the way I feel. Tonight we had another one of those long, silent evenings after an argument. Remember? Over pepper. We had been bickering all day really, but at dinner I put paper on my potatoes and you said that about how I shouldn't have pepper because it always upsets my stomach. I'm bothered to remark that I used to eat chili peppers for breakfast. And if I wanted to put plain, old, ordinary black pepper on my potatoes-- as I had been doing for more than 60 years-- that was my privilege.
Writing this now, it sounds far more testy than I meant it. But that isn't really the point. In any case, you chose to overlook my tone. You simply said, "John, you were up all night the last time you had pepper with your dinner."
I said, "I was up all night because I ate green peppers, not black pepper but green peppers."
"A pepper is a pepper. Isn't it?" You said. And then I started in on you. I got-- as you call it-- legal with you, pointing out that green peppers are not black pepper. And from there we moved on to an evening of mutual disregard for each other that ended with your decision to go to bed early. The grandchildren will make you tired and there's still the house to do. You had every reason to want to get some rest. And yet, I felt that you were also making a point of getting yourself out of proximity with me, leaving me to my displeasure with another ridiculous argument settling between us like a fog.
So after you went to bed, I got out the whiskey and started pouring drinks. And I had every intention of putting myself into a stupor. It was also my birthday, after all, and-- forgive this, it's the way I felt at the time-- you had nagged me into an argument and then gone off to bed. The day had ended as so many of our days end now. And I felt, well, entitled. I had a few drinks without any appreciable effect, though you might well see this letter as firm evidence to the contrary.
And then I decided to do something to shake you up. I would leave. I'd make a lot of noise going out the door. I'd take a walk around the neighborhood and make you wonder where I could be. Perhaps I'd go check into a motel for the night. The thought even crossed my mind that I might leave you all together. I admit that I entertained the thought, Marie. I saw our life together now as the day to day round of petty quarreling and tension that it's mostly been over the past couple of years or so. And I wanted out as sincerely as I ever wanted out of anything.
And I got up from my seat in front of the television and walked back down the hall to the entrance of our room to look at you. I suppose I hoped you'd still be awake so I could tell you of this momentous decision I felt I'd reached. And maybe you were awake. One of our oldest areas of contention being the noise I make, the feather thin membrane of your sleep that I am always disturbing with my restlessness in the nights.
All right, assuming you were asleep and don't know that I stood in the doorway of our room, I will say that I stood there for perhaps five minutes looking at you in the half dark, the shape of your body under the blanket. You really did look like one of the girls when they were little and I used to stand in the doorway of their rooms. Your illness last year made you so small again. And as I said, I thought I had decided to leave you for your peace as well as mine.
I know you have gone to sleep crying, Marie. I know you felt sorry about things and wished we could find some way to stop irritating each other so much. Well, of course, I didn't go anywhere. I came back to this room and drank more of the whiskey and watched television. It was like all the other nights. The shows came on and ended and the whiskey began to wear off. There was a little rain shower. I had a moment of the shock of knowing I was 70.
After the rain ended, I did go outside for a few minutes. I stood on the sidewalk and looked at the house. The kids, with their kids, were on the road somewhere between their homes and here. I walked up to the end of the block and back and a pleasant breeze blew and shook the drops out of the trees. My stomach was bothering me some and maybe it was the pepper I'd put on my potatoes. It could just as well have been the whiskey.
Anyway, as I came back to the house, I began to have an eerie feeling that I had reached the last night of my life. There was this small discomfort in my stomach and no other physical pang or pain. And I'm used to the small ills and side effects of my ways of eating and drinking. Yet I felt a sense of the end of things more strongly than I can describe. When I stood in the entrance of our room and looked at you again, wondering if I would make it through to the morning, I suddenly found myself trying to think what I would say to you if, indeed, this were the last time I would ever be able to speak to you. And I began to know I would write you this letter.
At least words in a letter aren't blurred by tone of voice, by the old, aggravating sound of me talking to you. I began with this and with the idea that, after months of thinking about it, I would at last try to say something to you that wasn't colored by our disaffection. What I have to tell you must be explained in a rather round about way.
I've been thinking about my cousin, Louise, and her husband. When he died and she stayed with us last summer, something brought back to me what is really only the memory of a moment. Yet it reached me, that moment, across more than 50 years.
