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Vignettes from New Jersey

Posted by Jew from Jersey
17 May 2021

A year or so before I got married, I had a brief conversation with a man who was doing some routine maintenance in the building I lived in. I remember that he was tall and had graying hair and seemed to be of below average intelligence. He told me he was looking forward to the next day, which was his day off. He was planning to take his son fishing. He seemed very happy. Around this time I also met a U.S. soldier, a black man, probably in his mid to late 20s. He also struck me as of below average intelligence. He was on his way home from an overseas deployment. He told me he was looking forward to taking his kids to McDonald’s. He seemed overjoyed. Both these encounters took place in the summer.

In the winter of that same year, I was in a clothing store. It was a very cold winter and I needed better warm clothing. As I was looking through the racks, a woman probably in her 60s or 70s came up to me and said: “My husband takes the old car today and of course it won’t start! Who takes an old car on the coldest day of the year?” She was speaking directly to me as if she expected a response. I think what stunned me so much was not just the level of anger she displayed towards her husband, but the fact that in berating him to strangers, she was also shaming herself. Didn’t she realize this? How long had she remained married to this man she resented so much that she would debase herself so just for a chance to get back at him? How deeply miserable and pathetic she must be. And how deeply miserable and pathetic her husband must be to remain married to someone who hated him so much. The failure of an internal combustion engine, what this wife was ostensibly so angry about, is a fairly routine event. Was this level of poisoned marital relations a routine occurrence as well?

These scenes must have made an impression on me, because I never saw any of these people again, but I still think of them some 25 years later. I was thinking of getting married at the time, and I must have been thinking that I want to be like the first two guys I met that summer, and not like the husband of the woman I met that winter.

Just recently I was in a big-box retailer and I see an obese woman, probably in her late 20s. She’s dressed in a way that can only be described as vulgar. She has a scowl on her face that looks like it’s permanent. She has a little girl with her. Suddenly, she opens her mouth and yells out a man’s name so loudly the whole store can hear. Her voice is raucous and unpleasant. From the next aisle, a man’s voice, much more melodious, but almost as loud so the whole store can hear it too, answers: “Over here, sweetheart!” Later, I see the man. He’s about the same age as her, sporting a mustache, heavy set, but not nearly as fat as she. He’s wearing plaid pajama pants. He has a boy with him. My first thought is that this woman must be making the poor sap’s life hell. When I see them later at the checkout line, I expect she will be starting fights with him. But the woman is quiet and seems peaceful as she stands in public with her man and their children. The children are well behaved. She still has the permanent scowl on her face. Then I realize, that’s just how she looks. That’s how she sounds. That’s how she dresses. That’s the kind of person she is. But she may be the happiest woman in town, and he may be the happiest man.

At a swimming pool a few years earlier, I remember a large bearded man with many tattoos. His wife was almost as large as he was, but proportionally of even wider girth and with even more tattoos. Most of the center of her back was taken up with a long poem in calligraphy that began with the words “Miracles happen every day...” Many fat children played in the water around them. I remember thinking that they couldn’t all be their children, some of them must have been children of friends or relatives. The man then recognized an acquaintance of his and excitedly began to introduce his wife. He spoke with all the air of someone presenting the Spanish Infanta to the court of the Bourbons. Then I understood the significance of the gothic letters tattooed over the full length and width of his ample forearm: it was his wife’s name.

With my own family at a summer tourist destination, I watched the owner of the snack bar rail at her employees. She looked to be around fifty, thick and coarse, worn and spent. It seemed the only energy left in her was negative. The way she talked to her staff made it clear that she didn’t just want them to do as she instructed to accommodate the afternoon snack crowd, she wanted them to know that she had nothing but contempt for them. One gratuitously nasty comment she made to one young worker caused him to flinch. Suddenly, her phone rang. As she answered, her face and her entire being changed unrecognizably. She didn’t just smile. A wave of radiant warmth overcame all of her features. Her movements became almost graceful. Even her matted gray hair seemed to suddenly soften and shine. Her voice, completely different than before, spoke slowly and emotionally into the phone: “Hi, babe!” Her love interest must have been a trucker who had just returned home from a long haul. Perhaps she had not been with him long and was anxious to retain his interest in her. She looked like someone who had not had a happy life, but she knew exactly what she had to do now and for the time being she seemed perfectly happy to be doing it.

When I was a teenager, I spent a few days visiting a friend in another town. At some point we went to the home of a friend of his to watch a marathon of the Superman movies. There was a woman there, middle-aged or older, who kept making lustful comments about Christopher Reeve. She was nearly licking her lips. There were a lot of people there I didn’t know, including children of different ages, so I’m not sure what her exact relation was to anyone. I had the impression one of the men there was her husband, but maybe I am mistaken about that. It just seemed so inappropriate. She was old and small and sickly looking, with hollow blackened eye sockets. I think she had some kind of chronic illness or condition or was crippled in some way. But she really, really wanted to have sex with Christopher Reeve and just couldn’t shut up about it.

When I was about twenty some friends of mine used to hang out with this guy named N. I didn’t really like him. N. had a girlfriend whom I saw once or maybe twice. My friends would often talk behind N.’s back about how he didn’t treat his girlfriend right and how she could do better than to be with him. I pointed out that N.’s girlfriend was an adult and was with N. of her own free will. They said no, he had somehow tricked her or something. I said that the only reason they had such an interest in her well-being was because they wanted to get in her panties. They strenuously denied this and said they just thought it was wrong that he should treat her that way. It strikes me now that whenever men pretend to be concerned for women, this is usually the reason.

A friend said something to me about a year before I got married that made a big impression on me. He had been married for about a year or two. He said: “I can be a good husband to any woman.” I don’t think it had occurred to me at the time that being a good husband or a good wife wasn’t just something that happened naturally because you married the “right” person, it was actually something you had to do every day. In retrospect, the fact that my friend was saying this was an indication he was about to get divorced. He’s been with his second wife now for over twenty years and they both seem happy. I guess he likes doing the job for her more than he did for his first wife. But it’s a job nonetheless.

In my late teen years, a friend told me his older sister was getting divorced. He said the divorce did not come as a surprise to him. The tipoff apparently was when his sister came over once and had said something incidental to their mom, but then added: “Don’t tell [husband’s name] I said that.”

On a pleasant spring evening, I saw a man yelling angrily at his wife in a park. He was small and skinny and scraggly. She was plain and dumpy and seemed of below average intelligence. She had had sex with another man. Her husband had just found out and was interrogating her about it. His nerves were raw. She looked like a scared rabbit. Slowly and painfully, the story unfolded. He had been in jail and she and the children had had to stay with a female friend of hers. A male friend of her girlfriend had come over and made advances to her. He had pressured her in some way. She had consented. Her husband was irate. He stood alone, yelling at her and the children that they were all “pussies”. His weak high-pitched voice could be heard from quite a distance. His wife and children stood sullenly with their heads bowed. I later saw the whole family ride away on their bicycles. Everything was quiet and the sun was setting. White puffs of pollen from some kind of flower were blowing everywhere in the evening breeze.

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