Please understand. I love my wife. And our marriage is an earthly manifestation of God’s love, especially after we had the counseling. But ever since the day we met, 13 years ago, on a ski trip to Swiss Valley, our relationship has been a competition—even though, as we learned in counseling, it is absolutely not a competition, because competitions produce winners and losers, and what would you rather do, be a winner or be married?
I was a freshman at Notre Dame. She was a freshperson at Saint Mary’s. A mutual friend introduced Christine and me at the top of the mountain, which wasn’t really a mountain at all. Swiss Valley is a misnomer. It’s in Michigan, and the valley in question is actually a pit dug at the base of a hill. Really more of a hillock than a certifiable hill. The dirt from the pit was piled on top of the hillock to create a total vertical drop of about 200 feet. So we said our hellos and our nice-to-meet-yous at the top. I noticed that she had long, pretty brown hair and stood nearly 6 feet tall. To this day, she will periodically claim she is actually taller than I am, but she’s not. We’ll be at a dinner party, and it’ll come up. Then I am forced to ask her to remove her shoes so that we can stand back to back and have an impartial judge rule that I am indeed taller, by a full inch.
Anyway, we started our run together from the top of that snow-covered hillock. We pointed the tips of our skis downhill. The race was on. And even though we’d just met, she handled her poles like two sabers, slashing and lunging at my legs, trying to make me fall, all the way to the bottom. Lucky for me we met at Swiss Valley, because if it had been Vail, a place with longer runs, the woman might have killed me.
We’ve been married now seven years. Like I said: total, nonstop manifestation of God’s love. And that manifestation reached fulfillment when, after a late-night rollick in our backyard hammock, we delivered another soul into the church’s dominion. Burke is now 4 years old. At press time, he was a super Komodo dragon with wings. By the time you read this, that likely will have changed, since, prior to becoming a super Komodo dragon with wings, he was a giant motorcycle robot for all of a week. But the Komodo dragon has forever altered the power struggle in our noncompetitive relationship.
First, he gives us something else not to compete over. The Komodo dragon, for example, hasn’t yet mastered the process of wiping himself. This means that when the three of us are eating at a restaurant, either Christine or I must escort him to the bathroom. Invariably we’ll be sitting at the table, discussing the issues of the day, and the Komodo dragon will interrupt, shouting, “I gotta go poo-poo!” Whereupon his mother and I will fix each other with a steely glare, each place a fist on an upturned palm, and hammer out a rock-paper-scissors match. Two out of three. This method is the only one we’ve been able to agree on for deciding who has to go and wipe. It’s still not a perfect system. I am clearly the superior rock-paper-scissors player. My lifetime average against Christine stands near .800.
“Errgghupf,” she will say, in the restaurant, when she loses. “I hate you.”
I will say, “Burke, tell Mom it’s not nice to hate.”
The Komodo dragon will say, “Mom, it’s not nice to hate, you know.”
It’s the best.
The Komodo dragon also has altered our relationship by providing intelligence. Long-wed couples who’ve seen a lot of action will sometimes refer to the “fog of marriage.” It’s an apt metaphor for the bewilderment that sometimes settles over the theater of operations—like, say, the time we got into a discussion about how Christine put off filling out the health-insurance forms necessary to get partial reimbursement for the cost of all those counseling sessions until it was too late and about how blowing that money wasn’t anything like losing money playing poker because going all in on a fifth-street flush draw might be risky, but not filling out health-insurance reimbursement forms is just plain dumb. That never pays off. In a discussion like that, it’s tough to tell who’s winning. Especially because the counseling was her idea. And it really did help.
I later joined the Komodo dragon on the living room floor to play Connect Four. We were lying on our bellies, looking at each other through the tiny portholes in the vertical game board. He said, “Dad, I love you more than I love Mom. I love you 30 inches. I love her 10 inches.”
See? That’s solid intelligence. The Komodo dragon knew the score.
But he has most dramatically transformed our connubial engagement by serving as a foot soldier in it. Example: Christine does not like to be scared. I grew up with a mother who could conceal herself in shadows like Gollum —crouching next to furniture, standing in closets—where she would sometimes wait for 10 minutes or more to leap out and startle me. It was great fun. When I was in the first grade, Mom also once put crumbled saltine crackers in my shoes while I was asleep, thinking it would be hysterical when I put them on. Only her prank didn’t materialize until I’d gone to school and felt something poking me in the toes. I took off a shoe and found a squished cockroach in it. The crackers were all gone. That sort of high jink you just can’t plan. You’ve got to have the gift.
More stuff to talk about next session. Anyway, the point is, I grew to appreciate a good scare, the kind that makes people drop glassware and curse. Even before we were married, I began jumping from behind things and frightening Christine. Usually with a half-hearted “boo!” because saying “boo!” is the most cliche scare tactic imaginable, which is exactly what makes it so wildly effective. The scaree gets all the angrier for being scared by a silly “boo!” Christine let me know that she did not share my enthusiasm for this pastime. After I got her really good one day, she said, “If you ever do that again, I will punch you in the gut.” And then, when I did it again, she punched me, hard, in the gut.
You see where I’m headed with this. No way is a mom going to gut-punch her 4-year-old. Even if he is a super Komodo dragon with wings. So I taught him how to lie in wait, motionless, silent, slowing his respiration to a barely perceptible rate. I told him, “This is how Komodo dragons do it in the wild, by hiding quietly and then springing from thickets or hedgerows or what have you and ravaging their unsuspecting prey.” Not only was I teaching him how to be patient, a skill he’d need for the rest of his life, but I was teaching him a little zoology along the way. And, of course, I was training my own little special-ops commando.
The other weekend, Christine dashed out of the house for a quick trip to Home Depot down the street. I think she needed more line for the weed eater or something so she could finish edging the yard. I was just rolling out of bed. Being a thoughtful husband, I decided to shower while she was out. That way, the water heater would be recharged by the time she finished her yard work.
I also observed to the Komodo dragon that the minute Mom got back from the store, she’d probably come straightaway to say good afternoon to Dad in the shower and deliver unto him his well-deserved praise for the shrewdness with which he’d played cards the night before. Furthermore, I suggested, Mom would never expect that the Komodo dragon might be hiding behind the bathroom door, which I’d left ajar.
It. Was. Awesome.The Komodo dragon learned no fewer than five new words that day. But the problem with some allies, as Donald Rumsfeld knows, is that one minute you’re shaking hands and the next minute you’re wishing you hadn’t let cameramen take pictures of you shaking that hand. So have I recently come to regard the Komodo dragon. It seems he has taken all my aid, absorbed all my training and developed his own domestic agenda. Not long ago, he approached me in our kitchen, said, “Blue power—_wokachow_—you’re invisible!” and landed a haymaker square in my crotch. Completely unprovoked, near as I can tell. Though the way Christine laughed, I wonder.
Tim Rogers is the executive editor of D Magazine, the city magazine of Dallas.