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How the ‘Dining Dead’ Got Talking Again

June 25, 2016

As two people newly in love, we talked and talked. We were in our early 30s then, so our talk included a history and a reckoning of all our previous loves, how they endured and how they ended. We talked about our past loves to see how they stacked up against the present one.

Were any of them as big as this? No. How could they be?

Falling in love for us meant falling into talk. We talked about our memories, broken bones, broken hearts and one broken marriage. We talked about our mothers, one Jewish and one Italian, constantly cooking and feeding. We talked about our fathers, neither of whom cooked or fed.

We talked about friends, come and gone. We talked about our careers, climbing the ladder of success, falling off the ladder, leaning in and leaning out.

We talked about our dreams: of traveling, of marriage, of how many children we would like and what we would name them. With those subjects addressed, we turned to smaller details and anecdotes, the stories about getting drunk, getting lost, crashing the car, stealing a candy bar and falling down a flight of subway stairs before a job interview.

Finally, we talked about the nonstories, the quirky facts and facets of personality: our favorite movies, what we liked to eat, what we wouldn’t eat. He hated Kalamata olives. He could do without cucumbers. I hated capers and marshmallows (and the end of “Ghostbusters”). He talked about rivers and rocks. I quoted Frank O’Hara and Mayakovsky. We compared 5K running times.

There was never enough time and so much to discuss. We talked about the colors of leaves, the shapes of clouds and why the word “warmth” has a hidden “p.”

We talked about sex.

We talked about our wedding.

We talked about our new house.

We talked about furnishing it.

We talked about pregnancy.

We talked about the child.

Then the second.

Seven years into it, our marriage was different. After the machinations of getting the children to sleep, we would sit side by side in bed with computers on our laps, surfing the internet. We were not talking, not sleeping, so close and yet so far apart. This dynamic — of being physically together but emotionally disengaged — had also bled into the mundane of the everyday, with too much silence and space between us on the couch and with us cooking on opposite sides of the kitchen island.

We still talked, of course, but it was a different kind of talk. We spoke about the children, what they wanted for lunch, who would pick them up for school and how to negotiate the dinner invitations for the weekend. We spoke of bills and laundry loads. We spoke about the organizational details of our day to day; these necessary conversations were the wheels on which our days turned.

We didn’t talk about sex much anymore, other than figuring out how to have it with children barging through our door and demanding to know what we were doing. Instead, we read body language. Was one of us asleep before the other? Were we touching, not touching, belly down?

I might turn my back, my body curved away from my husband, in a posture of rejection. He might lightly touch my back and feel my body tighten, sign language for “No sex tonight.”

We were so tired.

One night we went to dinner, just the two of us. And as we sat there quietly eating, a horrible memory came to mind. It wasn’t a memory of my own experience. It was a memory of my watching a scene in a movie.

In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kate Winslet, who plays Clementine, and Jim Carrey, who plays her boyfriend, Joel, are eating silently in a restaurant when Joel notices that all of the couples around them aren’t talking.

“Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants?” Joel muses to himself. “Are we the dining dead?”

My husband and I sat there stone-faced, like two more of the dining dead.

“We need to talk,” my husband said.

I waited for the bomb to drop.

“No,” he said. “I mean, just talk.”

I thought of some of the elderly couples I knew. I thought of how they talked (if they did). It wasn’t an especially auspicious picture. They talked mostly about how hard it was to be old (dyed hair, plastic surgery, Jazzercise), the weather (too hot, too cold, too much rain) and the daily health reports (an ache here, an ache there, insomnia, joints, vision, bowels, quite a lot of bowels).

I could see my husband and me, 25 years from now, silently ingesting our dinner in some cafeteria, then returning to sleep in our downsized condo, all without being able to come up with anything of consequence to say to each other.

We decided to give talking a real go. That night, we sat purposefully on the couch. We put away the computers. We silenced our ringers. We looked at each other and smiled. We sipped some red wine.

“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked.

We stared at each other.

“Did you hear what Otis said?” my husband asked. “I told him to turn off the faucet while he was brushing his teeth so he wouldn’t waste water, and he got really angry and told me that I had once wasted French fries.”

We laughed.

“And the other day … ,” I began. I stopped. “I think we need to make a rule,” I said. “We can’t talk about the children because we could talk about them all day.”

“O.K.”

We tried again. We stared at each other some more. I admired how handsome and muscular my husband still looked. That was good, wasn’t it? Who needed to talk?

This wasn’t going well. We needed a different approach.

We shipped the children to the in-laws. Then we locked our phones in the glove compartment and drove a few hours south into West Virginia, returning to the kind of place where we had first really talked, on a mountain in the woods.

I was afraid. What if we had nothing left to talk about?

I remember the first few hours for the paucity of conversation. We hiked and breathed. We stopped to drink water. We listened to the racket of our bodies moving through the world (tripping, breathing, sneezing) and the sounds of nature to which I was suddenly attuned: the jackhammer of a pileated woodpecker, the predatory screech of a hawk, the frozen stare of an exposed turtle and the soft sway of brush around a snake.

During that time, even my internal monologue was silent. It turned out that with all the time in the world to think, some of it must be spent not thinking. We felt refreshed and relieved to be absorbed in the rhythm of our steps.

We stopped for lunch.

We chatted about nothing, then a little something, and as we walked, we forgot about trying to talk and ended up talking. We were freed from the mechanics of life, so our talk could be, too. I had forgotten that there are certain places that promote conversation. With my children, for example, I had noticed that if I asked them over dinner what had happened at school, they would always reply, “Nothing.” But in the car the next morning, they would often transform into chatterboxes.

Likewise, while hiking, we relaxed and fell back into talking. We related stories we had forgotten to tell each other, funny exchanges from work. We bantered and flirted, sidestepping into tangents. We reminisced, too, about our early days, an entirely new kind of talking that comes from having known someone for a long time.

Now, several times a year, my husband and I leave the children for a weekend and go hiking. We have talked our way across the ridge of the North Fork Mountain of West Virginia, down 18 miles of the Narrows in Zion National Park, through the wilds of Dolly Sods and across mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Couples spend so much time together throughout a life. We human beings live a lot longer than we used to. Some of us stay married to the same person for 50 or 60 years. It’s no wonder we run out of things to talk about. It’s no surprise that we join the ranks of the dining dead. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

During our weekend respites, my husband and I feel inspired by a new alliance, a new adventure. We feel the power of long-term coexistence and a sense of having gone through the rage of life and emerged.

That’s how we fell into talk again. That’s how we fell in love again.

Source: How the ‘Dining Dead’ Got Talking Again

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