Brains in Love

Five days before the end of America’s third impeachment trial, Richard Schiffman got into a heated argument over the first. Richard, who works in television, said that Andrew Johnson was the first president to question his job security. Richard’s wife was convinced it was Andrew Jackson. On any other night, they would have been one more couple spicing up their marriage with a spat about 19th-century politics. But it was quiz night at Banshee Pub and the question had more on the line. First prize was a one-hundred-dollar gift card; Lizzy had also threatened to move out if she wasn’t believed. 

“We take trivia very seriously,” Richard had told me when I interviewed to join their team.  

“We don’t think it’s trivial at all,” Lizzy Schiffman added. “Knowledge is knowledge. Knowing things is always important.” 

Originally from Chicago, the couple joined a quiz night on their first date. Bar trivia, according to Richard, makes an ideal first date because there’s a structured activity with a definitive end. The conversation is structured too—there’s some opportunity for casual conversation, but mostly you’re just arguing over the ancient city that’s 85 kilometers south of Baghdad (Babylon) or Michael J. Fox’s hometown (Edmonton).  

“Quizzes force people to reveal things about themselves,” Richard told me. “Lizzy knows all sorts of things about deserts. That’s not something that often comes up on a first date.” 

“Deserts are my specialty,” Lizzy added. 

On that first date, they came in tenth and Lizzy was the one writing down the answers. By the time they married, they were always in the top three and Richard was the secretary (he has better handwriting). They became walking Wikipediaes. Nights were spent challenging each other to feats of intelligence, like naming the eighty-three moons of Saturn or listing Japanese emperors in chronological order. The Schiffmans never missed a week except for the time Lizzy appeared on Jeopardy!. She didn’t last more than a game. Richard said it was her buzzer technique—on Jeopardy!, it’s all about the buzzer—but Lizzy said he undervalued his own importance to the team.  

“Our brains need each other,” she told me. “If he isn’t telling me the wrong answer, I wouldn’t know how to get to the right one.”  

When they came to Toronto for work, everything they knew about Canada came from stereotypes and memes about Justin Trudeau. That’s where I came in. The couple knew the periodic table, the wives of Henry VIII, and quotes from each of Shakespeare’s plays. What they needed was someone who knew Red Island was off the coast of Newfoundland and which provincial flags featured the Union Jack. They also needed help with Canadian music; when we met, the only Canadian they knew was Celine Dion. 

Every week, Lizzy changed our team name. Richard’s job meant he showed up at the last minute, and she had a habit of keeping the booklet facedown so he’d be surprised. On the week I joined the team, Lizzy had written, “Just the Three of Us.” Richard didn’t know I had agreed to be their third leg until the host introduced the teams. As a third leg, I fulfilled my expected duties and even knew enough about musicals, baseball, and obscure medical terms to occasionally impress.  

Our winning streak started after Lizzy gave her kidney to a cousin. She returned to the game smarter than ever—that extra kidney must have been interfering with her train of thought. But kidney donation is just one of the tricks that gave us an edge. Memorizing world capitals is a must, and we always made sure to know our ests—the highest mountains, smallest lakes, the deepest trenches (that’s why they’d learned the moons of Saturn; Saturn is the mooniest planet there is).  

The problems started during COVID. During the pandemic, Richard had trouble finding work as productions shut down. Lizzie, meanwhile, was a professor who was trapped navigating the terrors of online learning. COVID was something they thought they should know about, and each went down their own rabbit hole. It wasn’t like learning other things. Every website will tell you Mount Everest is 8,848 meters above sea level. But no one could agree on where the virus came from or the effectiveness of wearing masks on the TTC. 

“She got angry at me for researching the vaccine,” Richard once said. “I believe in vaccines. I just wanted to know more about this one. 

Knowledge is knowledge, Lizzy had told me. But what happens when knowledge isn’t knowledge? Their nightly games of intelligence became minefields. Once, Richard asked for the largest country in Africa but failed to specify whether he meant by area (Algeria) or population (Nigeria). The subsequent fight lasted two and a half days. 

 All this bled into that most challenging of nocturnal games: Richard and Lizzy had decided to have a kid. This proved harder than memorizing Saturn’s moons and, after several months, they realized they needed to try something else. But if researching COVID had led to a minefield, then investigating conception put them at Pearl Harbor on the day that will live in infamy (December 6, 1941). Lizzy prayed at the altar of the mommy blogs while Richard combed through medical texts. Again, they turned to their ests – the finest diets, the sexiest aphrodisiacs, the greatest ovulation apps. But since they had researched different sources, their answers differed too.  

When things failed, did they blame these websites? Did Lizzy attack the influencer who had told her to go gluten-free? Did Richard question the men’s magazine that demanded he favor the missionary position? No. They became partisan. Rather than listen to each other, each walked into the conversation assuming the other was wrong.  

Every quiz team thrives on trust. If there’s a disagreement, the players have to choose who to believe. Now that trust was gone, and facts were no longer safe. The Great Australian Desert is larger than the Gobi but when Lizzy mentioned this during the quiz—when she reminded Richard that deserts were her specialtyRichard insisted she was wrong. And since he was the secretary, he wrote down the wrong response. We won by a single point. In second place was Quizzy McGuire, our main rivals. They’d been inching closer every week and were hungry to win. They wanted that gift card. When announcing the teams, the host always called us the reigning champs. Quizzy McGuire wanted the title; you could see them glowering each time they lost.  

All this was prologue to the night that came five days before the end of America’s third impeachment trial. Richard and Lizzy were exhausted from another week of pitched battles. Despite the conflict, they were still trying to have a baby. That meant they had spent the week having angry sex—the angri-est of their marriage. Our winning streak was in mortal danger. Another great desert debate and Quizzy McGuire could walk away with the title in their teeth. 

“Who was the first U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives?” asked our host.  

“Johnson!” said Richard. 

“Jackson!” said Lizzy. 

“Johnson!” Richard repeated and went to write it down.  

“You write Johnson and I’m moving out,” said Lizzy. 

I could tell she was serious. Across the room, I felt the glare of the Quizzy McGuires. They knew the answer; you could tell by their smug smirks. 

“It’s Johnson,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”  

“You’re Canadian,” said Lizzy. “What do you know?” 

Richard stared at his wife. They had been married for five years, but it was more if you counted the lockdown which had caused the marriage to age like a dog. I knew he was right. He knew he was right. And he still knew it as he leaned over and put pen to page.  

When the answer was revealed, Lizzy learned the same lesson she had learned on Jeopardy!: Richard was the better half of her brain. But Richard didn’t gloat. When Quizzy McGuire received their prize, Lizzy moved closer to her husband so he could put his arm around her and kiss her head.  

As we were leaving, I pulled him aside. “You knew she was wrong.” 

“I don’t know anything,” said Richard. “I’m rarely the smartest person in the room.” 

A month later, when Richard showed up at the last minute, Lizzy had already given the host our team name. She hadn’t told me what it was. “And at Table 17,” said the host, “‘Technically, There’s Four of Us!‘.  

“Technically?” said Richard. But Lizzy just smiled and sipped her non-alcoholic beer. 

Their daughter was born the following spring. Seven years later, she joined our team for the first time. Lizzy has taught her the importance of knowing things; presumably, Richard has taught her the importance of not knowing things too.

Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash.

Joel Fishbane

Joel Fishbane's novel The Thunder of Giant is now available from St. Martin's Press. His work has appeared in many places, most recently Event and Blank Space. For ten years, he has hosted a weekly pub quiz in Toronto, where he has witnessed plenty of brains falling in love. Find him on Instagram and his Website.