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Charleston

Stuart came back through town again. This time, with his theory of “Three and One.”

My old friend has a job now, working in an office. He’s been there for almost a year now.

“I’m in a pod,” he explains. “The whole office is organized into pods of four desks, like lily pads in a pond spread out across the tenth floor.”

His three podmates are all women, he tells me. “One is married and has two kids, but the others are always talking about their dates. I ask them questions. We spend more time chatting than we do working. I’m told this is normal for the American business world.”

As I think back over Stuart’s worklife, I realize this may be the first time he’s ever had a regular job in an office. He’s been a teacher and a writer, and he’s had lots of odd jobs working on road crews or clerking in stores. Now, he’s in one of one of the taller buildings in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, looking out on the Kanawha River and the gold dome of the state capitol. I’m a little fuzzy about what he does there, but with Stuart, that’s not unusual. It may be advertising, it may be insurance. If I can get him to slow down, sometime, I’ll try to ask him.

“I listen to them talking about their love lives. That’s mostly what occupies them. And I ask them questions. To them, I’m just an old geezer. They don’t see me as a fount of experience and wisdom, for some reason. But I listen to them talk. And I’ve come to this conclusion, that for a relationship to develop, there must be three things that register. That is, out of 20 or so characteristics you might use to describe a guy on early acquaintance — or a woman, if you are looking for that — it works both ways — I’m sure it must be something of the same for gay men or lesbians — anyway, there must be a quotient of three to make a relationship click.

“I’m not talking about sex here, but about a relationship, a second or third date or more. A guy looks to a potential date and adds them up: She speaks well, she has a sense of humor … And … the third thing: She has a frontispiece that would make St. Anthony sing falsetto.”

Yes, Stuart means her chest.

“Or perhaps she has long legs, blue eyes, and can do double-entry bookkeeping. Or maybe it’s a she and she sees in him strong shoulders, the ability to listen and a sense of humor. Anyway, out of all the possible traits, there must be at least three that draw her in. More than that is better, but two isn’t enough. Two means only she looks at him across the bar and thinks, ‘Interesting,’ but not enough to go over there. Three, though, and we’re in.

Stuart always has some new theory when we talk.

“It’s funny,” he said, “but it would seem like you’d need more than three things to sustain a bond, but maybe that comes later, when you know each other better. But going in, I’ve discovered, there must be a list and three items need checks beside them. More than three and maybe the lights start flashing, but three is the threshold.grey eyes

“I remember going out with Irma. God, she was gorgeous. The name was a little recherche, but she was funny — check number one — and she had grey eyes. Ever see grey eyes? Really grey, almost charcoal. Her irises were colorless and that provided a contrast to the warm skin of her eyelids and cheeks, almost like in the movies when the director has drained the color out of his filmstock, but left one item glowing with red or blue. The contrast raises a kind of ambiguity that I have always found sexy.”

“And the third thing?”mahabharata

“Yes, and she had read the Mahabharata. The whole thing. And she could talk about the Hindu mythology without ever sounding like one of those guys at the airports asking for money in their shaved heads and yellow sheets. She didn’t use it as a religious text, but as literature. We talked for hours about Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Taking sides. It was great. Three check marks. Oh, there were more, but I’m a gentleman.”

“What did she see in you?”

“Unfair question. Ruled out of bounds.”

“OK,” I tell him, “That’s the Three part of the theory, but what’s the One?”

“That’s the converse. Although it takes three things to make the magnet stick to the metal, it only takes one to break the connection permanently. And if that one thing is present, it doesn’t matter about the Three or however many more items you might ink into the credit column. One debit entry puts the kibosh on the deal.”

Double-entry bookkeeping? Credit and debit? I’m wondering what kind of job has Stuart gotten himself into? Are these clues?princess bride

“I mean,” he continued, “suppose you’re on a date with a guy who adds up just fine. Shined shoes, steady job, strong hands. You think you’ve got the requisite three things, but then, while you’re together on the couch in his living room and he’s willing to watch your favorite movie without complaining, even seeming to enjoy it. And then… And then, he picks his nose. The buzzer goes off; contestant number one has just disqualified himself.

“This actually happened. It’s one of the things Julie told us about. She admitted that surreptitious nose-picking is only human, but that on an early round of dates he digs in with an index finger, or worse, a pinky, that is the kiss of death, as far as she is concerned.

“Anne had another one — she’s the other single woman on the pod. She went out with a guy and they were at a restaurant and he got soup on his mustache, a bisque she said it was, and it hung there like wallpaper paste on a brush.

“You know how when someone has spinach on his teeth and you point to your own teeth to sort of indicate to the other one that there is something and the other person will naturally suck his teeth or use a finger to rub the spinach off? Well if she doesn’t have a mustache, how can she politely tell him that he’s wearing a badge of schmutz?

“That killed it for her, she said.

“What’s interesting is that Penny laughed and said that her husband had a habit while watching TV of leaning just a few degrees off plumb and letting loose the gas pressure, and while once she might have ruled him out over it, she now just ignored it.

“‘But you’re married,’ Anne said. ‘That’s different.’ And I take her point. When you’re married, you put up with a lot, because by then, you’ve already put in your commitment papers, you’ve decided there are enough on the Three side — and hopefully a good deal more than just three things — and you’ve besides agreed for better or for worse, and after all, a little atmospheric disturbance while watching the telly isn’t such a great sin.

“The thing is, that it is that first circling around each other when it counts. If Penny’s husband had leaned and dealt while they were dating, she might well have called it all off right then. But he had the decency to keep it bottled up till after the wedding. No doubt, Penny had her own secrets kept until the vows were stated.

