An Acquired Taste
The movie ended at 8:35 pm. It had rained outside and the asphalt shone like sepia glass under the lots’ sodium streetlamps as Robin and George walked to their car. The fresh air offered a welcome reprieve from the nicotine-clouded theater. They had seen C—, a romantic drama up for several awards that year. Robin guessed from the distant-eyed expression George had on his face that he had some strongly held opinions about the film he was nursing inside, an impassioned critical analysis in development. She took a deep breath, steadying herself for a test of wills.
It was the first year into their marriage.
As they got into the car, George began in his usual fashion, framing his critique in the form of a leading rhetorical question: “How stupid do they think we are?”
Robin buckled her seat and briefly felt her hair, long and brown with brow-skimming bangs, to make sure it hadn’t become disorganized leaving the theater. They had gone to their local single-screen. George sometimes proposed making the hour-long drive to patronize the multi-screen theater there, but Robin never felt strongly enough about a movie to risk the Friday evening traffic on the freeway.
“That final scene,” George continued, starting the car, turning to look over his shoulder to back out. Robin stared out the windshield. “That final scene was like—I mean, the music. I could barely stomach it. I could barely keep watching. The manipulation was unreal.”
Robin recalled the final scene. The director of the film had seen fit to pair the scene with a piece of nondiegetic music: a vocal jazz number, heavy on piano, the prevailing concern of the lyrics one of predestined romance. She had liked it; she thought it had accurately captured the emotional gravity of the moment and helped clarify the inner state of the characters. Contrary to what George seemed to be implying, she had seen the music as a tool to communicate the characters’ emotions to the audience, not to stand in for them. “Are we robots?” George added. “Do they think we’re incapable of understanding emotion? It seems like it.”
“I didn’t have a problem with it,” Robin replied, which subdued George for a moment. It was in times like these that she regretted not being more passionate about film. She enjoyed going to the movies but did not consider herself a connoisseur. She judged films according to a liberal rubric: Did they have someone she liked in them? Did they not upset her with violence or graphic content? Were they pleasurable? And so on. She had no professional experience, creative or critical, with film or art. Neither did George, for that matter. Her day job saw her working in an office as an administrative assistant for a local tax preparation company. She and George had met through friends in college on a ski trip. Neither one of them had known how to ski, and so they had spent the weekend laughing together as they snow-plowed and duck-walked on the bunny hill and beginner’s runs while their friends rode black and double-black diamonds. Back then, Robin had enjoyed George’s passion for film and the way in which he talked about it during the beginning of their relationship, but now she tried to avoid discussing it with him. His criticisms made her feel ashamed of herself, because
“It’s just—it’s just lazy filmmaking,” he said, chopping the wheel twice with his right hand.
George had a job as a sales manager at a small but growing insurance firm. He was a plain-looking man, not large, not thin, but hovering in a state of unexercised shapelessness. His technical knowledge of film and photography barely surpassed that of a precocious teenager’s, but he wielded it with the confidence of a well-published academic. In high school, he had entertained dreams of becoming a cinematographer, using one of his friends and his homemade Super 8mm films—satirical comedies, man-against-the-system type stuff, George always credited as director of photography—as a sample reel to earn him a job at United Artists where he’d have an illustrious career as a several times award-winning cinematographer. Obviously, he had been disappointed. The only evidence Robin had of his dreams now was his pathological insistence on examining every photograph he encountered through “the rule of thirds.” He liked to draw four intersecting lines across the pictures he found in magazines or newspapers sometimes and lecture her on how the photographer hadn’t correctly assembled his or her photo’s important figures along any of the lines’ intersections or power points. He said this made the photos unbalanced. She suspected the “rule of thirds” was the only technical concept he knew anything about. After his university’s selective undergraduate film program refused to admit him, George had given up on his dream to become a cinematographer in college.
They had left the parking lot by now and were cruising in fifth along an unpopulated commercial street.
