The still young-ish couple and their month-old baby are sitting in the small neighborhood Chinese restaurant on a chilly, dark October night. The restaurant is mostly a take-out and delivery hub, so most of the tables inside are empty. They have come here, this couple and their new baby, because it is close to their house, it is inexpensive, it is relatively private, the baby is welcome (more than welcome), and the man loves egg drop soup. It is one of his favorite things to eat, even when it goes by the name egg flower soup, as it does here.
They are scandalously, willfully unmarried. But they have been a couple, off and on, for seven years. They swapped rings, months earlier, under a sparkling Santa Fe sky, and that was as much formal commitment as they needed. They are the couple who none but their oddest and most liberal friends can understand; this will always be true. And here they are, he in the Frog’s Leap t-shirt, a prized gift from the winery, she in his button-down shirt (which she bought for him but that he never wears), and the baby in a green onesie that proclaims a party in his crib at 2 a.m.
For dinner she wants steamed vegetables and chicken, because she wants to lose the baby weight. But he talks her into ordering vegetable fried rice, which tastes better than steamed chicken, and Happy Family. He does this in a funny voice, saying “we happy family, eat Happy Family for good luck.” And she laughs.
Mostly, though not always, I write in short stretches each weekday morning, usually early in the morning either while the children are getting ready for school or in between the time when they leave for school and I go to work, if I’m not driving carpool.
I write in my kitchen, which is the most comfortable place in our house for me even though it is messy and disorganized, or perhaps because of this. I write things I publish on the blog and also things that I don’t. I write in my kitchen, where it is still and quiet, before the sun comes up, before there’s much activity in the house, and I drink tea, either Scottish Morn or Irish Breakfast, because it is too early in the morning yet for coffee.
In my quiet, empty kitchen I am kept company by life’s detritus:
the chaos of my armoire desk, littered with papers and standing files and notebooks and discarded charging cords and flash cards and empty Fitbit bands and a phone, connected to a real land line, that we never answer;
photographs, mostly in frames, mostly pictures of my children, and grade-school art projects, still stuck to the walls and doors with tape;
my broken dog who loves me and who sleeps at my feet in the mornings, content merely to be in the same room with me;
and our mismatched, salvaged furniture, all of it decorated with stickers – mostly The Incredibles – from when the children, who are now big, were very small.
When my friend Kate came to visit from Texas a year or so ago, she stood in my kitchen, while I poured glasses of wine, and asked about my writing space. When I said, “This is it, you’re looking at it,” she gasped and said, “no! no! nnooo!” Had I told her we kept cadavers in the basement or pickled cockroaches in the pantry I doubt she could have looked more horror-stricken.
It is a messy life, but it is my mess. And in my quiet mess, in the early morning hours, my fleeting solitude is a happiness like no other. It is the only time when no other living creature needs me, when I belong entirely to myself.
I would like to tell you that this mostly-daily private ritual concludes as peacefully as it begins, each and every day. I’d like to tell you that I finish my writing and finish my tea and close my computer and go back upstairs to wake the children and start the rest of my day with an even rhythm, peaceful and calm despite the apparent mess.
But what happens, on an unpredictable schedule, at unpredictable times, is that Bernard will ramble down the stairs with stomping, uneven steps, and he will grunt a greeting, because he is not a morning person, and he will open the refrigerator and graze from last night’s leftovers, and he will drink milk straight from the carton, and he will say goddammit when he trips over the sleeping dog (who was sleeping in plain sight, for Christ’s sake; couldn’t he see that?), and then he will thud back up the stairs to rest for 30 more minutes until he is ready to wake up.
Once the kitchen is empty again I will stare into space trying to regather my thoughts. Elastigirl, stuck upside down on a spindle of one of the kitchen chairs, will stare back at me.
In the 14 years since we invited a friend, a federal judge, to our living room for an unannounced wedding, witnessed only by a handful of neighbors, invited for what they thought would be impromptu spring cocktails on the porch, we have lived a messy life. It would have been messy whether we had married or not, but it looks particularly messy because we are not a conventional sort of family, traveling in a pack, always in unison. We are fiercely, willfully independent people.
It was our friend, my friend, the judge’s wife who made the deciding argument in favor of legal union. Yes, she agreed, it was just a piece of paper. But there might some days, she offered, some really challenging days, when that piece of paper alone might tip the balance.
That is, over the years, exactly how we’ve come to look at it: in our most trying hours, we decide that being united is at least 51% better than being apart. Whether this will always be true is unimportant, to either of us. Perhaps that is why it keeps working.
Or perhaps we’re able to keep plugging along together because, while we are each fiercely independent, we have each also become fiercely protective of the other’s independence.
A few years ago I was sitting with a group of dads while we all waited for our daughters to complete their swimming tests at sleep-away camp. The men were talking about some obligation or other – going to a party, I think, and they were comparing how much latitude their wives gave them, who was on a short leash, who a longer one, what unlucky son of a bitch had one of those retractable leashes that only gave the feeling of freedom until the leash-holder snapped the button. One of the men looked over at me and said, “Bernard doesn’t even have a leash, does he?” “No,” I responded, “we’re not really the ‘leash’ sort of couple, in either direction.” I’ve never looked at my marriage the same way since.
One early morning in May of this year, as I was wrapping up nine long years at the blood center, preparing to take five weeks off before starting my new job, a friend helped me find a beach house to rent for a week, knowing that a week at the beach was something my daughter had begged for. The catch was that I would have to make the decision quickly; the house was popular, and the owner would hold it for me only until noon.
I called Bernard to say that I’d found a house, that it was the perfect size, the perfect location. “What do you think?” I asked him. And he said, “Do you want to go to the beach?” [yes] “Then go to the beach. I’ll either come with you or not. If you want to go to the beach, rent the house.”
So I did.
Three weeks later I was sitting on the beach, under an umbrella, with the two women who joined me. We were watching the children romp in the water while we read books and unwound. One of the women asked how the trip had come together, and I told the story about finding the house and calling Bernard and deciding to book it. She looked at me with a bit of surprise and asked, “Does he always support you like that?” “Yes,” I said, “always.”
The middle-aged couple is in a commercial kitchen, in Nowhere, Mississippi, north of Jackson, south of Batesville. With their children they have come for a weekend retreat where everyone is welcome, more than welcome. The first time, two years ago, she had to drag everyone, kicking and screaming, to this rustic place. By the end of the weekend, no one wanted to go home. And so they’ve come back, again, for the third time, to this place where they can all be together, all four of them, and also be alone at the same time.
On this early Saturday morning, just before dawn, their children, and most of the other 80-some-odd people, are still sound asleep, back in the camp cabins with bunk beds and attic fans and open windows and dank-smelling bathrooms. He and she are up early by choice, she to make the first round of coffee, he to prep for breakfast, lining huge trays with foil and then arranging bacon and cinnamon rolls. For the kitchen crew, who will arrive shortly, he might make poached eggs with Hollandaise, as he did the year before. He will flex his kitchen muscle like this all weekend; he is in his secret element. Here, everyone finds a groove.
Later, when the sun is fully up, they will walk in the woods and paddle on the lake and swim and play cards and read books and even sing. But right now is it just the two of them, in the morning stillness.
He, in his favorite tie-dye t-shirt, is doing his thing in the kitchen; and she, in her favorite cotton sundress, is doing her thing with the coffee, out in the main dining hall. When she walks into the kitchen to get the half-and-half he says, “Is that what your hair does all by itself, when you don’t blow it dry? Because you should do that more often.”
He goes back to preparing trays of bacon for the oven, and she finishes setting up the coffee. The sky is pink now, the birds and fish making morning sounds on the lake. He calls out that if she wants to get any writing done then she’d better get going, right now. “Go on; get out of here.” And she smiles, and she leaves. In this moment, happy family.
Food | Week of October 3, 2016
Make-Your-Own Pizza (here’s Bittman’s (very reliable) dough recipe)