Marriage Story

My response to the pandemic feels like a malfunction: my faint but ever-present tinnitus has become a monumental drone, low and jagged. When I try to go to sleep it’s just me and my disintegration loop. I looked up tinnitus online, and apparently it has some psychosomatic wrinkles I wasn’t aware of.

Rome Coronavirus Dispatch #2

Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

I’m trying to live through the pandemic without points and takes. I want to make the most of this time and use it to separate literature from the network of takes that social life has become over the past decade. This dispatch is a new story about the people I love. My first dispatch was about my father’s ill-timed hip replacement. —FP

The woman living with me was my wife until two weeks ago. We got married for different reasons: she wanted a big party, and I wanted to secure what was still, at that point, an alliance built on strengthening our positions. I’m a political science major and a novelist. I believe in shapes, forms, and tendencies—not in values. She studied theater and cinema, she’s a feminist. When we started living together she had a job that was making her miserable, but she wouldn’t quit: she had always made a point of never leaving a job without first securing the next one. As a result she’d never had the chance to regroup or retool.

Our Catholic heritage compels us Italians to believe that between marriage and divorce lies an interesting gap of time called the “separation.” During the state of separation you are still married, but some of the effects are suspended. (The coincidence between this and our current predicament is unintentional, but I’m acknowledging it anyway.) I told her that if we got married either of us could take time off work, and we’d still be safe, and if we broke up during a work hiatus, whoever was employed at the time would have to keep buying the other person food. “And clothes, too?” “Oh, for sure!” I said to her, with what I recognize now as tone-deafness, that according to my understanding being a feminist shouldn’t feel like punishment, or self-punishment. It shouldn’t force someone to remain in an abusive workplace. If we get married and you’re out of work, I said, I have to pay for both of us until we’re divorced. And since you’d have to cosign the divorce papers, you can remain in a state of separation until you find a job you actually like.

We got married, and I myself have taken advantage of this deal. I took our first year of marriage off to write a novel; she—and a very meager amount of magazine work—fed me throughout that time.

She was my wife until two weeks ago. That’s how I started this story, because what I want to stress is that marriage is a social thing. Even if you’re a fan of vows and complicated weekends in the country full of rituals and pageantry, marriage isn’t set up to compose the entirety of your life within society: it acquires its value from context. Now there is no context, especially not for two hypochondriacs who have been piling up garbage in the yard because they’re afraid of making the very short walk to the neighborhood dumpsters and have seen one friend and no relatives in the past ten days. She is not my wife, and I am not her husband. In the wedding vows there is always an allusion to bad times, but I’m not sure that includes total separation from the society that gives the social contract its meaning.

Who are we when we’re alone? I have time to study her. She’s sad half the time, scared most of the time. She is capable of experiencing her fears all at once, in a bundle, like an all-access subscription service to her nightmares, whereas I can only concentrate on one fear at a time. So I put all my energy into, say, avoiding social contact, or checking my bank account for signs that anyone in publishing who owes me money has actually gotten around to paying me what they owe me before early April, when I have to pay my credit card bill. I never think about what editors and translators and podcasters and writers will be paid after the pandemic, while she has a lush, six-screen setup in her mind where she monitors every contingency all the time: she’ll lose her job; she’ll lose her parents; she’ll lose me; she’ll die; and then the economy will collapse.

The neurotic comedy of married life has a completely different feel these days. The jokes feel like they’re written by SUNN O))), who’ve slowed the dialogue down and buried it in reverb and echoes. I’m writing about the pandemic in a language that is not my own because I don’t want to deploy my usual tools. I don’t want to repeat things I learned and said at a different time. If the government ordered us to use a different language to express ourselves during the pandemic, it wouldn’t even be that strange. Being stuck is a different language, too.