“They’re treating us like idiots,” George said, impervious to her silence, stabbing the right side of his head with his index finger several times. “Say the music is being used to represent the heightened emotional state of the characters, right, I can see that, that’s probably what you’re thinking, so say I agree with you. Doesn’t the choice to use the music in this way imply almost complete contempt for the intelligence of the audience on the part of the filmmakers? We’re so emotionally stupid we need some obviously sad piece of music to play over the picture and tell us how to feel, or how the characters are feeling? I mean isn’t that what the choice is implying? Why as a viewer would I enjoy being treated like that? The answer is I don’t. I don’t enjoy being treated like that; I resent it. I resent the director’s opinion of me, and I resent his film.”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions about the filmmakers, don’t you think?” Robin said. Sitting there in the car, she was keenly aware of how she now had her arms coolly lotused over her chest and polo shirt. She moved them back into her lap, smoothing out the wrinkles of her calf-length skirt. Though she had wanted to see the film, that wasn’t the reason she had liked it: She had honestly enjoyed and found merit in the story and the acting and the direction. She continued, “I mean it’s no wonder you didn’t enjoy the movie. It sounds like you went in there without an inkling of trust, like you were expecting to be shot.”
“I don’t disagree,” he said, nodding vigorously, holding up his index finger and wagging it quickly back and forth like a metronome. “I actually agree completely. You’re right. I’m distrustful. But you wanna know why? Wait no listen you wanna know why? Because of movies like the one we just saw. Because we’re starting to prioritize spectacle over honesty, right, hysteria over sincerity, crazy myths over real human stories. I mean look at Jaws. A movie about a giant mutant shark eating people nominated for Best Picture! And now there’s this one about magic and men in stupid costumes swinging glowing swords around in space! I’d take Gone with the Wind over this crap and God knows that’s not a perfect movie. And what’s happened, what’s happened is that we’re losing our ability to distinguish what makes a work of art worth talking about and appreciating. Our like, our like crap-detectors are going all defunct, which by design, right, that’s by design, because the studios want us—they don’t want us to know the difference between crap and art, because crap is obviously way easier to mass produce than art, and so now it’s our duty, if we want to be good artistic, cultural citizens, it’s our duty to rebuild our crap-detectors. And so that’s what I’m trying to do and that’s why I go into movies what, what did you call it? ‘Expecting to be shot.’”
The muscles in Robin’s upper body hardened with barely controlled outrage. “I refuse to believe the things I like are crap,” she said, turning to look out the passenger window. Robin considered herself a calm person, not easily driven to anger, but George’s criticisms were striking her at that moment with the force of biting personal insults. “
George went silent. Robin watched a car speed past and the red taillights turn into a pair of distant feral eyes down the road. “That’s not what I’m saying,” George said eventually. “I didn’t mean that.”
“No, I think you did,” she said, turning back around to face him, refusing to allow her feelings to be dismissed as hysterical or misplaced. She held up her right index finger and said, “One, you thought the movie was stupid.” Her middle finger came up next. “Two, you think most movies are stupid.” A second finger, temporarily aglow from the moving window light. “Three, you think most people who like the stupid movies made nowadays are stupid.” Pinky. “And so, four, you think I’m stupid. And all your talk of being offended and Jaws being crap and whatever is just a way to convince yourself that you aren’t some total asshole.” She returned her gaze to the passenger window and made a crossroads of her arms over her chest again, her hands disappearing into her armpits.
George drove the car on in traumatized silence. She sensed them gradually gaining speed, the parade of lamplit streetlife outside turning into an artless smear.
She already regretted calling him an asshole.
Mostly, their relationship had gone unblemished up until now. Despite her annoyance with George’s belabored stances on film, the image Robin had of him in her head had yet to catch up to the reality of his imperfections. On a good day—and most days were good—a mere look from him could still make her feel as if the world had just reversed orbit. She didn’t believe he was an asshole, not really. But at that moment her anger wouldn’t allow her to express her still substantial affection.
Eventually, George must have noticed he was speeding, because the car slowed and the view outside in the window became legible once again. Neither one of them spoke to the other the rest of the drive. When they arrived home at their two-bedroom apartment, Robin took a direct line to her bedroom and shut the door so she could wash her face alone in her bathroom. George stationed himself in the living room and distracted himself with whatever, probably a book.
By the following day, they were speaking to each other once more. And the next weekend found them once again going out for dinner. They skipped a movie this time; the theater had yet to receive a new one.
