THE BEAUTIFUL TENNESSEE WALTZ
The day after Alice and Dik’s second wedding anniversary, Alice called to tell me how they had celebrated: cross-legged at sunset, hand in hand, chanting melodies that Dik had composed. I loved Alice, but this was rich, and I called my friend Martin as soon as she hung up.
“Hoo-ooh. Hooooh,” I chanted for him. “It’s the cosmic wind that holds us all together.” “Don’t winds blow people apart?” “Alice and Dik? Not far enough.” He fell silent, and I understood that I had violated one of Martin’s unstated rules, a code of acceptable discourse that changed with his moods. I spent half of our conversations scrambling to figure out what was currently permissible. “Hoo-ooh,” he finally intoned.
“You’re not doing it right,” I said, relieved. “Pay attention. This is Dik’s gift to the universe.” “Dik has a wide heart,” Martin said, quoting Alice.
“He brings joy. He restores balance,” I said, riffing.
Neither of us could stand Dik, and we worried about his sway over Alice, but he provided first-rate conversational fodder. With savage mimicry, Martin was now recalling Dik’s discussion of the crucial, too-often-neglected role of ritual in daily life. Dik lit candles every night to usher in the darkness and chanted every morning to usher it back out again. In a moment I would bring up how he had gone from “Richard” to “Dick” to “Dik” as a way of honoring his desire for simplicity.
Martin would remind me of the tray heaped with mulch that Dik had placed before a pine tree in his front yard to apologize for the travesty of Christmas.
“You don’t need to be so ugly about it,” Alice had told Martin helplessly when he and I came over with holiday brandy. Martin was elaborately bowing to the tree.
“Did Dik give you a present?” Martin said, straightening up.
“He doesn’t believe in presents.” Catching Martin’s look, she said with exquisite wryness, “Being together is a gift.” “Martin’s a traditionalist,” I’d murmured to her after he charged off the patio. “He believes in presents that come in boxes you can unwrap.” “The kind you can return and exchange.
Just ask his ex-wife,” Alice said, in a flash of her old, sharp self, which heartened me, though I wouldn’t share the moment with Martin.
He was combustible on almost any topic, but he was incendiary about marriage. His ex, Charlotte, had left him four years before, and though we all thought he should be getting over her, he still brooded and drank, revisiting every humiliation. Sometimes he broke plates. She had left him not just for another man, but for a man and his horse, her riding teacher across the bay, in Oakland. “Stallions, probably. Certain jokes present themselves,” Martin said when he broke the news.
“Please don’t tell them.” “I don’t see any jokes,” I said.
“Does he wear spurs, do you think? Can you hear those little metal teeth jingling when he walks from room to room?” “You’re only hurting yourself.” “I hope he wears them to bed,” he said.
Martin’s wife had insisted on a court hearing, where she testified in a whisper about manipulativeness and mental cruelty, but in the end the fair-minded judge weighed her boisterously successful catering company against Martin’s several unacquired screenplays and awarded Martin alimony. “At least there’s that,” I said when we left the courthouse, Martin’s jaw still locked. Since then, if I happened to be around when the check arrived, he would hold the envelope in front of me. “At least there’s this,” he’d say.
My husband, Jeff, said that Martin was feeling sorry for himself, as of course he was. But Jeff didn’t understand how thoroughly Martin had been blind-sided. He had loved his marriage vows. A cynical man, he nevertheless had faith in marriage — for its difficulty, he said. For the pure challenge. For the action of getting up every morning and recommitting to a promise made one or twenty or fifty years before. He made marriage sound like a prison sentence, but I knew what he was driving at and admired his standards. He and I believed in marriage. We just didn’t believe in Alice and Dik’s marriage.
“It’s not up to you to believe in it,” Jeff said the night I demonstrated the anniversary chant, throwing in some arm motions to amuse him. “She’s your friend. Be happy for her.” “Secretly she’s miserable. She only thinks she’s happy.” “I’m sure she’s delighted to have you around to point out her errors in perception.” Jeff had put on a clipped accent, cribbed from 1960s movie thrillers. In college he had majored in film studies, although he worked as a loan officer now, “supporting my dainty wife.” He used to use the phrase all the time. He said, “Tell me again why Alice puts up with you.” “We’re her best friends. Worrying about her is our job. Do you remember that she used to eat hamburgerrrrrs? I’ve never seen Dik give up anything for her.” “Maybe she likes having somebody tell her how to live. A lot of people do.” “One of these days she’s going to wake up and grope around, wondering where her personality went,” I said, quoting Martin.
“She won’t need to grope long. You’ll be right there to tell her,” Jeff said.
I picked up sleek gray Toulouse, our cat, who was slithering figure eights around my ankles. “I’m not bent on her and Dik’s destruction, okay? In case you’re interested, Martin and I talked today about giving them an anniversary party.” Jeff had been shredding carrots for a salad. He stopped midgrate. “Okay, I’m nervous.” “She likes parties. At least she used to. And Martin can stand around and talk, which he’d be doing anyway.” “Does he talk about us?” His voice sounded comfortable. On the other hand, he was mangling the carrot against the grater.
“Not to me.” “Why not?” I pulled down Toulouse, who was trying to sit on my head. “You and I are like one of those ice-skating couples. When he jumps, she jumps. When she spins, he spins. There’s nothing to talk about with us. We don’t even have to look at each other to know when to start skating backwards.” He shook his head, a smile crimping his lips. “You’re good, Lisha.” “We’re good together.” Some thick emotion swelled between us, and I talked into it. “Martin thinks the second anniversary is a watershed. People can get to the first one on the wave of sheer newness — new relatives, new tax forms, all those new appliances. By the second year, though, you start watching yourself change. You see the new grooves and calluses in your brain from rubbing every day against this other person. You realize you’ve signed on for the duration. Martin calls it the Panic Anniversary.” “I don’t remember panicking,” Jeff said.
“You, my darling, are blessed with a lack of imagination.” He tried to scowl, an expression his even, pale features could never pull off. “So what are you going to do for this party? Provide topographical maps of Alice’s and Dik’s brains?” “Champagne.