Recently, I was searching online for a birthday gift for a friend, something involving his two main interests, music and cooking. I entered those words in the search and up popped loads of images of salt and pepper shakers, many in the shape of musical instruments. One pair, white porcelain and adorned with musical notes, brought me back to an unforgettable moment from my childhood. I had accompanied my parents to a Saturday afternoon lunch at the home of Keith and Jane, their longtime friends. I must have been about ten years old and can’t recall why I was included in this outing, though I suppose we were heading somewhere directly from their house. A few minutes into lunch, a terribly awkward incident occurred. Ever since, whenever I see a white porcelain saltshaker I think of that day.
We sat around the kitchen table in Keith and Jane’s small ranch style brick home in Queens, NY. Jane served egg-salad sandwiches. I don’t recall paying much attention to the conversation. It was mostly adult stuff. Shortly into the meal, Jane turned to my mother and said, “Sylvia, please ask Keith to pass the salt.”
On its surface, that’s a pretty benign request, right? The problem was that Keith was actually sitting closer to Jane than my mother was! Maybe he was hard of hearing in the ear on Jane’s side. Nah, couldn’t be.
I glanced at the saltshaker. It was white porcelain with a sculpted rose surrounded by green leaves, an image that would stay with me to this day.
My mother shifted uneasily. But before a full second elapsed, Keith swiped his arm toward the saltshaker, and with a big sweeping gesture he snatched it up in his fist. Then, driving his hand toward the table in Jane’s direction – uh oh, the table is going to crack – he restrained himself just before making contact with the table, softening the impact from what would have been an ear-splitting slam to a thud. As he did, he turned to my father and said, in a tone suggesting he was doing his best to hold back rage, “You can tell Jane the salt is now within her reach.”
How interesting that this memory was triggered now, since I’ve been thinking about impasse lately.
Impasse. Deadlock. Stalemate. Like when you hit a dead end and can’t even make a U-turn. In relationships it happens when partners become fixed in their positions, resistant to building bridges, their intractability hardening. This notion has been on my mind as it’s an underlying theme of the novel I’m currently writing. I’m not focusing on the blatantly hostile variety practiced by Keith and Jane, but one traversing layers that are sometimes subtle and expressed through other means, like disregard for what our partner has to say, through the more overt levels where we argue without concession about the issue at hand. For Keith and Jane, life together was the issue at hand.
This next novel is about a family in conflict over what to do with the husband’s elderly mother when her decline starts to accelerate. For a variety of reasons, his wife doesn’t want her mother-in-law to have much of a presence in their lives, and certainly not come to live with them. The husband feels trapped between her adamance and his own ambivalence – ambivalence arising from an obligation and even a desire to care for his mother, distress over the loss of freedom it could entail, apprehension over the prospect of watching her up close as she becomes increasingly feeble, day by day, minute by minute, anger over a sibling’s seeming unwillingness to help, and above all, his growing acquiescence that life is presenting an onerous choice: his marriage or his mother.
Keith was my father’s friend since childhood. My dad met my mom and Keith met Jane at around the same time. Even as a young kid, I could never quite figure out what my dad saw in Keith. My dad had a more refined intelligence and graciousness of manner that seemed lacking in Keith, who always struck me as boorish and simple. I know, I know, that can sound snobbish, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind,
I’d hear my dad and Keith laughing together. And they shared boyhood memories. So maybe that explains their connection. Comfort. Familiarity. Easy laughs. The closeness of siblings without the baggage of rivalry.
I don’t think my mom and Jane shared a real attachment – get togethers impressed me as mainly for the guys.
There are two very distinct images I have of Jane from when I was young. The first was that she was never without a cigarette. That’s not an exaggeration. And like clockwork, every ten minutes she would be overtaken by a deep, hacking cough. Each episode lasted about thirty seconds, during which she managed to get in a couple of puffs on the cigarette. At the end of the night, the ashtray would be overflowing with a pile of butts rivaling that of any neighborhood bar.
The second image of Jane is that she never looked happy. Her lips were perpetually downturned at the edges, and there was never a hint of sparkle, of joy, in her eyes. She laughed with my mom from time to time, but the look on her face was always ninety percent glum, ten percent bitter.
My mother and father did their best to keep Keith and Jane apart when they socialized. But there was always tension when it was impossible to keep them separated, like at dinner. If Jane said anything, and by “anything” I mean anything – from offering an opinion about a movie or a politician to asking what time it was – Keith dismissed her with a wave of his hand or a comment designed primarily to discredit what she said and, by extension, her. Typically, though, when Keith was holding court – which seemed to be his favorite thing to do – Jane slunk into the background, relegated to the sidelines.
