Robert Duffer doesn’t ask that question. At least not anymore.
When my five-year-old daughter comes home, she flicks on every light switch in her path, then hits the bathroom and bedroom switches. The house is aglow. We are home. She is safe.
This is a habit, whether natured or nurtured, from her mother. They flip the switches day or night, dark or light. I’m usually the one turning them off.
Maybe it’s my preference for the intimacy of night, or my years as a bartender, or my solely lit man cave; maybe it’s my parsimony, or maybe it’s something born in me, as it is my six-year-old son, who prefers flashlights to ceiling lights, and who seems completely indifferent to, or ignorant of, light switches.
Regarding our kids’ temperaments and personalities, my wife says we’ve replaced ourselves. I best teach them to replace lightbulbs.
The question of light has become a marital inside joke. “Get ready to melt,” my wife has said upon entering a room where I sit in comparative darkness. “It’s a party!” I say in mock-merriment while shutting down the light show.
We’ve reached sarcastic affection only through years of misunderstanding: this is the true labor of love.
Some days—not my better days–leaving the house, or some nights, entering the house, I’d curse under my breath the glaring lights, mistaking it for neglect or carelessness; questioning the whole world of ADD science and medicine, uttering insensitivities at a disorder I most likely share undiagnosed.
My wife has seen my dark side, my preference for darkness a part of my overall preference away from openness, expressiveness, perhaps ironic for a writer. My erratic teaching schedule, the random freelance assignments, the readings known only to the 12 lost souls in the audience, have led her to dream up the terrible literary underworlds I revel in, of torch-lit bacchanals celebrated by nude vamps and blood swilling denizens of the dark, such as I.
I am a minimizer, she is a maximizer, one marriage counseler said. She wants to get to the heart of the problem right now and persists until there is resolution; I retreat, feeling defensive and under attack, as the magma bubbles inside. Upon witnessing my son get mad for the first time, walking away and hiding in the dark of his closet with his face to the wall, my sister said he was a silent steamer, same as me. My daughter expresses everything verbally, even in jibberish, as if the sound of her voice gives comfort to whatever she’s unable to articulate. Verbalization helps her figure it out. We have replaced ourselves. My wife light; her husband dark.
That light should symbolize these personality differences requires no insight at all; such obvious and overdone metaphor we would teach students of any discipline to steer clear of. Yet, here it is, as revealingly bright as ever, while I grope my way through my marriage. Oh, the double entendre of the light metaphor, Bram Stoker, where art thou?!
Over time, and talking, and a therapy session or two; over holiday celebrations and overly immersive stays with my in-laws; through familial divorces and familial deaths; over fights and reconciliations, breaking points and make-up sex—over time, I stress—understanding has come to dawn on us both.
We are the grown children of divorce. My wife’s mom was 19 when she had her, and was young too when she and my wife’s father were divorced two years later. My father-in-law, whose first wife died in childbirth, married and divorced two more times. My mother-in-law was a single mother working three jobs in the 80s; a guy would become a friend, treat my wife right, live with them for a year or two, then disappear one day. This was a pattern that led to a suspicion—an expectation, almost—of male figures abandoning her. These break ups were preceded then punctuated by yelling.
My parents’ divorce—I have to call it that, for I remember nothing of their marriage—was not nearly as complicated. For custody pick ups, my mom would yell at my dad and my dad would pull away to steam silently for hours. My two siblings and I have such an aversion to yelling that we shut down completely; we don’t know how to react, so we pull away until we’re able to listen to what’s happening internally. Then we gird ourselves for battle—at least, I do.
The past can illuminate the present, but the study of the present provides the best path forward. Once my wife gets out what’s bothering her, once the kettle whistles, she feels better. I, conversely, make jabs and shitty criticisms until we fight again and I can identify what the hell has been bothering me since the last time.
Over time, and over what has been the extended courtship of our 6 years of marriage, we are learning. How? It has to do with language. Speaking the same unique language, definitive of every intimate relationship. Mother-daughter, father-son, brother-sister, roommate-to-roommate—every enduring relationship has its own language. We’re getting nearer to pinpointing ours. Love, like language, is dynamic. It develops, it adapts. Instead of running off to the safe zones at the extremes of our personalities, we are meeting midway, twilight for her, dawn for me, so even though we’re not on the same horizon, at least, in this, the summertime of our love, we are in the same spectrum.
In marriage we find all of these traits about our spouse that bother us are also the ones that are most endearing: my wife’s persistence, her dogged learning, her tireless self-improvement, her quest for understanding that fills her with empathy, compassion, and a total lack of judgment about other people; her inquisitiveness that makes her adventurous; her curiosity that makes her quirky, all these things I love are also present in our problems.
I can’t just turn off the lights. If I do, where would that leave her? Nor can I fully submit to the torture of noting every unused light source and doing nothing about it. I’ll shut off the ones that aren’t being used and understand that these lights aren’t just power sources. They’re sources of comfort. For my wife and daughter, they signal that someone is home with them, and there are no strangers hiding in the tub.
Author’s post-script: After reading this, my wife said, “I’ve been turning off the lights lately.” Then: “This is brave for you to share. It’s something I would do. But you? I’m impressed”
Photo by Spigoo.