As you know, Louise is nine years older than I and more like an older sister than a cousin. I must have told you, at one time or another, that I spent some weeks with her back in 1933, when she was first married. The memory I'm talking about comes from that time. And what I have decided I have to tell you comes from that memory. Father had been dead four years. We were all used to the fact that times were hard and that there was no man in the house, though I suppose I filled that role in some titular way.
In any case, when mother became ill, there was the problem of us, her children. Though I was the oldest, I wasn't old enough to stay in the house alone or to nurse her either. My grandfather came up with a solution-- and everybody went along with it-- that I would go to Louise's for a time and the two girls would go to stay with grandfather.
So we closed up the house and I got on a train to Virginia. I was a few weeks shy of 14 years old. I remember that I was not able to believe that anything truly bad would come of mother's pleurisy and was consequently glad of the opportunity it afforded me to travel the 100 miles south to Charlottesville, where cousin Louise had moved with her new husband only a month earlier, after her wedding.
Because we traveled so much at the beginning, you never got to really know Charles when he was young. In 1933 he was a very tall, imposing fellow with bright red hair and a graceful way of moving that always made me think of athletics and contests of skill. He had worked at the Navy Yard in Washington and had been laid off in the first months of Roosevelt's New Deal. Louise was teaching in a day school in Charlottesville so they could make ends meet. And Charles was spending most of his time looking for work and fixing up the house.
I had only met Charles once or twice before the wedding, but already I admired him and wanted to emulate him. The prospect of spending time in his house, or perhaps going fishing with him in the small streams of central Virginia, was all I thought about on the way down. And I remember that we did go fishing one weekend, that I wound up spending a lot of time with Charles, helping to paint the house and to run water lines under it for indoor plumbing.
Oh, I had time with Louise too, listening to her read from the books she wanted me to be interested in, walking with her around Charlottesville in the evenings, and looking at the city as it was then, or sitting on her small porch and talking about the family, mother's stubborn illness, the children Louise saw every day at school. But what I want to tell you has to do with the very first day I was there.
I know you think I use far too much energy thinking about and pining away for the past. And I therefore know that I'm taking a risk by talking about this ancient history and by trying to make you see it. But this all has to do with you and me, my dear, and our late inability to find ourselves in the same room together without bitterness and pain. That summer, 1933, was unusually warm in Virginia. And the heat, along with my impatience to arrive, made the train almost unbearable. I think it was just past noon when it pulled into the station in Charlottesville, with me hanging out one of the windows looking for Louise or Charles. It was Charles who had come to meet me. He stood in a crisp-looking seersucker suit with a straw boater cocked at just the angle you'd expect a young, newly married man to wear a straw boater, even in the middle of economic disaster.
I waved at him and he waved back and I might have jumped out the window if the train had slowed even a little more than it had before it stopped in the shade of platform. I made my way out, carrying the cloth bag my grandfather had given me for the trip. Mother had said, through her room, that I looked like a carpetbagger. And when I stepped down to shake hands with Charles, I noticed that what I thought was a new suit was tattered at the ends of the sleeves.
"Well," he said, "Young John." I smiled at him and I was perceptive enough to see that his cheerfulness was not entirely effortless. He was a man out of work, after all. And so, in spite of himself, there was worry in his face, the slightest shadow in an otherwise glad and proud countenance.
We walked through the station to the street and on up the steep hill to the house, which was a small, clapboard structure, a cottage really, with a porch at the end of the short sidewalk lined with flowers. They were marigolds, I think. And here was Louise coming out of the house, her arms already stretched wide to embrace me. "Lord," she said, "I swear you've grown since the wedding, John."
Charles took my bag and went inside. "Let me look at you, young man," Louise said. I stood for inspection. And as she looked me over, I saw that her hair was pulled back, that a few strands of it had come loose, that it was brilliantly auburn in the sun. I suppose I was a little in love with her. She was grown and married now. She was a part of what seemed a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter it. And of course, you remember how that feels, Marie, when one is on the verge of things, nearly adult, nearly old enough to fall in love.
