excerpted from caro's journal: topic: vignette

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2001_08_06:17: Bwugstin Bwooahwls

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At the time, she believed that he only used words like that because they came naturally to him. Then, her theory went on, he felt unbearably uncomfortable when she asked what they meant, and stubborn, so he didn't want to tell her. Her insistance that she didn't understand made him embarrassed to have revealed that he was such a low-life.

"Yeh Boston bwawls, ahntca?" he once said to her. At first, she couldn't even make out the words through the thick anger-bidden accent. She was never quite certain whether he was acting or serious. The exaggerated roughness with which the words shot out at her, the obviously enormous effort expended in puffing out the cheeks with air just before the 'b's exploded, seemed inappropriate to the context.

"What?" she inquired incisively.

He went into his head voice: "Yitth...Yeh bwoghstin bwoowls! Hahntcha!" came the shrieky hiss from his direction. It sounded like there was a little bit of German in the middle there somewhere, and perhaps a touch of steam whistle.

Her eyebrows attempted in vain to assist her brain in processing this restatement of the information, eventually freezing helplessly in lopsided confusion. " 'Bwugstin bwools hancha' ?"

She had thought she was following the discussion, which had suddenly turned into an argument with these weird Franko-Dutch proclamations bursting in from nowhere. She waited hopefully for an explanation, wondering if it hurt to have your neck stretched out and leaning at that angle from your spine. Reaching ever more impossible lengths, the neck descended to prepare the head for the familiar request for confession. Now she was really lost. A confession was clearly about to be extracted, but she had no idea for what. At last she prompted: "What does that mean? What are those words you're using?"

He sat back, the neck retracting now to impossible shortness as the chin threatened to collide with necklooseness. Down came the corners of the mouth to meet upward-striving sheets of neck skin. He clarified succinctly:

"mmmMMMMan!"

It was as though he was off in his own private world, having an argument with someone she couldn't hear; her own responses were epiphenomenal.

"Let's not get side-tracked," she said, inefficaciously, "Just either tell me what you said or please stop saying it and let's get back to the point."

"CAHrahlin," he aaa-ed, pronouncing her name in a manner she had come to loathe, bending at the waist and leaning hard into the first syllable. "You ah bustin mah bawls".

Oh! OK, the words were all there now. He pronounced them less Newyorkily this time, to make sure that she couldn't deny hearing them. Now, only one problem remained. They made no sense.

"What does that mean?"

"Yernnnncrrrredible!"

Deep in her unforgiving right hemisphere, the spectacle before her was indelibly etched in surreal detail. Mouth now fully transformed into bassett-jowls, he ground his chin back and forth, back and forth, into his Adam's apple, wads of flesh mooshing around behind his jaw. It wasn't the eye-popping per se, but the eye-popping and the flesh-mooshing mixed in with theatrical head-swinging and facial-muscle-manuevering, that really made her suspect that he was acting. It was just too much emphasis for the situation at hand. She always half-expected him to smile suddenly and say, "Heh. Just kidding!"

Meanwhile, her left hemisphere indulged in unspoken verbal responses: Well. There ya go. I'm incredible. That's new. OK! Now we're getting someplace, her sarcastic lobe monologued. Well. At last, we reach an understanding.

Meanwhile, outside, he had slipped back into his confessional, and was waiting impatiently for her to get on with it. "We-e-e-eellll?" he ululated as his head vibrated up and down?

You look like an idiot, she assessed. Have you EVER looked in a mirror? Jesus! There was no end to the new and interesting ways he could uglify that play-dohey face. Nature may not have been extremely generous with him, and maybe one couldn't expect him to go out of his way to look pleasant at a time "like this" (whatever "like this" was, for him, as she had yet to figure that out)--but did he have to go to such great lengths to make himself hideous? Yow!