They had a child in the sixth year of their marriage, a baby girl they named Stacy. Their daughter grew up overweight and picked on and by the age of fifteen carried herself with a noticeable slouch and air of hopeless diffidence. She took an uncommon path through her education, alternating between AP/honors and college prep classes in her public high school, demonstrating herself too smart for the college prep material, but too unmotivated for the honors and AP courses. When Robin talked to Stacy’s teachers, they told her she liked to hide small paperbacks behind her open textbooks and read unassigned material—fantasy novels—instead of attending to lecture or discussion. George wasn’t worried. He said it meant their daughter was a free-thinker. “She’s pursuing her interests,” he liked to observe whenever Robin brought it up.
Stacy had one friend, as far as Robin could tell, named Becca Holt. The two of them spent a great deal of time together over at Rebecca’s. Robin found it peculiar how they never met at Stacy’s house, but when she interrogated Stacy about it, the girl confessed she didn’t understand it either. “Becca just likes her room,” she said. Robin could get nothing else from her.
Robin discussed it with George one morning in their bathroom while they both performed their standard morning beauty regimens: gelling and alchemizing their hair, donning eye lenses with carefully anti-bacterialed fingers, dentalizing their teeth. Robin paused in the middle of applying foundation while George leaned in close to the full-length mirror mounted above their double vanity to examine a clogged pore on his cheek, dropping his jaw down to make his face longer and stretch out his skin, his face taking on the perpetually surprised expression of a dead fish.
“Do you find it strange that Rebecca and Stacy never hang out over here at our house?” Robin asked, watching George investigate his reflection.
“No,” he said, his fingers coming up to his cheek to stretch his pore out even more. George still worked for the same local insurance firm, which was now midsized and prospering, and after earning several promotions, he was now Vice President of Business Development. His body had lost what little definition it had once had; he looked like he was wearing a life-jacket underneath his skin, having added some extra layers along his belly and backside with age. Robin didn’t necessarily disapprove of the latter.
“What do you think they do over there?” she asked.
Robin remained unconvinced by George’s answer, but she let herself forget the matter and spent the afternoon dusting the second floor of the house and cleaning all the bathrooms. When Stacy turned five, Robin had decided to leave her administrative assistant position and become a stay-at-home parent. George had required several weeks of persuasion to agree to it—he didn’t like the idea of their falling into traditional gender roles. But Robin had managed to convince him that she would never be able to rise to the high-salaried positions he could and that Stacy would benefit from having a steady presence at home like they had had growing up. Anyway, she enjoyed the free time it offered her, mainly because it allowed her to closely monitor Stacy and ensure she remained on a sensible path to comfortable living, a luxury Robin knew most parents couldn’t afford.
At four, she began preparing dinner, putting some water in a pot to boil for pasta, careful not to fill the pot over halfway. She checked the clock on the oven, trying to judge when she needed to have the water boiling by so the pasta would still be hot when George and Stacy came home. Robin had George and Stacy’s schedules firmly programmed into her biological clock: If George didn’t come home from work around six or Stacy didn’t make an appearance around a quarter to seven or Robin didn’t have dinner on the table by 6:30 pm, she usually developed a slow-boiling anxiety in her gut like that of some silently hunted prey.
Stacy didn’t disturb the entryway until 7:20 pm that evening, causing Robin’s anxiety to reach near dyspeptic levels. Stacy’s post-6:45 arrivals usually presaged one of two things: either an obliviously emotional sprint up the stairs to her room completed by a violent door slam, or the breathless relation of life-altering social events, Robin and George assuming the largely irrelevant role of attentive audience. Feeling cynical, Robin guessed number one and so was oddly disappointed when Stacy dropped her backpack at the foot of the dining table and slid into her chair with a sort of gleefully dazed, smitten look on her face. Robin and George were sitting at the table already, having begun eating. Robin chewed on her steamed broccoli and studied her daughter, thinking about the conversation she and George had had earlier that day.
“You look happy,” Robin said.
“I watched this old movie called C— with Becca today,” Stacy said, her shoulders temporarily coming out of their fixed slouch. “It was so good. The ending and how they end up together and it’s like you thought because of her husband that they couldn’t but then she shows up at the dinner and they see each other and they have that moment and it makes you realize that like loving someone is this really, really difficult thing and but that like that’s why it’s beautiful and important, and so yeah but it was so good. Becca loved it.”
