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The Misunderstandings

ISSUE:  Summer 2004

The misunderstandings started on a Wednesday, a not-so-unusual, early-February Wednesday when I was supposed to make dinner, but time had gotten away from me, somehow, again, even though I had so much of it—even so, it was already six o’clock and I hadn’t yet introduced the pot to the burner, and the kids were staggering around and moaning theatrically about their big hunger. Katherine, our eight-year-old, was doing her best to distend her stomach, because at school her class had just finished a unit on People-Less-Fortunate-Than-Us, and so she knew all about the poor Somalian children and their highly preventable famine, and she also had learned the Somalian word for “please,” and so she was lurching around with her little stomach as far out as it could go, saying, “Please, please,” in the manner of a Somalian kid who was starving to death—which is to say, pathetically, in a way that could either break your heart or step on your last nerve, depending on how many times your heart had already been broken and how hardened it had become—and as I turned around to ask Katherine if she knew the Somalian words for “Shut up,” I accidentally struck my six-year-old son, Sam, in the head with the pot I was holding, and since the pot was filled with water, it had more heft than an empty pot, and I’ll admit that it might have hurt some if it struck you, unexpectedly, in the side of the head and if you were a six-year-old boy with a low threshold for pain in the first place. Sam dropped immediately to the floor and started wailing—incomprehensibly at first, then making a little bit more sense with each wail, until I finally understood that he wanted to go to hospital for stitches (there was a bump on the side of his head, a good-sized one, but no cut or blood: I checked), and Katherine was still moaning, “Please, please” in Somalian, and into the middle of this depraved scene, after a long day at work, walked Sharon, my wife, and she took one look at us and said, “Jesus, let’s just go out to eat.”

We went. We went to a Mexican place, Tegucigalpa’s, that had just opened up in the old train depot. We hadn’t been there before, so we assumed it was in the main part of the depot—the lobby or concourse—and was large. It wasn’t; it was in the old barbershop and was much smaller than we’d imagined. I mean, it was really small: three booths along the east and west walls, and then two small tables at the north and south poles, and then a bigger table in the middle. We sat at the bigger, middle table (it was the only one empty), and logistically speaking, we were at the very center of the room, at the center of attention, if you will, as if we were on a stage in the round, which might explain the first misunderstanding, which then led to all the subsequent misunderstandings.

So it was small. It was also quiet. One of those hushed, intimate places. That’s why people went there, it was clear—for the quiet and the intimacy. Even though the married owners, who were also the servers and cooks, were dressed in gaudy his-and-her matador outfits—even so, there was a dignity about the place, about the other diners, who were speaking softly, so softly, so that even if, say, a husband and wife were talking about how the husband had been fired and couldn’t find another job and what a lazy bum he was and how the hell were they going to pay the mortgage, etc., etc., you wouldn’t know it, because they were talking about it softly, under their breath, with dignity.

That’s not the way Sharon talked about it. She asked the question loudly, shouting, practically—”Did you look for a job today?”—although, to be fair, she had to raise her voice to be heard over the kids, who were really making a racket. Because they wanted to sit in a booth, not the table we were at. They were demanding to sit at the booth, and I was grateful for this, at first, because I could ignore Sharon’s question—I hadn’t, in fact, looked for a job, not that day, nor the day before, and so on—so as to deal with the kids. I said, “There are people sitting in the booths. They were here first. Besides, this table is fine.”

“But they have chips,” Katherine whined (you know how they whine). “In the booths they get chips.”

It was true that the people in the booths had chips and we did not, and I was about to explain to Katherine that it had nothing to do with the booths qua booths, that the booths were not blessed with chips while the tables went without, that everyone got them, and that we had just sat down, after all, and we’d be getting our chips in due time. But before I could explain all this, Sam yelled, “Chips!” He really belted this out; for such a little kid, he could make an awful lot of noise, and the one time we tried to bring him to St. Mary’s for Christmas mass he was yelling so loudly that no one could hear the pipe organ, and we never went back, which was fine, really, since we don’t believe in God, which ended up being part of one of the subsequent misunderstandings.

