“It is necessary to be almost a genius to make a good husband.”
—Honoré de Balzac (Tr. J. De Finod)
When we talk about the success or failure of marriages we have known, we often say individuals’ values are responsible, but those are rarely what we think they are. We say: He’s with her because of her money, or, He satisfies her need for stability. That is like looking at a laptop case to explain computing.
Her need for stability, for instance, may be undercut by a less-conscious need never to feel beholden, emotionally or otherwise, so a tension develops in the marriage that might (sometimes) be ignored but can never be resolved. Meanwhile, he registers arguments as passion and is into it.
I met Andy* and his wife, Kate, in the early ’90s. They had a funny marriage.
Andy was a layout artist at an office-supplies company in a suburb of Chicago, where I was a copywriter whose product lines included substandard PCs and copy paper. He had a BA in photography; mine was in English and philosophy. We were the same age, and like the older Ph.D. candidate in theology who made copies, the young oil painter who lied to get his job as a copywriter, and the young actor who had been left on the cutting-room floor of a John Hughes film, we saw our jobs as the sort of thing liberal-arts types accepted until something more interesting came along.
Andy’s father was an executive at Ford, and Andy seemed to have inherited his ideas about the joys of wine, eating well, interior design, and Big 10 tailgates (but not football). Andy had fallen in with a crowd at the Chicago Yacht Club but could not afford an offshore yachting jacket, the right brand of waterproof pants, or good sailing boots, and he did not know what he was going to do about it.
At work he dressed in pastel button-downs, daring combinations of tartans and other patterns, and Bucks or saddle shoes. He tucked his tie into his shirt; if it was chilly he tied a sweater around his shoulders. He was always cheerful, unless he was concerned for someone’s feelings, and when he stole time from the company to nap in a break room, chin on chest, wispy hair rising in the draft from the heating vent, he smiled like a round little Bacchus.
We became friends and even discussed creating our own company, one that looked like more fun, like J. Peterman or Sovietski. Andy would shoot the products and do layout; I would write copy and run print production. We had the skills to make a catalog, but no products, supply chain, storage, fulfillment capability, or money to get them.
One idea was for a catalog of things to be used at Ravinia, the festival park on the North Shore that has open-air concerts of all types and is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. Most attendees bring blankets, lawn chairs, and finger foods and set up on the lawn among the trees, but some go all-out with folding tables, linen, candelabra, china, and multicourse meals. In addition to selling some of that stuff, I thought we could modify Radio Flyer wagons and market them as stuff-carriers, to get from remote parking to the grounds.
What he wanted me to see was the lifestyle he was making for the two of them, even with limited funds—the dogs with their bandannas; a BoosBlock cutting board; a holder he had built, for the dozens of wine corks they had pulled on special occasions, which he thought could be sold in our catalog.
Eventually Andy and his wife, Kate, invited me to dinner in their home. They would be traveling soon and wanted me to house- and dog-sit for them, and dinner would also be a chance to meet their dogs. Kate was the manager of a scientific lab and worked long hours, so she was rarely seen by people at work. I was curious.
They lived in a townhouse, up a busy road from the more-desirable downtown of a wealthy suburb. Their complex was governed by a homeowners’ association, which Andy had disparaged. As soon as he opened the door, I wondered if his remarks had to do with their two enormous Irish Wolfhounds, which ran around like crazy as I entered and jumped on me, paws on shoulders, eyes meeting eyes. One of them was named Bacchus. He yelled and snapped his fingers, but they ignored him. He got leashes on their collars while being careful not to get knocked out by accident, and we took them to a strip of lawn between buildings so they could “go potty.” Kate was not home yet. Andy said Kate wanted the dogs in crates while they were at work, because the Wolfhounds felt safer in them and could not chew the place to pieces.
We talked as Andy finished making dinner. Kate got home tired and seemed to remember I was coming to dinner when she saw me. She was only three years older than Andy but had a motherly demeanor and wore her hair like ladies did in the UK to look more like Princess Di. Andy fussed over her, took her coat, gave her a peck, and offered her a glass of wine. He put on some music and insisted on giving me the tour with her present. In addition to the living room, where the dinner table had been set up, and the long narrow kitchen, there was an upstairs with two small bedrooms. One was so full of stuff and boxes that Andy had trouble getting the door open and shut.
What he wanted me to see was the lifestyle he was making for the two of them, even with limited funds—the dogs with their bandannas; a BoosBlock cutting board; a holder he had built, for the dozens of wine corks they had pulled on special occasions, which he thought could be sold in our catalog. He had re-covered some pillows with bargain fabrics similar to Holland & Sherry’s, he said, and was intent on some project having to do with their single, narrow bookcase. All the books would be the same color, he said triumphantly. I felt a flash of anxiety and looked at Kate, who smiled like a single parent. Andy said Martha Stewart had said bookshelves should have books with only the same-color spines—all white, or all green, etc.—in order to harmonize a room. He was a big fan of Martha Stewart, long before she became an empire and a felon.