“I knew a woman once who had lived with a man for several months, but when he finally popped the question, she realized she could never marry him because his legs were too skinny. It was the One thing.

“Another woman, divorced for several years, found a guy with a tool belt. He was tall, handsome and considerate and could fix anything around the house. He could change the oil in his car. Hell, he could rewire the rec room if he’d wanted. He actually did hook up her surround sound. And he adored her, loved her to distraction, and he was a great listener, truly interested in her. But then…”

“Yes, what?”

“But then, he turned out to be a Christian. There she was, torn. He was the perfect mate except for the fact that he said evolution was just a theory, homosexuals caused Hurricane Katrina, abortionists should be bombed and infidels were going to suffer eternity in Hell. Now, there are lots of kinds of Christians and not all of them are bad, but he was the kind who believed that Methodists were really just communists and that even Baptists were too liberal. Turned the poor girl off any Christians of any stripe forever.”

“That seems like more than just one thing,” I said. “It seems like a whole slew of attitudes that could well give one pause.”

“Well, she saw it as one thing. She summed it up with a kind of sneer: ‘He turned out to be (shudder) Christian.’ And it meant the end.

“These are not things universal,” Stuart said. “They are all idiosyncratic. In other words, someone else might find snorting when you laugh to be cute, or a wandering eye attractive, or even bigotry to be a harmless little tic. Surely many bigots find bigettes to marry. I went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting once, did I ever tell you? Plenty of bigettes there. They even had a bake sale. I wonder what were the three check marks they had found. Being Christian was probably one of them — as long as they weren’t Catholic.”offisa pup

“What about you?” I asked. “Who are you seeing now? What are her three positive checks?”

“I’m unattached at the moment,” he said. “I was going out with a little filly who was doing graduate work in anthropology. She had a lot of check marks, but the first three were her long, frizzy hair, her long fingers and a tendency to quote George Herriman. She called me Offisa Pup; I called her Krazy. We were together for all of last winter. Stayed warm together.”

“What happened?”

“She said I talked too much.”

Carole portrait

It is not unusual for my wife to finish my sentences. I used to find it slightly annoying, but after 30 years of marriage, I hardly notice it. When I do, I now find it comforting.

My wife and I have developed some kind of radio signal between us, and conversation can consist of little more than random adjectives and conjunctions:

”Do you . . .”

”OK, but then . . .”

”Of course, and I’ll . . .”

”Thursday.”

No one else knows the code.

It has happened that while watching television, she will turn toward me, and without saying anything, I will get up and take out the garbage.

Now, that’s true love.

Another time, the same gesture will empty the cat box. And neither of us will realize that no words were uttered.

I am not a believer in ESP, but this phenomenon has reinforced for me a belief that marriage is a kind of magic. A magic that grows perfect through practice.

For too many young people, marriage is seen as merely an extension of dating, only for a very long time and with only one person. Put that way, it hardly sounds enticing. An endless job interview.

For many others, especially for younger women sensitized to the very real sins of the patriarchy, there is grave suspicion of the whole notion of giving yourself up for the other, which is seen as the effacing of individuality. This suspicion prevents the kind of surrender that makes a good marriage.

It is no wonder the divorce rate is stratospheric.

It is a hard lesson to learn: To lose yourself is to find yourself.

It isn’t for the wife to be subservient to the husband, but for each to surrender to the other: This is the equality of marriage.

The problem is that at some level we are unwilling to admit to ourselves that we are incomplete. Feminism, on one side, has taught that a woman should not be dependent on a man. And men are taught never to be dependent on anyone. We suffer as islands.

And all around me, I see these self-sufficient people looking for love in a mirror. They look for someone who shares their interests, beliefs, personality quirks and housekeeping habits. In short, they look for themselves with different plumbing.

And when they get what they are looking for, they find it is no more than they already possess. Boredom and disappointment are unavoidable.

Magic happens when you find your opposite, not your clone.

It is a plus and minus charge that makes a nuclear family. The yin and yang of opposition.

We admit this when we say, ”Opposites attract,” but deny it when we say, ”Birds of a feather flock together.” Flocking is fine for guys sitting at a bar watching a ballgame and pulling for the same team. But marriage is more than a brew and a point spread.

In Plato’s Symposium, the comic playwright Aristophanes explains that human beings were once round with four arms and four legs, but that an angry Zeus split them in half. Love, he says, is each half’s desire to find its missing opposite.

This is a nice tale but only part of the story. The reality isn’t quite that static. Finding your other half isn’t the conclusion of love, but the beginning of a long process of growth, and it is change and growth that keep the marriage vital.

When we make mates of our opposites, they can prod us on to new things and deeper understandings. It keeps life fresh, challenging and intense.

That ”ripening” is the core of the magic in marriage.

Which is why I always advise people not to look for someone who always agrees with them, but to find a ”worthy opponent.”

Which is what my wife is to me. She has a personality strong enough to withstand mine. When I press, there is resistance.

If I try to get away with something, if I try to do less than my best, she is there as my conscience, prodding me to be better.

If I carelessly do something that might hurt someone’s feelings, she is there to make me less careless.

We have had some great fights, but they were never pointless. They always led somewhere. Neither of us wins these arguments, because we both learn from them.

The perfect coat of arms for marriage is an apple surrounded by the words ”Eros” and ”Eris.” These are the Greek deities of erotic love and discord. The two make a lovely couple.

I am loud, she is soft-spoken.

I tend to think things through analytically. My wife is more intuitive.

While I think straightforward, my wife thinks sideways. Together, we create a waltz.

This is my valentine to her.