29 June 2020

"Can you help me?"

I always marvel when I read the dedication or acknowledgments pages of authors whose devoted partners read the first and subsequent drafts, make brilliant suggestions for revisions, stay up long into the night making meticulous copy edits, and wait with bated breath to read the finished product, although they've already discussed every nuance of the story with the hyperventilating author.

Not Himself. (I don't call him that, but in the mists of Irish history, his forebears probably did. Great-great-Granny and Great-great-Grandpa back in County Cavan probably never used each other's names. I bet they addressed each other exclusively in the third person as Himself and She. But I digress. Like my character Barbara in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, I always do. Revenons à nos moutons.

My husband has read all my published work. But like pulling the proverbial teeth, it's been an arduous task getting him to do it. Before publication, we've agreed there's no point in showing a manuscript to him and trying to discuss it, much less make it better. He himself (completely different usage) said thirty-eight years ago at our wedding, before our assembled friends and families, that he was marrying me for my ability to spell. Ah, the blarney in 'im! He got a big laugh. So it was a good day for him, our wedding day.

But I digress again, and if I don't stop myself firmly, I'll tell you next about how for both of us, getting our actual teeth pulled gave us a whole new perspective of that simile, the same way having a giant cockroach in my bedroom increased my appreciation of Kafka's story, "Metamorphosis," exponentially. The point is that he's promised he'll read every novel and story on publication, and he does—but never without significant nagging. And his comment is more likely to be about whether he guessed whodunit than about the literary merits of the work.

So now that I've paid hommage to literature and writers, let me tell you what I really want to talk about: the marital language of helping, which can be as hard to decode as the Enigma that led to the Allied victory in World War II, until long experience clues you in to the fact that your partner's not really saying what they're saying, but something else entirely. It took us most of those years together to get it and the rest of them, by dint of much hard work and the fact that we do love each other deeply—even though, as we frequently shake our heads and say, we're completely incompatible—to learn how not to react to them. Thank goodness we got to the finish line on handling these moments well right before the pandemic hit the world, because we'd never have survived the Pause in New York so far without these advanced relationship skills.

Here's a brief glossary, in case your partner speaks this language, and you haven't figured out the translation yet.

Can you help me reach...
I'm not risking myself on that rickety ladder; I'm standing by, ready to scream if you fall.

Can you help me decide...
Of course I'm not going to take your advice; I just want to clarify what I want to do.

Can you help me go through...
These things of yours need to be thrown out, and don't you dare touch my stuff.

Can you help me open...

I need you to open the jar, and no, you can't have any.

Can you help me move...
You're going to the heavy lifting; I'm going to supervise.

Can you find...
When I put something away, it's still there twenty years later. You must have moved it, dammit.

Can you fix...
It must have been you. I never break things. And you're the glue expert. Feminist schmeminist.

Can you remember...
I told you to remind me. Yes, I do store my memory in your head.

In our house, it's Himself who stores his memory in my head. He's lucky I've got a lot of storage space up there. It wasn't mentioned at the wedding, but it's in the unspoken vows. But it's usually I who ask and he who's required to comply. I do sympathize with his frustration. And I ask very nicely.

Me: You're not alone, honey. If you talked to other husbands, you'd find some of them have the same experience.

Himself: It's a very big club.

Alas, as we get older, the inevitable happens even to the brainiest of us. The ultimate question came up for us the other day. It was I who said:

Can you remember what I told you I needed to remember?
If you snap at me when I forget something, we're going to have a miserable old age together.

The gloss is not the clue to the enigma. The secret is in not taking it out on each other, especially while we're all sequestered with our partners thanks to COVID-19. We've found the magic formula when our partner's requests-with-subtext irritate us. Instead of overreacting, he tells himself, "That's just Liz being Liz." I tell myself, "That's just Himself being Himself." It works like a charm.

Liz Zelvin is a once and now forever SleuthSayer, author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga and editor of the anthologies Me Too Short Stories and Where Crime Never Sleeps. She is also a therapist who has been practicing online for 20 of her 35 years helping clients on her website at LZcybershrink.com. She's available for chat, text, email, phone, and Zoom sessions, especially people who don't live in spitting distance of hundreds of therapists, as she does in New York.


  1. Ah, spelling before spell check! I used to tell my students than I married my spell checker- and it's worked for 58 years.

  2. Janice, that worked for Himself until I started doing my therapist thing and saying, "How do YOU think it's spelled?"

  3. Liz, I like your interpretatio of partner speak. There's always subtext, isn't there ;-) ?

  4. I love partner speak! Some other examples:
    Would you check.... (and fix it, while you're at it)
    Someone needs to... (YOU need to, and this has endless iterations)

  5. I can relate to this, Liz. My wife reads most of what I write, but not all of it, and some of it before I send it off, but not all.

    You've got the partnerspeak down pat. Great column!

  6. He's marrying you for your spelling? That's soooooo sexist!

    Hilarious, Liz, and positively true. I wish I'd known about the "help me decide" question long ago. A girlfriend invariably chose the opposite of whatever I suggested, rather like a cell phone ad of a few years ago.

    Well done, Liz, funny, funny.

  7. Reminds me of a couple I used to know. One day I overheard him saying to her, "We are too compatible! You just don't want to be!"

  8. The hiatus in my responses to y'all has been me driving from the Hamptons to NYC. I'm afraid traffic is back to normal. Thanks, Paul, Eve, John. Leigh, it's only sexist if you assume inability to spell is on the Y chromosome. Himself sez I invariably choose the opposite too. But my mother clarified it for me after my dad died. She found she missed his role in her decision making process—which was to tell her what she thought, so she could decide the opposite. Elizabeth, love your one-liner, and it got an audible laugh from Himself. Note, all, that "Elizabeth" without the "Zelvin" who comments on SleuthSayers is not me, Liz. Some folks get confused. But it's okay, because clearly, we're both funny. ;) Maybe I should do a post on what incompatible people do differently: cutting the butter; shouting from the next room vs walking into the other room... I tell him he needs his hearing checked, but he won't listen!

  9. Oops, typo: My dad would tell my mom what HE thought—so she could disregard it. But it worked fine for her.

  10. Yes, I probably should have clarified this already. I had a restraining order against a former boyfriend who was a big propeller head & didn't want him to find me too easily by searching my first & last name together ... my last name is Dearborn & my married name is Naleszkiewicz, which rhymes with "molest a bitch". Anyway I heard that the ex-boyfriend died, but I don't know if that's true. ?

  11. Elizabeth, that's one unforgettable way to remember name pronunciation!


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