One Saturday a few weeks back, my wife and I had a rough morning. I don't remember the exact reason, but it had something to do with the upstairs bathroom. The toilet and shower had been out of commission for much of the summer owing to a remodeling that afterwards made the rest of our little house look rundown by comparison. Anyway, I had to run off to do some urgent, paying, not entirely vainglorious freelance work that in its own modest way would contribute to the financing of not-so-little extras like our new bathroom. Apparently I'd forgotten to warn Cynthia about this, and the news of my taking the afternoon off and leaving her alone with our two screaming children came as a blow to her.
I suggested, not meaning to be impertinent, that she take the kids for a walk while I went to fulfill my literary duties. In a great huff, she strapped our infant into one of those marsupial contraptions and locked the three-year-old into the stroller, and they were gone. I got into the family car to drive to my meeting. But as I pulled away from the curb, I realized this was no way to leave things. Two blocks from home I caught up with Cynthia and the kids.
I got out of the car, walked over to her, and said: "Look, I love you dearly, and I'm sorry that I have to run off, but I'll be back as soon as possible." A forgiving look passed over her features. Then I added: "In my favor, I did clean up the mess in the kitchen and take care of that business with the painters."
She hadn't known about either of these accomplishments, so even if my timing was imperfect, the information should have been of some interest. And it was--except that one phrase got mangled as it made the trip from my mouth to my wife's ear: "in my favor." She thought I was calling my performance of household duties a favor to her, as I discovered only later. There on the sidewalk, with the car running a few feet away and our puzzled children looking on, I waited for her to say it was okay for me to go. Instead, the look of forgiveness vanished from her face, and she stormed off again.
The wrong word can ruin everything, as George Allen of "macaca" fame has learned. Even the right word indifferently pronounced or just plain heard wrong can backfire. I'm reminded of a girlfriend I once had--a mere high school sweetheart, I hasten to emphasize, which is nothing remotely like a wife, needless to say--and an evening we spent together that was marred by a similar misunderstanding.
We were going out to dinner, and I was feeling down. A teenager, I generally found no shortage of reasons for feeling down. That night, my girlfriend was feeling down, too, possibly because her boyfriend always split the dinner bill with her, he having only a modest part-time job in a delicatessen.
As we walked to the restaurant, she asked, in the elliptical manner we always used, "What do you want?" She meant: What did I want from her, from life, from God, from the future? With her, "What do I want?" was a question about all that I had ever wanted or would ever want.
Feeling a little forlorn at that moment, I said, "Solidarity." I meant that all I ever wanted or would ever want was her company and some relief from this sense of personal alienation from everyone and everything that had ever existed or would ever exist.
But she heard something different, a different word, in fact. She heard me say "solitude." She thought her forlorn, depressive teenage boyfriend was saying he wanted to be alone.
The effect of the wrong word may be delayed. No doubt the young man insulted by Sen. Allen had to go find a dictionary and look up macaca (as I did) in order to discover the offense, possibly hours later.
My girlfriend in the above scene showed no response until we were halfway through dinner--at a restaurant, by the way, that was much nicer than the short-order diners where we usually ate together. She had an appetizer, and then, as we were waiting for our entrees to arrive, she picked up her pocketbook and left the table.
I assumed she was heading to the ladies' room, but next thing I knew she was blowing through the swinging front door of the restaurant and hailing a cab.
She had decided (as she explained, laughing, the next day on the phone) that if I wanted to be alone, well then she was going home.
A girlfriend can do that. A wife, of course, can't. Her home is your home, and even when she's peeved, she can't wait for you to get back. To take care of the screaming kids.