The above digression is my homage to the woman I live with and her fears. Her fears are so real and so present. I no longer tease her for lumping them all together. I watch her curl up on the couch and weep and I thank God for my stilted childhood and android-like reactions. (My response to the pandemic feels like a malfunction: my faint but ever-present tinnitus has become a monumental drone, low and jagged. When I try to go to sleep it’s just me and my disintegration loop. I looked up tinnitus online, and apparently it has some psychosomatic wrinkles I wasn’t aware of.) But when she hears that one of her close friends has been laid off, she doesn’t encrypt and disperse the revelation via drones and tinnitus. She keeps it in front of her, all day long. When a friend tells her that everyone who works for her company will be subject to the cassa integrazione, the temporary lay-off scheme, and that she’s still not sure if they’ll survive, and who knows whether the government’s stimulus package will be successful, anyway, the woman who lives in my house, the woman lying on my couch, keeps the information front and center and places it onto the pile, just on top of the previous piece of news. And when another friend tells her that her mother has to keep going to the hospital for chemotherapy and that her sister is a nurse, she projects this new information onto a new screen next to the other information that occupies the other screens.

When the writing really slows down for me, like it has this morning (the birds are chirping, it’s sunny), there is no distraction or temptation to open Twitter or Facebook. At moments like this I can use writing the way I did when my family wouldn’t let me do anything that wasn’t related to the church, when I developed the hermit skills that are serving me so well these days.

I want to tell a story from last weekend, but it requires so much context. The main thing you need to know is that the woman who lives with me hasn’t been working, because she is in the event industry. This alone would be enough to provoke constant nightmares, but there’s more things, and it’s not related to the virus. Her new job, which she started shortly before all this started, is her dream job. This self-actualization provoked a lot of inner turmoil over the past few months, because no one who grows up and realizes their desires is ever really happy, especially not us Catholics. On top of this were two new realities that would inevitably shatter the reality of the married life we’d known. She would have to spend some of her time in Turin, commuting back and forth and threatening her Roman routine and her Roman community in the process (and I would have to go with her, because I’m a wimp, and I miss her all the time). And even worse, when in Rome, for the first time in her life she would be working from home.

This was our major problem around the time she was last my wife, two or three weeks ago. We were worried about both of us working from home, and she was afraid that she would go crazy without an office to go to every day. A few days before all this started, she told me that I was allowed to spend my days in spandex only until I submitted the Hanya Yanagihara novel I was translating. After that I was going to have to start dressing like a normal person again.

On Saturday morning, the power went off and our alarm started blaring. She later told me, after we’d made up, that I freaked out as soon as the noise began. I didn’t notice my reaction, but I know I felt guilty because I was the one who hadn’t chased down the electrician weeks ago, when she’d implored me to. Without a fresh battery, the alarm was bound to erupt with the most violent noise because the living beast that it is thinks that every time the power goes out it’s because there are thieves around, scheming and breaking and entering. A few weeks ago, someone in the neighborhood called the power company people, and they had to disconnect the power on our block a few dozen times. On that occasion, our alarm went off every single time, until 4 AM. We ended up driving around in the middle of the night, mortified. There were people walking down the next street over from us, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from. Nobody had ever told us that you have to change that battery every two years. It had died five years ago.

So when the alarm went off again, in a neighborhood now frozen by quarantine, I must have freaked out because I hate to bother the neighbors, it’s something my mother etched into my brain. I got out of the house and stared at the alarm high up on the outside wall, its orange light blinking frantically. The woman I live with saw that I was freaking out and started screaming “You’re no good! It’s your fault!” So I felt the urge to go out, for the first time since Monday, and check the electrical box on the block to see if I could make it stop from over there.

There were two men drilling into the pavement in the narrow alley where the electrical box is located. I asked them if the power outage had anything to do with them. They said no. “My wife is about to kill me,” I said. I apologized for pulling my hoodie all the way up, to cover my nose and mouth. “She’s a hypochondriac,” I said. “No, of course,” they responded, “our wives are like that, too.”

I was at a safe distance from the men, staring helplessly at a box I couldn’t remember if I even had the key to. Right at that moment, the woman who’d been my wife appeared and started shouting from a safe distance, about ten meters: “I can’t believe it!” she yelled. “What are you doing over there with them? We’ve spent a whole week alone to make sure we’re healthy, and now we have to start from scratch!”

Her voice was a canyon full of caves where horses had gone to die. It was so scary. When I was growing up I had a kind of falsely symbiotic relationship with my mother. Everything she said became a truth I had to accept, but which I remained wary of. That happens with partners, too. I went back inside thinking that she was right, that death had entered our house.

