Those eight words killed my appetite – punctured my excitement
about dashing into the gas station to grab a couple of sliders at the attached White
Certainly, I knew how he felt. In the many letters and messages we’d exchanged during our courtship, he’d made it clear.
Yet. Those eight words, a casual observation made by the man I
had been dating and was beginning to love, shrank me, a
woman, into someone jittery, defensive, diminished.
Those eight words sniffed prissily at my history.
In 1982, for my 15th
birthday, my dad gave me a 12-pack of Mello Yello. It was a thoughtful gift,
one that indicated he understood the teenager lurking in the basement. To be
presented with my own, private 12-pack of pop – something I never had to share
with my siblings, something I could hoard in my bedroom closet – was a kind of power.
Dad didn’t use words much, but our shared meals, as recorded in my diary – pages of artless divulgences stashed in the same closet as the Mello-Yello – constituted warm communication.
Sometimes, to cap off a lethargic
day, we’d drive in silence to Bonanza, the low-end, Old West-themed chain
“steakhouse” where we’d order a prime rib dinner, maybe top sirloin, not for a
special occasion but because it was Wednesday, no one wanted to cook, and we
After ladling Ranch dressing onto iceberg lettuce at the salad bar and peeling the aluminum foil from baked potatoes, we’d return to our booth and sit in vinyl communion, relishing the paucity of demands on our energy and the fullness of our plates.
She spent her youth plucking, pitting, and canning, but my
mother never liked to cook. As a woman born in 1935, graduating college in the
1950s, marrying in the early 1960s, her lack of interest in the kitchen smelled of “radical
She certainly didn’t intend it that way: she just didn’t like to
Dutifully, she would make chicken noodle soup, a Sunday roast, “poor
man’s” beef stroganoff, chocolate chip cookies. She loved more adventurous
foods, but none of us understood the appeal of her mushrooms and asparagus.
“More for me!” she’d puff, fishing around the can, trying to spear another limp
spear or soppy button.
For my mom, the day-in-day-out call of the kitchen always chafed. Planning a nightly meal became even more thorny when she escaped into full-time work.
A crumpled Baby Ruth wrapper in hand, I opened the cabinet below the kitchen sink and dropped it into the trash. Rustling faintly, the wrapper unfurled inside an empty Campbell’s can. So that was the tantalizing smell permeating the house: pork chops slow cooking in Cream of Mushroom soup.
In the ‘80s, although my dad tried to catch up with the times,
mastering a few crock pot meals and the occasional batch of chili, willingly
scrubbing the pots and pans, his contributions were voluntary. Failure to plan
a meal did not tarnish him.
It was my mother who was on the hook for getting food into her kids’ mouths – even when those kids were old enough to pitch in and figure out food for themselves. Yet, like our parents, we couldn’t be bothered to conceive of a plan that would cover the family. My sister and I might share a box of mac ‘n cheese; my brother would fry himself a couple hamburger patties. But tending to the common interest? Flattening ourselves, we refused the challenge.
In the early years, our family would head to McDonald’s after
church on Sunday – a righteous reward. In our best clothes, we perched on
plastic seats, the paper around our hamburgers crackling as we unfolded it.
Carefully, I would scrape the rehydrated onions off the patty and offer them to
my dad. After tipping our trays into the swinging mouths of the garbage bins,
we’d take a minute to embrace the flame-haired Ronald McDonald on a bench
A decade later, a teen trying to separate herself, already disenchanted with the ritual and community of church, I bypassed the worship and went straight to the reward.
Desperate to be liked, always desperate to be liked, I spent
hours with my face pressed to mirrors – pursuing pimples, applying eye shadow,
sucking in my stomach, admiring the star embroidered onto the pocket of my HASH
jeans, angling the curling iron. Fancying that effort could result in
popularity, I hit the halls of the school hoping that the height of my bangs
would distract from the tenderness of my heart.
Too many days, I lay face down on my waterbed, smudging mascara tears into the pillowcase.
Tests saved me. Essays redeemed me. And when the report card
came home – evidence that someone liked me – my mom and I celebrated the
results by eating out. A musician, my dad had evening rehearsals. My sister found
her place in the world through babysitting most nights. My brother refused to
join in, noting that we didn’t have enough money to be eating out.
Saluting my achievement worked for a couple of us. As I plowed my way through a mountain of nachos, my mom sighed about her job as a church secretary. Dabbing at crumbs, she alternated bites of turkey sandwich with tidbits of despair about the pastor’s cruelty. To counterbalance her misery, we ordered the cheesecake.
My mother marched to the television and twisted the knob until
the screen went dark. “It’s after 9 p.m., it’s a school night, and I don’t
think that’s a good show for kids to be watching.”
Lazily, my brother unfolded his height from the plaid couch and
skirted our mom’s form, still clad in the belted trench coat she wore to work.
Leaning around her, he snapped the television back to life, explaining, “We watch
this show every week. It’s called Charlie’s
Angels. So what if they’re wearing bikinis. Don’t worry about it.”
Two, three, four, five nights a week, my parents weren’t home.
Sometimes they’d swing by the house between work and the choir and handbell
rehearsals that were their avocation. Providing music for several churches in
town, they would often attend more than one rehearsal in a single evening. My
father conducted, and my mother sang. When it came to bells, my mom would conduct,
and my dad would ring. Creating music for communities of faith united them.
At the same time, we kids would be home, rattling around the
kitchen looking for food, often hopping in the car to grab a single, no
pickles, no tomato.
I thought I liked the independence.
My first car was a Pontiac, a boat of a thing that felt 40-feet
long as it swayed across the asphalt. From the day I earned my license –
passing the test even though the man scoring it stormed out of the passenger
seat after my sixth attempt to parallel park, huffing “I can tell you’re never
going to fit into that space!” – I packed the car with friends who, like me,
were in search of an invisible something; we called it “fun.” Cruising The
Point, hanging out the windows, whipping U-turns, grabbing Whoppers, trying to
buy beer, our collective mobility assured us We Had Lives. And if we had lives,
I careened through my teen years, a lack of structure my sole
purpose. Attending school, watching soap operas, winging around with friends,
trying to fill the belly – the days were a spin of “Go here, go there, go back,
go home, go get, find food.”
Direction came only when I turned a slow left towards the pick-up window after yelling at a stranger through an intercom.
Home alone on a Sunday morning, planted two feet from the
television screen, sitting on the steamer trunk my grandmother had once taken
to Europe, I watched State Fair. During
the commercials, I raced to the vanity mirror in the bedroom and pulled my nightgown tightly
around my hips, measuring my girth, assuring myself the reflection qualified as
“hourglass.” Mostly, I was waiting for my mom to get home from the morning’s
services. I was hungry.
Much of my parents’ identities was tied up in church. For years,
we all attended the Presbyterian church together. Later, our family switched to
a Lutheran congregation. A few years after that, my dad moved, seemingly on his
own, to a different Lutheran church. Eventually, my mom followed. Collecting churches,
they expanded the places where they made music, my mom driving one direction in
her car, my dad the other way in his. Occasionally, they’d rendezvous in front
of an altar.
By the time I hit fourteen, I knew: when I was sitting in a pew,
leafing through the hymnal, sketching out a game of tic-tac-toe on the offering
envelope, I floated in a grey limbo, feeding my spirit with something that felt
Preferring late nights and late mornings, I asserted myself. Outside of holidays, I didn’t want to go to church. This sent a tremor through my parents. Then, shrugging, they focused more hours on ringing and singing.
Uneasily, saliva pooling in my mouth, I stood at the Taco Bell
counter next to my dad. If I ordered too much, he might comment on my weight.
Hoping it made me smaller, I ordered one crunchy taco and a glass of water.
Perched on a hard, plastic seat, I bit through the shell, my teeth sliding easily through the sloppy fillings. The waxy cheese offered no resistance; the meat plopped onto the paper lining my tray. Deliberately, I pinched it, grasping at every possible bite.
Wadding the empty paper into a ball, I admitted, “That was so
good. I could eat more of those.”
Dad’s eyebrows lifted; he was pleased by my appreciation of the
food he’d provided. Expansively, he offered, “Well, then, let’s get you another
The food waiting for us under warming lamps lubricated our
squeaks, spared us from thinking, sidestepped the trick of a family meal. Unquestionably,
going out to eat was a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing,
At the same time, without question, all that was going on inside
our bodies – compromised nutrition, stuffing the holes with fries, never having
a coordinated plan, lacking energy to make the effort, finding ways to never
look each other in the eyes – reflected a festering dysfunction.
I thought we were okay. We were not okay.
“Bleeeech!” I spit the sour milk into the sink. I’d covered the
Cheerios until they floated, priding myself on eating something before a hot
fudge sundae at lunchtime, only to discover as spoon hit mouth that the milk
had gone off.
When I was 15, my nose
for rot was still developing. I’d given the carton a
cursory sniff before tipping it into a full-on pour. It wasn’t until the cereal was
fully saturated that I realized I was shoveling spoilage into my face.
