A MID-LIFE MARITAL DIALOGUE
(It is the darkest hollow of a Sunday morning in October of 1999 when a slightly squiffy man in his late forties returns home from a thoroughly dispiriting high school reunion. Trying not to disturb his wife or their kids, Richard hangs up his coat and removes his shoes in the front hall, then heads through to the washroom for his nightly ablutions. Longing to see the end of this day and succumb to the oblivion of sleep, Richard pads into the bedroom, shedding his outer layers in a heap as he peels down to boxers and a t-shirt, and slips into bed next to his wife. Once he’s comfortably positioned and perfectly still, Emma turns on her bedside lamp and sits up.)
EMMA: Well? (no reaction, nudges him) Come on, how was it?
RICHARD: It’s almost three a.m.
EMMA: That doesn’t answer my question.
RICHARD: Come on, Emma. I was thinking I might get a little sleep now.
EMMA: And wake up at noon? What’ll you remember by then? I want the goods here, Richard. (pause) You know how fast this sort of stuff evaporates. It’s like all-night horror movies at the drive-in. The plots all start bleeding into each other and after a while you can’t keep any of your monsters straight. (pause) Just the highlights, if you like. (pause) Is that rum I’m smelling?
RICHARD: (sits up too) Hey, kudos on the olfactory sleuthing, there. Screech to be precise.
EMMA: Screech? You’ve been over at Ray’s?
RICHARD: God, you’re sharp tonight. Have you been to sleep at all?
EMMA: Maybe a bit but I didn’t touch bottom. So did anyone else go over there with you?
RICHARD: No. We went to his place to get away from the rest of them.
EMMA: You what? That isn’t the correct reunion spirit there, Richard.
RICHARD: You know what I discovered tonight?
EMMA: No. That’s what I was hoping you’d tell me.
RICHARD: Ray’s been drinking Screech for about thirty years now. I always assumed that must mean he actually likes the taste of the stuff. But he doesn’t particularly. Any kind of spirits make him gag unless he dilutes them with great lashings of diet cola. He’s only been faithfully buying Screech for three solid decades because he likes the label. It’s that lovely golden map of Newfoundland that does it. That just floored me. How can you explain that kind of loyalty to something that someone doesn’t really care for?
EMMA: Well, look at you and Governor Simcoe High School, for instance.
RICHARD: But I sort of liked the joint. Didn’t I?
EMMA: You only think you did. (pause) Okay, at the very end maybe, when we started going out. But before that you were floundering around like an expiring halibut on the pier.
RICHARD: That only looked like floundering, Emma. I was actually having a pretty good time.
EMMA: Plus you never even graduated.
RICHARD: (emits a hollow laugh) Oh, don’t go there. Like that’s the key to happiness and success. I mean you graduated – with honours – and you’re the one who absolutely loathes the joint. You’d rather chew lightbulbs than attend one of these reunions. You say. But that’s never the end of it either, because then when I get back home, you pump me for information about who’s gotten a divorce? And is Patsy Gale still wearing too much eye shadow? And does Mr. Webb still get a stutter when he’s excited about something.
EMMA: Does he?
RICHARD: Well, not tonight. At least, not in my company. But then I never excited him like you did. You should’ve been there, Emma. It would have made his n …. n …. n . . . night.
EMMA: Richard, we’ve been over this. I can’t bear to go to these things. It makes me sick to think about all that wasted time, acing all those bloody courses and living to cream Cynthia Smeethers in the race for scholarships. And never managing in all that time to study a single thing that I was actually interested in. So no, I won’t go back there but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in finding out what’s going on with the other people who were there.
RICHARD: So how do you explain that, Emma? If it was all so rotten back there and you can’t bear to go, why do you care what anybody’s up to?
EMMA: Well, they’re almost like a second string family that's been foisted on you, aren’t they? You never would’ve chosen any of them but you were thrown in with this cohort of contemporaries from the age of five until the age of eighteen, so of course they take up permanent space in your brain and you’re always measuring your life against theirs.