The food was good, osso buco as I remember, but the table was small for three and overset with multiple glasses and layers of plates and silverware. We talked and ate as the Wolfhounds wrestled among our legs and knocked their giant skulls against the underside of the table. The silverware and plates jumped and clattered, and we grabbed at our wine glasses. The Beaujolais Nouveau will be in soon, Andy was saying. Oh, really? I said. One of the dogs nosed aside the tablecloth and got its bear-like head into my lap. I looked down at its feminine eye and playful fangs and molars, and its tongue lolled wetly onto my pants. I had no choice but to pet it, which I knew would encourage more bad behavior.
Andy was solicitous of Kate’s views, fished for praise for his cooking, recalled memories of them at other dinners and events, and kept her wine glass filled. He was performing the good husband, I thought, but she did not give any sign of discomfort at falsehood, or at being the main target of his high-energy conviviality. She was smart and friendly, if a bit dull, and I liked them as a couple.
I felt sorry for the dogs, which were beasts but only because they were meant to run and had been cruelly imprisoned in wire cages, in the small condo, for a third of their lives. When I dog-sat, I ran with them on leashes—at least for the first half-dozen times I took them out, on a long route Andy had designated. They weighed 130 or 140 pounds each and ran faster than I could, and when the team got going they did not stop unless they wanted to sniff something rotten. Then they yanked and pulled in different directions and tangled their leashes. But they were excited to be out and together, and I wanted to give them that joy. When they crapped, their crap was the crap of horses, which I had to collect in bags and carry in a leash-hand until we got back to the condo. (I did not have the strength to control both dogs with one hand.) Andy was very concerned that the crap be handled responsibly so the HOA did not get upset with him.
Andy was solicitous of Kate’s views, fished for praise for his cooking, recalled memories of them at other dinners and events, and kept her wine glass filled. He was performing the good husband, I thought, but she did not give any sign of discomfort at falsehood, or at being the main target of his high-energy conviviality.
Housesitting gave me some idea of their domestic life. I woke cramped several times each night, because both dogs slept with me on a twin bed in the junk room. They poked me with their cold noses and chuffed and growled every morning at dawn until I got up and walked them, pre-coffee, in the frigid air. I had to drive across several towns every lunch hour to take them out and could not delay in getting home after work. I began to see why Andy napped at work, and why Kate looked exhausted, and I felt some irritation with their—Andy’s, anyway—lifestyley life built on lies of repose and joy.
One night early that week, after walking, feeding, and watering (schlorp, schlorp, schlorp, schlorp) the dogs, I realized there was no food in the house for me, not so much as a can of soup or piece of cheese. (I thought that was odd and still do.) I drove down the road to the upscale mini-mart and bought an expensive but delicious-looking chicken pot pie, my favorite. Back at the condo I realized it could not be microwaved, so I had to wait another hour while it baked. I was sick with hunger. When it was done I took it out and put it on the counter, and in the time I turned to get a fork, it disappeared as if it had never existed, and the two hounds stood looking at me as if to say, Got any more?
The leashes of civilized society were barely hindrances to those two. I kept up their care, of course, including picking up their hot piles of crap, but started flinging the bags into the woods along the road. Once a driver caught me at it and honked angrily, but I felt justified in my crimes. When Andy and Kate returned they praised me for my kindness and responsibility to the only children they would ever have. I was so grateful to be leaving that I think I kissed Kate’s cheek, continental-style.
But Andy pulled me in further a short time later, after he was arrested. He used his one call to ask me to bail him out of a jail in an old-money town on the Lake that he aspired to live in. I was afraid it was DUI, but he said it had to do with an expired something—license, plates, registration, or insurance—and he had been taken in only because some technicality required it. It was a beautiful sunny day, and on the drive to the jailhouse I was relieved he had not been hurt or hurt someone else. I was amused. None of it seemed like a big deal, yet the situation was the last thing I would have expected of him.
When a sergeant brought him out from the holding cell, Andy was rumpled and haggard, which seemed a bit much. I made the kind of joke we would make in the army to lighten the mood.
“Were you wearing pants when they caught up with you?” I said.
Andy burst into tears.
In my car he begged me not to tell Kate. I must have hesitated, wondering when I would ever see her or why I would tell her, so he explained there had been a similar problem before, and he felt frantic at the idea of what Kate might do if she found out. I promised I would not say anything and loaned him money I did not have, to get his car out of the impound lot. I assured him everything was going to be fine but began to doubt it, since he was so frightened of her. I think in the end I saw his upset in class terms: here was a guy allowed to remain a kid into his mid-30s.
