Find the Bad Guy means how, when you’re arguing with your spouse, both people are trying to win the argument. Who didn’t close the garage door? Who left the Bigfoot hair clump in the shower drain? What you have to realize, as a couple, is that there is no bad guy. You can’t win an argument when you’re married. Because if you win, your spouse loses, and resents losing, and then you lose, too, pretty much.
I spent about half of my marriage in couples counselling. You’d think I would’ve realized, long before the fifteen years it took me to move on, that was a bad sign. To be fair, I did call it quits at ten years, but he knew me well enough to wait until Christmas Eve and call from the New Jersey Turnpike.… So I had mixed reactions to this story (available online), very personal reactions. Amusement at the way counselling plays language games, takes complex feelings and situations and turns them into handy slogans. Anxiety about the manipulative guy who’s used to breaking the rules and very good at getting what he wants. Compassion for that same guy who truly does seem to know what he’s lost. Anger towards him for trading that compassion in for another chance to break more rules. Is Charlie D. an abusive husband, or is he a needy schlub who makes a lot of mistakes? Is the Bad Guy? Not sure.
Johanna originally asked Charlie to marry her so she could get a green card and extend her German visa. He was smitten anyway, but eventually, she fell as well – “Love at fifteenth sight, I guess you’d call it” – abut now, 21 years and three kids later, he got the babysitter not-pregnant and she’s finally had enough. In the present of the story, he’s violating a restraining order by hanging around outside her, formerly their, house, hoping to catch a glimpse of his family.
What I liked most about this story, possibly because I just focused on it in my comments on “The Chair”, was how a couple of simple things were used as tropes: Fire, and electronic communications. They’re even woven together. Some guys have the man cave; Charlie has a fire pit. But it’s a fire pit he’s been enjoying alone:
For instance, regarding the fire pit. Didn’t I try to corral everyone out there every night? Did I ever say I wanted to sit out there alone? No, sir. I’d like us to be together, as a family, under the stars, with the mesquite flaming and popping. But Johanna, Bryce, Meg, and even Lucas—they never want to. Too busy on their computers or their Instagrams.
The babysitter joined him at the fire pit. Not subtle, but effective. And in the present of the story, standing outside his house, he’s playing Words with Friends with his daughter: the computer she was too busy with has become his lifeline now. If the daughter won’t come to the fire pit, follow the electronic data stream to the daughter. When he’s finally arrested, he finds heartbreaking comfort in another play of the game:
When a new word comes on Words with Friends, it’s a beautiful sight to see. The letters appear out of nowhere, like a sprinkle of stardust. I could be anywhere, doing anything, but when Meg’s next word flies through the night to skip and dance across my phone, I’ll know she’s thinking of me, even if she’s trying to beat me.
I’m one of those people who’s taken to electronic connections, so I understand how that might’ve felt. It’s a powerful image: the only connection to his daughter is through a smartphone screen.
Back to the fire. In the therapist’s office after confessing the affair with the not-pregnant babysitter, he understands that he’s blown it, and it’s been Johanna who’s been doing the heavy lifting, relationship-wise:
Over in the Alps, when they found that prehistoric man frozen in the tundra and dug him out, the guy they call Ötzi, they saw that aside from wearing leather shoes filled with grass and a bearskin hat he was carrying a little wooden box that contained an ember. That’s what Johanna and I were doing, going to marital therapy. We were living through an Ice Age, armed with bows and arrows. We had wounds from previous skirmishes. All we had if we got sick were some medicinal herbs. There’s a flint arrowhead lodged in my left shoulder. Ouch. But we had this ember box with us, and if we could just get it somewhere—I don’t know, a cave, or a stand of pines—we could use this ember to reignite the fire of our love…. She’s been carrying our ember the whole time, for years now, despite all my attempts to blow it out.
It’s easy to see Charlie as a basically good guy; I can understand that. But don’t forget: he beat his dog, he got it on with the babysitter, and he’s violating a restraining order. He’s an unreliable narrator of himself: his apologies, realizations, longings, sound great; his behavior, not so much. Those of us who have heard these realizations, these apologies, these promises, a million times, grow a bit weary of them. It’s no way to make a marriage. But it does make for good story-telling.