Fall 2018, Volume 24

Nonfiction by Daiva Markelis

Married to Vinegar Man

My husband is a man of routine. Every morning he checks on the birds that visit our back yard: robins, sparrows, finches, wrens, cardinals, phoebes, nuthatches, hawks, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, blue-jays, the occasional bluebird, and six varieties of woodpeckers. He tells me things like “The first sign of spring is not the appearance of the robin, but of the phoebe” and “The yellow-bellied sapsucker is really a woodpecker.” He has his favorites—the tufted titmouse because it’s small and fearless, the phoebe because it’s loyal. He claims to adore the woodpeckers, though I’ve caught him watching in anger as a huge sapsucker monopolized the feeder by the house, preventing the nuthatches from having a nibble. “The big fat fuck” my husband calls the bird.  “The big fat fuck is out there again.”

Bird check complete, Marty studies words, booking up for the next big Scrabble tournament. He stares at brightly colored index cards that sit next to a cup of coffee heated in the microwave for thirty-six seconds, his lucky number. He’ll study the jumble of seven or eight letters neatly printed on one side of each card: AHIPRSST. He’ll then flip the card over to see if he’s guessed the actual words. He’ll say things like “I remember harpists starship from my first Scrabble tournament. Good ol’ harpists starship.”

After Scrabble study, Marty reads the paper, sports pages first, then the funnies, with a glance at the headlines. Then it’s time to clean up around the house: wash dishes, take out the garbage, and gather crumbs left on the living room couch by his wayward spouse. Marty rewards himself with thirty-six rounds of speed pool in the basement, goading the shiny balls into their projected pockets while a timer ticks away the desperate seconds. Sometimes, when a ball misses its intended hole, I’ll hear a current of profanity so extreme that even from upstairs I must shield my ears: cock-sucking shit balls, damned little bastards, god-damned mother fuckers.

His record for running the table is one minute, one second.

After house cleaning and pool, it’s off to a late lunch or early dinner at Subway. Marty tells the sandwich artists he wants the old method of cutting the bread, not the simple sideways slice, but the carving from the top down that makes a boat: “You get more bang for the buck using the old method.” He asks for turkey and all the vegetables, plus additional tomatoes. No mayo. Extra mustard, lots of vinegar. Lots of vinegar. Vinegar, according to Marty, helps with memory and digestion, prevents headaches, and fights fatigue. The workers at the Subway, some of them students of mine, call him Vinegar Man. “Professor Markelis is married to Vinegar Man,” I once heard a sandwich artist whisper to the cashier when I joined my husband for lunch.

 

 I suspect that Marty falls on the low end of the obsessive-compulsive disorder spectrum. He believes in lucky pens and auspicious numbers. As a child he’d draw three imaginary rectangles around his glasses after placing them on the end table at night, “to protect them.” As an adult he began to collect the detachable plastic rims from the caps of milk cartons and sort them by color. After we’d been dating for a year, I told him he’d have to choose between the plastic rims and me. It was non-negotiable.

The fact that Marty is mildly obsessive-compulsive doesn’t bother me since I’m a depressive with manic inclinations and hypochondriac tendencies. Our neuroses mesh nicely. Two people with OCD would be triple-checking the locks at night, lining up tomato cans in orderly rows, hanging and rehanging Christmas ornaments. Two bipolar hypochondriacs would be constructing perpetual motion machines in the living room into the early morning; the next day they’d mope away the hours eating doughnuts and surfing WebMD. They’d lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the cheerless inevitability of death.

I think about death a lot, not in the I’m going to kill myself way, but in the Why are we here and why must we die manner. I used to think everyone thought about death all the time, standing in line at the supermarket buying tomatoes and bread, ordering milkshakes and fries at the drive-thru McDonalds, or chatting with the mailman, until my husband set me straight.

“I rarely think about death,” said Marty. “Do you know why I rarely think about death?”

“Why do you rarely think about death?”

“I have routines.”

“You have routines in order not to think about death. You’re like the phobic who puts his energies into fearing cats or thunder or limburger cheese instead of facing the undeniable reality of the human condition.”

“Who has the MA in counseling?”

You have the MA in counseling. I only have a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, the MA in creative writing, and the two BAs, one in English and one in psychology. Which is pretty darn close to counseling.”

