A Rare Night Out by Ed Meek
I was happy. I had just finished taking a class called “The Politics of English Composition.” It sounds dull I know, but I teach English Composition so I found it interesting. My wife and I were sitting in a new Vietnamese restaurant that had opened in Harvard Square. Our six year old daughter was spending the night at my sister’s--it was a rare night out during the week. My wife and I have always enjoyed sampling small restaurants and new food. My wife had ordered Vietnamese vermicelli with lemon grass and I took a chance on shrimp and green beans with ginger and garlic. I was still excited about the class and I was explaining a theory. “According to Ann Berthoff, language builds the human world,” I said. “And this other guy, Burke, claims that we create reality out of language.”
My wife, Gretta, was looking at me funny. She seemed to be pretty tired. She’d been up early that morning working on a project. She’s an architect. She got this sarcastic look--eyebrows up, mouth turned down at the corners--and she said, “That’s really interesting, Robert.”
I asked her if I could try a little vermicelli and she said sure. The vermicelli was so light it seemed to disappear on my tongue and what remained was the taste of lemon grass and a spicy red curry. It was better than what I had ordered. I have to admit that her sarcasm threw me a little because I did think what I had said was interesting. I had always been interested in theory, but I had been feeling a little out of touch teaching at a community college--that’s why I had taken the course. On an impulse, I thought I would try something we had been talking about in class--problematizing. “What do you mean by the word interesting?” I asked.
Gretta put her fork down. I could see she was really tired--she had that pale, haggard look. My wife is quite attractive. In fact, she has grown more attractive with age. She has emerald green eyes and porcelain skin that form a nice contrast to her red hair. When she was young she wore her hair long but now it was blown straight with a dryer and blunt cut at her neck with bangs that fell straight across just above her eyes and the effect was striking. Of course, when she’s worn out, it’s a different story. The porcelain begins to crack and the emeralds to lose their luster. “Well,” she said, “something interesting would be something that makes you perk up and listen.” She was leaning forward with both elbows on the table. She held a fork full of vermicelli in the air. The vermicelli slipped off her fork onto her lap.
“Something that makes you listen?” I asked, “something that acts on you? You don’t have anything to do with it?”
She was nodding. “OK,” she said, “you have something to do with it.” She dipped her napkin in her water glass and rubbed at her skirt, scowling.
“What do you have to do with it being interesting?” I asked, spooning more of my shrimp onto my plate. “What I mean is,” I went on, “is talking about what’s interesting interesting?”
“Yes,” she said. “Dammit, I can’t get this out. Yes, okay? It does.”
I could see she was angry about her skirt but I pressed on. I couldn’t help it. “What makes it interesting?”
“Thinking about it,” she said.
I smiled. It had worked. “Exactly,” I said.
She threw her napkin in my face. “Asshole,” she said.
When I took the napkin off my face I could see she was furious.
“Sometimes you can be so damn belligerent,” she said. “What am I? One of your students?”
“No,” I said. “I’m trying to be the opposite of belligerent--problematizing offers you the opportunity to define the discussion--to change it and by changing it--to change your view and mine.”
“Really,” she said stabbing her fork into her food. “So you weren’t manipulating me into saying what I said?”
“No,” I said, “not at all. I was interested in your point of view.” Of course she was absolutely right. I had manipulated her.
“Is this what I’m going to have to listen to for the next twenty years?” She signaled for the check.
I told her I'd go get the car and pick her up out front. The car was a couple of blocks away. We had taken her car--the Volvo wagon. I got in and started it up. I turned on the heater and the seat warmer. I suddenly wondered, if I took off right now, how long would take me to drive to Mexico? It had taken about three days to hitch there when I was twenty years old. I wouldn't want to take her car though. I'd want to stop at home and take my car—the Audi. I pulled out and drove towards the restaurant just as she stepped into the street. The Volvo had a turbo. If I gunned it, I could pin her between her car and the one parked just behind her. It would almost certainly kill her. I looked around. The street was empty. Just then another couple came out of the restaurant. I realized I'd been holding my breath and I let it out. I pulled the car up beside her, reached across the front seat and opened the passenger door. My wife climbed in.
On the drive home I told her she was almost out of gas and asked if she wanted to stop for some.
“I’ll get it tomorrow,” she said. She asked if I had made a dentist appointment for Kate.
I told her I hadn’t but would the next day.
The house seemed quiet without Kate. It felt terribly empty. I poured us a cognac and we sat on opposite sides of the couch. We had decided for a number of reasons to have only one child. We believed in population control. We were worried about the future. We were concerned we wouldn’t be able to devote the time necessary because of our careers. Our careers were important to us and in addition we wanted to travel and where we could do that quite easily with one child, two would make things difficult. Still there were times when I wondered if we wouldn’t have been better off with two or even three children. I told Gretta I was sorry for having started the discussion about the word “interesting.”
Gretta said she was afraid we were developing separate lives--that soon we wouldn’t have anything in common.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said and then I realized I had become angry. I didn’t really enjoy having a napkin thrown in my face at a restaurant. It was humiliating, almost like being slapped. The only time that ever happened to me was at a ninth grade dance when I had put my hand on Karen Lipsky’s breast. In addition, Gretta had ridiculed the subject I’d become interested in and virtually said that she didn’t care about it and didn’t want to hear about it. And somewhere beneath the surface I had this gnawing feeling she had manipulated me into deciding not to have more children. She made it seem like it was our decision but I was the one who got the vasectomy. I wondered if I could have it reversed. Then we could get divorced and I could remarry and have a big family—five, maybe six children. Kate could come to visit us in the summer. Gretta would drop her off at the end of the long path leading to the ranch I would live on with this new family of mine. There would be horses. We could all go riding together — the whole family but not Gretta because she hated horses.
Gretta was right--a chasm had opened up between us. I felt as if I was talking to a complete stranger. I could sense she felt the same way. How had we met anyway? A mutual acquaintance had introduced us at an art opening of his. I had to admit I have never understood the appeal of his art. He did all these paintings of shovels. I hadn’t talked to Michael for years but Gretta would occasionally meet him for lunch. I suddenly wondered if there was anything going on between them.
“I have to go to bed,” she finally said taking my hand. “Are you coming?”
When we made love, I couldn’t stop thinking of everything we had been talking about and I was still angry with her. I probably should have been impotent but I wasn't. Instead I was going on automatic. Being a male I guess. Representing my gender.
Long after she had fallen asleep, I lay awake. I was thinking about what a leap of faith marriage is. It was really interesting when you thought about it. Really interesting. I looked over at my wife. I loved her but I didn't really like her at all at the moment. I knew she didn't like me either. I imagined the feeling would pass. I got up out of bed and poured myself another cognac. I took a melatonin and sat in the living room looking at Car and Driver. I was waiting for that nice numb feeling. The Audi was almost four years old. I was ready for something new.
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