I’ve been involved in a love triangle for almost twenty years. My two loves have never met, but the time is coming. My first love is the man with whom I’ve shared my public and private life; the other is my writing, a more private love. One would think they would be easy to introduce, but I have not found it so. I’ve never let my husband read anything I’ve written. Friends marvel at this, sure it has an ominous meaning for my marriage. I’ve been working on a novel for years, and yet, I have never shown him so much as a chapter. The pieces I have had published, he’s had to buy on the newsstand to read. People looking for the inside scoop on my novel will ask him what its about. “I have no idea,” he’ll respond. They’ll backpedal, embarrassed. What kind of marriage could sustain such withholding? A friend told me this was like a chef refusing to cook for their lover. I like this analogy.
The first thing I learned to bake was chocolate chip cookies. I had no greater culinary aspirations. It was the only thing I made consistently. I baked the cookies in my parents’ kitchen and served them to high school boyfriends. I baked them in tiny dorm kitchens in for my college buddies, for my roommates after college in our first apartment. I added a secret ingredient not called for on the back of the yellow bag. That is what passed for individuality in my youth.
My husband and I have far different artistic tastes. He rejects the soulful vocal and piano heavy ballads that fill my iPod as “English major music” while the classic punk and techno on his seem to me like they should be categorized with water boarding and tax audits. It is rare we’ll enjoy the same book. He prefers things with supercomputers and hyperdrives and I can’t resist anything with a corset or carriage. Neal Stephenson and Jane Austen sit glumly together on our bookshelf. He prefers his art in the form of glass and brick and steel, or captured through the lens of a camera rather than forged from words and stanzas and chapters. But we accept this. On road trips, I read him poems while he drives and he dutifully listens. Likewise, I am accustomed to waiting when he suddenly pulls of the road, grabs his camera and runs down the shoulder to photograph a particular tree, a ragged cloud, a neon sign.
In our first apartment, before we were married, a tiny studio, I attempted my first complicated recipe. The kitchen only had a two-burner stove. I wanted to make potato-leek soup, which I thought was classy and mature. This would make up for the fact that I was a waitress in a terrible restaurant and he was on a landscape crew. Eager to display my domestic talents, I purchased the ingredients and went to work. So confident was I about the delicious outcome, I doubled, or perhaps tripled the recipe. What I lacked in expertise, I made up for in volume.
With the meager culinary knowledge I have gained in the ensuing twenty years, I know that what I bought as the main ingredient was not a leek. It was probably some kind of turnip, or based on the taste, perhaps a flower bulb. But it was the sheer volume of the disaster that posed a problem. We had no garbage disposal and our tiny trash can was the same size as the vat of pasty goo I’d made. In the end, we opened the window in the tiny kitchen/living room and poured it out into the alley. The evening ended the way most did when we were twenty: with him removing my clothes, dinner forgotten. It was hours before we rose and left the apartment in search of fast food. What we lacked in finesse, we made up for in volume.
We will never be one of those couples who goes into business together. It always sounds so romantic, the couple who runs an inn or founds an Internet startup, partners with hands entwined over the conference table or ordering supplies for a restaurant, but that will never be us. We’ve always had our own spheres that never collide. When I was in law school, my writing life back-up plan, I had plenty of classmates with whom to discuss the difficulty of the Constitutional law. I have always had a writing group with whom to workshop stories and a book club with whom to explore books. My husband has never been the jealous type. When I was studying for the bar exam, he dropped by some notes at 2 a.m and didn’t even bat an eye when another man answered my hotel room door. When I got home the next day, he had a cake (from a bakery) waiting for me when I got home. It was much better than anything I could have baked.
My husband began his career at a small software company, learning the ins and outs. When people asked me what he did, I had no idea. “It’s complicated,” I’d say. His career has steadily progressed, a business degree acquired, as he’s been through large companies and small, always technical, always full of acronyms I don’t understand. When people ask me what he does today, I say, “It’s very complicated.
By the time we were married, I knew enough about myself to know that culinary skills were not my thing. But still, life dictates some effort in this area. I tried to stick with the basics, doing them well rather than attempting something from Gourmet. Once, I attempted a macaroni and cheese recipe from one of the women’s magazines I was pitching articles to. It had enough calories to sustain a cross-country team for a week. The ingredients cost more than dinner for two at a fine restaurant. Three kinds of expensive cheeses, sharp aged cheddar, creamy Gruyere, imported asiago. For extra creaminess, it called for evaporated milk. Again, in retrospect, I realize my mistake. Condensed milk is not the same as evaporated milk. That night we went out for burritos, where the guy behind the counter greeted us with familiarity.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I read that food cravings are directly tied to nutritional needs of the growing fetus. Apparently, my daughter’s prenatal development was in critical need of marshmallows, butter and Rice Krispies. I was juggling a law career, a toddler, a husband, a pregnancy. The daycare penalty for lateness was a gold ingot per minute. I’d pick up my toddler, rush home to make dinner, put my son in bed, kiss my husband and head back to the office to bill a few more hours. When I’d return, around midnight, I’d collapse on the couch, wondering when I was ever going to write my novel. The only thing that would ease my suffering was Rice Krispy treats, and I’d invariably screw them up. I never consulted the recipe, because really, how could you go wrong with only three ingredients? But you can. Too many marshmallows and you get a gloppy mess, too much butter and they burn, too much cereal and it falls apart. I would weep at the stove with my giant belly until my husband would take over. His careful measuring resulted in a perfect result every time. I gained fifty pounds during that pregnancy.
My latest culinary disaster is the only one that was potentially life-threatening. I was away at a writer’s residency for a week, editing my novel, while my husband managed the home front. When I returned, eager to serve a family meal after my absence, I made an old favorite: split breasts of chicken baked on a bed of stuffing. When I removed the pan from the oven and placed it on the stove, I decided to add a little (cold) chicken broth. When I poured the broth over the stuffing, the glass pan exploded. Shards of hot glass shot outwards, a piece grazing my neck. My daughter ran in the kitchen, stepping on the glass and slicing her toe. My son followed, curious and hungry, bursting into tears when I told him we wouldn’t be eating it after all. He was starving, the free-range chicken perfectly cooked, the stuffing fragrant with sage and glittering with broken glass. My husband and I swept up the ruins of the meal and we all headed to the car for another dinner out.
I’m almost done now with the novel and have grudgingly shared the title with my husband. If and when it’s ever published, I’m sure he’ll read it and tell me it’s brilliant, but we’ll both know it’s not his thing. I don’t care if he gets past the dedication page, which will be short and feature his name. But when he cracks the spine, I’m going to the kitchen to bake for him. I’m going to make chocolate chip cookies, with my secret ingredient. It’s cinnamon. I’ll put the plate in front of him and put the book in his hands, my two loves together at last. “Taste,” I’ll say.