The Marriage Game
by Deirdre Sinnott
If my parents’ relationship was a pool game, my mother was a low ball hit straight and fast into the corner pocket and Dad was a banking ball that rolled from one cushion to the other until it finally slipped behind one of it’s fellows and dropped into place. For two people who barely touched each other in public (we kids were proof of at least three sexual encounters), they were engaged in an intense life-long contest.
We noticed that they weren’t affectionate. So my sister Alison insisted one Christmas that my parents pose for a picture kissing.
“Just take the picture,” said Mom. She was dressed in a long plaid skirt of the same colors as her Scottish Glengarry cap. It hugged her head and sported two ribbons dangling all the way to the middle of her back.
“No,” said Alison, “you’ve got to be kissing.” Dad leaned in and puckered.
“Oh, for God’s sakes,” said Mom, not moving.
“Well,” said Dad, straightening and pulling the sides of his dinner jacket down in hurt irritation.
“Oh, come on,” she said flapping her hands to motion him forward. He obeyed. Their lips met as they stood in front of the Christmas tree. Alison lingered for a minute.
“Take it already,” mumbled Mom, her lips still pressed to Dad’s. Poof went the flash cube and my parents pulled away from each other.
That was the only time I remember seeing them together with even the veneer of affection. I knew that we were no “My Three Sons” kind of family, the kind that were always involved, always engaging in fraught, but funny, situations. Yet I never really grasped how locked together they were or how superfluous we three kids were to the arrangement until I was home from college on a visit and went shopping with Dad.
We stopped by a farm stand. Hanging baskets of flowers, bushels of apples, squashes, plums, and pears decorated the small wooden structure.
“Get some gladiolus for your mother,” Dad told me as he poked through the rest of the store.
Two barrels brimmed with tall spikes of flowers. I chose some purple ones, my favorite color. Carrying the bunch, I found him deep in conversation with one of the farmers about an old car rusting near the barn.
“Not those,” he said as I approached. Disappointed, I returned to the barrel. I chose a neatly tied bouquet of yellow stalks and approached him again, interrupting him in mid-sentence.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said, waving me away.
He had something in mind, but I couldn’t tell what. I stood before the barrel for the third time staring uncertainly into the mass of colors. I grabbed a grouping of different colors, red, purple, yellow, white, and pink. Dad now stood with one food balanced on the bumper by the rusted car, discussing it with the farmer.
He glanced up and saw the mixed up bundle of gladiolus.
“That’s perfect. Your mother hates when I buy the multicolor ones.” He handed me money to pay the cashier. “Keep the change,” he told me when we got back into his car. I looked at his profile and noticed a small smile on his lips.
At home I carried the gladiolus into the house, found a vase and put them in water, carefully arranging so that all the blooms faced out. Mom sat in the library reading a book. When I put the flowers on the end table, she looked up.
“Oh, God. Look at that,” she said, sounding like I just put a pile of moldy cheese on the table. “I swear he knows I hate the mixed bunches, but that’s all he’ll buy.”
“They smell nice,” I said, trying to smooth it all over.
“So does deadly nightshade,” she said and returned to reading.
Suddenly I understood their connection. She pushed, he complained, she grudgingly obliged. He bought a gift with a screw you undertone, she rejected it and he got to feel unappreciated. My parents were cue and ball, chasing each other around, striking and missing, and scattering the rest of us around the table. Sometimes we were the instruments of the game because it was probably more fun to play with several balls on the table. We were not the center of the family, as we had believed. They could get along just fine on their own in an endless game of snooker.
April 1, 2010
The Marriage Game