He actually looked pretty tolerable when he was asleep. Asleep on his back. So that the masses of inelastic flesh fell back into his hair and she could just make out the the jutting bone structure. You might even say that he looked interesting. Looks didn't matter, she'd tried to tell herself. She thought she'd found a soul mate; at least, that was how it seemed so long ago, immense, deep, long-distance conversations on the phone school night after school night. She told herself that it was fine to miss the sleep and miss all the other things she used to do, the people she used to see, because here, here was The One. They never disagreed about anything, though they talked endlessly about all the things that other people avoid so that they don't have to disagree. It was easy to remember that time, when he was asleep. Or when they were in company; he always behaved beautifully, sweetly, admiringly when they were in company, presented a united front even on issues on which they were not united. She used to believe, at such times, that he'd had a change of heart and had come to understand some argument she'd made, but it was an act, a public face. These ugly contortions weren't part of the Public Face, either, though the plastic and well-rehearsed "smile" that he wore instead wasn't much prettier.

She knew there was a long weekend ahead of them, at this rate, and it was only Friday evening and he'd already cancelled their plans to meet with friends because he was more interested in having the preceding fight, the topic of which she wasn't able to recall right then. She wished he'd go out by himself with his friends; they weren't really very interesting to her, and maybe it would help him to go out and be free of her for a change. Certainly good for HER. But he refused to even consider being seen without her; and on the two occasions that she'd tried to refuse--well, she didn't want to think about that right now. It was just too bad he wasn't asleep more often.

"Yer bustin mah bawls."

Oh. They were still at that, were they.

"You tellin me that youdununnastan what that means?"

"Yes. That's why I asked you what it means."

"You dohn unnastan it?"

"Yes, I don't understand."

"Yih dohn!"

Exasperation leaking from every pore, she controlled herself quite admirably, she thought. She just didn't feel like tangling with him. "Yes. I just said I don't understand what it means."

"Yih dohn!"

"Yes, I dohn," she mimicked, regretting the slip as she committed it. Sometimes she wondered if she was a little bit Turrett-y, with imitations coming automatically, and perfectly, when it was most inopportune. She'd always been fascinated by accents, inflexion, and mannerisms. She didn't know why. The more irritating she found them, the more urgently compelled she was to attempt to master them--maybe because their very irritatingness made them wind around in her head for a long time. But the general attraction bordering on compulsion? She couldn't explain it. But it had provided her and her friends with hours of amusement, so it didn't usually present itself as a liability. And once mastered, they were always at the ready, like this time. Fortunately, he didn't latch onto it to berate her for imitating him.

"Aw man. Ye lyin, Cahrahlin."

She had a sudden vision of herself spinning from a rope in open space. The same thing, round and round, causeless, and no escape in sight. This proposal that she was lying, she had finally learned, was meant to provoke her. There was no way that he really believed she was lying. He'd admitted too many times now that he'd made the accusation without meaning it, and he knew as well as she did that she simply didn't deal with the world that way.

Sighing, "You know I'm not lying. Is there some reason you can't tell me what the expression means?"

His voice became suddenly calm, all trace of shrillness gone, replaced by deep, melifluous, condescending notes with undertones of helpfulness and a hint of pity. Hold it in, Carolyn, she advised herself.

"Aw Cahrahlin. You know what it means. Everybody knows what it means, and you're doing it now. Aren't you," he ended, with soothingly soft tones.

Clenching her teeth, in an attempt not to scream bloody murder, "Well, I'm not everybody. If the meaning is not important, can we just move on to whatever it was that we were talking about before you started repeating it?"

This was the scary part. It had been happening with increasing frequency. She simply could not remember what they'd been talking about. Last week they'd spent their entire Saturday in this kind of pointless bickering. Somehow, they'd sat down to breakfast around 8, making plans for a hike in the woods, and by the time she realized it, still in the t-shirt and underpants she'd slept in, stomach howling with hunger, teary-eyed and hoarse from hysterical screaming, it was a sickening 4 in the afternoon. Judging by the blue sky and the last of the winter sun drilling into the room, it had been a fabulous day. And she couldn't remember a single word. She was outraged and exhausted and she didn't know why. The time was worse than wasted.

