The night I broke the orange chair was the night I realized my marriage to Mishna was really on the ropes. My rage transformed a piece of furniture into garbage and my wife into a terrified hostage. The final blow was when I told the story onstage.
Mishna and I had bought the chair on the street when we were furnishing our new house. There was a little white- haired man who sporadically sold used furniture out of a storage locker on Hollywood Boulevard near Western Avenue. There's a line of old garage doors that runs along the bottom of a building and sometimes he would be set up in front of an open one with his stuff out on the sidewalk. He was out there on Sundays, some Sundays. We always rubbernecked his wares from the car. When we drove by he was always busy moving things around, rearranging. It seemed that there was an ever- evolving order to it all in his mind. He was a curator of the selected sellable detritus of other people's lives.
One day we were driving by and saw a clown painting on the street. It looked like one of those classic old housewife hobbypainted clown heads in a cheesy wooden frame. We had to stop for the clown. We got out of the car and I walked quickly toward the painting, which was propped against the wall. I panic in yard sale and buff et situations. Even though there was no one else there looking at it I didn't want it to be snatched up. I always think I am going to miss out on a deal or some kind of food. The painting was top- notch kitschy crap.
"Hello, excuse me. How much is this clown?" I asked the little man, who seemed to be looking for something in the garage. He stopped rummaging and turned around. He looked confused and wise simultaneously, like a sweet cranky wizard or a midlevel hobbit.
"Oh, I don't know. It's a nice piece," he said, looking at it as if he had never really considered selling it. I wasn't clear whether that was his technique or his actual sentiment.
"I guess I can do one twenty- five."
"Seventy- five," my wife said. He wrestled with the number on his face and did some hand scratching.
"Okay, one hundred," the wizard said.
"Sold!" I said preemptively, given my wife's look.
I was always impressed with her gumption but in that moment I fought it. I am not a good haggler. I don't like the game of it. I usually just pay what they ask for. I don't want to engage with the charade unless I don't care if I own what I am haggling for. There is a weird truth to the idea that if you really don't care, things will generally go your way. If you're really invested and emotionally attached, things will get away from you or at least get chaotic and scary. That's been my experience with relationships.
"You need anything else?" he asked, like we were putting him out. I began to wonder if he actually sold stuff or he just took the stuff out of the garage every so oft en to assess what he had.
"Yeah, we need a chair," I said. He led us over to a beautiful modern Danish chair. It was curvy, with wooden sides and an orange leather seat and backrest. My wife loved it. It was going to be hers for her office in the house. It was probably from the forties, maybe the fifties; old but not fragile. It shouldn't have broken as easily as it did.
"I love it," she said. "How much?"
"Uh, I don't know. It's the only one I have." He seemed to want to hold on to everything we asked him about. I said, "I'll give you one- fifty." I shouldn't have started the negotiating. My wife gave me the "you should've let me handle this" look again.
"I don't know. That's a one of a kind. You know, I don't think I want to part with it."
I was pissed but I didn't care. I said, "Two hundred."
He said, "Yeah, okay, but take care of it. I've never seen one like that. It's a special chair."
"No problem," I snapped. It seemed he really wanted his artifacts to be with the right people. I might have underestimated him at the time. He might have had a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and objects than the rest of us do. An odd pairing between a chair and a couple might disrupt the trajectory of the lives of the people and the chair. Of course, anything can be backloaded with meaning. That's how we explain things away when we don't want to take full responsibility for actions that are frightening and disastrous. It's the core of mysticism. My wife was happy. She loved it. I was happy and felt like I had manned up to the moment. I had done it wrong but it still only cost me two hundred dollars.
"Anything else you're looking for? Or can I get on with my day?"
"We need curtains but I guess you don't really have that kind of stuff ."
"I've got a lot more stuff that I haven't gone through. I do have some curtains but I don't know if they're for sale. Let's have a look." The little man had kind of a hobble to his walk. We followed him to the garage locker door one down from the open one. He labored with a ring of keys and unlocked the white wooden doors and pulled them both open to reveal a massive mound of tables, chairs, lamps, paintings, and fabrics. Everything was piled on top of everything else. There was no way to walk around or check stuff out. It was a chaos mound of groovy treasure. My wife and I looked at each other like we had just been led into the cavern of cool truth.
We were excited, a secret stash. This all could have been part of his method. He lured curious people into his web of antique trash and made them feel like they were the fi rst to lay eyes on the midcentury booty. As it turns out, the whole encounter became very mind- altering. I had no idea what was about to happen.
