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Peter and Otto


Rules, Rules, Rules

One of the pleasures of reading is coming across a passage where the author elucidates something—a thought or feeling or situation—in such a way that you understand yourself better. This is how I felt when I read the following in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (my one and only attempt to read thematically relevant literature while living in that city):

…Otto is naturally and healthily selfish, like an animal. If there are two chairs in a room, he will take the more comfortable one without hesitation, because it never even occurs to him to consider Peter’s comfort. Peter’s selfishness is much less honest, more civilised, more perverse.  Appealed to in the right way, he will make any sacrifice, however unreasonable and unnecessary…

Isherwood may as well have been describing husband when describing Otto. He habitually takes the seat with the view, and preferably within earshot, of the other patrons at any restaurant. I am the less honest Peter, pretending to be irritated by the implication that my company alone is insufficient to entertain him for the duration of a meal, but really annoyed by not having the view myself. And on the basis of this feigned virtue, I nobly concede the seat every time. What is most troubling about recognizing my marital dynamic in this passage is hard to say: that Otto and Peter inevitably split or that Isherwood is describing the relationship between two gay men.

I was reminded of this passage on the flight from London to Boston on Monday. Lunch had been served and eaten but not cleared when husband decided he wanted to use the bathroom. He stacked my tray on his and, balancing both as he climbed over me, very nearly dumped a quarter of a plastic bottle of Albariño and the dregs of a pot of chocolate mousse that tasted suspiciously of suntan oil into the lap of the woman in the adjacent row. I sighed and chastised him for not being able to wait like a grown up for the flight attendants to clear the trays, but he didn’t listen. He returned our trays to the galley and relieved himself long before the rest of the punters, dutifully awaiting tray clearage, formed an orderly and lengthy queue in the traditional post-in flight meal rush for the loos.

Husband’s action were selfish, but what bothered me most was his refusal to follow the generally accepted norms of airline etiquette. Surely if all passengers decided to return their trays and trash at their own convenience the flight attendants would revolt, turning on the fasten seat belt sign and demanding everyone wait until they were ready to make their way up and down the aisles with the trash trolley and tepid coffee nobody really wants but takes anyway because they are bored.

You see I am a rule follower. I see the dentist every six months, save for retirement, and generally wait my turn. This is a character trait that has not gone unnoticed amongst friends, one of whom christened me “rules, rules, rules” after a visit to the theater when I nearly had a conniption fit because he was still out bidding on eBay in the lobby when the three-minute bell rang for the curtain. Husband on the other hand abides by no such rules other than, generally, his own comfort. Where he does appear to follow rules, they are a Byzantine code of conduct decipherable to no one but himself. For example, he will casually leave garbage in a roadside motor stop parking lot claiming “there are people employed to pick that up,” as if he is doing his part for the nation’s unemployment rate, but would chase someone down if he saw them drop litter from their car in the pristine Cotswold countryside.

I am unlikely to ever penetrate the world of husband’s rules. Perhaps the best I can do is learn from them.  Next time you are annoyed by the woman sitting next to you on the plane who practically dumps her tray into your lap so she can use the loo, it may just be me.