“Marseilles was wonderful. The old harbor is such a scenic place and there is this church high on a hill above it with a wonderful view. And then there was this little bakery that had these wonderful sweets and I was so proud that the woman behind the counter responded in French.” I am listening to the best of all husbands recounting a wonderful summer vacation. He is so animated and describes it so vividly to our friends that for a moment I think: “I wish I had been there too.”
If there is one thing that you learn growing up in Germany, it is that there is a right way to do everything. There is a right way that closing a Mercedes car door should sound, a right way to build an Autobahn smooth as glass for driving without a speed limit and there is a right way to recycle.
“And what is Jeff to you?” the female voice with the Southern accent asks over the phone. “We are married,” I respond in the best matter-of-fact tone I can muster. My declaration is followed by a curt “hold on” and a silence that seems to go on and on. I picture the woman from the call center leaning over her cubicle wall and hollering to her supervisor, “You won’t believe what this guy just told me.”
“What do you think?” – I offer bravely as I point at a sofa in one of the catalogs that has just shown up in our mailbox. An extended pause is followed by the best of all husbands’ response of “it is not to my liking.” Couples therapy must really be paying off. I’m certain that just a few months ago, I would have gotten an even longer pause, a scowl and “that’s hideous.” I, of course, would translate that as “the fact that you like this piece of crap makes me reconsider my marriage vows. How can you even consider ruining my carefully designed plan for the living room? Do I know you at all?” The only reasons that I don’t hear “I should have listened to my mother” is that I know that Jeff’s mom always thought I was a good catch. Altogether this is a classic example of how quickly a conversation can go off the rails.
“I will paint this ceiling, if it is the last thing I do.” It is Saturday morning and my weapon of choice is an extension paint roller, fully loaded. I’m on a mission to bring a new calm to the living room. My only explanation for the current color is stress induced brain fog. Or perhaps it was the sheer relief of having finally found a house we both liked and could marginally afford. After the tribulations of the search, when the best of all husbands pulled out the color wheel and showed me a rather electric shade of yellow for the living room, my only reaction was: “Of course I love it.”
One of the hardest to accept facts of our relationship was that I had not only found someone who loves me, but someone who genuinely likes me. That might sound surprising given that we have been married and have been living together for years, but think about it for a moment. Someone who sleeps in the same bed with you every night, wakes up with you every morning, knows all your dirty laundry and still likes you.
I am home alone, again fighting the good fight. The battle lines are drawn. I am holding down a secure area. For now. I am fighting on the side of light, order and cleanliness against the advancing troops of chaos and destruction. I cannot afford to drop my vigilance. The moment I turn my back another unwashed dish shows up in the sink. Another empty cardboard box mysteriously materializes next to the back door. Another ceramic vase cheekily takes up residence on the bookshelf. There is a reason why it is called a bookshelf and not a vase-shelf! A band of rubber bands, sunglasses and books is getting ready to storm the kitchen counter.
When the best husband and I started to live together, we didn’t talk much about ‘roles’ in our relationship. We both worked full time and more or less managed to get done everything required for a respectable life. Shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, paying bills, we were used to taking care of stuff. We were also reasonable people who believed in an equitable partnership and we certainly weren’t moving in to have the other take care of us.
The overhead lights are flickering on in the economy cabin of our Lufthansa flight. It is my signal to start to untwist myself in my aisle seat. The best of all husbands still snuggles on my right against the window, not quite ready to face reality. Our 11-hour flight from Germany is almost over. We had a nice time visiting my sister, her kids, extended family and old friends. This time we even fit in some sight seeing at the end of the Christmas holidays. The weather was as expected and after two weeks in a freezing gray central European winter, I’m ready to be back in the California sunshine and our own home.
It is a small group that walks on this chilly spring day through the quiet of a German cemetery. Custom dictates my spot close to the head of the small procession. Here, my family and I buried my father more than twenty years earlier. I had just turned 21 when I followed the coffin with my name on it, the name my father and I shared. The thick coat I wore kept out the cold wind, but did nothing to take the icy chill off my heart. I felt frozen inside the way the graves around me lay frozen in the bleak December light.