RICHARD: But the problem there is I can’t do your measuring for you. As you always point out, I don’t ask the right questions. I don’t ask what you’d ask if only you could work up the courage to go. I lack a properly tuned curiosity gene. I’m not interested in the kind of junk that you are and I happen to think it’s a little rude to meet someone for the first time in ten years and go sticking my nose into the state of their marriage . . .
EMMA: Well, that’s your first mistake right there. You don’t have to ask. You should never ask. That’s gauche. You just have to observe. Like is this person there with the same old spouse or a new one? That sort of thing’s pretty obvious.
RICHARD: Okay. (puts fingers to forehead to concentrate) Let’s see. I met Bruce Campbell. And he was there by himself.
EMMA: See – that’s got to be significant. That speaks volumes about the state of his marriage.
RICHARD: Does it? You weren’t there with me. What do you suppose that told Bruce about the state of ours?
EMMA: No, no. With us, it’s different.
RICHARD: With everybody it’s different, Emma. This is the cheapest sort of knee-jerk, gossip-mongering that you’re doing here.
EMMA: Nonsense. I wouldn’t spread any of this around. Who do I know who’d even care that Bruce Campbell’s marriage is on the skids?
RICHARD: (claps hands over ears and looks appalled) That is so irresponsible. His wife didn't even go to Governor Simcoe. You don’t know the first thing . . .
EMMA: Of course, you’ve got to have verification. You have to start picking up on some of the smaller details as well. Was he still wearing his wedding ring?
RICHARD: (mock horror) God forgive me, I didn’t notice.
EMMA: Was he starting to pack it on, or did he look a little gaunt?
RICHARD: I’d say he looked about the same.
EMMA: Richard, it’s been what – thirty years since you last saw him and . . .
RICHARD: No, we talked at the reunion ten years ago.
EMMA: Ten years then. Nobody looks the same after ten years. What about his hair? Thinner? Greyer? Fresh out?
RICHARD: I’d say it looked about. . . oh, right – that’s not possible. In that case, I guess I just didn’t look.
EMMA: Incredible. Okay, you talked to him for how long, would you say?
RICHARD: Fifteen, twenty minutes.
EMMA: And what did you learn from Bruce, or about Bruce, in that time?
RICHARD: Nothing that’ll interest you, probably.
EMMA: Try me.
RICHARD: Trust me, babe. You really won’t.
EMMA: (beckons with her hand in an ‘out with it’ gesture)
RICHARD: Okay, you asked for it. (pause) Bruce has been making his way through the Flamin’ Groovies back catalogue and remembered that I really liked them back in high school. So he needed to, you know, come to terms with the idea that it was their fourth and fifth albums – separated by that weird five year silence – that marked their apex with the quality falling off sharply before and after those two. (pause) There was some other stuff too but I would say that The Flamin’ Groovies were the most important material we covered tonight. (pause) I mean, you do remember what two albums we’re talking about here? Right? That’s Teenage Head and Shake Some Action. In a way they could never sustain, it’s like they were two very different, really great bands on those records. The fourth one’s this great, garagey R&B rave up and the fifth one’s a really slick American homage to the British Invasion. So if you were to draw a graph of the Groovies’ career, it would look like a pyramid shaved off close to the base with this really long flat peak. But on reflection I’m thinking that even that peak would have to somehow be divided into. . .
EMMA: (sighs volubly)
RICHARD: What’s wrong?
EMMA: (incredulous) You haven’t seen the guy in thirty years and . . .
RICHARD: No, we already determined he was at the reunion ten years ago as well. And if I’m not mistaken the poor sap was still listening to The Eagles back then, so there’s been some real improvement here Emma.
EMMA: You raided forty dollars from my gardening fund to attend a special reunion dinner/dance with all these ghosts from our deepest past and then you sit around talking about records?
RICHARD: I told you that you wouldn’t think it was fit conversation.
