In the early years of our relationship, Marty and I played a lot of Scrabble.
We played at Marty’s cluttered Chicago apartment with its 1950s furniture and small collection of strategically placed troll dolls. We played at my neater but hygienically questionable studio in neighboring Forest Park. We played over pizza and Diet Pepsi at Pizza Palazzo, our heads bent over the board until closing time, murmuring sweet scores to each other. I still remember the pink neon pig in the window, an oddly endearing sign more befitting a barbeque joint.
Mostly, however, we played at Brothers Coffee, a spacious coffee house on Harlem Avenue north of the Lake Street el station. Customers would wander over to our Scrabble board, would marvel at all of the unusual words, most of which were Marty’s.
“Who’s winning?” they would ask.
“I am,” Marty would answer, though sometimes I’d beat him to the punch: “I am.”
“No you’re not,” Marty would say.
“Yes I am,” I’d lie.
I liked playing at Brother’s because their coffee was good, their tables wide, and their lighting excellent. Also, Brothers had been the location of our first date. I had answered Marty’s ad in the personals section of the Chicago Reader, optimistically dialing the phone number provided. A deep masculine voice promised dinner to the 15th caller at “the restaurant of your choice.”
I responded: “My name is Daiva, which means goddess, and I really really hope I’m the 15th caller.”
Before Marty would spring for dinner at the restaurant of my choice he had to make sure I was nominally sane. Coffee in a highly visible venue seemed like the best idea.
Never reveal too much of yourself on a first date, the relationship experts will tell you.
After twenty minutes at Brothers, Marty knew I had been a heavy drinker but was now sober, that I had been through a fairly bitter divorce, and that graduate school had left me pretty much penniless. I discovered that Marty had almost made a career out of sports betting (he was especially successful in baseball), that he had lived at home until his late twenties, and that he didn’t believe in marriage—he had somehow managed to reach his forties without ever having married or even lived with a woman.
This last piece of information would have been a red flag to most women desiring wedlock. Not me, though. The fact that several girlfriends had tried to drag Marty to the altar and failed made him more appealing. I know this makes me sound about as liberated as the Happy Housewife, but I’m a competitive woman by nature and upbringing and, unfortunately, this extends to pretty much all areas of my life (most books read in fifth grade, longest hair in high school, fewest speeding tickets amongst family and friends.)
Soon after I met Marty I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. He made me laugh. He listened to my problems, asked for my opinions, and satisfied me in other significant ways. As the relationship progressed, he learned some Lithuanian to impress my mom. I think what completely won me over, however, was when we went to see the movie Babe, the story of the beleaguered pig. At the end of the film, when Babe enters the sheep-herding contest and emerges victorious over the dog, garnering perfect 10’s and the adoration of the crowd, I heard a funny sniffling sound coming from the right. My strong, muscular, manly-man boyfriend, eyes wet with tears, was holding back sobs.
We quickly became mutually exclusive. I knew that Marty loved me. He told me so. I made him laugh. I listened to his stories. He introduced me to baseball; I took him to the opera. We shared the same values and political outlooks. And, of course, we had Scrabble in common. In light of all this, Marty’s anti-marriage stance baffled me. The more Marty insisted on the joys of bachelorhood, the more I became staunchly pro-marriage, or at least pro-commitment, and vice-versa.
I even played COMMIT for thirty points in a Scrabble game at Brothers.
“What was your other letter?” Marty asked.
“I think it was an –s.”
“I was holding out for MENT. I was waiting for COMMITMENT.”
“I’m tired of all this commitment talk. You’ve been married before, and it didn’t work out,” Marty responded.
“I didn’t love the person.”
“Marriage is just a piece of paper,” he said.
“But I want that piece of paper.”
“Okay, here’s your piece of paper.” He handed me a sheet on which he had scribbled some high probability Scrabble word stems.
“I looove you, Marty,” I whimpered, looking tearfully into his eyes.
“And I love you too, So, no need to rock the boat.”
My game plan— I hate to call it that, but in essence that’s what it was—consisted of mustering up the courage to pull away. It’s what all of the relationship guides tell you to do; it’s the advice proffered in The Rules and He’s Just Not That Into You. (In reality, I’ve actually never read those books—I wouldn’t be caught dead in public with a book titled He’s Just Not That Into You.) I’ve always had a fairly strong independent streak; although I loved Marty, I also knew I would be just fine on my own in case my plan didn’t work—you have to be prepared to lose if you want to win big.
Soon after my ill-fated “But I want that piece of paper,” I told Marty that maybe he was right: “In fact, since we’re so sure of our love, perhaps we can even see other people now and then.”
Marty did not like this one bit.
I had no intention of actually seeing other people, of course, but Marty didn’t need to know this.
He came over one time unannounced when, by some miracle of the dating gods, an old boyfriend was visiting, wanting my love advice.
“I’m sorry,” I told Marty at the door, “but I’m being entertained by another gentlemen caller.”
Okay, maybe I just said, “I’m busy,” but it was enough to send Marty despondently on his way.
I stopped automatically picking up the phone when Marty would call. I’d listen to his voice on the answering machine—“Daiva, pick up the phone. Where can you be this time of night?”—and tell myself to be brave.
Marty became more attentive and loving.
“Just because I don’t believe in marriage doesn’t mean I’m not committed to you,” he said.
“Two many nots in that sentence,” I answered, then paused. “Anyway, there’s only one kind of knot I’m interested in.”
He suggested the possibility of a five-year marriage contract: “Every five years we could decide whether we want to renew.”
“That’s about as romantic as signing a will.”
“Okay, we don’t have to have a contract. We can just live together. Or continue living in separate apartments but still be a couple. There’s something romantic about that. Something very bohemian.”
I inwardly conceded that maybe he had a point, but I also believed there was something romantic about being married. It hadn’t worked the first time around because I was foolish and had married the wrong person under pressure from my Lithuanian family. But I was older now and wiser. I knew what I really wanted. Even my conception of the ideal wedding had shifted. I didn’t need a bridal shower or engraved invitations or a five thousand dollar dress. I wanted a small wedding with family and friends, dinner at a beautiful old hotel with vases of red roses on every table, a string quartet playing Vivaldi. And wedding vows that included “I promise to have fun.”
“I think we need to take a break,” I said.
This was very difficult for me to do. I didn’t want to take a break, not at all, but I had my network of girlfriends for support and a dissertation to keep me busy. Marty was upset with my decision, but I was adamant.
After a few months of steely willpower, I decided to put an ad in The Reader: “Blonde, green-eyed, dimpled Ph.D student, 37, looking for a man willing to commit. Loves classical music and Scrabble.”
A man claiming to be Joe Zebu called that evening, saying he might very well fit the bill.
I called right back.
“It’s funny that your last name is Zebu, because that was my pet nickname for my old boyfriend.”
“What kind of person was he?” Marty said, trying to disguise his voice.
“Oh, a nice guy. Not a good Scrabble player, though. I’d beat him almost every time.”
Then, after a long pause: “I think I’d give you a better game.”
“Yes. In fact, I can come over right now.”