Bernard let out a sigh as I approached the table.
“How are you doing,” I ask rhetorically.
“Maddie is explaining to me again why my marriages have failed.”
“There is no sense in it,” Maddie said disgustedly. “In his relationships, Bernie always starts out as a romantic and ends up as an accountant.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” Bernie said.
“And that’s part of the problem,” Maddie said. To my surprise, she turned to me and said, “Didn’t you get a degree in economics, Ron?”
“Yes,” I said. “Two of them.”
“You have a PhD?” she asked.
“No, just a BA and MA,” I said.
“So explain economics to Bernie,” she crisply requested as she bit into her salad.
“Uh, okay,” I stumbled. “I guess the idea behind economics is one of opportunity costs, of tradeoffs at the margin. You can spend more money on guns or spend it on butter, and depending on which way you go, you’ll either create more or less happiness.”
“Ha!” Maddie said. “See, Bernie! That’s what you try to do.”
“What?” I asked.
“You can't make choices at the margin in a relationship,” Maddie spit out. “You either choose to be in it or not. And you do that, Bernie, at the start. You choose the woman.”
“Well, yeah,” Bernie said, obviously as confused as me. “I guess. I mean, if she’s interested.”
“But after that you turn into an accountant, Bernie. You want reciprocity at every turn. It’s like you’ve turned a relationship into a series of transactions.” And then Maddie did something really remarkable. She spoke in a full paragraph, obviously inspired by our confusion on this topic.
“This economics fallacy might be why men are so good at business and economics and so bad at relationships. You have this tendency to turn relationships into a series of transactions, doing your marginal analysis at every turn, looking for some way to get the most for the least.” She leaned into Bernard’s face and said, “Bernie, relationships are not like that. Shouldn’t be like that. If you want a real relationship, you play a different game, you work out a different equation. You give as much as you can because you realize that you want your life to be as much as it can be. You are never more than your relationships, Bernie. Don’t turn into an accountant once you find yourself in love. Love is not about cost cutting.”
I couldn’t really think of a response. Apparently, neither could Bernard.
At this point, Bernard and Maddie’s grandnephew spoke up. Delbert is about 19, as near as I can tell, but that facial jewelry and body piercing make me a little squeamish. I could not be sure about his age because I’ve never looked at Delbert for long.
“Yeah, but I think that the marginal thing is right,” he said.
“You do?” Maddie said icily.
“Yeah,” he continued, deaf to her tone. “I mean, think about kissing or making love to a woman.”
“As if you do anything else with your imagination at that age,” Bernard muttered.
“You kiss her once, say, and it’s wonderful. You kiss her the tenth time and it is nice. You kiss her a hundred times and it’s almost tiresome.”
I could not help myself, staring at the bolt that went through his lip. “Some woman has kissed you a hundred times?”
“Dude,” Delbert said disgustedly. “I’m just saying. It’s a marginal thing. Love, kisses, they are a marginal thing. After awhile, you put more in but you don't get that much more out.”
I did not want to admit it aloud, but I thought the kid made a fairly decent point.
“No,” Bernard said wearily. “She’s right. Even a kiss is not a marginal thing.”
“No?” Delbert raised his eyebrows.
“A kiss might be like a meal. Sure you get full at one setting, but you get hungry again. And a favorite food is a favorite food. You long for it even more when you can recollect enjoying it in the past, when it becomes the part of layered memories. The food becomes something you love for its own sake and also for the memories it now has wrapped up in it. A kiss is like that only more so.”
“But you got tired of kissing the same woman, Uncle Bernie. Eventually it doesn’t have the same oomph, right? For a kiss to wake you up, it needs to be new woman, no? Some new technique?”
“No. The woman is everything. Technique is vastly over-rated. A new pair of lips is not the point. A kiss at its best is an expression so thick with meaning, appreciation so keen that it can never be expressed in a mere handshake or simple hug. A kiss is inevitable once you feel a particular way towards her. The mouth,” Bernard’s eyes clouded over as he stared at his drink, “the mouth is the place from which we breathe, taste the world, and express ourselves. If you’ve fallen in love with a woman, how could you not want to melt into her at that very spot, this small opening into her being? How could you not want to kiss her?”
He paused and took a sip. “You don’t manufacture this feeling by starting with a fresh pair of lips. If you simply kiss a woman – no matter how good your technique – there is no guarantee that you’ll feel this kind of adoration and desire, this pleasure of getting to be one with her, this realization of what it means to be a part of someone so splendid. She’s right, Delbert. It’s a whole thing, not a marginal thing. That is, if you want to feel whole.”
“Oh Bernie,” Maddie touched her brother’s shoulder. “There might be hope for you yet, honey.”
“You don’t think it’s too late,” asked Bernie, his big eyes and old face looking so vulnerable.
“No,” Maddie said kindly. “It’s never too late to learn how to love.”
This month, I’ll celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary with Sandi. It was 26 years ago that I first kissed her in, of all places, a Denny’s parking lot.
There has never been anything marginal about a single one of your kisses, Sandi. Thank you for loving me.