"Alright," he said philosophically, realizing that he'd have to back up and slowly reexplain for the special education students in the class. "You know what I'm talking about, and you're pretending you don't to piss me off. That's what bustin balls is."

"Before I ask you why it was so damned crucial to use that particular phrase instead of saying 'you're playing dumb to piss me off', let me just ascertain that you actually thought that was what was going on! Did you really think I'd put myself through that? For WHAT?!"

"Nah. You weren't."

Wait. Did he just back off completely? Now it was her turn to shriek, "Then why the HELL did you say it?! What is wrong with you!"

"I don't know. I'm sorry."

That was it. She was supposed to accept that. Great. Her blood was buzzing in her ears.

Trying to cool down, she resorted to conversation, albeit with palpable tension and fury in her voice: "Where did you pick up an expression like that, anyway? It's disgusting!"

"That's the way we talked in my neighborhood."

"Well, this isn't your neighborhood and I'm not one of your hoodlum friends. Maybe that's an expression you should lose, along with that stupid Vinnie Barbarino accent. You don't talk to other people like that, and you never used to talk to ME like that. I don't see why I have to listen to it now."

"You're right. I'm sorry. It's a hang-over from my childhood. There's no reason for me to say things like that, and I won't say it anymore."

Yeah, right, I've heard that before, she smoldered silently. "Fine. What were we talking about before this detour?"

"I don't remember. Come on. Let's go see the gang."

Absolutely surreal. What she would have liked to do at that moment was throw her own little temper tantrum, told him to go and bust his own balls and the balls of all his fawning friends besides, and then buried herself in the television. Instead, she trained one last data-gathering stare upon him, found nothing there but incongruence and conflict, and went to dress. No reason to deprive herself of a change of scene. At least they'd be in public, and it was infinitely safer in public. No telling what might happen if she refused, especially with the whole weekend to get through. And there was the added benefit that he had actually allowed the conflict to END, instead of insisting that they repeat the whole argument several times. Seen in that light, this fight was a net positive! Get out the door before he changes his "mind".

But bwustin bwoowls--what the HELL? Standing in bra and jeans, arranging her hair, she repeated the expression obsessively in her head, trying it first the way he'd said it, then without the row-house white-slum illiterate New York drug addict accent, then as Sam Donaldson might say it, then as Barbara Walters might say it. "You are busting my balls. You are busting my balls" she enunciated quietly. What a weird, sexist pig thing to say to her, anyway. He'd never had a woman for a friend, and that was pretty evident from his behavior, and from these kinds of ball-centered expressions. He treated them as though they refered to self-evident real universals that one might find in a casual glance around the kitchen.

She wondered if he purposely used those expressions in order to taunt her, knowing that she hadn't mixed with the low-lifes in the neighborhood she'd survived, and had never felt the urge to pick up any street lingo. Her idea of a good movie was Pride and Prejudice, while he seemed to think that Reservoir Dogs was high art. He usually laughed when she asked what some slang term meant, so why he suspected her of insincerity at some times but not at others was a case for Oliver Sacks. And it was uncanny that, though she never said things simply in order to provoke people's anger, would never tease or taunt people the way juvenile delinquents did at school, it was the first thing he suspected of her. Could he not conceive of another way of being in the world, or did he consider pointless provocation the defining characteristic of conscious human life? Even at the time, she was convinced he lived for the hunt, for the fight to the death. The thought that he might have BEEN one of those juvenile delinquents fluttered at her brain, but she swatted it away. Impossible. She didn't go out with juvenile delinquents. She'd just have to show him a better way, reason with him until he saw that the hunt was not all there was to live for.

He appeared suddenly in the bathroom doorway. "Let's talk about this."

"Talk about what?"

He pulled his lower lip in and thrust out his upper teeth, and swung his head in wide half-arcs. "Jesus! This! This!

"You mean the fact that we're forty-five minutes late because you've been stomping around like a bull?"

[leopard cough] "Ah right. Just tell me you weren't lying."

