Seduced By Words

My friend Rachel met Philip Roth when she was a university student.

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The book that started the seduction.

I was wildly envious.  He was my literary idol, inspiring a poem I titled, “Philip Roth Will Save My Life.”

She told me I shouldn’t be.

She said he was coarse, almost mean.  Not at all who she imagined him to be.  She had been seduced by his words.

Me too.  As well as Erica Jong’s, Charles Bukowski’s Anais Nin’s and a long list of other’s.

Most recently, I’ve been seduced by the words of strangers – men looking for love, or something like it, on OKCupid.

Clever words couched in a seemingly shared commonality, ending abruptly when moved from screen to voice.

I should not be entirely surprised.

I’d learned about the chasm between the written word and reality, online and real-time, this past fall when a friend, a man 12 years my junior, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what he would like to do to me.  Exactly.  And while he made good on his promises a few days later, the flirty simpatico we shared on screen was lost in real life.  All hands.  No heart.

I was reminded of this truth once again on Friday – my first, OKCupid coffee date.

We made plans a few weeks out due to Passover and my schedule.  During that time we exchanged several messages, but we never spoke on the phone.

I told him how to make fried matzoh, and made him promise to cover it with real maple syrup.  He told me about a cartoon character his kids like who carries a flask of the stuff.

While I wasn’t convinced this was a romantic connection, he seemed like someone I would want to know.

In person our conversation was clunky, awkward – made worse by bad acoustics and me having to lean in and ask “what?” constantly.

We didn’t talk about his children’s adoption.  Or mine.  Or even about maple syrup, cartoons or writing – which we both do.  We talked about our divorces (Hmm…) and our experiences on OKCupid.  (Mine being rather limited.)

I didn’t go into the date with expectations greater than a cup of Intelligentsia, decaf –as it was after 3.  And yet, I felt sad.

I suppose there is always some level of hope – What if? Perhaps?  Otherwise we would never meet strangers over coffee in the first place.

I miss my ex-husband.

He was solid.  I could trust him.  He showed up.  Period.  Even if it wasn’t always in the way I might hope.

I am also clear about what didn’t work.  Why we divorced.

Two years after separating, I feel like I am finally grieving.

I miss Mr. 700 Miles — my most recent romance — too.  Even though, I couldn’t trust him.  He wasn’t solid.  He couldn’t show up.  I miss the connection that cut straight through the internet, through phone calls, texts and video chats.  The feeling that I could talk to him all night and into tomorrow and we’d never run out of things to say, or ways to delight one another.

I am grieving him too.  Or perhaps the idea of him.  The idea of us.

I get into my car and head north toward Wicker Park, where I will meet my friends in a church basement.  Later we will have dinner at the Birchwood, where I will eat a green salad with warm lentils, squash and bacon and drink hot water with lemon.  I couldn’t be happier.

My mind wanders, thinking about the rest of the weekend.

Dinner with my girlfriends on Saturday night.

A Sunday morning dance class and performance.  And later in the afternoon a salon hosted by my friend Megan – my Artist Date of the week –where her friend Peggy will read from her just-published collection of essays.  In between, I will work on editing my friend Martha’s new novel.

I feel excited about my days.  About my life.  And grateful for it.  Grateful for its juicy-ness, with or without a partner.

I am not certain this is true for all people – looking for love or otherwise.  I feel lucky.

And a little wiser now too.

I know what I read, on the page or on the screen is only part of the story.  I need to listen, to hear it too.

What is being said.  And not said.

The sound of gentleness.  Laughter.  Banter.  Ease.

And my heart – beating just a little more quickly.

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Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.