But this was the first misunderstanding. Sam bellowed out, “Chips!” and everyone looked at us when he did so, but he persevered; he kept on shouting it—”Chips! Chips! Chips!” What kind of parents would let their kid do this in a small, intimate restaurant, you might want to know. Didn’t we shush him? Of course we did. We shushed him over and over again. But it did no good. He kept yelling, and our shushing kept getting louder, until the shushing was like yelling itself and became part of our table’s generally disruptive noise, and people were staring at us by now, except for those people who were trying to ignore us, which, I grant you, was probably a losing battle.

The chips came (the female owner brought them over, and I thanked her effusively, and she accepted the thanks, begrudgingly, and wouldn’t meet my eyes and practically sprinted away from our table). The chips quieted the kids down some. The other diners stopped looking at us and went back to enjoying their meals, their private conversations. I was glad. For Tegucigalpa’s sake. Because the train depot had been empty for years, and even though it was a lovely, old-timey building with a mosaic on the ceiling and soaring arches and buttresses and good, gleaming white tiled floors—even so, the city had let it go absolutely to hell, in the postwar years, until it finally wised up and secured the necessary federal and state grants and redid the whole thing and then began searching for businesses to rent out space in the refurbished station. Tegucigalpa’s was the first one, and thus far the only one. Everyone wanted it to do well. Because there were so many empty buildings in our city, and you couldn’t throw a stick without hitting an old elementary school with boarded-up windows or a decommissioned church or a house that was about to fall off its ruined foundation into the river, which was already heavily polluted, by the way, even though most of the paper mills and textile factories along it were closed and no longer actively polluting it. Yes, even if Tegucigalpa’s succeeded, then the city still had a long way to go, and nearly everyone we knew had moved south or west, and the local economy was in awful shape; there were no jobs anywhere, and I tried to explain this to Sharon, but quietly, with some sense of decorum, and out of respect for the other diners.

“There are no jobs,” I said. “I didn’t look for jobs today because there aren’t any.”

“Oh, that’s such bullshit,” she said. I knew what was coming next. I knew that she’d say that anyone who wanted a job could get one; after all, she’d gotten one, hadn’t she? Even after not working for six years while she raised the kids and with not much experience and a worthless college degree (she’d been a religion major), hadn’t she managed to get a job, a good job as a case worker in the county office of social services?

“You got the job,” I said, still quietly, but not as quietly as before, and if you were sitting at an adjacent table or the one adjacent to that, you might have heard me, “you got the job because your father got you the job.”

“Steven, don’t you dare,” she said. “Don’t you dare say that.”

It’s true; I shouldn’t have said it. This is not something a husband should be saying to his wife, especially an unemployed husband. No, I shouldn’t have said what I’d said, even if her father was county commissioner, and even though she’d gotten the job without even submitting a regular application, and didn’t she think it was odd that the county would hire someone as a social worker without any prior experience or educational background in social work? These are just some of the things I shouldn’t have said but did.

“I am so sick of you,” she said when I was done, and boy, was her face red; it always got fiery red when she was furious or embarrassed, and I used to find it lovely and endearing, although I didn’t right then and hadn’t in some time, come to think of it. “I’m so sick of your fat face.”

“Hey,” I said. “That’s not fair,” even though it’s true that I had put on a few pounds out of depression since I’d been fired, which I thought was totally understandable, considering the circumstances. Although I tried not to consider the circumstances too often: because the circumstances were that I’d been fired—I’d been a history, sociology, civics, political science, and geography professor at the local community college—for having an affair with one of my students. My wife knew about this, of course, and had plenty to say on the matter, but that’s more part of the second misunderstanding than the first, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

A booth opened up—we clearly had driven the people away, because their enchiladas with mole sauce weren’t even half eaten—and the kids saw this, and with their mouths absolutely crammed with chips, they started chanting, “Booth! Booth!” except with their mouths so full it sounded as though they were chanting, “Oof! Oof!”

“We’re not moving to any booth,” I said. “So forget about it.”