She fought the urge to refuse to revisit the conversation in any form whatever, even as a brief review of whether it was all caused by her apparent pathological lying about street lingo. He stomped his heel in the doorframe, sank onto one locked leg and crossed his arms. Not going anywhere. She gave in.

"I believe that I already told you I wasn't lying. I wasn't lying. I didn't know what you meant."

"You weren't lying?"

"No, I wasn't."

"You weren't."

She closed her eyes for a moment. She wasn't sure how long she could control herself in the effort to avoid the worst possible outcome. But the outcome, whatever it would be, was unpredictable. Apparently her very existence indicated to him that deliberate falsehoods were being told. She wondered if it were some inherent defect in her face--did she just look dishonest?

"What do you want me to say? I've just assured you five or six times in the last half hour that I wasn't lying. Why do you keep asking me? What more am I supposed to do?"

"Aw, Cahrahlin."

"'Aw Cahrahlin' what? What do you want from me?"

Before she finished the question, he lunged at her. The last thing she saw of his face was gritted teeth, lips gnarled in a stiff 'O', and strangely disengaged eyes that no longer looked at her but rather down at her body, the way one might look down at a large, heavy piece of property that needed to be thrown onto a truck. The hair dryer dropped to the floor as he flung his arms around her waist, pinning one arm at her side, and squeezed her in a bear-hug. She tried to push him away with her free hand but his grip only tightening. He leaned over her, forcing her body to bend back over his arm, yanking his arms tighter against her spine so that her feet rose momentarily from the floor. She cried out in pain and he responded by crushing her again. His face still registered the look of impersonal determination and a wheezy whine pushed through his teeth: "Cahrahlin! Cahrahlin!"

She fought for breath and managed to speak at last: "Let go of me!"

"Cahrahlin!"

"Get the hell off of me!"

Waves of humiliation burned across her face. She was ashamed of her weakness, her inability to fight off this animal. She grunted as he crushed her again against his body, forcing the last of the air out of her lungs, and the scene took on an utterly disconnected feeling. She wondered vaguely whether this constituted some sort of display of affection in his warped mind. She kicked at his leg, made good contact. She hoped it hurt. But he didn't react. She needed air, and her back felt like it would break. Maybe if she just gave in. Maybe he was trying to have "make-up sex." Maybe he was bending her over backward, throwing her off balance as he often did during more normal displays of affection, because he wanted to kiss her. At least she might get some air that way. She lifted her face to his. The popping eyes stared back, floppy jowls heaving as his breath whistled through still-gritted incisors. He whined again. "Jesus Christ! Cccahhhrahlin!"

Suddenly the grip released. He jumped back a foot throwing his hands up like an innocent man startled by an armed robber, eyes wide, jaw dropped, lips loose. She staggered drunkenly, struggling to regain her balance.

"What the hell is wrong with you!" she shrieked. She took a side-arm swing at him. He dodged, and her shoulder wrenched on the follow-through. "Get away from me you asshole!" She backed into the hallway and ran to the tv room, shut the door and leaned against it. A moment later the door flexed with the impact of his body. She held on through another hit, then another. The voice on the other side of the door was calm and quiet, New York all gone, sophistication back again, her name pronounced properly. "Carolyn, open the door. Open the door...All right, what do you want to do?"

"I want you to leave me alone!"

"All right....All right. I'll go down to the bar and leave you be....Carolyn? Carolyn!"

She realized how hard she was shaking. She wanted to kill him, even more now that he'd shifted into Soft Patronizing Voice. God damn him to hell. "Fine. Go." she managed to say.

"Are you all right, Carolyn?"

"I'm fine. Just go."

A moment later she heard the front door open and close. She was sobbing uncontrollably, but she wasn't going to give in that easily. She turned on the tv to distract herself, but all the images only emphasized what had just happened. She felt like a damned fool. What was she doing here? How could she get out? She'd given up almost everything she had, and had given the rest to him. Nice move, Cahrahlin. Real slick. After a copule of minutes, she flipped the box off again.

