Monday, July 12, was a big day because my wife was taking her driver’s test and we were closing on a new house. The two events were related because we’re moving to Dutchess County, a few miles from the Hudson Line train, and my wife can’t not drive anymore. She needs to be able to get to the station.
My wife has had a learner’s permit for more than three years, and she already failed the driver’s test once, which she blames on me. She says the examiner, a lean dour man with a clipped mustache, a hanging judge if ever there was one, told her she looked in the rearview mirror too much, and that I had told her to do that.
They say a husband is not supposed to teach a wife to drive, and my experience would tend to bear that out. Several times when I’ve corrected her, my wife has pulled over on the side of the road and said, “I’m not driving any further.”
Still, I feel a duty to give firm instructions-Don’t flirt with the yellow line, look backwards all the time you’re backing up-because I’m genuinely worried about her driving. I don’t think she’s a very good driver, and my wife often says as much herself. She tore up her license 20 years ago after she drove onto a clay tennis court in the middle of the night and the owner became hysterical, and she sometimes offers scarily detached observations at the wheel, like when she said driving was like a video game. “It gives you a tiny bit of stuff to do while you’re in the car, as opposed to just sitting there.”
The last time she pulled off the road she got out and got in the back seat. “Neither B-nor D-was a batterer,” she said, referring to my predecessors.
I decided to wait her out. I said, “You’re going to get back in and drive, you have to learn how to drive.” I thought of something her father once told me. A long time ago, I asked him to give me two adjectives for each of his three daughters. When he came to my wife he said, Volatile. My father-in-law is even-tempered, and I came to see that in fights I should remind myself of the temperamental issue and just stay calm. I lounged in the front seat for a few minutes till she finally got back in and drove. “Only if you say nothing,” she said.
Getting this house has been a lot more stressful than the driving lessons, because we’re moving into the country and I worry about the pressure that’s going to put on the marriage. We’ve been together nearly 10 years, we’re slouching into middle age, and I know we often feel sick of one another. Yet we’re choosing to put ourselves further from the city and its distractions. I worry that at the very time I’m losing my looks and appeal, I’m losing my social escape hatches, too. That even if I wanted to bust out of the marriage, or go nuts, just get air, I wouldn’t be able to. I’m stuck with my wife in an old brick house in Dutchess County, lifting up linoleum on the Journal-American headlined, “Ingrid’s Baby Is Mine, Says Rossellini.”
For another thing, the bank has been dicking us around. Back in May, I paid to lock in a 7.25 percent rate, good till July 4. After that, interest rates clicked up, closer to 8 percent, and I felt smart.
Then, on July 1, the bank informed us that they wouldn’t give us the money till the frayed electrical service cable had been replaced. It was a fire hazard, they said. I spoke to my lawyer and got pretty angry. Maybe it’s a fire hazard, but it’s been that way 15 years, and this is a big job, I said. They didn’t tell us about this a month back when I or the seller could have done something. I said it was an unfair business practice, aimed at cranking the rate.
Then my wife got on the phone with him. She said, “Look, we know about this kind of thing. My father was a banker, I’ve worked for Newsweek and women’s magazines, and my husband works for The New York Times Magazine .”
She got off the phone and we drove out to the house with an electrician. Now I was pissed off at her. I said, “I’ve told you before it makes me enormously uncomfortable when you use my relationship with The New York Times in private dealings.”
“I was just telling him about your experience in reporting,” she said.
“Oh come on,” I said. “In that context, it’s a threat.”
“This is the heart of your problems,” she said. “You don’t use your powers, you hold yourself back. It’s your older-brother complex. You really could be working on it in therapy.”
I said, “I don’t care what you think. Maybe you’re right but you’re not allowed, O.K.? This is my business. I have a difficult enough relationship with The Times not to have to go into some guy’s office round-shouldered, with my head lowered, and say, ‘I told my wife, but she ignored me.’”
