Wednesday, August 27, 2008
The Soup Chapter From "Split: A Memoir of Divorce"
(PHOTO OF 'SPLIT' BOOKJACKET COURTESY OF PENGUIN UK, PUB DATE 1.9.09 IN THE UNITED KINGDOM)
(BELOW 'Soup" excerpt IS REPRINTED from the final section of Split, entitled: ACCEPTANCE)
I gained my husband with soup. Not charm, wit or lingerie, but soup. Not canned soup or deli, but real home made soup, simmered for hours over a hot Jenn-air. The kind of soup that makes your eyes roll back in your head and your body feel, for a brief time, safe.
I used to carry it to his first modest office in coy shopping bags with handles, laden with my own Tupperware bearing Split Pea With Ham, or Black Eyed Vegetarian. Fresh soup delivered to his office in professional yet saucy outfits, while his coworkers teased and he strutted. Also, consider the source: I was a paid professional myself, a writer; I bore soup made from scratch, which includes soaking the beans overnight. At the time, this seemed roughly akin to raising a barn.
I believe my deceptively simple cabbage and rice soup, finished off with handfuls of Gruyere cheese and oversized garlic croutons, is the one that sent him over the edge. He has admitted as much. The cabbage soup stands as the last crumbling brick in the wall of his bachelorhood. It explains how he was blinded into a formal commitment, despite his horror regarding legal matters. He was especially fearful of marriage, which he filed in his personal ledger of liability just below chapter 11 and above identity theft.
He could overcome the lure of my smooth naked legs draped casually over his, the good mutual taste of each other. The conversations. He could handle the ambrosia of a new lover and all the mindless meandering that entailed, but he could not physically get past the delicious, sedative comfort of my soup repertoire. By premeditated design, I was inexorably attached to the soup. I was the mistress of the soup; I was the god of the soup. I could giveth or taketh away.
In his manly life, as disciplined as he attempted to make it, the soup had gone from a Want to a Need. He was hooked, an unfortunate yet apt phrase. A shiny young male, a many colored fish trying to live the free life another day, a rakish clownfish.
In the beginning I was on my best and most false behavior in many aspects, as was N. The making of the soup was just the tip of the iceberg. We sought the intersection of all senses, the folding together of sex and of wardrobe and the fey territory of bread pudding in whiskey sauce. We avoided all areas of conflict. Instead, elaborate rituals were made, based on erotic and dining preferences. It was the time of organic arugula and jicama and all manner of exotic vegetables and delicacies, served in the dim restaurants where candles wink on white tablecloths, and coarse sea salt sits in a cunning tiny bowl. We ate out often in the beginning, better to admire one another over a wee marble table. We perched, deuce after deuce, in small cafes, holding hands while the waiter discreetly avoided us, knowing his tip would be large, as all possibility is at the onset of love.
This is the time when metropolitan women such as myself will happily scrub their underutilized efficiency apartment kitchens, rolling up sleeves on carefully toned and suntanned arms. An apron will be purchased, maybe two. The cornucopia of the lightest and freshest seasonal ingredients appears, butcher shops with the finest meats and fish will be ransacked. Potatoes, if they are ever seen, will be thinly sliced and crisply fried and seasoned with fresh sage; new potatoes may appear, just two or three nestled against moistly grilled King Salmon.
I prepared all manners of dishes as though born to it. If pressed for time, I would remove gourmet food from takeout tins and fob it off as my own. I decided it would be best to lie, it really was just the smallest bit of chicanery, nothing like the real farce our marriage would contain. I didn’t know this yet. I was still smashing tinfoil takeout cartons into the trash and covering them up with the outer leaves of romaine lettuce. This woman seems very disturbed, now. I am not afraid of my garbage any more.
In the beginning, I was bending over backwards and doing high kicks to demonstrate how wonderful and well tempered and smart I was, yet in a non-threatening way. He would slip silently from bed to fetch coffee and serve it up bedside, exactly as I like it. Our life was rife with soft Bach Sonatas and flaky croissants and bud vases with a single stalk of freesia. Cloth napkins were whipped out for every single meal, not a paper towel in sight. There was much serving of coffee and tea and even breakfast in bed, along with the morning Times and an insouciant smile. We were both losing weight despite drinking wine like water and eating fat laden foods. I put this down to the sex: appetite fans out and succumbs to carnal recreation.
He began, methodically and with many flourishes, to plan intimate at-home dinners-for-two, making sure that I understood that this was something he only did when he was truly in love. He chose the music with care. I am afraid I gasped, realizing he loved the same obscure vocalist I happened to also love. His pans, however, remained in his kitchen, the Cuisinart tucked in its usual corner of the immaculate marble counter.
He could debone a chicken, perfectly whole, in five minutes, leaving the chicken itself intact but spineless. Instead of alarming me, I got a thrill out of this. I thought it was a magical impossibility. It’s amazing what clues I missed, and what I treasured. Equally amazing is how easily it can be let go, in the fullness of time. But this was the beginning, the inky genesis. What Edna St. Vincent Millay would call “...the dry seed of most unwelcome this.”
If not for the middle, I would never have known the contentment of serving my husband the last lamb chop while he speaks of my accomplishments in glowing terms. Mornings he makes coffee, although gone are the days of nice sticky pastries, and the bud vase has somehow gone missing. It matters not, we are the middle and life is rattling right along, together with the plain stoneware dishes in the dishwasher (the better dishes and thin-stemmed crystal goblets are once again relegated to special occasions). Our bodies trade fine restaurants for bustling diners and coffee houses. His good pans now commingle with mine, the Cuisinart in my possession. I’d gained Cuisinart. This was everything. I felt my work done and that I should be afforded rest. This does not happen; nothing ever rests right in the middle. It is almost impossible to balance a scale for this very reason.
We have begun to eat off each other’s plates, this in itself tantamount to commitment of a primal nature. The middle means marriage, and sharing, it also means opening up to the grinchy day-to-day reality and all it contains. We talk about The Marriage now, as if it were a fairly nice person in another room. Everything is buzzing along like bees making honey, and yes, like bees, everything seems to be, well, kind of a lot of work. Yes, we have started using paper napkins, but only because we are living together now and it is just too much trouble to send the laundry out that often. Of course it is.
In fact, the stomach is still connected to the heart during the Middle, but not in as direct a fashion. Now all impulses must pass through the brain, and so we are a wee bit more cautious with both our napkins and our heavy cream, a little afraid to gain weight now that the sex is down to once every two days -- still a startling amount! And who can deny the comfort of being able to eat dinner in front of the television? No one. Once the baby arrives and eventually outgrows the ‘football in a bucket’ phase, this is reinforced and one or the other of us begins trying to get away.
Oh no, let ME be the one to run to the store for butter.
No, I insist.
But you got to go to the store last time. I need to get some air.
Everyone needs additional air.
The middle is a different kind of feast, the slow and easy kind, the casual kind that doesn't requite stiletto heels or crisp shirts. There are some disturbances in the field (He hates my art collection, I generally ignore his mother), but nothing that cannot be solved with a fat bottle of Merlot, a bucket of steamers, thigh high stockings, a low cut blouse and a little coaxing.
The middle is nice. It is a pity it cannot last longer. I have heard tales of couples staying in the middle for decades, of favorite dishes being served every Sunday, family lobster feasts, and dependable anniversary dinners at A.Sabella’s. It hasn't been so for me, nor for many of my contemporaries, some of who have run the entire food and love gamut several times without bearing children or even jewelry of any true worth. Sadly, now I know with a bittersweet thump that I will try love again, I will taste of its glory again; appetite is a constant. The more I say I won’t, the closer my desire creeps behind me.
The end, when it comes, will be heralded by the cessation of all romantic dinners whisked to small tables by officious waiters. Gone are the days of the constructed salads and butterflied lamb rack, and as for the home made soup? It is extinct. One may try making soup at the End, but it will not have the same effect, and in fact if the stamina exists at all, it is probably mania or terror in disguise. Soup will be scorned. More likely one or both of us is hunched over a bowl of Thai noodles, while the other is on the computer in another room, with the door closed. The door closed. Does this ring any bells? I don’t refer to wedding bells. Hemingway bells.
If meals are shared, it is with the television on and loud. This to avoid discussions of The Marriage, which neither wants to broach any longer, as it has become a rather unreliable and dangerous character. Meals have slipped into the realm of the ordinary and the grim -- frozen shrimp, overcooked chicken parts, including dark meat (there is no dark meat in the Beginning, only breasts). Iceberg lettuce appears like a weather-beaten old friend, along with bottled salad dressing, slapped down on the coffee table along with an array of other condiments that really cannot perform the kind of magic that would transform these silent meals into anything but ghastly and penitentiary-like. I would silently reminisce about the time of holding hands over a plate of warm goat cheese with chutney and watercress and candied walnuts, but there is no chutney. The sparkling conversationalist wife has turned into a monosyllabic drone, the male gourmand is now unable to find a stick of butter in plain sight and complains openly about the ratio of vodka to vermouth in his martini, which I continue to make for him, like the butler in a Ron Benny comedy hour. I’ve become Rochester.
True, I had let myself go in the area of the nurturing domestic, as evidenced by the fact that standing very near to the dishwasher while the DRY CYCLE steam rises from its vent is as close as I’ve come to home cooking in a long time. I no longer buy his favorite cheese at the market, in fact I wouldn't know it if I saw it, because my eyes have gone slitty from trying to tell if he is lying about those long lunches. He in turn will watch me for signs of sexual abandon but will find none there; the day the coffee in bed went, so did my insatiable urge for fellatio. Yes, we had reached the end. No more track, baby. End of the line; feel free to take this train back to your point of origin, if you can, which you definitely cannot.
Since the divorce, I acknowledge that I don’t control which way the metaphysical bread is going to fall, butter side up or down. With this kind of mystery and the overall shortness of life, serious long-held regrets have no place. It is better to just wait and see. Hang on tight to that bread. Accept. Not for anyone else, naturally. For my son and me, for what I recognize with a certain satisfaction is our family.
Here in Marin County, acceptance is socially mandated, so that I and hundreds of other ex-wives can continue, without undue delay, to consume material goods. We dutifully resume raising the children, alone and with competence. We pay everyone and their cousin exorbitant amounts of money to maintain our preposterously small houses, we write in our journals, and eventually, after a socially mandated time, live to sauté mushrooms again. Once again survival, evolution, and most of all transience reigns, as Darwinian and predestined as it ultimately is. Change is assessed and refinanced, as are our homes.
After I married and became a mother, the Mallomars arrived in the kitchen, after a goodly 20-year absence. And there was much inner dancing and rejoicing and dipping into coffee and stuffing into my mouth. But one day the Mallomars had no power. I had gained seniority. I am still tired of the Mallomars. Truth be told, I could live very happily without ever seeing a Mallomar again.
I don’t dwell on getting back together with my husband any longer. He’s become my Mallomar. This is acceptance, and it’s very normal and natural and entirely impossible until you’ve had that very last fat black cookie.