watts and her red gloves

What d’ya do with your hands?

I open with the best kissing scene in all of John Hughes history. Better than Sixteen Candles [snooze]. Better than the passionless pecks in The Breakfast Club. Better than any Brat Pack liplock involving Andrew McCarthy. Is it the soundtrack? The juxtaposition of sex and oil pans? Is it the badassery of Mary Stuart Masterson as Watts? No matter. It’s a cocktail of PG-sexy awesomeness.

Behold…the Kissing Lesson from Some Kind of Wonderful.


This. Oh, Christ—fetch me a chair—this! 1987 was a high water mark of hope and longing and crushing-on-Eric-Stoltz. Teens in the multiplex just knew…this is what love looks like, feels like. oadeight? Right?

Hollywood, how you toy with us

I’ve learned a few things since my first Some Kind of Wonderful viewing at age 11 and I am confident that [spoiler!] love isn’t really like this. The occasional first kiss might be, but the movie’s final scene drifts into happy ending hyperbole. In boilerplate John Hughes fashion, there is a party at a rich kid’s house. Also in Hughes fashion, this guy is a total dick [not nearly as committed as James Spader in Pretty In Pink, but I digress]. There’s a near brawl where quirky underdog Keith finally stands up to aforementioned dick. Rich-Dick is exposed as the weakling that he is. Cue the clique-bashing biker dude-mall girl coupling. And then comes the perfectly curated track for The Epiphany.

When [spoiler, again!] Keith suddenly realizes he loves Watts, he gives her the Amanda-Jones-intended diamond earrings on which he blew his entire college savings. Then he says, “You look good, wearing my future.”

Yeah, ok. Are we puking yet? It loses some of its soul in transcript form. But you know what? I cry every single time. The sight of Watts bawling her eyes out pre-happy ending grazes the idiotically hopeful part of my heart reserved for John Hughes movies.

Watts is my favorite of his female leads, and Some Kind of Wonderful is by far my favorite in his opus. I long held that it was because she was a tomboy [me, too], she and Keith are both arty and perceived-as-weird [me, too!] the soundtrack is more alt than pop [me, three!]. But now I think it’s that I recognize the street-brawl she has with her own vulnerability. Watts tries so hard to be in control, to be flip, to not need. It’s familiar, though almost impossible to watch sometimes. I want to scream, just tell him! But would I, in the same situation? Probably not. We instead hide under bluster and attitude. And weep bitterly when things don’t turn out as we hoped.

All that wisdom came in hindsight, though. On first glance, say, in the Kissing Lesson, she seems tough and in control. See how she flings the question at her still-clueless love interest, Keith “what d’ya do with your hands?”

It’s a question worth asking. In love, sex, writing, any kind of creating, really. What do you do with your hands? Relationships aren’t exactly the kind of test, as presented by Watts, where there is only one answer. “They go on her hips” is solid enough, sure, but doesn’t quite cover all the complexities of what might come after the First Kiss.

What do you do with your hands? Hold, or hold down? Fold over your chest in stubborn indifference? Do you use them to build? Or to destroy?

Holding hands

marriage, before

New Year’s Eve, 2003. Note the generally romantic mood, and how the grainy, nostalgic photo quality elevates a composition lousy with happy ending clichés. This was no ending, though. I was 27, he was 25. So began our officially bound life together [so says our hetero-normative, monogamy-addicted culture. But that’s another post altogether.].

We moved to Ohio five months prior to our wedding, a return home for me, a job relocation for him. For next year, we poked a lot of new dots together onto the timeline. Wedding. Dog. I walked to work downtown most days, or rode public transport like a proper city girl. He traveled for work. We started saving for retirement. I got pregnant. I miscarried. Then, almost exactly one year after our wedding, we slid right up on the American Dream, a mortgage. We packed up our things—for the 4th time in 6 years—and moved into our first house.

Working hands

We started with dead-of-winter projects like painting and decorating and generally raging against the white-box apartment machine we’d labored in for years [Oatmeal! Olive! Cinnamon! Mustard!]. Our ambitious first summer, we took to the dirt. We dug flagstones out from under 30 years of neglected soil and stacked them in a long, stratified cairn next to the garage. Aside: don’t do this unless you truly welcome every last damn chipmunk in the neighborhood to move in. You will end up the reluctant land lord over a rodent condo complex. The tenants are laughably careless, but astute enough to discover the similarly stratified retaining wall in the front yard, and sprawl into an empire that an MTV Cribs producer would admire. After several years of their bullshit, I had to rebuild that front wall, moving All the Rocks. Again.

Money pit truths aside, most days, we love our home and what we have built. Sometimes our admiration rests solely on a minor footnote: our daughter was born here. Literally here, in our bed, with windows open on a warm June night eight years ago. Evening dog walkers were most certainly alarmed if not permanently traumatized.

The amount of work we have put in to our first house makes it quite possibly our last. We have painted nearly every wall, and I have since moved every one of those damn yard stones at least three times. Our hands stayed busy, building. It has occurred to me over the years: we got everything we asked for. But/and. Did we ask for the right things?

Wringing hands

IMG_3619More than once, one or the other of us has used our hands to destroy. Knock, knock, his knuckles went upon a door marked Exit…divorce. Pound pound pound went mine. We traded we’ll-be-happier-alone stories for a long time. At one point, I took off my wedding ring and toyed with a rebirth tattoo. I wrote on my finger, in pen, a commitment I hoped I could keep…to love myself—borrowing from an Ani Defranco song—As Is.

