I don’t really know how it began. I looked to my left and the looming face of Octavio was there, inches from my face, earnestly giving advice on how to improve my marriage. Sticking a bony finger in the air he announced, “The secret to a happy marriage? You must argue!”
My wife and I were on the West Island at a birthday party for an old friend and the company at the table we found ourselves was not that bad. Birthday-boy Amar’s wife, Joanne, had done a good job in choosing my tablemates; the group seated around the circular table was an interesting one: two jewelers and their wives, my wife and me, and a graphic design studio owner and his heavily made-up Brazilian girlfriend. I am a notorious stickler when it comes to liking people; you can count the number of my close friends on the fingers of one amputated hand. Octavio, one of the jewelers, originated from Italy and my wife and I had immediately taken to his lively personality and yes, he-a did-a talk-a like-a an Italian speaking-a Eeengleesh. Still, how this subject came up remains a mystery. He had been seated on the far side of the table, where I had been listening to him explain how he was trying to increase sales of his artisanal jewelery There was the upcoming Salon des métiers d’art to look forward to where the couple were again manning a booth.
But suddenly, there he was beside me and the subject had changed to “How to make your marriage a success”.
As he spoke, I glanced at his Swiss-born wife who looked on indulgently, a Mona Lisa-like smile hovering on her lips, not inclined to disagree with his theories, at least publicly.
“And you must RAISE your voice!” he continued, his round eyes opening wider and wider. “If you don’t argue and raise your voice, your marriage is doomed!” Naturally, this drew smiles from my wife and me; perhaps, I thought, only an Italian could celebrate discord and emotional strife as a good thing for a relationship.
He was a thin scrawny man, all bony features, with a sharp nose and eyes that grew wide whenever he said something that mattered to him. Which this subject obviously did.
“Things are going well,” my wife piped in hopefully. “We don’t fight like we used to. After 17 years together, we’ve reached a harmonious stage.”
“Not good, not good,” the Italian immediately responded, leaning forward. “My wife and I, we argue all the time. Every day we fight. We’ve been together 25 years!” He paused, eyes wide open. “You should see her when we fight. She’s a tiger.” I looked over at Octavio’s wife, trying to imagine this quiet-spoken person raising her voice at her energetically gesticulating spouse.
“Maybe if she were Italian, too,” I suggested, “your theory wouldn’t work. But your wife’s a sweet Swiss person who can’t fight back like you can.”
“No, no,” the Italian answered, his eyes opening wide again, finger in the air, “Oh, she can fight, can she ever fight! And it’s all for the good. It makes your relationship strong. You grow,” and here he started meshing his fingers together and pushing them up and around to illustrate the rapid personal growth that he believed arose from a daily cathartic venting of one’s spleen. “I looove my wife,” he insisted, “but I would keel her if we didn’t fight.”
I looked over at my better half. “Maybe he’s right,” I said. “We should argue more.” Unfortunately, Daphne didn’t realize I was joking. “Yeah, right,” she said, downing the rest of her wineglass.
“He is right,” the Italian shot in. “Your marriage is finished if you don’t.”
Afterwards, in the car, I told Daphne my desire to see the Italian and his wife again. This caught her attention. “Okay, we’ll go to the Salon and see them and work something out about getting together.”
As I drove home I imagined being liberated from the “nice person” straight jacket that I often wear and allowing a more reactive self coming to the fore. It . Now, many weeks later, I still appreciate what he was, and also what he wasn’t, saying: I don’t believe he was advocating a return to childishness and the immature posturing that we sometimes cling to but rather the effort to fight repressing our immediate instincts and feelings, even when we feel them in the presence of a life companion, and particularly when we know that that person might feel differently. Be aggressively yourself, he seems to be saying, don’t be “nice”; fight if you have to, and have the confidence in the bond that you and your wife have to know that each ‘venting’ is actually making you a stronger couple.
Have I taken his suggestions to heart? No, but that doesn’t mean that the next time I swallow a big chunk of resentment I won’t hear Octavio’s words in my head and react differently.
Near the end of the party, I was more than ready to go home, and I noticed Octavio and his wife swinging around the dance floor with gusto.