“Do you really want to piss off the only person in town that still likes you?”
Maude has a way getting straight to the point. “Parton doesn't like me. I'm not enough of a bigot.”
“ENOUGH of a bigot?”
“You know what I mean. He's a moron.”
“I'm not talking about him,” she said. Her voice was tired. She was almost always tired when she came home from work. When we first moved to Mount Arliss, I would try to have supper on the table when she came home. But it became impossible to know what time she'd be there; sometimes she worked late if she had a lot of ticket sales, or if she was working on a a new pamphlet or poster or some other marketing tool. Sometimes she said to hell with it all and came home early. But it was impossible to tell exactly what she had planned and she never called to say she was on the way home or to say hello. I'd call her sometimes, just to see how her day was going. If it was going good, she was too busy to talk. If it was going bad, she was in too lousy a mood to talk. We both have cell phones, yet I never seem to be able to get a hold of her; granted, cell phone reception in Mount Arliss isn't the greatest. But if she wants to find me and she can't, I end up hearing about it later.
She was tired because she'd had another in a string of bad days. There was a time when I would try to get her to talk about her bed day. Her strategy for dealing with bad days was different from mine; she would simply not talk about it and hope that by ignoring it all, that all the bad feelings would simply vanish. It's a beautiful system in idealized form; something out of the 1950's image of the prosperous American. Smiling wife serves dinner in a spotless, perfectly ironed dress. Husband smiles and shovels food in his mouth, content that he's done his bit for god, country, and family that day. Bad feelings? Depression? Anger? Push it away. Bad feelings are the enemy. They're communists. They're islamofascist terrorists. Ignore them and they'll go away. Then no one has to listen to anyone else's bullshit and everybody can be happy. Happy happy joy joy. The problem with her method was that outside of the idealized form, it doesn't work. The human psyche isn't built to hold in an infinite amount of negativity. When it reaches the fill point, rather than expand to take on the extra load, all that badness and negativity spills over into the body, becomes aches, pains, sickness. High blood pressure. Diabetes.
My strategy is less elegant. I simply howl at the universe until I feel better. This tends to annoy other people, but since they're generally part of the reason I'm howling, I figure they might as well take on their share.
Maude never says so, but from the way she acts, she thinks my approach is the more selfish of the two. She's probably not wrong.
“Well who ARE you talking about?”
She sighed and looked at me with a weary expression. Thick as a brick me, I finally got who she was talking about. I didn't answer and opted to pour myself another drink instead.
“Why do you have to do that?”
She pointed at my glass of scotch. “That. You're drinking more than you used to.”
“Not really. I pace myself better than I used to. I've slowed down, comparatively.”
“Compared to what? It was one thing when you sat around drinking beer...”
And, I thought, you didn't like that either.
“...but now you sit around drinking whiskey...”
“It's not whiskey,” I said. “It's scotch.”
She rolled her eyes. “It's the same thing.”
“Not really.” Maude didn't like it when I drank whiskey. She always said it turned me into a different person. I never really thought it did anything but make me more honest... temporarily removed the filter in my head that kept the more acerbic parts of my personality at bay. There was a time when I was horribly concerned about the little green demon in my brain. The one that scrapes and claws at me and wants me to simply be, without all the hang ups of worrying about anyone else. I sued to try and keep it under control because of a similar statement I heard once from my ex-wife. She used to say that when ever I lost my temper I became a different person. She said I even looked different. I never knew how to take it, and I wasn't absolutely sure that she wasn't just trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty; that was some she did often and was very proficient at. That was before I learned that guilt, and the heaping of it upon the self and others is all based on obligation and expectation. A husband, according to my ex-wife, was supposed to fulfill certain expectations, play a certain role. And I had certain expectations of myself too – higher ones than I was capable of, I eventually came to realize. That was when her manipulations stopped working, and it not long after that I left and we divorced.
One of the wonderful things about Maude is that she doesn't try to manipulate me. She's far too direct for that, which makes her – as far as I can tell – a rarity among womankind. Most women manipulate the men they “love” because maybe there was a time when that was the only real social power they had. Like it a kind of defense mechanism against the patriarchy. Most women not only manipulate their men, they try and manipulate other women, too. It's about status, position. Men who pick up on this trick and adapt it to their own ends become politicians, local busybodies, church officers. But Maude, god love her, doesn't do that, and she hates it in other women. The impact of this is that it makes her more direct, more honest. And while I take this as a good thing, a rare thing to be cherished, there are times when her directness borders on something else.
When we first got together, I was a drinker. I've been a drinker for many years. Back then, she drank too. As a matter of fact, she could drink me under the table. But she tapered off and eventually quit drinking. I didn't.
“It IS the same thing.”
“Okay,” I conceded. “It's similar. But it's different, too. It's about the age and the fermenting time...”
“Don't change the subject.”
“Fine.” She knew me too well to be baffled by bullshit.
“It's not good to sit around and drink the way you do.”
“Some people eat chocolate. Some people drink.”
“Don't try and be cute.” She paused. “You're a drunk. You know that, right?”
“When was the last day that you didn't have a drink?”
I shrugged. Probably a truly miserable day.
“Do you think it's healthy?”
“I think it's healthier for me to drink than it is for other people.”
“Oh please...” she snorted. “Because YOU'RE so different?”
“Everyone's different,” I said.
“I don't like who you become when you drink.”
“Who am I when I drink?”
“You're just... different. That's all.”
I didn't answer.
“Sometimes I think you want me to end up sitting next you in a hospital, watching you die. Is that what you want?”
It wasn't. I'd seen people die from drink. Fucking horrible way to die. Besides the pain of it, the worst thing about dying is that people don't really care about you when you're dying. You're liver's cashed, your kidneys are failing, your body is swelling like an overfilled water balloon because you can't get rid of toxins anymore. If you're in a hospital, they end up jacking you up on morphine until your body finally wears out; this isn't mercy as much as a way to quiet the moaning and groaning. It makes the doctors' and nurses' lives easier. There's no mercy in the world for people who drink themselves to death, just like there's no mercy for junkies or the homeless or people who eat too much. No mercy. That goes back to obligation, too. It's generally agreed upon that the good, the upright, the useful, they live in a certain way and in a certain manner. They work. They save money. They pay taxes. They aspire to upward mobility. They live in nice neighborhoods and lease new cars every two years. And when you step off the worn-out path into indulgence, intoxication, or living in a way that most people probably would if they had the balls, the price you pay, among others, is the absence of mercy.
Maude wasn't merciless. On the contrary, she probably had too much mercy. But I was starting to realize that maybe I was wearing her down; that didn't surprise me as much as that it had taken this long for her to get to that point. But it wasn't just the drinking. It was that she was really the only person in town that I ever talked to, in spite of the fact that we'd been living there for a year. I never made friends easily. Not like her. People were just drawn to her, her energy, her enthusiasm for things she cared about. Part of the reason she was always so exhausted was that she always put everything she had into whatever she was working on. She was like that with every job she'd had since she and I had been together. Maude didn't know how to be any other way, even though her work ethic had been taken advantage of time and time again. She gave until there was nothing left, and then she would simply implode. I'd never known a person who had been hollowed out by the world so many times and still went back at it in the exact same way.
“That's not going to happen,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I just do.”
She shook her head again gave up. But I knew we'd have the same conversation again, sometime soon.
“I love you,” I said.
“You know I do.”
“Yes, goddamn it, you do.”
She stood up, patted me on the head, grabbed her pack of cigarettes that were sitting on the end table next to my chair, and lit a cigarette. Then she asked what my thoughts were on dinner.