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Marriage and Toenail Clippings

Updated on November 13, 2012

The breakfast crowd straggled out of my favorite Saturday morning hangout, bright-eyed from caffeine, flushed from a surfeit of eggs, ham and buckwheat pancakes, and licking from their lips the last smears of homemade apricot jam. Only a few customers dawdled in the wood-paneled Bainbridge Island dining room over their last bites of omelette and their half cups of coffee. Sandra, the regular Saturday waitress, called a flirtatious farewell to two geezers I’d never seen before, and topped up the few remaining coffee cups. They belonged to a really fat woman in a corner booth with a romance novel weighted open by the salt and pepper shakers, two tourists with bulging backpacks and Island maps, a fifty-something couple sitting in complete silence at the table next to mine, and me, a young single guy trying to finish my buttermilk biscuit and my monthly letter to Grandma.

Dear Grandma,

Cissy and I broke up. I know you don’t understand about living together before marriage, and you may be right, because really it tears your guts out to go to all the trouble of moving in with someone, just to move out again six months later. But how else would I discover that she cooks only oatmeal, and snores, and phones up old boyfriends late at night? These are things people don’t tell, you can only find out by living together. And then if you don’t like something (I suppose I could have tolerated the oatmeal dinners and maybe the snoring, but the giggling on the phone with old boyfriends was just bad) you’re stuck.

The worst of it was that after a while of living together and arguing about these things there was really nothing left to say. That’s kind of how we ended it. We talked less and less, and it got more and more awkward, and one day we looked at each other and I said, “there’s really nothing more to say, is there?” and she nodded.

Now that the volume of plate clatter and conversation had dwindled I began to notice the silence of the middle-aged couple. A weekend newspaper flopped all over their table, headlines blaring about political scandal, famous authors and scientific discovery. They sipped and rustled pages. She gazed out the window, squinting in the morning sunshine. He stirred his coffee.

That’s the real reason I don't get married, I thought. After a while, you just run out of things to say. And anything you do say the other person will have heard already.

The morning sun shone more brightly into the quieting restaurant. The cook’s spatula rasped metal to metal as he cleaned the griddle. The fat woman ordered another buttermilk biscuit, and the tourists, after quizzing Sandra about the ferry schedule, heaved backpacks to shoulders and nearly knocked over two chairs on their way out.

I began to be curious about the couple. One of them would have to speak sometime soon, if only to say, "Let's go," or, "Well, I'm finished." Sandra filled my cup again, poured another for herself and sat down at a nearby booth, the vinyl cushion whooshing softly under her.

She just nodded, she didn’t even say anything. I knew her two years before we moved in together, and we always had things to say. And then six months in the same apartment and whoosh, all the words trickled out of us until there was nothing left but air and silence.

I write to my Grandma more casually and honestly than many people do, I’ve been told. I suppose it’s because she raised me, on her own, in a house in the Hamptons along with three pet raccoons, and she taught me to say what I thought. As I wrote my letter I kept my ears open for verbiage from the next table. The longer the silence, the more important the words that broke it might be. The man poured a bit of cream into the woman's cup; the woman stirred.

The fat woman turned a page and toppled her pepper shaker. She exclaimed and tried to catch it, it rolled, the top came off, Sandra came running, and the pepper shaker spilled its guts all over the table.

Grandma, I am never getting hitched.

Suddenly the husband leaned back, the old wood chair creaking. He crossed his hands in his lap, and looked purposefully across at his wife. I wondered if he was about to rip her heart out by telling her he’d gotten lonely and bored and started talking to old girlfriends late at night. I stopped scribbling in order to be sure and catch his words.

"You'll be happy to know I cut my toenails this morning."

In the distance the arriving ferry blared its horn. The fat woman glanced at her wristwatch. The wife stopped stirring, lay her spoon carefully on her napkin, and put her hand over her mouth. She closed her eyes and shook her head and I heard the snick of a giggle. She looked up at him. She put her hands flat on the table, as if to steady herself, and laughed. She threw a napkin at him. His eyebrows raised, and then he began to laugh, also. She laughed, shoulders shaking, until she leaned sideways, clutching the table. He laughed, and she laughed, letting laughter fall out of her like pepper, and they laughed together until they stopped to sigh and wipe their eyes.

I sipped my decaf, a bit too cool now but still the best on the island, and smiled into my cup.

Maybe if I met the right kind of quiet, funny person, Grandma. Someone to share everything of life with, even the absurd bits. And all the bits between. Then just maybe…


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