[Words stolen from Jonathan Franzen.]
Antonia’s very good-looking younger sister, Betsy, knew better than to expect even minimal tact or sensitivity from her husband, Jim—he had, after all, proposed to her with the words “If you want me to marry you, I’ll do it,” and she had, after all, accepted this proposal—and so she couldn’t fairly be offended when Jim began to hint that she should have some work done. Jim’s idea of a hint was to remark, while Betsy was seated at her bedroom mirror and doing her makeup, “Isn’t it funny how people’s noses and ears keep growing after the rest of the body stops?” Or to mention, apropos nothing, while the two of them were celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary at a midtown steakhouse where every busboy knew Jim’s name, that he used to have a moral problem with plastic surgery but was “totally coming around to it now.” Or, when they were out eating lobsters with Jim’s arbitrage partner Phil Hagstrom and Phil’s young second wife, Jessica, to reach across the table and put his butter-smelling thumbs on Betsy’s eyebrows and stretch the skin between them and say, with a wide, instructive grin, “You’re frowning again, baby.”
Betsy was proud of her natural assets, proud of the fact that they were natural—she could still, at forty-three, pass for thirty-six or thirty-seven—but she was also excited, in a dirty sort of way, to imagine reaping the benefits of augmentation, of compounding her native advantages, of strengthening her already impressive portfolio of looks, while being able to blame the procedures entirely on Jim and Jim’s tactless demands, rather than on her own vanity. Almost every year on Election Day, she managed to “forget” to go out and cast her vote, or it was only after she’d fed the kids their dinner and filled her extra-deep custom-built travertine bathtub with hot and fragrant foamy water that she “remembered” that the polls were still open and wouldn’t close for another hour. Instead of putting her clothes back on and shlepping through rain or sleet and participating in American democracy, she lowered herself into the tub and savored the unclean pleasure of not having voted against her conscience (which had been Democratic since her childhood in Cleveland) while Jim had gone and flipped every Republican switch the voting machine could offer and yanked the machine’s big lever brutally, as if to emphasize his ever-deepening hatred of liberal Democrats, so that the household’s only tallied vote would safely go to candidates who wanted to lower the taxes of high-income families and leave them more money for luxuries such as Betsy’s bathtub, which Jim had bribed the co-op to the tune of thirty thousand dollars for permission to install, and which, as Betsy freely admitted to herself, it made her very happy to soak in on a raw November night.
People had always overestimated Betsy and Jim’s ambition. In the beginning, her parents had imagined that she was secretly heartbroken to have been married in a hasty, colorless courthouse ceremony so unlike the California beach wedding of her sister, Antonia. Jim’s parents had similarly assumed that their son was furious when Betsy, as soon as she had his ring on her finger, dropped all pretense of wanting to become a Catholic for him. Though Jim was frank about his lack of interest in anything but making money, and Betsy scarcely less frank about her motives in marrying him, nobody had wanted to believe them. Jim did dutifully spend a tasteless sum on a honeymoon in Paris, and there, for two days, Betsy did gamely try to do the romantic touristic things expected of newlyweds, but she was five months pregnant, and it was plainly a torment for Jim not to have hourly access to the markets, and their richly illustrated moneyed-yuppie travel guide to the authentic moneyed-yuppie pleasures of Paris was like an insider’s guide to Hell. She’d never felt uglier and had seldom experienced more intense dislike of another person. On their third morning in France, out in the middle of the Pont Neuf under a white-haze sky, Jim began to abuse her viciously, shouting into her eyes, “What the fuck do you want to do? You haven’t told me one single fucking thing you want to do!” and Betsy screamed back at him, “I don’t fucking want to do anything! I hate this city, and my feet are killing me, and I want to go home!” Whereupon Jim, more quietly, and with a frown, as if some strange coincidence were confounding him, said, “But that’s what I want to do.” All of a sudden the two of them were laughing, and touching each other’s arms and shoulders, and it was just about the most romantic moment of Betsy’s life, there, sunburned and sweating in the middle of the Pont Neuf, surrounded by the Seine’s atrocious glare, the two of them agreeing to throw in the towel and stop pretending. They went straight to the nearest McDonald’s and then back to their deluxe moneyed-yuppie hotel room for a series of hair-raising romps punctuated by languid hours of English-language TV (Betsy) and highly technical phone calls to the New York office (Jim). How dirty and hot being terrible tourists together turned out to be! Their joint surrender to boringness, their rejection of ambition, became their exciting little secret. Some people, Betsy decided, just weren’t as good at life as others: as good at culture and adventure, as good at being authentic and interesting. “I’m this kind of person,” she thought with relief, “and not the other kind.” Sitting on the Champs-Élysées, eating a farewell Big Mac before flying home three days early, she experienced a rush of gratitude to Jim so strong it felt like love. And maybe, she thought, it was love. Maybe this was what lasting love was all about. Not caring if your husband shouted English at French waiters, demanding food that tasted “more American.” Not caring if your wife didn’t have the patience to wait in line at the Eiffel Tower. Feeling sorry for your husband because his Catholic conscience had obliged him to propose to the first girl he happened to knock up. Feeling sorry for your wife for being too female about math and money to share your interest in tracking, to the fourth decimal, the franc/dollar exchange rates offered by various Parisian banks and kiosks, contrasting the best of these rates with the far better rate that a New York banker pal had given you before you left, and calculating how many hundreds more francs you’d received for your dollars than all the cheese-loving, French-speaking American yuppies who acted so knowledgeable and superior. Each spouse the keeper of the secret of the other’s insufficiency and unambition. Like two lousy golfers encouraging each other to shave strokes, improve their lies, take lots of mulligans. Each obliged to the other for overlooking so much: could this be love?
Apparently it could.