January 11, 2005

The Strange Young Couple

They pass by on my street every so often, he tall with long hair, she short with short, and he’s always talking. I mean always. He doesn’t pause and she doesn’t interrupt. His head tilts slightly toward her, his long strides measure the breaths of his monologue, he searches his pockets to bring out his important points, his voice soft and urgent. It always sounds as if he’s explaining something to her. She walks placidly by his side, looking ahead, barely nodding. I’ve never checked their fingers for rings, but whether it’s official or not they’re deeply married.

My ingrained reaction is to be indignant on her behalf. How can she stand to listen to him all day? What makes her so passive? Why doesn’t she tell him, “I have something to say, too, you know”?

But after I’ve seen them a few times, it sinks in that things can’t be that simple. She gets as much as he from this, maybe, and who’s the needier one here? Maybe she doesn’t like talking, or is afraid to, and he speaks up for both—maybe it’s his burden. Maybe she’s the controller—without her he’d have no one to talk to—he’s scared she’ll leave and she knows it. Maybe she has hard days and these walks are what she looks forward to, a relaxed, silent amble, her mind wandering freely and his soft, wise voice soothing her from a distance. Maybe she doesn’t care what he says. Or maybe it’s the most important thing in the world and exactly what she wants to hear.

Next time, I’m lucky enough to be walking in the same direction about ten feet behind them. I speed up just enough to eavesdrop, softening my footsteps, focusing my ears. To my surprise, he’s not explicating an engineering problem or launching a conspiracy theory: he’s talking about people, human individuals. Describing this person and that person, physical appearance, interactions with third parties—it would be gossip if she were contributing.

Another half–block, and the next thing dawns on me. There’s something odd about the people he’s describing. They don’t sound completely real. They all have physical eccentricities—a bizarre haircut, a limp, eyes of unmatched colors—and their actions, their motives, are outlined in thick, blatant strokes. This one wants revenge at all costs, that one cares only about his family honor. Comic book characters. Is he just a guy with a satirical bent, or…

Wait, now I think I know what’s going on. These people are characters he’s made up. He’s a student filmmaker or a novelist or graphic novelist or what have you. Maybe it’s a computer game he’s designing, one of those role–playing things. His wife critiques all this scenarios—he wouldn’t dare put an idea into production if she didn’t love it. She doesn’t have to say a word: he’s hanging desperately on the simple yes or no she’ll give him at the end of the walk. He keeps adding more and more to delay his dread of her answer—to plead with her for his characters’ existence.

These imaginary people are this couple’s hope for the future. On top of that, they fill hours and hours when they wouldn’t have known what to talk about. These imaginary beings he soliloquizes about are the reality in their lives.

My steps quicken—we’re coming to a street corner—I have to pass them or else I’ll arouse their suspicion. But I’m hooked: who are those characters, what is that screenplay he’s working on, or that fantasy game? Is there really a chance he’ll make it, or is this a dream like most others? Or is there no product at all—does he just spin these characters out of nothing and return them to nothing—do this young man and woman play a private game no one else will ever join?

Walking to my own destination, I keep thinking about them, wishing I’d heard more. I’ve glimpsed a world and don’t want to leave it. I try to fill in his screenplay characters out of my own invention, but I don’t have enough to hook onto—it’s only the young couple themselves I can imagine.

Breathing and stepping, I bring them into being, imagining the young couple’s home life, what kind of apartment they have, what they’re studying, where they come from, what their future is. What the young man’s characters are for the couple, the couple are for me.

And for whom am I that? And for whom are you that?