Authors note: I selected this story to appear in Bold Type because it was the most controversial essay of the book (appearing in the chapter "For Better or Worse"). The main reason for the conflict was the fact that the book was meant to be a humorous book of essays about trials and tribulations that a new bride faces, but when my editor first read "The Perfect Fight" she found it to be too dark. She reminded me that we certainly didn't want to "scare" brides-to-be, and that my tale of a wretched and horrible fight that I had with my husband was perhaps a little too "harsh," and then she asked whether I would consider cutting the essay from the collection. I totally balked at her suggestion and had probably an overly emotional response (probably due to my whole inner conflict that I discussed in my essay. To me this particular story was the pinnacle of the book--it was this story that kept the book honest (all the other stories are much cuter, sweeter, and girly). But how I saw it was that even though there's a lot of laughter and funny things about being a newlywed to writer about, there were also things that scared the hell out of me too. I didn't want to publish a book of only light and funny stories because I didn't feel it was representational to what a real marriage was like. In fact, in my introduction I talked about the fact that the diamond ring is a perfect symbol of new marriage--bright and shiny, but at the same time that diamonds were one of the hardest substances found in nature--able to cut through glass. In the end, I toned down the story a little, and my editor finally agreed that perhaps there was a place for it. And yes, it is a little dark; it's definitely honest, but it's still funny too (or so I hope.)
s many cute and funny stories that anyone has about her marriage, there are always a few stories that no one talks about. My mother and Mary Sunshine are in perfect agreement over the fact that it's not polite to air one's dirty laundry out in public and that certain things are nobody's business, but I feel that I must be fair to all the new wives out there and let them in on the fact that married people, even extremely happily married people, do fight from time to time. Now this is a given, but I'm going to go one step further and let everyone in on the fact that sometimes happily married people can have a big huge massive horrendous fightone that really is not quite appropriate to discuss at a dinner party unless you want everyone to lean away from you (fear of its being contagious)and that they can get through it. I call this type of fight "a perfect fight" (as in "the perfect storm") mainly because they are rare (thank goodness) and come about only when the stars align just so.
Perfect fights have similarities to all natural disasters, the subtle buildup, the quick eruption, the destructive power, and the damage left behind. After a tornado destroys the barn, you build another one, a better one. After a hurricane destroys a village, you build another village in its place, with a larger ice-cream parlor. After locusts destroy this season's crops, you patiently sow more seeds and wait till next spring.
When I was small and scared of thunderstorms, my father would come in and explain to me how it worked, what was inside those dark clouds, what made the lightening and the noise. I was still afraid but less so because he taught me how to fight my fear with knowledge. So let's look inside a perfect fight and deconstruct it; let's see what makes it start and how you'll know when it's over. There are no preventative measures that you can take against having one in your own marriage, but maybe if you understand how they work you'll be less afraid if you ever get caught in one. At the insistence of my mom (What would the Bible study group think?) and Mary Sunshine (Do you really need the neighborhood wives goin' after your husband like flies to a dead pig? Gee, I guess not.) I'm going to omit the "specific dirty laundry details" of our particular perfect fight and just break it down for you in a blueprint fashion so you can see how one works.
One reason why perfect fights are so rare is because there must be a slow and simultaneous buildup that occurs on both sides. Perhaps one person had to make a sacrifice that was turning out to be too big, something that was taking too much out of her. She tries to remain stoic, but there are days when she feels a twinge of resentment. (Take, for example, a woman who is getting married and being forced to move five hundred miles from her favorite place in the worldBergdorf Goodmanand then whose husband works all the time so she doesn't have any friends with whom to watch the Thursday night NBC lineup.) At the same time her spouse was well aware of the sacrifice and couldn't stand the stony stoicism she was showing and he was beginning to resent feeling guilty over it. (Bergdorf's is owned by Nieman Marcus, and if memory serves me correctly, there does happen to be a Nieman,s in the city of Boston. This is an obvious sign of his guilt as he would never normally encourage shopping.) Another component of the buildup is simply a small ongoing battle between husband and wife. Something small and trivial but after many small battles there are wounds that never get a proper chance to heal. (Like those pesky mosquito bites that you can't help but scratch.)