I looked at Louise's happy, flushed face and felt a deep ache as she ushered me into her house. I wanted so to be older. Inside, Charles had poured lemonade for us and was sitting in the easy chair by the fireplace, already sipping his. Louise wanted to show me the house and the backyard, which she had tilled and turned into a small vegetable garden. But she must have sensed how thirsty I was and so she asked me to sit down and have a cool drink before she showed me the upstairs.
Now of course, looking back on it, I remember that those rooms she was so anxious to show me were meager indeed. They were not much bigger than closets really, and the paint was faded and dull. The furniture she'd arranged so artfully was coming apart. The pictures she'd put on the walls were prints she'd cut out, magazine covers mostly. And the curtains over the windows were the same ones that hung in her childhood bedroom for 20 years.
"Recognize these?" she said with a deprecating smile. Of course, the quality of her pride had nothing to do with the fineness, or lack of it, in these things, but in the fact that they belonged to her and that she was a married lady in her own house.
On this day in July, in 1933, she and Charles were waiting for the delivery of a fan they had scrounged enough money to buy from Sears, through the catalog. There were things they would rather have been doing, especially in this heat, and especially with me there. Monticello wasn't far away. The university was within walking distance. And without too much expense, one could ride a taxi to one of the lakes nearby. They had hoped that the fan would arrive before I did, but since it hadn't-- and since neither Louise nor Charles was willing to leave the other alone while traipsing off with me that day-- there wasn't anything to do but wait around for it.
Louise had opened the windows and shut the shades and we sat in her small living room and drank the lemonade, fanning ourselves with folded parts of Charles' morning newspaper. From time to time, an anemic breath of air would move the shades slightly. But everything grew still again. Louise sat on the arm of Charles's chair and I sat on the sofa. We talked about pleurisy and, I think, about the fact that Thomas Jefferson had invented the dumbwaiter, how the plumbing at Monticello was at least a century ahead of its time.
Charles remarked that it was the spirit of invention that would make a man's career in these days. "That's what I'm aiming for, to be inventive in a job, no matter what it winds up being."
When the lemonade ran out, Louise got up and went into the kitchen to make some more. Charles and I talked about taking a weekend to go fishing. He leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head looking satisfied. In the kitchen, Louise was chipping ice for our glasses. And she began singing something low for her own pleasure, a barely audible lilting. And Charles and I sat listening. It occurred to me that I was very happy. I had the sense that soon I would be embarked on my own life, as Charles was. And that an attractive woman like Louise would be there with me.
Charles yawned and said, "God, listen to that. Doesn't Louise have the loveliest voice?"
And that's all I have from that day. I don't even know if the fan arrived later. And I have no clear memory of how we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening. I remember Louise singing a song, her husband leaning back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head, expressing his pleasure in his young wife's voice. I remember that I felt quite extraordinarily content just then. And that's all I remember.
But there are, of course, the things we both know. We know they moved to Colorado to be near Charles' parents. We know they never had any children. We know that Charles fell down a shaft at a construction site in the fall of 1957 and was hurt so badly that he never walked again. And I know that when she came to stay with us last summer, she told me she'd learned to hate him, and not for what she'd had to help him do all those years. No, it started earlier and was deeper than that. She hadn't minded the care of him-- the washing and feeding and all the numberless small tasks she had to perform each and every day, all day. She hadn't minded this. In fact, she thought there was something in her makeup that liked being needed so completely. The trouble was simply that whatever she had once loved in him she had stopped loving. And for many, many years before he died, she'd felt only suffocation when he was near enough to touch her, only irritation and anxiety when he spoke.
She said all this and then looked at me, her cousin, who had been fortunate enough to have children and to be in love over time and said, "John, how have you and Marie managed it?" And what I wanted to tell you has to do with this fact. That while you and I had had one of our whispering arguments only moments before, I felt quite certain of the simple truth of the matter, which is that-- whatever our complications-- we have managed to be in love over time. "Louise," I said.
"People start out with such high hopes," she said, as if I wasn't there. She looked at me. "Don't they?"
"Yes," I said.
She seemed to consider this a moment and she said, "I wonder how it happens."
I said, "You ought to get some rest," or something equally pointless and admonitory. As she moved away from me, I had an image of Charles standing on the station platform in Charlottesville that summer, the straw boater set at its cocky angle. It was an image I would see most of the rest of that night, and on many another night since.
