Darryl and Francesca, though atypical in so many ways, were aging a great deal like many couples who have been together most of their lives. There were habits that gave a sureness to their activities: she with her two garden clubs — yes, two, each filling a different need for her — and he with the hobbies of a semi-retired academic, a little reading of the books published by friends and colleagues, mostly scanned, enough to make conversation, and then, in Tahoe, learning more about what the Sunfish could and could not do.
There was bridge to play in both places, the weekly night out with friends, the La Jolla people, the Tahoe people. Articles to read. Then the grandkids, now almost grown, how quickly that time had passed.
Being at this point of longevity for a couple, Darryl and Francesca also had the normal absence of scintillating conversation that, in younger couples, arouses engagement, whether in agreement or vociferous contradiction.
The result of this comfort in knowing, in advance, what one’s partner was likely to say about a subject is that conversations about current events, and even less important observations such as the changes some of their friends were going through, went unexpressed, remained in the silent privacy of their inner musing.
Warren, for example, one of their La Jolla bridge people, had bloviated one night, going on about the people in the Occupy Movement being parasites who had been cast off by that shrewd differentiator, the Free Market Economy, the Invisible Hand of Righteous Capitalism.
His proof, when challenged by Alice, was that they had no demands:
“They don’t know what they want other than to have jobs that do not exist. And, since the jobs don’t exist, they want to be supported by those who do have jobs, who are doing the work while they sit around and complain. That’s what makes them parasites. They just want a handout. It’s the grasshopper and the ant. Déjà vu.”
“What a load of crap,” said Alice, to which everyone laughed. And then they laughed some more. And some more. It seemed that the old, retired bridge players could not laugh enough. No one said anything, they just laughed. Except for Warren who sat with a puzzled look on his face asking, “What’s so funny?” No one heard him. They were all laughing too hard.
These people, all in their late 60s and 70s, who had known each other for decades, laughed as if they were in their 20s again. In their minds, it was not so much what Alice had said, it was that she, a retired Education professor, an earnest Presbyterian who seemed able to see the good side of anyone, had never said anything so young and so vulgar in their entire history with her.
So they laughed and laughed and laughed. And nothing more was said of the subject.
Later, at home, neither Darryl nor Francesca mentioned the exchange between Warren and Alice. Not to each other, that is. Each had that conversation with their internalized spouse.
Francesca knew what Darryl would say. He would make a reasoned argument. He would either stroke his chin or tap a knuckle up to his lips between his careful sentences. The disquisition would scroll out something like: Warren’s wrong, and he is right. Some of them are bums and freeloaders. They’re camping out. In cities. This puts them in proximity to homeless people. Some of the homeless are lazy bums. Some are tragic victims of something or other. Most probably lie somewhere in between.
The demonstrators, most likely, are of these three types, too. And Alice is right to say that Warren is full of crap because he says these things from his gut and not his mind. Ideas come out of the mind. Crap comes out of the gut.
Francesca knew that something like this was what Darryl would say because he had said much the same thing at other times after they had heard Warren speak.
Darryl held the opinion that Warren’s success in business came from his decisiveness, more than his actual decisions. Warren was not afraid to open his mouth and piss people off and engender some heavy discord. Darryl thought that Warren had been a successful leader because he had a tough hide. After an emotional engagement with someone, he could then get back to work unperturbed.
Most people would brood and simmer and play and replay the tape of the fracas and their work would suffer in the process. Not Warren. He was tough. Or insensitive. Most likely both.
In Darryl’s mind, this made Warren a natural manager. He had often told Francesca that Warren was the last person you would want to go to for analysis of a social or personal problem. He was so confident in his opinions that they were next to worthless.
Francesca knew her husband after all these decades with him. She could play his part herself in her private mind, right down to the chin stroking and the knuckle to the lips as he formulated his next statement.
And Darryl could play her part, too, neither confirming nor denying his views, giving no indication of her own opinion of the matter.