Robin felt slightly embarrassed for herself: Movies hadn’t occurred to her as a possible answer to the question of what kept Rebecca and Stacy entrenched in Rebecca’s room all day. People enjoyed watching movies together, and she knew George had hoped for a very long time that Stacy would eventually learn to love film the way he did. When Stacy was just an infant, he would sit with her in his lap while he watched Japanese New Wave films he had special-ordered on VHS and whisper in her ear the names of directors and writers with the gravity of a man dictating his will. Robin had been ambivalent about George’s attempted indoctrination of their daughter: She could see the value of cultivating such passion, but she also sensed an egotistical desperation motivating George’s obsession with film that she didn’t think was exactly healthy.
Remembering the film, Robin couldn’t keep herself from smiling. “I like that movie,” she said. “The acting is really good.”
“Oh my god, yes,” Stacy replied. She hadn’t picked up her fork yet. “Becca said the same thing. The lead actress was so beautiful. Her makeup and her hair, the way they did that thing. I have to watch it again.”
Robin thought she might have to too. She realized then that she was the same age as the character the lead actress played in the film. Robin’s beauty hadn’t grown to match the actress’s. She remained a plain-looking woman, average-bodied and unexceptionally featured, with middle age’s flaps and overhangs beginning to develop along her midsection.
“Have you seen it, Dad?” Stacy asked, turning to George, who had remained silent. He had his fork in his right hand while his left arm lay across his nascent gut. He’d already finished his broccoli and was starting on his pasta. He liked to eat his portions one-by-one, moving clockwise around the plate.
He didn’t look up as he replied with, “Yeah, I’ve seen it.” Considering the topic, he said this with remarkable equanimity.
“We saw it together,” Robin added.
“Did you like it?” Stacy asked. This was the straightest Robin had seen her daughter sit since the third grade, back when the bullying and attendant self-loathing had yet to exact themselves on her daily self-presentation.
Either George was taking his time preparing some careful bit of diplomacy or he was pretending to have not heard the question so he could avoid answering it. George liked to alternate between the two responses whenever Stacy or Robin confronted him with a question he knew they wouldn’t like the answer to. But the meaning of his prolonged silence was well-understood; Stacy’s expression began to turn in on itself.
“I bet I can guess what you said after you saw it,” Stacy said, notes of acidity growing in her voice. “I bet I can guess. I bet you were like ‘They think we’re so stupid. That was so cliché.’ Am I right?” she asked, turning to Robin. “Is that what he said?”
“You should eat,” Robin said, motioning to her daughter’s food with her chin. Despite George’s self-control, Robin felt a slight wariness at how he would react if Stacy continued to antagonize him. He still hadn’t afforded their daughter a glance, but his pasta was halfway done.
“How anyone could dislike that movie, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s so affecting and honest. That ending. That ending is brutal. I wept. I freaking wept. When’s the last time you saw me cry? You know I don’t cry. But I cried.”
“I’m happy for you,” George said, finally looking up at Stacy with a smile
Knowing what he thought of the movie and the conviction with which he held his opinions on film, Robin could guess at how much this cost him psychologically. It was practically an act of martyrdom.
Stacy remained unsatisfied. “You’d have to be crazy,” she said. She was looking at Robin as she spoke, as if she had found an ally in her mother. Robin tried to keep her expression neutral. Stacy was entering into one of her adolescent moods where she met every disagreeable point-of-view with the passive aggressiveness of a heckled stand-up comic. “You’d have to be heartless.”
George had returned to looking at his pasta but not eating it.
“I mean can every movie be some amazing work of art that’s going to change a person’s life like that one film, Andrew Ruchev—”
“Andrei Rublev,” George inserted.
“—or whatever, which what like only twelve people have seen or something.” Stacy stopped here, complexion red and overheated. Robin knew the film Stacy was referring to. It was one of George’s favorites for its “honest depiction of what it means to be a true artist,” George’s words. Robin had never seen the film: its three-and-a-half-hour runtime dissuaded her from watching. To her, a movie longer than 150 minutes was an invitation to restlessness and concrete evidence of the kind of artistic self-indulgence certain directors had that she believed issued from a personality absent of regard for other people’s time.
George still had yet to resume eating his food, a dangerous stillness having settled over him. He was now taking his daughter’s comments seriously. Maybe he always had been. “You know more than twelve people have seen it,” he said.