“I repeat,” Sharon said, again raising her voice to be heard over the kids, who were still chanting, “Booth,” but double time and with more desperation. “Your … fat … face.”

“Just everyone shut the fuck up!” As I screamed this—and I did scream it; there is no sense in arguing otherwise—the owner of Tegucigalpa’s loomed over me, over us, our table, his arms over his chest, and clearly he meant business. Yes, he stood there like judgment itself, and we all sucked in our breath, we and the other customers and even the kids, who stopped chanting, although they were still cramming chips into their mouths, munch munch munching away while we waited to hear his verdict.

His verdict was laughter. He started laughing, first chuckling softly to himself and shaking his head, and then really busting a gut, laughing nearly as loudly as the kids had been chanting, and his laughing was such a relief and so infectious that we started laughing too, not knowing what we were laughing at, exactly, which somehow made the whole thing funnier (you know how it is), until all of us were wiping tears from our eyes and other diners were roaring and banging on the table and Sharon was flapping her hands in front of her face saying, “Oh stop it, stop it, I can’t stop laughing.”

“Oh, that was good,” the owner said, finally getting a hold of himself. “You really had me going for a second, didn’t you?”

“We really did,” I admitted, because even though I had no idea what he was talking about, the kids were laughing and Sharon was laughing and I was laughing and we were happy, as a family, for the first time in god knows how long, and I didn’t want to clear up this misunderstanding and put the kibosh on our happiness, not yet I didn’t.

“I’ve heard about stuff like this,” the owner said. “You’re just terrific. Did Aaron at Salsa’s put you up to this?”

“He did, he did,” I said. This was a lie: Salsa’s was a restaurant I knew all too well, but I had no idea who Aaron was, or what he’d supposedly put me up to.

“Oh, that son of a bitch,” he said, and you could tell he was trying hard to not break into laughter again, and throughout the restaurant people were calming themselves down, saying, “Hoo, hoo,” like owls. “He really is a son of a bitch, isn’t he?”

“He is,” I said. “He really is.”

“Listen,” the owner said. “I want you to get back at him for me. I want you to do to him what you did here tonight. At Salsa’s. Can you do that? I’ll pay for your meal tonight and for your meal at Salsa’s, plus another hundred dollars if you get back at him for me. Can you get back at him for me?” And so on and on, until it became clear that he, the owner, assumed that our screaming and bad familial behavior had been part of a joke, some sort of prankish guerilla dinner theater paid for by a rival restaurateur. Sharon understood this, too, and was staring at me, as if to say, Are you going to clear up this misunderstanding? But her staring also had a knowing quality to it, as if to say, You’re not going to clear up this misunderstanding, are you? No, I was not going to clear up this misunderstanding, not when it was going in my favor, which so many things recently had not. So I said, Sure, sure, we’ll get back at Aaron at Salsa’s for you.

We did, the next Wednesday. Although the intervening week had been rough; I should say that. Because what, at first, had been merely a misunderstanding at Tegucigalpa’s became, the more Sharon thought about it, a lie, which reminded her of the other lies I had told, over the years. I tried to argue that a misunderstanding was not the same as a lie, in the same way that a cousin by marriage was not the same as a blood cousin, but she wouldn’t have any of it. It was a lie all right, Sharon said, and it reminded her especially of my most recent, monstrous deceit, which was, of course, my affair with my student. And to make matters worse, during the course of that affair, I had taken my student and lover out to dinner at Salsa’s many times, where I had used my credit card to pay for dinner, my credit card which was also Sharon’s credit card, which, along with some other missteps, was how I was eventually caught. In the week between our first misunderstanding and our second, Sharon really gave me the business over the affair, which had been over now for nearly a year. Even so, she had every right, and I didn’t begrudge her the opportunity to remind me, again, what a louse I had been and an awful husband and father and human being and how lucky I was that she didn’t dump my ass out on the street, with the rest of the bums.

