It's not funny

A joke in Ireland sends this marriage straight to hell.


Salon Staff
November 15, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

My friends David and Lucy met 10 months before they got married, and I guess they still had some things to discover about each other. But
since it's hard to know what you don't know, neither
of them suspected anything. I kept my mouth shut.

The marriage started breaking down on the honeymoon, I guess it was. The bride played a joke on the groom. Nothing cruel, just a tiny practical joke. But like most timid
people, David hated looking like a fool more than anything, and by the time he figured out that he would not have been required to stand and salute even if
"Molly Malone" were the Irish national anthem, he
already had a barful of drunken farmers laughing their
Guinness-soaked heads off at him. (The pair were cycling through Ireland.)

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I'm sure it was then that the seeds of his paranoia -- part and parcel of the
Y-chromosome -- began to sprout.

Lucy had a kind heart, and felt bad for making David
miserable. But she was an inveterate trickster, who
loved to tease and tell jokes. In an attempt to shake
him up, to free him from his insecurity, she tried a
few more jokes on him, this time in private. But each
time he found himself scraping whipped cream off his
raincoat or searching in vain for a snappy comeback to
one of her remarks, his irritation grew. The first
time he stopped talking to Lucy, she called me, crying.

"I just wish he would laugh at himself a little," she
said. But after a 30-minute monologue, during
which I quietly ate a pint of ice cream, my friend
argued herself to a resolution: She would stop playing
practical jokes, and stop teasing David.

Whenever I was with them, I noticed that instead of
enjoying Lucy's lively sense of humor, which he had
once been so attracted to, David remained somber
and serious. It was as if he were afraid to laugh, as
if laughter would open him up to more foolish
behavior. And although Lucy swore to him that she
would no longer play practical jokes, his paranoia
began to flower. He became obsessed with avoiding
pratfalls of any kind.

These examples came directly from Lucy: If they were
going to be driving in a strange city, David would
insist on seeing the map and memorizing the route
himself; it was as if he didn't trust her to navigate.
If she told him that so-and-so had phoned, he would call that person up and first
determine whether they had actually called. If Lucy
made a single observation about something he said or
did, no matter how innocuous, he would get defensive
immediately.

And his paranoia extended beyond Lucy. Once, after
returning from an airplane trip, David unpacked his
suitcase and began checking off the items from a
packing list he had made. He discovered that his
favorite gray cardigan -- the one with the raveling hem
and the coffee stain on the collar -- was missing. David
instantly began a review of everyone who might have
had access to his suitcase, in order to determine who
had stolen it.

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Lucy said she didn't think anyone would
take an old sweater, which threw David into a
defensive rage. Then Lucy suggested that since he
often slept in that cardigan he may have left it
tangled in the bedclothes at the hotel. This turned
out to be the case, but it didn't slow David's
stampede of suspicions toward everyone -- from his own
wife to the cashier at the ice cream shop who
"purposely cheated" him out of 20 cents. He
sulked the whole way home about it, Lucy told me
later.

For this bad behavior, Lucy blamed herself. When they
met, David was quiet and shy. He laughed freely at her
jokes, even if they were a little harsh sometimes. But
once she turned her wit on him, it ruined him. Now if
she tried to tease or make a joke, he would shoot a
look of disgust her way and shake his head, or even
leave the room. For a while she became very serious,
consoling herself with the occasional dimwitted pun.
If she wanted to speak freely she would seek out new
company.

Now when Lucy wants to go to the movies, David
usually says he would rather stay home and read. On
weekends, if David wants to go camping, Lucy finds an
excuse to go to the city, where she can stay with
friends. David's silences last longer, and Lucy no
longer holds her tongue when she sees the opportunity
to laugh at his expense.

I know that while people don't change over time,
marriages do. I see the marriage of David and Lucy
developing like a Chekhov story, something the old
master might have written in a particularly bitter
mood.

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And yet, up until last year, it was clear that
when David looked at Lucy, he still saw the beautiful,
sparkling woman he had been drawn to: it wouldn't be
inaccurate to use the old moth-to-a-flame clichi. And
Lucy's heart still broke whenever she saw him struggle
out of their '74 Bug and lumber up the walk to the house.

The last time I saw them both together was a night
I had been visiting David. We were sitting at the
kitchen table, having tea and talking about, I don't
know what, probably overpopulation or the threat of
nuclear disaster or one of David's other favorite
topics.

At around 10 o'clock, Lucy came in. She had
been out and her cheeks and nose were pink with cold,
and she was singing. The moment she came into the
kitchen and saw us, her face grew stony. She sat down
with us, and within a minute or two she looked more
tired and discouraged than I had ever seen her. I
asked her about her evening, and made a joke about her
wicked ways.

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For a moment her eyes brightened and she
started to respond in her old way, making fun of David
and I hanging out in the kitchen ("like two old ladies
at a coffee klatch," I think she said). I saw David's
body stiffen. Without a word he got up from the table
and left the room. By that time Lucy no longer cried
when he punished her with his silences. Now she just
looked at me and shrugged.

"I can't help it," she said. "It's exhausting, trying
to be boring all the time." I thought this was a
little mean to David, but she had a point.

It looks like the marriage is at an end, and I don't want to
see another couple that I care about go through a
divorce. What makes it so terrible is that, while I
suspect that his depressing sulks and her annoying
jocularity have evolved into nothing more than
perverse acts meant to piss each other off, I know
that separating would make them both miserable to the core.

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Salon Staff

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