As she abused herself for her folly, she suddenly realized that he was really gone! He'd gone down to the bar to put on his plastic smile and imaginary benevolent universe act, most likely telling his friends that she wasn't feeling well. She imagined what it would have been like to crack him one in his bassett hound jaw. The thought shot another pint of adrenaline through her nervous system, and she smiled.

She needed a better distraction. She sat down to read her email. There was a letter from that maniac again, asking her for advice. Good luck, loser, she cheered him, You need more than advice, at once seeing the irony of the situation and feeling more ashamed. This letter wasn't going to help right now. The next was from a friend, congratulating her on her impending nuptials, saying how lucky she was, how, if he were a woman he'd be jealous of her handsome catch. What a weird thing to say, she judged, and felt bad for it immediately. She began a reply. And the front door opened and closed, the blessed ten minutes without him over. Heeeere's Johnny! she referenced.

A calm came over her. It was her right to sit here in this room and write her letters. Normal people give each other space and privacy. Normal people give it a rest. He'll just have to sit out there by himself for a while, that's all. She heard his Patronizing Voice at the door: "Carolyn, let's talk about this."

She closed her eyes. Oh, yes, YES! Do let's talk about this! We definitely haven't talked about it enough! Why, I can't even remember what we said, it all went by so pleasantly! "I'm reading my mail. I want to be alone."

He opened the door and leaned in the door way. She didn't look at him. "I said I want to be alone."

"I want to talk about this."

"And I want to be alone."

"OK, I'll leave you alone." He closed the door.

She collected herself again, trying to focus on her mail. One minute later, the door opened again.

"Can we talk about this now?"

The stupidest woman on earth suddenly got the bright idea that perhaps she could reason with this creature. She started by taking all the blame. Pretending that 'It' actually had a referent, she said in a trembling voice, "We can talk about It later. I'm too upset right now. Just give me half an hour to read my mail and calm down. Then we can talk about It."

"All right. I'll let you calm yourself. I'll come back in half an hour." The door closed.

It rankled her that she had given him even that much and that he was such a coward as to take it. But she wasn't up to another physical confrontation so she was just going to have to swallow her pride. Maybe he was just reacting to her. Maybe if she could just calm down, stop shaking, and get centered, he wouldn't keep exploding. Maybe he really was confused by her reactions to him. She felt ashamed. There had been many lovers and many more suitors, but this was the first man who ever said he wanted to be with her forever. That had to mean something. And here she was, ready to destroy it all, over something as small as....what was the fight over? She couldn't remember! What had they said? She felt terrible. Pugnacious. Demanding. High maintenance. Her eyes scanned, unseeing, trying to call up any memory of the preceding hours, or even just ten minutes. It wasn't there. All she could remember was blinding rage. Holy shit. She was completely nuts! But her 60 seconds were up. The door opened again.

"Can we talk about this now?"

"It's only been one minute. Please, please just give me a few minutes, please!"

"I'm not giving up, Carolyn."

"I'm not asking you to give up. I just need to be alone for a little while. Don't you have something you need to read?"

"I can't. It feels like we're giving up."

"For gods' sake, leave me alone!"

"You want to be alone? You want to be alone? OK, I'll leave you alone."

He moved toward her. She stood, knocking the chair over behind her, tripping on it as she backed away. He moved in, grasping her about the waist in exactly the same way as before, a mindless, determined machine. She began screeching at once, beating on his shoulders, jamming the heel of her hand into his jaw. He let her go, then lunged again, wrapping his arms around her waist. Thinking that her resistance was provoking him, hoping to avoid more suffocation, she simply went limp. He squeezed harder and harder but she simply stopped responding, allowing his horrible arms to hold her up completely. He loosened his grip unexpectedly, and she felt the wave of humiliation again as she lost balance and stumbled. When he grabbed her again, she felt her hand strike his skull, and at last he let her go. Shame overwhelmed her now, and she made her way to the couch and began crying hysterically. "Oh my god, what's happened to me?! Look at what I'm doing! How did this happen to me! Look at what I've done! Look at what I am!"

