Early on in our marriage, Stephanie said she didn’t like the word "wife," as it implied subservience.
"It's not about us, it's about the language. Just say the words 'husband' and 'wife', and who do you picture being in charge?"
"The husband, I guess," I said. "That's the way it usually works, in life and on TV."
"Why does someone have to be in charge?" she said. "Why can't they be equals, and decide things together?"
"That's what we do. I'm not in charge here, certainly. And you're not in charge, either. Our marriage isn't about being 'in charge', it's about being together."
"Exactly right and that's another reason I love you. But — do you remember when we met Ken, in the lobby of the Wallaby, and you introduced me as your wife?"
"When I heard you say, 'and this is my wife, Stephanie', just for a moment I wondered what Ken thought."
"I doubt he thought anything much about it at all," I said.
"Well, I doubt it too. But I've thought about it some, wondered what it means, exactly, to be someone's wife. Tell me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that you can’t have equality in marriage when we don’t even have the same words, 'husband' and 'wife'. We have separate words, each with a long and complicated history, but it wasn't long ago that the words 'my wife' legally meant 'my property', and 'my husband' meant 'the man who owns me'."
"I see your point," I said, and as she continued I saw her point more clearly. She felt (and after she explained it to me, I agreed) that the word "wife" connotes less value and less respect than "husband." "Wife" is more a synonym of "sidekick" than of "partner," maybe not in the dictionary but in ordinary parlance. As she said, her point wasn’t about our marriage, it was more about the overall philosophy of marriage. But she didn't want to be anyone's wife, and we both decided we didn’t like other words like "spouse" or "lovers," so we invented our own words.
She became the "wiff," pronounced like "whiff," and I became the "hubbin." As these were homemade words, we defined them ourselves, and wiff and hubbin were unquestionably equal, like Cagney & Lacey or catsup and mustard, with no subtle implication that one is in charge and the other does what she's told.
After that conversation, though, it was one of the sweetest moments ever when, a few months later, she told me, "You know, being your wiff is nice, but I’m also proud to be your wife." I knew immediately that this was an enormous compliment, and told her I was proud to be her husband, but in the years that followed I've come to realize more and more deeply just how huge a compliment she gave me that day. Every time she referred to herself as my wife, it was like she was hugging me and saying, "I love you."
Our made-up words wiff and hubbin faded away, and we became wife and husband instead, but we always had Russian. Steph studied that language in college, and she could read and speak it, though she would always add the caveat, "not fluently."
For my part, I found Russian virtually unlearnable. They don’t even use the same alphabet or characters, and the characters they have that look like English are pronounced differently. For example, 3 — you think that's the number three, but in Russian it's a letter, and pronounced like like our letter Z. H is pronounced N, P is a rolling-R, Y is pronounced "ooh," and so on — it’s like a whole different language!
Still, Steph was able to teach a few Russian phrases to this big dumb boy, most of which I’ve forgotten. Ya tebya lyublyu (spelled я тебя люблю) means "I love you." Milaya (милая) means dear or sweetheart, but it’s gender-specific and only for a girl or woman; the equivalent referencing a boy or man is Miliy (милый). Thus, the most complex Russian sentence I was able to say was, Ya tebya lyublyu, milaya, meaning, "I love you, sweetheart."
Pozhaluysta (пожалуйста) means "please," and spacebo (спасибо) means "Thank you." When we lived in California and frequented Oakland A’s baseball games, the team had an infielder named Scott Spiezio, and whenever his name was announced on the public address system, we’d sometimes say "You’re welcome."
Her knowledge of Russian gave her an extra insight into movies where someone spoke that language. American movies often have Russian bad guys, and we sometimes saw artsy movies imported from Russia. She couldn’t translate paragraphs of complicated dialogue, but she could almost always get the gist of something spoken in Russian, or any Eastern European language, since most or all of those languages are related. She could read the signs in the background, if the movie or scene was set in Russia or Eastern Europe, and when they spoke she could tell whether the actor was native to the language, or faking it phonetically. And she could sometimes explain subtle plot points before they were explained by the movie. "He's saying that the detective is crooked," she'd say as someone spoke Russian, and five minutes later it would come out in the movie that the detective was crooked. Or, "She's saying that she has a crush on that guy," and later, yup, it turned out this character was smitten with that character.
Somewhere along the line she picked up some Spanish, and a few other languages far removed from Eastern Europe, because she could do this with movies in the most unexpected dialects. It was a little like being married to a universal translator from Star Trek or Doctor Who.
