I like to think that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve evolved and learned to take unexpected events in stride. That I no longer adhere to the lesson ingrained in me since childhood about how every crisis, particularly an unexpected one, requires a huge fight.
But sometimes, despite my best intentions, my early crisis management training creeps up and overwhelms me.
Take, for instance, this past Super Bowl Sunday. There was no rising above adversity, no gracious laughter in the face of a screw up.
Instead, there were massive acts of bitchiness. On my part, of course.
As if there were any question about that.
I even made my husband yell. He’s not a yeller. I can count on one hand the number of times he’s yelled in the fourteen years I’ve known him.
He’d rather hold a grudge, which I can’t help but respect, given that I come from a long line of grudge holders. It’s a blood sport in my family, right along with a good, loud, mind-blowing argument.
When I was growing up, my family didn’t settle differences quietly. Any disagreement, any change in plans or minor snafu, was likely to result in a fight, with grudges held afterward, grudges that would invariably resurface in future fights.
Even holidays weren’t exempt. It wasn’t Christmas unless someone was threatening to “walk out that fucking door right now, I swear to god!”
We could see the humor in our fights, like when my mother cursed out my father for the first of many times. I was around ten years old. We were all sitting on the back patio except for Mom, who was inside washing dishes and arguing with my father through the open kitchen window. Suddenly my mother, who prided herself on her extensive, ladylike vocabulary, crashed something into the sink and screamed, “Fuck you, Tony!”
We three kids stared at each other, shocked. We’d never heard her curse before. “Fuck” sounded funny coming from her, this woman who wouldn’t let us misuse “lie” in place of “lay” without an extensive explanation about the difference between the two. All of us, my father included, started giggling. Then we heard her giggling. Pretty soon we were all laughing hysterically.
And then the fighting began again. Because, of course, every unexpected turn deserves an even bigger fight.
My brother, a good-natured guy and the baby of the family, always joked his way out of the fighting component of our family blood sports (though he’s a consummate grudge holder, maybe even better than I am).
My twin sister and I, though, became experts at both. We fought most with our mother and second most with each other, even though we’ve been best friends since the womb.
In high school, I once broke a lamp in front of her when she refused to leave my bedroom while we were studying for a test. When she still wouldn’t leave, I got a bucket of water and poured it over her head.
And our lists of grudges, well, they’re huge, especially since grudges can be held against anyone, for as long as necessary. Which usually means a lifetime.[bctt tweet=”Grudges can be held against anyone, for as long as necessary. Which usually means a lifetime.”]But no fighting outside the family. Save all the pent-up anger for your loved ones. They’re made of strong stuff. They’ll give it right back.
No one thought about the long-term consequences of our blood sports. About how built-up anxiety and anger can eat away at any good that might still exist in a relationship.
Now that I’m married to a man whose first instinct isn’t to argue, I’ve learned to suppress my immediate impulses to fight and point fingers as much as possible.
Until I can’t.
So it’s Super Bowl Sunday.
We’ve come to treat it like a major holiday, not because I have any interest in football, but because my sister and I love to cook and throw parties.
Our Super Bowl party’s gotten more and more elaborate since we started it a decade ago. The first few years we kept it simple and just made lamb chili (a la Bobby Flay – tone down the spices unless you want to numb your taste buds). Now, though, there’s always an additional main course. One year, my sister made brisket from Suzanne Goin’s cookbook Sunday Suppers at Lucque’s. Another year, there was also a turkducken. And always there are appetizers, side dishes, dessert.
My husband thinks we’re nuts. He loves the Super Bowl. Doesn’t want to miss a minute. To him, Super Bowl Sunday is about watching football, not eating.
I’m Italian, I remind him. Everything is about eating. That’s the way I was raised. It’s hard to let go of the things you learned in childhood, even the ones you wish you could forget.
Still, our Super Bowl party has become exhausting.