"I have some curtains up there. Can you see them?" There was a huge unruly bundle of what looked to be the ugliest curtains in the world. My wife and I looked at each other.
"I don't know if those will work. Thanks for showing us," she said.
"Yeah, I don't think I can sell them." Of course you don't, I thought.
"They were in Carl Jung's office," he said, flatly. He must have seen me coming. He was an empath. He understood my uncapped personality, my propensity toward improvising the mystical, and hanging hope and power on inanimate objects.
"Carl Jung was in Los Angeles. How did I not know that?" It seemed way too random to be bullshit. Suddenly, in my mind those curtains were an aperture for a room where a master sat doing the big work. The very mind that helped establish the fact that we are innately propelled toward something bigger than ourselves, and that spirituality is a primal deep craving based on universal archetypes that lay within the historical soul of the human experience. He invented the idea of the collective unconscious, for fuck's sake. He realized that synchronicity was real, in an almost magical way, relative to our perception, connections, and the power of meaning. I pictured him opening those curtains to let the day in, mandalas of pipe smoke surrounding him, as the great genius gazed out into the light.
"We have to have those curtains!" I blurted.
"They don't really fit the house," my wife said.
"Yeah, I'm not sure if I want to sell them." The wizard decided I wasn't ready for the Jungian curtains. He was reluctant about the chair, too. Why was he judging me? What did he see within me? I was reading too much into it. I paid the man. We loaded the chair and clown into the car and headed home. I thought about those curtains for weeks. I thought about how they would change my life because they were saturated with unused Jung thoughts. I just needed to wring them out. Perhaps I could make a robe out of them, several robes. I could've created an entire line of Jungwear. Then I did some research on Jung in L.A. Turns out it was highly unlikely that those curtains ever came in contact with the man. They were probably just in an office at the Jung Institute. I was disappointed and something died, maybe the dream of achieving a Jungian breakthrough via curtains.
I don't think those curtains could have stopped the emotional momentum of unmanaged cycles of primal rage in my marriage. I'm not sure anything could. Patterns had been set. My anger was unaddressed despite the damage it was causing. I just never thought it was a real problem, because when I was finished being angry I was done, every time. If you are a rager, when you are done raging you feel relief. It is out of you. It's like masturbating, only it's toxic to others and much harder to clean up. But even if the rager feels done, the rage will have generated in the other person a contempt that festers and swells, even if unspoken. Because the other person is afraid to speak. The truth is that if you are ever yelling at a woman it doesn't matter what it is about because 95 percent of the time you should just be screaming, "Why can't you be my mommy? Why?" Or, "Why can't you be a better mommy than my mommy?" The other 5 percent is probably justified but there are other ways to communicate than yelling, I am told.
By the time the fight took place the orange chair was well established in my wife's office room. It had been over a year since we bought it. The clown had found its place on the wall in the bathroom. To this day when I look at myself in the mirror the sad clown is there looking down at me. That's as good a metaphor for my relationship with a god as I can come up with.
The reason for the fight was not specific. Once a fight starts it really doesn't matter what it is about, anyway. I know we were lying in bed. I was festering about something she hadn't done, or that she'd done, or that in my opinion she should have done, or that she might do if I didn't say something. I also knew we had made it through a day and I probably didn't need to say anything to fuck that up. Let me put it this way: There was absolutely no reason for me to say anything other than to start a fight. I was just one of those sick people who doesn't know if someone loves them unless the other person is crying. The fight began in my head.
Inner Good Marc: Hey, buddy, just let it go. It isn't worth it. So what? She did the thing that upsets you. It's really not that big a deal.
Inner Bad Marc: Shut up. I can't sleep. I thought I killed you in high school. I'm tired of being taken advantage of.
Inner Good Marc: You aren't. This is just one of those little things that really don't matter. She has to be able to do things. You can't control everything.
Inner Bad Marc: You're a pussy. This is important. She disrespects me all the time and it keeps happening.
Inner Good Marc: Disrespect is a bit much. Maybe she just doesn't know how to communicate with you because you are so pissed- off all the time and she does covert things to get back at you for stifling her.
Inner Bad Marc: Exactly. That's why I'm going to bring it up! (Marc exits his head and enters the bed. His wife is falling asleep.)
Marc: Hey, baby. Why did you do that thing today?
Marc's Wife: What thing?
