When married couples make scenes in public, the rest of us are left pondering.
Last weekend I was seated in the patio of a Vilnius café with some friends. It was rather early on a pleasant evening, not yet eight o’clock. This café is frequented by a large variety of people, young and old, locals and tourists, some well dressed, others unbathed bohemians. You can eat a good, modestly priced dinner there, or you can order a cup of coffee and spend several hours reading. In short, it’s similar to most any outdoor café in Vilnius.
My friends and I were laughing together over a good joke when a tall blonde woman came in. She was in her 50’s and wearing an orange dress. When she turned to her right, her handbag swung wildly from her shoulder, barely missing the back of some guy’s head. She immediately attracted attention, and our entire table watched her scan over the crowd until she found a little man seated at a table. Exasperated and tense, she stormed in that direction, stood at his table and began muttering something, her eyes at once pleading and demanding.
People call Vilnius (rather endearingly, actually) a large village. One of my friends knew who this woman was, told me that she often made scenes like these in public, and almost always dressed for the occasion. She had come to the café to drag her husband home, kept muttering something to him, her head tilted and shoulders sunken. The little man, a balding and sinewy fellow dressed in wrinkled linen, eventually stood and, sighing, followed his energized wife out of the café, just barely able to keep up. He was visibly drunk and stumbled twice while negotiating the large cobblestones.
It’s hard to retell this story without passing any judgment, but I’ll try to tread softly. What’s obvious? The scene embarrassed multiple parties: the little man, his gathered friends and most anyone who was seated nearby. In fact, the buzz of patio conversation mellowed during the drama. Was it wise for someone to end this little man’s drinking, at least temporarily? Any more and he would have needed help getting home. In the wake, the curious (and nosey) are left with guesswork. Personally, I could have been spared the scene, but who am I? The dynamic of their marriage is their business, even if they seem to be sharing some portion of it in public. She knew she’d be going out to get him just as he knew his wife would eventually show up.
But the scene stuck with me. I found myself thinking about it while walking around the city, and I tried to imagine it from both points of view. Here’s my husband who’s about to go out drinking, will stay out too long but will eventually follow me home. Here’s my wife whom I’d like to avoid for a few hours, but who’ll come for me, and dress well to do it, before I fall under the table. How should I decide to feel about them? Why should these people be fascinating me in the first place?
Their actions and possible motivations seemed sad but also warm, full of thorns but also oddly sentimental. Maybe there was something for the rest of us to celebrate. After all, they were sharing, announcing their less-than-ideal situation while the rest of us tucked our marital problems out of view. It wasn’t purely tragic. You can’t come for your husband without feeling some level of care, a wish for his company. And you can’t follow your wife home without at least some desire to do so.
I wondered how we’d have responded if it were the other way around, if someone’s husband had shown up to drag his wife away. It would depend on the energy and the style, but surely we’d be left with a different taste in our mouths. That night there were plenty of married women sitting around and drinking, some tipsier than paper kites in dying breezes—in fact, one of my friends was exactly this woman. What if her husband had suddenly shown up dressed in lively colors to drag her away? What if he made a habit of it? Wouldn’t our judgments be harsh?
I don’t really have an answer, but these were the questions I pondered in my writing journal while seated in a different café. This was yesterday in a neighborhood all the way across town. I suddenly noticed him, the same little man; he was reading a newspaper at another table. He wore the same wrinkled linen, thin clumps of hair puffed above his ears like pulled steel wool. The man slurped tea and picked loose leaves from his teeth with a pointy pinky nail. When he had finished the tea, he rolled himself a cigarette and leaned back to inhale, blowing a fat plume of smoke overhead into the sidewalk umbrella.
Soon a waitress came and asked if he’d like anything else. He said, “Not now. But my wife will be here soon.” I waited as long as I could before I had to leave for an appointment, but the lady never came. Instead, I observed his calm face, his gentle, quite sober relaxation as he paged through a newspaper with a liberal slant. On occasion, he checked his watch. Before I left, he ordered another cup of tea.
Photo of Užupio Kavinė by Gint Aras.