So this year, due to various circumstances, we decided to make things a little easier. A wonderful friend offered to host instead of my sis, which meant she and I didn’t have to cook or clean or do anything except bring dessert and show up. Easy, right?
Because, of course, this year I decided to break the garbage disposal mere hours before the Super Bowl.
And not only did I break the disposal, I blamed it on my husband.
Here’s how that went down:
I’ve been working all weekend and still have boatloads of work ahead of me.
Instead of getting right to work when I wake up on Sunday, I decide to color my roots and then grocery shop, both of which, I tell myself, must get done since (a) I cannot be seen looking so haggy for one more minute and (b) the law requires me to feed my child.
I come home loaded with groceries an hour later than planned, and I’m anxious to get all this shit in the fridge and start writing.
But nothing fits in the fridge because I haven’t cleaned it in weeks. ( I miss my fridge rules days.) I gather up all the rotten, smelly, and/or questionable food and pile it on the counter.
“What goes down the disposal?” I ask my husband. I’ve clogged one too many disposals to trust myself to make that judgment alone.
His answer: a sigh and an eye roll. He hates stupid questions. Shouldn’t it be self-evident what can and can’t go down the disposal? Can’t I make that decision myself?
He doesn’t say any of this, of course. He just gathers the stuff that’s trash-bound and points to two full containers of old rice. “Those are fine,” he says.
Here’s where my childhood training kicks in. Rather than simply taking his words at face value, I turn them over in my head, examine them for subtext. And I find it, of course. I know this man. What he really means is that I’m being indecisive and silly and stupid.
Which pisses me right off.
And leads to Massive Act of Bitchiness #1:
I slam the rice containers on the counter.
“You’re sure, right?” I say in my most nasty tone.
Because I’ve already decided: if anything goes wrong, it’s his fault.
Another eye roll, then he nods and takes the trash outside.
I’m left alone with two full containers of rice to put down the disposal.
Two. Full. Containers. Of Rice. Which is VERY porous. Absorbs water like a sponge.
But do I think about that before I stuff it down the garbage disposal all at once?
Of course not.
I flip the switch and hear a horrible grinding noise.
Water swirls and swirls and swirls.
And backs up into both sides of our two-basin sink.
This is not an insurmountable crisis. It’s low on the list of the worst things that can happen in life.
My family training kicks in anyway.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Screamed at the top of my lungs, of course.
My ten year old comes running in to hug me. “Mommy, is everything okay?”
“Just leave,” I snarl.
Mother of the Year, that’s me.
My husband walks back in. Before he can say anything, I yell–no, let’s be real, I scream, “I told you this would happen. I told you I shouldn’t put rice down there!”
(Though I specifically DID NOT tell him that.)
Him: “Let me look at it.”
Me: “No, I already tried everything. I TOLD you this would happen!”
Him: “Let me look at it.”
Me: “Why didn’t you listen to me!”
Him (finally yelling): “I’m trying to help!”
Do I back down?
I yell at him for not getting a new plunger (since ours is ripped and useless) like I asked him to a week prior and then I send him out to get said plunger along with batteries for the smoke alarm (which he also was supposed to do a week prior).
“You know the Super Bowl’s in two hours, right?” he says before he leaves.
“So what?” I say, too focused on the stinking water in the sink basins to notice the glare that means he’s hardening a grudge into place.
Sensitivity is my middle name.
While he’s out, I calm myself down.
My husband and I rarely fight, despite my family training, despite my expertise. He’s good at diffusing explosive situations, at making me feel supported and loved instead of challenged and contradicted. And, as I’ve said, he’s not a yeller.
But sometimes, like this one, I forget how hard I’ve worked to unlearn my early training and I lose my shit over something asinine. And even though he’s not a fighter, he’s human. He can’t help but hold my behavior against me. And I don’t blame him.
