Sunday, January 23, 2011
“What is it about brunch?” Mr. Black asks, Spock-like, bemused by this strange alien custom.
Brunch. One of the few things we don’t have in common. He never saw the point. It was mildly disappointing, but easy enough to let go in our early days of apartment sleepovers. Sure, I missed the twentysomething urban ritual of it – huddling into a booth, pleasantly hungover, cozy and hopeful with a new dare-we-call-him-a-boyfriend! I missed the pancakes, too. But not so much that I was willing to risk rocking the boat just yet. Brunch-apathy aside, this guy was promising! So we’d sleep in and eat leftover restaurant pasta from the previous night’s date instead.
I wish I had a better answer for him now, better than my giddy “Because it’s brunch!” as I take in a glorious forkful of gingerbread waffle with orange-honey butter. I ought to be able to explain this better.
“Remember in college,” he asks, “when two people would suddenly start showing up at brunch together, and that’s how you’d know they were a couple?”
“Fire drills, too,” I smirk. We went to different colleges, but the experience is universal. Even the menu picks up on the strange, sultry implications of brunch with a bold all-caps wink, urging customers to “Order a Bloody Mary! You earned it last night!” Ha.
Lots of different demographics go out for brunch, of course. But the height of my own brunch-going experience was in my carefree twenties, either newly coupled or with a merry band of revelers from the night before. After a while, I started dragging Mr. Black to brunch, too. We’d moved to Seattle by then, sharing an apartment with vague plans of continued cohabitation. He loved me so much, he could haul himself out of bed once in a while and have public pancakes with me.
We’ve attempted a few brunches with the kids over the years, but with the long waits for a table and the long waits for food, trying to keep crayons interesting for that long . . . it just wasn’t worth it. Might as well try to take them to a show at the Crocodile. Funny to be back here after all this time. Just us, enjoying a rare Saturday to ourselves. Nice of him to agree to it, even if he still doesn’t get the whole brunch thing.
What is it about brunch?
A sip of mimosa and an unexpected flash of remembered passion and tumbling of only a few hours ago. Sigh. Yearn. But he’s right there, hunched over a plate of eggs in his grey sweater, looking sleepy and scruffy and absolutely divine. This, I want to say, is what it is about brunch. This juxtaposition of wild decadence and the simple domestic act of sitting down to breakfast together. The weird optimism that used to come with it. Feeding yourself on love, and then on hash browns. It’s life affirming.
Except now, when I reach my hand across the table for his, he pulls away. Just a little. It’s barely perceptible; instinctive, almost. The remarkable thing is how truly okay with it I am. I get it. I’ve done it myself enough times to understand that it’s not personal. Sometimes, we pull away just when the other partner is finally ready to reach out. It happens. But here he is, still, mid-anecdote with a friendly voice. I’ll catch him the next time.
At the next table, two women ponder whether they’ll ever want to get married. Another table of merry post-grads discuss Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (is anybody not talking about that book these days?) and jokingly speculate about what kind of hapless parents they’ll probably be someday.
Funny. We used to do that too. So much of our time was spent wondering out loud what our life would be. We didn’t realize how much we’d find ourselves looking back on that time, nostalgic for what our life was then. Open. The uncertainties that caused us so much worry actually made life more exciting and free.
And now? Well, we have our answers. The crazy scavenger hunt for a life resembling adulthood is just about wrapped up. Some days, I’ll admit, I think of it that way and start to feel the grey cloud of midlife crisis looming near.
But that’s not it. Part of being “over the hill” involves hanging out at the top for a little bit first, right? Enjoying the view? Now that we’re here, why not spread out and just . . . be. 40 and 41. Parents. Introverts. Thinkers. Writers who will probably never quit their day jobs. Two unique human beings who find enough joy and comfort in each other to keep putting up with each other’s bullshit year after year. Let’s just luxuriate in that for a while, because it’s a lot, after all.
