The guest arrived early and found them bickering about the garbage. The wife wanted the garbage pail emptied before the company came. The husband thought that was ridiculous. It would only be filled up again later.
The husband walked into the living room and began putting the magazines into matching piles on the coffee table. He saw that, once again, his wife had ripped something out of "New Times" before he'd read it.
He snapped at her and then went back into the kitchen to put the Triscuits on the plate with the cheese. She said that Triscuits were tacky and replaced them with Bremner wafers. He said that Bremner wafers tasted like paste.
The guest, an old friend, quietly took the ice cubes out of the tray, put them in the ice bucket and listened. It was pre-party tension, of course. They ought to have a pill for it, she thought. Yet, these two had never quarreled quite the same way before they were married. Their battles now carried the sounds of attrition. There was an installment-plan sameness to it, a familiar irritation. The irritation of familiarity.
They used to argue, but about politics or "commitment" or work. She remembered the night they almost came to blows about slavery. The question was whether or not they would have been like the white slaveholders if they had grown up there and then.
The man said, yes, probably, they would have been that bad. Institutions, he thought, had the effect of molding people. The woman was livid: No! She insisted that people were in control of their lives, not institutions. They had argued about Good Germans and Soviet Dissidents, about South Africa and Free Will and Structures.
Now they argued about garbage bags and Bremner wafers. It made the guest wonder. Was marriage another institution that formed the relationship, molded the people? Was daily-ness a debilitating disease?
The husband poured himself another drink. The wife counted. The guest watched the cataloguing of irritations and questioned whether the list of little "issues" always grew longer and finally overwhelmed the big issues, even love.
The guest had seen it happen before: A wife stacked the records on the stereo. A husband whistled when he was getting dressed. She used his razor blade for her legs. He hogged the bathroom. She always let the gas tank run out. He never remembered the club soda. She could not watch an otherwise sane person sitting in front of a football game for two whole hours. He could not listen as she spent $4.65 talking long-distance to someone who was "just a friend." He poured his coffee, let it sit until it was cold and then threw it away. She put her cigarette out in the dessert plate.
The guest hated to think that marriage always came down to garbage pails and Bremner wafers. She was single. Aside from the newly divorced who only want to see marital disasters around them (to lower their own sense of failure), most single people want to believe that marriage can be joyful. If only to keep their options open.
But often that joy was strained through the hassle of daily living. There were all these expectations. Familiarity kept breeding generations of disappointments and annoyances. Marriages often turned into courtroom dramas of unmet responsibilities. She forgot the inspection sticker. He forgot the coffee beans. He left his toenail cuttings on the side of the sink. She left the hairdryer in the only bedroom plug.
The guest poured herself a glass of wine. Finally the rest of the company came. They spread cheese on the Bremner wafers. The wife went out with the empty cracker plate and filled it up again - this time with Triscuits. The garbage rose to the top of the pail. The husband went outside to empty it.
Over coffee, the husband, expansive and funny, described Philip Roth's new book as the last grasp from a dying culture. His wife, liking him, spread approval across the table, and her bare feet found his, under it. As he poured brandy, she told the story of their disastrous attempt at city farming - the end result was one $15 tomato - and he laughed and put his hands on her hair.
The guest thought: It's okay. Their affection had bobbed back up again through the surface of irritations. They had beaten back the dulling routines once more. The familiar fondness had won over the familiar annoyance.
Tomorrow there would be more Bremner wafers and garbage pails to conquer. For now, they were okay.