It would take decades before I could perceive decay with any accuracy; decades before I could realize, with a quick whiff, that the milk in the fridge had expired; decades before I stopped trusting my well-being to artificial preservation; decades before chemical-laden food prepared by indifferent minimum-wage workers stopped being the safe choice.
Upstairs, the walls of my sister’s room were painted a sunny
yellow; her curtains danced with flowers. The bright décor was deceptive. A
more accurate reflection of our collective teenage mood was the basement, where
my brother and I lounged in dark wood paneling, tucking our dirty dishes under
the plaid couch, occasionally breaking dried clumps of sauce out of the industrial
It was good that my siblings’ bedrooms occupied separate floors,
good that we rarely all sat down to a dinner, good to have distance between
them. They didn’t much like each other.
Often, my mom ached for distance, too.
In the midst of the unhappiness, I locked the bathroom door and peeled lengths of toilet paper off the roll, mopping at my face. When I was done, I’d hold my hands under the faucet and splash cold water over my blotchy skin, mesmerized by the bubbles sliding down the drain.
Just before 5 p.m., my dormmates and I would line up outside the
locked doors to the cafeteria. Uneasy with each other, strangers still, we’d
stick to talk of movies, professors, friends back home. When, at last, the cafeteria
doors swung open, our pack would move en
masse into the huge, light-filled room, the group splintering as each of us
hunted down the answer to a specific hunger.
At eighteen, echoing my mother’s yearnings, I left Montana and
headed to Minnesota for college. I got away from it all. I got away from the
crap. I was mean and spiteful and bitter, full of tears and a desire to be
nicer. To everyone.
A boy named Tim always filled multiple glasses with milk and slathered a raft of peanut butter onto his plate. My roommate could be counted on to reach for the spaghetti while a girl from Wisconsin with an asymmetrical haircut reliably went for blueberry yogurt mixed with Grape Nuts. Most nights, Jeff from Michigan would finish most meals by dunking a tea bag into a mug of hot water. Accustomed to the challenge of figuring out my meals, I appreciated both the predictability and the choice – even though many of the entrees baffled me, stumping my beef-geared tastes. Eventually, I became a devotee of the salad bar, often topping off my meal with a bowl or two of Captain Crunch.
After a few minutes of
individual wandering, seeking the security of other bodies, we’d converge at
one of the long tables. No one had to spend time cooking chili cheese casserole
for the group. None of us had to plan the menu. Unencumbered, we sparked with
each other for hours, taking breaks to scoop cones of chocolate peanut butter
ice cream, to toast a bagel, to refill a bowl with Lucky Charms, to watch Tim
drink three more glasses of milk.
Leaving home offered me a novel experience: a nightly family meal.
“We’ll split a bread bowl salad,” my dad told the waitress at
Perkins. A whole salad for each of them would have been too much. Plus, one was
cheaper than two. When the bowl arrived, my mom scooted closer; her arms could
only reach so far.
Alone in the house, the nest empty, my parents attended rehearsals, cast about for dinner, moved to a bigger place. My dad watched Jeopardy in his recliner; my mom crowed about the new bathroom that belonged to her, only her. One time, she put my father through a test without telling him: she refused to speak to him unless he initiated the conversation. They didn’t talk for three months. I doubt he noticed.
Traveling through Eastern Europe with my sister, flying to
Iceland to camp with a friend, I lived for his letters. He’d written them
before I left the country, handed over a well-kissed bundle of them, told me to
open one each day while I was gone. Every evening, after riding a bus into
Romania, marveling at the hard-boiled egg in my Polish borscht, swimming in a
warm pool in Akureyri, I capped off the day’s novelty by slitting an envelope
and easing his familiar voice out of the folds.
Infatuated, he contemplated the shape of our future. What would
our days look like when we were together all the time? How could he be there
for me? What would we eat? How would we celebrate life’s joys?
The morning after I returned from my trip, he proposed. A few months later, I married the man who wounded me when he noted that I ate too much fast food. Our years together propelled me into a slow-motion trust fall away from the shaky habits of my youth, urged a blind release into a solid landing. In falling, I discovered asparagus doesn’t come from a can, mushrooms can be transcendent, a wok heaped with bok choy is sizzling beauty.
After the birth of our first baby, we left her for a night with my parents. Having smiled at her and tickled her feet, Dad left. Later, without having told us she was already booked, Mom headed to a rehearsal, leaving the toddler with my brother. The next day, not interested in smashing a banana or spreading a handful of cereal onto her high chair tray, my mom and brother took her to McDonald’s, where they were amazed at the enthusiasm the diaper-clad towhead brought to dragging French fries through ketchup. It was amazing: our girl had never eaten processed sugar or deep-fried food before that familial initiation.
On the day my father opened the front door, not knowing he was
being served, unaware his marriage was ending as it neared the 40-year mark,
his eyes filled with an expansive view of the Pryor Mountains, 90 miles away.
All he’d ever wanted, outside of a cheap sirloin at Bonanza, was the comfort of
a yawning vista.
In the five months between their divorce and my father’s death, Dad
spent a short period at an independent living home, a place where men were rare
and valued. Surrounded by attentive women, no longer slipping around the edges
of unexpressed anger, never having to plan ahead, he looked forward to
For my mom, craving demonstrated affection, the divorce freed
her to seek out a new dynamic. Dating around, she moved in with a diabetic who
loved Nut Goodies; later, she based a relationship with an unpleasant man on
their mutual love of Diet Pepsi, no ice, slice of lemon.
Altogether, she stopped attending church. She was ready to buy her own cookies.
Eventually, Mom remarried. Her new husband, first unwilling and then unable to make himself a sandwich, sits in his chair, baptized by the glow of the television. Together, they watch Jeopardy. Eating out for them is not only a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection. It’s also that no one wants to be in charge of food; again, the responsibility falls to my mother. Fast food is the thing they do together, the reason for him to shower and get dressed. As his memory fades, there are two restaurants he still likes; her messages to us are peppered with the words “In-N-Out” and “Subway.” In this new marriage, life is completely different, yet nothing’s changed.
Disoriented by how foreign Turkey felt,
our young family clung together. At seven and ten, the kids were still young
enough to uproot for the wild hair of a sabbatical year abroad. So there we
were: in Cappadocia, pacing our days with the Call to Prayer, wondering how
headscarves related to politics. A trip to the hardware store required not only
a dictionary but also a deep inhale. Even minor transactions were exhausting.
Then, one evening, at a party of
expatriates teeming with wine and shouted introductions, I latched onto a Turkish
woman named Eren, a woman who ran her own hotel in the next town, a woman willing
to answer my myriad questions about the culture and history of the dusty region
we’d decided to call home.
Several days later, Eren sent a car to
our 400-year-old stone home. With typical Turkish hospitality, she had offered
to give our family a cooking
lesson at her hotel. Unused to the idea that a man would be a kitchen devotee,
Eren spoke mostly to me, but it was my husband who tracked her instructions
closely. I took notes. He asked questions, watched her hands. At the end of
three hours, we sat down at a table outside to share the lesson’s yield: dolmas, leeks with carrots, bulgur, kofte, a dip of roasted eggplant.
The meal that afternoon lasted an hour, but the information stuck. Years later, six thousand miles from that hotel kitchen, I come home from a muddy trail run and find him smiling with anticipation as he rotates an eggplant over an open flame.
“The closest thing I have to ‘faith’ is
the way I feel about yeast.” An agnostic, my husband explores belief in the
invisible each Sunday as he punches dough on the counter. His wedding ring
rests on the windowsill, a witness, while his capable hands turn and thump the
softness, the movements a conjuring. A calibration of heat, time, temperature,
his loaves are hope made tangible.
On the radiator, covered by a towel, the
dough rises. The kitchen is a mess, a visual cacophony of sticky bowls and
wooden spoons. He wipes the counter, but when the moisture dries, chalky
streaks smirk. His back-up crew, I wipe the green laminate again, this time
with a paper towel; mournfully, I note that even the sides of the counters are
coated with floury dust, that a third rubdown is in order. Worriedly, I remark
that a drop-in visitor would flinch at the sty that is our kitchen.
is part of living life. All this flour everywhere means we’re doing it right,”
the baker reminds me.
Later that night, when the house is dark and quiet, I stand in the kitchen, slicing a piece – then another – slathering butter, biting into the remnant warmth, feeling the crumbs dissolve on my tongue.
Slowly, the boy’s hand reaches towards the tv tray next to his
bed. He is searching for relief, for painkillers, gum, something to swallow
that will make him feel better.
Our thirteen-year-old just had his tonsils out. Limp,
muffled-voiced, he winces with every swallow. Within a day of surgery, he refuses
popsicles. They taste “too fake.” Although his stomach is hungry, little sounds
Except maybe homemade mac ‘n cheese, and if there’s some
leftover pho broth in the freezer, he
could sip a mug of that. Also, as long as I’m running downstairs, maybe he
could tolerate a glass of the hibiscus Agua
de Jamaica that Dad brews.
