Love in a Toilet: The Bridesmaids Prenuptial Test
For religious-minded people about to marry there is a custom of spending some weeks in prenuptial meetings with a priest or preacher. The purpose is to have a couple’s compatibility co-signed by a responsible third party. One of the strangest prompts in these sessions comes in the chance to describe a quality of your partner you dislike the most. I’ve always found this question alarming. To be sure, there are decent intentions behind it, a call to honesty and a concrete declaration of a person’s willingness to endure hardship for the sake of the relationship. But its assumptions about what precedes arrival at the threshold of a wedding bed is disturbing, as if loving someone for their worst qualities–or more ghastly, in spite of them–is not already a human instinct.
I grew up with an older brother who physically dominated me at every age. No matter the age he was permanently four inches taller than me, 40 pounds heavier, and more muscular. Upon realizing this permanent power advantage he became a tyrant, wielding his various body functions against me. During every minute of every day he moved around the house secure in the knowledge that I could be pinned to the floor and burped on or, worse, made to endure a blast of hot methane at close range.
This afforded me the chance to contemplate many of the most disgusting physical characteristics a person can have. The fact that my brother was also extraordinarily adept at seducing women left me to wonder how he could seem to be two separate people housed in the same body. I assumed it was impossible that he could vent the odors of his digestive system in the company of a woman, and eavesdropping on his phone conversations mostly confirmed this. The flatulent beast was nowhere to be found when he spoke to women. Instead he was demure and honey-voiced, sounding almost like a eunuch while making hyperbolic displays of politeness.
The farted-upon boy that I was has, not surprisingly, left me with a taste for vulgarity and body humor that is almost impossible to offend. In the company of men, this pleasure in physical revulsion is a second language that instantly bonds strangers. At a party last year I befriended a group of relative strangers in only a few minutes by starting a round-robin of “This one time I shit my pants…” stories. I have also come to understand this manly fixation on the many different ways my body can betray itself–foot odor, palm sweat, belches, farting, morning breath, coffee breath, hunger breath, underarm stink, eye boogers, snot, sneeze spray, foot calluses, pee dribbles on my underpants, scrotum sweat, pillow drool–is best avoided in the company of women.
I’ve never understood why this should be. While there are a small number of irresolvable differences between men and women, poop and body odor surely have to be counted as common occurrences. During my 33 years of puttering around the earth, I’ve found persuasive anecdotal evidence to suggest that poop jokes and the slapstick surprise of our stinkiest sloughings are not unknown pleasures in the society of women. I can now add the movie Bridesmaids to this list of anecdotal evidence. In one especially satisfying scene all of the bridesmaids are stricken with food poisoning while trying on dresses for the wedding. One of the women rushes to the toilet to vomit, an inconvenient obstacle for the woman who is on the verge of diarrheal spatter. In a brave improvisation this woman decides to hop onto the bathroom sink to loose her intestinal woe. “Don’t look at me!” this sink-shitter screams when a third woman bursts through the door and vomits on the first woman’s head. Anyone who’s ever complained about a spouse’s morning breath or back moles has never seen him or her evacuate in a sink.
I have sometimes been accused of misanthropy because of how I choose to describe people. To write someone has a “flat” butt or remark on the notes of rotten broccoli in a person’s morning breath is, to some people, evidence of an incapacity to love properly. People require flattery, apparently. Our lovers are not supposed to be honest appraisers, reflexively capable of forgiving the sins of the bowel. Instead, they are supposed to be swooning editors who free us from our stinking blow vents and undercarriages. In an essay on the emotional sterility of Facebook, Blackberries, and iPhones, Jonathan Franzen describes this narcissistic tendency as “… one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.” The most essential quality of a modern relationship, buffeted by technological icons, is the avoidance of making other people feel bad about themselves. What surer way to make a person feel bad in a romantic context than to remind them of the silent quantity of shit slowly pushing through a person’s gut.
I had a teacher in high school who once told me that sex was right up there with taking a good shit on the list of life’s pleasures. I was scandalized by this thought for a few minutes, presumably for the same reasons you might be now. Then I remembered how much I actually liked taking shits. Though not often acknowledged, our assholes contain the second highest concentration of pleasure-giving nerve endings in our bodies. Taking leave of one’s undigested materials has all the physical pleasure of a long slow sneeze. No less worthwhile is the little island of time alone in an enclosed space, the brain free to unfurl for a few minutes of pointless wondering. I began to see the analogy wasn’t a derogation of sex but a joke on how automatically we can be made to assume something both nice and universal should, in fact, be our greatest shame. So universal is this presumption that we require priests to remind fiancees it’s okay to say their spouses have bodies made of not just sugar and spice but gas and effluvium.
If anything, the noxious functioning of our bodies are a sweet reminder that love is actually quite far down the list of what we need in life to get by. Being alone sucks, but it’s survivable in a way that having a blocked intestine isn’t. Being in love is a lucky thing, and enlivening, but if you can’t find a way to love someone’s worst qualities how can you love their best? And what kind of partner could really be disgusted by a sudden reminder that their affection and support, while appreciated, can be lived without in a way that a lower intestine can’t. If ever these is a church that will have me as a priest I think I would ask engaged couples to take turns watching each other shit on the sink. If you have the courage to watch your loved one laughing at you in this moment what would there be left to fear in a relationship?
* “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” by Jonathan Franzen (via New York Times)
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