That’s how it was, with the exception of one time when they were visiting, and I overheard a discussion about one of Keith’s employees who was out sick. Keith was the second-generation owner of a small textile company. Referring to the employee, whom she apparently knew, Jane offered something like, “If he’s going to be out for two weeks, can’t you advance his pay, so he won’t struggle?”
Instead of responding, Keith just continued talking, as though she hadn’t said anything, like she wasn’t even there. But he had to have heard her. He might not have been listening, but he did hear her.
A minute later, she said it again, just a little louder. “Maybe some advance to help him out?”
This was uncharacteristic of Jane who, for the most part, ceded the floor to Keith when they socialized. She was unable to penetrate the conversational space, let alone assert herself in it, her self-esteem too brittle to stand up to Keith’s outsized certainty of his opinions.
Keith stopped, took a deep breath as if to summon restraint, then glared at Jane for a second before discharging his self-appointed duty to put her in her place: “Look, you’re no expert in business, so maybe think before you barge in with advice.”
My father jumped in. “Jane has a point. Even if you put compassion aside, he’ll stay longer and work harder if you help him when he’s down.”
Keith was silent for a second. Then he changed the subject.
Once I became an adult and moved out, I saw Keith and Jane only very rarely, just at major celebrations, like my parents’ milestone anniversary. The last time I saw them was about 25 years ago during a visit to my parents in Florida. Keith and Jane had moved there many years earlier, and my parents also relocated there about ten years later. Keith and Jane belonged to a pool club and invited us for lunch.
As my parents and I entered the pool area, we spotted Keith and Jane at the far end at a table with a large umbrella. I hadn’t seen them in about ten years. Keith had the sort of olive skin tone that deepens in the sun without changing color, and he was as dark as could be. Jane looked like she aged considerably beyond her chronological years. Haggard, hunched, pale. Her arms were thinner, the veins on her bony hands pronounced. And she was tethered to a portable oxygen machine.
Conversation began with the usual pleasantries. How’s your family? This place seems beautiful. How have you both been feeling?
The waiter came over to take our order. When it was Keith’s turn, he said he’ll have chicken salad on white toast.
“Again?” Jane asked. “You just had that yesterday.”
Keith stared at Jane. Then he erupted. “What business is it if of yours what I order? Do I tell you what to eat?”
Turning to the waiter, Keith said, “Meet my wife. Or should I say my food monitor?” Then he turned toward Jane, his eyes narrowing, his mouth tightening, and stared at her as he instructed the waiter, “I’ll have the chicken salad.”
The waiter fidgeted, pretending to write the order so he didn’t have to look at any of us. With all that writing he could have produced a novel himself.
My mother and I exchanged a knowing glance and a surreptitious smile. It wasn’t a cheerful smile, but rather our tacit acknowledgement that nothing had changed.
Jane looked thoroughly defeated. Her blouse hung loosely on her gaunt shoulders. Her eyeliner was applied too thickly and unevenly. Was she physically unable to do a better job or did she just not care?
I wondered at that moment if Jane had ever experienced a moment of genuine happiness in her life. Joy? Peace? Contentedness? Something positive? Anything? I suspected not, but at the same time I realized that I had no idea what she thought or felt about anything. There she was in front of me, a shell of a person I have known for decades and didn’t know at all. She was beyond the reach of my understanding, but not my pity, which filled me, amplified by the rhythmic hum of the oxygen machine.
A few months after that visit, my mother called to say that Jane had died. Emphysema.
I thought back to the episode at the pool. It was confusing. Why would Jane comment on Keith’s lunch order? She would surely have known that it would have generated a hostile reaction. We all did. Undoubtedly, so would anyone who had ever spent two minutes with them. Yet, she went ahead, presumably knowing it would provoke him. What was her motive? Was it simply a case of reminding him of what he had had yesterday and thought he might prefer something else? In other words, could she have been looking out for his best interest? Or was she purposely luring him, consciously or otherwise, into a predicament in which he was certain to embarrass himself? Or was she setting herself up for abuse consistent with someone who believes they are unworthy of love or deserving of punishment?
As I’ve been working on my book, I’ve been thinking a lot about motives, and especially how they relate to impasse. And because of the blatancy of Keith and Jane’s antagonism, I can’t help but speculate how they got to that awful place of impasse, but even more, what kept them there. What motives could possibly explain that?
There are any number of ways we might look at this. I’ll mention two.
The first is that looking into a relationship from the outside invariably involves a process of simplification. What may appear clear to an outsider is typically far more complex on the inside. Something kept Keith and Jane together even though the only thing they seemed to have in common was antipathy for the other.