While the boy recovers, our girl is on a high school trip in
Europe. In the days before her departure, she stacked clothes in her room,
poured shampoo into tiny bottles, practiced using her ATM card. Feeling nostalgic in the
fashion of a teenager leaving home for ten days, she requested a special
pre-trip treat: Dad’s cinnamon rolls.
It’s beyond the sixteen-year-old’s scope, but sticky rolls are an integral part of her father’s history, something he made for himself when he lived alone, for roommates when he shared spaces, for friends when they helped him move, for his new girlfriend when she drove five hours north to visit. Setting out heaping platters is an extravagant statement of affection from an otherwise quiet man.
My stomach growls, and I heft ceramic plates out of the
cupboard. A mountain of dirty dishes rests next to the sink. Next to the stove,
a chopping knife lies atop a cutting board, still littered with stems. The mess
With the grace of passing years, I have arrived at an essential
realization: happiness is authentic when someone’s hands have touched it,
pressed a knife blade into the sinew, peeled back the surface, diced, tossed,
grated the whole, exposing the hidden facets, baring the delicate subtleties.
Minutes later, I lift the fork to mouth, wrapping my lips around
a complex bite. I am eating my husband’s questions about that week’s menu. I am
eating the shopping list he made. I am eating his hours at the grocery store. I
am eating the chopping he did before work, the frying he did after. I am eating
the heat of the oven, our day’s debriefing, the intimate conversation we had
while he stirred wooden spoon in skillet. I am eating my husband’s cells,
sloughed off from his skin as he worked over our food.
With each rich, thought-filled bite, I am eating clean, healthy love.
Two years ago, after weeks — nae, months! — of work, I finished writing an essay, and I thought to myself, “This is my favorite thing I’ve ever written.”
So I started submitting it to various publications, hoping someone, somewhere, would like it, too. Would want to publish it. Would feel like my piece was a good fit for them.
Early on, the essay made it to the final round at a dream publication, but it ultimately didn’t make the cut.
For a while, I stopped submitting it anywhere. Then, I remembered how much I loved it and started sending it out again.
Last fall, after fifteen rejections, I got an email one night after teaching an evening class. There was this place. A literary journal. And they loved my essay about food that integrates bits of diary entries and snippets of letters. They wanted to publish it.
Guess what today is? Publication day.
It is with great excitement, then, that I shout, “Hey, guys, if you have a few minutes, maybe click over and read this thing! It’s been waiting for an audience for YEARS!”
Plus, maybe you need a feel-good moment. And while this essay might be about food, it’s actually a love story.
The full issue of Palaver can be read here, as a flipbook. My piece starts on page 89.
Alternately, a .pdf of just my essay can be read here.
Phonology: an inventory of sounds and their features; rules specifying how sounds interact with each other.
Flirtation: a short period of casual experimentation with or interest in a particular idea or activity.
Phlirtology: a short period of inventorying how strangers interact with each other.
Still sweating from my bike ride across campus, I pulled out a piece of notebook paper for the daily quiz. For the next five minutes, as the linguistics professor deliberately articulated difficult made-up words, we graduate students would agonize over his aspirations, transcribing every phone, phoneme, and intonation with the letters and diacritics of the International Phonetic Alphabet.
“Shhhvarkzookelinduh.” Pained, I watched the prof’s beard move up and down, willing his whiskers to spell out the sounds. Quickly, as he finished the word, I jotted down a quick approximation of what I had heard.
Waiting a few beats, he pronounced the word again. “Shhhvarkzookelinduh.” Whereas the first articulation was about inducing panic, the second go-round allowed the panic to settle deep into the gut where, swirling uneasily, it morphed into a shape: Squinting my eyes, I examined his mouth as he spoke. What were his lips doing? Was that vowel sound an “uh” or an “eu” or an “oo”? Scrawling on my paper, erasing frantically, scratching my scalp and tipping my head, I added a few more markings.
Damn. My instincts were still battling when he began his third and final pronunciation: “Shhhvarkzookelinduh.”
What the hell. It sounded totally different that time. Agitated, I wrote down four more possible interpretations of the word, considered how to synthesize them, flipped through a quick but thorough catalog of self-doubt, erased five times, tore a hole in the paper where it had become weak from overuse, tossed wild eyes around the room, and finally, sighing with a sibilant “sssss,” committed to my final verdict.
It wasn’t right. I knew it was wrong. But I didn’t have time to care. He was already halfway through his articulation of the next word on the quiz.
Too bad it wasn’t “fuck.” That word, burbling near my surface, was one I could have grafittied on the side of the classroom, blindfolded, blitzing in letters two-feet high with the can of spray paint tucked into my backpack next to a granola bar and seven pounds of textbooks.
By the time Professor Adams reached the fifth and final word, I was sweating more than when I’d locked my bike to the rack in front of the ivy-covered brick building.
It got worse. Once we graded the quiz (fuck), he announced our first big assignment of the semester: we each would need to find a subject to study — someone who spoke a language “exotic” to us — and, after engaging in a few weeks of field research, submit a paper explaining our process and findings about the phonology of that language.
Great. There I was, in militia-movement friendly Idaho a few months before the Ruby Ridge shooting. Somewhere in a panhandle of homogeneity, I was supposed to find someone exotic.
This was going to take some doing.
Haddou lived downstairs — the friend of a boyfriend of a friend of a friend. Easily, he agreed: he’d be happy to help a fellow graduate student with her project.
Every night after dinner, clutching my notebook to my chest, I’d walk down a flight of stairs in the residence hall, inhale shakily outside Haddou’s room, and knock. Settling into side-by-side chairs, we’d spend an hour or two engaged in the work of creating a phonetic dictionary of two hundred classical Arabic words and analyzing that index to unlock the patterns and behaviors of the language’s sounds. I’d give him a word in English; he’d tell me the Arabic translation; using the IPA, I’d transcribe what I heard.
Whereas Professor Adams limited his enunciations to three repetitions, Haddou was endlessly patient, happy to have me sit near his knee and stare at his lips as they rolled out difficult words — again and then again. Sometimes he’d smoke. Often, we’d chat about our lives.
One night, with a combination of humor and distress, he recounted an interaction from his day:
In the office, the lady asked me to check a box that would indicate my race. I checked “White.”
She looked at me and said, “You’re not white.”
“I’m not?” I asked her.
“No,” she told me. “Choose another race. One with brown skin.”
All my life, I think I am white, but when I come to America, I discover I am brown.
Through such exchanges, we relaxed.
I started to look forward to our nightly sessions. In working with a real person to study a real language, I was harnessing abstract ideas from the classroom and seeing them realized. Certainly, linguistics did not come naturally to me, but, with this project, some dormant part of my brain was awakening.
Not only was I learning some Arabic, I was learning the conventions of phonology. With practice and control of the IPA, I could capture any language — all language! For a person who had spent much of her undergraduate career skipping classes and sleeping late, it was unusual to have focus and determination about academics. Definitely, anchoring concepts to a live subject — coupling his daily downloaded anecdotes with objective book learning — was unlocking an interest inside of me. I could get into this stuff. It was lively, luscious, novel.
As Haddou and I gained ease with each other, I became a sounding board for his cross-cultural frustrations. One night, in a heightened state of emotion, he recounted a moment from one of his classes earlier in the day.
The boy across from me, he leans back. And he crosses his ankle over his knee.
How can he do this thing?
I am so insulted I cannot breathe. He is pointing the bottom of his foot directly at me — the lowest part of the body, the most unclean!
I lean over and say to him, “You must put your foot down. It is too rude.”
But this boy, this young boy who thinks he is something, tells me, a man, “I don’t have to do anything. I’m just crossing my legs. It’s a free country.”
I am so angry; I cannot stay near this bad attitude, this rudeness, so I pick up my bag and move to a new chair. How can he point his foot at me like that?
Even hours later, the insolence of an 18-year-old country boy from Idaho incensed Haddou. The scenario had been a scathing slight that scolding couldn’t save.
Despite difficulties in acculturation, Haddou was always kind, attentive, and accepting of me, eager to learn about my parents, my siblings, my friends, my boyfriend several states away. In return, I asked about his family, what his home city was like, what kinds of foods he ate, what he would do with his American graduate degree. We learned tidy pieces of each other, packaging each complicated facet of our lives within the strictures of his ten months of English and my small-but-growing inventory of Arabic.
His mother and sisters would cut off the outsides of the carrots when making couscous, paring down to the tender insides — because including only the choicest bits sent a message of love to the eater.
My parents shared a passion for classical music.
Few things brought him greater joy than fly fishing.
Few things brought me greater joy than a thick book.
If I cared to visit Morocco, I would be welcome with his family for up to three months — sheltered in the compound that was their hub.
