America loves zombies. Based on their numbers in movies and TV, zombies have become the persona non grata of choice. Afflicted with the worst of cooties, they can be shot, steamrolled, burned and beheaded with abandon. You can even drop a grand piano on one and nobody feels like we've just lost Old Yeller. But on a personal level, when you're looking for love they're not ones to take home.
This weekend I was listening to Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love" during the drive to my local coffee shop where I fired up my iPad and went to "Modern Love" in The New York Times to read Daniel Jones' (editor of "Modern Love") piece -- "Good Enough? That's Great." In my head Bonnie is still singing "This may just be a powerful thing" but I'm reading Mr. Jones describing "marital malaise." Marital malaise sounds like you've come down with the feeling that something just ain't right on the home front. I remember it more like being wrapped in the coils of a giant anaconda slowly squeezing the life out of me. Calling it "malaise" sugarcoats the monster.
"Honey, that half full glass you're drinking, is that hemlock?"
"Why, yes dear."
"Mind if I have a sip?"
"Yours is in the freezer."
Mr. Jones describes several types of sufferers. There are the sneakers (looking-for-love-online), the quashers (I'm-doomed), restorers (we-can-fix-this), the bitterly resigned (I'm-not going-anywhere-grrrrrr), and the appreciatively resigned (Not-what-I-wanted-but-it-is-what-it-is). There's not a happy meal in the entire bag.
And not a Braveheart or an Indiana Jones of love. "Love's Holy Grail is out there and I'm going to find it!" Nope. And nobody shouting, "I've had enough! And I'm not gonna take it anymore!" Or "I'm not going to live in this misery for the rest of my life." Not a Kenny Loggins believer in love, or even a Stuart Smalley, "Because I'm good enough, and smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"
Mr. Jones writes, "Pull back on the marriage improvement program and join the ranks of the appreciatively resigned." Hmmmmm. So what do you get the Mrs. for Valentine's Day? Roses and a roll of barbed wire? Gift certificate to a good restaurant for her and a friend? "Chocolate coated Valium, sir? Always a politic choice. We have a his-and-hers special. The second box is half off."
I'm reading this list of sufferers and... Doh! (i.e. Eureka!) It's what the movies have been trying to tell me. Zombies are people stuck in bad relationships, thirsting for life. It's an epidemic. The only thing saving us from a full-blown apocalypse is the divorce rate, whistling the alarm like a boiling teapot. Movie zombies seek the flesh and blood of the living, besieging homes in rural America (Night of the Living Dead), laying claim to Manhattan (I Am Legend), and taking over the world (World War Z). They remain uncured because they can't regain life by feeding on the living. Which explains why Brad Pitt escapes in World War Z when he's trapped in a lab by a rat-like zombie eyeing him through the glass door. (Spoiler alert!) Brad injects himself with a deadly virus and the zombies let him walk free. He's lost that living feeling.
I've seen these zombie people, mostly in airports and restaurants. It's the guy heading for the gate, walking 15 feet ahead of his wife as she trudges along behind him. They exchange glances. Even without their 10-foot poles, you can see they're a couple. I've seen that couple about a thousand times. Sometimes there are kids. It's always worse with kids. The husband is out in front, not so much leading as distancing himself. But it's not a distance that makes any heart grow fonder.
I've seen zombie couples in restaurants in airports, hotels, small towns and scattered along the highways. They stare at their plates and eat without talking. Or they look away from each other with battle weary, thousand-yard-stares. Sometimes the wife will gaze at the man she married as he sits there, head down, sawing away at a piece of meat with an intensity suggesting this guy would rather be sawing logs with his knife than having dinner with his wife. "Careful with that knife, Eugene. We don't want to have to call the SWAT Team."
Some couples still have the spark. I don't know how they've weathered the years. They're not just keeping up appearances. You can see it in their expressions and the little things they do for each other, the way a husband brings his wife a coffee or pulls out her chair for her to sit. You hear it in the tones of their voices when they speak to each other, not because they have to but because they want to. You can see it in the way they hold hands or look into each other's eyes, like there is still somebody there they want to see. For happily married people, Valentine's Day is just another opportunity to celebrate their relationship. For zombie couples, it's like sticking in a fork to see if they're done yet.
Maybe that was Mr. Jones' point. Not every marriage can be recalibrated to when things were good. Sometimes, appreciative resignation is as good as it gets, as good as it's ever going to get. But it doesn't have to be that way. Next Valentine's Day, life could be different. You may have to walk through the Valley of Death to reach a better place, but live like a zombie long enough and you might wish you'd made that walk. It took me 29 years to do it. It ain't no easy thing. But it's hard being a zombie.