In addition to hubbin and wiff and a few Russian words, we had a small vocabulary of our own baby-talk and code words. These were inside jokes just for her and me, but the words and phrases are still part of my vocabulary, still echoing in my head, so I’ve prepared a list, a glossary of our goo-goo talk. Of course, there’s nothing in the world more annoying than two people in love babbling at each other in their own silly lexicon — unless the two people are Stephanie and I, in which case it’s just the cutest, most adorable thing ever.
"avtobus" — That’s the Russian word for "bus." When we were waiting for the bus, we’d say we were waiting for the avtobus. And for years we didn't have a car, so we spent a lot of time waiting for the avtobus.
"big dumb boy" or "big dumb girl" (but usually it was "big dumb boy") — I’d say it about myself, or she’d say it about herself, when admitting that one of us had said or done something dense or dumb. It was never used as an insult ("You’re a big dumb boy"), always and only as an apology ("I’m a big dumb boy").
"Cat Mama" and "Cat Papa" — that's how we referred to each other in the context of taking care of our cat, Minky. When Steph saw me changing the litter, she'd say, "You're an excellent Cat Papa," and when I saw her brushing the cat's fur or giving her cat-treats, I'd say, "You're an excellent Cat Mama." We, of course, had no non-cat children, by choice.
"cha!" — happy! I can't explain the etymology behind it, but when Steph was happy she might shout "Cha!" She said it so loud and happy, you'd be happy just hearing it.
"_____ chiggers" — Chiggers are nasty, biting bugs that live in the woods. Any time either of us had a stubborn itch, well, wherever the itch was located, that must be where the chiggers are, right? So we’d announce it as "ear chiggers" or "knee chiggers" or "groin chiggers," etc.
"—chka" A fake Russian suffix, added to any English word to make it "Russian." Basically, this was our equivalent of Pig Latin. If she couldn’t find any clean socks, she might wail, "Sockschka!" If we had spaghetti for dinner, when Steph brought it out of the kitchen I might holler, "Spaghettichka!"
"Cows!" — How happy Stephanie was, every time she saw farm animals while we were driving in the countryside. She’d holler, "Cows!" or "Goats!" or "Llamas!" or "Ostriches!" as soon as she spotted them. Sometimes I'd holler it first, if I spotted the animals before she did. Or sometimes, one of us would bluff the other, hollering, "Sheep!" when there were actually no animals in view.
"feet cheese," pronounced like feet — Means any smelly cheese, like feta.
"freak-out!" — from a scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where the entourage rides the boat through a fountain of cheesy special effects, and a kid says, "What is this, some kind of freak-out?"
"full of sadness" or "full of gladness" — self-explanatory, I would hope.
"girl" or "girly" = Stephanie, and "boy" or boyly" = Me — announcements could include "Happy girly," "Grumpy boyly," etc. It worked like a quick summary of status. Usually, no reply or conversation would follow, as we already knew each other's mood. Often used in conjunction with the previous idiom on this list, e.g., "Sad boyly, full of sadness."
"Hate everything! Don’t like nothin’!" — It’s grammatically incorrect, of course, and it’s a double negative, but that was intentional, for comedic effect. Stephanie would say this when she was especially blue, if she’d had a rough day at work, or if the medical procedures and uncaring kidney crew were riding her last nerve, or if she’d mistakenly put a tablespoon a cayenne into the pot when the recipe called for a teaspoon. I’m planning to have this phrase tattooed on one arm, and Ya tebya lyublyu, milaya on the other.
"Is that a true story?" or "Is that in the Bible?" — These are expressions of surprise, skepticism, or incredulity. If, for example, someone said the forecast was for snow in July, or told you that Burger King was giving away free French fries, our response would be, "Is that a true story?"
"Is there anything we need from out in the world?" — Whoever's driving would say this, always, as we got within a few blocks of home. The answer was usually "Nope," unless one of us remembered needing something from the drug store, or unless Stephanie wanted a caramel apple empanada from neighborhood Taco Bell.
"liberry" — Our intentional mispronunciation of "library." Sometimes I slip up and say "liberry" when I’m talking with other people, and they must think I’m a dunderhead when I do.