I can almost hear your voice as you point out that, once again, I've managed to dwell too long in a memory of something that's passed and gone. The difference is that I'm not grieving over the past now. I am merely reporting a memory so that you might understand what I'm about to say to you.
The fact is, we aren't the people we were even then, just a year ago. I know that as I know things have been slowly eroding between us for a very long time. We are a little tired of each other. And there are annoyances and old scars that won't be obliterated with a letter, even a long one written in the middle of the night in desperate sincerity, under the influence-- admittedly-- of a considerable portion of bourbon whisky, but nevertheless, with the best intention and hope that you may know how, over the course of this night, I came to the end of needing an explanation for our difficulty.
We have reached this place, everything we say seems rather aggravating mindless and automatic, like something one stranger might say to another in one of the thousand circumstances where strangers are thrown together for a time, and the silence begins to grow heavy on their minds and someone has to say something.
Darling, we go so long these days without having anything at all to do with each other. And the children are arriving tomorrow. And once more we'll be in the position of making all of the gestures that give them back their parents as they think their parents are. And what I wanted to say to you-- what came to me as I thought about Louise and Charles on that day so long ago, when they were young and so obviously glad of each other, and I looked at them and do it and was happy-- what came to me was that even the harsh things that happened to them, even the years of anger and silence, even the disappointment and the bitterness and the wanting not to be in the same room anymore, even all that must have been worth it for such loveliness.
At least I am here, at 70 years old, hoping so. Tonight, I went back to our room again and stood gazing at you asleep, dreaming whatever you were dreaming. And I had a moment of thinking how we were always friends too, because what I wanted, finally, to say was that I remember well our own sweet times, our own old loveliness. And I would like to think that even if-- at the very beginning of our lives together-- I had somehow been shown that we would end up here with this longing to be away from each other, this feeling of being trapped together, of being tied to each other in a way that makes us wish for other times, some other place, I would have known enough to accept it all freely for the chance at that love. And if I could, I would do it all again, Marie. All of it. Even the sorrow. My sweet, my dear adversary, for everything that I remember.
Richard Bausch's story-- "Letter to the Lady of the House," is in his book, Selected Stories from Richard Bausch. That's from the Modern Library. His newest book is Thanksgiving Night.
[MUSIC- "THE RIVER" BY BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN]
Coming up, a very different kind of marriage, one where they serve and protect. She serves. He protects. Or actually, maybe it's the other way around. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two: The Over-Protective Kind
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and performers to tackle that theme. Today we wanted to bring you stories about love. But not the usual kind of love stories which try to capture that moment when your eyes meet and your heart sings and you fall, fall, fall, fall, fall. No, no no. We have a different mission. Today, as a public service, we are bringing you love stories about people who have been in the same relationship for years, stories of love years after the lightning has already struck.
We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, "The Over-Protective Kind." Veronica Chater tells this story. The setting-- the Bay area suburbs. The characters-- own mother and father.
Recently, my parents' marriage went through a few weeks of chaos when my mom announced that she was taking a vacation. Turns out, Noreen-- her best friend of 40 years-- was inviting her to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico to spend a week in her timeshare.
My parents have been married for 45 years and they've never been apart for more than a day or two. What's more, in those 45 years they've never taken a vacation. Partly because they've been raising 11 children and helping to raise 20 grandchildren, and partly because my dad's feelings about vacations go something like this--
I detest shopping. I detest eating out. I detest motels. I detest beaches. I detest anything having to do with what most people go on vacations for. For me it's the opposite of having fun. It's a purgatory.
Mom didn't even think of inviting him along. But as she began preparing for her trip, Dad began worrying. My Dad is something of a safety nut. He was a police officer and then a corporate security consultant. And as a result, he's the kind of guy who sees danger around every corner and is ready to defend himself and his family against any possible foe.
As I was growing up, whenever our birthdays came around, my brothers and sisters and I always knew the present from dad was going to be a weapon-- a hunting knife, say, or a rifle. After I was the victim of a violent crime about 10 years ago, he only got worse. He took me out to buy a gun-- a Colt thirty. 38 detective special-- and taught me how to use it. Then he wrote a book called, The Protection Formula-- Thinking Like a Cop, to teach ordinary people to be more like him. These days, when he bicycles to work each day on a busy road in the California suburbs, he carries with him a fully stocked survival kit-- ace bandages, iodine, insulating blanket and, just to be on the safe side, a 10 inch long bayonet. He'd carry a gun if he could. But as a former cop, he'd never dream of breaking California's concealed weapons law.
