In most situations, an argument concerns who is right and who is wrong. It’s a debate, a verbal sparring to see who can present the most persuasive evidence to support his/ her opinion. That evidence, in the best case scenario, is always on point, never personal, never willfully malicious. If I’m arguing over whether the death penalty is morally wrong, I won’t suddenly bring up how you don’t have a job. If I’m arguing about politics, I won’t suddenly point out how ugly you are. Why would I do that? It’s unrelated to the argument, it’s rude, and it makes me seem like a cruel person.
On the other hand, when couples argue, all that pragmatic rhetoric falls away, and what we’re left with is this: a contest to see who can say the most emotionally debilitating thing possible to the other person. Who can mortar and pestle the other person’s soul into a fine paste the fastest? Who can peel away the skin, break open the rib cage, pull out the still-beating heart, hold it close to his/ her face, and whisper, “Your whole life means less than nothing”? Both opponents have a lot of ammunition because they know each other’s hopes, dreams, fears, and nightmares. And they also know exactly where to cut — that soft underbelly which, under normal circumstances, is unmentionable, forbidden — they want to slice it open and watch all the intestines tumble out, yes, tumble onto the floor, and then they want to wrap themselves up in the guts like a boa, yes, and dance around the room, yes, and they want to suck every drop of blood out of the open chest cavity, yes, yes, yes!
I have lived with two couples in the past six months, and both of them argued with a viciousness and ferocity I have never before encountered. The first couple was bad — yelling insults, stomping around, crying. But the worst was the second couple, a boy and girl around my age, who lived in the room next to mine in a rat infested basement. One night, they had the most blood curdling, bone chilling argument I have ever heard in my life, one in which they actively sought, not validation of some point, but to utterly annihilate the other’s psyche via elegantly crafted verbal abuse. Like Jigsaw, their words were elaborate psychological death machines, hateful masterpieces — and because our walls were paper thin, I had a front row seat to the drama.
Here’s the start: David says to Jennifer (not their real names) he’s going to call his friend to hang out. Jennifer tells David his friend is scum, his friend is a gambling addict, his friend is not enriching him as a person, and she disapproves of any further association. Then it kicks into gear: David says to her, “You’re only jealous because you don’t have any friends.” There’s a long silence, and I imagine her jaw dropped, eyes wide. She begins stammering out a list of her friends, but it’s so short, they both know he’s right, that her social circle consists of maybe two people. Realizing this, her voice becomes pained and shrill.
At this point, if David apologizes or even shuts the hell up, the argument is done, but he smells blood in the water and swoops in for the kill. He shouts, “You have no friends! Why do you think that is? Huh? That you have no friends? Why do you think that is?” Then, remembering I’m next door, he whispers, “It’s because you boss people around all the time, tell them who they can and can’t hang out with. You’re a b-tch.” She goes quiet. David thinks he’s won, but what he doesn’t know is that he has awoken a dark entity inside her, one that will savage him until he begs for mercy, until he is brought to tears, and even then it will not stop. She’s a far more ruthless and unremitting arguer, and by calling her a b-tch, he has initiated the four-hour emotional apocalypse.
“Where’s your mom? Do you even know where she is?” she asks.
“You abandoned your own mother! Your own mother! Your own mother!”
“You don’t understand!”
“Your own mother — oh! And the children!”
His voice rises steadily louder, increasingly panicked. “No, no, no! That’s not the whole story!”
“Did you or did you not leave her with your babies and then never call or send money or anything? You did! You left your own children without a father, and you don’t even care! You’re not a real man; you’re a selfish little boy, and she knows it too — that’s why she doesn’t try to find you.”
“What the hell, Jennifer?” he says.
There’s a pause, and then she says, “Hit me! Go ahead! I already took photos of the bruises from last time you punched me–,”
“I didn’t punch you! You wouldn’t stop hitting me, so I acted in my defense!”
“You think you’re a real man because you can beat up a girl? Go ahead! Do it! If you hit me again, I’m taking these photos to the police!”
I don’t know the full context of this information, but considering the other facts I know about David — he’s unemployed, has an online gambling addiction, and gets violently angry when he’s drunk — it all sounds bit ominous. For the next hour or so, I lay in bed, listening while they compare their parents like elementary school boys do with their dads, the implication being that whoever has the better family is the morally superior person.
