Karen Alkalay-Gut

When we were first married, Dave and I spent a lot of our time together telling each other jokes. Most people at that stage, I suppose, reveal all their terrible secrets, discuss their hidden dreams, and analyze their most intimate aspirations, but we were very tired of all that, weary with past tragedies, and wanted this marriage to be a new start, a clean beginning. So we spent our evenings in bed, trying to top the previous guffaw, choking out limericks between giggles, and stumping each other with more and more weird and raucous riddles.

The result of that honeymoon is that we began to communicate secretly with punch lines. I mean we could let each other know about entire states of mind with a single phrase, a phrase that would be entirely foreign to anyone not clued in. Even our best friends couldn't understand what we were talking about, and even now it is hard for me to describe it without a rather long example. Like this:

A man is walking down the street and he sees a big neon sign that says "Ultramodern Whore House." Attracted by the novelty, he goes up to the metal door, and reads the sign over the slot. "Ultramodern Whore House - deposit fifty cents." Fascinated by the idea, he deposits his fifty cents and the door swings open. In front of him lies a long dim corridor. He walks through and finds another door with a sign: "Ultramodern Whore House - deposit one dollar." He pays, the door opens onto a red carpeted spiral staircase and he races to the top, getting more and more excited with each step. At the head of the stairs is another door with another sign: "Deposit $5." The man isn't even thinking anymore - he's so involved in the experience he doesn't pay attention to the fiver he drops in the slot - and just anticipates the opening of the door. There he sees a long corridor, with velvet wallpaper and gas lighting. He races down the corridor to the door at the end, deposits the ten dollars required, pushes open the door, and finds an even more elegant - marble - staircase. He goes down the staircase, pays the $25 to the automatic door, and when he pushes through, finds himself on the street. In front of him a big neon sign flashes, "Ultramodern Whore House - You've Just Been Screwed."

Lisa is sitting in my kitchen, head down, weeping into her folded arms. She is worn out with telling me about her lover who convinced her to leave her husband, and then, when she was alone, poor, and utterly dependent on him, dumped her. Dave walks in the room, is shocked and moved by her appearance. "What happened?" He whispers. "Ultramodern Whore House," I answer, and he nods.

"You see," I tell Lisa, a few months later, when she is now on to another man, and she asks how Dave understood so quickly about her sad love affair, "You don't have to know all about a person's past or his history - you just need to share a language."

Lisa has been giving me the old story about how this time she and her lover are going to tell each other everything, and that way, if they know all about each other, there won't be any more surprises.

Dave leans forward with a serious, fatherly expression. "Let me tell you about my aunt Molly. After thirty years together, she turned to her husband one day and said, 'Jake, if something happened to me, would you remarry?' Jake was shocked. 'What kind of question is that? You're in perfectly good health, why should we have to think about things like that?' 'I know, Jake, but just tell me, would you marry again?'

"Jake was silent for a long time, and then he stroked his chin, 'After all, if you go, I would still be here. . .Yes, I suppose I would.'

"Molly went back to her knitting, and Jake went back to his paper, and then suddenly she said, 'You think you'd move her into this house, Jake?'

"'What are you talking about? You're alive and well! What is all this conjecturing?' 'Come on Jake, tell me.'

"Once again he was silent, contemplative. Finally, he said, 'Why not? I mean, it would be my house then, and we've had such good times here together, I'd want to stay here.'

"Molly nodded. After a few minutes, she started again, 'What about our bed? Would you sleep with your new wife in our bed?'

"'After all, I'm used to the bed,' he said after a long time.

"'On our sheets? Would you use our sheets?'

"'What is this nonsense, Molly? You're here with me, right now. What is this game of "ifs"'?

"'Just suppose, Jake. . .Would you use our sheets?'

"Jake sighed, 'I suppose. . ."

"'What about swimming, Jake? Would you take her to the same lake where we swim together?'

"'Molly, please. . .All right, I'm an old man, I wouldn't want to change my habits. . .I'd probably go to the same place with her.'

"'And golf? Would you play golf with her, too?'

"'I've always played golf. . .why should I stop?'

"'With my clubs? Would you give her my clubs?'

"'No. Not that. Definitely not.'

"'Why not?'

"'She's left-handed.'"

Lisa laughs, but I can see she doesn't understand what Dave wants from her. When he leaves to play basketball, she asks me, "Doesn't it bother you that you never sit down and discuss things all the way through, from start to finish, work things out?"

" Oh, we understand each other completely," I answer.

"What if something comes out of his past, something that you didn't know about, because you've never bothered to talk to each other, and it changes your future?"

"I think I know the general outlines of everything. Maybe not the details, but what I know is good enough . . ."

"And your marriage? Is it as fresh and happy as when you first met?"