Of course, communication can certainly alleviate this buildup, but, as open as a husband and wife can be, both always have a few thoughts that they never share because they are petty, selfish, and they feel shame for even thinking such things.
Next is the second phase of buildup: it's what was called the extraneous short-term buildup. This usually takes place from one to four days before the actual fight breaks out. Again, this buildup must occur on both sides, but it usually has little to do with the other person. These were just dumb luck, in the sense that both of you happened to have one or even a string of a few bad days in a row resulting from little annoyances that we face in the outside world. Cosmas and I consider ourselves lucky because for the first eight or nine months of our marriage, when one of us had a bad day, the other hadn't, so we were able to take turns being the cheerleader and the sympathizer. The first time we both had a bad day simultaneously (previous to our perfect fight) we were somehow smart enough to realize it and avoided each other for the rest of the evening. We were not so smart the second time.
Now the bad days I'm talking about aren't those one-or-two-annoying-things happened-so-I'm-a-bit-pissy-and-agitated days. No, the extraneous short-term buildup required those really awful, wretched days that consist of a minimum of five, if not eight, of the following, in combination, per day: slight headache, runny noise, itchy eye, slight lingering cold, lost item, something spilled, something broken or torn or run, rudeness of a stranger, boss yelling at you, ridiculed by some snot-nosed teenager, bad hair day, two bad hair days in a row, a parking ticket, a traffic jam, a fender bender that wasn't your fault, a fender bender that was your fault, cable acting up, TV on the blink, someone bought the last one in your size three minutes earlier, experiment didn't work, experiment didn't work the second time, ATM out of service, no stamps, alarm didn't go off, alarm went off but you set it for the wrong time, service charge on a credit card bill for a payment that was one day late, fight with your mother, long line, forgotten keys or wallet or lipstick, burned bagel, two-pound weight gain, a six-pound weight gain (any weight gain over five pounds counts as two items), sat on hold via speakerphone for twenty minutes or longer and then pushed the wrong button when the operator picked up and the phone disconnected, lost your favorite pen, forgot to call a friend on her birthday, didn't get the job, didn't get the promotion, worst enemy got the promotion, forgot your cell phone or briefcase or scarf in a cab, crowded subway, broken crowded subway, burned your tongue so you had those little blisters that last a surprisingly long time, paper cut, Xerox machine jammed again, hair in your sandwich, broken nail, smudged manicure, shaving cut, big pimple, no more oatmeal chocolate chip at the cafeteria by the time you make it down for lunch, bowl of cereal and milk gone bad, rain, rain and suede shoes, rain and suede shoes with no umbrella standing on the corner and a car splashed you, lost dry cleaning, forgot to drop off dry cleaning, why is it that I'm always the one who has to deal with the drycleaning?, out of milk, out of orange juice, out of microwave popcorn, out of Advil, out of patience, and finally out of your mind.
So now you have had a stretch of four of these awful wretched days (any more than four and you should call in sick to work and stay in bed the next day because it's reported that five can be fatal to you or others), you are frazzled, you are tired, you are way beyond tense, you are now capable of making faces and performing actions that could make little kids cry and telemarketers hang up on you for a change. And to top it all off your spouse has had an equally really awful, wretched day.