“Do I? I can count the number of people I know who’ve seen it on one hand. You. There, done.” Stacy turned to him, her expression having graduated several grades of hostility, from a slight frown to a fixed scowl. “Becca thinks you’re a bully who doesn’t let people have their own opinions.”
“Stacy, eat your food,” Robin said.
“What?” Stacy said, turning to face her, playing the teenage innocent. “I’m just saying. I’ve seen you argue with him about it.”
Robin couldn’t deny Stacy’s words. Something about George’s views on movies seemed very small to her, though she couldn’t say what. On the other hand, she couldn’t think of anything she believed in as much as he did film. She enjoyed wine and tasting, for example, but she had never once claimed that wine had the power to ennoble the human spirit or help dissolve the barriers that separated every man from himself and his fellow man like she had heard George do on numerous occasions in defense of one of his many cherished art films. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t feel an urge to come to her daughter’s defense.
“Consider the source of your claim,” George said. “Becca is a fifteen-year-old girl whose favorite film is Heathers, okay, Heathers, and likes to pretend that this makes her cool and alternative when in fact Heathers—it blows my mind I even have to say this but Heathers is probably one of the least alternative films known to mankind. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t take her opinion about film or art very seriously. If you want my approval to like C—, sure, go for it, you could like worse things, but if you want me to like the film with you, you’re going to be disappointed. Every one of that movie’s emotions is calculated and manufactured. There isn’t an honest moment in its entire runtime. So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to save my appreciation for films with some integrity, thank you very much.”
Stacy sat there in the wake of his declaration grim-faced and motionless. “I’m not hungry,” she said and rose from her chair to go to her room, her characteristic slouch reasserting itself as she went.
After Stacy had left, Robin conducted a couple of florets of broccoli around her plate with her fork before saying, “That wasn’t necessary.”
George’s head fell broken-jointed onto his chest as he unloaded a resigned sigh. “I suppose not,” he said.
Robin felt strangely sympathetic to him. Perhaps it was because she knew Stacy had deliberately engineered his outburst, unprepared to deal with its severity. He had done nothing to provoke her antagonism except have an opinion that didn’t agree with hers. When Robin thought about it, she realized George had been remarkably tolerant of others’ opinions as of late. She tried to recall the last argument he had had with either her or Stacy over a film before this one, but recent history supplied few examples. Perhaps a year ago. The ubiquity and zeal with which his opinions had ruled the beginning of their relationship still haunted her sometimes. But she posed a question to herself: When was the last time she, Robin, had argued with George about a film? More importantly, when was the last time she’d been offended by one of his opinions? A dim uneasiness settled over her as she found herself retreating farther and farther into her personal history to find an answer. She stared at her food, the dregs of her side dishes all that was left, scattered like shrapnel across her plate, then looked at George’s.
He still had half a helping of pasta in front of him, undisturbed.
The two of them finished their dinner without speaking. Afterwards, Robin went to the master bedroom to prepare for bed while George made himself a cup of his favorite coffee blend and washed the dishes. As Robin was just coming out of the bathroom, she heard George across the hall, at Stacy’s bedroom door, speaking at an elevated volume, most likely to reach her through the door she had refused to open. He was telling her he was sorry.
Their ten-year-old granddaughter, Karen, came to stay with them during the summer of their forty-second year of marriage. Karen’s mother, Stacy, had decided to go on a cruise with her husband and some friends for their twelfth anniversary and had left Karen with Robin and George for a week. Karen was in junior high and did—according to Stacy—okay in school. Robin took this to mean her grades were not spectacular but not embarrassing. Unlike her mother at her age, she was small, brown-haired, and carried herself with a bouncy enthusiasm that bespoke a lack of experience with disappointment or sadness. She had friends at school, many, and so never went wanting for companionship. Watching her and then remembering the difficult childhood of her mother filled Robin with a sense of disquiet.
On the afternoon of Karen’s second-to-last day with them, Robin was reading a food magazine in the kitchen while George napped. Karen came in from the backyard and declared herself bored. Robin continued flipping pages while she said, “Well then you should find something to do.”
Karen migrated tableside and stood there staring at the burst tomato pasta recipe Robin had paused on. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Trying to come up with ideas for dinner. You want to help?”
Karen, looking doubtful, watched Robin amputate a coupon, eyeing the separated half as it fell to the table, before saying, “Not really.”