Given all of this, when my mom broke the news that she was heading on vacation to a foreign country, it meant only one thing to my dad, peril.
You get two quite naive women down there. And my wife still has sex appeal, so I'm concerned that's a case for worry. It isn't only that she still has sex appeal, it's the fact that there are bad people that will do things to compromise a middle aged woman. They might think she's wealthy. Who knows what a depraved person will think? You don't know, but there's plenty of them out there.
Do you think he's right to feel afraid?
No, because of where we're going to be. When you're in a place like Puerta Vallarta, which is a resort town. And I've talked to several people that I've come in contact with who have been there and it's been fine. And we're not that naive, my goodness sakes. We're--
Do you really think Mom's being naive to say--
Yes, yes. I think she is.
There we go.
I think there's a-- we've discussed this before-- there's a state of mind that some people do not have. They don't have a vigilance about them. They don't suspect. And that bothers me.
Dad had plenty of ideas about what might happen to Mom in Puerta Vallarta. Someone could slip a mickey into her drink. They could copy her hotel room key and follow her back to her room. Dad stewed about this for two weeks. And then one day he announced to my mom that he had no choice. He was coming with her. It would be the only way to ensure her safety. Mom was stunned and stammered that, of course, he'd be welcome to come. And then she quickly called Noreen. This wasn't the vacation either of them had in mind. And they had to do some last minute juggling. They had to figure out sleeping arrangements. They had to buy another plane ticket. And while Mom went about shopping for swimsuits and suntan lotion,
Dad started preparing for the trip in his own way, by faxing a letter to the Mexican Consulate asking which weapons of self defense he could legally bring into the country. I asked Dad to read a sample from the letter.
Presumably guns are not allowed there for travelers, but what about pepper spray and knives? I'm retired from law enforcement and therefore, I know intimately our state laws on bladed weapons, which are very specific as to length of blade, concealment, et cetera. And because I want to stay within the law in Mexico, I'd like to know specifics. What is the language of the laws as to blade length, concealment, folders versus fixed blades, gravity knives and so on, also, the laws on pepper spray or the like? And a final question, if we decide to rent a car and drive in the hinterland, is it possible to higher protection, for instance, off-duty policeman?
Dad never did get a response to his letter. But he did hear from his law enforcement buddies that bringing a weapon into Mexico could land him in jail indefinitely. He began to worry that announcing his desire to enter the country armed might not have been the best way to introduce himself to the Mexican authorities. Meanwhile, my mom began worrying about how my dad was going to fare on the trip. He's a creature of habit with a nightly ritual that he follows religiously.
He comes to the kitchen. He has one shot of gin and he has a beer, OK. And then he's got his little hors d'Oeuvres there. He has certain things-- radishes, carrots, onions, cheese-- he's now into gruyere. He likes the gruyere. Then he sits down and has his meal and then he has to go right to bed. And that's it. And so there's no visiting. He's got his thing. He does it. [? da, ?] duh, da, duh, da, duh, da, duh. Every night, same thing. He's so routinized, he drives you crazy.
And does he watch a movie every night?
Yeah. Well not a movie, he never watches a movie. He's got six to eight pieces. He watches pieces of this, that, and the other. He's either looking for something in it-- there's a car that he saw or there's a diner, or there's a particular scene that reminds him of something, or I don't know. He's just got his little--
Yeah, all that stuff.
For a week, my dad vacillated on his decision to go. Finally, he told Mom he'd decided to stay home, blaming his change of heart on back pain. Mom was secretly relieved. The night before she left-- as dad offered last minute instructions on how to jam the hotel door shut with a chair-- she wrote out her flight details and gave Dad a list of household chores. The next morning she was gone.
Four days later, I drop in to see how Dad's getting along. When I show up, the front door is locked, something that never happens when Mom's around. I have to knock loudly, twice. When he finally opens the door, Dad is unshaven, his white hair uncombed. All the windows are closed and the curtains shut. Last night's video, Castaway, sits on the TV set. I tell Dad he looks like he's the one who's stranded on a desert island. He pretends to find the joke funny. But he can't muster a smile.