At some point, it became apparent our friendship would endure beyond the project. Maybe we could go out to dinner sometime, he suggested. Perhaps I could proofread your papers for you, I countered. Possibly we could see a movie together, he wondered. Maybe a group of us could attend some performances at the jazz festival together, I supplied.
As I considered the months that would unfold after submitting my paper, it was reassuring to have a friend, a person, in this foreign place. Both of us were new to Idaho. Neither of us came in with allies.
Half my heart was in Colorado, where the man I’d been dating lived. Most of Haddou’s heart was in Morocco, where people kept their feet on the floor, and the carrots were always tender. But so long as we’d been fortunate enough to meet on these acres of land boundaried by straight lines drawn southwards from Canada, we would foster this connection. If I got sick and was stuck abed for five days, I knew Haddou would run to the drugstore for me. Similarly, if he found himself flummoxed by paperwork or manners, he had someone to whom he could turn.
We drew comfort from knowing the other was just a floor away, ready to provide company and perspective, to assist with the details of life.
One night, as I opened my notebook — hmmm, maybe twenty more words to record before we were done with the data gathering — and asked about his day, I could see he was nervous. Uh-oh. Now what had that callow boy with the waving foot done in class? Was I going to need to go knock a cowboy-hatted skull?
Clearing his throat, his eyes dilating a bit, Haddou began to speak. “I would like to ask your advice.”
“Sure. Of course. What’s up?”
“I am not sure how to handle a conversation I want to have — because I do not always understand how things are done in this country. I want to do the right thing and not make a problem.” He flicked his lighter and stared at the dancing flame.
Clicking into Hostess mode, I pressed, “So what do you need to say, and what is worrying you?”
He set down his lighter before answering. “There is someone, and I have something important to say to this person. There is someone I have been getting close to, and I think my feelings are becoming serious. I would like to tell her I am falling in love with her, but I’m not certain that is the right thing to do in this country. Should I tell her I love her, or should I wait until I am certain she feels the same way, too?”
The air in the room thickened; dust motes hung in front of my eyes as though suspended in aspic. I could hear my pleura inflating. The room was too quiet, the lights too bright. Why was it so hot?
Quicker than an unrounded vowel before a nasal stop, my brain tizzied from pert to flustered.
It took me one flushed second to parse this new data, to slide from “Oh, he likes someone! Isn’t that sweet?!” to “Who does he think he loves?” to…
Then: an extended aspiration. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
It appeared, while I’d been using my alveolar ridge to become softer than salad, Haddou’s dipthong had been rising.
He wanted to know if he should tell me he was falling in love with me. In my lifetime, there had been no precedent for this problem.
The voice in my head rhotacized “Arrrrrrrrrrgh” as I scrambled to compose a response.
A very nice man to whom I’d become close was interested in changing the tenor of our relationship
I had a boyfriend to whom I’d recently declared my love
My boyfriend’s response to my declaration had been — would, for five more years, always be — “I don’t think I love you”
I had learned early on that there was value in cleaving to a nonreciprocal commitment of the heart
Clearly, I would need to save Haddou from #4 while chasing it myself, chasing it hard, for years to come. It was all I knew how to do.
Gathering myself, I inhaled slowly, pulling motes into pleura, and looked him in the eyes. Smiling gently, I suggested, “In the United States, it is best to wait until you are certain the other person feels the same way. It can be embarrassing or difficult if one person proclaims love while the other does not. I think you should not say anything.”
A mixture of regret and understanding flickered on his face. Then, pulling his shoulders back, he ruefully acknowledged, “That is good for me to know. Thank you for your help. I would not want to create a situation of embarrassment.”
With that, we drew closer, shoulder to shoulder, and stared at a blank page in my notebook.
“We should begin,” he said, softly, softer than salad.
“Yes, we should,” I agreed. “Only twenty more words, and then we can be done. After that, I will leave you alone and start writing my paper.”
We remained friends. Even the following year, when he lived in an apartment, and I lived in a remodeled hotel, we continued to see each other. He took me out to dinner, asked about my boyfriend, laughed at my apologies for Americans’ rudeness. I took him to see A River Runs Through It, felt my heart fill when he, like a little boy, clapped his hands with joy in the movie theater at the sight of a beautiful trout emerging from a sparkling river. When I asked his help in carrying a donated exercise bicycle to my room, he cautioned me, “Do not use this too much. You are already perfect and should not change.”
When Thanksgiving time rolled around, I invited Haddou and another friend to share the meal with me and my parents, who were driving the ten hours to Moscow. Since my former hotel room only had a couple of stove top burners, we asked Haddou if we could cook the turkey in his apartment’s oven.
But of course.
Every few hours, my mom and I would pop over to check on the bird. Every few hours, my mom would ask the nice Moroccan man a few questions about himself. As I basted the turkey, I heard her query: “And what about family? Do you have a wife and children?”
She heard his answer, but she didn’t feel the weight of the pause that filled the room before he spoke.
“Yes, Madam. Yes. I have a wife back home.” Torn, he tipped.
After that year, Haddou returned home to Morocco, to his wife, to continue his career, to have children.
I moved to Colorado, to be nearer to the boyfriend who didn’t love me, and began teaching composition at the university.
After graduate school, I never again used the IPA, never applied phonology to any practical purpose, never transcribed difficult words with a shaking hand.
Byron and I are saying goodnight to Paco, giving him kisses and discussing the next day’s plans, when Byron rubs at his armpit.
“What’s going on in there, Champ?” I ask. “You got chiggers?”
His answer is better than chiggers.
“I have this weird knot in my armpit hair. I think it must’ve gotten clumped up when I was swimming this morning, so all day I’ve been feeling a lump of hair in there. It’s bugging me.”
While most brains would turn to scissors as a likely solution to the problem, mine is not most brains. Plus, I enjoy making Paco giggle, so I suggest, “Is this the time when I get to prove I’m as awesome as Betsey? Remember that time Cousin Kurt got a big iceball frozen into his beard, and Betsey had to chew it out? Byron, do I get to chew the knot out of your armpit hair? It would be the ultimate gesture of love, wouldn’t it? If I chewed the knot out of your armpit hair?”
Yes, of course, I am dinkin’ around, playfully offering to gnaw at my husband’s body hair.
There’s something to it, though, this business of what we’d do for love. In our household, Kurt and Betsey’s example is the pinnacle of “Now, that is love.” It occurred some years ago, when the two of them–naturalists whose jobs involved teaching environmental education to young people–led a group on a winter camping trip. Kurt remembers:
It was -50F for two nights in a row with the wind chill readings, literally, off the charts. We had eight high school students with us in the Sawmill Lake campground on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. On the way to the BWCAW, we listened to a reading of Jack London’s To Build a Fire, which was NOT an inspiring tale for what awaited us. During our days in the extreme cold, a colleague had a metal Sierra cup full of hot coffee freeze to his lips. The aforementioned chin-cube became painful to me, and in an act of true love, Betsey crushed it with her teeth. The liquids which formed that ice cube ranged from breathe moisture, beverages, meals, to drool.
With me and Byron, as we hit the sixteen-year mark of our marriage, the gestures of love are myriad. Yes, I would actually gnaw a knot of hair out of his armpit, if he needed me to. He doesn’t. Yet we see, all around us, woven through our days, evidence of love.
I see love when I walk into the kitchen, and the enormous heap of dirty dishes has been washed.
For years, I saw love whenever I went to bed at night. Retiring earlier than I, Byron would have brushed his teeth already. At the same time, he would take out my toothbrush and draw a stripe of toothpaste across its bristles. Even though he’d been asleep for hours, when I would brush my teeth, it felt like a bonus good-night kiss.
I see, feel, love when Byron leaves me a post-it note, detailing the route he is running, telling me where he is and when he’ll be back.
I feel love every day when Byron patiently listens to my daily download of achievements and slights.
I feel his love whenever the phone rings, and Byron checks the caller ID before whispering, “Do you want me to tell them you’re not home?”
It is not enough to be loved, though. Continuing love depends on awareness–that love manifests in all sorts of ways, big and small.
We got to talking about the toys we’d loved best as children. He told me his favorite was Gumby and then asked me which toy I remembered the most. I told him about the doll I had received the Christmas that I was four. The Lazy Dazy Doll that would fall asleep and topple over when you first set her up. He asked what happened to her, and I explained that she was lost during one of our last moves. We did a search on the internet so I could show him what she looked like, and we located a picture…on Ebay. Shawn decided that he would buy that doll for me. He spend $50 on a doll that only cost my parents $4 when I was a little girl. She arrived the day I was a having a surgery, so after we arrived back at his house, she was sitting on the bed waiting for me. A man has to love a woman quite a bit to pay so much for a childhood memory. Oh, and Gumby? I was able to locate Gumby and all his friends to present to Shawn a few weeks later. Lazy Dazy sits on a chair in my office, and Gumby sits on a shelf in Shawn’s office.
I feel Byron’s love every single night, when he makes dinner. All the better when it’s Thai Curry.