“My dad was the first person in his family to go to college,” says David, apropos of nothing.
“Whatever. My parents may not have gone to college, but they worked hard to afford my clothes, my food, the bills. My mom made me breakfast every single morning. You know why, David? It’s because she loves me, and she would never just stop calling me for years at a time.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this. I’m just saying my dad went to college, and I’m proud of that fact.”
“Oh great, David. That’s fantastic, David. And how did that work out for him, David? How did that work out for him in the end? It certainly didn’t save him.”
“You know why your dad killed himself?” she says. “It’s because of you! Because he was ashamed of you!”
“I know,” says David, his voice cracking. “You’re right.”
“Oh, are you going to have a little pity party now? You going to cry about it? I know those tears are fake, David. You don’t really care about anyone or anything. That’s why your dad killed himself!”
“Why are you saying this? I would never say something like that to you.”
“That’s because I’m a good person, David. You couldn’t say something like that to me because, unlike you, I care about other people. God, you’re so stupid, David. Are you listening to me?”
Now, I bust in the door like the relationship police to find Jennifer lying under the covers and David sitting on the edge of the bed, head in his hands. “Hey David, I was thinking about going out for a beverage. Why don’t you come with me?”
“Oh thank God,” he says.
We make our way down the street to the Walgreen’s. Along the way, he lights up a cigarette and stares off into the void, shell-shocked, trying to reconcile his own self-image with all the terrible things he’s just been told about himself. He watches me buy a Vitamin Water, but gets nothing for himself. Neither of us speaks for the longest time, and finally, on the way back, I say, “Are you sure you want to go back to the basement? Is there no other place you can stay?”
“I don’t know what her problem is, man,” he says. “She’s crazy.”
When we return to the apartment, Jennifer has locked the door to their bedroom and refuses to open it. Over and over, she says, “Go away.” For the next two hours, I hear her say, “Go away,” or “I hate you,” or “I don’t care,” approximately 900 times. David, on the other hand, keeps saying, “Please let me in,” and “I’m sorry,” and “I just need to get my stuff.” I sit at the table in our tiny basement kitchen, drinking my Vitamin Water, watching with great interest and anticipation to see how events unfold. By now, I half-expect one to strangle the other to death. With luck, I’m hoping David kicks in the door like a vengeful angel of death. That would be exciting.
Unfortunately, Jennifer eventually relents and opens the door, if only to end his ceaseless pleading so she can sleep. As it turns out, the “stuff” he wanted was his monthly supply of Adderall.
“Where’s my Adderall?” he asks, peering under the bed and flipping over pillows.
“Oh, I flushed it down the toilet.”
I can’t see his face, but I picture a cross between horror and deepest despair. “What? That was a whole month’s supply; I can’t get any more until I see my therapist next month. Why would you do that?”
“You flushed the last two years of my life down the drain. What’s one month of yours?”
“What are you even talking about? How did I flush our relationship down the toilet? What?”
“Don’t act like I’m crazy. Don’t pretend you’re the good guy just because Brad’s here.”
“Sorry,” I say, but I don’t move. I’m still sitting a couple feet outside their open bedroom door like a front row spectator at a play.
“Why would you flush my medicine down the toilet? I would never do something like that to you,” says David.
She bares her teeth and says very slowly, “I don’t care.”
I fall asleep to their shouting, their endless mindless shouting, that age-old lullaby for children of married parents. When I wake up, I hear them having sex through the wall. I think, ‘No, it’s not possible,’ but then later, I smell pancakes; Jennifer has cooked pancakes for David, and now I hear her apologize for the night before. Apologize? Like, “Whoopsy daisy, flushed your pills down the toilet and blamed your dad’s suicide on you! Shucks and golly gee was that silly of me!” These two are capable of forgiveness on a scale I will never reach or even fathom.
I sit in my quiet room alone, and I am so thankful, for once, to be alone. No one yelling at me, no one questioning the dumb things I do, no one touching my stuff. The odds of me getting slapped or whacked over the head are comfortably low, and no one’s watching my every move, waiting to pounce. I’m free (to be miserable in other ways, but that’s okay). Sometimes I forget there are much worse things than being single. Much worse.