She was quiet for a second. Then I said, “You can’t do it, all right? Do anything on your own account, but don’t mention The Times . Don’t cross the line, don’t even tiptoe up to the line.”
The next morning, I told the bank clerk that what they were doing struck me as an unfair business practice and I was prepared to complain to the state banking commission and the Federal Government, too.
Then my wife got on the phone and said, “We know about these things. I’m a reporter for women’s magazines, my husband has done a lot of work for The New York Times .”
One of the reasons we’re moving is because we’re too close to our neighbors. You can hear their Bon Jovi and their air conditioners, their verbal abuses, and you have to be neighborly. This time I didn’t care what anyone heard. I was red in the face and nearly crying with frustration as obscenities flew from my mouth.
“I really thought we were talking about something else yesterday,” my wife said.
“Do you know the English language?” I shouted. “I said, Don’t even tiptoe up to the line, and you danced right over it.”
“I’m just telling her the truth. I didn’t say you were doing a story. Be honest.”
“You be honest. Do you have any intellectual honesty left?” I said. “You agreed and you completely violated what you promised.”
In a fight, my wife never goes on the defensive. She stares at you like you’re a stranger who bumped into her on the subway. It’s scary.
“Oh, I’m really sorry,” she said sarcastically. “But I’m not going to walk down the street like this.” She grabbed one foot in her hands and hopped across the floor. “I’m going to use all my powers, O.K.? When I’m in a street fight, I’m not going to hold my hand behind my back.”
“I told you this is an ethical issue to me.”
“No, it’s your childhood issues you can’t expunge”-in a patronizing tone. “It’s like you’re looking at everything through these deep dark sunglasses.”
“I don’t give a fuck what you think about my issues. You can fuck off, and you will damn well never do that again. Never.”
I walked out of the room with the air that I was never going to speak to her again.
The mortgage company went into a sweat. The woman handling the mortgage said she had never been accused of bad faith before and, in view of the threats, she had to turn the matter over to a supervisor. The supervisor was nice as ice. It went back and forth for an afternoon, then she called to extend the 7.25 for a week so we could get the electrical done.
My wife did a little archetypal dance around the house. She held her hands at shoulder height, elbows akimbo, jabbing her index fingers in the air in the direction of her shoulders, in a rhythm, chanting, “I did it. I did it.” She said the lesson was that feminine wiles are far more effective than abstracted high-mindedness.
I viewed it more in other terms. One of the things that drew me to my wife was my WASP-ophilia, my feeling that I was trading out of the Jewish matriarchy and gaining gender power my father didn’t have. My wife apparently saw the trade from the other way around. She uses a lot more Yiddish than I do.
That afternoon, I was sitting outside with my friend Richard telling him the story when my wife came up the sidewalk holding an ice cream cone. “They tried to overcharge me 50 cents, then I told them my husband has done reporting for The New York Times ,” she said, and went into the house. Richard turned to me blandly. “She’s a ballbuster.”
On the way to the driver’s test, my wife said she didn’t want her license, anyway, she wasn’t a good enough driver, and I tried to build up her confidence. “Compliments are like borrowed jewelry,” she said, brushing me off New-Ageishly. “You’re wearing it and then it disappears because it’s not really yours.”
Things got worse at the testing place when she pulled the same examiner as two years back, the grim guy with the clipped gray mustache. They rolled away and I stood against a fence with a bunch of 16-year-olds. The car rolled back up on the other side of the street a few minutes later, and I could tell she had passed from the little smile she got when he got out of the car. She told me she’d sucked up to him sweetly.
We both felt pretty good, and she kept the wheel going to the closing. It was on back roads, and she was only doing 35. Sometimes she drives too slow, other times too fast.
“You want to maintain speed,” I said.
“Yet again you’re incorrect,” she said. “You’re perfectly within your rights to go anywhere within 10 miles of the speed limit. And if the weather is inclement, it’s illegal to go the speed limit. I discussed this with my examiner.”