This was not a happy time. I reclaimed my feminist roots only to awaken to how completely I’d abandoned myself to a ‘1950s-normal’ life, thinking it would somehow make me happy. I went back to school. I tried to build a business, and instead watched it fail. Depression followed. Stonewalling. Escapism. I worked on my reactionary muscles. I blamed. I tested. I feared being alone with a desperate whimper, yet craved it with an addict’s desire.

What did we do with our hands? We took turns stiff arming the other, in a nearly two-years-long infinite loop that felt a little like this. Minus the bananas.

hyperbole and a half the motivation game fuck you help me allie bros

Motivation, Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Fuck you. Help me. Fuck you. Love me. Employ this sentiment if you need some guaranteed alone time.

Alone, in the home we’d built together, I started writing more. He started hiking. We abandoned each other, briefly but regularly, for individual pursuits. Ironically, claiming our own space seemed to eventually help us fumble our way back toward each other. Instead of a steam train, Running Heisman, we moved forward cautiously, hands gently patting the dark between us.

There was no one moment when things *changed*. I can’t tell you when I stopped Googling divorce law and crunching numbers to see what kind of salaried job I needed to find. I have no idea when he gave up looking for apartments. There were epiphanies in between spells of doubt and hopelessness. Hopelessness in between spans of maybe-we’re-ok-now. Circular conversations. Forgiveness. Shared laughter over our bullshit expectations. One instance stands out in my mind as a turned-the-corner point.

Use your hands, not your words!

I have been assured that during every kitchen remodel, it’s inevitable that you will end up in tears. Being the overachiever that I am, this truth bore out multiple times [yes! gold star! I win?] during our not yet complete, 5 month long kitchen project. It’s been guttingly true, given how type A and attached to aesthetics I tend to be.

On what began as an innocent trip to the tile store, I became irritated [*cough* enraged] that I wasn’t finding tile that I liked. Let me clarify…they had plenty that I liked, but it was either too expensive, or didn’t come with the right size and type of bullnose. I made a decision, but I felt like I was settling. It was a “fuck it, fine!” moment. I wince remembering the crying jag followed. I called my mom and received the above wisdom…renovation weeping is inevitable, it’s more stressful than you ever expect, it will all be ok. Hire out the painting. Don’t take on so much. Give yourself permission to ask for help.

Still crying when I walked into the house, my husband—geared up and 12-year-old-boy-excited to get out into the woods on another hike—took one look at me and my puffy, salty face and led me upstairs. He spooned me silently while I sobbed uncontrollably. I tried to relay the story, the reason for my meltdown, but it sounded so dumb. Tile? Fuck. Really? I jumped ahead to self-analysis. I had realized something on the sobbing-scene-take-one while driving home…things just weren’t turning out the way they were supposed to. The tile. The kitchen. My marriage. My life. Where was the perfectly mood-matched soundtrack? The optimistic one-liners? Shit, where were the diamond earrings?!

Oh, Watts, my sister, yes. Hiding under bluster and attitude, I, too, weep bitterly when things don’t turn out as I had hoped. Except this time, when my husband offered his help and comfort, *I accepted it*. I took the flower. We both did what was hard, and what seemed impossible became easy. Easier, anyway.

That he can hold me, literally and emotionally, without judgement [unlike my Tile? Really? self-flaggellation], and that I can accept his help [leaving off the Fuck you bit], things have shifted more than incrementally. We joke that he is at his best when he uses his hands to communicate. Much of the damage we inflict upon each other has been with words. I love words! But neither of us maintain complete respect of their power when the gloves come off. Against much of the marital advice you might see, we’re actually *talking* less. For Christmas, I got him a Grumpy Cat meme puzzle: I like the sound you make when you shut up. It’s the opposite of what parents bark at toddlers. Instead of “use your words, not your hands!” it’s “No! Not your words! Use your hands!”

No Before and After

We have been 10 years in this house, 16 years together, 8 years with a child in tow. We just celebrated our 11th year married. And this is what life looks like now. No filter. No ambient lighting. No champagne. No happy ending.

after-jan 1 2014It appears in this photo that my husband is missing his pinky, but I assure you, marriage  and near-divorce has not made nefarious chopped-digit collectors of either of us. Injuries are limited to the nail that never recovered after getting smashed during that first summer of Moving All the Rocks. The unseen injuries are harder to quantify. But we are making moves toward mending them, and protecting tender spots instead of poking.

Palms up, everyone

In relationships we will all of us get dinged up, and some of those wounds may never recover all the way. But our Tile Episode underlines that we are not at an ending here, we are very much in the during. Maybe even a new beginning. There is no before and after of marriage…unless someone dies, or you finally step through that Exit door.

“What d’ya do with your hands?”

“It depends.”

Yes. Exactly. Sometimes they go on her hips, and sometimes over your own lips to stop yourself saying something stupid. This movie is still shooting. It’s ridiculously low-budget. The make-up lady doesn’t come around anymore. Wardrobe is down to pajamas, punctuated by brief periods of, say, a nice sweater and shiny shoes. It’s no Hollywood treatment.

There are still days we have to remind each other to unclench the fists. We tend the bruises we inflict on each other. On the best days, we get back to the work of stacking the rocks, so to speak. Solo space is still sacred, and in it, my hands are writing. His map new trails and build fires. By some miracle, there are still two pairs of hands here, and we’ve found something else to do with them. Pick each other up and dust off. Onward.


patti carlyle

Writer, feminist and activist in Cleveland, Ohio. I curate a collectic blog of quotes, links, images and long form writing. Learn more or find me on Facebook, Twitter, .

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