It was as if, during the two decades since Francesca had relented on her plan for marital emancipation and moved back into the La Jolla house, they had both inched their way to being flesh-and-blood prototypes of two people addicted to PDAs. If they were to bend their heads and wiggle their thumbs onto little screens or keyboards instead of bending their heads into Smithsonian Magazine or National Geographic, for Francesca, Nature or The Economist, for Darryl, they could pass for a young couple today, except instead of sending a link to an article, with a line or two about how this or that interested one, they did it in their minds, imagining their partner’s reaction and being contented with the knowledge that they would not be far from the truth.
But now we have an issue that has their tongues moving in their mouths once again: Christmas 2011. This discussion cannot be managed in the private silence their familiarity has bred. Action is required, a decision needs to be made.
On Saturday afternoon, October 29, tension crackled around their customary retreat into those private minds. Skype with the Colfaxes, later that evening. Friday, their usual designated time, was changed because Candice had a performance. So now, tonight…
Darryl expected that it would be the usual format, Dean on the call for maybe ten minutes, then they would have their daughter all to themselves for an hour or so.
Francesca came in from the garden and went straight into the shower. Refreshed, then, and in clean clothes, she sat in the living room where Darryl read. Their conversation was at first innocuous, about the timing for dinner. Darryl said he did not much care when they ate. He seemed bent on his reading.
“We need to eat early enough to be on Skype for Scilla. We’re on for 7:00.”
Darryl put down his book and sat up. “I had forgotten about that. You know, I don’t have a lot to say this week. Why not just warm up something for yourself, and take it into the den and eat while you are on with her?”
“Yes, that’s fine, except for one thing: what if she brings up Christmas? We are going, are we not? You know, we have not discussed the holidays at all. I have tried a few times to bring up the subject and it always seems as if — ”
“Yes, well, you could go alone, and I could — ”
“You could what? Not go to your daughter’s when she has invited us to Christmas? What else is there to do?”
“Oh, I could stay down here, go out for Chinese food and a movie.”
“Darryl. You are not Jewish. Work with me. Are you serious?”
“Flo has shown me no respect in ten years and you expect me to walk into that house, give that ingrate a hug and wish her a Merry Christmas? I really do not think that is going to be OK for me.”
And so it began. The most eviscerating quarrel these two old people had engaged in since the almost-divorce. He yelled and she yelled. Those habits of private speculation on what the partner was thinking failed them both. The comforts of polite quiet, those that had marked them as so like every other tired couple of the American professional class, could not be found.
Over the years, so much had been felt that was not expressed that the accumulated resentment now seethed under their surface behavior. Francesca, before the blood-letting of this Saturday before Halloween, had never told her husband how it felt to be a mother cut off from her daughter. She had never told him about her clandestine meeting with Flo, the lunch in Santa Rosa, when she learned that Darryl had threatened his daughter with hanging up on her or walking out of the room if she did not comply with his demand that she censor her conversations around him.
More and more oozed out of the wounds they opened with their trenchant attacks, old arguments about the wasted Dutch inheritance, the false promises of a new leaf being turned by the repentant husband.
Darryl, from his side, accused her of manipulating him because she was insecure, fearful of going out in the world on her own, had set him up to fail as her ideal husband by not telling him when she was resentful but taking it all to the garden like so many bulbs to be planted and forgotten till the red flowers of her wrath colored over everything.
He raged, but it was not the rage of the righteous for he had little basis for that. It was the rage of a big man with a grandiose personality who was reduced, as he had been years before under the threatened divorce, to a frightened boy about to lose it all.
They went back and forth that late afternoon and evening and probably would have gone on till late that night had they not been interrupted by Darryl, who pointed to the clock on the living room wall, one hand pointing at the seven, the other a few marks shy of the twelve, the time they had promised Scilla they would be at the computer to begin their Skype session.
He pointed to the clock. “The Skype call. I do not think I can –”
“You will be present for this call, Darryl. And you will talk about Christmas.”
“Only if they bring it up.”
“I suspect they will. And you had better be ready. I mean it.”
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