I told her that it was going to be fine, that I had taken all the necessary precautions. My voice was feeble and unpersuasive. She was miserable, she was crying. (The alarm had shut off at some point.)

I called the power company but was interrupted mid-conversation by my neighbor, who grew up here. It was his house the men with the drills were working on. He told me through the window that we were probably using too many appliances, because after all we weren’t used to spending all our time at home. The man on the phone told me that the power company had recently started to limit usage at peak times. I can’t be more specific about any of this now because I was in a state and don’t remember.

The idea of a power outage is scary at a moment like this. The woman who had been my wife got on the phone and found a different electrician who brought a new battery the following day and solved the problem. He and I stayed three to four meters apart the whole time he was here and were happy to have the chance to chat. He told me he’d been able to buy the battery at a wholesale place that was still open because it wasn’t a neighborhood store and so was exempt from the restrictions. If the sale and distribution of things like batteries had been interrupted, too, we would have ended up in a much darker place, watching as everything we needed eventually stopped working. We left him an envelope with cash in various denominations on the table in the yard. He helped himself to it and left.

But something else happened before that, on Sunday night. You have to know that Sunday was our day of peak sadness. The weekend felt so lonely, and also the numbers were climbing. Most people don’t read what the scientists say and only participate in the commentary. There isn’t enough herd immunity to bullshit, and I feel like the I’m the only one who swears by the graph that says that things have been invisibly changing for the better from the minute we went on lockdown. But the thing is, the official numbers change slowly, it’s inevitable, and you have to have hope. And hope is what some people started to have yesterday, on Monday, when, for the second time in a row, public announcements went with what the scientists had been writing—the numbers were showing promise.

What happened on Sunday night is a small thing that doesn’t have to do with the virus, and that’s why I’m focusing on it. My parents are at home, and a man from a clinic comes to see my father every day to help him with physical therapy after his hip replacement surgery. Then my parents watch the rosary and the mass on TV. I cannot focus on this—on the fact that this man leaves the clinic and comes to my parents’ house and puts his hands on my father. I might be an orphan in two weeks. I can’t be like the woman who lives with me and keep this thing in front of me all day. I can still love her, maybe I love her more than I did before all this, but for the first time I feel that we’re on different dimensions. I don’t want to be that human. I’m using this foreign language to allow myself to briefly feel things and consider things, and I can’t wait for this piece of writing to be over so I can go take a shower and be my old self, in Italian, clunky and silly in the face of adversity.

Sunday night my baby, my fantastic life partner, was getting ready for bed. She sleeps with a heated pad you have to plug into an outlet. She had told me days earlier that the pad was taking forever to charge. On Sunday night, she plugged it in, and I saw the light in the living room dim. We checked everything: the wall sconces were OK, but the lamps you plug directly to the wall had gone dark. I looked at the electric panel; the switch for outlets was in the off position. I tried to flip the switch back to On, and there was a spark somewhere inside the wall.

This time around, I asked my love not to freak out, and I smiled in a way that conveyed natural, hopeful goodwill. The risk of fucking up the power in our hermitage made us experience deep, strong emotions. We both had low battery on our phones, but we discovered that the sockets in our kitchen worked—they were grouped on a different switch on the panel. We plugged our phones, then dumped the heating pad in a corner after carefully pulling it from the socket it had short-circuited.

My beloved housemate and I looked each other in the eyes and realized that our collective not-freaking out was an important moment in our woozy journey. I told her I was sure the spark wasn’t dangerous, but we shouldn’t risk setting off the alarm in the dark. The next morning, though, we’d flip the general switch off, then flip the outlets switch on, then flip general on again.

On Monday, the news finally arrived. The mid-May event my wife had been so happily working on, her perfect assignment, has been postponed. Monday was a sad day. The next day, yesterday, the office in Turin called her up for an online meeting. She was so happy at that meeting. It was a joy to watch her sitting at the table waving hi to everyone on her camera. Before we went to sleep, she casually dropped the news that her team had decided that she was going to take on part of their social media work soon. She felt so happy saying that, and now I’m marveling at my unearned ability to concentrate intensely on only one thing. Last night, it was her smile. This morning, it’s a foreign language that takes me on a two-hour stroll in the garden of my feelings.

March 18, 2020

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