On the Joys of Hanging out with Normal People

When Rick and his wife, Yuna, start arguing, it is crucial not to interrupt them. Couples will unload on each other only when they feel completely at home; robbing them of the comfort they feel in your presence would amount to a betrayal of their trust. Plus, once they work up that much hostile energy, they have to spend it somewhere, and it’s best not to tempt them to spend it on you. But most important of all, if you break Rick’s and Yuna’s stride before they really get going, you’ll miss out on the fun.

First, some descriptions. Rick, 46, is the son of a Greek immigrant, but you wouldn’t think it to look at him. Instead, you’d guess — correctly — that he grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, playing football and popping his collar. Picture Aaron Eckhardt without a neck. Yuna, who is about the same age, comes from Korea. She stands about five-three, and thanks to a fitness regimen even sterner than Rick’s, has the figure of a 14-year old. They look as natural together as a gorilla would with a marmoset. But when they fight, they prove themselves kindred spirits, soulmates beneath the accidents of appearance.

Words fail them simultaneously. Or rather, standard English does. Yuna reverts to a kind of Charlie Chan-speak, dropping articles and even verbs, and splicing her modifiers. “YOU BIG ASSJACK!” is a classic High Yunian mot. When even this deserts her, she’ll scream wordlessly in minute-long blocks.

Rick’s governor blows out, though never completely. At various times, he’s told his wife, “IF AN ANIMAL WITH A FACE LIKE YOURS RAN INTO THE STREET JUST NOW, I’D RUN IT OVER!” and “IF ANYONE ELSE TALKED TO ME THE WAY YOU JUST DID, I’D GRAB A KNIFE AND CUT HIS SPINE OUT!” In both cases, Rick’s essential tenderness asserted itself in his choice of the subjunctive mood.

Lately, Catholic writers have been holding an informal round table on The Single Life. It seems to me that two questions deserve priority. The first is: How can permanent singles spend their time in ways that are evangelical? The second is: How can they keep themselves happy (but not too happy)? Well, in the first case, I blog. I do it in my spare time, and the pittance I earn just about covers my operating costs, namely, the Thirstbusters of Diet Mountain Dew that keep me good and amped for the task.

In the second case, I got myself adopted, part-time, by Rick and Yuna. I disagree with Eve Tushnet that it’s bad in a blanket sense to be alone — some of us need our space, after all. Far worse than solitude, in my own case, is being surrounded by people just as crankish and maladjusted as I am. Making friends who are at least fairly happy and successful works like an occasional palliative, a dose of codeine for the soul.

Colorful spats to one side, Rick’s and Yuna’s existence is comfortable and settled to a degree I can only dream of. They drive nice, though un-flashy, cars. They have a little in savings, and their stock portfolio isn’t on a respirator. They did have to sell their house short when the bubble burst, but they’ll be eligible for an A-paper mortgage in another year or so. Anyway, both are such neat freaks — like the father in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, Rick patrols the house armed with a bottle of Windex — and find tchotchkes so irresistible, that all their rentals have felt like homes.

Though I don’t mooch off these people in the form of meals or movie tickets, they do give me a ringside seat at their marriage. I get to see all the little accommodations they make for each other — how Rick makes sure to get Yuna to the nearest Starbucks drive-thru as early in the morning as possible, knowing she might otherwise melt down; how Yuna knows to retreat to their bedroom whenever he decides that a few drinks and a Netflix documentary are just the things to take the edge off. I’ve learned their secret language — how, when one of them says, “Key-AYE?” with a rising inflection, it means, “Have you seen the car keys?”

Even more fun, from a voyeur’s point of view, is spotting the tiny straws that break their respective backs. Rick hates being made a spectacle of. (“I’m just a quiet Greek man,” he’s said of himself, which reminds me of Aristotle Onassis’s boast: “People know of me only that I’m ____ing Maria Callas, that I’m ____ing Jacqueline Kennedy, and that I’m ____ing rich.”) Yuna is an exclaimer, the sort of person who goes into ear-splitting transports of delight at the sight of organic beets. Also, maybe because she’s the most harmless-looking person on the planet, she fondles merchandise like a lover without tempting anyone to call security. The sight of her sighing as she clutches a fresh loaf of sprouted wheat bread to her bosom makes Rick back away, silently hyperventilating.

Yuna can’t stand for her needs or complaints to go unanswered for long. Though Rick will see to Yuna’s last whim given enough time, he tends to lock himself in his own head for long, silent quarter-hours and half-hours, as he plans the day’s itinerary or balances his checkbook. Sometimes the inattention is too much for Yuna, who lodges her objections by pummeling his leg-o-lamb biceps with her croquette fists.

I’ve even seen them grow. In the beginning, when Rick’s business was booming, he treated their relationship to retail therapy. After every blowup, he’d either spirit Yuna away for a weekend in San Francisco or Whistler or take her to the Coach store at Scottsdale Fashion Square and let her have her pick. And didn’t it just work. I have never heard any adult squeal for joy so unashamedly as Yuna once did at a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo jelly-soled flats; for once, Rick didn’t mind a bit.

When Rick had to sell his business — and his Beamer, and their home — I was sure they were done for. But Yuna surprised me by rising to the occasion. As he hustled for a fraction of his old income, she smiled over modest meals and quiet evenings in. Rick has admitted that her small salary, which in the past he disparaged whenever he like landing a low blow, has become vital to their upkeep, and Yuna has preened herself a little at hearing it.

Here, I guess, I should state the obvious: that this periodic deliverance from the margins into the charms of suburban home life mirrors exactly the relationship I had, growing up, with my father and his wives. And, though I hasten to add that Rick and I never relate as parent to child — with five years between us, that’d be nuts — there is a paternalistic quality to our dealings. We’re like relics of a bygone age, when men of means provided in some way for poor relations, or kept useless retainers on the payroll for humanity’s sake. If Rick’s time be as good as treasure (and I think it is), then I’m basically Mr. Dick to his Aunt Trotwood, or maybe Klipspringer to his Gatsby.

And that, I think, is the real reason I shut up when he and Yuna go at it. My silence is my payment for their company, which has always felt the same as largesse. I am doing what Jane Eyre couldn’t do with her cousins: I’m making myself agreeable. Like Lane, who doesn’t think it polite to listen when Algernon plays piano, I am knowing my place.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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