But the one thing Sharon had never done was bring up my student-and-lover’s race. She was black. Sharon knew this. But it hadn’t come up, which I thought was heartening—both as a husband and as a free-thinking, progressive citizen of the world—that I was married to a woman who had such high principles that she could call her husband’s young, student mistress a whore, homewrecker, bimbo, slut, and so on, and never refer to her race in a disparaging way, and that maybe, as a culture, we’d moved beyond such problems and that maybe, as a married couple, we could move beyond my interracial affair, too. So, no, Sharon had never raised the subject of my lover’s race, and she didn’t bring it up in the week between our first and second understandings, either.

But it came up at Salsa’s. Again, this was a Wednesday. To be true, we’d all but forgotten that we were there on Tegucigalpa’s behalf, to get back at Aaron, whom I assumed was the owner of Salsa’s. Because the owner of Tegucigalpa’s had given us a gift certificate, and you know how easy it is, once you have the certificate, to forget who gave it to you and why. No, it was just another Wednesday when I hadn’t yet gotten dinner on the table and the kids were a mess and Sharon was tired and hungry after a long day at work and we needed something to eat, and so I said, “Let’s go to Salsa’s.”

Sharon looked at me in shock, eyes bulging thyroidally and theatrically (her thyroid was fine), and said, slowly, making sure I understood: “Are you sure you want to go to Salsa’s? Are you sure that’s where you want to go for dinner?”

I know now, just as I knew then, why Sharon was asking this question. She was giving me a chance to change my mind, a chance to remember the awful week that had just passed, a week devoted to long, teary discussions of my crimes of passion and how it was possible that we’d never truly recover from them, and how some of these crimes of passion from which we might not ever truly recover took place at Salsa’s, where I now wanted to us to go to eat. I know this now, and I knew it then, too: but we were all so hungry, and I had been in the house all day and wanted to get out, and we had this gift certificate and we weren’t exactly rolling in money because of my joblessness, which over the previous week had been a common topic of discussion, along with my affair. And speaking of my affair, it had been a year now, nearly, since it was over and I figured, dammit, it was high time to forgive and forget, which is what people say when they’ve never had to forgive and forget anything-or-one before.

In any case, I knew why Sharon was asking this question, but I pretended not to, and said, “We have a gift certificate.”

“Are you sure you want to go to Salsa’s?” she asked again, this time in stiff, threatening military fashion, as if to say, “You do not want to go to Salsa’s.”

“We have a gift certificate,” I repeated.

“Are you sure you want to go Salsa’s?” Sharon asked again, and this time there was a heartbreaking, begging quality to her voice, as if to say, “Please don’t make us go to Salsa’s. If you love me, if you’ve ever loved me, you won’t make us go to Salsa’s.”

“We have a gift certificate,” I said, again: because apparently when you break someone’s heart once, then it’s almost impossible not to keeping breaking that heart, and breaking it, and breaking it until it’s completely broken and gone, and then you wonder how could have ever fallen in love with a person so heartless.

“Fine,” Sharon said, sighing in huge, you-asked-for-it resignation. “We’ll go to Salsa’s.”

So we went to Salsa’s. I hadn’t been there since Sharon had discovered my affair with my student, Torina, which was only a few days before the school discovered it and fired me, and only a few days after Torina herself dumped me. She had dumped me, in fact, at Salsa’s, over a plate of tofu burritos. Salsa’s was vegetarian, and since Salsa’s was also environmentally conscious, they served tofu burritos without napkins, because of the vanishing trees and the rapacious paper industry and the diminishing ozone, and since Salsa’s liked to think globally and act locally (it always said so on the chalkboard menu on the wall; they didn’t pass out actual individual menus—again because of the paper), they called their tofu burritos World Burritos, and a year earlier I was about halfway through my World Burrito when Torina dumped me.

Katherine and Sam were good this time; I have to say that. They didn’t terrorize each other like they can do, and mostly they just sat there quietly, reading the books they brought with them while we waited for our food. All in all they were model children, the kind of children you might admire if you were another diner at the restaurant and were yourself thinking about having children. Even I was admiring them—Sam’s ruddy, cherubic face and Katherine’s long, pigtailed black hair and smart, black eyes—I mean, I was really scrutinizing them and so proud, and I wanted to stand up in the restaurant and shout, “These beautiful children are mine; I made them.” But I didn’t stand up and shout that, because for one, it would have been seen as patriarchal, and Salsa’s hated patriarchy, and for another, I didn’t want to draw any extra attention to myself. Salsa’s was a college hangout, and on my way in I’d noticed Bob, who taught criminal justice, and Cheryl, who taught travel and tourism, and Lawrence, who taught Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German. All of them, I knew, were looking at me, judging me, wondering how I could do what I had done with Torina—something so immoral and stupid and against college policy—and now my beautiful children were less something to be proud of and more condemnation, because how could I have done that to them, too?

I bet Sharon was wondering the same thing. She hadn’t said anything other than to place her order—mostly she was sitting there, staring at me, breaking her stare once in a while to shake her head, as if to clear it of something—and only when the food came did she break her silence. She said, “Do you still have the fever?” She said this in a voice that wasn’t her voice, something meaner and higher than a hiss. “I bet you still have the fever, don’t you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jungle fever,” she said.

“Sharon!” I said, and I was so surprised by what she’d said that I really yelled out her name, as if unsure that it was really she. I’d never heard Sharon say anything remotely like that in our fifteen years together, and it was as if I was sitting across the table from someone else’s wife, someone I didn’t know and didn’t want to know. I bet that’s the way she felt, too, looking at the liar and cheater I was, thinking that she knew me and didn’t, and maybe this is what you do when you hurt the people you love—you turn them into something you don’t love—because Sharon asked, loudly this time, like she didn’t care who heard, “I bet she smelled different, didn’t she? I bet she smelled like Africa. I bet she was a real black skank.”

Everyone in the restaurant heard this, and their private conversations just about fell off a cliff. Even the cooks, waiters, and dishwashers stopped banging their Peruvian clay bowls and cups.

“What’s a black skank?” Katherine asked.

“Why don’t you ask your father?” Sharon said. Her voice went back to normal for a second, and then she looked at me, pretty much lost it again, and said in a voice a snake might use if she were talking to another snake who was hard of hearing, “Why don’t you ask your father what a black skank is?”

“Dad,” Katherine said—because she really is quite a student and her quarterly report cards can’t say enough about her wide-ranging, inquisitive mind—”what’s a black skank?”

What do you say to a question like that? Maybe someone working in high-rise construction might have answered it one way; maybe someone in the radio business would answer it in another. But I was a teacher, or had been, and when Katherine asked her question, my teacherly instincts kicked in. In fact, this was why Torina dumped me—I’d been talking about the origins of the tofu in her World Burrito, and she’d said, “You’re always teaching me something I don’t need to know” and then, “I don’t think this is going to work”—but I tried not to think about Torina, and answered Katherine’s question the best I could.

“A black skank,” I said, “is a derogatory term for an African American woman. It’s an incredibly offensive term, and you should never, ever use it. Not in public, not in private, either.”

“Oh,” Katherine said, and went back to her book, which, I believe, was Encyclopedia Brown and how he found his neighbor’s missing wallet.

But Sharon wasn’t done. “Tell us about her booty, Steven,” she said. “Tell us about her big lips on your thang. Was she happy with your thang? Was it smaller than what she was used to? Were you bling bling enough for her?”

Katherine looked up from her Encyclopedia Brown again and said, “Dad …”

But I knew what she was going to ask, and so I said, “Your mother is using a number of racist stereotypes—mostly physical. For instance, that black women have big”—and here I struggled for the right way to put this—”rear ends, and big lips, and that black men have large …”—and here again I struggled; who wouldn’t have?—“things,” I finally said.

“But Mom didn’t say things,” Sam said. “She said thang.

“That’s right,” I said, and truth be told, I was proud of him, because—unlike his sister—Sam had never done particularly well in school, and as his first-grade teacher pointed out, he was never really particularly interested in anything, and that he’d noticed that his mother had said “thang” instead of “thing” was a real breakthrough. “Your mother said thang, and she also said bling bling. Both are part of the African American lexicon, or at least we’re led to believe that this is so by popular media. Truth be told, African Americans speak in lots of different ways, and it’s important that we not essentialize in any way.”

“But why is Mom saying these things?” Katherine asked.

“Your mother is talking about a specific woman, Sweetie,” I said. I’d never told the kids about Torina. In fact, Sharon and I had agreed that we wouldn’t, that it wasn’t something they needed to know. But maybe it was. As any teacher knows, you sometimes don’t know what needs to be taught until you teach it. “The woman she’s talking about is African American.”

“But why,” Katherine asked, “is she saying all these bad things about the woman?”

“She’s saying these bad things,” I said, “because I did some bad things with the woman. The bad things have nothing to do with her being an African American, though; I think it’s important to remember that.”

“And are you sorry you did the bad things?” Katherine asked. Because if we’ve taught our kids nothing else, we’ve taught them all about being sorry. We’ve pretty much drilled it into their little heads that you have to admit to being sorry about the bad things you’ve done before you can go on and do something else for which you’ll eventually have to apologize.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve never been so sorry about anything in my life.”

“And is Mom sorry? For saying all those bad things?” At this, Sharon started crying, which I took to mean yes, she was sorry.

I put my hand gently on her shoulder and said, “Please don’t cry, I’m sorry, it’s okay, it’s all my fault, I love you, it’s okay.”

“I know, I know,” she said. She wiped her face with the back of her sleeve—again, because there were no napkins—and then said, “I think I’m crying because I’m so hungry. Are you so hungry, too?”

I wasn’t so hungry. I wanted to get out of Salsa’s, pronto, because of the scene we’d just made and what my ex-colleagues might have to say about it—on top of the many other things they’d already said in the halls, in the student newspaper, in the faculty meeting where I was fired. The restaurant was still graveyard quiet, and I wanted to get the hell out of there. But we are the accumulation of the debts we owe and the way we pay them, and if Sharon wanted to stay and eat, then we would stay and eat. I looked up to see if our food was on its way, and in doing so I could see the eyes of Bob, my ex-colleague, the criminal justicist. It was strange: Bob’s eyes weren’t full of recrimination and disgust, the way I thought they’d be. They were wet and soft, and this surprised me, and it also surprised me when Bob stood up and started clapping—slowly at first, then faster, and then other people stood up and joined him, and soon the whole restaurant was on its feet, giving us an ovation.

They were giving us a standing ovation, and this scared the kids a little. Sam climbed into his mother’s lap, and Katherine hugged her Encyclopedia Brown book tight to her chest. Who could blame them? I was pretty unnerved by the whole thing, too—even more so when a large white man with an overgrown red beard and dreadlocks came over to our table, applauding as he walked toward us. This turned out to be Aaron, the owner of Salsa’s, the “son of a bitch” the owner of Tegucigalpa’s wanted us to get back at for him.

“I just wanted to tell you,” Aaron said. “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“It was?” I asked.

“It was,” Aaron said. He told us that, as a member of Greenpeace, he’d confronted whaling ships in a tiny, leaking dinghy; he told us that, as an Earth Firster, he’d chained himself to a nuclear reactor, or at least a fence surrounding it. “But I’ve never seen anything as brave as what you just did.”

“Well,” I said.

“I mean, it’s easy to forget how racist we all are,” Aaron said, and then turned to face his customers and said, “All of us. You are all racist; don’t think you’re not.” The customers put their heads down when he said this, but they kept clapping, as if applauding their own racism.

“Well,” I said again.

“Thank you for teaching us a valuable lesson,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” I said. At this, Sharon started crying again. I thought she was still crying about Torina and the racist things Sharon had just said and how I’d driven her to say them, and so I reached over the table and put my hand on her arm and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” but she started shaking her head. Sharon was still crying, but the crying was light, and I could see a smile breaking its way through the sobs. She was happy, or close to it, and I asked, “What is it? Why are you smiling? Is it because we’ve been misunderstood again?”

She wagged her index finger at me, as if to say, Yes, that’s it, you’ve hit the nail right on the head.

“Dad, it’s like magic,” Katherine said. She leaned across the table and put her hand next to mine on her mother’s arm, and then Sam reached up (he was still sitting on Sharon’s lap) and put his hand on her cheek, and there we were, the three of us, laying our hands on Sharon, and for a moment she was like the Blarney stone without the kissing.

“What’s like magic?” I asked Katherine.

We are,” Katherine said.

Aaron was still standing there, and clearly uncomfortable with this outpouring of family emotion, and so to avoid watching us he kept turning back to his customers, as if to make sure they hadn’t forgotten that they were racists. But soon, Sharon quit crying, and we took our hands off of her, and Aaron sat down at our table and said, “I have a proposition for you.”

I knew what was coming next. Sure enough, there was a diner down the block—Mickey’s—whose owner and customers were known for their rabidly conservative politics, and Aaron wanted to us to teach them the kind of lesson we’d just taught at Salsa’s. So we went, the next week, and it happened to be the same week we had to put my mother in the nursing home, and so Mickey’s customers (AARP members, one and all) thought our argument about whether my mother would survive through the New Year and whether we could afford it if she did—they thought it most timely and thought-provoking, and they pledged to update their living wills, pronto. Then they hired us to go to the Friday fish fry at St. Agnes’s church hall, except it wasn’t at all clear what we were supposed to do there. Sam felt this lack of direction deeply and kept asking, “What are we doing here?” When I couldn’t give him a good answer, he made a big, loud point of asking who the guy was on the cross (there was a crucifix on the hall’s south wall), and I said, “That’s Jesus,” and Sam happened to be in a particularly foul mood that night and said that Jesus was “stupid,” Jesus was “made up,” Jesus was “ugly,” and we kept shushing him and saying, “Even so, even so,” and the people at St. Agnes thought this was a masterful sermon on the power of blind faith, and so on and so on, and while we still had our family problems, still couldn’t forget the ways in which we’d hurt each other and how our lives together hadn’t worked out the way they were supposed to—even so, as long as we were being misunderstood, we were happy, happier than we’d been in a long time. It was more than happy: we started feeling extraordinarily blessed in our misunderstandings, and we also ended up getting quite a reputation in our city, making an extra dollar or two, so much so that on our sixteenth wedding anniversary Sharon and I could afford a sitter for the kids and go to dinner at the Rio Bamba.

The Rio Bamba was the nicest restaurant in town—all low lighting and red, plush, well-upholstered chairs and waiters dressed to the nines. It was the first time we’d been there, the first time in over a year that we’d been to a restaurant without the kids, and it was also the first time we hadn’t been hired to go out to eat since we went to Tegucigalpa’s two months earlier. Sharon looked lovely, and I told her so, and she thanked me, but other than that we didn’t seem to have much to talk about, and so we sat there in silence, and the silence became so deep and awful that I knew I had to say something, and so I told Sharon, “You look lovely.”

“You already told me that,” she said. And then: “We were married sixteen years ago tonight.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Do you remember what we promised each other that night?”

I did: they were the standard vows—that we would always love, honor, and cherish—and I recited them at our wedding, and I recited them at the Rio Bamba, too, without any problem.

“Did you mean what you said back then?” Sharon asked.

“I did,” I told her. “I truly did.”

“I did, too,” she said. “But what about now? Can you say the same thing now?”

Oh, if there were ever a time when I needed a big, public misunderstanding, then this was it. Because I knew the answer to Sharon’s question, and the answer was: No, I can’t say I’ll love you forever. I have no right to even talk about love, after what I’ve done to you; after what I’ve done to you, I’m not even sure what love is anymore. But these are not the kinds of things you say to your wife on your sixteenth wedding anniversary, and so I let my teacherly instincts take over again, turned the question around on her and asked, “Can you say the same thing now?”

Sharon didn’t say anything, and neither did I. We just sat there and stared at each other, stared long and hard, as people do when trying to understand each other for the very first time.


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