I am reminded of another joke. The honeymoon couple are walking down the street and she slips, and he lifts her up gently, murmuring, "My, poor dear, did you hurt yourself?" A decade later, they are walking down the street and she slips and he says, "You okay?" Years after that she slips again, and he looks down at her with a disgusted expression, "Look where you're going, you old bag!" I don't say anything to Lisa.

We have been married for five years. We met when our spouses ran off with each other. Both of us were shattered then, confused. I hadn't even known that my husband was playing around, even though, as a psychologist, he used to stress the importance of openness in a relationship. I looked up the Wronged Husband then because I thought it would give me a clue to what had happened, would tell me whether there was a chance that all would be well again, that he would come back to me, that the whole thing was a mistake.

What I found was a man who refused to discuss the whole matter, a dead end. "What happened between my wife, or ex-wife, and myself," he said, "is between us. I don't mind talking to you about myself now, about you, about our future, but let's not get to know each other by comparing dates and suspicions."

Still, when we began seeing each other, people said it was a mutual sympathy association, that we were licking each other's wounds. It was normal, they said, but of course it couldn't last.

When I moved into his apartment, even my sister came to give me her advice. "What do you need to remind him of his past? Start somewhere else like normal people!" "Look, I like the apartment," I said. "It's beautiful, practical, well thought-out, in the kind of simple, elegant taste that I've always admired but could never put together. I'm not only going to move in, I'm also not going to change a single thing in it."

"What if she comes back to him?"

"She'll find us if we move too."

"Do you know what his ex-wife looks like, how gorgeous she is? Why give him ways to compare you two?" I'm one of those plump red-cheeked blonds - the kind that were in style during the Depression. My predecessor passes for a Vogue model. I do not like to be reminded of that contrast.

"Like my favorite cigarette," he said when I confronted him with my fear. "Round and firm and fully-packed. Besides, I need something to hold onto now, after years of groping for her in bed. Never could find her - she was always hidingin the folds of the sheet."

Last year I had a mastectomy. "Not so round any more," I pouted when I woke up.

"Don't worry, Amazon," he purred, "Windshield wipers aren't what they used to be either."

The anesthesia had probably not worn off, because I couldn't figure out what he meant, and before I could ask I dropped off again.

That night I woke up alone in my room. The silence was frightening, and I wanted to ring for the nurse - just to cheer me up - but I didn't have the nerve. Suddenly a joke came back to me: The institutionalized man was up for review by the asylum board. They were pretty sure he was sane, but decided to ask him one final association question. "What does a luscious woman, naked from the waist up, remind you of?" "Windshield wipers," he answered, and they sent him right back to the ward. On the way back, the attendant turned to him, "Why did you say that? You almost got out! How could a woman's breasts possibly remind you of windshield wipers?" "Oh, you know," the patient said, moving his head from side to side, "kiss. . .kiss. . .kiss. . .kiss"

"Windshield wipers don't make that noise any more," Dave once pointed out to me, as we were sitting in the rain in a car full of people, and he began to explain the difference between the old engine vacuum wipers and the new electric ones. "What's he talking about?" Lisa asked me, looking at him worriedly. "Private joke." I answered.

So I got used to having one breast. "Easier with a shoulder bag," Dave whispered to me as we were walking down the street. "One day I'm going to switch them on you," I hissed back, "The way Marty Feldman switched his hump from side to side in Young Frankenstein."

After work one day, I went to the plastic surgeon to discuss reconstructive surgery. I was beginning to feel good - thinking about wearing see-through nightgowns and parading around naked again - and then I came home to find a Vogue model sitting on the sofa.

Dave was in the kitchen making coffee. "I'm Rita," she said, as she extended a very poised hand to me, and I thought she was going to add, 'I've come home now.'

In the kitchen I asked Dave if I should leave. "Why - are you left handed?" He kissed my left hand, then my right, and then turned the palms up and kissed them. Then he sniffed them. "Antiseptic soap. . . You've been to the doctor. . .What does he say?"

"I'm on for next month."

"Sorry, Rita," Dave said as reentered the living room with his arm around me. "We can't have that coffee. The three of us have to celebrate with champagne. . . my wife's going to get a new breast!" Then he turned to me, "Does that mean I'll be able to keep the prosthesis with me all the time in my briefcase?"

Rita turned slightly away - whether from disappointment or disgust I couldn't tell. "Let me go out for the champagne," I said.

There must be a limit to my masochism, I think, on my way home from the liquor store. I go to get champagne for my husband and his ex-wife, who, apparently, may soon be my ex-husband's ex-wife, and leave the two of them alone together to work up an appetite. By the time I get back to my own door, I am overwhelmed by remorse and fear. Dizzy with the confusion, one hand clutching the champagne, I fumble in my purse for my key to the apartment. "Hey, Old Bag," Dave opens the door and kisses me, "You don't have to look for change. This isn't an ultra-modern whore house."