But I worry. I worry that each grudge eats away at his love for me. That each time I push him too far, I’m pushing him toward indifference, even outright dislike. I worry that as the grudges pile up they’ll bury that other, better person he knows I can be and then he’ll only see bitchy me, unreasonable me, exhausted, anxiety-riddled, horrible me.
That’s the danger of the grudge sport that he and I are both so good at. In some ways it’s more dangerous than fighting. More toxic, with longer-term consequences that I’ve seen firsthand. There were good times between my parents when I was a kid. Great times. Times when they laughed and danced together. When they told jokes and enjoyed each other’s company. When they enjoyed being together, all of us, as a family.
But so many years of vicious fighting. So many years of grudges piling up, one on top of the other. They took their toll. Made the fights and the grudges the focal point of their marriage instead of the love and mutual respect that brought them together in the first place. They stayed married, locked in that ongoing battle, for almost fifty years, until my mother died.
That’s not the marriage I want. We may not argue much, but the grudges. Those could lead us down the same path.
So on Super Bowl Sunday, while my husband’s still out, I decide that I’d better salvage this situation I created (both the disposal and the supremely pissed off husband).
I search the internet and come up with a solution: I throw baking soda and vinegar down both drains, wait a while, run hot water, then use the old plunger to plunge both sides of the sink.
Never believe what you read on the internet.
As I plunge, the water slowly drains, then quickly rises and splashes everywhere until I’m covered in garbage disposal spew.
I’m soaking wet. Smelly, soaking wet.
Now I’m furious. And determined. I’m gonna fix this before my husband gets home.
I force the drain snake with its little coil thingy at the end through the slot in one sink drain, snake down, loosen whatever’s lodged in the pipe, snake back up, and discover that said little coil thingy won’t come out. Because, I realize as I wiggle it and curse, said little coil thingy is a spring that came unsprung after I forced it down the drain, and now it’s too big to pull back out.
Then I hear a whirring noise next to me.
It’s the dishwasher, which has flooded too and won’t turn off.
That’s when my husband comes home.
Looks. Kill. All that jazz.
It is now an hour before the Super Bowl starts.
My husband works the snake coil out of the drain without taking the pipes apart (my suggestion, which earned me another glare).
We managed to unplug the sinks together (I stopper one side while he plunges the other with the brand new plunger).
The dishwasher he has to drain by hand, one small plastic cupful at a time.
When I offer to help, he sends me off to take a shower.
No eye contact. None.
Afterward, no longer reeking of sewage stink, I curl up on the bed to write. Maybe he’ll forgive me if I stay out of his way.
He disassembles the dishwasher, sets up a fan to dry out the filter and some other thingy in the back of the machine, then takes the fastest shower ever.
“What’s the hurry?” I ask as he throws on some clothes. My husband is not a social soul. Usually he doesn’t mind being late for a party.
He stares at me lying on the bed in my pajamas, my laptop balanced on my stomach.
“I’m not missing the coin toss,” he says and walks out of the bedroom.
I’d say he stormed out, but my husband doesn’t storm. He just stays mad. Forever.
I scramble to get dressed, barely brush my hair, gather my son and nephew, and then we’re in the car, on our way.
It’s a silent ride except for my kid and my nephew chattering away in the back about who’s going to win, whether the Patriots really cheated and even deserve to be there, etc.
We make it in time for the coin toss.
Usually I’d spend the rest of the day in the kitchen eating and chatting and avoiding the game. Instead, I sit next to my husband, who crosses his arms and stares at the 70-inch TV, which is so close to us, I can see sweat flying off the players.
I keep throwing him quick glances and asking if I can get him anything.
After a while, he uncrosses his arms and pulls me close. Kisses my hair. I lay my face against his chest and watch the game. Cheer the commercials. Boo Katy Perry. Wahoo for Missy Elliot.
Pray that he lets this grudge go. That I learn not to make every crisis into a fight.
That we find a different way to stay married than my parents did, a way to keep loving each other across the expanse of a lifetime.
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