Friday, November 20, 2009

My So-Called Wife

Back in the early ‘90s when I was in grad school, there was an essay making the rounds called, “I Want a Wife.”  Written (I think) by Judy Brady, it detailed the narrator’s encounter with a male friend who was newly divorced and was now looking for a new spouse:  “As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I, too, would like to have a wife.”  Brady goes on to detail all of the reasons that she wants a wife: 

  • “I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean.  I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended.” 
  • “I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook.  I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying.” 
  • “When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends.”
  • “I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied.  And of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it.” 
  • “I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies.  And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy.  I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.”

Reading this in a class in grad school way back when, I remember having three responses, in no particular order:

  • There are men who are occasionally not in the mood for sex?   
  • What kind of butthole was this woman married to?  “Not interrupt when I’m talking to my friends”?  Really?  “Relate to people as fully as possible”?  Wha'?
  • Man, I am so getting ripped off. 

Because, you see, if what Brady outlined in this document was what a wife did, then I didn’t have one.   Sure, I was married, and before that, in a long-term relationship.  But a “wife” as Brady defines it?  Nope. 

Lest you think I’m complaining, let me make it clear that I’m not.  I like Ellen.  She’s nice to me, usually, even when other people aren’t.  And she’s funny.  And smarter than hell.  And she tolerates my humor, and my writing, and my occasionally going to church, and my playing the accordion.  She doesn’t mind that my favorite game with the kids is, “Let’s pretend I’m throwing up down the back of your shirt,” or that on occasion I get home after the kids have gone to bed, that I like smelly soaps (I’m s sucker for anything with grapefruit) or that every once in a while I indulge in a Dr. Pepper even though caffeine can make me a wee bit testy. 

In short, I’m not an idiot:  I know a good thing when it’s sleeping in bed next to me, even if it does snore on occasion.

But a “wife”?  Not really.   Even if Ellen knew what an iron was (“It’s that thing you use to hold down your books,” I explained when she read this draft) she sure wouldn’t employ it.  And we pretty much swap duties with the kids—I’m a great putter-to-sleeperer; she’s better with the boo-boos and band-aids and that, whatchacallit, patience thing.   

Then there are the household chores:  I cook, even when I *swoon!* come home from a hard day at the office, baby, and really just want to put my feet up with a brandy old Manhattan or whatever the hell it is.  And Ellen’s the laundry person.  And while this may seem unfair—one is creative and can be used to charm visitors, the other involves scrubbing barf out of underpants (don’t ask me how it got there), the fact is that these are the tasks we’ve come to do not because we have no choice, but because we both like control:  I like to make sure we have good food to eat (“good” being defined as anything involving olive oil, sugar, red peppers, or some combination of the three) and Ellen likes to make sure that there are no stains, anywhere—anywhere—on the kids’ clothes. 

More importantly, though, when it comes to gender and relationship roles, Ellen and I both agree that jobs are significant well beyond their fiscal benefits.  A few years back, we went to a financial planner, figuring that two people with advanced degrees and good jobs probably shouldn’t have to be living on PB&J for the last 12 days of each month.  They took a look at our finances, at our lifestyles, at our expenditures (“Do you really eat half a ton of Keebler Chocolate Lovers Chocolate Cookies a month?”)  When we finally sat down to talk with them, at a mere, $6,182/hr., the first thing they did was turn to Ellen and say, “You do know that between child care and your commute, you’re pretty much breaking even on your job?”

Why they didn’t say this to me, I don’t know, except that maybe my commute is 20 minutes shorter each way and I make $7 a year more than Ellen.  Or maybe it’s because I have, you know, guy equipment (sorry if that shocks you, but it sort of comes with the white BOY thing).  Either way, we’d seen this coming, so we gave the stock answer we’ve given for years when people point out that, um, maybe the two of you commuting for a combined 250 miles a day isn’t the best way to live life.  And that answer is this:  jobs are about a lot more than money, you misogynist bastards.

And we believe this.  These days, it’s not like we all live in the same neighborhood we grew up in, and everybody knows who we are.  So when we meet someone, the first thing they ask—besides, “You really think that’s a good idea?”—is “So what do you do for a living?”

