The Scales


After a snowboarding accident a few years ago, my son went to a physical therapist whose wife, it turned out, I knew. A neighbor of friends of mine, she had come to my house for English conversation classes about a dozen years earlier, when she was 20. I hadn’t seen her in some time, though I had heard that she’d married and had a child, then I heard she’d had another. I’d also heard that she and her husband had renovated an old building next to her parents’ house. Physical therapy is a booming business, and after their second child was born, they’d built a new house just up the lane. Her brother was also married and also had two children. Like his sister, he lived near the parents, in a rural Gijón neighborhood that is a mix of old farmhouses, fields, baroque mansions, and enormous new modern homes. When my son noticed that the physical therapist no longer had pictures of his wife up on social media, he asked me what I knew about them. How are they? he wondered.

When I knew her, the wife was a very beautiful young woman. Her English wasn’t great, and she needed to beef it up to pass a test for a course she was taking. Whether she quit coming before or after she took the test I do not remember, or even whether she passed the test and the course. But for those several weeks that we met in the spring of that distant year, I sat beside her on the sofa and asked her all kinds of questions about her life and answered hers about mine—favorite movies, travels, hobbies, and so on. I learned about her extraordinarily jealous boyfriend Adrián, who worked in a bar on the weekends and who sometimes flew into a rage when she went to visit him there. He would see or imagine he saw someone flirting with her. He ranted and raved. Sometimes he broke things. That didn’t sound good, I commented. No, she agreed.

“What do you say when he acts that way?”

“I say, ‘Adrián!’”

We both laughed.

I was legally separated, so she asked me if I had a boyfriend.

“I did until recently,” I was about to say. Instead, I burst into tears.

As I wiped my eyes, abashed at crying in front of this girl I hardly knew, she comforted me. “It’ll be okay,” she said. She leaned forward to hug me. “You’ll find someone soon,” she said. A week later, for my birthday, she baked a cake and brought it to me. My consolation prize. She had not yet broken up with her jealous boyfriend, but I could have predicted the same for her: she would meet someone. He would make her happy.

“The happiness of one man and one woman is the greatest thing in all the world,” says detective Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s 1920 novel, Mysterious Affair at Styles. Because it is, Poirot decides to let an innocent man suffer the distress of a murder trial that he, Poirot, but not the defendant, is certain will end in acquittal. Why does Poirot do this? The false accusation brings the accused’s estranged wife running to his defense and opens the way for these two proud people to reconcile. Poirot lets both husband and wife suffer uncertainty, fear, and inconvenience in order to bring them together again. It is a happy moment when the freed prisoner rushes into the room and gathers his wife into his arms. The reader can sigh with pleasure for the overjoyed couple, and smile indulgently at the accused’s brother, also a suspect and also in love, and also now seeing eye to eye with his romantic interest. All their suffering is nothing compared with the wonder of their prize: each other. It is the outcome that counts.

So what to make of blissful love that does not endure, and what to think when death separates  lovers? In Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film depicting the life of the Thracian slave and gladiator, the hero’s wife, Sura, bidding the dying Spartacus goodbye, doesn’t doubt that she’s come out ahead despite the pain of losing her husband. She has his child to live for. Even without the child, having known love seems a triumph, though you lose it. So say the poets. Such a reckoning makes sense, according to Jane Hirshfield’s splendid poem, “The Weighing”: “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance.” How wonderful, I thought, on reading those lines, sent to me by my stepmother. And yet, I might nevertheless prefer never to have had Spartacus than to love and lose him so cruelly.

Could Poirot and Hirshfield be right? One happy couple and the scales balance, no matter how many belligerent or bickering or disappointed couples crowd the other scale? It would let all us less-than-enraptured people off the hook because surely somewhere out there will be someone and that person’s true love to keep the balance so we can go on in our grumbly way. The physical therapist and his wife are not that loving couple: I found out from my friends that they are separated, he has the big new house, she has the house next to her parents, and the children go back and forth between them. It may never be okay in the same way again, I could tell her. You were happy though—the same thing she could have told me. When and where those golden moments of happiness were harvested, in which field or which year, doesn’t matter.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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