Marc: You know, that thing that pisses me off because it's rude.
Marc's Wife: I don't want to do this right now.
Marc: Do what? We're having a conversation.
Marc's Wife: No, we're not. You are starting a fight and I don't want to cry tonight. I want to go to sleep.
Marc: I just don't understand why you did that thing. You keep doing it.
Marc's Wife: (getting out of bed) I don't want to do this again. (She goes into her office room, slams the door, and starts dressing.) I'm leaving.
Marc: (following her, aggressively pushing door open) Wait. I just wanted to talk about it.
Marc's Wife: No, you didn't. I just want to leave. Please let me leave. I don't want to do this anymore.
Marc: Wait, don't leave.
Marc's Wife: Please let me leave. (She starts crying.)
Marc: No, don't leave. What do you mean leave? For how long? Why?
Marc's Wife: (Hysterical) Just let me leave. (Marc picks up the orange chair like he is going to move it. Lift s it a foot off the ground and slams it on the floor for effect. The chair, in an almost cartoonlike way, falls apart in three pieces. First one side, then the other, then the center falls out. Marc's wife is crying hysterically.)
Marc's Wife: You're breaking things. It's not safe. I'm leaving. I'm leaving.
Marc: What are you talking about? It broke itself. What a piece of shit. You could've hurt yourself on this thing. (She makes a run for the front door. Marc stops her. Grabs her arms. Looks at her.)
Marc: Please don't leave. (He sees for the first time she is terrified and doesn't like him at all. His heart drops. He has gone too far.)
Marc: I'll leave. I should leave. (Marc prepares to leave.)
My wife sat down on the couch. Crying. I floundered around. Trying to worm out of leaving. I knew that I should be the one to leave. I am the man. I fucked up. I didn't want to run her out of the house but I also didn't want her to leave because I didn't know if or when she would come back and I couldn't live with that. I thought I had control over that. That is the core of emotional abuse.
"You want me to leave?" She looked exhausted and destroyed.
"Can't we just get past this?" She wasn't talking. Despondent.
"Okay, I guess I'm leaving. It's one in the morning. Are you sure you want me to go?"
I started to collect my things. Keys, I put my jacket on, I opened the door.
"Shit, toothbrush." I turned around to go back in the house. She stood up from the couch and with an intensity and focus of anger I had never seen from her before said, "Just get the fuck out."
I did. She slammed the door behind me. I get in my car. It's one- thirty in the morning, I'm in Los Angeles, and I don't know where I'm going to go. I'm scared and crazy. My first thought is, "I don't know any hotels. Maybe I'll just go downtown and go to the Standard. That's nice. Maybe they put a little mint on the pillow. Take a swim tomorrow. Maybe I'll get a good breakfast." Then there is that part of me that thinks, "Marc, this is a dark night of the soul. You have to go to a dark night of the soul hotel."
I decide that is the way to go: sleazy and self- punishing. I drive around the shitty part of L.A. where I live and I find this crappy hotel. It's weird. It's got bulletproof glass where you get your key and pay for the room in advance. There's a couple of transvestite hookers there. I'm walking up to my room thinking, "Well, this is it. It's the dark night of the soul." One of the tranny hookers says, "Hey, you wanna date?" I find something compelling about them for reasons I don't understand but my plate is a little full and I decide it isn't the night to wade into these waters.
"No, thanks," I say, slightly frightened of myself. The room is just a shitty hotel room. Two shitty beds. Wood paneling. A TV with no cable. It's hard to have a dark night of the soul when you don't drink or do drugs or fuck trannies. The drama is limited. I just sit there rocking on the end of the bed talking to myself and crying.
"Fuck her! Maybe not! I dunno! Maybe it's me!" I'm just in there weeping on a shitty bed with two channels of TV thinking maybe I should get one of those trannies in here and talk to her. I don't know what I would have said.
"Well, you seem to have worked shit out. You've made some pretty dramatic decisions for your own wholeness. Can you help me?" I don't. I just sit there. I don't sleep. I cry. I watch the clock, wondering when it will officially be a whole night. When? When the sun comes up I decide it's official, a night has passed.
It's 5:30 a.m. I'm going back. I drive back to my house in the cutting light of an up- all- night morning. I pull up my street to see she's already put the chair out in front of the house. It sits there barely put together like a shame throne. An example to the rest of the neighborhood. I feel like Lance Kerwin in that movie The Loneliest Runner from when I was a kid. He was a bed wetter and he learned to run because his mom would put out his piss- stained sheets for all to see and he'd have to run home before his friends saw them and pull them down.