So, OK, so we go 0-1-1.
I suggest we call Mom to check up on her.
Well, we cannot believe the humidity here, the heat. We've just had to stay in the hotel the whole time. It's dirty out there, just dirty.
You had to stay in the hotel?
Yeah, we've just had to stay in here, because we can't stand the heat.
Oh my gosh. It really makes me feel better.
It makes you feel better?
Yeah, I'm almost to the point of being in a full depression here with you being away.
Mom knows just the words that will get Dad's attention. Heat, dirt, thieves, danger all around.
Well, we walked by some people. And Noreen and I, we were just hanging on to our purses. We thought, oh my gosh, Lyle was right. He should have come, for pete's sake. What are we in here? This is ridiculous. I don't know. But anyways--
Haven't you done any shopping or--
How can you shop? You can't even breathe out there.
Dad leans back in his chair. He's beaming. He looks genuinely pleased that he was right about everything, that Mom is stuck in her hotel room having no fun at all. Finally, when she knows Dad is all worked up, she drops the bomb.
OK, now you want the real scoop now, are you ready?
OK. It's fabulous, absolutely fabulous.
Oh, now I'm getting depressed again.
I'm sorry, but I need to tell the truth here. Oh my gosh. In fact, we weren't here because we were laying by the pool.
The trip was just as they'd imagined it would be. No, better. The people were the friendliest she'd ever met. She and Noreen were buying tacos from street vendors, bartering with the local merchants, and attending mass in a Mexican church. You could hear in her voice that she was having the time of her life. And this was even before we saw the pictures of the young waiter pouring tequila and grenadine down her throat at dinner one night.
As Mom goes on, Dad's face slowly sinks into a frown. He looks disappointed and confused. Not a single bad thing happened? It was all good. He waits for Mom's effervescence to run out of fizz. And when it doesn't, he jumps in at the first opportunity.
Let me interrupt. I couldn't find the freezer key.
It's hanging above the washer. I showed you.
OK. I'll look. And I couldn't find the checkbook.
Then, when Mom asks Dad how he's doing, he gives her all the grisly details of the lousy time he's been having in her absence.
Those packaged food things you bought me are awful.
Our best meal since you've been gone has been Jack-in-the-Box.
Did you put those in the oven?
Yeah, I cooked them the way--
Oven or the microwave?
No, in the microwave.
No, oven is always better for those things.
Well, it's too late.
Those were expensive, those should be really good, Lyle.
Well, they weren't.
When Dad hangs up the phone, he sinks further into self pity. All these years he'd been living under the misconception that he was the one in charge, the man with the badge-- worried and over-protective and laying down the rules. But in fact, she is the one who takes care of him. Without Mom at home to look after him, Dad was defenseless.
I want her to go and have a good time. It isn't that. It's just that I'm so used to having her presence here. It's incredible. It's physical. You can't see it coming. All of a sudden she's gone, she's not here, there is a different aura in the house.
What does the house feel like?
Cold. She really is-- she has a radiance about her. And she brightens things and that's gone.
My mom survived the trip and my dad did too. And he even found his way to the right location at the airport to pick up mom. True, he did arrive more than an hour late. Mom let him know she wasn't too happy about that. And once she got home, she reprimanded him for being a hopeless housekeeper and a terrible gardener. But Mom could have scolded Dad all she liked, he was enjoying every minute of it. You could see it in his face as she lined up the sliced radishes, counted out the correct number of olives, and made his salad just the way he likes it.
Veronica Chater in northern California.
[MUSIC- "SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME" BY RICKI LEE JONES]
Act Three: Istanbul
Well, we end our program today, about what love is like long after the moment you fall in love, with this story about monogamy itself, from Ian Brown.
There's a couple across my street who make love in their living room. I hear them in the evening when I walk after dinner. From the sidewalk, I can see cream walls, a mantle draped in animal hides, African carvings. The woman makes most of the noise-- mid-range ohs, a second apart, dropping like small crystal cups out of the open French windows of their flat. Passion and disregard for the neighbors, a tremendous combination. The air stops moving around me.
