I can’t cook but an ex-girlfriend thinks I can. According to her, I once made a Moroccan-inspired lamb stew that sat on a bed of garlic and herb couscous. I allow her that delusion.
She also remembers that we had pasta carbonara at a bad Italian restaurant on a Saturday night. The place was empty. To add some spark to what would otherwise have been a dispiriting evening, she put Patsy Cline on the jukebox. We got up and danced.
I remember that night, but distantly, as if it was from another life — which, in a manner of speaking, it was.
In the intervening years I’ve been married and had a child. I’ve grown doughy and somewhat world-weary. I puff when I climb the stairs. I wear comfortable plaid pajamas when I go to sleep. And I’m soon to be divorced.
B and I dated briefly ten years ago. In all other respects (besides the meal I supposedly cooked for her) she possesses an extraordinary memory. With crystalline accuracy she recalls the things we did together and what we said. She remembers a night out at Carnegie Hall and what she wore, or the morning we met by chance at the Farmer’s Market, even the street where my parents lived when I was born.
B and I recently met for drinks. She looked terrific; the intervening decade had treated her well. Her face, which used to be cherubic, was slimmed down into structured early middle age, with fetching smile lines, an inscribed dimple and endearingly deep care wrinkles across her brow.
We met at a swanky restaurant and sat informally at the bar. I ordered a glass of pinot noir and she asked for a Californian chardonnay. We chatted about mutual friends. But after we had our second glasses of wine, and had ordered crispy calamari and a cone of savory French frites, (sliced thinly and lightly salted), we began to wade into deeper territory.
B told me about her latest breakup. He had loved her deeply, she said, but he had few friends. His style of intimacy was to become almost claustrophobically close. At first, B was attracted by his frequent emails and check-in phone calls that punctuated her days at work. She had been single for a long stretch of time and this new relationship made her feel less lonely. His need for contact charmed and softened her. With him, she was “living in the bubble”, which was re-assuring. But the bubble began to exclude too much of the world, too many friends, relatives and activities. In the end, she decided to pop the bubble. Regret suffused her face while she told me this story.
Over trout with Chinese long beans and a confit of tomatoes and capers with an almond puree we talked some more. She asked me why my marriage had gone south. To tell you the full story, I said, would take hours, perhaps days. I looked down at my plate. I didn’t want to be coy. It was like a vase, I said. Even at the start it had hairline cracks. We tried to cover them over but incrementally they just grew wider until the whole thing just split apart. B looked at me skeptically.
Ok, I said, we didn’t have sex for over a year.
I remember much about N — how as a child she would bring ring-dings to her grandfather every Saturday afternoon, and how, when she visited me in the country, she brought nutmeg, garlic, avocado and tender autumn squash. I remember the frittata she made for me the morning after our first night, the crunch of the red bell peppers and the sun yellow of the eggs that were perfectly cooked, soft but not runny.
She was a woman who was all about appetite. I didn’t understand that at first. She was my first post-divorce date and I arrived at the appointed bar sweaty with anxiety. The place was packed, heaving with twenty-year-olds looking svelte and velvety (the women) and toned and groomed (the men). I was neither and neither was she. She had a proud bearing and a striking face: strong features, chestnut hair, lush lips, iridescent eyes: an empress. It was a face that belonged on a Roman coin, a face that should have been painted by Picasso.
We drank strong vodka tonics and talked about Russia, her home country. Her family had left under extreme duress. They had fled through Italy, only to arrive in America with almost nothing to their name. In the intervening years and with unwavering persistence and unrelenting work, they had done well for themselves. When N was seventeen, they returned to Russia for a visit. She watched in disbelief as her mother grew meeker the longer they stayed. The memory of the dark shadow of the Soviet Union still held her in its repressive grip. Her mother shrunk into herself.