EMMA: (exasperated) Richard.
RICHARD: Hey, I’m really sorry, Emma, but it so happens that Bruce and me never were particularly close. And in its own clearly defined way, talking about music every decade or so gives us a sort of foothold where we actually stand half a chance of caring about what the other guy is saying. It supplies some insight into the state of the other guy’s soul rather than fishing around for random details about how well he’s getting along with some woman I’ve never met or don’t remember and how many kids he did or didn’t have. And the good news here is that old Brucie is finally listening to some halfway decent shit. So extrapolating from the musical to the personal, I’d say things are actually going pretty well for him right now.
EMMA: Mm hm. I don’t suppose you could back that up with any information about what he’s actually doing for a living?
RICHARD: No, that didn’t come up. I think he’s still working for one of the big banks, isn’t he?
EMMA: Probably. That whole family had fiduciary inclinations.
RICHARD: Ah . . . now this’ll please you. Here's some Archie Goodwin material I dug up for your Nero Wolfe. Bruce did tell me that his older brother . . . that’s Bob who never married and who, if memory serves, you went out with on several ill-advised dates . . .
EMMA: Richard, you always do that. We went out once. To the Western Fair.
RICHARD: And did he throw up on a ride or something?
EMMA: No, he hung onto his biscuits. But after he ate a corndog and then went on the Salt & Pepper Shakers, he certainly did lose the will to live. The fun and the colour just drained right out of him. I think he had me home by nine p.m. and was so embarrassed by it all that he never really talked to me again.
RICHARD: Right. Well, old Bobby made such a pile in the stock market that he was able to winterize the family cottage and has retired there to write a history of Ontario lighthouses.
EMMA: Good lord, I knew he’d come to a sad end.
RICHARD: Sad? Every day his own . . . beavering away on a grand project about something that’s always . . . presumably . . . fascinated him . . .
EMMA: Talking to himself for months at a stretch and developing the posture and social skills of Quasimodo.
RICHARD: Woah, there. Now where’s that coming from, do you suppose? A person might almost think you have a little problem with jealousy.
RICHARD: You know, Emma, it isn’t that I ask the wrong questions. My problem is that I don’t insist on looking at everyone I meet through the prism of how their financial circumstances compare with ours.
EMMA: You take that back. That is unworthy.
RICHARD: Is it? So what’s your point in picking on poor old Lighthouse Bob?
EMMA: (flustered) I wasn’t picking on . . .
RICHARD: You weren’t?
EMMA: No, I wasn’t. Look, we were talking about . . .
RICHARD: Are you changing the subject?
EMMA: Not really.
RICHARD: Yes you are. You always do this when I start to get close to . . . .
EMMA: We were talking about having loyalty toward things we don’t even like, right? And I’m saying you’re loyal to that hellhole of a school but you only think you like it. It’s not that unusual a situation, Richard. I’d say that pretty well defines the vast majority of families, marriages and jobs in the known universe, wouldn’t you?
RICHARD: Fucking hell. Where on earth is this . . . ? Is this ‘us’ you’re talking about now?
EMMA: Which – our jobs or our marriage?
RICHARD: Both. Or all three of them. Nah, forget the jobs. I only care about the marriage.
EMMA: At our best, we rise above blind loyalty but there have been stretches – and I actually think we’re going through one right now – when what keeps us going doesn't feel to me like anything finer or sweeter than inertia.
RICHARD: That doesn’t sound good. And you did change the subject.
EMMA: No, it isn’t very good. And no, I didn’t. Not really. (pause) What do you mean you only care about the marriage?
RICHARD: I guess it isn’t always so easy to see but that’s the truth.
EMMA: Oh, come off it.
RICHARD: I mean it.
EMMA: Well, you sure don’t show it.
RICHARD: Yes I do.
EMMA: Not in a way that this besetting preoccupation of yours is ever communicated to your spouse. Not most of the time. The only time I ever know you can’t live without me is when I start letting you know that I’m not sure I can stand to keep on living with you.
