Playing House

The banging from the kitchen was comical from the other side of the door. What the hell is going on in there? It's not like he's preparing a five-course meal, I thought. But I couldn't say that, felt guilty for even thinking it. This handsome young man was preparing a dinner for me just because he thought it would be romantic. He wanted very much to impress me. It would be the least I could do to shut the sarcasm off.

I wonder if I had any inkling how well I'd remember the awkwardness.

On the outside, everything was perfect. We were alone in the big house, alone for the first time since we'd started dating, and now we were snowed in. We had a fire, good movies, we'd even bought wine for the occasion. (Well, he had bought wine. I was still only 20 and my fake ID had been confiscated by that state trooper.) We were clearly in love. It was all very special.

But the reality was that I was starting to get a little drunk. By the time I was done with nearly two glasses of wine, there was still no hint that the cacophony of bowl clanging and silverware shuffling and cabinetry opening was going to yield dinner anytime soon. I was drinking on an empty stomach, left by myself to enjoy the fire and...cable television.

It wasn't that I didn't appreciate his efforts. I did. Or at least I was trying to. But he'd ushered me from the kitchen so that he could prepare this one dish, which left me alone and bored. And hungry. After about an hour, it stopped being romantic and just started being kind of funny: he's banging around in the kitchen, doing God knows what to make a simple chicken marsala, and I'm sitting alone in his parents living room getting drunk. Funny, like a sitcom.

But that was the thing with him. He was never comfortable laughing at himself.

* * * * * * * *
A month or so after we began dating, the University of Connecticut gave David and me a week off for Spring Break. The timing was perfect: his parents would be off on a golf vacation, which meant we would have their house to ourselves.

We were both in our early twenties, and we were both living with our parents and commuting to college. It was a very unsexy situation. For years I'd imagined ivy-covered buildings adorning the lush grounds of my university -- a place where I'd learn the great works of literary masters in between attending parties and football games and participating in dorm-room hijinks. Instead, my school was a total of two crummy buildings not so much "tucked away" as "hidden" from view off a windy road in the back woods part of a town I didn't know existed till I showed up for my first day, full of justified resignation. The school offered nothing of a social life. Even the library closed at six.

When David and I met, then, we instantly fell in love. How could we not? We had so much in common -- not the least of which was our palpable distaste for our current circumstances, and a shared longing-cum-ambition to ensure that everything would get better after graduation. We realized we were on the same page about this -- this, life, the future -- on our first date, when we held hands but didn't even kiss. And from then on, we were inseparable.

The week before spring break, we went to the sports bar to play the piped-in-via-satellite trivia game. We were sharing a pitcher of beer, I remember, which was rare. (We hardly drank in those days -- me because I was still only 20, he because he just didn't like to.) I couldn't tell you how he said it, but I know I found it thrilling and sexy. He had this way about him that was commanding without being overbearing; he could ask a question while telling you the answer.
So when he told me his parents would be away while we had our break and invited me to stay with him, I don't remember saying "yes." It was simply so.

I did not expect to spend the whole week with him, but it happened that way. Our first, tentative, romantic, exciting night together became the next day together. And while the snow kept falling and we were enjoying each other's company, there was nowhere better to be. Soon it was the next day, and the next. We were living like adults, sharing meals and living quarters and sleeping beside each other every night. It felt a lot like we were playing house, auditioning for a post-collegiate lifestyle. Trying life as a married couple on for size.

It seemed to fit.

For the rest of our relationship, which lasted another six years, we would refer to that spring break as when we knew. Everything fit and was easy and fun and we clicked, and we knew we'd be married.

What's funny now is that when I try and piece that week together in my memory, I only seem able to focus on that one night. The other bits were all so delightful, we couldn't help but view them as harbingers of a lifetime of happiness together. But that one night there, smack in the middle of our magical week, was...less than perfect. And turns out, it was that one night that served as a truer harbinger, illustrating something much less delightful.

Perspective. Funny, that.

For no known reason, I woke up this morning thinking about that night. It pains me now to think of it, how the whole thing was such a mess.

It's just -- he'd just wanted to cook for me.

I had dated a lot of guys by the time Dave and I got together. But I'd been young, and they'd been young, and it's not like a lot of teenaged boys go around wanting to make you dinner. In my experience, they mostly wanted to take you to shoot-em-up movies during which they would try and accidentally feel your boob.

Dave didn't know how to make a lot of things, but he did know how to make a killer chicken marsala, he claimed, and so we were going to have a full-blown, romantic night featuring this dish. I just had to sit back and relax while he did all the work.

We first went to the grocery store together. While there, we decided that we should buy a bottle of wine because I had just recently* discovered I quite liked it. We bought a bottle of pinot grigio.

We got back to his parents' house, and when it was time for preparations to begin, I was shooed out of the kitchen. I went upstairs to get dressed for the evening -- switching from sweats to something a bit more appealing -- and returned to the living room. I was one door away from the kitchen, but not allowed to go in. My offers to help were rebuffed.

He handed me a glass of wine and told me to watch television.

* * * * * *
Somewhere around two hours in, I decided to put the Playboy channel on. Growing up, I never had access to the Playboy channel and was always curious about it. (As a kid, knowing someone whose family got the Playboy channel was a big deal, like knowing someone with a pool.) But now I was an adult, and mature, and allowed to watch whatever I wanted. And maybe if I put on some television with naked breasts, my boyfriend would remember that the point of a romantic evening together was to, in fact, spend it together.

Turns out, he liked that I was open-minded enough to watch soft-core porn. But not enough to stop what he was doing. He poured me more wine and assured me that dinner would be ready soon.

And then finally it was ready. He came and fetched me from my drunken, fake-boob watching quarantine, and escorted me into the kitchen. He'd set the kitchen table for two, complete with linens and candles. Which was another nice and romantic gesture, except that even in the very dim lights, I had to hold back laughter.

The kitchen looked like a cyclone had hit it. Almost every single cabinet was open, the sink was stacked with pots and pans and who knows what. The countertops were barely visible under so many various kitchen utensils, all in the name of making chicken with rice.

And then the rest of our romantic evening went like a bad movie. We ventured from sitcom-worthy into a full-blown cringe fest, made worse by how earnest Dave had been in his gesture. After all his painstaking preparations, I sat down to a meal chock-full of mushrooms which I hate. I did not mention this at the time, of course, but it was a rather unpleasant discovery. And then, even with all the lovey conversation and toasts to us and finishing off the bottle of wine, dinner took about 15 minutes to eat.

There was no way to ignore the disappointment -- somehow the results were supposed to be grander. So much work, so much waiting, so much anticipation, and for what? It was uncomfortable. But to make up for it, or at least to distract from it, I insisted that we leave the kitchen for later and adjourn to the livingroom for some quality time.

I believe I then made some Playboy-channel-related attempt at seducing him (which, let's face it, wasn't hard). But somewhere in the middle of our would-be passionate, livingroom floor romp, it occurred to me that I'd had far too much wine. I didn't feel ill, exactly, I just wasn't feeling much of anything. Except tired.

So we stopped what we were doing, and just went to bed.

That would have been a sad ending to the evening in and of itself -- a brief meal, disappointing sex. But then about 20 minutes after we'd gone to bed, while I was leaning halfway off the mattress to try and stop the room from spinning, I threw the whole meal up.

* * * * * *

Like the rest of our relationship, there were two ways to see the events of that night.

You could package it up all pretty, with a neat little bow: we spent a snowy evening inside together. He cooked dinner for me, we had a little sexy time, we went to sleep. It was all very warm and sweet and quiet and lovely. No need to mention the unpleasantness of needing rug shampoo at 1 in the morning.

Or you could see it for how I felt it at the time, which was that the night was a disaster.

And that's okay -- you can have disastrous evenings and walk away from them just fine if you know how to laugh. Things won't always go as they're supposed to, and so what? The unexpected is much more fun.

But he didn't work like that. He wanted it to be the way it looked on paper, everything controlled and containable. Follow the recipe, get the desired results. Meet, fall in love, get married, live happily ever after.

That's the thing about being older and wiser, though, right? You learn. It doesn't have anything to do with how you work as a couple when things are going well. It has everything to do with how you work as a couple when things fall apart.

My true love is not the man who makes the perfect chicken. He never was and he never will be. My true love is the man who knows when to throw his hands up, pull me close, and say, "Screw it. Let's order pizza."

*Wow. This was a long time ago.


  1. "It would be the least I could do to shut the sarcasm off." is something I would have to say to myself if the Fella ever tried to cook. So far he's cooked eggs which were more omelete-y than scrambled which wasn't his intention. I am ok with him just picking up my favorite take out and remembering I don't like my food too spicy.

    We grow up and we learn, right?

  2. kiki, honey...
    "That would have been a sad ending to the evening in and of itself -- a brief meal, disappointing sex. But then about 20 minutes after we'd gone to bed, while I was leaning halfway off the mattress to try and stop the room from spinning, I threw the whole meal up."

    That made me laugh so hard I spit up my diet coke onto my keyboard and my dogs came running into the room to look at me with that "are you okay?" concerned look in their eyes.

    Thank you. I needed that tonight.

  3. I mean one night is one thing.... but are you saying that over the next six years, he never sent out for pizza?

  4. Dan -- either you know when to throw up your hands and order take-out or ya don't. 'nuff said.

  5. you, my blog shero, have hit the motherf*cking nail on the head. my own boy, when we were 20, fixed me jar spaghetti and cut up veggie burgers for meat balls on top for dinner.

    he goes to get pizza.

    wonderful stuff.

  6. This is a really great piece of writing. Isn't it funny the things you remember? And how something so small can, in hindsight, represent so much.

  7. What a wonderful post. I agree completely-- it isn't about cooking or not cooking, it's about the way you handle adversity (even the chicken marsala variety). And it's about being sensitive to your partner's needs instead of just doing what YOU think would be nice.

    I've been guilty of this myself. In my last serious relationship, I took him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant to celebrate him being accepted to graduate school, ignoring the fact that he hates fancy evenings out (and I love them). When he complained about the stuffiness of the place, I was deeply offended, when in fact I should have anticipated that.

  8. "It doesn't have anything to do with how you work as a couple when things are going well. It has everything to do with how you work as a couple when things fall apart."

    So true. SO. TRUE.

    Great post. This is why I adore you and your blog!

  9. This blog is the most fun I've had in years. Wow, that really says something about me, eh?
    I love your reminds me of college dinners with my girlfriends...telling stories about our dating lives! I can almost hear the pauses for effect.
    Anyway..this post is so true. However, you never see those signs except in the rearview, you know?


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