Marriage Scene, Summer 2008:
A husband sits on the hip, ’70s green-vinyl sofa, his buttocks scooted up to the edge so he can prop his elbows on his knees and reach the coffee table in front of him, where something fascinating has his total attention. He’s wearing an ugly old tank top and faded cotton athletic shorts. No underwear. He has not groomed himself that day — or is it that week? It is a teacher’s summer vacation, and this teacher is using his time to build a plastic model. His wife enters from the bathroom, ready for her job. Her employers do not know that this is the season of languid afternoons, old movies, and hobbies. The children of this family have yet to be born. These are the last days of independent adulthood for this man and woman, and ambitious notions of self-development and “fulfilling one’s potential” still rattle around in their minds… sometimes.
WIFE: Do you have any idea how I feel when I see you like this?
HUSBAND: Warm and fuzzy? Happy for me?
WIFE: It’s disgusting. Where’s your drive?
HUSBAND: This is my vacation. I need it to recharge after a school year. And I’m having a grand old time building models. What’s wrong with that?
WIFE: Well, if you don’t understand what I mean, then I don’t know what to say. ‘Bye.
It had been love at first sight four years earlier, when as strangers they crossed paths at a restaurant. She flashed a fetching smile at him, confessing later that she had scoped out his ring finger as soon as she had seen him. He — having spent years making sure he wasn’t a “jerk” towards women, something he thought he could accomplish only by pretending not to be interested in the ones he found most attractive — was not quick with the return smile. Milliseconds after she had gone by he thought to himself, “Damn, I should have smiled more!” In that moment of first contact, they could not have known that they would actually be working together at the restaurant; he didn’t look like he worked there, because he was done with his shift and had already changed into street clothes, and she had only just been hired. Five minutes later, when the GM introduced them and told the man that he would be training “the new girl” at lunch the next day, they were both happy. Three-and-a-half weeks later, the man and the new girl were engaged to be married. Three weeks after that, they were living together, no more familiar with each other’s true natures than if they had been thrown together in an 18th-century arranged marriage.
Now the real work would begin. She had the quick wit, the knack for irony, and the sort of looks that he had always wanted. He had the real man’s sport coat and wrist watch, the air of solidity and kindness, and the sort of looks that she had always wanted. He also wanted her to be outdoorsy and athletic, and she said she liked the outdoors. She also wanted him to be her enthusiastic and charming escort through all the social entertainments she craved, and he had been at his most charming during their precipitous courtship. The truth rolled out slowly. He: Northern California forests, home and solitude. She: Southern California cars, malls and people. Of course, couples are rarely a “perfect match,” and these two would probably have enough in common to make it work.
But what about the hobbies? Before they moved in together there had been little evidence of them, but by the summer of 2008 the wife had watched the husband invest countless hours in pursuits that seemed to lead nowhere. She did not feel that he was taking her needs seriously. Children weren’t there yet, but they would be soon enough. Hours and hours were being spent, with no life advancement in return. For him, the hobby time was a restorative, stress-reducing pitstop that made other things in life possible, but from the outside it must have just looked like a monumental waste of energy.
The wife was not the first woman in the husband’s life to question the value and the meaning of the model-building. The most hostile had been Samantha Sizemore, the only other person he had ever lived with. Clever and funny but also wounded and petulant, Samantha had been sure that the models were a sign of arrested development. She recommended destroying the entire collection and never building any more. Each time the man completed a new model, they might both make the sound of a truck backing up over the collection (vroom, vroom, screech, rumble, screech), jokingly reminding each other that she thought they should go — if he ever wanted to grow up and escape the clutches of the past, that is. (He wondered sometimes if she wasn’t actually right.) She did take a few items (1/76 M36 Jackson, 1/700 Battleship Fuso, and others) as blood sacrifice one of the times they broke up. In another moment of upset, she mutilated the Captain Kirk figure who was part of a Starship Enterprise bridge diorama. Later, after the man had thrown the entire structure out the second-story window in retaliation, she drew a white chalk line around the three-inch corpse of the Mr. Spock figure on the concrete patio, where it had landed. Ultimately the models stayed and the relationship ended, despite the undeniable charm of their dysfunctional repartee.