Marty is a retired social worker, which surprises some people, as if the OCD-ish can only be data entry operators or assembly line inspectors or digital thermometer readers.  He’s spent most of his adult life working for the Chicago public schools, dealing with children whose fathers have burned cigarette holes in their arms, whose older brothers have been killed in gangs, children who will not live to sixteen because they have acute cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. He’s dodged bullets in the streets surrounding Cabrini-Green on visits to apartments where the phone has been turned off and there’s no hot water. He took early retirement when it became too much: the bad neighborhoods, the calls from frightened parents, the deeply discouraging realization that counseling can only do so much to fill the endless cavern of human suffering.

 

There are advantages to being married to a social worker. They are generally good listeners who try to understand the complex workings of the human psyche.

“You need to know what triggers your feelings of sadness,” Marty says. “You need to make a list.”

Things that trigger my feelings of sadness include the following: 1) watching the news, 2) reading the novels of Cormac McCarthy, 3) listening to atonal modern operas, 4) and seeing the first big snowfall of the year morph into greying chunks of slush. I tend to get depressed in the summer as well. End of semester chaos—too many papers to grade, too many last-minute departmental meetings—gives way to fleeting euphoria: I will have so much free time! This morphs into a week of sleeping late and eating Ho-Hos for breakfast. I live in fear that everyone is having more fun, playing volleyball and grilling hamburgers at picnics.

Marty reminds me that I hate volleyball and am not overly fond of picnics.

When I’m especially gloomy he’ll try to lift my spirits by making me laugh.

“A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it,” he’ll say. Or, “The best way to communicate with fish is to drop them a line.”

Sometimes I ignore him. This makes him angry. “I should at least get a groan. Or a courtesy laugh.”

We argue about the concept of the courtesy laugh.

“You give your friends a courtesy laugh when they tell jokes that aren’t funny,” he claims.

“My friends don’t tell jokes. They’re naturally funny.”

I feel bad when I say things like this. Luckily, I know what makes my husband happy: an anagram quiz.

“What’s the anagram of litanies?” I’ll ask.

Alienist,” he’ll quickly respond.

“How about migraine?”

Imaginer.”

If you give my husband a seven letter word like present, he’ll come up with its anagrams in seconds: penster, serpent, repents. He devises little stories to teach me the anagrams: “Think of the first chapter of the Bible. The snake, you know, the serpent, repents because the Old Testament writer, the penster, is there. He’s present.”

“Except in the Bible the serpent doesn’t repent. In fact, he’s responsible for the downfall of man.”

“Well, maybe if there’d been a better penster present...”

 

Sometimes I think I’m envious of Marty and his orderly life.

I don’t schedule properly, I don’t plan. Give me three hours of unexpected time—papers graded early, a cancelled lecture— and I will spend those free hours thinking of the best way to spend three hours. I will pick up a novel, read a few pages, decide I’m in not in the mood for Bleak House, pick up a memoir, read two or three pages, decide that memoirists are all self-centered and whiny, then turn on the television, thinking something worth watching must be on—we have premium cable, after all. I surf the channels, lingering for a moment on QVC (it’s diamante night), then on to History Detectives, a rerun about Andy Warhol paintings smuggled to the moon, finally settling on Cupcake Wars. Inspired by all of the beautiful cupcakes—how can the judges decide?—I will resolve to bake some myself.

Three hours will have passed, and I will neither have read, nor baked, nor properly watched television.

 

Sometimes I think Marty envies my sense of adventure. I’ve swum in the Persian Gulf, dodged the KGB in their big black Volgas in Lithuania when it was occupied by the Soviets, and made prank phone calls pretending to be an IRS accountant or a Publisher’s Clearinghouse spokesperson.

I try to get Marty to break out of the tidy confines of his orderly world, to eat at places other than Subway. It doesn’t always work. At the Seoul International Airport on the way to the World Scrabble Championship in Singapore we got into an argument at an Asian fast-food counter. Marty looked with concern at photographs on the wall showcasing little dumplings, tofu in bean paste, eggs atop cold noodles.

“Hey, Daiva,” he asked loudly as I placed my order. “What’s kimchi?”

I pretended not to hear him.

“What’s kimchi?” he shouted as I paid for my ganjang soup and scurried away.

I pretended not to know him.

 “You can eat by yourself,” he yelled across the crowded dining room. “I’m going to find a Subway.”

An hour later, there he was, eating his turkey sandwich with tomatoes, mustard, and lots of vinegar.

Although little progress has been made in the realm of adventurous dining, Marty has become more daring in other aspects of his life.

During the World Scrabble Championship in Malaysia, we took a side trip to Singapore. When a half-naked performer at the Singapore Zoo’s Fire Swallower and Sword Show asked for volunteers, Marty stepped up to the plate. One minute he was standing next to me, the next he was taking his shirt off, wielding a stick of fire, and grunting along with the "natives." I was afraid Marty would continue to remove the rest of his clothes and we'd be banned from Singapore forever. 

Another time, at the university’s recreational center, after Marty made 136 throws in a row, he was co-opted into playing a pick-up game by a group of students thirty-five years his junior. I was worried they’d destroy my husband, wear him out, elbow him in the chest, but after a few minutes it was clear who had the upper hand. “You guard Old,” one player yelled to another. “Watch out for Old, watch out for Old,” echoed throughout the gymnasium.

 

I knew Marty had OCD-ish tendencies from the very beginning. On our first date
he told me he intended on staying a bachelor for the rest of his life, which immediately made him a challenge and thus more attractive.

“So, you don’t believe in marriage?” I asked.

“Marriage would interfere with my routines.” 

He took a long sip of his decaf.

“Do you have any routines?” he finally asked.

“I hate routines. I see myself as an enemy of the predictable.”

We looked at each other for a long moment.

This is never going to work, I thought.

 

It has worked, for twenty odd years, defying the expectations of family and friends.

We share the same politics. We laugh at the same things. Our neuroses mesh nicely.

We don’t fight about money.

We have enough money, in part because we don’t have children.

We don’t argue about children.

We argue about reading material.

“You should read more high-quality literature,” I tell my husband.

“I read the newspaper.”

“Newspapers don’t count.”

“You’re a snob.”

“Why won’t you let yourself be moved by the power of the word?”

“I am moved by the power of the word,” he says. “I play Scrabble.”

“Some couples read aloud to each other before going to bed,” I moped one time.

He came to bed that evening with a book from which he read in a slow, dramatic tone:

“With a long wood and playing with water to the right, most players will tend to keep the shot left. Subconsciously they’ll turn on the shot to keep it from going into the water. You have to work against what your subconscious wants to do with the ball.”

He paused, pleased with himself.

“My subconscious,” I answered, “wants to take the ball and squeeze it really really hard.” 

We argue about dreams. I sometimes dream that Marty is with another woman, someone younger and thinner and more athletic. A better Scrabble player. I wake up angry and worried. I nudge my husband from his peaceful sleep.

“What is it?” he asks.

“I dreamt you were cheating on me,” I say.

“I can’t help what you dream,” he says, annoyed.

I tell him my theory: one person’s state of mind while sleeping—his thoughts and desires--can permeate another’s dreams: “Like a bird flitting from a nest to a favorite tree.”

“You’re crazy,” he says.

Sometimes I dream that Marty and I are playing Scrabble in Lithuanian. He tells me that’s not fair, not acceptable—we must agree on a common dictionary. In other dreams I’m playing in a tournament and instead of drawing tiles from the bag, I pull out rocks: small rocks, big rocks, rocks with holes. I’m forced to play with the stones but don’t know their value. Is the biggest rock a Q or a Z? The smoothest one a blank?  My opponent seems to have no such problem and uses all seven rocks to get the fifty extra bonus points. I try to call the tournament director to complain, but then realize I no longer know the words for things. The signifier has been wrenched from the signified—I can no longer speak, nor read, nor write. I lurch forward, hands outstretched, twitching and moaning like Frankenstein’s monster, a distortion of a human being.

I wake up, relieved. Next to me lies my husband, his body as comforting as freshly baked bread, his breath warm and slightly acidic, his heartbeat steady as a clock.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIO: My creative nonfiction and fiction has appeared in the New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, Prairie Schooner, Pank, Oyez, Other Voices, Cobalt, and many others. My memoir White Field, Black Sheep was published by the University of Chicago Press.