RICHARD: Exactly. Then you know, right?
EMMA: And then you get so completely distracted by our crisis that you stop functioning altogether and can’t get anything else done.
RICHARD: Which is pretty clear evidence of what my number one priority is, I’d say.
EMMA: So to keep us from losing the house and handing over the kids to Children’s Aid . . .
RICHARD: (interrupts) They’re getting a little old for that particular calamity, Em. It’s more likely that we'll get hauled off for full time marriage counseling and the kids will be stuck raising the mortgage payments.
EMMA: (resumes) . . . we patch it up again in a big hurry – without really resolving our underlying problems - and the next thing I know, you’re taking me for granted again and I feel like you’re not seeing me at all.
RICHARD: Oh man. Of course I’m seeing you. Unfortunately, this economy in which we play such a minute and precarious role doesn’t allow us to sit around forever basking in the glory of one another's presence. I really wish it did, Emma. It ought to. When I first knew that you’d given your life to me and we were going to get married . . . it was inconceivable that everything else in the universe wouldn’t automatically fall into place as well. I mean it was you - you in all your impossibly alluring complexity – you were supposed to be my real vocation. A fair universe would’ve made that possible. But since then I’ve learned that the only person who gets to sit around sighing for his beloved all the doo-dah day, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, is Bob Campbell. And he lavishes all his clammiest feelings on condemned lighthouses.
EMMA: Right. And that doesn’t make you just a little bit crazy with jealousy?
RICHARD: Oh God, I suppose it does. Or at least it does once I start talking about it to you. But left to my own devices, no, I don’t automatically zoom to the jealousy offensive. And do you know why? I mean, look around, Emma. You tell me I need to observe people more closely and I’m going to tell you the very same thing. Has Bob Campbell ever known the pleasure of coming home to a wife-warmed bed and getting into a rip-snorting argument about reunions? No. This supreme joy has been denied him. In this one regard at least, he is a pauper compared to me. The older I get, Emma, the more convinced I become that we’re all just God’s bewildered creatures struggling to get by the best way we can. I don’t see anybody who’s getting all the marbles. Not for very long anyway. Do you? I mean, really? Eventually we’ve all got to trade off something. If it isn’t ulcers and a squelched inner life because you’re working dawn to dusk and never have the time to feel the wind on your face, then it’s a comparative measure of poverty and job insecurity because you get to do work that has some meaning for you.
EMMA: That latter scenario is supposed to be us I’m guessing? But my poetry and your music have never carried more than a single digit percentage of our household's expenses.
RICHARD: You think I don't know that? The arts are useless for paying the bills. But I think they've done a lot to keep us sane and human.
EMMA: How so?
RICHARD: Just last weekend they came through for me. After that wedding gig at the Polish Hall – and that was our first job in what was it? A month? – I was standing on the loading dock out back with my stuff and Ray’s drums, waiting for him to come back to pick up the last of our gear. The bride and groom had headed off on their honeymoon, the guests had all left and the hall manager locked me out there so he could go home. There was a beautiful cool drizzle, more like mist than rain, and I was working on one of Bill’s cigarillos, remembering again how smoke hovers in the air a little longer when the atmosphere is damp like that.
Being a wedding gig, we’d mostly done covers, and we’d fulfilled some requests for the most appalling shit. We've Only Just Begun? I haven't had to polish that particular turd in at least five years. But still there were moments that night where it almost didn’t matter what we played, the music still managed to cohere and ignite and lift up off the earth. I’d catch Ray or Bill’s eyes for a second and see that on some level we’d probably be too embarrassed to admit, we were thrilled to be a part of something that was coming off so well.