Is their sex better than my own? I wonder what she looks like when she's moaning. Does she love him, presuming it's a him, which I always do? Or is she there just for the sex? I can never decide which would be more exciting. I imagine she's in her 30s and that she has dark hair, an ordinary woman with ordinary chores whose passion is nonetheless excitingly unsuppressible in the evening.
But which woman is it? Is the moaner the doctor who just had a baby, only now returning to sex? The Mexican girl who works out all the time at the gym? Or the Chinese caterer, the woman who drives the Volvo with Ohio license plates?
Her cries never last more than half a block. Walking back to my house, I usually have a few bent, embarrassed thoughts. I think, you're a 39-year-old married man who stands in front of his house listening to an unseen couple make love. You're sick. But I keep stepping out there, hoping to hear that little duet.
My wife wants to have a baby. And it's not just talk or a plan she inherited at birth or the fantasizing she used to practice with the girlfriends-- well, I want to have four-- no, this is different, more insistent.
"When would you like to start?" she said again this morning, third time in a week, as we read the newspaper over breakfast. The sun was already bearing down furiously at half past eight in the God damn morning. I could hear the buzz of a weed whacker next door.
"Anytime you like," I said, not taking my eyes off the paper. I didn't want to encourage her because the truth is this. Some days I'm for it. But when I'm not for it, I'm really not for it.
My wife's body has changed. Her body, overtaken by hormonal committee, is telling her to get on with its grandest physical purpose. I can see it in the slight, post-marital widening of her hips-- no less sexy than the originals, but still wider-- when she lilts away from the bed at night to perform her ablutions. I can see it in her taste in clothes. She doesn't go any more for the sprayed-on Lycra skirts I used to buy her. Even in her sexual habits, she has less interest in sex than she used to. She wants to make love now for keeps. Pause here for sadness.
Last week, as if by magic, two baby books appeared in the pile on the floor on her side of the bed. At the bottom of the pile, but there they were. I walked into the bedroom, saw them like a promise I made long ago and had to leave the house. I went to a matinee.
When did all that happen? I can't remember anything. The dates of our courtship, the countless touching things she claims I said, they're at best a blur to me, a fog of declarations. One day, I was living my comfortable life and the next she was living with me. On a bad day, it makes me nervous to remember all this. On a bad day, when I think about the slow gelling of our togetherness-- it's gathering weight and formality-- the muscle around my heart closes in and my breath comes short and I start to panic.
One day she and I were dating, and then we were living together, and then we bought a house, and then we married, and then she wanted to have a baby-- an escalator of commitments on to which I had apparently stepped. My friends were astonished. They said I wasn't the type to marry. A few of them had made bets against it. I told them I wanted to find out what lay on the other side of boredom. I stole that line from an old girlfriend. I thought I was an adventurer. And yet, here I stand in a well-trimmed front yard, surrounded by neighbors and swing sets and sport utility vehicles-- the movable monuments of domesticity-- listening to a couple copulate. And across the yards, I see another man looking warily back at me, doing exactly the same thing.
Just because I'm married now, and practicing what's known as monogamy, doesn't mean I don't think about other women because I do. I still conjure up women from my past. And I still ask myself the question. You know the question. Every man does. Women have their own version of it. The question is the question you ask yourself every time you see a woman on the street-- every single time, no matter who she is, how old she is, no matter how attractive she is or isn't. And the question is, would I sleep with her? Or her? Or how about her?
Not, will I sleep with her? Or, how can I sleep with her? Or even, could I sleep with her? The question is, would I? But even though I always ask the question, I don't act on it because I'm trying to be monogamous. That's why monogamy has such a bad reputation. It's boring. Monogamy is the habit of not acting on what you want. I even hate the word itself. It sounds so staid, so bourgeois. Monogamy, like a board game, the approximation of excitement.
Sometimes, of course, I hear about open marriages. Jung had one, Sartre had won, Henry Miller, Dickens, Freud. I hear about open marriages, and they seem like some fabulous, exotic city that I've always wanted to visit but never seem to get to. Istanbul, open marriages are like Istanbul. Some ancient, mysterious place where there are minarets and strange music, where one entire civilization suddenly ends and a whole new stranger one begins, a whole new religion even, the mysterious east. I've always wanted to go to Istanbul.