The noise began as a low growl, gradually winding up from his bowels and forming itself into an interjection: "ggrrrrrraaaAAAWWWWWgh! CcccaahhHHHM aahhhHHHHNNN!!

He lept across the coffee table and yanked her up by the elbow, banging her shins against the table. "You want to be alone? Lllllet's go."

She felt the disconnected calm come over her again as he dragged her out of the tv room. She half-heartedly, purposelessly, flung out arms and legs to hold onto the doorway but only succeeded in pulling the door shut on her own fingers. She noted that that should have hurt. She wondered disinterestedly where they were going. He wrapped his arm around her bust for better leverage, crushing her breasts in a way that also should have hurt, scraping buttons and bra seams across her breasts and knocking her on the chin. She watched her old belongings, their kitchen, the things they'd bought together, her books and papers on the desk, the remains of breakfast on the table, receding slowly as he pulled her unmoving feet backward through the living room toward the front door. He was throwing her out. "I'm not dressed and I don't have my wallet."

" You don't need anything. I'm taking you to the airport and you're going back to St. Louis. Get in the car." He pushed her out the door.

"I need a shirt. I need my wallet and a coat," she said woodenly.

He grabbed a shirt randomly out of the pile of laundry sitting on the chair and threw it at her. "You don't need a coat. Get your wallet, and llllllet's go, bahdah-BING!" he cried, chopping his hands in the air as he bahdahbinged.

She scanned the room for her wallet. It was in the bedroom. Did she have Roberta's number? She could call directory assistance. Roberta might let her work at her office. Well, there's a Sears in every town in America. "Let's go," he called as if they were late for an appointment. He began pretending to hum, emphasizing unsequenced notes with a "Bah bahp!" here and there, playing drums with both hands against the wall. She picked up her wallet as she left the bedroom, her old quilt and white teddy bear sitting on the bed next to her copy of The Complete Works of Aristotle that she'd been reading last night. She went back for the book. She'd need something to read. How was she going to finish her work? Weird, what a person thinks of at times like this. Nevermind the book, how was she going to survive the cold?

The impromptu atonal concert had stopped. He was standing in the doorway, arms folded impatiently. She didn't look at him as she squeezed past him. He grabbed the Aristotle and tossed it. "You don't need that."

Rage and shame and guilt and hatred and fear of the unplanned-unknown all jockeyed for position in her chest. He opened her side first, waited while she got in so he could slam the door hard behind her. He opened it so he could slam it again. The noise sent another wave of rage through her, as it was intended to do, but she held it back. He peeled out of their parking space, deliberately squealing the wheels. "I don't have money for a ticket."

"I will buy you a ticket to St. Louis."

"I'm not going to St. Louis. I have no place to go. I'm going to Roberta's." She realized she was shivering in the zero-degree air, and put the shirt on.

"Ah said if it didn't work out, ah'd put you back exactly where ah found ya. Ah found yah in St. Louis. Ah'm bahnya a ticket to St. Louis. TTTHHHHat's where yahr gahn."

"You also said you'd put me back the way you found me. I don't have my job, my insurance, my apartment, or the money I sank into this car, or the money I put in our account, or any of the things I brought with me. I don't even have any money in my wallet, and none of my friends are in St. Louis anymore." That was why she hadn't left already. She felt like there was no choice. What she had believed was an investment in the entire future of her life had turned out to be worse than a foolhardy waste. There was nothing left besides what was in that apartment. And now there was nothing but what she was wearing. She opened her wallet and her intestines squirmed when she saw that the credit card wasn't there either. She'd taken it and several other things out so that her wallet would be light for the hike they didn't take last weekend. Tears coalesced as she realized how destitute she was. She'd never in her life been this helpless, never since childhood had she been dependent on anyone. This wasn't the way it was supposed to have been. They were supposed to have been partners, not master and slave. Friends, not owner and property. She forced herself to stop crying, refusing to give him that. She turned her attention to what she had to do next. She'd call Roberta right away at the airport. He couldn't make her get on the plane to St. Louis. Then again, she couldn't make him buy a ticket to Chicago. OK, she'd go to St. Louis. Maybe Betty was still in town. Or Dan! Dan was still there. OK, she'd call him. She was sure he'd let her work for him again as she had in the summers. She felt better, having a plan.

