The author of the brilliant one-woman show I Got Sick, Then I Got Better, has a few things to say about midlife marriage.
Theatergoers know only the hair-raising marital Sturm und Drang of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, the following manuscript pages—recently discovered in a trash can outside the playwright’s house by an enterprising dramaturgy grad student—suggest that Albee had originally planned a fourth act of the now-classic play, an act that returns George and Martha to the humdrum existence of an ordinary couple.
[Morning. George and Martha are in their living room, cleaning up glasses and full ashtrays after the previous evening’s debacle, the worst get-together in the history of man.]
George: I thought they’d never leave.
Martha: Tell me about it. Honey, where are all the empty vodka bottles?
George: I put them in the trash.
Martha: In the recycling bin?
George [Wearily]: Yes, in the recycling bin.
[Martha exits stage right, into the kitchen, and returns.]
Martha: They’re in the returnables bin. Returnables are different from recyclables. You can’t return vodka bottles. Returnables are soda cans, and you get five cents. Recyclables get recycled. I don’t know why I have to say this every single day.
The act continues in this vein, with Martha exiting offstage to run the dishwasher, and George remarking that running the dishwasher only half full is not exactly in keeping with Martha’s desire to live green. Martha finds that George has not screwed the top tightly enough onto the opened bottle of tonic and there is no fizz left. “Now we have to throw it away,” she says, not failing to add, “in the returnables bin.” George notices that Martha is whistling absentmindedly and asks her to stop, as she knows it annoys him. And so on. The act is unfinished, possibly because Mr. Albee was boring himself to death.
Happy couples, unhappy couples, couples in between, it doesn’t matter—everybody asks: Could you please fold the empty grocery bags and put them away instead of leaving them all over the kitchen? Could you please use a coaster, would you mind putting the half-and-half back in the refrigerator, would you please lower the volume on the TV during the commercials? Could you please, please, please not do that thing you do?
I have been married a long time, longer than I was alive before I got married—an idea I find hard to grasp. Apparently, I also find it hard to grasp that the thing he does is not going to change. I seem to think that this time, when I say, “Would you mind not doing that? Would you please change how you do that, and do it this way?” my husband will stop doing that.
Why on earth would I think this? Am I crazy? What’s that definition of insanity? Repeating the same thing and expecting a different result?
It’s surprising to me, this piece of middle-aged marriage. It’s surprising to me that you’re having the same back-and-forth about the little things, the things you’d think would have been settled, somehow, long ago. You didn’t think you’d be this kind of person, frankly. You thought your union would be, well, better than other couples’, at least in this regard.
Not long ago, I was sitting in the kitchen of two people I know. They have been married for something like 20 years, they have three children, they love each other a lot. The husband was loading the dishwasher. The wife said, “Honey, you don’t have to wash the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher. Just rinse them off.” I don’t remember what he said—probably, “It’s no bother”—but I remember he kept washing the dishes. And I remember thinking, she probably tells him this every day, and every day he does it his way, and this has been going on for 20 years. Does she really think he’s going to stop, plate in hand, and say, “You know, you’re right! You’ve told me 30,000 times, but this time I’ve listened. Thank you for this one last reminder, honey.”
Ah, so easy to pass judgment on others. So easy to find fault, when you yourself never tire of telling your husband that in the five minutes he has spent wedging that big mixing bowl into the dishwasher he could have washed it many times over, and that if he had, there would be space for five or eight dinner plates.
The justification for bringing it up again and again, of course, is that he repeatedly corrects you as well. For 25 years he has been telling you that you don’t make the coffee right, for 25 years he has asked you not to leave his mail on his desk chair.
But you do it anyway, don’t you?
I once complained to an older friend about my husband and the newspaper.He always took it first in the morning,then left sections all over the house. This friend told me that she and her husband bickered for years about the newspaper: She wanted the same section he wanted. She took the section; he took it back when she left the room. And what did you do, I asked? “We got separate newspapers,” she said.
For a long time, I thought that sounded sort of . . . odd. Couldn’t they have taken turns? Shared? And then, after years of losing this particular battle, I did it. I started buying my own paper, and we stopped bickering about it. It’s a waste of money in a way (I know I could read it for free on the Internet; I just like the real thing), but in a way not at all. And I try to remember how well this solution has worked out, particularly when I’m gritting my teeth about that other thing he does. Sometimes you win by walking away. Sometimes you win by losing.
Originally published in the November, 2009 issue of More as "That Thing You Do." For another great story about midlife coupledom, read How Fly Fishing Heated Up My Marriage.