Like most couples, my wife and I sometimes talk about open marriages. Well, I say we talk about it. It'd be more accurate to say that the subject comes up and immediately lies down again. We'll be lying in bed in the dark and talking about our lives-- about what we like and what we miss-- in that quiet, pleasant way you do when you're trying to be monogamous.
Then my wife will say in the dark, "You know, if you ever have sex with someone else, some passing fling, I don't want you to tell me about it."
And I say, "Really?" I say, really, because I don't know what else to say. If I say, "OK honey, that's fine with me."
She'll say, "What, are you thinking about it?"
Then I'll have to say, "Of course not," even if I am. So I say, "Really?" Or I'll say something non-committal like, "Don't worry."
Whatever I say, a few minutes go by. And then she always says, still in the dark, "But I don't want you to sleep with someone else anyway. OK?"
And I say, "OK." That's the kind of conversation you have when you agree to be monogamous.
I don't want to sleep with anyone else. Or to be more exact, I'd like to, but I really don't have the constitution for infidelity or for an open marriage or for the guilt. Monogamy may be boring, but the alternatives take up a lot more time and energy. I don't pretend it has anything to do with moral standards. In fact, I suspect it comes down to something my wife once said to me. We were having one of our conversational minuets in the dark, one of our gentle but ever so delicate chats about faithfulness, when my wife said that the only thing she missed as a monogamous woman-- at least, I assume she was speaking as a monogamous women-- was newness, new bodies, new hands, new sex. I said I knew what she meant.
And I said, "But isn't that kind of sad? I mean, if you go through your whole life-- 20, 30, 40, 60 years of marriage-- without ever straying, you do that, you never get to know what it's like to be unfaithful. You never get to know what it feels like to be emotionally illegal. And that's an important feeling, one of the great human themes, after all, a whole constellation of humanity you'll never know.
My wife is quiet for a long time. I could hear the fridge downstairs, and in the street light coming through the curtains, I could just see her outline. And I thought to myself, I've spent a long time in this bed.
"Yes," my wife said then, "That's true. But if you do sleep around, you'll never know what it's like to be faithful to one person your whole life, which might also be an important constellation of humanity." There was just a touch of sarcasm in her voice. And then it was my turn to lie in the dark for a long time.
I'd never considered monogamy as an adventure. I thought it was, well, domestic travel, where no international borders are crossed. But monogamy is an adventure, and in some ways, a more mysterious one than open marriage. Because trying to be faithful to one person is a trip that takes time. And you never really know if you're getting close or if you've reached the destination. You never really know when you've arrived.
For my generation, the first one that assumed free love for both sexes was a birth right, for us, monogamy is the last sexual mystery on earth, the great unknown. We've tried everything else. It's certainly a different kind of trip than open marriage, which has lots of stops along the way, though most of them are the same. Maybe that's the problem with open marriage, not many surprises. It's titillating, but not very mysterious. Maybe that's why hearing about open marriages always makes me a little sad, why there's always a whiff of defeat about them.
I lay there in the dark beside my wife thinking about all this, as I say, for a long time. I thought about that dream of hers, to be faithful her whole life. I thought, it's a sweet dream, almost like an ideal. And I knew I didn't want to be the one to prove to her that it couldn't come true. It scared me too, all that responsibility, because it's not such a wise thing to promise.
Anyway, I'm trying to be monogamous. Maybe not even for myself, maybe I'm just doing it for her. Is that so unusual? Maybe if I do it for her long enough, I'll start to do it for me as well. It's not that I don't want to go to Istanbul anymore, I really want to. In fact, I think about Istanbul all the time, if only to remind myself that it's still there. It's just that, there's this other place I want to get to first, a little town that, for the longest time, I never even knew was there.
Ian Brown is the host of Talking Books on CBC Radio, and the anchor for two TV shows on TV Ontario. Part of his comments are from his book, Man Medium Rare.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior Editor for this show, Paul Tough. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef.
Our website, where you can get our free weekly podcast. Free. www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia. And you know, you would think a job like his-- running a public radio station-- would just be fun, fun, fun.
For me it's the opposite of having fun. It's a purgatory.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
P R I, Public Radio International.