“Why don’t you go play a game?” Robin suggested. Stacy had let Karen bring her game console from home to entertain her while she stayed at Robin and George’s. They had hooked the console up to the living room TV. Robin had already seen Karen spend entire afternoons sitting cross-legged in front of it, the only part of her body moving her fingers as she mashed buttons on her game controller. How she stayed so skinny with so little exercise stumped Robin.
“I’ve beaten all the games I brought with me,” she said. “Where’s Grandpa?”
“He’s napping in the bedroom. We should leave him alone.”
“I like playing tennis with him. He’s really bad. It’s funny.” She was referring to the tennis video game she had, Robin knew. Neither Karen nor George had played an actual game of tennis in their lives, together or apart. “Do you think he’ll want to watch a movie tonight like we did last night?”
Robin nodded. “I think so,” she said. Karen and George had watched an animated film from Japan last night, without Robin, who had stayed in bed watching TV in her room. Karen had spent all of last night and the following morning raving about the movie. It had had some big cute round creature in it that she now wanted the plushie for Christmas. She had written her wish out on a post-it and stamped it on the refrigerator door.
“You want to know a secret?” Karen asked.
She whispered her answer: “Mom told me not to talk to Grandpa about movies.”
“Did she now.” Robin finished cutting her current sleeve of coupons, but instead of starting a new one, put her scissors down and gave her full attention to her granddaughter.
“She said if he tries to tell me a movie I like is stupid not to listen to him.”
“Well, you shouldn’t let others tell you what to think.”
“She called him ‘draconian.’ That means strict.”
Robin frowned upon hearing this but didn’t offer any comment. The two of them continued to chat for a little longer before Karen went off to her room to play on her computer. Robin returned to coupon-cutting, but Karen’s confession gradually divided her attention till she was wielding her scissors in a near fugue-. She couldn’t recall the last time he’d told her what he thought of a film he’d seen. As Robin thought about it more, she regretted not correcting the picture Stacy had painted of George for his granddaughter.
Stacy came over to pick up Karen the next day while George was out at the grocery store buying a bottle of wine for a dinner party Robin and he planned to attend later that evening. George’s boss from work, whom George still kept in contact with even in their mutual retirement, was throwing it.
Stacy refused to come in when Robin met her at the door.
“I can’t stay, Mom,” Stacy said as Karen came down the stairs, backpacked and towing behind her a little blue suitcase heavily stickered over with large, round, bulbously pupiled cartoon characters. She offered a “Bye, love you, Grandma” over her shoulder as she progressed toward the driveway where Stacy had parked the car.
“Your father will want to say goodbye,” Robin said to Stacy. “He’s still at the store.”
“I’m sorry, Mom, but we have to get back.” Stacy worked as an editor for a business magazine headquartered in the city. Her husband was a toxicologist for a big pharmaceutical company. They lived restless lives of consequence. Talking with her was like trying to talk to a victim’s chalk outline at a crime scene.
“Why did you tell Karen not to listen to your father about films?”
Stacy took an extra moment to absorb Robin’s question then laughed. “Do I even need to answer that?” she asked.
Robin studied her daughter. An echo of her slouch still clung to her wide shoulders, but college, her job, meeting Keith (her husband), and becoming a mother had reconstructed her sense of self. She was almost an entirely different person.
“I guess not,” Robin said. “Forget I asked.”
“Just last week when we dropped Karen off, I asked him if he had seen Terrence Malick’s new film and he said yeah, it was trash.”
Robin frowned. “I don’t remember that.”
“You were in the kitchen. He’s worse than he’s ever been. I don’t want him convincing Karen to hate things she likes.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Robin said with faltering conviction. How many times had he tried to do just that to her when they first met? The replaying instances hobbled her confidence in the image she was defending of him.
“Yes, Mom, he would. Look, I have to go. I’ll text you. Thank you for taking care of Karen. I love you.” She directed this last part to her car, already walking away.
“Drive safe,” Robin said as Stacy helped Karen into the backseat. Karen waved goodbye before she got in.
George returned from the store twenty minutes after Stacy left. He walked through the front door and into the living room and immediately sensed Karen’s absence. “Karen gone?” he asked Robin, who was sitting in the recliner reading a magazine.
“Stacy picked her up not too long ago,” she said.
He frowned. He was holding a bag-wrapped bottle of wine in his hand. Robin resisted asking him about it.