But the fabric of their relationship has all sorts of weaves and colors and designs which they, together, had created… a meshing of needs that seemed unhealthy and destructive to observers, but needs, nevertheless. While we can describe a couple’s outward behavior, navigating the labyrinth of intersecting psychosocial drivers of their behavior is far more challenging. Each partner’s needs can be concealed in crevices, shifting from one hiding spot to another to avoid detection. Though it would seem counterintuitive, it is common for us to protect needs that have become so deeply ingrained in our identity, even while they may stunt our emotional and relational well-being.
We often say someone is resistant to change. Jane is a prime example – just look at what she tolerated! But the expression is not a mere truism: resistance to change is actually among the most dominant of psychological forces. We are far more adept at building impenetrable fortresses around needs that seem illogical to others than we are at experimenting with alternative behaviors.
The second explanation – and this may sound odd – is that maybe Jane’s motives at the poolside lunch didn’t matter as much as the idea that Keith and Jane had become stuck in a long-term pattern of behavior that engulfed them, leaving no room for escape. It was like a monstrous whirlpool, sucking them into its vortex, deeper and deeper. Jane may have just been playing the role assigned to her when she questioned Keith’s meal. She couldn’t help herself from asking him about that any more than Keith could prevent himself from castigating her… like two actors reading from the same script over and over and over, year after year. At some point, muscle memory – habit – simply takes over, superseding consciousness, long ago swallowing any belief that it needn’t be that way.
Of course, all couples hit bumps from time to time, and some could be serious.
“You’re too lenient with the kids. They need some discipline, some boundaries”…“You’re too tough on them. They need understanding, not punishment.”
“Does everyone need to know every little detail about our lives?”…“Your need to keep everything private isn’t healthy.”
“Is this trip really necessary? And at that cost!”…“If it was up to you, we’d never leave the house.”
While differences are inevitable, they are not the same as impasses. But they can morph into them when they can’t resolve, when positions toughen, listening disappears, and common ground seems elusive. Or when finding common ground loses its appeal, would seem to serve no purpose, and is no longer sought.
As I grew into adulthood and considered what I witnessed with Keith and Jane, what struck me about their impasse is that it appeared to frame the entirety of their relationship, the full scope of their shared existence. Any specific matter they were discussing was incidental, irrelevant. Whatever the issue of the moment – a lunch order, an advance payment to an employee, the passing of a saltshaker – it was simply a vehicle to express disdain. Actually, it was more than a vehicle. It was a weapon. And they had become expert sharpshooters from years of practice. The real problem was never the substance of what they were arguing over, but what it afforded them – an opportunity to unleash contempt.
I also wondered if this was how they behaved in social situations, how much worse would this be in the privacy of their own home? Or would there even be any difference? Could their animosity have become so fierce that it stamped out any ability they might have had to regulate it, to prevent it from spilling into the public sphere?
I asked my parents from time to time about how they handled the stress with Keith and Jane. Of course, they were from a generation in which the inclination and vocabulary for discussing feelings and relationships were less developed. But they did try. My dad said that Keith confessed he could be a “hothead” and promised to try to tone it down. Jane was more guarded, attempting to persuade my mom that things were not as bad as they looked. If my mother urged her to open up, Jane simply said, “I’d rather not discuss it.” Although their socializing had dwindled over the years, my parents told me that it was important for Keith and Jane to know that my parents would be there for them, that they should not feel abandoned.
Whenever I think back to that moment with the saltshaker, I feel a deep sense of sadness for Keith and Jane, and at the same time, a profound appreciation for the unconditional love my own parents had for one another.
The test for the couple in the novel I’m writing is whether their impasse over the husband’s mother becomes the defining feature of their relationship. Will impasse overtake them in a way that leaves no way out? Or will they be able to negotiate a resolution that, even if not fully satisfying to both, is acceptable in a way that doesn’t require one to bury a desire or choke a need into submission… or avoid living with potentially crippling guilt? I sort of know where the story heads, but I’m typically unclear about how each section will unfold until I write it.
In a recent New York Times op ed, David Brooks wrote, “Marriage is a 50-year conversation. Marry someone you want to talk with for the rest of your life.” Mapping my characters against that delectable nugget will help determine whether their experience with the aging loved one prompts them toward actualizing or succumbing to discontent. That’s the adventure I’m on with this family that I am simultaneously inventing and learning from.
Sadly, actualizing was not in the cards for Keith and Jane. Their story is a tragic one. For them, there was no escape hatch, no off ramp. Life appeared to offer little peace. Instead, they seem destined to inch miserably toward the finish line where they could finally find a measure of mercy that life together never seemed able to provide.