Do we ever really know the person to whom we're married?
When the rain started, they were only halfway through the park.
"Great," Helen sighed, pulling the hood of her raincoat over her head. "Did you at least bring an umbrella?" she asked.
"Do I look like I brought an umbrella?" Victor retorted, his sparse hair now plastered to the top of his head; the spray he used to cover his balding pate drizzling down the side of his face, brown pools of dye settling in his ears.
"Just once, I'd like to get somewhere on time, just once," she repeated. Victor was quiet, trying to keep up with Helen who'd taken off her heels and was now clomping through the grass.
"Do you have a hankie?" he asked.
"Yes. I'd like to dry off my head when we reach the hall," he said.
"Are you serious?" Helen asked. "Do you actually think we're still going?"
"Yes," he said. "The tickets are nonrefundable."
"Of course you're thinking of the money. Have you even thought about how I'll feel showing up soaking wet in front of our friends?"
Victor was quiet for a moment. "We can get a cab back to the hotel," he offered.
"Now you're willing to get a cab," Helen said. "A little late, don't you think?”
Victor and Helen, married for nearly thirty years, had been having this and similar arguments since their honeymoon. Everyone knew they were not well suited, but they had nevertheless stayed together. They had no children, having substituted pets for progeny. Helen’s Pekinese Madame Bovary showed great distain for Galileo, Victor’s Pug, for whom the feeling was mutual. Helen and Victor each had their own bedroom, their own newspaper subscription, The Times for Helen, The Journal for Victor, and their own daily routine. In fact, the only thing they shared was the belief that they were happy and the delusion that others thought so as well.
The next day, while sharing a delivered dinner, Helen asked, “Are you going to the Andersons’ party?”
“Of course. Why would you ask that?”
“Just wondering. You seem rather disinterested lately.”
“This morning when I was telling you about Liza Anderson’s breast lift, you didn’t seem at all interested.”
“Why would I be?” he asked, then added, “Maybe when I see them.” He picked up his newspaper and began glancing at the front page. He could still see Helen out of the corner of his eye. She appeared to be chewing on her fingernail.
“Are you actually chewing your nails?” he asked.
“Of course not! What’s gotten into you lately?”
“Gotten into me? You’re the one interested in Liza Anderson’s breast job and now you’re chewing your nails. I saw you doing it.”
Helen rose and headed down the hall to her bedroom. “I’m finished with this conversation,” she said, over her shoulder.
“Fine with me,” Victor said quietly.
“I heard that,” she said from the bedroom.
“Fine with me,” he repeated loudly.
The Andersons’ party went well. Victor made a point of admiring Liza’s new breasts and made sure Helen was aware of his ogling. He stood next to Helen in the buffet line. “Like fresh melons,” he said.
“What?” Helen asked looking over the extensive spread.
“Liza’s breasts,” he whispered.
“Good god, Victor. Don’t be so common.”
“You’re the one who accused me of showing no interest. Now that I’ve seen those lovely silicone monuments to the glory of womanhood, I wanted you to know.”
“You’re an ass,” Helen said. She moved quickly through the line and crossed the room. “Catherine,” she said, spying an old friend and former neighbor. “It’s been a while.”
“Good to see you, Helen,” she said, briefly embracing and air kissing each cheek, right to left. “How’s Victor?”
“The same,” Helen said, “but older, cheaper, and gloomier.”
Catherine smiled. She’d known Helen and Victor for at least fifteen years, if not twenty, and nothing, it seemed, had ever changed between them. Why they stayed together was a mystery that most of their mutual friends had discussed at one time or another. Individually they were nice people, but together, well, together they seemed hopelessly resigned. It was too bad they didn’t have marriage interventions because Helen and Victor certainly could use one, she thought.
“Too bad,” Catherine remarked. “Have you ever thought about counseling?”
“For Victor?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer she added, “He’d never spend the money.”
“No, I meant marriage counseling. You know Mark and I went when we were first married.”
“You had families to combine ─ a mutual interest.”
“That’s true,” Catherine nodded, “but I believe it made us much happier than we’d have been otherwise.”
“Happiness is overrated,” Helen said. “Excuse me, would you, Catherine. I see Victor reaching for some shrimp which he knows he’s not supposed to have. High cholesterol and all that.”
Helen reached the end of the buffet table where Victor was filling his plate with cold, boiled shrimp.
“Victor,” she began,” you’re not going to believe what Catherine just suggested.”
“What,” he answered, putting an entire shrimp in his mouth and biting off the tail.
“She thinks we should go to marriage counseling.”
“So we can be happy.”
“Overrated,” he said.
“That’s what I said.”
“Who’s she to be giving marital advice anyway; isn’t Mark the fourth husband?”
“Third,” she said. But for the rest of the evening, Catherine’s suggestion moved in and out of her thoughts. By the time they were ready to leave, she’d decided to bring it up to Victor on the walk home.
“Ready to go?” Victor asked.
“Yes,” she said, heading toward the bedroom where their coats were stashed.
“I called a cab,” he said.
“A cab? What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m changing my ways,” he said.
“God, I hope not,” Helen laughed. Linking her arm in his she said, “Come on, dear, let’s walk.”