On Boxing Day — that drugged-tired twenty-four-hour period after Christmas, when most of us want to do little more than nibble leftover figgy pudding — my husband, Dan, made me a thermos of coffee while I booted up my Marantz recorder and pulled out the new Moleskine notebook Santa had put in my stocking. My plan was to drive up Route 1 from my mother’s house, on the coast of Maine, to a small town on the Canadian border where I’ve set a novel I’m writing.
I hit the road, full of resolve, and spent the day rubbernecking and talking to myself into my recorder, pulling over every so often to write down notes. I calculated distances between landmarks and drove up and down long coastal roads; I memorized where they undulated and went flat and what the salt air smelled like with the windows open. With no cell reception that far north, I was blissfully, wonderfully alone.
On the way home, giddy from the effervescent freedom of disconnection, I blasted Ryan Adams on the stereo and watched a bleached winter sun sink down the pewter sky. I suddenly wanted to share everything I was seeing and feeling with Dan — so as soon as my iPhone showed I was able, I called him. He answered groggily and slightly grumpily (my mother had given him a respite from taking care of our three-year-old son, and he’d fallen asleep on the couch). In a haze, he didn’t remember my plan to stop and exchange my new running shoes in town; he wasn’t sure if he wanted me to pick up a loaf of bread or if we should make biscuits to go with dinner; he didn’t know offhand if we needed baby wipes. As Dan tried to catch up, I became irritated. In fact, I was incensed. The feeling of buoyant excitement I’d had only moments earlier had gone flat. Why wasn’t he standing at the ready, holding his smartphone like it was a walkie-talkie and we were under enemy fire?
Over the next hour, while I exchanged my sneakers and did our shopping, Dan and I called and texted each other about dinner, our son’s bedtime, and the pros and cons of buying the bread versus making the biscuits. Maybe a third of those phone calls and texts had content that was constructive; the rest was all a big long fight about our communication. As I wrote each text, I felt myself getting incrementally more enraged as my thumbs fumbled with the keypad and the iPhone autocorrected my spelling. I wanted to do actual harm to someone or something. I imagined flinging my smartphone at Dan’s head or at the annoyingly slow grandmother buying eggs in front of me. I had phone rage.
When I got back to my mother’s, Dan and I barely exchanged glances over our dinner of warm bread and buttered biscuits — we’d somehow ended up with both — paired with a black-eyed pea and kale casserole my mother had made. I no longer wanted to give him the heart-shaped rock I’d picked up for him on a pebbly beach. (We have piles of heart-shaped rocks, given to each other as gifts over the years.)
After our son was finally asleep for the night, I came downstairs to find Dan finishing up the dishes and making tea. In the silence between us, I realized a hurricane had passed through our marriage — and it only partly had to do with our temperaments and defects.
Most of what had happened came about simply because we have the technology to talk to each other about the minutiae of our lives. There are days when I’ve interrupted my carefully guarded writing time to check in on whether our son has had a bowel movement; I’ve called for directions when I’m lost, even though I have both a smartphone and a gazetteer in my car. Bad news (and good) is delivered in immediate, screaming-siren text time. I’ve gotten so used to Dan’s being nonstop on the other end of the line that I’ve actually become less self-sufficient, more controlling, and, loath as I am to say it, more lazy.
That night, as Dan and I sat together by the wood stove, I found myself wondering how my day would have played out if I’d had no phone at all. I would have finished my drive listening to Ryan Adams; I would have chosen my replacement sneakers by myself; whatever I'd brought home for dinner would have been what we ate.
Finally Dan said, “Tell me about your day.”
“I got you a rock,” I ventured. “But I was too mad to give it to you earlier. I’m sorry. It seems so silly now to have gotten so angry. I’m starting to wonder if we communicate too much?”
“Me too,” he said.
I can't say, however, that since that conversation we've triumphantly banished our smartphones, or that we’ve avoided texting and calling about stupid little things, the ones we wouldn’t even be discussing if we just waited until we saw each other again. We seem to be too addicted to these modern appendages to give them up entirely; we hang on for the slim benefits of convenience and the false feeling of connectedness. But sometimes, in the evenings, after we’ve wasted another good hour talking through whatever call-and-text argument happened that day, I’ll get into bed feeling that I could have put my efforts toward something else — like my novel — and that the iPhone, designed to make my life easier, has taken up residence in my marriage.
The other day, Dan’s cell phone died while he was on a freelance job. He called from a landline and left me a message that he’d be home later. I missed the call and had no way of returning it: I couldn’t remind him to get paper towels and eggs, and I couldn’t inspire him to speed on the highway by telling him that I was tired and desperately needed a parenting break. I couldn’t do anything but wait for him to walk though the door.
For the first time in a long while, when Dan did show up, we weren’t irritated with each other. We ate dinner and then we wrestled our son to bed. With our smartphones temporarily neutered, we got on to the business of our marriage: we did dishes, put some laundry in, talked about books we were reading, and sat down on the couch together, knee to knee, to drink our tea. When we went to bed, I remarked upon how, amazingly, we were fine.