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Fights and the City

Happy couples -- whatever they are -- are all alike. But New York's unhappy couples are unhappy in their own way. Sarah Bernard goes backstage in the city's operatic, never-ending relationship dramas.

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"Notice hole no. 1," says Max, 30, pointing to a gaping baseball-size puncture in the slate-gray bedroom wall. "And that" -- he gestures across the room -- "is hole No. 2."

The fight started on the previous Saturday when Max and his girlfriend, Jessica, 28, decided to go out on the town. "It was a quintessential New York night," says Jessica, in jeans and a black turtleneck, lying across the bed in their one-bedroom University Place apartment, which is filled with papers and computers for an Internet business they started together out of their living room. "We went to three bars, had some sushi at Yama on Carmine, went to one friend's party, then to The Park, in Chelsea." They ended up at Centro-Fly. When a burly bouncer blocked her from returning to the VIP room after a bathroom break, Max didn't come to her aid and the alcohol-enhanced brawl began. "If you are out with your boyfriend and you feel threatened by the door guy, your boyfriend should do something. It made me feel like he decided it wasn't worth it."

The fireworks started inside the nightclub, then continued in the backseat of a cab. "At 20th Street, she gets out and slams the door, hysterical," says Max. "The cabdriver is looking at me like I'm an idiot. So are people in other cars."

Max is now sitting across from Jessica on a futon piled high with his clothes, his sneaker collection arranged in a grid on the floor to the right. "I go another block in the cab. But then I figure Jessica is wasted, it's 3 a.m. I should go find her and walk her home." They've lived together for the past four years of their eleven-year relationship, which began when Jessica was in high school. "Otherwise, she's going to go missing for weeks, then they'll find her watch somewhere." He got out and followed her down Fifth Avenue.

"Finally, I grabbed her. And for a second, everything was funny. Then she started again. She crossed the street. This guy gives her a 'Where you goin', honey?' and she gets freaked out. So she comes back to me, then starts cursing! Really loud. Meanwhile, people are looking at us like 'Are you insane?'

"We get in the building and she runs upstairs," Max continues as Jessica listens, giggling. "I say, 'You sleep; I'm watching TV on the couch.' I went to check my e-mail. My wrist was in a brace, and she came in and kicked me in the thumb. I'm thinking, This is going to be killing me for months, what the fuck? That's when you went into the bedroom and I slammed open the door, which caused the first hole."

The second came when he threw the cordless phone in frustration.

Jessica gives a perfunctory nod. "I think it's interesting there are not more people crying and going crazy on the street in New York," she says.

The non-cordless phone rings. It's Jessica's mom. She wants to know when they're getting married.

New York couples are gladiators. Fighting is our favorite spectator sport, whether on the street corner or through the thin walls of a tenement (à la The Honeymooners) or on the front page of the New York Post (à la the mayor -- though we didn't need to know that much). But the city is more than a stage set for our operatic battles. It's a living presence in most relationships -- a not-so-silent third party. All of us tend to fight about the same things, dictated by the patterns the city forces us into. (What's Rudy, after all, but another workaholic executive who grew too close to a co-worker and thereby lost his family?) We fight about: working too much, working too little, shelf space, loft space, personal space, sushi or Mexican, the Four Seasons or the coffee shop. We fight in elevators, on the sidewalks, in the middle of the kitchen with the refrigerator door open, in Central Park, on Central Park West, in the office, on the Jitney, at the dinner table, in dive bars, on the couch. "My boyfriend only fights on the 6 train," says one New York lifer. "I think he likes the spectacle."

Birds Do It, Bees Do It
Brooke, 31, is an impeccably groomed publicist. Dave, 38, her husband of seven and a half years, runs a sales-and-trading desk at an investment bank. They are sitting on opposite sofas in their Deco living room. Tonight the bone of contention is -- as it often is -- how her home office has sprawled from the guest room in their Upper East Side three-bedroom, crossed the hallway, passed the front foyer, and established a suburb in what used to be his study, backing his stereo equipment and treadmill into the corner. "When I come home, there is a full office going on," says Dave, still in his suit and tie.

"I tell him, 'You absolutely can't come in and talk to me until 6:30 p.m.,' " says Brooke, sipping a glass of white wine.

"So I'll go shopping," he says. "I won't come home. I don't feel comfortable here." He has to physically restrain her from answering the phone past 7 p.m. "We have four lines," he points out. "We have ten handsets in the apartment! Plus she has a BlackBerry addiction."

"I use it when I'm walking down the street," she says proudly.

"She was checking her voice mail in the middle of a Seder!" he shouts.

"Under the table!" she shouts back.

Vacations are always in places with Internet access. ("She rips all the covers off my travel magazines for her clip files, but I'm the one who has to make the travel arrangements!" he laments.) Weeknights are for separate business socializing. Sunday nights, she likes to come home early from the Hamptons to do her payroll. Running her own business, she reminds him, means that she is responsible for every detail. Given her hectic schedule, she wants him to handle more of their household affairs. "He's there the whole day doing nothing but making up jokes on Bloomberg," she says. "Someone dies, there's a joke 30 seconds later."

"No, I'm talking to my clients."

"Yeah, whatever. You're not doing anything. So my thing is, you're sitting there and when the market's slow you could make some calls. You've got to deal with the dog grooming, call the decorator and tell her which fabric swatch we want. Our decorator and our contractor are having an affair, by the way -- it's a nightmare."

"I can't do that on the trading desk; it's too embarrassing."

"Like no one else does it."


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