His throat was sore on one side, the Husband said, sniffling. Also, he had a small headache.
The Wife looked up from something she was doing. Reading the newspaper, say. She was the kind of person who was always reading newspapers.
The Husband sniffed again. Louder, this time. He cleared his throat and coughed a little.
The Wife shook her head. Maybe, she said, you shouldn’t go to the conference in San Antonio if you’re sick.
I have to go, the Husband said. I’m speaking there twice.
But you’re losing your voice, the Wife pointed out.
I have to go, the Husband said again. My voice is all right.
The Wife went back to her newspaper to read about how the whole damned world was falling apart. She had had conversations like this many, many times in the decades she’d been married to her husband. She had finally learned not to waste her breath. She could exhaust herself pointing out why it was foolish of the Husband to go on a business trip when he was coughing and constantly clearing his throat. He had once hopped on a flight to New Zealand when he had the flu, hadn’t he? Yes, he had. Forget about pressing the point on San Antonio, a mere 100 miles away. Read the newspaper and brood: That had more possibility of success than nagging.
So, the Husband went to San Antonio and he spoke twice. He was better, he said, wheezing into the phone on his nightly calls. Yes, he was taking good care of himself, sleeping a lot. Going to San Antonio had been a good thing. Definitely, he said, coughing.
Before he got home, the Wife left on her own business trip. She was gone two days. When she got back, in the late evening, the lights were low and the heat was blasting. In the dim light, she could see a figure on the couch shrouded with blankets. She heard a voice she barely recognized.
How are you? she asked. She put a hand on his hot forehead and told him he had a fever. He asked her to find the thermometer. His voice sounded like someone was grating sandpaper.
She had seen it happen before: Once the Husband finally, grudgingly, gave into illness, he had a certain enthusiasm for it. He took his temperature constantly, the thermometer beeping on and off throughout the day. He demanded orange juice and chicken broth. He moved into his bathrobe and wouldn’t move out. He commandeered the couch and the bed and every other horizontal surface. Even though he didn’t seem to move, he was everywhere.
She bought orange juice and chicken broth, she offered sympathy and kleenexes, she fussed over him.
Days passed and his color returned and he walked upright. He was going back to work, he announced.
She nodded. Then she mentioned something in an agreeable tone of voice. Don’t you think it would have been better, she murmured, if you hadn’t gone to San Antonio?
He was silent for a few seconds. Then he said, well, yes, maybe.
Goddamn right, she thought. I told you so, dammit. Why do you have to be so fucking stubborn, so male?
The door closed behind him, as he left for work. There were a couple of lessons here, she thought. One was code: Well, yes, maybe was almost as good as You were so right, honey! I’m going to listen to you the next time! I was an idiot!
The second was a harder lesson about human relationships in general and marriage in particular: In many defining ways, the other person was simply going to do what he was going to do — because those actions and characteristics made him what he was, for better or for worse. What you loved about someone was, in essence, what often drove you crazy about him. Sometimes, all you could do was stock up on the chicken broth and orange juice and wait.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)