The man’s girlfriend in high school, Millicent Moodwell, a generous-spirited young woman with the inviting warmth of a summer cabin nestled in the golden pines along a granite-studded stream, had had no problem with the models. She had also teased him a little, usually about the fact that you can’t fly a model airplane very far in your hand. She might pick one up and “fly” it very fast in her hand while making an airplane noise but then stop it and the noise very abruptly and unnaturally at the end of the short, two-foot arc that was possible to trace with an outstretched arm. There was no malice or frustration in this teasing. At the age of 18 it was still all good fun.
During his twenties there had been Susie Silver, outdoorsy and quiet, good-natured and tomboyish, sincere and a little sad, who not only accepted the hobbying but actively joined him in it. One of their earliest flirtations, on a camping trip with a bunch of friends, was talking about model F-14s, which she had mentioned off-handedly around the fire. “You have an F-14, too?” he asked, startled at the possibility. “I’ll show you my F-14 if you show me yours,” he then ventured, recovering slyly from the shock. They ended up in a relationship for a couple of somewhat turbulent years, during which time they backpacked a lot and sometimes collaborated on the building and painting of a helicopter or two.
It wasn’t until the tail end of his thirties that Ricki Roja (The One from the restaurant) came along. Ricki does not care to paint helicopters, and, much as she likes the idea of it, she doesn’t know how to live in the wilderness. Still, she has a lot of winning qualities. Sometimes Ricki is a burger stand, a naughty but comforting indulgence, sometimes an orchard, the sweet source of a steady bounty, and sometimes she is a film noir, with cigarette smoke, dark shadows and cutting remarks. She isn’t the femme fatale, though; she’s definitely more the private dick, coolly slicing through the world towards her mark. Now that she and the man are married, she is also the Ranch Mistress. If there were a back-forty, she’d be there on her brown-and-white pony, rope on the pommel, eyes a-twinkle, decked out in boots, jeans, chaps, blue-patterned shirt and wide-brimmed hat — bemusedly taking stock of everything under the sun that needed to be done. Or maybe she would rather be a Vulcan merchant, peddling keevis and trilium — as well as fresh eggs and milk — out of her three-wheeled, sewing-machine-engined, neighborhood-roving delivery truck. (A wistful idea she often talks about…) She could be all these things, really, because at her core she is an Idea Man. The ideas never stop, in fact, and she gets gets frustrated sometimes, thinking (probably mistakenly) she is supposed to achieve a higher rate of fruition than she does. She believes execution hasn’t always been her forte. Perhaps that, too, is something that drew her to her more stolid-seeming husband.
There’s the catch: they each love, and hate, what the other one is. He’s dependable but sits in the garage painting toy soldiers. She is a mover and a shaker, but she’s restless. In that regard, their marriage is probably like many others. It is tempting to think that 100% overlap would be easier, but in their marriage it is the contrasts and the resulting complementarity that actually make it work. The stuff you hate is part of what you love. If you’re lucky, you come to see that — and maybe even enjoy it from time to time.
Marriage Scene, Summer 2014:
Late afternoon, July. A husband busies himself in the front yard, setting up the jury-rigged photo backdrop he uses for diorama shots. This configuration is for ships and aircraft. Tightly taped to a horizontal board, there is a sheet of the serendipitously swirly, blue-green Christmas wrapping paper he had found in a Sausalito paper store some years before. Taped to a vertical piece of foam board right behind this “water” is a 20×30 sky for a backdrop. The kids are flitting about, somewhat interested in the project, but it is the wife that the husband asks to come over and help by dangling an airplane into the middle of the scene while he snaps a few shots. She does so, and they both laugh at the absurdity of it all.