Ray took his sweet time getting back but I could have stood on that dock all night. It was more or less like a hundred other gigs but I didn’t want that night to end. I suppose because it had been so long since our last gig, I had a renewed sense of what a privilege it is to play music for a roomful of people who actually want to hear what you can do. No, it's never going to be my living but that night I loved every last particle of my existence. When Ray turned up he scrambled around to open the back of the van and I could see he was flustered and about to work up some kind of apology. Then he looked at me and saw he didn’t have to and we both stood there for another hour just shooting the breeze. Now in your current frame of mind, this might not be what you want to hear . . .
EMMA: Richard . . . you just said it yourself . . . music isn’t what you normally get to do. You’ve got the worst of both worlds here. It’s just like your dad . . .
RICHARD: Yeh. My dad who bought me my first guitar and taught me how to tune it and showed me all the chords . . . there's nothing about that sense of continuity that I don't cherish.
EMMA: You’ve got the meaningless, underpaid day job that eats up nearly all of your energy for minimal recompense. And then – for the supposed good of your soul – you get an occasional, even worse paid foray into the sort of work you’d really love to be doing but can’t afford to do. But instead of fulfilling you and making everything seem worthwhile, the odd, scrappy gig that comes your way only reminds you how much you hate what you ordinarily have to do to get by.
RICHARD: And that’s where you’re dead wrong, Em. I don’t hate it.
EMMA: Maybe not. But you should. Sure, for now, until your knees crap out, it’s easy enough to drive crates of wholesale fruit all over town. The boss who won’t pay you a proper wage to do that is nice enough to you in other ways. Our home is never short of over-ripe bananas. All those busted crates supply great kindling for the fireplace.
RICHARD: Forget it. You've got all kinds of power over me, Emma, but you're not going to talk me into hating my life.
EMMA: No, you only think you don’t hate it, just like you think you liked your high school and then go ducking out of Governor Simcoe’s seventy-fifth anniversary reunion to end up drinking over at Ray’s like you’ve been doing every other week for thirty-five years. I mean, really. What was that all about?
RICHARD: His need was pretty great. Louise was there.
EMMA: (understanding the significance) Oh. (pause) You know, I kind of forget if this was always something in Ray’s head. I mean, they did actually go out for a while at some point in history, right?
RICHARD: Oh yeh. It was only for a few months, and then he threw her over in his grade twelve summer, thinking he could probably do better with all those nubile chambermaids he was going to meet on his grounds-keeping job at that lodge in Muskoka. And the minute he got up there, he realized that, contrary to all the free love crap that was in the air at the time, he hated anonymous sex. It made him sick to heart. He knew he’d just made the biggest mistake of his life and started sending Louise all these desperate letters saying, ‘Please hang on’, ‘I was out of my mind’, ‘I’m so sorry. Just let me explain myself in the fall’. And, of course, by then she’d met Dwayne.
EMMA: Dwayne the dweeb.
RICHARD: And the rest is history.
EMMA: The poor bastard.
RICHARD: Dwayne was with her. There's one spouse I took note of. And Ray sure did.
EMMA: So did Ray even get to talk to her?
RICHARD: Barely. He couldn’t take his eyes off her but he couldn’t quite meet her eyes either. It was pretty damn awkward actually. You know what he told me when we got back to his place? He was quite pissed by this time and pretty messed up but playing it for a joke. He had his felt-point pen out and was writing in new names for Newfoundland communities on the Screech map – ‘Puffin Bum’ was the most inspired. He said he could’ve sworn he’d made a little distance by now, that he was mostly over it. And now he was feeling like a kid playing Snakes and Ladders who’s just gone sliding down the longest serpent on the board and knows it's too late to ever catch up.
EMMA: There it is. That’s why I hate reunions.
RICHARD: But we weren’t at the reunion anymore. We were at Ray’s most of the night.
EMMA: Of course you were. Driven there by the very thing I hate about reunions.
RICHARD: Which is?
EMMA: They suck you back down to the beginning of the board. As if that’s where everything got set for life and there’s no way you’ll ever be able to change or escape any of it. You can get married and raise a house full of kids and have the most brilliant career or write the definitive history of Ontario lighthouses . . . but just set foot in that old gymnasium, saturated with the smell of sweaty socks and after-shave lotion, and look out. God’s big eraser comes piercing through the clouds and rubs out everything you’ve accomplished or stood for ever since.
