I am living alone for the first time in six years, in a new city far from everyone I love. After four years of marriage and seven years of togetherness, my marriage is temporarily a long distance one. This isn’t ideal for any married couple, and, I like to think, especially hard for two people who are still very much in love. Balanced against this upheaval is the thrill of a new job: a tenure-track gig teaching what I love on a bustling campus in a homey town, where everyone seems to be rallying around me, wishing me luck and willing me to succeed. I am adjusting to overwhelmingly full workweeks and quiet, lonely Sunday mornings.
But what this experience has really brought into stark relief is the realization that there are limits I can no longer push my disabled body to overcome. Living on my own is exposing the parameters of my independence.
I am married to a man who, when we’re together, no matter the season, or the hours he’s pulling at work, buys the food, cooks the food, and then picks up the mess the food left behind. He treats cooking like an art form, and takes sincere, quiet pleasure in putting food on your plate. I miss the homemade meals and I miss the convenience of this arrangement. The convenience it afforded me, that is.
On one of our first dates, this man who would become my husband stood behind me as I prepared spaghetti alla carbonara, a dish that’s fairly simple to make but has an impressive finale: if you’ve cooked the spaghetti just right, the eggs will sizzle and cook after you pour them on top of the still-hot pasta.
He couldn’t stand idly behind me. He pushed me to the side, slyly wrapping his hand around the handle of the pan I’d just dumped the pasta in to, and took over.
I’m not the kind of person who likes to be pushed aside. But something about this man made me trust his choice in this moment in time. It’s one of the few times he’s unequivocally decided that his way is the way to go.
Overall, my husband cares more about being happy than being right. He’s chosen a few areas in which I am not going to have my way, patiently explaining why it’s better if we do it his way. He is persuasive and even-keeled in these debates. And food is his thing, and that just makes more sense.
Turns out he makes a delicious carbonara. It became our special occasion dish after he recreated it for our first Valentine’s Day. There is no occasion that Tom’s carbonara can’t improve.
When we moved in together, the grocery shopping was something that Tom just did. He went from making me a plate of whatever he was cooking for himself, to making me whatever I wanted. When I was trying to lose weight, he chopped up red peppers, sliced tofu, and carefully dressed the colorful salads he concocted in the perfect amount of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Over the years, he’s cooked at least five holiday meals on his own. One of my favorite meals was the red sauce pasta he made for me and my friend Anita. He cooked for us in the middle of the afternoon. We were hungry after an afternoon spent . . . drinking glasses of wine at a local bistro. We celebrated the smell of simmering red sauce by doing not-very-synchronized moves to Rhythm Nation, which I was blasting on my iphone. He’s a very patient man.
Tom is popular with my friends and my family. It’s always made me chuckle when my students, after meeting him just once or twice, end our office hour conversations by asking me to “Say hi to Tom.” He’s very easy to like. He’s very easy to love.
We’ve spun this food arrangement into something mildly funny, extreme gender role reversal–how cute! I don’t know if we’d raise eyebrows if it were the wife doing all of this, like so many wives do. Would as many people tell me I’m really lucky to have someone that cooks if I were a man? Who knows.
But I’m not just a slacker wife who’s delegated more than half of my household chores. I’m a sick person who needs help.
This has never been more clear than over the course of the last few weeks, which find me living, for the year, in a rented home bigger than anywhere I’ve ever lived before. There are hardwood floors and a finished deck and two (two!) bathrooms, both with their own shower.
The people that know the couple I’m renting from keep on telling me about the great kitchen I now have. And it’s true—there’s ample countertop space, ideal for moving from chopping to rinsing and cooking. The fridge is enormous, sleek and two-doored, so sophisticated that it beeps when you leave it open. There’s a five-shelf spice rack across from the stove and an entire bookshelf of cooking books, including the Thomas Keller trilogy.
It’s barely used. I’ll never be as good as Tom, and I don’t have any real desire to learn how to cook.
I do have to eat, though, and it’s cheaper to buy food at the grocery store then to constantly get takeout. So I’ve been making my own salads and even prepared some eggs yesterday morning.
It’s been very hard to take on the things Tom did for me. And I finally understand why Tom took over as much as he did, without announcing that he was doing it.
At the grocery store, I can only put the items I’ve pulled off the shelf into the cart’s main basket; nothing can go below because I am too weak to lug packs of soda or water bottles on to the bottom rack, and then up again, balancing a heavy pack so that the cashier can scan it. I arrive at the grocery store with a list and a plan because the reaching and depositing and lifting are exhausting and the entire exercise needs a time limit or I’ll be too tired to put the food away when I get home.
And then there’s cooking. I can walk for a reasonable amount of time, but I cannot stand in place for more than a few minutes, and I will pay for the few minutes I do spend standing in place. Chopping and mixing and braising and watching the pot boil are all activities that make my knees swell.
It hurts to stand and it hurts to shop and it hurts to prepare the food. Tom knew this. Taking over was an act of kindness.
I still chuckle bashfully when people scold me about never having learned how to cook, this most essential of adult skills. I pretend like it’s finally that time in my life when I’m going to learn.
I’m not. There’s only one cook in the family.
When I made my eggs the other morning, I closed my eyes and imagined they were sizzling over pasta cooked perfectly al dente. I could almost smell pancetta grease in a nearby pan, quivering in a layer of garlic and olive oil. I wanted a familiar hand on my waist, gently shoving me out of the way.
“Go sit down,” he would tell me, “I got it.”