He took the exit for the airport. Her stomach turned as she realized that this was it. She calmed herself by contemplating The Plan. But instead of pulling into Departures, he swerved into the left lane, got onto the loop and pulled back onto the highway. She said nothing as the last taste of freedom faded from her mind.

"All right, let's go home and we'll talk about this."

"You're not taking me to the airport?"

"Mahhn! You ahr so mmmmmean!."

She stared at the side of his hideous head. She tried--she really did!--to stay focused on what he was droning on about, as she knew that at some point she would be called upon to confess to some lie or other, or to acknowledge that she understood some weird expression or followed some non sequiter. But driven by the effort to push all awareness of these events from her mind, driven to force down the abject humiliation of having handed over her dignity one more time, she immersed herself in the attempt to comprehend how one person could possibly manage to embody the combined ugliness of thousands.

Now, from a safe distance, she knew why he looked like that. No, Nature had not been exceedingly generous. But She hadn't been cruel, either. That face was his creation. He had been working at that ugliness for many years. Anger, hatred, low self-esteem and wild blustering to cover it--it was all written there. It was carved deeply into the frown-lines, the misshapen cheek pouches, the deeply sunken eye bags, the heavily scowling brow, the sloping eyebrows. The unnatural contortions, she theorized, had made his intercellular structure give way, resulting in pendulous flabbiness that would have suited a man 40 years his senior and 100 pounds heavier. Once, she'd caught him making frowning faces in the mirror. (Check. He HAD looked in a mirror at least once.) When she came in, he had remained fixated on the mirror, and had said in a far-away voice, "I'm glad I look like this. I used to have such a baby face. Now I look like a man." Actually, it was frightening how much he looked, from hair to toes, like her mother.
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2001_04_10:18: Irrational Man

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vignette
No one had ever asked to be allowed to read her mail before. Well, her mother had never asked, but she had no problems reading it. Oddly, once she went away to college, when it would have been handy to have someone read her mail, her mother suddenly developed scruples and refused to open anything no matter how official and tax-return-like it looked.

So when he just outright said, "I assume it alright for me to open your mail. And of course, you can open mine too." it came as something as a shock. In stated principle, he was a devout Objectivist, a libertarian, and a "deeply private man." That it would even occur to a deeply private man to open someone else's mail was, to her, an absurd notion. But there it was.

At the time, it just seemed like a small error on his part--something he'd not quite thought through, and that, being an Objectivist, he could be easily persuaded by the use of reason. Looking back on it, the tone of his voice had been odd, the same tone that he would always take subsequently, when he believed that she would be irrational and was trying to approach her quietly like an animal of prey who might jump at the slightest sound.

"Well, I don't know about that. I mean, I guess that's Ok, but I don't think I'm comfortable with it."

He didn't answer, verbally, right away. His mouth opened wide--not wide, exactly, but more like a fish, his jaw jutting out and down while his lips formed a long "O" which worked in and out a bit as he stared at her.

She never knew what to do when people gave her meaningful looks. Did he want her to take it back? Did he want her to apologize? Was he really speechless? What was she to do? Unable to guess, she waited impassively, impassivity being the refuge she'd always taken in the face of the incomprehensible.

Noises began to emerge from the mouth, a sort of strangled grunting half-word, as though he would say something. The grunting turn to stammering. Uh, oh. He really was serious. He really did want to open her mail!

"You act surprised."

With a loud breathy sound that sounded like something between a sigh and a cough, he began, "I am surprised! Ah--ah'm in love with you! We're going to be married!" He paused for a bit and looked pensive, eyes narrowed, mouth finally shut. "You really have a problem with me opening your mail," he said, with a kind of wonder.

