Lisa Kogan
Illustration: John Ritter
Perhaps mixing 18 different nasal decongestants had simply gone to her head, but being sofa-bound got our columnist thinking: What makes a working relationship work, what makes it crash and burn, and the big question—what in the world did she do with her vaporizer?
I had the flu. But not just any flu. No, this was the kind of bug that forces a normally rational human being to dial information and beg the operator for Jack Kevorkian's home phone number. This was the kind that leaves a generally well-groomed woman crumpled on the sofa in her rattiest flannel nightgown, the one that her 79-year-old aunt from Detroit presented with the keen observation: "Magenta puppies always make things look zanier." Such was my state when Johannes (in those days my boyfriend, in these days my boyfriend and the father of my child) walked in. "Man," he called out while hanging his coat in the front hall closet, "I've never seen so many beautiful women in one city." The love of my life continued from the foyer, "I mean, it's like a convention of supermodels out there." He rounded the corner just in time to watch me sneeze cherry Jell-O over the Arts & Leisure section. "But," he stammered, "none as beautiful as you, my darling."

"Avert your eyes, for I am hideous," I whimpered á la the Elephant Man.

"No, seriously, you look...not horrible," which was true, provided you're drawn to individuals who appear to have combed peanut butter through their hair. Finally, in what can only be described as a genuinely pathetic effort to change the subject, he added, "So, I'm just curious. When was the last time you, uh, you know...showered?" I gathered up my Sudafed, my Tylenol, my Mucinex, my Puffs, my honey-and-lemon cough drops, my lip balm, my thermometer, my blanket, my TV Guide, my diet ginger ale, my wonton soup, my cordless phone, my few remaining shards of dignity, and with all the icy élan a woman dressed in a soup-stained frolicking-puppy print can muster, I replied, "Good day, sir!" He tried for a last-minute save: "Are you losing weight?" But I cut him off. "I said good day!" and flounced gracefully (okay, I tripped over the vaporizer) to our bedroom, where I proceeded to lapse in and out of seven back-to-back episodes of Law & Order.
When I was extremely young and shockingly stupid, I thought you weren't supposed to ever get angry at anybody you cared about (lest you suspect I'm exaggerating the "shockingly stupid" part, I also thought Mount Rushmore was a natural phenomenon). I honestly believed that people who were truly in love would never dream of having a good, old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out fight. I guess when you're the type of girl who walks around thinking that the wind just sort of sculpted Teddy Roosevelt into the side of a mountain, the concept of a fairy-tale relationship makes total sense. Johannes and I don't have one of those relationships. The life we've designed isn't perfect, but I've never been a big fan of perfection—it's a bitch to achieve and impossible to maintain. Instead, we argue on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes we look back at the tougher moments and laugh—the influenza incident of 2001, the what the f*** do you mean you never want to get married? episode of last Tuesday—and sometimes we get mad all over again. But when Johannes fights, he fights like a grown-up. He isn't mean, he isn't sarcastic, he isn't out to annihilate. He just wants us to order in Thai food, watch MSNBC, and be friends again.

Loving somebody and then having the guts to let them love you back doesn't always come easy. For the first three years of our life together, I kept waiting for him to rip off his Mr. Nice Guy mask and turn into every boy who ever broke my heart. I poked, I prodded, I harangued, I guilted, I entrapped, I tested, I stopped just short of waterboarding. But Johannes refused to take the bait. Instead, he maintained his calm, retained his benevolence, and developed migraines.

He made sure I understood that he was in it for the long haul; I would never again have to sit on a blind date listening to some guy tell me what Pink Floyd was really trying to say on Dark Side of the Moon. The man makes me feel loved—even when he hates me. And that, I've come to realize, is no small thing.

I have a friend, we'll call her Jane because Jane is a lovely, classic name. Jane is married to this guy, let's call him Dick because, well, suffice it to say the name suits him perfectly. I've had fun with Dick and Jane; we've gone to the theater and dinner and a couple of Knicks games together. With Johannes frequently in Europe, I became like a little dinghy tied to the boat of their marriage, just kind of bobbing along behind them in case of an emergency. One Sunday a few years ago, we were brunching in SoHo—because before there were kids and cartoons and Honey Nut Cheerios, there was sleep and sex and brunches in SoHo. Anyway, Jane knocked over her water glass, prompting Dick to spend the rest of the meal excoriating her for every single misstep she'd ever made. He opened his rant with "Christ, it's excruciating to sit next to you at a table," and closed with a reference to her "fat idiot sister." Check please!
Jane called the next morning to apologize for making me part of their Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? production. I wanted to say, "You're not the one who should be sorry." I wanted to say, "Your only mistake was in not lobbing the basket of stale sweet rolls at his head"—hell, the cheese Danish alone was heavy enough to stun him into silence. I wanted to say, "Janey, Janey, Janey, what's become of your self-respect?" I wanted to say, "It's not whether somebody loves you (I mean, for all I know O.J. loved Nicole), it's how he treats you that counts." I found myself wondering: Is Jane afraid to be alone? Is it a money thing? Maybe she's an unindicted coconspirator, provoking him in some way that I'm just not seeing? Or maybe she woke up one morning and 22 years and two sons had simply come and gone—right along with her energy and confidence. Maybe she just forgot who she'd wanted to be when she grew up. In the end all I managed was, "I'm here if you need me."

"What's the matter? Are you coming down with something?" Johannes asks as I crawl into bed. I assure him that I'm fine. His eyes narrow suspiciously. "Then why are you wearing the magenta puppy nightgown of death?" I explain that I'm working on a column and it's got me thinking about him and me and Dick and Jane and love and homicide and that point when a working relationship becomes more work than relationship. I admit there are moments when I'm not sure if it's luck or love or fear of failure that keeps us going, and I ask Johannes if he knows what I mean. There is a very long pause. He is contemplative. He is introspective. He is sound asleep.


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