They left for the dinner party at 5:30 pm. They didn’t speak on the drive over, but the combined memory of what Karen and Stacy had told Robin over the last twenty-four hours still lingered before her. She had trouble reconciling the person she thought of George as now with the opinionated man they insisted he still was. How could her image of him have been so wrong? Was it desensitization? Stockholm Syndrome? Had she learned to love what she once refused to tolerate? She thought he had changed, that maybe she had changed him. Her self-confidence embarrassed her now. And she felt a related germ of fear forming in the back of her chest. She didn’t want to discover their lives together had been some well-calculated fiction of self-preservation. She didn’t want the love she’d given him for forty years to suddenly turn into a case of mistaken identity.
What she did know: She wasn’t going to tell George what his daughter and granddaughter had said about him.
One other couple was at the dinner party besides themselves and George’s boss and his wife. Staring around at all of them at the dinner table, Robin had a fleeting thought that she might have walked into some kind of French surrealist satire where they were all the same couple. The husbands all stood of a height, their hair side-parted, bodies like unkneaded dough, while the wives sported unfussy long bobs and figures the shape of most classic teapots. Deep into the party, the husbands and wives eventually separated into their own groups, with the men traveling herdlike to the living room to check on the television and the women remaining at the dining table among the spotted plates and half-eaten dishes. Everyone had a wine glass in their hand.
George’s boss’s wife, Elise, was sharing her weekend exploits. “The concert was amazing. Have you ever seen Donnie and Marie live?” she asked Robin and Helen, the other wife present. They both shook their heads. Robin didn’t know who exactly Donnie and Marie were. “We saw them at the concert hall,” Elise continued. “It was unbelievable. Have you been down there?” Again, Robin and Helen shook their heads. “It’s so beautiful. The architecture was just—it’s very elegant. You have to see it. Have you seen pictures of it?” More shaking heads. “They just built it a year or two ago. We usually go to see a movie on the weekends, but I love Donnie and Marie, and when I saw they were going to be here, I couldn’t help myself. But you know Carl was indifferent. I don’t think he really wanted to be there, which is just ugh he doesn’t appreciate the things he gets to do, that’s what I tell him, you need to learn to appreciate things, but he just rolls his eyes at me, and I’m like okay fine be that way but you’ll be sorry.” She took a sip of her wine.
Helen was nodding next to her. “Dan is the same way,” she said. “I had him watch C— with me the other day, you remember that movie? With what’s-her-name uh Kathryn or something?” Elise and Robin nodded. Robin felt her skin come awake with a quiet energy upon hearing the movie’s title.
“Such a good movie,” Elise said.
“Yes, that’s what I told him. He hadn’t seen it. But guess what he said at the end? You won’t. You won’t be able to guess. He said it was too mushy. I wanted to pull my hair out. I said who are you? I mean I could’ve divorced him right then and there. I refuse to believe anyone could dislike that movie. Show me someone who dislikes that movie, and I’ll show you a liar.”
Robin stared at her wine glass, half-empty. She didn’t dislike the movie. She knew that. She and the movie had a history. Her taste had matured, and time had given her a distance to her original feelings about the film, which is maybe why she found herself saying, somewhat to her own surprise, “The last scene is kind of manipulative, though, isn’t it?”
Elise and Helen turned to her, mouths sucking air. “Robin,” Elise said.
She took a sip of her wine for courage, a little unsure of herself, but sensing that this was something she wanted to say. “Think about the music at the end,” she continued, elaborating on how the feelings in the final scene were unearned, created mostly by the music, the familiar words and ideas making puppets of her tongue, her lips, her voice. She believed them. Her husband’s old thoughts had achieved new urgency in her heart. When was the last time she’d even seen the movie? She couldn’t say, but the last scene found projection in her mind like an event recently lived, and its flaws and blemishes stood arrayed before her with the clarity and inevitability of a syllogism.
“You sound like my husband,” Helen said with a laugh.
Robin smiled. George came back into the dining room to get a refill on his wine then, opening a new bottle and pouring himself half a glass. It was the wine he had bought earlier that day, a Merlot Robin favored but that George disliked. She watched him take a sip from his glass and smile. His approval of the wine surprised her. She couldn’t remember when he had become partial to it.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk; view more his work on Flickr