Now comes the trigger moment, the thing that causes the perfect storm to erupt. I have heard from others that the trigger moment is always a smallest, trite, not-a-big-deal thing, but given the background of the slow internal buildup and the extraneous short-term buildup, it's understandable how the wrong look or word or action could be the match that ignites the whole thing. Our trigger moment was completely absurd and involved the wrong drink. I had just gotten home and was sitting on the couch fuming over my really awful, wretched day. Cosmas came in a few minutes later from an equally really awful, wretched day. He said, "I stopped at the deli and bought drinks." No hello. No kiss. He opened his own Diet Coke and handed me the bag. Inside the bag was a Sunkist orange soda. I have nothing against orange soda, and I can see why it's popular for its fizz and its tangy taste, but it just so happened that I personally do not care for orange soda. In fact, I probably hadn't had an orange soda in maybe twenty years. So I just staring at it, and the only words that came out of my mouth were "Orange soda?" So he said, "What's wrong with orange soda?," meaning I should feel lucky that he got me anything at all. And I said, "Have you ever seen me drink an orange soda?" in a tone that meant "proceed with extreme caution." He said, "I don't know, probably not," meaning I dare you to keep going. So I said, "Then what on earth would possess you to buy me a Sunkist orange soda when you should know that the only soda I drink is Diet Coke." Meaning I was about to lose it. He said, "I dunno," meaning today of all days I will not deal with your crap. So I'm wondering how I managed to marry the most oblivious, unobservant man in the world. Did he not care to know my drink of choice when I can name every drink he likes and put them in the order of his preference depending on his mood, what he's eating, and where we are.
And so began the perfect fight. Perfect fights do not build up to loud; perfect fights start out loud and build up to incredibly loud. The energy that fills the room is electric, and both people act as if they are possessed. The fight quickly moves from the trigger issue to whatever big issue has just passed or is on the horizon, combined with anything else about which they are currently annoyed at the other. There are no rules in a perfect fight, and there is no regard whatsoever for feelings. Before they can even make it through one topic a new one is introduced, fuel for the fire. Every single dumb annoying thing that the spouse has done in the past few months is suddenly fair game and shoved in each other's face. The time when I said I had to pee when we were on our way home from dinner and when we walked in the door he went into the bathroom and peed first. The time I asked him to stop by the store to pick up some Windex and then found an extra bottle in the closet. I don't mean to minimize the severity of a perfect fight, because it truly is a miserable experience. It's just that the reason it causes so much damage and goes on for so long is because your normal ability to keep yourself in check is not working, you have bulldozed the fence and there are no boundaries. Both parties cross the line in so many different ways. Both hurt the other's feelings on purpose. Both say things they regret. Both say things that aren't even true. Both scream until they are horse; both cry; both break something or throw something; both say that they hate the other; both call the other names, both say they will never forgive the other.
The fight goes on for hours, and you are lucky that the cops don't show up, but maybe it would have been better if they did. By the end you are both red-faced, bleary-eyed, and sitting on the floor, hunched over from all the damage that has been inflicted. You feel as if you have just been to war (you have), and you both feel this tightness in your chest from hearts that were not just broken but pulled apart with bare hands and chewed up raw and thrown up and spit into the gutter of despair. (You think I'm being overly dramatic, but, sadly, I am not.) Later you will not remember how it even ended, but thank God it did.
This eerie silence is the time in a normal fight when you both sort of look at each other and either start to laugh or to apologize, but not this time. This time too much has been said. This time you have both gone too far. This time you still feel hatred in your heart but have fallen silent resulting from exhaustion and lack of saliva; you even consider licking off some of the drops of orange soda on your arm. (At one point I shook it up and actually tried to spray him with it, but he grabbed my hands and tried to get the can away so we were both covered; I was finding sticky orange soda drops months later.) But you don't speak, which is a good thing because you wouldn't say anything nice anyway. This time you are scared because you are wondering whether your marriage is now over. (It isn't.) This time you are sad because right now, right here in this very moment, one of the worst moments of your entire life, you don't even know if you care if it's over. (You do, but that's how you feel.) Then you start to cry.
So you're thinking, Now what? What next. How does a couple survive such a tragedy? I cannot speak for others, but we did not speak to each other for days. We did not touch; we did not acknowledge each other's existence. There was an incredible fatigue that ruled my world, and everything was fuzzy and tears ran down my face at odd times. It was Cosmas who finally spoke the first words. "Pack a bag; we're going to Vermont for the weekend." I said I'd rather go to hell. Unfortunately, there was a lot of collateral damage in the aftermath, and it was gravity that pulled these petty comments out of me and threw them to the ground. But I packed my bag anyway and told him I hated Vermont. He told me he hated my attitude. These pissing matches don't ever build because all your reserves are spent, so they taper off into silence after a few refrains.
