There are certain couples you wonder about, how did they ever get together--- a beautiful wife and a less than good-looking husband, a tall husband and a very short wife, an outgoing wife with an introverted husband. This was what was in the back of my mind as I rang the doorbell of Dr. (he was a PhD) Malcom Werner. I was there to interview Dr. Werner for a profile in our retirement community’s newspaper. He and his wife Tess had just won the July 4th mixed doubles tennis tournament. In the case of Werner and his wife Tess the difference was the opposite of the example I gave above; Werner was a tall handsome man, at sixty, one of the younger retirees in our community, while his wife was of medium height and, well, let’s say, not too attractive; okay, she was downright ugly.
The door opened and there was Werner, dressed in a white short and slacks, with beautiful white hair and moustache, very tanned and healthy-looking. “Come in,” he said. “Can I get you anything?” I said I was good and he led me into the living room. We sat down and he said, “Tess is off playing tennis with her lady friends. Well, what can I tell you?”
I went through my usual method of interviewing, first asking him where he was from originally, then about his family, where he’d gone to school, his career, his marriage, his interests, especially in his case about his tennis playing, and finally how long he’d been in our retirement community and his and Tess’s activities, other than tennis, there. I found out that Werner, like myself, was an Easterner, from Boston, that he’d gone to Harvard and been on their tennis team, that he’d become a professor there, then had received an offer to teach at UC Berkeley, that he and Tess had been in our retirement community for almost a year and belonged to several clubs.
“When did you meet your wife?” I asked.
It was at a faculty party in Harvard, he said.
“What was there about her that attracted you?”
Werner didn’t speak for a moment, then he smiled and said, “She wasn’t by far the most attractive girl in the room.”
“I didn’t mean …”
“Oh, I know. I think a lot of people wonder how we got together. Are you sure you don’t want a drink?”
I knew I was about to hear a story. This happened a surprising number of times when I interviewed someone. I’d quickly found out that people liked to talk about themselves; it was as if once they started talking about their lives they couldn’t help but keep going. I’d heard some surprising things. “All right,” I said. “Something cold.”
Werner brought me my drink, sat down and began. “Tess was standing by herself. I suppose I felt a little sorry for her. I introduced myself. She told me she was from New York, had gotten a master’s in English at Columbia and had just started teaching an introductory literature course. Naturally, we started talking about books. She was a great fan of Jane Austen. I liked George Eliot. We agreed that we liked the Victorian novelists. We went on to more modern times, the 1920’s, 1930’s and on. I said I’d been an admirer of Ernest Hemingway but now I thought only his short stories and maybe his first book, “The Sun Also Rises,” had held up. We agreed that Scott Fitzgerald had been under-appreciated at the end of his career. We went on like this for a while and it seemed natural that after the party we went to a coffee shop to continue our talk.”
“You had literature in common,” I said. “What about tennis?”
“I was on the Harvard tennis team, low on the ladder. No, Tess hadn’t taken up tennis then. Actually, I taught her how to play. Anyway, we got to our own lives. I told her about being a Bostonian. She was a New Yorker, an only child and had won a scholarship to Columbia.”
“So, were those dates?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so. My pals would kid me about dating the ugliest girl on campus, but I told them we were just friends. I also said she wasn’t that bad-looking. And she had a pleasant voice, not that loud nasal voice many New Yorkers have. She was obviously smart. She was also very nice. How nice I was to find out.”
“What do you mean?”
“There was a lot of flu going around that winter and I came down with a case of it, a bad one. Tess came over every day and nursed me through it. She brought me my pills, took my temperature, did everything. I don’t think I’d have made it through without her.”
“So that was when you proposed to her?”
Werner laughed. “No, idiot that I was. I became infatuated with one of my students, a senior. She was beautiful, like an actress or a model. I wasn’t the only one. She was ambitious, too. Eventually, she chose one of the department heads, twenty years older than herself. It was a blow, but it taught me a lesson. I went back to Tess, but she was reluctant. I told her I couldn’t live without her. Finally, I persuaded her. It was the best thing I ever did.”
At this point Tess herself came into the room, her hair disheveled and her face shiny with sweat after playing tennis. “Oh, I didn’t know you had company,” she said.
Werner introduced us, telling her I’d come to interview him for our community’s paper. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I’d forgotten.” We shook hands; her grip was firm. Werner went to get a cold drink, too, and while we were waiting she sat down and we started talking about the city both of us were from, New York. She wanted to know how I’d ended up in California and had I always been a write. I found myself telling her my story. I guess that like most people I liked to talk about myself. She was a good listener.
Werner asked how her tennis had went and we talked a little while longer, then I stood up and said I’d better be going. I went home, read over what I’d written and thought over the morning. I’d called this story “The Ugly Wife” but I should really change that title. I agreed with Werner; she wasn’t that bad-looking. And she was very nice.