I have an English friend, a woman, who earned a first in literature from Durham University, who then went to Sandhurst and became a commissioned officer, who not once but twice won her regiment’s marksmanship competition.  Eventually, she and her husband decided to have kids, so once she got pregnant she resigned her commission.  His next placement was in Brussels, and as they were being given a tour of the base, the commander turned to her and said, “You really must meet my wife.”

Anna’s response, God bless her?  “Why?”

For Ellen and me, at least, our jobs have always been a major part of defining who we are:  we’re literary people, we’re people who work with words and books and ideas.  We’re people who fight the good fight in an increasingly materialistic world full of things that entertain for 11 seconds but give no real substance (blogs, for instance).  In the face of a culture that seems to relish stupid (think Carrot Top, or George W. Bush bragging about his C average), Ellen and I are people who relish ideas, who care about the abstract, who value aesthetics and nuances and a little thing we like to call “the brain.”   Yes, we have children and that’s a huge deal, but even with them, I’m cognizant of being proud of being a teacher, because that’s something that kids know is important.  Our values are reflected in our jobs.  What our jobs are, matters. 


Why do I mention all of this now, besides the fact that I’m getting paid by the word?

Because, for the first time in my life, I have a “wife.”

When the opportunity for a Fulbright came up, the first thing Ellen did was go to her boss and check on the possibility of taking a leave of absence.  We’ve been together for 20 years now, and never in that time—excluding maternity leave—has she had an extended break from both school and work.  The thought of a year “off” for her, even with one little one at home, seemed extraordinary to both of us.  Think of all the opportunities, we said to each other:  think of you and Jamie wandering the city and exploring and learning the language and bartering with shopkeepers and buying fresh vegetables and squid and coming home and making a delicious supper!  Think of how much reading you’ll get done, of all the quiet evenings on the couch with a book, after 20 years of dutiful labor over the computer every night!  Think of all the exclamation points you’ll be able to use after saving them up all that time!



Think of . . . well, you get the point. 

So how’s it going?  How are these new gender roles we’re putting on like a pair of undersized fat suits?

Well . . .

My impression is, frankly, that it’s hard.  The first day I went off to work and the kids had school, I came home at 5:15 to a flat in chaos—Jamie was screaming at the top of his lungs, Lucy was complaining to her brother, Will was hiding in a book, emerging only to punch his sister on the arm every 11 seconds or so.  Ellen was in the kitchen, her hair down, her face sweaty, her eyes slightly dazed.  On the counter sat three half-chopped eggplants and a Styrofoam packet of pork chops, frost still glistening on the clear wrap.

“Hi,” I said. 

“We’re ordering pizza,” she replied. 

There’s a reason most people at my school have “helpers.”  To get Will and Lucy to school, Ellen leaves the flat at 7:45, nudging and urging and spanking the kids down a half-mile hill in the hot sun.  At the bottom, if she’s lucky, there’ll be a 26 minibus waiting that she’ll get on, dragging the stroller and Jamie behind her as Will and Lucy fight about who gets to sit right beside the door and who has to sit with Mommy.  Twenty minutes later, they’ll be in Old Tai Po and Ellen will hit the button and they’ll get out and wait in the still-hot sun for a shuttle bus to come and take the kids the last two miles up the hill to their school.  Then Ellen and Jamie will go to the market, wander through three floors crowded with Filipino and Malaysian servants, looking for the cheapest pomelo and tofu that is really tofu and not a fishcake disguised as tofu. 

Then they’ll leave the market, stopping at the little Park ‘n’ Shop near the playground to get orange juice.  Once that’s done they’ll catch the 26 back to campus, walk the length of it, and take the elevator back to the 8th floor.  In the flat, Jamie will play with the Legos a neighbor loaned us, while Ellen will spray a load of laundry and throw it into our impossibly small clothes washer.  Once the laundry’s good and going, Jamie will make a point of peeing in his pants and all over the carpet that another kind neighbor loaned us.  Ellen will strip him down, wash him up, and put him in clean underpants—into which he’ll promptly poop.

So Ellen will strip him down again, wash his underpants, clean him up, put him in clean clothes, then take the load of laundry out and hang it on the rack on the terrace as the sun beats down on the red brick. 

Back inside, she’ll pull Jamie away from the knife drawer where he ‘s been looking for something shiny to throw at the neighbor’s hypothetical cat (since real cat’s aren’t allowed in our dorm), then make them both a nutritious lunch of peanut-butter and whatever sort of stale bread we have lying around.  By one, he’ll go down for a nap and she’ll do the dishes, water the plants, do another load of laundry, and maybe sneak in a half an hour or so on the computer, answering e-mails, figuring bills, uploading pictures to the family blog. 

Assuming Jamie sleeps.  If he doesn’t, sometimes he just lies in his bed and sings.  Other times he lies in his bed and says, “Mommy,” over and over again, sometimes varying it with “MOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!” just to keep it interesting.  I don’t know for a fact, but I’m guessing that if you only get half an hour a day free of directly supervising children, and you’re trying to use that time to catch up on a few tasks or just to catch your breath—I’m guessing if such is the case, then someone lying in the next room doing this throughout your 30 minutes is pretty annoying.

Just a theory, of course.   But I feel pretty confident about it.

Other times, Jamie is so exhausted that he collapses into a deep, deep sleep.  Which means at 2:30 when Ellen needs to head out the door to return to the drop-off spot for Will and Lucy, she has to go into Jamie’s room and drag him out of whatever dark nether region of the brain that he’s entered.  As often as not, this will result in him sobbing uncontrollably, exhausted and confused and just a little angry.  So she’ll toss him in the stroller, stick a bag full of peanuts into his sweaty little palm, and sprint down the hill to catch the 26.  She’ll get the kids, take the bus back to the college, walk through the campus and up the hill and back to the flat.  Then she’ll give the kids snacks, get them going on their homework, and start to make dinner. 

Which is a whole other dimension of work.  To begin with, ever try going grocery shopping without a car?  Ever try getting on a waiting bus with a stroller, a large two-year-old, and six bags of groceries?  Ever try pushing said stroller with said large two-year-old and said groceries across a college campus? 

Then there’s the actual cooking.  For one thing, we only have three pans:  a non-stick wok that’s steadily losing its non-stick (“Don’t worry,” we tell the kids, “those black flakes are pepper.”), a two-quart saucepan, and a frying pan without a lid.  On days where we’re not cooking with the wok, we’ll use it as a lid for the frying pan.  On days where we’re not using the frying pan, we’ll use it as a lid for the wok.  If we need to use both at the same time, then whatever it is we’re cooking will just have to be dry.

Then there’s the fact that Ellen is not a natural cook.  This is not to say that she’s a bad cook.  She’s not.  Her phad thai is about as good as any I’ve had anywhere, and she makes a killer lasagna.  It’s just that she has no real desire to cook.  For me, cooking has always been a way to kill time so that I don’t have to do my schoolwork.  I also like it because it’s probably the most concrete thing I do:  when I cook a dish, it’s real, it’s physical, I can see it and taste it and smell it and have a sense of accomplishment.  Sure, it disappears when you eat it, but the students I work with disappear whether I eat them or not. 

For Ellen, though, cooking is less a relief than a chore.  When she lived alone in Charlottesville and New York, often she’d order out Chinese and make it last for three days.  Or she’d whip up something exotic, like a microwaved potato with—gasp!—frozen corn on it. 

Now, though, there are three kids to feed and a husband who hates corn even when it’s thawed.  So around 5:15, I’ll stroll in, refreshed and happy from a fulfilling day at work and a three-martini lunch, and there’ll be Ellen in the kitchen, slicing eggplants, boiling rice, picking flakes of “pepper” out of the diced chicken.

Okay, so not really about the three martinis.  But that might as well be the case.  Or more accurately, I feel as though that might as well be the case.  Because even if my day was moderate to moderately sucky—and those days happen, even when you’re in an exotic locale full of dim sum and sautéed squid—at least I got to spend it with adults. 

I try to help, of course, (even if I won’t let Ellen talk to my friends when they come over for dinner):  Tuesdays and Thursdays I take the kids to school so that Ellen can get a swim.  If I can get away late in the afternoon, I’ll pick them up as well, so that Jamie can sleep a bit longer and Ellen can have a bit more time to herself.  And I’ll make supper on occasion and do a load of laundry when I get the chance, and do dishes when I can. 

But let’s face it, folks:  this isn’t really what either of us expected. 

Part of the problem is just that Jamie is the wrong age:  a little younger, he’d sleep in the stroller and the two of them could wander the city all day.  A little older, he’d be in school.  We’ve talked seriously about taking him down to the bird market and trading him for budgie, but after talking with some native Hongkongers, I’ve discovered that this is actually illegal.  I’ve said it before and I’m guessing I’ll say it again: this place has way too many rules!


And then, of course, there’s the thing I haven’t mentioned:  the morning after we arrived, we opened our e-mail to discover that Ellen’s father had died while we were en route.  Even had she not had to attend the funeral of one of the three people she’d known her whole life in a double jet-lagged stupor of surprised grief, this would have been a pretty big blow.  And while she’s made a point of skyping with her mother and brother regularly, and e-mails them often, it’s not the same as being able to pick up the phone every evening, curl up on the couch in the back room, and just talk, and listen, and remember.  

How does one grieve a big Norwegian man with a pink face, silver-gray hair and a Germany-trained grasp of theology while living in a country full of palm trees, markets smelling of jasmine and raw meat, and millions of people with black hair speaking a language you hadn’t heard until 3 months ago, and still can’t understand? 

I’ll be frank:  sometimes I just get so angry at the universe.  I mean, there’s funny—even funny in a melancholy, dark kind of way—and there’s just plain cruel.


This all sounds very negative, and though all of it’s true, it’s only half the truth. 

The other half includes the fact that the longer we’ve been here, the easier life has become.  Some of this is just simply getting used to the ins and outs of a new place.  We’ve learned, for instance, that you can order groceries on-line, and if you order more than HK$500 (around US$70), they’ll deliver it to your door.

We’ve also figured out that there’s a Wellcome or a Park ’n’ Shop on pretty much every city block in Hong Kong.  So if ever you run out of toilet paper or mango juice or those sour lime gummy worms your husband is addicted to, all you need to do is step off the MTR, walk 300 feet in any direction, and step into the first grocery store you find.

The cooking seems to be getting easier, too.  I’m not sure what it is, but Ellen’s figured out how to make some nice stir-fry sauces that give flavor to the chicken while keeping the eggplant nice and crisp.  When I ask her how she’s doing it, she gets a slightly wicked glint her eye, raises her eyebrows, and says,—I’m not making this up—“I am the spice whisperer.”

It helps that Jamie is getting to the point where he doesn’t need a nap every day.  Check that:  he needs a nap every day, but if he doesn’t get one, it’s not the end of the world.  What this means is if Ellen’s out and about, say, getting our visas for mainland China, afterwards she and the little guy can stroll around for a couple of hours, checking out temples or museums or markets.  A few weeks ago I came home and found Ellen in the kitchen, cooking.

“Smell my hair,” she said. 

“Only if you smell mine first.”

She gave me that look that said I’d be eating baloney for dinner if I didn’t shut up and do what I was told.  So I smelled her hair.

“You’ve been to a temple.”  She had the warm, powdery scent of incense on her.

Then she went on to tell me how she, her mother, and Jamie were visiting a temple not too far from the market and came across a big group of people with a ton of food.  Apparently it was the birthday of one of the goddesses, and they were celebrating by offering fruit and burning spirals of incense.  Afterwards, there was a dinner of vegetarian stew, and Ellen and her mother were invited to stay.  They did.  And it was nice.

The other thing that gives me comfort is this:  back in 2002 I stopped in Reykjavik on the way back from England and discovered that our two Icelandic friends had divorced.  Back in the States, I landed in Baltimore, got in my car, and drove the three hours to our home in Lexington.  Ellen was already in bed.  I crawled in next to her, said hello, then put my head on the pillow.

Then I sat up.  “Iva and Ingo divorced,” I said.

“Oh no,” Ellen murmured. 

My head hit the pillow again. I was just drifting off, when Ellen sat up. 

“That’s it,” she said.

I could barely get my mouth to work.  “That’s what?”

“Every couple we knew in grad school is now divorced.”

And it was true.  Every one of them.  Except us.  And as our friend Gordon has put it so eloquently, no one was betting on our horse.

We’re just not a very affectionate couple.  We don’t hold hands in public.  We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Significant anniversaries have been rescued from the fingers of death when one of us has written the date on a check and said, “Oh yeah, that’s right.  What’s it been, fifteen years?”

And we bicker.  We’re pretty good at it, actually, especially when Ellen thinks she’s right, and she’s not, or I think I’m wrong, and I’m not 

Just kidding.  I don’t know why we do it, but we just tend to.  We agree about so many things:  politics, food, movies, childrearing (duct tape is a must).  In fact, we don’t really disagree about anything.  But we’re both strong-willed people and neither of us has perfect emotional management—I let them out too soon and Ellen holds them in too long. 

Our bickering can be especially prevalent when we’re traveling.  I have very distinct memories of mornings in Chester or afternoons in Lyon where both of us were clenched mouthed and furrow browed.  This isn’t surprising, of course.  You’re tired when you’re traveling.  And both of you have agendas, not always the same. And there’s the pressure—you’ve been dreaming of this trip for months, idealized visions of the two of you munching caviar and sipping kir royale dancing through your head while you trudge through a rainy Monday morning.  

Certainly, we had high expectations for this trip.   And certainly, not every aspect of our year here has been ideal.  We’ve yet to meet the Queen of Hong Kong, for instance.  Or her husband.  And though we’ve tooled around the Island a lot, and seen a lot of local sights, we’ve yet to find the time to drag the kids to some exotic, non-HK locale and have all five of us contract an incurable disease—always one of our goals when abroad. 

And certainly we’ve bickered here, occasionally, and even regularly.  But overall, it just hasn’t been that bad.  Yes, we’re tired.  Yes, we’re busy.  Yes, Ellen is often wrong and refuses to admit it.  And yes, I’m often right and refuse to admit it. 

But overall it’s been good.  Even, on occasion, we’ve been affectionate, as though being 8,000 miles from everyone we know makes it okay to hold hands walking down the street.

But is Ellen the perfect “wife,” as Brady defines it? 

No.  Thank god. 

Because I don’t know anyone who wants a partner like that, probably not even Brady herself.  

And me?  I’m not stupid.  I know I’m lucky. 


And then there’s this:

A few weeks ago I’m with Jamie at the market and we come across the Man Mo temple.  This is Ellen’s favorite, a small, tucked away place surrounded by high-rise flats and bicycle repair shops.  I’ve never been there myself, so I heft Jamie onto my hip and go through the red gates.  It’s dark inside.  Large coils of incense hang from the ceiling, dozens of them, their ends gray and smoking.  Below them are trays rigged to catch the falling ash.  Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t.  The floor is dusty with gray powder.

Three or four alters are spread throughout the small rooms, each holding a gold statue.  Offerings of fruit and wine lie on them, and there are candles burning next to bouquets of flowers.  I don’t know anything about Buddhism—I’ve only ever been in a temple once before—but I love the way it all combines to make your senses buzz—the colors, the tastes, the smells, the stillness. 

Jamie leans over in my arms, presses his lips up against my ear, and whispers:  “We in a temple?”

“Uh-huh,” I say back.

“We be quiet?” His voice is hoarse and sibilant.

I nod. 

He’s silent a minute, then says, “People praying?”

None of which means anything, on the face of it.  But what it tells me is that he’s been in enough temples, enough times, in his mother’s arms, that he knows what’s going on and how to behave.  And if I feel pretty miserable at the thought of Ellen chopping onions every night (something I enjoy, but she doesn’t), I feel pretty good when I think about her and our little blondie standing in the temple, his cheek against hers, his breath tickling her hair.  I don’t know much about grieving and I don’t know much about religion, and I’m 98% sure nothing can take away the pain when you lose your father.  But I’m equally sure that to the extent that anything can make you feel better, it involves a little boy with blue eyes pressing warm against your body and whispering in your ear as incense rises and ash falls in this one silent place in the whole world. 


michaelg said...

June Cleaver has nothing on Ellen. Can you imagine living with a vacuous servant for a mate? Okay, mabye, but let's not go there. Thanks for the great glimpse into your life together.
So sorry to hear about Ellen losing her dad. My mom died 10 years ago and my dad last year. It is horribly cliche, but true- you never get over it, but you get accustomed to it. It sucks on every level.

Cherilyn said...

Beautiful, Paul. Just beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Paul, that was awesome.

Heather said...

That was beautiful.