"pee like a moodlefoodle" — Steph didn’t use profanities often, certainly nowhere near as often as I did and do. But "pee like a moodlefoodle" was something she often said, only she never said moodlefoodle; she instead said a similar-sounding vulgarism often heard in action movies. Saying it gave her dibs on the bathroom, since we only had one toilet. I sometimes asked, but Steph never explained how a moodlefoodle urinates, and in what manner this is fundamentally different from the way everyone else urinates. To this day, though, when I gotta go number one, I’ll sometimes recite Stephanie’s cliché as I walk in a hurry toward the toilet.
"Pinks" — That was, we imagined, how the cat thought of us (pink being our shade of skin). Minky, we decided, thought of Stephanie as the "Little Pink," and me as the "Big Pink." To this day, I wonder what the cat wonders, about why the Little Pink is no longer here.
"run-girlie-run" — Steph played lots of video games, but I didn’t have much interest. Several of her favorites were action-style games, which she generalized as "I’m playing Run-Girlie-Run."
"Schmook" — Our slang for smooch, or kiss. We'd say "Schmook" at the door when one of us was leaving, either accompanied by or as a replacement for an actual kiss.
"Shut up in Paris" — It’s a line from a book Steph once read, wherein the French protagonist is too ill to leave home, and is thus said to be "shut up in Paris." So it was originally in French, then clumsily translated into English. We used this line when someone was far too talky or annoying; e.g., "I ran in to an old sorta-friend from college, and she simply would not shut up in Paris."
"Taking a Steph Day" or "Taking a Doug Day" — a day off from work and responsibilities, spent instead doing whatever Steph (or Doug) wanted to do. We had lots of days where we did things we'd decided to do together, but on a Steph Day it was only Stephanie deciding what we did — an extra treat, an excuse to indulge yourself, and be a princess for a day. Highly recommended; I enjoyed giving her Steph Days perhaps more than I enjoyed my own Doug Days. There have been no Steph Days or Doug Days since she died, but I have a notion to eventually do some Steph Days without her — spend a day doing things I used to do with Stephanie, like the zoo, the diner, Olbrich Gardens, a museum, whatever. That might be nice.
"Sweet Jeebers" — It sounds like you’re about to take the Lord's name in vain, but instead you’re referring to my favorite fictional brand of candy, Sweet Jeebers. Little candy-coated mints in a box, we decided. I don't know where this phrase originated, but it’s all over the internet so we didn’t make it up.
"Sweetie" — No doubt every couple in love has a catch-all term of endearment that they use for each other. We had several, but it was usually "Sweetie." Runners-up included "Honey Muffin", "Sweetcakes", and "Sweet Potato Pie." We said "Sweetie" so commonly that even now that she’s gone, Sweetie is as likely as Stephanie to be the name on my lips, on my mind.
"Tiger Team" — used un-ironically by ordinary people, a tiger team is a group of experts working toward a shared goal, usually in a military or technical setting. We first heard the phrase on a talk show, and we thought it sounded silly and childish, so we adopted it instantly and used it only ironically. Stephanie, me, and the cat comprised our "tiger team", ‘cuz you can’t have a tiger team without a cat. Example: "The tiger team is going to clean the bathroom now."
"Tired Girl," or "Tired Boy" — Issued as an announcement, free from any context or conversation. One of us would simply say it out of the blue. It means I/she didn't get much sleep last night, and might turn in early.
"Up!" — might be shouted loudly and enthusiastically, when rising from bed or a chair. Why? I have no idea, but it was cute when Steph did it.
"Welcome to our happy home." — One of us would often say this as we walked into the apartment. Translation: For homebodies like us, it's good to be home.
"What goes on in the kitty-cat mind?" — That’s me and Stephanie, wondering whether the cat loves us or just loves the food and treats, and whether the cat comprehends that we love her, and whether the cat even understands that we’re not cats and she’s not people.
"What's the rumpus?" — A line from the movie Miller's Crossing. It just means, what’s going on here?
"The woobles" — Low blood glucose, during Stephanie’s diabetic days. She would get dizzy and lightheaded, need to sit down, and drink a juice or sugary cola to get her sugar levels up.
"You never signed up for this." — Stephanie often said this to me in the last years of her life, lamenting her poor health and apologizing because I had to do more than my share of the chores, take time off work to drive her to numerous medical appointments every month, etc. "Actually," I would invariably say in response, "I signed up for exactly this on the day we were married." Indeed, I don't know what marriage is supposed to be, if not a commitment "for better or worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." No regrets and no apologies were ever needed, but still, Steph often apologized.