Marriage is watching someone and having someone watch you.
“You may not remember Jeff, but you’ll remember his thoughts about marriage.” —New York Times
The following is an excerpt from Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, a novel of pitch-perfect observations about manhood, marriage, middle age, and the rituals we all enact as part of being alive.
Jeff had a theory about marriage:
All it is, he said, and he said he learned this too late, but all it is, is watching someone and having someone watch you. He paced in front of the mute television, on which a pickup truck drove over boulders in slow motion. He sounded exasperated, as if the other eligible receivers in Room 440 (Randy, Steven, and Derek) had worn him down, forced him to defend his position, though in fact no one had asked him anything, and no one had been speaking about marriage. No one had been speaking much at all.
That’s all it is, he said. He said when you’re a kid, your parents watch your life. They know what’s going on, they’re watching you pretty carefully. Or at least let’s hope they are. They know you have a spelling quiz or a baseball game, they keep track of it all, and so you get the idea that your life is important, valuable. But then you grow up, Jeff said, and it turns out nobody is really watching anymore. It would be weird if your parents knew that you switched cereals in the morning, or that the power went out at your office for two hours.
Nobody really knows what your days are like. Jeff said he wasn’t talking about the big things — moving to a new city or having a kid or losing your job. He said he was talking about the tiny, stupid crap that fills most of our days, and that you can’t tell people about because it’s too small and stupid. But it’s your life, Jeff said, right? It doesn’t matter to anyone else, he said, but it matters to you because it’s your life. The water in your basement, the strange smell in your shower drain. Changing your kid’s bedsheets in the middle of the night. Jeff said that life is a precious gift, sure, but usually what life is, is going to the store to buy a stupid piece of shit-ass hardware, and then buying the wrong size, and then having to go back to get the right goddamn size, except the store doesn’t have it. If you’re not married, Jeff said, chances are, nobody sees you make two trips to the store on Saturday morning for that hinge or flange that you don’t even get. Marriage — Jeff saw it so clearly now — what marriage does is at least guarantee that one person is watching. There’s one person who knows you got the oil changed today, or that you waited over an hour for your dentist appointment, or that you’re trying a new shave gel, or that the running shoes you’ve worn for years got discontinued. On television an adopted child was reunited with her birth mother, but none of the men saw it. And here’s the thing, Jeff said. The wife does not have to care about any of this stuff. It would be weird if she did, Jeff said, right? Because it’s boring, he said, and because she has her own tiny crap she’s got going on in her own life, and that seems important to her. And you’re watching that for her, Jeff said. See? You don’t have to care, he said. You just have to watch. You just have to be sentient, a witness. You don’t even have to watch very carefully. You’re not a scientist. You’re not some astronomer. It’s not like that, Jeff said. It’s certainly not about keen perception, and it’s not about gratitude or sympathy or even appreciation. It really is not about giving or getting credit. Just, Jeff said, just trying to keep the squirrels out of the goddamn mulch. If that person who is watching happens to love you or respect you, or if that person concedes to have oral sex with you, that’s a bonus, Jeff said, but it’s not necessary. It’s not what marriage is for. It’s just vital to have someone who sees your life. It’s no small thing. And look, Jeff said to the men, if you want any more from marriage than that, you’ll be disappointed.
He walked to the door, squinted into the peephole. If you want to be connected, Jeff said, or if you want to share a passion, or if you’re thinking at all in terms of big, old trees with thick roots, you’re going to end up on the couch. First the couch, he said, then a crappy studio apartment. The only thing marriage can really give you is the sense that your life is witnessed by another person. A kind of validation, Jeff said. That’s it, he said, and it’s plenty. If you have that, you have a lot. You have everything. But here’s the thing, Jeff said. People don’t like being watched. They resent it.
Jeff said that he resented it. He said he wanted to be free from it. He wanted his wife to mind her own business. But when he got away from it — when his wife was no longer watching — he didn’t feel free, he said. He didn’t feel relieved or liberated. He didn’t. He said now he just feels like there’s suddenly no point at all to buying the wrong kind of caulk for the windows. You’re not in a movie, Jeff said. He said that over and over. Nobody sees you, he said. He said that’s why people pretend they’re in movies. People say they want privacy, but they would actually like a camera out in their cold backyard at midnight, pointed through the kitchen window while they make a school lunch for their kids.
They want someone to just notice, Jeff said. He said that’s what marriage is for. Otherwise, he said, honest to God, we’re all just like penguins at the North Pole, doing it all for no real reason.
Chris Bachelder will be appearing with Evan Hughes, Sam Lipsyte, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Sean Wilsey at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on April 6th to read selected scenes from the novel (details).
CHRIS BACHELDER is the author of Bear v. Shark, U.S.!, Abbott Awaits, and The Throwback Special. His fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, and the Paris Review. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Cincinnati, where he teaches at the University of Cincinnati.