I feel it when he lays his hand on my back while we sleep.
The gestures are everywhere, stacking up over the years.
There was the pilonidal cyst unpacking, during which I had to pull what felt like miles of gauze-string out of a pus-filled wound near Caleb’s butt, gagging at both the pus and the length of the packing. There’s also the fact that he endured a three-day road trip in a rented Lincoln Town Car, when we transported my mom, post-stroke, having to stop to pee VERY often, from Florida to Massachusetts, eating only at a succession of Paneras. There are the many times when Caleb is at my mom’s elbow, helping her down the hallway of a movie theater or a restaurant, and she has a “fart attack.” It sounds like grouchy ducks are talking, and usually lasts for a good 45 seconds. He doesn’t flinch. On top of that, there were the many nights when the boys were infants when, even though he had to get up and go to work in the morning, Caleb would insist that I sleep, feed both babies, and then walk around the house with each of them in a baby sling slung over opposite shoulders for the hour or so until they fell asleep. And, of course, there is every trip we ever took to Home Depot.
Byron feels my love when he walks into the bedroom, yawning, and sees a week’s worth of his laundry folded on the bed.
Nate has intervened with my parents a couple of times when he could easily have said “Hey, good luck dealing with your parents”: once when my dad was being a terrible, petulant patient at Mayo and Nate stepped in with an artfully delivered tune-up for which my dad was grateful when he was himself again. Then there was last Thanksgiving when he attempted to talk to my mom about her doctor phobia. That didn’t go so well. But he knew how hard either of those conversations would have been for me, so he had them instead.
Byron and I feel each other’s love when one of us returns from a visit to Sam’s Club, and the back of the car is loaded down with toilet paper, vegetables, peanut butter, popcorn–all the bounties of The Club. As soon as one of us, whoever’s in the house, spots the shopper pulling up, that warm, dry person heads outside to help slog the groceries from the car, up the back stairs, into their new home.
Shane was in Peru doing geology field work, and I was working at a community center in Minneapolis. I was getting home really late, and I had a horrible headache. My train commute was an hour, and I was starving but also so tired I expected to just fall into bed without eating. I must have mentioned my crappy day to Shane because when I got home there was a delivery man with food waiting for me – food Shane had ordered online for me from his hotel room in some tiny town in Peru.
I felt Byron’s love when I lay on the examination table next to an ultrasound machine, and we learned that, despite having spent hours in the Emergency Room days before, having tissue pulled out of my cervix, my pregnancy wasn’t over. It had been twins, and one remained. The splash of his tears warmed my arm.
When we moved into our current house back in 2000, it had been a huge stretch for us financially. Not much money left after getting into this much bigger home. The previous owners had taken the garage door opener controllers with them for some reason. So even though we had openers, when we returned home, we had to get out of the car, go into the garage, open the door from the controller in the garage. It was a very cold winter that year. For Valentine’s Day, Mark got me a controller for my car. He didn’t have one for his car, and didn’t get one until quite some time later. But I was able to open my garage door from the warmth and comfort of my car every afternoon when I returned home from work. Twenty years after being married, the romance was there in the hand-held battery-operated garage door controller. I’ve told several friends it was the best Valentine’s Day gift ever.
Also, as he’s gotten older, Mark has lost almost all of the hair on his head. It has apparently traveled down to his back. His back is now so “furry” that I have to use an electronic clippers to “shave” his back to a point below his collar line. It is disgusting. I keep telling him that it is only due to true love that I do this for him. I have no idea what other things will need to be done as we get older, but it is scary to imagine.
Byron feels my love whenever I pick up one of his ubiquitous crossword puzzles and fill in a word or two. In this way, we have a conversation without speaking.
The craziest thing I did for love was marrying my husband in the first place. We had known each other for six months, but had only dated for three weeks when he said one afternoon, “You know, I’d marry you.” Never one to turn down a dare, I, in turn, said, “I’d marry you too.” He said,” Alright, let’s go.” I said, “Alright then.” The next thing I knew, we were in Reno, in front of a Justice of the Peace.
My wedding took place in a Pepto-Bismol pink colored office, with paintings of Rome painted by someone who had obviously never been to Rome.
Taking it all in, I said, “I think I’m going to be sick.” The Justice stopped the ceremony, picked up a wastebasket, and brought it over to me before resuming. I’m guessing I’m not the first to utter those words in his office.
After, we celebrated with breakfast in a casino diner.
As we sat in the sticky, vinyl-covered booth and talked over bacon and coffee, he told me he was really into Deepka Chopra, and I thought, “Oh, no, what have I just done?”
Later that day we flew home to San Francisco. My best friend, the one who had introduced us, was shocked when we showed up on her doorstep to announce our nuptials. She spoke to me in the tone one imagines must be used in dealing with the insane: soothing, monotone, “I love you, but you have lost your mind, and on Monday morning I am taking you to city hall to file an annulment. In the meantime, I might as well take your picture because, well, to document the day you lost your mind or something.”
We’ve been married for almost 18 years now. We’ve moved cross-country to the East Coast and now discuss things like insurance and voting records. We have a 10 year-old boy and a 16 year-old girl who thinks our story is romantic. I tell her it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, which hurts my husband’s feelings, but it’s the truth. He could have been a serial killer, physically violent toward me, any number of things that three weeks of dating wouldn’t have revealed. He often says that he’s grateful we married before I had a chance to meet his mother. As it turns out, meeting her would have been a deal breaker.
I want to impress upon my children that marrying someone after three weeks is generally a very bad, very crazy idea, even if it worked out pretty great for their parents.
I felt Byron’s love the night before we moved into a new house, when he went in, tore up the orange shag carpet that coated the main floor, and spent hours pulling staples out of the hardwood with a pliers. The next morning, I not only walked into a new house, I walked into a house transformed.
We were five years into our relationship, he and I, a complicated long-distance thing with a ton of excess baggage. Six more-or-less adult kids from three marriages and an ocean between us–and that wasn’t the half of it. Resentment was building on the part of two of those kids, both of them mine, as it began to dawn on them that their mother was serious about going to live–at least part of the time–on the other side of the Atlantic. Things got sticky. It was hard to convince them that the love I felt for them was in no way diminished by the love I felt for him.
He wanted so much for us to be one big, blended family despite the cultural, emotional and geographical distance. He was 99% sure this was possible, if only we could all be together now and then. The kids knew him as a decent person. But they couldn’t get over the fact that he had taken the place of their father in my affections.
In Canada, the tension was building. In France, the frustration was palpable. I related the emotional discussions; he counselled and sympathized and then said, “There’s only one way to address this: I have to be there with them, and you. I want to tell them first-hand how much you mean to me, and by association, how important they are too.”
He came for three days, all the time he could spare from some heavy responsibilities. We went out for dinner, to a too-noisy restaurant. Faced with my three offspring, one of whom was very clearly not on his side, he explained how he would never let me down and how that promise also extended to them. And most importantly, that he accepted their place in my heart and would do all he could to keep us united.
The youngest was silent, but his expression said he wasn’t giving an inch. When his patience gave out, he fixed a hard look across the table and said, “But do you get how much pain you’ve caused us?”
My lover held my son’s gaze and said, “I think I do. And I am sorry. Not for loving your mother, but yes, I am sorry for what you have lost. I am responsible for that.”
My boy reared up out of his seat, his hand outstretched. “That’s what I wanted to hear,” he said. “Now I know that you know. Thank you.”
It took a while longer for us all to settle in, but that evening, that spontaneous decision to jump on a plane and face the music, was our turning point.
Byron feels my love when he comments, “I sure do like cookies,” and later he hears me rustling around, extracting the baking sheets from their cupboard.
On my second Mother’s Day, my husband surprised me with a gift certificate to and bra fitting at Nordstrom. My tits had wizened considerably because of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and he knew I was feeling low, in every sense of the word. So he apparently consulted all the ladies in his office (okay then, thanks) about where to lift a woman’s spirits and breasts, and then whisked me off to Nordstrom, where I was measured and gently groped and trussed up in fancy lace, while he entertained our toddler. After the fitting and purchase, I ran up to him in the men’s section, screaming, “Oh my God! My boobs are in the right place again!” That gift actually made me cry. I mean, a bra fitting of all things. But still, he just knew it was what I needed to feel better.
Byron feels my love whenever the drain in the bathroom sink gets gunked up, and I, swallowing bile, pull the thing out and wipe off the accumulated throat gack of an entire family.
There was the time he stood in line for an hour at Graceland, listening to my mother talk non-stop about Elvis. I had bailed and made a long trip to the bathroom and gift shop, so I missed this quote: “What your generation doesn’t understand about Elvis is…” Even more remarkable: the old man didn’t even reproach me for bailing and leaving him alone in line with her.
Byron and I feel our love every time we lock eyes across a room, and one of us mouths to the other, “Thuper thpicy thaltha,” appropos of nothing.
I once killed my cat for Becki. I found him as a kitten while working in South Dakota a few years before we met. He was wet and shivering and although I never liked cats, my friend Mike said they make good companions and “Someday he’ll help you find a wife.” A few years later, I met and married Becki. The cat never liked her. He peed on her clothes. He peed on her pillows. He peed in her house plants. After several years of bickering about the cat, it was the night that he ate tinsel off the Christmas tree and vomited the whole mess on the bed, while I was out of town and she was home alone, that really sealed his fate. I tried like crazy to find a home for him, but no shelter or friend would take him in. A visit to the vet was her Christmas present that year, and although I cried like the devil that day, we have been happily married for 15 years after saying goodbye to our LAST cat.
I feel Byron’s love when he lolls on the back-porch couch, chuckling. “You’re just so funny,” he tells me. “I know,” I reply, his words warming me from scalp to toenail. I’m just so glad we both know.
My husband’s family all achieved their nineties and then very gracefully passed away with little fuss or bother. Good thing, because while they were wonderful people, they did not have the caretaker gene. I, on the other hand, come from a long line of hands-on helpers. When my father moved to our city due to age and infirmity, things went well until he began to need more and more help. It took me awhile to figure out there was a huge learning curve for my spouse. My experience was “all hands on deck” while his was more “run away, run away!” As my dad’s health crumbled, and my own physical and mental health was suffering, my husband became “hands on.” If my dad had intestinal distress that resulted in a “code brown,” my spouse would bring the carpet cleaner and take care of it. When my rope was totally frayed, and my dad needed someone to stay overnight, my spouse slept on the floor. I still have an adolescent longing for romantic gestures, but after 38 years of marriage I am starting to grow up and appreciate true acts of love.
I felt Byron’s love during the semesters I taught early morning classes, every time he greeted me at the bottom of the stairs holding a hot mocha.
Keri and I had spent about an hour putting up new snake-guard fencing on our back gate area. It was our first snake-guard fencing project together, but we had developed a pretty good system already. Keri was on the inside of the gate, and I was outside, securing the fencing with zip-strips. Each of us was clad in only our bathing suits, because, well, that’s how we were rolling that day. I was being very careful not to bump into the various cacti that were growing nearby, but there was a stretch of gate that had a large prickly pear cactus within about 12″. The prickly pear cactus looks quite innocuous–big, paddle-shaped pads with soft little yellow clumps of fuzzies. As we worked on securing the fence, I felt the back of my knees, thighs, and bum brush back and forth repeatedly on the prickly pear. No pokes, no pain, no problem. Let’s get the job done and move on! We finished the fencing project, put away our tools, and while Keri headed into the house, I went to sit down on the patio chair just outside the back door. That’s when I felt it. Seven thousand and some odd little, tiny, teeny, weeny, razor-sharp, yet super-fine prickers, all up and down the backs of my legs, thighs, and yes, ASS. In my skin! My tender, Minnesota, once-Lutheran, lily-white thin skin!
I went into the house and got me some tweezers and began the arduous task of plucking, one by one, the kajillion prickers that I could not see, on the BACK of my body. After much discussion, we decided the most efficient method of pricker removal would be to apply sticky tape to all affected skin surfaces and then rip it off, strip by strip, in theory pulling out all the little prickers in the process. That’s where a roll of packing tape came into play. I assumed “the position,” and my loving wife carefully applied strip after strip of Scotch-Brand packing tape from the top of my ass to the bottom of my calves, merrily joking all the while about the events unfolding before our very eyes. Once every skin surface was covered in Rescue Tape, Keri thought to snap a photo on her phone, you know, for posterity. And laughs when we are old. She thoughtfully positioned the roll of tape itself on the very peak of my bum, like the star on a Christmas tree. The photo itself looks exactly like one of those wooden cut out garden decorations of the fat little woman bent over in her produce patch.
Once the giggling and the posing and the positioning and the bahahahaha-ing had ceased, she ripped each and every tape strip off with speed and precision that would shock and awe a Brazilian waxing expert. There was screeching. There was laughter. There was sacrifice. There was half-success. In the end, scrubbing the affected area with a green scrubby proved to be the most successful (but less fun) method of pricker removal. We’ve been together three magical years; I can only hope she’ll still tape my ass in thirty. She could tape sheet rock with the best of them…Same method, just larger cracks. Thank God she didn’t mud me!
Byron feels my love when he notes that the sheets on our bed need changing. Hearing this, I sigh dramatically, for I am the much-put-upon sheet-changer-of-the-house, but he says, “No, I’ll do it.” As the day carries on, and he is here and there, doing this and that for him and her, I strip the bed, freshening the stale. Later, when he notices, he thanks me. Sighing dramatically once again, the much-put-upon sheet-changer-of-the-house jokes, “I figured someone in this marriage needs to be a Doer.”
Having Annika’s two sisters and mother come visit from Europe for up to three months a year is a sacrifice only true love could offer, especially when at least one of them would be appropriately nicknamed “Ungrateful Bitch.”
I feel Byron’s love every time he compliments me on my new boots when I know full well he thinks shoes are a scourge.
I cannot stand pus. I can deal with blood in small doses. But…not pus. Because I am just lucky, I found out that I had breast cancer in February of 2015. I got through chemotherapy with a fair amount of puking, and everyone told me that radiation would be a snap compared to that. It was, at first. After 5 1/2 weeks of just a slight sunburned look to my skin, on my last day of radiation, my skin suddenly erupted. Frankly, I even scared my radiation oncologist. My chest went, in one day, from looking like I’d spent too much time in the sun to looking like it had been blow-torched.
“This is unusual,” my radiation oncologist stammered, “but not unheard of. Sometimes, fair people have delayed reactions.”
No shit. The entire left side of my chest began to ooze pus like nobody’s business. Panicking, I went to see my oncologist. He informed me that as long as the pus was not green or foul smelling, it was fine. “Your body’s way of healing.”
And making me physically ill. Every time I looked down at my oozing chest, I was nauseated. It hurt like hell, but I am good with pain. Tough. But…pus. I could hardly stand it when my daughter was a baby and had a cold. I would gag when I wiped her nose. And now, there was…this. ON MY BODY.
“Wear a lot of old shirts, because it will seep all over. And DO NOT cover it up. It needs air to heal. Try to walk around topless as much as possible,” the nurse told me helpfully. When I asked how long this would take to heal, she shook her head. “I think you’ll be okay by Thanksgiving,” she mused. THANKSGIVING!
My wife, my Bing, has since been my Florence Nightingale. I have to clean the wounds and then soak them with an astringent every 3 hours and apply a silver ointment twice a day. During the day, when she is at work, I somehow handle this on my own with lots of throwing up and/or gagging involved. But, before she leaves for work, she lays bare my chest and lovingly wipes up my pus (I almost wrote pussy…but that seems so wrong…) chest, applies a soaked paper towel to it and then comes back in 15 minutes and rubs silver cream on it. And when she comes home from work, she does the same and then again before we go to bed.
Yes, she wipes up my pus. Cheerfully. And more often than not, she kisses me afterwards. Tells me how it looks better every day. She also sleeps with me. I find this miraculous because as much as I adore my wife, I do not know that I could cheerfully clean up her pus. Daily. She shakes her head at me, says that OF COURSE, I could do it if the roles were reversed.
“When it’s someone you love, it’s no big deal,” she says. Right. I sincerely hope that I am never tested.
Byron and I feel our love when he watches me gather gear for my nightly constitutional. “You’re about to head out with a flashlight?” he asks. Yes. A headlamp, actually. “I’m going to go out when you do, to cut kale from out front. You can shine your light on it while I cut.”
Once outside, I aim the headlamp at the garden as he applies kitchen scissors to collecting our dinner. Within minutes, though, we are pretending the headlamp is a laser, making “Pew! Pew!” sounds at each other while we battle as mock cyborgs.
A big transaction in our marriage was my going back to school to be a teacher. I had gotten so tangled in bureaucratic crap in my trip to Winona State the fall our youngest entered kindergarten, I threw up my hands and said, “I guess it’s just not going to happen.” Since 1975, colleges have become much better attuned to the non-traditional student, thankfully. The following year, Scott pushed me out the door to tackle the formalities one more time, and the rest is history. I am so grateful for his total and unwavering support in gaining this lifeline that has defined me in countless ways.
Also, I recall a moment in the chaos of 4 kids, the hobby-farming, school, etc, as I sat at the dining room table composing a skit for the saddle club Christmas party when Scott walked by, broom in hand and a heaped dustpan in the other, saying (without irony–in my mind): “You really have your priorities in order.” Thinking back, it may have not been so innocent, but what counts is how I read it at the time. It was my dear mother-in-law who would say as she visited our whirlwind: “No one will know how you kept your house in the future, but they’ll know how you fetched up your kids.” Who wouldn’t love a mother-in-law like that?
I feel Byron’s love when he cleans out the accumulated crap from our single-stall garage so that I can park my car in its shelter once the nine months of snow and ice hit.
The biggest thing I’ve done for love in my marriage was to go to a nude beach with Carl, after 22 years of marriage and at 50 years of age. It took a lot of gumption.
There also was the morning we got the 5:15 a.m. call that my dad’s leg had broken, and they were taking him to the hospital, and Carl went directly to their apartment to stay with my mom, who at 85 and with dementia and incontinence was not the easiest person to handle. He went so I could go to the ER and be with Dad, who was very hard of hearing. He didn’t hesitate.
Even more, there was this year when I ate, literally ALL of the kids’ Easter candy. Carl took the rap and has never ratted me out–even though the kids bring it up on every candy-based holiday:”Dad?! Remember that year when you ate ALL of our Easter candy?!” “It was a tough year, kids,” he’ll respond. “I was trying to save your teeth.”
I still can’t get him to take dance lessons with me. I have not, however, given up.
I felt Byron’s love when I was rolled out of the recovery room after a C-section, having spent too many hours there trying to wiggle my toes. Frantic to see, hold, nurse my baby, I wanted to shout at the hospital staff that my arms were working fine. When they finally rolled me down the long hall to the nursery, I lifted my head. There, cradling our boy to his chest, welcoming him to the world, his father’s arms sheltering the baby for the both of us, was Byron.
Seven or eight years into our relationship, I got home from work one day, and Karl told me that he’d had coffee with my grandma that day. I adored my grandma. Karl knew that. He also knew that my grandma adored him. So, he had been working in her neighborhood that day, had some spare time, so he stopped by to say hi. She invited him in for coffee. They chatted over caffeine and cookies. He probably made her day. He made mine, too. How many 20-something boyfriends stop and have coffee with their girlfriend’s grandma?
Later, we were into our 17th year and a mere 3 months of marriage. My grandma was in a nursing home. I visited her weekly, and each week she was a little worse, which was hard to watch. One day in March (it might have been on Karl’s birthday) I decided to visit my grandma. Karl asked if he could join me, so he did. I was shocked when we walked into her room. She was lying in bed, completely unresponsive, breathing rapidly. I panicked a little. She wasn’t asleep, so I told her we’d come back another time because it looked like she needed to rest. In reality, it freaked me out and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t used to seeing her weak. She had always been independent and tough as rock and as sweet as can be. She was not herself that day, mostly because she was dying and I didn’t know what to do. But, Karl did. He pulled up a chair right next to her bed, took her hand in his, and just talked to her. It was so sweet. He saved the moment. I stood there, terrified, picking dead leaves off of her plants, and Karl soothed her. That’s one of my very favorite memories of him. By the way, she died within days. Good thing he was there.
Byron and I feel our love every time we play a few more rounds of our unending game of Boggle. Current scores: 680 to 666. He feels my love when, as he pulls ahead in the standings, I hiss, “You bastard.”
When Joe and I first started seriously dating, it was my first year of teaching, and he’d been over to my apartment one night after he had a very long day at work and school. He was exhausted and headed home after a couple of hours because he had a tedious, traffic crazy drive to his house. My apartment was in an old building, and after Joe left I commenced to cleaning. It seemed to never be clean even though I threw my best efforts at it. As I put away the cleaning supplies, a roach the size of a small kitten ran over my foot and stopped menacingly in a corner. I heaved a weighty dictionary at it and was relieved it squarely smashed it. However, when I picked up the dictionary, a mess so disgusting I gagged revealed itself. The colorful innards of that roach were spattered on the dictionary, the floor, and partway up the wall. I gagged more and then cried. I couldn’t bring myself to clean it up, but I also couldn’t go to sleep with it smeared in so many places. I called Joe, and he’d just gotten home. I sniffled my way through the story, more just for someone to tell it to than a solution. He patiently listened, and when I’d finished my snuffling, he said, “Don’t you worry. I’m coming right back over.” I protested, knowing it was a 30 minute drive back to my place, and he’d already had a 16 hour day. I was also embarrassed at having acted like a baby. He would have none of it, though, and I could hear the jingle of his keys as he was telling me goodbye. I’d already mentally prepared an apology when I heard his knock at the door. I opened it, and he pushed a dozen roses towards me as he smiled and walked in. Noticing my surprised look, he leaned in for a kiss and explained, “That florist on I-77 stays open late.” He whistled while he cleaned up the roach guts and even sanitized my beloved dictionary. And although he’d been telling me he loved me for a few weeks at that point, that night I was suddenly and completely sure I loved him, too.
I feel Byron’s love whenever we’re in the yard, playing frisbee with Paco, and I back waaaaaaay up, announcing, “Protect yourself, Byron; I’m going to huck one of my legendary Hammer throws right atcha,” and he hunches up and throws his hands over his face, pretending that I can actually do a Hammer throw and move a frisbee more than 15 wobbly feet.
The best example of our love is how he knows that when I need to eat, I need to eat. He will pay $10 to a man in a trench coat in a dark alley for a Twinkie if it means saving me from low blood sugar. On our wedding night, after a day of out of town relatives and photo shoots and the world’s longest reception line, we hurried to our hotel room. Tired, ready to leave at 5 AM the next day for Mexico, we had a few hours together as newly wedded husband and wife. But I had been too euphoric for an appetite all day and missed dinner, so when we finally got to the hotel, I needed to eat. And it had to be spaghetti. “I need spaghetti,” I said. “I’ll be right back” he said. And Mark went out, in feet aching from rented plastic shoes and his white-on-black tuxedo. An hour later, he returned, a white plastic bag with a styrofoam container spilling out with red sauce and noodles. 11 PM on a Sunday night, and he found spaghetti.
Byron and I feel our love when we ride our bikes for a night out together, eating burritos, drinking beer, playing Quiddler. On the ride home, all is dark, and it’s as though we two own the world. Then his voice calls back to me, “Careful. Bump ahead.”
I had major surgery. Major. And day 4 in the hospital, I was sticky, smelled bad, was covered in various and sundry fluids and my hair was matted. I’d sweat through so many sets of sheets that the housekeeping people were starting to get upset with me. One day, I just cried with being so tired, sore and gross. My husband crawled into that tiny hospital bed with me and spooned my stinkiness back to sleep. The nurses came in to tell me I could finally take a shower, and they would assist. My husband, knowing me as he does, knew I wouldn’t want strangers bathing me. He asked if he could do it, instead. He washed me, washed my hair and then spent over an hour gently brushing out the matted mess, all the while knowing I was helpless to do it for myself. That’s some love.
I feel Byron’s love when he offers to attend a parent meeting for the ski team so that I can go to yoga. And also: so I can not go to the parent meeting for ski team.
I used to come home from work and honk my bicycle honky-horn, and he’d stride out to the porch and give me a fifteen-second blast on a bugle. Shook the neighborhood. Or how he changes the batteries on the smoke detectors every Valentine’s Day because he knows those fuckers going off make me homicidal. Seriously, the dude hates shopping for gifts because he thinks he’s bad at it (and hates that), but he’s thinking of me all the time. I haven’t run out of half and half for my coffee in 40 years. The toilet paper never runs out. This stuff is important. Oh! He took me out to the back porch to teach me how to lip fart. For a half hour. The neighbors didn’t venture out for weeks.
Byron felt my love the night he had a four-hour emergency surgery after a vasectomy gone bad. He’d come home from the out-patient procedure, and within an hour, his Kavu pants were stained with blood. The sutures in the arteries on both sides hadn’t held. After a frenzied call to a neighbor–“I need you to take the kids!”–we drove back to the clinic. There, the doctor attempted to lance the hematoma; when that yielded no results, he called the ER and sent us on our way. After Byron was checked in, he managed to get into a gown, but his “eggplant scrotum” was too unwieldy to allow him to get his shoes off. He had to know I loved him when I scrambled around on all fours, head below eggplant, removing the shoes from his feet.
We’ve been married 3 years, but dated ten years before we were married. We waited until his youngest child became an adult and went to college. He had his 60th birthday a few weeks ago. I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to clothes, hair, and make-up–although not when we’re at the cabin. My husband is an outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and fishing and loves to be away from civilization as often as possible. So I asked him how he wanted to spend his 60th birthday. He wanted to sit in his “favorite” deer stand all day. So, at the end of the day, I went into the woods, climbed the metal ladder, brought a bottle of wine, and we spent a few hours together, quietly sitting on a wooden platform.
I feel Byron’s love every time I crave a quick illustration for an online class or need help editing a photograph, and he scrapes five minutes from the whisking of the stir fry to come to my aid.
Before we were married (and just newly engaged), my fiancé and I lived in a top-floor bedsit in Leeds, England. I was working in a temporary job for minimum wage (front desk for the Benefits Agency–and that’s another story entirely), and he was working in retail. We didn’t have much money, didn’t really care, and were just thrilled to be together–visas and overseas travel meant I knew I was going to have to leave soon, to return to the States and apply for a fiancée visa so that we could get married, and our time together was bittersweet and romantic as hell.
I remember brushing off his questions about Thanksgiving dinner, saying it didn’t really matter to me, it was okay not to do anything this year–an unnecessary expense, and it was a Thursday after all and not a day that the UK would celebrate. It was raining, and cold, and dark, and I hated my job, but I got to go home to this wonderful man and that was really enough.
After work I returned to our shared house, climbed the musty steps to the small room we lived in, and discovered that he hadn’t listened to me after all–he had decided that I WAS going to have a Thanksgiving dinner whether I wanted to or not, and despite not being entirely sure what should be in it, he had constructed a meal for me, his wife-to-be. He insisted that it was my holiday, and so it was his now as well, and there was no way we weren’t having something special.
I don’t remember exactly what he cooked–there was turkey, of a sort, and mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and wine. And he apologised for it not being extravagant or perfect but of course it was, because he knew me better than I knew myself, and yes I wanted Thanksgiving dinner, with my love, and just because we couldn’t afford a roast with all the trimmings didn’t mean it wasn’t just exactly as it should be.
I did have to leave for a while, and then I came back, and we got married, and every year since we have cooked Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a hybrid now of both our favourite foods, dishes we have picked up over the years, extra vegetarian options for special guests and several variations of potato. We book time off work and invite our closest friends and joke about how it’s a warm-up for Christmas, and I make my guests watch the Charlie Brown special. It was my holiday, but we’ve made it ours, all because he wouldn’t let me off the hook all those years ago.
I feel Byron’s love every time I twirl and curtsy on my way into the bathroom–I do like to enter with a flourish–and he takes a quick second to call out “That was very nice!
There was a mortifying moment after my daughter was born. It was a horrible and physically traumatizing birth, and they ripped me end to end to yank baby Gabi out in a last minute emergency decision. The doctor spent a LONG time stitching my bits back together. Two days after coming home something “down there” didn’t seem right. Something seemed horribly wrong. I couldn’t look down there, I was emotional and crying. Bill offered to look for me. I had a gajillion fears of having him watch me give birth, so how could I let him see what I couldn’t even look at? Eventually I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and let look. He did. The stitches had come undone. He looked at that mangled mass of flesh. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t leave the room screaming, he didn’t decide then and there to never touch it again. He didn’t say one word that would make me feel bad at all. He quietly told me to get dressed and let the doctor know we were on our way. He then took care of baby and mommy and brought me to the doctor. We were pregnant again within six months.
Byron feels my love whenever we’re watching Project Runway, or Catastrophe, or Master of None, and his eyelids start to droop. My ice cube of a hand snakes under his hoodie; his eyes fly open, his posture straightens, and I rub his back until we make it through to the end.
It’s hard for me to separate our marriage from our family; though we have happily survived the empty nest transition to discover we both still enjoy each other’s company. Our union has been tested by a litany of stressors over the years and made it through sickness, family deaths, job loss and living apart for work by keeping our focus on our family and never fully forgetting the puppy love of our teen years.
Our biggest, scariest trial was when Kinsey, the youngest of our four children, was battling anorexia. She had been doing well away at school when she relapsed and realized she needed to come home; she texted me in the middle of the night. When I woke about 5:30 a.m. and saw the messages on my phone, I shook my husband, who’d returned to San Diego from Salt Lake City late the night before, awake. “Hey, wake up. You need to get in the shower now. Kinsey messaged—you have to drive to Flagstaff and bring her home. Now, you have to do it now.” David didn’t respond with words. He simply got out of bed and into the shower. When I called our daughter back, I was able to say, “Dad is on the way.” By 2 a.m. that night she was home, the dorm room emptied, and she was sleeping in her own bed.
I feel Byron’s love whenever we’re in a group out in public, on the move–shopping with family, friends, what have you–and my attention is drawn by something pretty. A brightly colored textile, perhaps. When I stop to pet the pretty thing, the entire group’s momentum stalls BECAUSE WE CAN’T LEAVE A MEMBER BEHIND. Intervening on my behalf, Byron shepherds the crowd together and shoves them forward, explaining, “Nothing makes Jocelyn happier than being left behind. When she’s ready, she’ll find us. She always finds us.”
I returned the next day precisely when the charge nurse told me Erik would return from surgery. I was an hour late. The surgery started early, went well, without complication: four titanium plates held together the fractures across facial bones. His high Nordic cheekbones would become even more pronounced, like God was saying, “Sorry for the accident. I’ll make it up to you.” Erik’s mother met me at the door to his room, shoulders wide like a lineman and eyes locked. “Erik’s sleeping now and needs to rest. He was too agitated from anesthesia after surgery for the post-op X-rays.” “Okay,” I said slipping past her, “I’ll be sure to keep others out.”
The day before, I had met Erik’s mother for the first time in his hospital room. She talked breathlessly, telling me what the surgeon planned to do. Distracted, I held his hand while she talked. Her voice trailed off as she realized I wasn’t just a friend, but that boyfriend Erik had been dating for a year. Erik knew she would have trouble meeting any boyfriend he would ever have, so he kept me hidden away. I had never pressed the issue, never tried to insinuate myself into his family events or her trips to town. But it was a shadow in the corner beginning to grow. Was I just a distraction to be put aside when life got messy? Didn’t we have something? Maybe I wasn’t the one.
The orderly arrived to take Erik back to X-ray. “OK, Erik. We need to take an X-ray of your face to make sure everything is in the right place. You can have one person come with you. Who do you want?” Erik had not moved or opened his eyes since I entered the room. He turned to the orderly, opened his eyes halfway. It was unclear if Erik understood the question. He looked at his mother, then through her, and said, “John.”
Byron feels my love when he shimmies into a wet suit and goes for a swim in Lake Superior. Overseeing his safety, I follow him in the kayak, keeping an eye on the ease of his strokes, the rhythmic bobbing of the orange buoy he pulls behind him. We both know full well that if one of those legendary freshwater sharks attacks him, I will paddle that sucker in the snout until he releases my boy’s leg and issues a heartfelt apology.
My nugget is not cute or funny and not one moment. And I’m not sure how to describe it, but it happened again tonight: when I am so worn down from trying to be not only patient but loving and insightful and wise and open to a kid who struggles–on so many levels–with needs that I can’t fulfill. It’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with him; it’s just us finding our way together.
And on those days when I’ve been screamed at and sobbed and tried to prevent the threat of running away from becoming a reality, and I text “please come home,” Anne comes as fast as she can after conferences and just listens even though her day has been long and full as well. And I know, though I don’t have any energy left or love or even sometimes kindness to give her, that she will wrap me in a hug, and somewhere below all the tears and fears of “Oh, my God, can we still do this? Are we the right ones to do this, and what are we doing?” there is still a “we.” When we get to the bottom, we are both still there.
Although they carry heavy freight, the words “I love you” are inefficient at communicating love. It’s everything outside of those words–actions, comfort, running interference against the world–that constitutes bone-deep love. Those who feel most loved are those best able to see that the commonly vaunted gestures, from declarations to cards to flowers to chocolates, are hollow when compared to the effort and commitment it takes, day after day, to spot and fill in each other’s cracks.
As my friend Esther noted:
Thinking of the things over the years that my husband has done that showed his “true love” in non-traditionally romantic ways has made me realize how good I have it, and how he does truly love me in his way. He is not the hugging, hand-holding, telling me “I Love You” kind of guy. He’s the put-gas-in-my-car, handle-the-mousetraps, shovel-the-snow, buy-my-favorite-coffee-beans-even-though-it-is-an-extra-stop-after-buying-the-groceries kind of guy.
With Byron, we have clean dishes, toothpaste, post-it notes, patience, caller ID, dinner, hands on the back, laundry, groceries, tears, crosswords, hardwood floors, cookies, clean bathroom drains, lisping, laughs, mochas, clean sheets, lovely boots, playing in the yard, well-parked cars, loving the babies, Boggle, frisbee, riding bikes, attending parent meetings, removing the shoes, pausing the stir fry, compliments, cold hands, time alone in a crowd, and apologetic sharks.
All of this, all of these moments, are gestures of love.
Put another way:
Byron, it was my pleasure to scrub the smears of dried blood off the bathroom floor at 1 a.m. when I finally returned from the hospital the night you had that four-hour post-vasectomy surgery. It was a privilege to pick up the heap of bloody towels that you had clamped against your groin and start a load of laundry at 2 a.m.
Cleaning up your bloody mess was a welcome distraction on that grisly night, when I finally returned home, exhausted, so glad the kids were sleeping over at the neighbor’s. Just as I had crawled around earlier, taking off your shoes at the hospital, I crawled around the bathroom floor eight hours later, wiping, mopping, stripping away the evidence of your trauma.
The chore was an honor. To be part of your story is the joy of my lifetime.
Putting it yet another way, casting it into that cliché of inefficient words, distilling all the colorful, multi-dimensional, energetic, meaningful gestures into a string of flat, black font, there is also this: