This afternoon, I admit, I took pleasure in watching couples squabble.
It was a delightful cafe on a perfect California day, and the overworked Swiss-German in front of me wanted to go to Hawaii. Seated as far as two people at a table can sit from one another, his wife begged to visit her brother instead. She hadn't seen him for ten years. It would be fun to spend time with him. The man's face contorted, but I was with her. Why something so elemental as visiting a brother had been neglected for a decade wasn't discussed. The man didn't even argue that it wouldn't be fun. He returned to the subject of needing a real vacation. She pleaded and shouted about her love for her brother. He finally suggested that she could look into the price of that plane ticket. They quieted, sparing those of us around them further ranting.
My friend, the psychologist Benjamin Kavian, texted me recently to say that what he treasures is watching fighting couples watch him watching them fight. My sentiments exactly. This particular pair never noticed me, though. They left, and the next time I looked up from writing a tragic novel, a new couple had replaced them at the table. This pair, instantly dismissible as overly harmonious, both sat on the same side of the table. They were so pleased to be there, basking in the sun, pressed strangely and foolishly close to one another, that I missed the dysfunctional Swiss-German and his wife. These sappy two did everything in unison. They reclined in front of matching coffee mugs, read similarly predictable supermarket paperbacks, wet-kissed, sipped, read, kissed, sipped, ad infinitum. She would put her left hand on his upper thigh and leave it there frozen in neo-eroticism, only to lift it every five minutes, and -- quickly -- he would put his right hand on her thigh, exactly where her hand had been on his. The happiness expressed in their movements was somehow grotesque. I was dying to know what each of them was thinking during this hand charade. I filed it in the category of mysteries of the universe, along with such questions as who eats at McDonald's and precisely why or who runs stop signs intentionally.
Another couple, distinguished, elderly, with tarnished rings that informed me they had been married for decades, took seats at a table beside me. They sat across from one another, but amicably, quietly chatting. They were a study in conjugal success -- and confused me utterly. He was the one who walked straighter, so he stood up to get sugar for her latte. She fussed with the crumbs of banana nut bread on his cashmere sweater. It defied my sense of logic that they had anything to say to each other, after all those years. I watched them carefully, to judge the degree to which their success lay in obsequiousness or phoniness, but failed to identify signs of either. I wondered whether they had no one else to be with, resigning them to a lifelong pas de deux of sacrifice and compromise. Perhaps all three couples -- the Swiss-German, the cuddlers, and the elderly -- had experienced wild passion and desperate lack of passion, and I was only getting a shuttered glimpse of a brief moment on the spectrum of their love.
All of them were way better to watch than the three women on the other side of me from the elderly couple. The women's conversation swung from complaining about being single to praising the plastic surgeon they shared -- and back to complaining about being single. Fortunately, we humans have tiny ear cavities, easily plugged with orange foam rubber. If plastic surgery and loneliness are the alternatives, perhaps it is better to live in a fictional world.
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