"Well, it is generally considered a private thing. I mean, what if I get a letter from a friend? Do you need to read that before I do?"

"You don't trust me to read your mail from your friends?"

"It doesn't have anything to do with trust. It's just weird to have someone write you a letter thinking that you're going to read it, and then someone else opens it and reads it. Like, what if one of my girlfriends decides she doesn't like you and writes something mean about you in it?"

"You're incredible!"

Well, that was an incomprehensible remark. So she fell into impassivity again. Face like a brick wall, her sister had always said. She could feel the wall go up, but that was better than the mix of confusion and anger that was beginning to build.

After another pause, he began with his characteristically preemptory, "Uh-K!" a leopard cough of a statement. "Uh-K! So! No personal letters. What about the VISA bill?"

"Well, I guess that would be OK, but I have my own accounts, so I can't really see why. And what if I use my card to buy your Christmas present in October and I want it to be a surprise? And what if I don't want you to see how much I spent on it?"

She felt a little silly. It was difficult to explain exactly why she felt she had the right to privacy, and since he was only offering his horror as the reason why she shouldn't have it, there was very little to push against. She couldn't call to mind exact circumstances under which she'd been glad in the past that no one else had read her mail, but she knew there were cases. So her excuses sounded lame to her. Once she had exhausted the appeal to privacy and he, inexplicably, didn't think it was a good reason, there was little more to say than that it was none of his business. But that seemed like the sort of thing that was too rude to say to someone who only meant to immerse himself in the togetherness of marriage, and it was an expression she generally detested anyway. Maybe he was just unaware that someone other than him had private conversations with people that didn't concern him.

"Ah don't undahstand this," he said, falling into Newyorkese, proving that he was really getting upset. "Man. The woman ah'm gahnna mahry. Man."

"I don't understand it either. Why is this so important? Don't you have any thoughts or feelings that are private?" she asked rhetorically, knowing that he was probably one of the most repressed men she'd ever met (but of course she was going to Fix That). "How would this even occur to you?"

Again, he looked astonished by the question, made a few more leopard-coughing sounds. "Things happen. What if you're in the hospital?"

Oh, that's all! Oh, she knew he couldn't have been talking about reading her mail! Yes, that was it. It was for emergencies. Whew. "Well, of course you can read my mail if I'm in the hospital! I don't want my VISA bill to be overdue!"

He glowered at her from under his eyebrows, mouth open again, gave one slow, prompting nod, as though she was supposed to say more. She waited for a verbal prompt, since she didn't know what more he wanted.

Still glowering, head sinking lower as he spoke: "S-ss-sssooo....it's OH KAY for me to read your mail," head coming up and sort of lurching toward her, to say it was her turn.

"Yes, I just said it was OK. Of course, in an emergency, I would want you to open my mail. You made it sound like you wanted to read just because it came in the door."

"Well, no, not just in emergencies! What emergencies? This is something that people share! What are these conditions you're putting on it?"

"You just said it would important to read my mail if I were in the hospital. But now you're saying..."

"Ahdow undahstan' nis. Ahdow undahstan' nis." He began swinging his head slowly from side to side, a deeply sad smile-like expression on his face. "mmmMMMAAaan!"

Her memory faded at that point. She knew the argument didn't end there. They never ended in less than three hours, and they always ended with her in tears, agreeing to whatever conditions he set just to calm him down, and him insisting that they make love to prove that she didn't have a bad sense of life. She didn't even know why she remembered the details, it being one of the lesser battles in that war, except that he liked to use it as evidence for how nervous, how untrusting, how unlike him she was, what a bad sense of life she had.

But after that argument, though she had agreed that he could read all her mail and burn it besides, whenever he got the mail, he made a prodigious and resentful show of handing her her mail with a great ceremonious flourish, unopened, the pain of the huge concession written all over his face. It was one of his favorite axes to hold over her head, that breach of intra-pre-marital trust, long after he had snuffed out the spirit that had allowed her to care about much of anything at all.