How to Stroke a Man's Ego
We adopted a cat. He is a handsome fellow: wheaten-and-taupe striped, say the papers from the shelter, with a white face and clean white socks. He accompanies me as I move through the house, purring and twining about my legs. His shelter name was "Evel Knieval." I wondered about the mispelling of the word "evil"--was this a Bible-thumping Texan's way of side-stepping potential Satanic references or a case of simple bad spelling? I confess, I was slightly disappointed when I Googled the name and found that, indeed, that is how the daredevil himself spelled it.
In any case, it was a clumsy name; we made a unanimous decision to do away with it. The husband pulled out a book about Texas and strove to pull out a Texas-related name. My contrary streak, the one I'm trying hard (and often failing) to fight rebelled against deliberately paying homage to Texas and I chose a name from literature--Snufkin, Moomintroll's dearest friend in my beloved Tove Jansson books. Now the husband, no doubt rebelling against anything that smacks of intellectualism just as I rebelled against Texas, claims that he finds it impossible to remember or pronouce the name. I have to fight myself from snapping--as I was wont to do a very short while ago--what, are you mentally challenged? It's two syllables and they aren't even hard to pronounce: Snuf-kin. I've tried showing him a drawing of Snufkin from the Moomin Gallery at the back of Finn Family Moomintroll, but to no avail. He persists in calling the cat "Kitty" and our power struggle goes on.
He returns tomorrow after a mere five days' absence and he'll be back for at least nine days. While here, he is going for a job interview, trying to land a job that will mean less travel. I pretend to look eager at the idea of him spending more time at home, even when my heart is sinking. Today I planned to write a list of reasons why I like having him home, but I honestly couldn't come up with ten to match the number of reasons why I'm happy when he leaves.
I can come up with one: the possibility of affection. I do like affection: a warm hand holding mine, the touch of familiar lips, the feeling of being utterly encircled and protected by a pair of strong arms. However, affection is always a slim possibility, one easily abolished when one of us steps on a landmine from the other's past.
Last week when he was home, for example, I had on my Aeropostle pajamas, the ones the kids mocked me for buying in the post-Christmas sales when they were marked down to $5 from $49.50. They consist of a soft, razor-backed tank top and amazingly comfortable blue pants printed with some sort of white creature (moose? dog? what is the Aeropostle mascot anyway?). OK so they are juvenile on a woman my age, but I look forward to their comfort every night and it isn't as if I'm wearing them to Target. Wearing a form-fitting top to bed is actually my attempt to be visually pleasing to my man, breaking away from the enormous race T-shirts he told me he found to be a turn-off.
The husband, meeting me in the hallway, looked me up and down, eyebrows raised.
"Where did you get those?" he asked. "What, are they Babygirl's?"
I shook my head, crossing my arms defensively, feeling foolish.
"Do they belong to Teenager?"
And I walked away, glaring, flipping him off for good measure. Affection was not mine that night.
Some days later, during our appointed time to Talk, he brought this up, speaking of how my defiantly rude gesture did not inspire him to cuddle up to me. I said how idiotic and unattractive his pajama comments made me feel. It turns out that he actually liked the pajamas and the way I looked in them. Um, OK. So why didn't he say so instead of making fun of me?
Again, I can see how the buried landmines of the past intrude upon the present. He emulates his late father, a kindly old man with a wickedly mean sense of humor and a not-so-subtle passive-aggressive streak. For decades, his father's pet name for his mother was Fat Girl, as in Hey, Fat Girl, can you bring me a soda on the way back from the kitchen? But he said it lovingly, my husband says. His mother didn't mind. She wasn't fat and she claims that his nickname kept her thin. Even if she enjoyed the joke, does that take away the sting of its cruelty? Line up 100 women, I tell him, and ask each of them, which one, thin or not, wants to be called Fat Girl.
Part of me understands. My college boyfriend referred to me as Bahb, short for Blonde Air-Headed Bimbo. The joke was that I wasn't any of those things, except blonde of course. I accepted the name as mine; soon all of his roomates called me Bahb as well, even giving me the phone unquestioningy when someone with a wrong number called and asked for Bob. Now I look back, stunned that I allowed myself to be casually referred to with such an insulting acronym. Even though it was meant to be funny, the name kept me in my place. I was always beneath him, the air-head in contrast to his intellectual superiority, the bimbo who was never to be taken too seriously. Names matter. I think of how I would kick some serious ass if anyone dared to call one of my daughters such a name.
But my husband remains convinced that it was a sweet and loving nickname, Fat Girl, and so he looks me up and down with derision instead of pulling me to him and telling me what he is thinking, that I look good. And I flip him off instead of telling him what I think, that his comment hurt my feelings. Then he takes a step away, recoiling from the thought of intimacy with the woman who just gave him a silent Fuck You and I take another step back and so the gulf between us widens. His hand closes reflexively around a can of beer or reaches for another glass of wine to deaden the pain of our disconnect. I head to the bedroom to watch Downton Abbey on the computer, finding solace in a bowl of popcorn, two squares of dark chocolate and a visual feast of period costumes while he drinks alone downstairs, watching sports on TV.
Can this gap be bridged? Can we learn new ways? Maybe. I'm starting to learn them already, learning (sometimes) to say what I feel rather than seething in quiet bitterness, casting dagger-sharp looks from my contemptous eyes, laughing heartily when he mispronounces a word or shows the gaps in his education. I've learned that an admiring email, laying it on thick with all of the ego-stroking thoughts I find it difficult to express out loud, goes a long way towards helping him look at me favorably.
Why is this relationship so hard? Do other people find them hard or do I have a unique talent for always picking the wrong man? However, as Teenager points out, I did marry this man and have children with him. It would be far more convenient for everyone if we found a way to break through the power struggle we've been mired in for so long and discovered new ways of relating to each other. Maybe, just maybe, it will be possible.