I park the car and scurry over to the chair, pick it up, hold it together, and run it into the backyard. It isn't garbage day. It is already bad enough that I am sure that the entire neighborhood has heard us fighting all the time. When I would run into my neighbors while putting out our garbage I would fight the urge to say, "Hey, I'm not hitting her."
I knock. I think it was my feeble attempt at showing respect and having boundaries. My wife opens the door. I walk in.
"Hi. Sorry. Are we going to be okay?" I am weepy and contrite. It is predictable at this point. She is detached.
"I really don't know."
"Damnit!" There is nothing worse than the feeling that you have lost your love and she is standing right in front of you.
"Maybe we should go to couples counseling." She had suggested this many times before and I just pushed it off into the future. Well, the future was here and it was too late. We went but at that point it was really an ambush that I paid for. I paid someone three hundred dollars to watch my wife call me an asshole for an hour. I sat there and said, "I know. I know! I acted like an asshole. Asshole. Wait, now. What about you?" I had no right to that question by the time we got there, according to her.
Soon after this turning point I was invited to perform at the Aspen Comedy Festival to be part of an event featuring the Moth, a New York– based storytelling group. The theme was "On Thin Ice." So I thought there was no better tale to tell than that of the breaking of the chair. I mean, I was on thin ice, no doubt. Our anniversary also fell on one of the dates we were there. I made dinner plans and my wife said I shouldn't worry about it, that we didn't have to go out and make a big deal about it. I'm pretty sure now that she was already emotionally involved with another man and she was just stringing me along getting her ducks in a row. I'm about to do the Moth show and I'm freaking out because I'm not sure what story to tell.
"I don't know what story to tell," I said. My best thinking at the time led me to ask her this: "Hey, would you mind if I told the story about the chair? Breaking the chair? It's a good story."
She said, "I don't care, Marc."
"No, seriously. I'm asking your permission because it's pretty hairy. I'll make sure I look like the asshole because I was the asshole. I'll make that clear. It's funny, it's deep, it's real, it's fucking awful."
"Do what you want."
"Okay. You sure? You cool? Because I can do a cat thing."
"No. Do the chair story. That will be good."
I think she was either unconsciously or maybe intentionally setting me up to do as much stupid shit as possible so she could make an undeniable case for herself to leave me. Despite how I make myself look, here I tried to give her whatever she wanted. I tried to love her properly but I was incapable and scared. I was obsessed with her leaving to such a degree that I made it happen. I didn't take responsibility for my anger and it sank me. All I really wanted for her was to be successful and realize her dreams. Which she did, after she left me.
It was an odd show. Billy Baldwin was also performing. The Aspen Comedy Festival was a prestigious event. Everyone from the comedy industry was there. It was sponsored by HBO. I get onstage in front of everybody in show business and I tell the story. I stand before almost every one of our peers, most of the comedy industry, and say, "I'm an emotionally abusive douche bag and she's the one I fucking make cry all the time." Billy Baldwin came up to me after the show and said, "You don't deserve her." If a Baldwin is giving me relationship advice I must be pretty far gone. I get off stage, I look at my wife, and she's upset, she's crying, she's livid.
"What do you think this makes me look like?" she sputtered out as soon as I reached her.
"Well, I asked you!"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm embarrassed. You made a fool of me in front of all these people."
I didn't see it that way. I thought if I could frame it as a story, as a piece of comedy with me as the butt of the joke, I would be absolved in her eyes. I thought that publicly showing my faults and my desire to change would work. I also thought if I could make this horror story funny it would be a profound example of what I could do as a comic. This is the risk of living your art. If your life is disintegrating, saying so publicly doesn't necessarily reverse the rot. Usually the opposite is true, especially if the bit works.
When we get back to the hotel room she's completely detached. I can't sleep. I feel bad and I have to do a political panel show in the morning. I fall asleep for a second and I have this horrible dream. It isn't a narrative dream, more of a feeling. There is a setting but it is uneventful: I'm outside, the sky is gray. There are no mandalas unless they are hiding in a vague cloud of terror. All I know is that I am alone. That is all the dream was. The realization that I am alone. I wake up and say, "I can't . . . I can't sleep. I'm freakin' out, baby. Baby, baby..." Waking up she says, "What? What do you want? I have a ski race tomorrow."