The car ride was silent and pretty uneventful, except for when he bought me another orange soda as a joke and I started to cry. We were staying in a ski town, and I was surprised to see it bustling. Cosmas informed me that we were very lucky even to get a room because the entire town was totally booked up for leaf-peeping season. "Wow, they've got some racket going here. This has nothing to do with nature at all, this stupid leaf-peeping season is just a big sham to get all these inns and restaurants full before ski season starts." He called me a sourpuss, and I said, "So what if I am?"
So this was the part where I am supposed to say that everything was soon all better, and that we had the best time of our lives. That I was now the newest disciple in the cult of the great outdoors. Well, sorry to disappoint, but that wasn't what happened. What really happened was that we had a fight on our first night there, or rather, I managed to get us into a fight on our first night. We did manage a few scattered moments of niceness or shared laughter (it was truly hard to be mean when eating ice cream), but they were far outnumbered by bad moments. By Sunday morning I was pretty sure Cosmas deeply regretted trying to make amends at all. He used going out to get the Sunday Times as an excuse to get away for a while. (Perhaps with hopes that my unpleasantness was all a result of withdrawal symptoms from not having read the Sunday Styles section before ten A.M.?) After he left I wondered whether he'd even come back at all. Wasn't that the way it worked in the movies, the husband going off in search of cigarettes or a loaf of bread, never to be seen again? Which would leave me, well, husbandless I guess. This thought made me a little sad, because even though he was driving me crazy as of late, I certainly didn't want to live my life without him. This gave me a brief spark of hope that all was not lost. Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I was completely sure that I wanted him to come back. Finally, a good sign.
He returned an hour later empty-handed. "C'mon, crankpot (my new nickname), I checked us out. Let's go."
Hooray, we were leaving. I was almost thankful finally to go back to Boston, which was a first. I kept myself in check and didn't say that out aloud. We packed in silence, and I was feeling a little bad because I was probably more responsible for ruining the weekend than he was. It was obvious by his stiffness that he, too, wasn't quite over the perfect fight, but he was at least trying to make things better. When we got in the car, I decided to apologize for my behavior over the past two days (no way I was apologizing for the big fight), but before I could say anything, he announced that he had booked us on a two-hour horseback-riding tour through the mountains. I was stunned. This was a very un-Cosmas thing to do; he was not really the proactive type, and he was rarely the creative one. Desperate times. Desperate measures.
Soon I was astride a big brown mare named Shalimar (I'm totally serious), following behind Cosmas, who was riding Lucky Buck, and our husky country cowboy tour guide, Chuck, who was riding Pretty Lady (how unoriginal). It was much colder in the mountains, but the air smelled great. I was in complete awe of the towering trees, and every now and then we'd break through into a grassy clearing with spectacular views. No one was talking.
Okay, I will now admit that I now sorta "get" the whole nature thing. Don't worry, I'm not going to rush out and buy a backpack or anything. But I will say that being on a horse on top of a mountain made everything seem very small. I felt small, Cosmas seemed small, our perfect fight even seemed smaller. I wondered whether I would ever be able to forget it. Okay, everyone write this down, because it is a very common mistake: It isn't about forgetting, because we all know that takes time, what is needed is remembering the good.
As I watched Cosmas bounce along ahead of me, I remembered that once when we were dating and we went away on vacation I had wanted to go horseback riding but we hadn't gotten around to it. I wasn't really that upset, but I remembered on the plane that I had been thinking about it. As if reading my mind, Cosmas promised that he'd take me horseback riding another time. I remembered how my chest tightened up, how I thought I was going to burst with love and happiness because he was able to read my mind. I remembered thinking that love is a tricky thing and sometimes it's the small things that really matter. I then thought that it's all those small, happy memories that fill up one's heart. In fact, I think that's what I told him. I suddenly felt a little bit better, and I almost smiled.
If that was the case, if I started remembering all our great moments, and there were so many, then perhaps I could throw them on top of the remains of the perfect fight and that would put out the smoldering embers. Perhaps they would stack up like bricks and we would start to rebuild. Perhaps the heart was like bone; after it broke it grew back stronger.
Now I know this sounds over the top, but it's totally true. Right when I was having this completely profound breakthrough moment, I realized that it had started snowing. It was just a tiny amount, but it was only October, so it was a bit early for snow. I won't even try to describe it except to say it was all very Ansel Adams, but with people. But I did feel it was some sort of sign: "Yes, Jenny. It's about time you started figuring things out."
When we were back in the car and both of us were smiling, it was my turn to make amends by telling him what I had figured out with Shalimar. Just as I was getting started, he asked, "Are you allergic to horses?"
I pulled down the visor to look in the mirror. I was a mess. My face was puffed up, my eyes were tearing, and I started getting itchy all over. Suddenly I was coughing and sneezing. Apparently I was allergic to horsesvery allergic, in fact. So much for my Danielle Steel moment. Cosmas pulled over into the parking lot of a high school and stripped me down outside, handing me the old blanket that was in the trunk. He then dug around in the trunk and got us both a change of clothes; he stripped down and changed and then helped me get dressed again, too, locking all the contaminated stuff in the trunk. Now there really was something to peep at in Vermont. He drove into town in search of a pharmacy. While he was in the drugstore I decided to take a peek at myself. I couldn't believe it; I looked even worse than I did after the fight. Hideous, my eyes were little watery slits, I was all blotchy, my nose was all red and drippy, my face was swollen to almost double its normal size. I decided it was time to invest in expensive eye cream. I was disgusting. Yes, this is exactly how I wanted to look as we made up after our fight, so much for makeup sex. I was sorry for being so awful, and now I looked the part.
I had to take a double dose of Benedryl, and, needless to say, I was pretty incoherent in about fifteen minutes. I had been trying to formulate what I wanted to tell him, but I manage the right phrasing. I kept opening my mouth, but no words came out. He thought I was suffocating because he pulled over to the side of the road and was about to start CPR.
That was my big chance; it was time to tell him that maybe I was unhappy in Boston only because I never got a chance to spend any time with him, but I wasn't unhappy with him as a husband (though flowers every now and again wouldn't hurt). That maybe I missed my friends and wasn't making any new ones because I wasn't really trying, but that that wasn't his fault. That we were married, and I wanted to be with him no matter where we were (even if the Nieman's in town really was much too small). That the important thing was that I loved him, and that he showed me how much he loved me by saying he was sorry with a weekend in the country and making good on a promise from a long time ago to take me horseback riding. That I now realized one big scary fight didn't mean that our marriage was over, far from it, in fact, because a marriage was over only if we both decided to stop trying, and that one fight, or rather no fight, even a perfect one, would never make me do that.
Which would then give him the chance to say that by not taking out the trash he wasn't being hostile or showing disrespect to me, but that he understood it made me feel that way. He also gave in to the fact that my having to remind/nag him to take out the trash was basically the same thing as having to do it myself, and that he would really, really try not to forget anymore. That maybe he was a bit guilty for taking me for granted and would remember that though I didn't expect a thank-you for the things I did, it would be nice on his part to toss one out (like with flowers) every now and again. And lastly, that even though he was at a crucial stage in his career and I had been very, very understanding about it for many many years (med school, residency, and now his first year of fellowship), he had also realized that we were in a crucial stage in our marriage and that I needed some of his time and attention as well.
But as I finally opened my mouth to speak, he said it all for both of us. Honing in on exactly what I had been thinking, he said, "I had a really great weekend, too. Let's go leaf peeping every year."
I just smiled, nodded, and passed out.
Excerpted from I Do. I Did. Now What?! Life After the Wedding Dress by Jenny Lee. Copyright © 2003 by Jenny Lee. Excerpted by permission of Workman Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.