And while we’re at it, let’s order some more pancakes.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
I’ve seen an upside-down hot tub once before. It was one of the more remarkable absurdities we’ve witnessed along I-5 over the years, making the journey to Oregon to visit Mr. Black’s parents. We couldn’t tell what it was at first . . . just this huge, amorphous, pale yellow heap with forlorn bits of PVC pipe sticking out here and there. Reminded me of terrible scrambled eggs. As amusing as it was, there was something a little horrifying about it, too. How did it get there? How must it feel to lose one’s hot tub on a major interstate highway?
We had a hot tub of our own, believe it or not – an old classic from the 1970’s built into the back deck of our crumbling Seattle bungalow. And it worked. Well . . . after a little maintenance it worked. We used it every night that first year, scarcely believing our good fortune.
I guess we felt that way about a lot of things in those days . . . those soon-to-be-married, first-time-homeowner days. We had a dishwasher! And our own washer and dryer! And a yard! We could hear birds singing and neighbors having barbecues instead of the ambulance pulling up to Meth Towers Apartments down the street. Life was sweet.
It’s adorable, really, to remember how charmed we were that first spring and summer in this house. This. Damn. House. With its leaking oil tank. A bathroom with no insulation; just decorative paneling nailed to the studs. A prolifically leaking basement. A huge window that slipped out of its pane during a particularly cold December.
And on and on it goes, the never-ending parade of repairs and shortcomings. It’s like marriage itself; the constant evolution and falling-apart and rebuilding. And yet, you still love. You still have these flashes of remembering how you found each other and made each other so happy. And you want to keep trudging along, making it work.
This year, it was the back porch. We’d known for a while that it wasn’t in the best shape. I remember when pieces of its roof blew off. I was up late nursing infant Little Girl in the rocking chair, gazing up at the Christmas tree while an epic windstorm ripped through our neighborhood.
“Hmm. Maybe we should do something about that,” Mr. Black and I thought when we saw the damage the next day. But there were more pressing home improvement fiascos to attend to. Not to mention the new baby. Every year, we’d patch it up here and there, but neither of us wanted to do a full-on deck rebuild. We didn’t even want to do it this time. But the damn thing went and fell down.
Because real life has no writer’s workshop telling it to tone down the heavy-handed symbolism, this happened during the same week as The Boy’s gifted/Aspergers diagnosis. It was eerie, actually, how well that metaphor fit. Not because a child with special needs equals a falling-apart house. Not at all.
More like...something about the house wasn’t working. It needed special attention. It needed major repairs. But for years, we said “Oh, we’ll just give it a fresh coat of paint. We’ll just wait until summer and then replace those rotten boards. We’ll just send it to public school and hope for the best. And if the over-worked school psychologist tells us he doesn’t qualify for services and he’ll probably “outgrow” his very Aspergersish behavior, we’ll just conveniently believe that. Because if there really were a problem, then surely the school will be understanding and forthcoming with free services.” See?
Anyway. A patch-up job wasn’t going to do it for that porch. We needed to tear the whole thing down and build it right. And so it is with The Boy's situation. We had to face it. And the minute we did, we began the process of building something strong and functional for him. Cheesy, extend-o-licious metaphor, for sure. But impossible to avoid when the guys were right there every night during those post-diagnosis weeks, like Eldin on “Murphy Brown,” banging away on our new porch while I contemplated life’s circumstances.
And what of the hot tub?
We had to let it go. Our contractor was pushing for that option from the start, and he had a point. The thing was old. We’d had to detach the plumbing during the Great Basement Waterproofing of ’04, and never had the finances to get it up and running again. I worried that if we ever did get the hot tub going again, it would be a drowning hazard. Or a lock-your-friend-in-it hazard if it stood empty.
Even in the glory days of the hot tub, it was a hassle. The constant maintenance, the water bills, that Disneyland-water-attraction smell. And that night when one of the pipes cracked and we had to bail the whole tub out in our pajamas while water sprayed all over our basement floor. Why not trade all that for a nice big back porch?
Next thing you know, that fallen hot tub on I-5 all those years ago was in the middle of my backyard. There was some interest on Craigslist, but in the end it was the junk haulers who took the thing away.
The right choice. But still a little unnerving to see that hot tub go. We’d spent time and money on it, cared for it, loved it, sang bad renditions of Eddie Murphy’s “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party” to it. And there it goes, into the back of the junk truck. Gone.
And here I am, in the same old living room we painted together that first spring, before we’d even moved the furniture in. Such incredible hope we had back then, and so much of it was actually realized. We don’t live our days in starry-eyed “How did we get here?” wonder anymore, but maybe we should. One look around this room strewn with Playmobil figures and library books proves how lucky we are. Yes, things are constantly evolving. It’s never finished, because there’s always something else about to fall down. There is persistent imperfection and impermanence. But such joy, too.
I’ll try to remember that the next time something breaks.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
We were piled into a booth at our favorite hipster-dive in Philly. The guy across from me was sneering music snobitude about a band I’d just admitted to liking. I could have ignored it. I could have smiled and nodded, pretending to be illuminated. Instead, I cut this guy I’d just met down to size. That’s how I rolled back then. Don’t even remember what I said, but I do remember how incredibly satisfying it felt to let that weasely hipper-than-thou smart-ass have it. Then I excused myself to the ladies room line.
What’s wrong with her? How damaged must she be to just attack like that, he wanted to know. Asked everyone at the table. Nothing wrong with her, one friend replied. You’re just bitter that you lost the argument. Of course, he wouldn’t accept that. Ever.
Maybe if I’d had time to go back to the table and make nice, things would have been different. But while I was waiting in that ladies room line, some of our friends got into a territory dispute over our booth. It came to blows and the whole lot of us got kicked out of the bar.
We went our separate ways after that. Didn’t see the guy much, but I’d hear about him from mutual friends. He was still stewing over it. Still trying to make sense of it, trying to ferret out whatever secret vulnerability he believed his music-snobbery had unleashed.
I was hugely embarrassed, of course. The truth is, there was some vulnerability there, but it was nowhere near as intriguing as he’d imagined. It was simply that I’d spent the last few years being madly in love with someone who was madly unattainable. These were the last days of our sad, staggering little un-relationship, and I was in no mood for anyone else’s bullshit. Especially not this guy’s.
We started to cross paths more often. I didn’t like the guy, but I didn’t see much point in committing to that position. We had enough mutual friends that I figured it would be better to just get along. So I’d try to act well-adjusted and breezy. He could say some unbelievably lecherous and insulting things, but I’d suppress every eye roll and try to find a friendlier path to conversation. He was still trying to Figure Me Out, but I may not have been aware of that at the time. Something slightly more pleasant than tolerance was blooming between us.
One night he and my friend Clyde came up to my apartment after a night out. Clyde was teasing me, trying to take my pillow. Next thing you know, the two of them were fighting over the pillow, spilling cranberry juice all over my futon in the process. This is just sad, I thought, flashing back to my school bus days. But the junior high absurdity had only just begun.
“He likes you,” Clyde insisted later over the phone. “That’s why he was trying to get the pillow back from me in the first place – because it was your pillow and he was fighting for you!” And then he teasingly burst into a rousing chorus of Chicago’s “Glory of Love.”
“I AM A MAN!
WHO WILL FIGHT!
FOR YOUR HONOR!”
I was mortified. Mor.ti.fied. And…okay. Maybe just the littlest bit intrigued.
The guy was in a My Bloody Valentine-ish band, and one winter night a bunch of us went to see them play. They were good. Really. He played a baby-blue guitar with his back to the audience, which totally charmed me at the time. Later I found out the guitar wasn’t even his; he didn’t even like the baby blue. But that night after the show, we went to a diner and did some smiling across the table. There was some silliness. Some flirtation.
I wasn’t attracted to him in the least. There was something decidedly reptilian about the guy, plus that lecherousness was never far beneath the surface. But there were glimmers and shades of potentially appealing qualities here and there. Plus, I’d just seen Sense and Sensibility and had this notion that what we were doing was somehow Jane Austen romantic. You know. Detesting each other with a spark.
Mostly, though, there was this horrified rush of being attracted to someone that…well…I wasn’t the least bit attracted to. Didn’t even like him very much. But the wrongness of it made it intriguing. Confusion sparks with loneliness, and the next thing you know there’s a little rush of excitement for the guy. Ill-gotten, misguided excitement, but excitement nonetheless. In other words, it felt good just to be feeling something.
The balloon man came along shortly after that, followed by a brief flurry of suitors that spring. But by summertime the guy and I were casually orbiting each other again. There was a comfort to it, undermined by a nagging sense of This Is Wrong. Did we really like each other, or were we just the nerdiest two friends in the bunch, stuck with each other?
And he was still, still stuck on that argument we’d had about music and what it All Meant. He was still reading between my lines for some haunted, damaged woman to rescue. I was getting a stronger, darker sense that this Save The Crazy Bitch thing was a big part of his attraction to me in the first place. And I didn’t like it one bit.
We were waiting at the bar for Clyde to show up one summer night. The guy was sad and world weary, just coming back from a particularly awful experience at his social services job. Our conversation took a dangerous turn past the superficial.
You know that feeling where you know you’re lost, you know you should pull over and ask for directions, but you just keep following the road out of morbid curiosity or stubborn determination that everything’s going to work out? That’s what this conversation was like. By the time Clyde showed up, I was like Clark Griswold in that conversation. The guy was saying things like “I’m attracted to your mind.” He was doing that “Let’s get married if we’re both still single at 40” thing. I was alarmed. But I kept on going. (“When they close a road they put up big signs. Like this one.”)
Next thing I knew, we were leaning in for a kiss. An instantly-regrettable, dry reptilian-lipped kiss. Panic! What was I doing? Still lip-locked, I started nudging Clyde on the bar stool next to me, hoping he’d intervene somehow. But Clyde was chatting up the guy next to him and figured I didn’t need rescuing anyhow. Humiliated, I wrangled myself free from the kiss.
I don’t remember him minding my resistance very much. Maybe he was just as horrified as I was. Or, more likely, the kiss was just part of his patronizing, unfounded “research” into my psyche. Who can say. But there was no mention of it from then on. By the end of the summer, I was dating someone else. Meanwhile, the guy went out and bought himself a Delorean (you know, like the car in Back to the Future). Apparently that car was getting him all kinds of laid.
And that was pretty much that. We’d cross paths occasionally while I was still in Philly, and he’d be up to his old tricks – trying to root out some underlying sadness in me, trying to plant seeds of doubt about whoever I was dating at the time. At least there were no more kisses.
He’s so vain, he probably thinks this post is about him. The truth is, I’m not sure why I remember this whole story and suddenly felt compelled to write about it after all these years. But really, it’s not about him. The man himself was never that important to me. Barely knew the guy, really.
It’s more about that old looming emptiness, and what you’re at risk of filling it with if you don’t watch your step. Love is a lot less wild and elusive than it used to be. It holds us up with a simple, no-nonsense grip, but it no longer holds a dreamy promise. It simply is. Our adventures are past, and the struggles that remain are of a more serious nature. Sometimes it’s not easy to settle into that. Some days I think I can hear my midlife crisis pulling into the driveway.
So I remind myself what it was really like, what my options really were. Because even in those days of hilarious singlehood misadventures, there was emptiness swirling around the edges and in the background; a kind of desperation that threatened to sweep us up with a single bad choice at any weak moment. Part of the thrill in those days was simply dodging it.
Those were the days. But these are the days, too.