For years four married men, and I include myself, as I am as married as anyone (Sekhnet and I have been together twenty years now) would take a ferry ride to an island once a year and spend the day on the beach. It was an annual tradition that ensured we all got to spend some quality time with a friend who was living abroad and came to the US every summer for a harried, duty-packed visit. We’d have lunch in a small restaurant there and compare notes on what had happened from the previous year before heading to the beach. The boat ride there and back, across the sparkling water, was always a highlight of the day.
A few years ago I had a final falling out with a longtime friend named Andy, one of the four, and it became awkward after that to convene the annual meeting. It would have forced the two untainted men to choose between me and Andy, something they could not do. It was celebrated the last couple of years as a two-some, the two old friends hopping the ferry, eating lunch at the restaurant, spending the day at the beach, catching up.
It must have been one of the last times the four of us were there that the subject of Andy’s wife, Hitler, came up. I barked out my extreme distaste for her, protested that I was trying to eat and that this harshly opinionated angry little Russian Jew was not a fit subject for mealtime. Andy and I had an understanding that his noisome wife would not be discussed between us. I found it impossible to talk about her without disputing her proclaimed right to express the full measure of her ready rage whenever she wanted to.
But during the polite lunch discussion, Rob, the peacemaker, chided me for the shorthand “Hitler” (which I stand behind, incidentally) and began defending this woman, Hitler. “If you really listen to her, and talk to her, she’s really, really smart and she makes a lot of sense”, Rob said. He noted that she has a great sense of humor. He said he actually has learned to appreciate her and he gets along great with her now, that he has actually come to like her and feel like she likes him too. Andy began to laugh an unpleasant, mirthless laugh.
“She fucking hates you, Rob!” Andy said with exaggerated disgust. He went on to flesh out that hatred a bit. He did this with a big, humorless smile on his face. A year or two later Andy’s sickening marriage to Hitler was heading toward a long-overdue divorce. Andy left her during the separation, moved out of the marital domicile and into a spacious wooden garden apartment that looked like the Zen dojo he’d begun hanging out in with the little sect he’d joined.
Andy, a very bright man who’d scored a perfect hole in one on his SATs back in high school, would be quick to point out that a “dojo” is a place where martial artists train and he’d tell me the right word for a place where Zen meditation is done. In response I’d point out that every place Andy practices anything is a forum for martial arts (and that the only difference between the words “marital” and “martial” is the placement of the I).
I recall these lunches in particular as a place where unhappily married men complained about and defended their bad marriages. Since I am not actually married, am not legally contracted to Sekhnet, I was somewhat exempt from this part of the conversation, though, obviously, not really. Everybody has some kind of issue, conflict or problem with virtually everybody else, it’s just one of the features of being human. Life partnerships are certainly not exempt from this general rule, in fact, they are more subject to it than less intimate relationships. The better friendships are the ones where generous allowances for the foibles of the other are routinely made. We’re lucky, in this life, if we find a couple of people we can count on to truly have our best interests at heart and not fight with us too much, it seems, especially during these combative days as we wait for our home, the increasingly besieged earth, to become uninhabitable.
It struck me as a bit ironic that Rob the peacemaker, who defended Andy’s wife, Hitler, against my unfair, if not inaccurate, portrayal, probably also supported him 100% in his decision to divorce her. It would have been hard not to be supportive about the move. I am quite sure the divorce did not fix Andy’s somewhat broken life, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Rob has been at war with his own wife since shortly after they married, many years ago. It is one of the most explosive and angry minefields of a marriage I know. There are periods of uneasy peace surrounded by devastation that has done damage to everybody in its orbit. I am a casualty, finally, of that toxic relationship.
There is a picture of Andy and me, dressed in misshapen suits, ties inexpertly knotted at our throats, standing on the front stoop of my parents’ house in Queens. Each of us has a bad haircut we probably cut ourselves. The snapshot was taken right before we headed to Rob’s wedding. I wonder where that photo is.
There were signs at Rob’s wedding, now that I think back, of the disaster that was about to unfold. A sense of uneasiness and mutual desperation, though perhaps my memories are also colored by what has come to pass in the decades since.
(to be continued)