“Before you marry someone, always ask yourself: would you be happy if your relationship ended up like the one his parents’ have?” This is my dad’s perpetual caveat when it comes to potential significant others. Loquacious as he can be, my dad has never been eager to dole out paternal advice on matters of the heart. Perhaps that’s in part why this practical bit of wisdom has always stuck with me. I like it because whereas I am a hopeless romantic, this aphorism is grounded, concrete. It reminds me to consider that all forever relationships will one day be long time partnerships that look less like Hollywood romances and more like the real marriages that have shaped a person’s understanding of commitment.
Or perhaps it is because for so long this adage petrified me – hanging over my head like a curse. If any future husband is destined to repeat his parents’ marriage then I feared I was doomed to a similar fate as well.
My parents do not always seem like a happy couple. I’ve never seen them kiss and it’s surprising when they hold hands. I have memories of them fighting as old as my earliest memories. He says she is as tone deaf about humor as she is about music. He was a music major and could have been the next George Carlin. She loves to host parties; he can’t stand her family, or even his own. He treats her like a child when it comes to money since she spends on the knowledge that she makes a lot without ever bothering to learn how to pay the bills; when she’s really mad she’ll tell him that he doesn’t make enough. She treats him like the opposing counsel when they disagree; he counters with obscenities. They’ve both gotten so angry at times that they got out of the car and walked home.
They’re both lawyers. My dad is a partner at a firm of two who quotes cartoons from his childhood like “Superchicken” in court and is always out to prove that the law can be both just and merciful. I get the feeling that at work my mom is even less nuanced than the archetype Hollywood lawyer – as successful as she is ruthless. When I first learned that she represents the companies who fire workers that go on strike or took too much maternity leave I accused her of being on the side of the Bad Guys. “Good guy lawyer’s children don’t have horses,” she reminds me. And since I know my horse cost, I decided not to push the issue.
Even their best qualities don’t match up. She likes to have fun: always game to take my little brothers to the amusement park or paint balling. He likes to poke fun: proclaiming his distaste for those and any other activities enjoyed by teenage boys with an acerbic eloquence unmatched since Steve Martin’s insult scene in “Roxanne”.
But all couples have differences; my parents just choose not to hide them.
“I would leave my life for the waitress if she’d have me,” my dad says one night while the whole family is out to dinner at trendy restaurant staffed by tattooed twenty-somethings. “It’s a good thing I’m much too old for her – I hate waking up next to someone I have nothing to say to.” My mom hardly reacts; she knows that last part was the only true thing he said. And that he meant it as a compliment to her.
“Most people pretend to be working late so they can cheat on their spouse, your mother would pretend to have an affair just so she could spend more time at the office,” he used to tell me when my mom missed dinner – again. But he doesn’t really hate being “Mr. Mom” when it comes to the kids as much as he grumbles about it. And besides, he is a great cook, and even she knows it.
And always, through the years, there was the issue of Pink.
My mom likes to buy my dad pink articles of clothing – shirts usually, but ties if she can find them and I worry about the existence of pink pants. My Dad is 6’4″ and built like a football player. His mix of Jewish and Russian heritage left him dark skin and full black beard has inspired his own self-deprecating comparisons that are not exactly politically correct. He likes drive through burgers and more often then not the clandestine fast food leaves a not so secret stain. He is brilliant, sensitive and musical but ultimately, the quintessential “real” man who will watch any broadcasted sporting event and derives a certain amount of self worth from how big a piece of meat he can grill. He is cultured, but not classy.
He is also color blind, and thus at her mercy when it comes to dressing himself in anything beyond jeans and t-shirts that smell faintly of sweat no matter how many times he’s wash them. She relishes the opportunity.
My mom is tall, taller than most men. Her red hair, once bright but fading rather than graying now, is kept closely cropped – always pissing her off with how “high maintenance” it is before it can reach the romantic length of flowing locks she claims to desire. She has thin lips and perfect teeth. She considers sunscreen a sign of weakness and her pale skin is nearly one big freckle now in response to 50 years of UV exposure. She is naturally skinnier than most women strive to be but still considers her daily workout to be a non-negotiable, even if it means coming home close to 11 pm, even on vacations. When she’s too tired to run she just lifts weights; you wouldn’t want to face my mom in a fight.
She loves that she can wear heels around my dad and that no matter how strong she gets, he’ll always be able to open jars and lift things that she can’t. But even more so, now she enjoys her success that has earned her an invitation to the parties that appear in the Style section of the Sunday paper.
I’m not sure what the pink meant originally. Since my mother is not exactly the doting type I doubt it was a display of wifely affection and more likely it was an attempt to exercise the same extreme level of control over her home life as she insists on at work. But 27 years of marriage the bubble gum hue has come to represent all the little disappoints both parties refuse to just grin and bear.
On bad days pink is the guy that fits my Mom’s new life of ski trips is Aspen and happy hour at five star restaurants. In this other life she isn’t married with four kids but young and looking for a guy who understands that sometimes style is substance. His name is Sven, my dad imagines for the ski instructor he assumes will one day replace him, and so chiseled that the pink practically melts off him – redefining the color as the most masculine of hues. On bad days, her desire for pink confirms my Dad’s worst fears that money really has changed his wife from the Brooklyn born, baseball and beer girl he met before her hard work paid off in a big a way into the type of woman who shops as stores that serve caviar and champagne to soften the sticker shock. On bad days, pink represents the growing gap between them.
On good days, pink is the fight that they’re never tired of having because really the absurdity is just as excuse to laugh. On good days, my Dad will even wear one of many pink shirts my Mom has gotten into the house under pretenses of “salmon” or “light burgundy” and engage his sons in cartoonish standoffs complete with sound effects whenever they tease him about how Mom has preyed up his Achilles heel again and tricked him with color.
On one of these good days, my mom jokes with him saying, “I think you’re not comfortable in your sexuality because you resist my attempts to dress you in pink. I’m worried you have some secret homoerotic tendencies.”
And without missing a beat my dad replies, “That’s not true at all, I’m openly cruising for men.”
When they both laughed I suddenly realized: no marriage looks like the last kiss just before the credits role in a romcom, no amount shared interests – like a love of the outdoors, talking politics, and The New Yorker – can ensure complete harmony, and weathering the ups and downs of three decades and four kids together is an impressive feat in of itself. My parents might criticize and tease each other, but at least they still have something to talk about after all this time. I hope someday, I can say the same thing about my marriage.