“Everything I say is off the record.”
Brad Phillips likes a good joke. Him and his wife, Cristine Brache, met on Instagram in 2014 while Cristine was living in China. “I was posting T-shirts of mistranslated English,” she says, “and my account was mostly just that, and through our mutual love of language, we found each other’s accounts.”
Their first words to each other were “sup.”
Besides being writers, both of them are successful visual artists—Brad’s a painter, and Cristine makes sculpture and video. While Cristine started writing in the fifth grade, Brad didn’t write until 2013, after he got out of rehab. Which is strange, considering that his grandmother pushed him to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy before he was even in high school.
Cristine: “There’s a picture of him as a child holding Crime and Punishment.”
Brad: [laughing] “No there’s not.”
Cristine’s poems have the mystery of a found confessional, the elegance of perfectly shaped stains. Her 2018 book, titled Poems, included new poems and some written when she was a teenager. They have titles like “WASSUP MORTALS” and “YOU CAN’T WEAR CHANEL TO YOUR OWN SYSTEMATIC HUMILIATION.”
Her and her husband’s writing styles are similar, in that the reader can’t sniff out real from not. Brad’s Essays and Fictions, dedicated to Cristine, is a dark, self-flagellating riot: “My inner child is not something I want to nurture and care for, it is something I want to leave in a basket on the steps of a convent.” His texts are often about addiction and sexual tendencies more likely to be found in the DSM or on the outer edges of Craigslist.
Besides the dark humor, there is a tenderness to both their writing that is erotic, honest, and unafraid of hot shame. With each other, they are adoring and nurturing. Cristine has a strong Miami accent and vocabulary—a Spanish inflection, and she calls things “crunchy”—and Brad’s East-Coast Canadianness trickles out at times. I ask what words they’ve stolen from each other.
“Brad has definitely gotten me to say assclown, dog shit, dipshit, asshat, chowderhead,” Cristine says. (Apparently it’s a very East-Coast Canadian thing to call someone an asshat or assclown). Brad calls things “bobo” because of Cristine, a Miami-ism meaning janky. When I ask how Brad would characterize the patterns of Cristine’s speech, he says, “Take it easy, Noam Chomsky,” then playfully chides, “Ask some easier questions, bro.”
So I ask what words are in circulation between them. Cristine says that Brad incorporates a bunch of atypical words. Like, instead of saying “I have to take a shower,” he’ll say, “I have to go do my ablutions.” Brad’s bank of pet names for Cristine is similarly expansive and evolving. Brad calls Cristine mi cielo, mis ojos, mi vida. “There were a couple years where I called Cristine ‘coach’ a lot,” Brad says. “Because she was teaching me yoga.”
For a long time Brad avoided using the word “babe” because it made him think of Elaine’s boyfriend David Puddy on Seinfeld. “I always thought ‘babe’ was kinda like a jock thing or something,” he says.
Cristine: “We started saying ‘babe’ as a joke and then now we say it seriously.”
Brad: “I’m trying to switch to ‘baby’ though.”
I ask what Cristine calls Brad, and she mentions a single endearment, used earlier in the day: angel cakes. “She uses only as many words as are necessary,” Brad says. “She’s an economical speaker. Sort of like her poems.”
Cristine and Brad got married in 2016. Instead of writing their vows, they used the standard ones about for better and worse, which Cristine found “pretty tight.” She sees marriage as the best way to get as close as you can to somebody, like the two lines of an asymptote; a brave act for many reasons, including the fact that “it’s a bitch to get divorced.”
“I actually like that we’re legally bound together,” Brad comments. “I’m not sure exactly why. I just like feeling accountable.”
I ask what they’d like to be better at communication-wise. Brad says, “I can always learn to communicate in a way that’s more effective for our relationship and also that can be more a help to Cristine, in helping her manage this experience of being alive, which is often quite painful for her and for myself.” A plainspoken, bittersweet piece of advice, which all of us should heed.
“Maybe what’s interesting is that even though we’re both writers, maybe we’re not different from any other couple,” Brad suggests. He then looks at Cristine. “Isn’t that right, babe?”