RICHARD: I hear what you’re saying, Em, but in some funny way I think I would have welcomed that sort of self-obliteration if I only could’ve found it. I mean, that’s why Ray had to leave, I think. But not me. I left because I wasn’t being called back to a single blessed thing. Those people had no hold over me – good or bad. I should’ve known better, I suppose, but I went there looking for some sort of rejuvenation. To get back in touch with a time when everything about life mattered so enormously, when there was so much I wanted to look into and try, when I could stay up for forty-eight hours at a stretch because sleep just got in the way of everything I wanted to do.
EMMA: You poor silly goose.
EMMA: You went there looking for you.
RICHARD: (pause) You know what the final elbow was? We went to the hotel where they were having the big dinner and dance. The dining room was cordoned off according to decades, signs at the end of each table designating specific years. We finally found our table and the first place where we saw two seats together was right next to Maureen Pollard and her little circle of keeners. We started to move toward it and Maureen whispered something to Pauline Stewart who took her coat and laid it across both chairs.
EMMA: (makes hands into cat claws) Those bitches . . . those hideous little bitches . . .
RICHARD: They didn’t even have the courtesy to look us in the eyes and say, “We’re saving these seats for people we actually like.” They just ignored us. Ray said, “It’s like the old grade nine cafeteria games. Who’s got cooties and who wears the right kind of corduroys?” We actually walked out on pre-paid roast beef dinners. I’m sorry about your garden money, Em, but it was just too depressing.
EMMA: They never know how to do Yorkshire puddings at those things anyway. It’s some kind of alchemy. Try and cook Yorkshires for more than a half dozen people and the recipe unfailingly goes wrong.
RICHARD: So, you’re not completely pissed off at me?
EMMA: No. Just a little exasperated. Which isn’t so unusual.
RICHARD: I’m really sorry, Emma, but I don’t hate my life. I could try to but I’d only be doing that for your sake. And you may not want to hear this but the fact that I don’t hate it has probably got a fair bit to do with marrying you.
EMMA: (snuggling down as if to sleep) No, it was okay to hear that.
RICHARD: I’ll admit that I’m feeling a little mediocre and stuck right now. But I strongly sense that I need a different kind of dynamite to get me clear of this one. (pause) Until now, whenever I’ve felt stuck like this, my instinct has been to reach into my past and try to draw new energy from the person I used to be, or the person I used to want to become. But lately – and particularly since my Dad died – I’ve sensed that isn’t the model I need anymore. It certainly isn’t the model Ray needs. Right now his past is more of a millstone than a springboard. Is it a generational thing, do you suppose? Another tiresome boomer trait? This idealizing of our younger selves? Carrying the banner of our late adolescence overhead as we go marching into our sunset years. It seems to me there’s something fundamentally unwholesome about that. Don't you think?
EMMA: (has been drifting and comes to) I’m sorry, was that a question?
RICHARD: If I’d met my younger self at the reunion tonight, as you say, I’m not sure we’d have gotten along or had anything to say to one another.
EMMA: (reaches up to turn out the light) In my experience, you’ve always got something to say. With two of you, nobody would get a word in edgewise.
RICHARD: I doubt he'd have any answers or approaches that would be helpful right now. And the only urgent question he'd have for me is, "Do we get to marry Emma?" That and maybe, "What's the deal with the Flamin' Groovies? Do they ever put out another decent album?" And if he'd come at me with any of that bullshit about not trusting anyone over thirty, I would’ve decked the arrogant little bugger and told him to get a life.
EMMA: (slurring) That’s nice. Or no, I guess it isn’t really. Can we go to sleep now?
RICHARD: I thought you wanted to hear about the reunion.
EMMA: Well, I did. What there was of it. But you didn’t really go, did you?
RICHARD: Mm. Good point.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :