I’m starting a new tradition.
On Sundays, I’m going to post an excerpt from essays I’ve written in the past. This is a way of worming out of sitting down and thinking, but it’s also a way to post some thoughts that have aged longer than twenty-four hours. In spite of extraneous hair growth and bladder control problems, there’s much to be said for aging. And so it is with steaks, wine, and cheese in mind that I am cheating.
In the spirit of cheating, I’ll kick things off with something from a personal essay called “Little Cheaters on God.” It stars R, who readers first met in Things I Didn’t Learn in a Tyvek Suit. I read a version of this at Goucher College in August, and listeners asked for a sequel. I’ll post one for my cheat next week.
Little Cheaters on God (excerpt)
One morning, I wrote the word “yes” on the shower wall using his mint-flavored dental floss. I told myself that word would fix everything.
It snagged us a toaster—an engagement present from my parents—which went into storage almost immediately because, after six months looking for a job in southern California, R finally got one, in southern Germany. He went on ahead, and I moved back in with my parents to prepare for the wedding and give my fiancé a chance to find an apartment half a world away. I’d adapted to R’s low sodium, alcoh0l-free diet, but it was a relief to be back in a kitchen where salt and red wine were welcome, even if onions and garlic were not.
Phone service was three dollars a minute, so we began to write letters again. This time, it was R, alone in a strange place, who wrote nearly every day, a blend of reports on work, wedding details, food critiques, and plans for our future.
January 19, 1992
Hi Honey, It’s Sunday morning and all seven of the church bells have been going off like mad. I’m going to go swimming at the Uhlandsbad (swimming pool) in a few minutes. I find the best time to go is when everyone is in church….I haven’t been able to find yams here at all. I’m still in pursuit of the European yam, so don’t cry victory yet…I miss you and love you. love, R
February 2, 1992
Hi Honey. I hope you appreciate my frugality in using up all these old Kinko’s resumes [to write letters on]. I love you…I bought a car. It’s not too fancy but it’s a car and it and I will be at the Frankfurt airport to pick you up. love, R
February 11, 1992
For gifts—money is a good idea as is cookware….One thing I could use is vitamins, and anti-fungal foot cream….(I luv your breasts) Cake sounds great. No DJ. Our Baldwin Grand doesn’t go outside. love, R
My mother sewed a Chinese silk and organza wedding gown by hand. She had bought special needles and special thread and special pins, and the boning had arrived from New York City after a lengthy discussion about synthetic boning and steel boning and real boning—they still make it, of actual bone—over the phone with a man in the Garment District who my mother could barely understand through an accent she claimed was Hungarian and my father claimed was fake Hungarian.
“People fake accents like that all the time,” said my father with great authority. “If you sound exotic on Madison Avenue, you can get away with anything.”
How did he know this, I wondered? I didn’t wonder at the time what other kinds of things people might fake.
February 14, 1992
Happy Valentine’s Day…I bought you some beautiful flowers. There’s one catch…They’re growing in our apartment….I do like the Germans….I can’t wait to see you. I have our dinner planned….About your lamps, I really don’t think you should send them….Lots of stress at work and I’m dying to melt into you. love, R
Why hadn’t he melted into me in California? Was it easier to melt in Germany? Or was it easier to wish to melt, on the back of a Kinko’s resume?
Armed with the fax numbers of tuxedo rental companies, and wearing a lacy demi-cup bra, I flew across the Atlantic. The bra was not built for a transoceanic flight, and before we reached cruising altitude, was buckling under the weight of its responsibility. From Nova Scotia to Frankfurt, I adjusted my mutinous breasts and imagined a reunion that would make it all worthwhile.
The plane landed and I was flushed through customs by signs bearing long, incomprehensible words. Finally, there he was, sandy hair in need of cutting, outdated wire-rimmed glasses over high cheekbones, a three-day stubble. is arms around me felt like a brother’s, his lips brushed mine, and he turned to locate the exit.
Several hours later, we were rolling along narrow roads through the verdant farmland toward the ancient university town of Tübingen. It was mid-spring, and the newly tilled fields spread on either side of us, empty and brown. I was struck by how three-dimensional they were. How each furrow rose almost a whole foot, how an entire field resembled a miniature ocean of brown rollers, how the soil clumped in clods sometimes as big as my head. I had been looking at fields all my life through airplane windows. This intimate view bore no similarity to the neat, flat geometric patterns of variegated circles and half-circles I’d seen from thirty thousand feet.
I had been looking at relationships the same way. How much cleaner they were on the page, how much simpler in two dimensions! How much brute labor they required. I had been asking myself if, with R, there was more good than bad, as if this ratio would indicate whether I should stay. At least with farming, you know pretty quickly if your potatoes fail, you know each season what your crop is worth. It’s much harder to tell, in love, if you are in the black.
R showed me up the stairs of our tiny flat, and told me to take a nap while he returned to the office. I lay, open-eyed, on the single bed he had not yet bothered to push toward his own to make a whole, under the pine-plank A-frame ceiling in the bright white light of yet a third continent, and wondered what was wrong with me.
I awoke in late afternoon, adjusted my bra, and in the dimming light, explored the flat. In the tiny kitchen, brown bottles like half liter soldiers stood in line against the wall, waiting for recycle. So apparently, R did drink, after all. In the cupboards stood boxes of a macaroni-and-cheese-like spaghetti product. Apparently, R did eat sodium. I wondered if, like the salt-free meals without alcohol, I had been part of an attempted rehabilitation. Maybe I had not been the only one to cross both the international dateline and the equator in search of a better self, and failed.To be continued next Sunday. Click here for Little Cheaters on God, Part 2