I saw Andy and Kate together a few more times. We all went to Ravinia once, and my roommate hosted a barbecue or two. Everything seemed fine. Kate was always poised and always at Andy’s side, and she smiled when he chuckled at his own gentle witticisms. I assumed Andy had worked up the courage to tell her what had happened, and that she was not very bothered by his irresponsibility, which amounted to not renewing his license (or whatever).
I promised I would not say anything and loaned him money I did not have, to get his car out of the impound lot. I assured him everything was going to be fine but began to doubt it, since he was so frightened of her.
I continued to see him every workday too, of course, but we drifted apart. A couple of times a group of us went night-skiing at Devil’s Head after work. For some reason I was surprised at how much more skilled and graceful Andy was on the slopes than I could ever hope to be. The surprise came from his complete authenticity, which I had begun to doubt. I was prole enough that the physical was often linked to the authentic in my mind, and he always seemed soft and somewhat helpless. Helpless, from what I had seen, often became hapless, and I could not afford any more bad luck of my own. I was recently divorced and in debt, both by my own choices and by letting others make choices for me. Most of our department had similar problems in one form or another, often serially. At least Andy and Kate were together.
Andy got his weather gear and began to help crew a racing sailboat on the Lake, on a standby basis. The way he described it made it seem like a pretext for wine and dinner afterward at the club. We all knew what Andy made but could only guess at Kate’s salary. There were comments they lived “way beyond their means,” but who knew? Who cared? One day a mutual friend said he had a hunch. Did I want to drive up to the courthouse at lunch to see if the county clerk had anything else on Andy?
“Your friend has quite the record,” the clerk said when he brought us the files.
Andy had not lived in the county long but had a dozen cases against him, including four charges the time I bailed him out; several other traffic charges; two forcible entries and detainers (involving his HOA); a criminal misdemeanor; and an unspecified “complaint.” It was funny-odd. The files did not mention alcohol. I did not know what to call it.
About that time I gave planned notice at work and moved on. Soon I heard Andy had been arrested and fired for stealing a sticker from another employee’s license plate in the company lot. Even knowing that he was not (only) what he showed himself to be, I was surprised. We never know anything for long.
I have thought about Andy and Kate, now and then, and each time I have tried to imagine why they were—and are, don’t worry—together. Maybe he wanted to please, but the troubles he created allowed him to receive care, even mothering. Kate valued responsibility but seemed to like being made to slow down and enjoy, since that was the point of life, at least according to Andy.
Andy still lists himself on social media as an artist, designer, and painter, though there is no evidence he works. He took part in an interior-design show for charity a decade ago. A regional lifestyle magazine invited readers to “steal ideas” from the show. Andy’s part was to group someone’s family photos with pastel drawings, prints, and fake moldings and trim, and to paint stripes on the wall in seven shades of Farrow & Ball white in varying widths. Despite his stated need to harmonize, his real aesthetic was chaos.
He also won a contest at a festival for his idea to fill a Radio Flyer with picnic foods and wine. He painted hearts on canvases and made a charcuterie board from old wine crates, which he decorated with expensive goodies, to sell in a local emporium.
He posts photos of small dogs in bandannas, reminders not to leave dogs in hot cars, an article on pairing gourmet burgers at the tailgate with the right Merlot. He takes online quizzes, about how many colored triangles you can see, and whether being single, dating, or being married in 2020 was better. His results: “YOU’RE BETTER OFF DATING! Right now is [sic] the golden days and you are in you [sic] prime! Go out there and have some fun!”
I have thought about Andy and Kate, now and then, and each time I have tried to imagine why they were—and are, don’t worry—together. Maybe he wanted to please, but the troubles he created allowed him to receive care, even mothering.
He reposts fashionable hypocrisies: memes of being keen on Jesus, with complaints that business owners are mistreated; fawning for Don Jr. and Rush, while praising American exceptionalism; praise for Trump wanting people to be able to try any treatment for COVID they think is best, though Kate is the head of an important medical lab now and at one point worked more than 200 days in a row through the pandemic. Work is still the only thing I know about her.
Andy posted a thank-you to Chicago police for being on the streets during the riots and the pandemic, though by the county clerk’s records he now has had 28 cases filed against him, including small-claims torts, tax issues, three more forcible entries, more traffic violations, foreclosure, and an injunction. In another county, someone has filed a petition to establish parentage against someone with his name. Could it, or the sealed cases with his name on them, back in Michigan, be his too?
Once he Facebooked a fake quote from the Buddha that might be a statement of values: “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”
I picture Kate coming home, day after day, and Andy meeting her at the door, chuckling and solicitous. He asks with concern about work, gets her a glass of wine, sets out the cheese tray. Does it make up for recurring problems that waste time and money? Is he a good husband? What does Kate value?
Balzac, who married only late in life, is unclear whether a husband or a wife would need to be an almost-genius to create a good husband. Maybe by genius he meant the attendant spirit of a couple working together to make something, which after all is a chief value in marriage.
*Names have been changed.