"Well, I'm fucking losin' it."
"Yeah, so what's new?"
"Well, can we just talk? Help me out!"
"You want me to blow you?"
I knew that would take my mind off the end of my marriage and the stress of the show. She was angry and I think in her mind blowing me would be easier than talking to me. Have you ever had a spiteful, detached blowjob? Have you ever had one that had the subtext of this is it. Not a happy ending. She avoided me the entire next day. We get back from Aspen. Obviously it's strained and stressed. I didn't know she was moving toward somebody else. I don't know what's going on. All I know is that there's not a lot of fucking going on. There are other forms of sex, but not fucking. Hand jobs were never my bag. To me they're a struggle. I can do that myself. But all of a sudden she's decided, "I just want to do that now."
She was presenting it like it was a great option, her new thing. In retrospect what she was telling me was, "That thing you've got there is not going anywhere near my vagina ever again. This arm's length is the distance that will always exist, between that thing and me. This is as far as it goes."
It was completely naïve and insensitive of me not to realize how far away my behavior had forced her. It really wasn't until I came back from a week's work in New York and she left me that I really got it. It was about a month after the Aspen festival. I had been out doing shows with Henry Rollins and Janeane Garofalo.
My wife picked me up at LAX, gave me a bottle of water, and drove me home. During the ride I was telling her about the show. She seemed detached but that wasn't unusual by that point. In the middle of that ride from the airport, out of nowhere, my wife said, "Marc, you really are a genius." Her tone was odd and the sentiment seemed to come out of nowhere. Unsolicited. Usually a statement like that is preceded by me pacing around beating the shit out of myself, yelling, "I'm a fraud! I am a fucking loser!" But this came out of nowhere in a dead voice and for no reason.
"Thanks," I said. "Why did you say that?"
"Because you are." We got to the house and walked in. I put my bags down and she went into the kitchen, sat at the table, and started crying. I walked into the kitchen and said, "What's wrong?"
"I want a trial separation," she said.
"Why?" I said. I knew why. I didn't know what else to say. It was just an impulse to dialogue. When I heard her speak and I looked at her face it was clear that she was done and was now pleading for some kind of permission from herself. Not me. I watched her walk out with no luggage and I said, "What am I supposed to do?" She said, "I don't know. Call someone."
That was it.
Months later, after it became apparent that she wasn't coming back, I entered some kind of post- traumatic stress syndrome. Everything was emotionally heightened and dead simultaneously. It was confusing and exhausting. I was a functioning catatonic on fire on the inside. I was surrounded by a haze of pain. I was driving home one afternoon during this period when I rolled past a woman putting household objects and furniture out in her front yard. I figured it was a garage sale or she was termite bombing. As I moved past her house an object I saw stopped me. Dragged me into the present. A chair. The chair? The orange Danish modern chair that I broke and that subsequently broke up my marriage appeared to be sitting on her front lawn. "Impossible," I thought. That was destroyed, thrown out, gone. I stopped my car abruptly in the street, opened my car door, and ran up into her yard. She was pulling more stuff out of her house. I said,
"Hi. Hey, are you selling this stuff?"
"Just take whatever you want. I'm leaving," she said, going angrily about her business.
"Where did you get this chair? I used to have one exactly like it. I've never seen another one."
"I found it," she said. "Take it." I inspected the chair. It had been carefully rebuilt, put back together. It was the chair.
"Did you find this on the street up on the hill around the corner?"
"Yeah," she said. "Why?"
"This chair destroyed my marriage."
She looked at me with a dark, stressed gaze for a second like she was looking through me at something burning in the distance and said, "Mine, too."
I didn't ask any questions. Synchronicity was upon us. The causality was there, it was explainable, but the meaning of the object before us was at once unique and shared. It was some kind of black magic that sent my thoughts back to the garage wizard who kept Jung's curtains locked up. What had he unleashed on this world, my world, her world, with this chair?
"We have to take it out of circulation."
"Yes," she said, catatonically, like how I felt. Then this stranger and I proceeded to destroy the chair with our hands and our feet until it was unfixable. We took a breath and looked down at the scattered chair shards.
"Thanks," she said. A horn honked. I turned to see my car, door open, sitting in the middle of the street, running. Someone needed to get by.
"Good luck with everything," I said, then walked back to my car and drove away, strangely relieved. I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw her making a pile of culprit pieces.
From Attempting Normal by Marc Maron. Copyright 2013 by Marc Maron. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau.