Tab and Sam, the friends of my dream wife call us. The Bewitched references get old, but we deal with it. Sam can wiggle her nose; I can’t.
I don’t imagine being with any man but my husband Matt. I can’t conjure another candidate in my head; Mystery Husband is only a phantom pair of jean legs or a shadow across the table. Samantha, however, I can almost touch.
She was born the night I made garbage ziti. Everything I found in the fridge—leftover chicken sausage, half a bag of tortellini, zucchini chunks—lubed up with marinara and spread in a baking dish under a canopy of mozzarella. The dish took me about ten minutes to put together, most of which was spent digging through deli drawers for scraps.
“This is phenomenal,” Matt said through a mouthful, and he went back to fill his plate with seconds. Then thirds. “Genius,” he proclaimed. “The tortellinis make it.”
I chewed without comment, letting the moment tumble in my mind like a stone. My nasty habit, dwelling on something as innocuous as a compliment, letting it rise and kneading it to death. Jar sauce and leftovers. Genius? Where was this praise when I recreated Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon recipe, the one I had to buy hotel mini bar-sized bottles of Courvoisier for, spend all afternoon following two dozen fussy steps to complete? Most of that dish was eaten by the garbage disposal.
“There’s something lemony in it,” Matt had claimed. “Is there lemon?”
The cookbook was still on the counter; he put down his fork and stood to scrutinize the ingredient list. I stabbed the luscious beef, braised in a perfect Jacuzzi of salt and fat, letting the meat pad my molars as they grated in the back of my skull. “Do you think the mushrooms made it citrusy?” Matt hates citrus.
“There’s no citrus. You must be having a stroke.” He returned to the table, and brought his tepidly nibbled plate to the sink without comment.
“I want a wife around to appreciate when I make something good,” I told my friend Christian over the phone after I’d plastic-wrapped the scant remaining ziti. I wanted a permanent resident with the same attitude as my girlfriends, the ones who fawn over my blog posts and pictures, who would not choose chili burritos over cassoulet.
“Your alternate universe wife,” said Christian, opening up the game. The first question: where did you meet? “A bookstore, naturally,” he jumped in. In the moment I agreed. But the cliché has thorned at me since. Every English major wants to stumble upon her soul mate at Powell’s. It is the marine biology major’s aquarium, the communication major’s Today Show set. When I play Samantha’s and my theoretical life in my head now, I’m at a Williams-Sonoma post-holiday clearance during my sophomore year of college. I’m headed out of the dorms and into my first apartment by August, and I have been squirrelling away dishes and decorations to dress up my leap into adulthood. There is one Ruffoni copper pasta pot left, marked $65 from $497. The most beautiful pasta pot man has ever made in hand-hammered shimmering copper, topped with a molded flourish of silver acorns and pumpkins serving as the lid’s handle. This is where dried wheat dreams of bathing. I scarcely let out a breath, lest I betray my ecstatic find to the rest of the bargain-sniffers. I snag the empty box from beneath the sale table and charge to the line.
As I wait for the woman in front of me, haggling over the price of a clearance Cuisinart ice cream maker, I catch a metallic glimmer in my peripheral. A giraffe of a woman clutches my pasta pot to her chest, glee muzzled behind her cloud-colored eyes and thin, cautious lips. Her gaze snaps from the price-quibbler to me as I fix on her—my! pot.
“I’m afraid you have my pasta pot,” I tell her with an apologetic, cookies-crumble smile.
“No, I have a pasta pot,” she says. “You have a box.”
“Yes, because you don’t take the display up to purchase, you take the box. And I had the box first.”
“That box of yours kicks ass,” she says, arching her back to appear taller than she already is. At 5’8”, I don’t meet many women who dwarf me. “But the one with the pot leaves with the pot.”
“But the rules…”
“What, Williams and Sonoma’s Rules of Order? What rules?” My wool coat itches against my flushing skin, and the box slumps from my shoulders. Just as my heart is sinking to my ankles, she breaks into a full smile. “Tell you what,” she says. “We’ll coin-toss on it. Heads, we follow your unwritten shopper’s code and the pot goes in the box. Tails, I take my prize.” I nod. “But either way, someone is leaving here with a broken heart, so we’ve got to commiserate over a drink.”
“But would you really go out for a drink with a girl?” Christian interrupted the dream. “Samantha has needs, after all.”
Remember, this is theoretical universe circa 2005, I remind him. My second year of college is winding to a close, and I’ve spent all of life post-high school being bounced between men who couldn’t honestly be labeled bad boyfriends, as none would commit to the title. Terrible fuckbuddies, one after the other. I was furious not as much with men as I was myself. What was my defect? What was I doing wrong, over and over again? This is the parallel existence where I never messaged Matt back on Match.com for a date, the reality where I went shopping that Sunday instead. “I was so sick of bad dates with men by the time I met Matt, that was it,” I said. I wasn’t settling, I just knew right away, as ridiculous as it sounded, that he was the One. The second date, the night we slept together, I watched him sleep on the other side of my extra-long twin dorm bed and thought, I’m going to watch that face sleep for the rest of my life. I banked on the kind man, the smart man, the man who could love me back. Besides, it was time to cash out and grow up—I wasn’t getting any younger.
I was twenty.
I’ve never regretted being with Matt; only that I wasn’t with myself longer first.
Even though I was through with dating, I’d learned in my short adult life that I had no aversion to women; in fact, when compared to my memories of the awkward, sour kisses I shared with guys in the college dating cesspool, the ones I remember with girls were more pleasant in every way. No bong breath, no scratchy stubble, no violent tongue rape. Strawberry lip gloss, mint and Smirnoff, all softness and moisturizer.
Sam loves to cook, Christian and I decided. But she loves to cook in that fanatical hands-on kind of way, like she wants to learn how to butcher a wild boar and cure pancetta in the cellar. “So you share the same interests, but in a different way,” said Christian. “That’s good.”
She also reads, though she’s more of a fiction lover. She makes fun of me writing “misery lit” memoir (“what are you writing, A Girl Called Shit?”), and takes delight in riling me with her Kindle. “Sure would be nice to have some room in the office if you’d clean out your archaic artifact shelf,” she teases, and I remind her that Nick Flynn will never sign her Kindle, and when the apocalypse hits and her battery dies I’ll be the one cackling in her face. I read her third drafts of my pieces—out loud, in designated “safe space” with the fireplace going and the cats piled together, and she makes compliment sandwiches and after she’s given all of the feedback she can she runs me a bath to let the conversation “marinate.” She coordinates the Powell’s calendar with our date nights and makes dinner reservations around our favorite events. With Sam, I don’t wonder if I’ll have to go places alone. She’s there, and I don’t even have to ask. In alternate Sam universe, I actually got to see Fiona Apple play at the Roseland. I didn’t have to sell my tickets on Craigslist when real-life Matt put his foot down.
“I’m not going to spend all night in shitty downtown Portland listening to garbage with a bunch of angry chicks,” he said. Despite the fact that Fiona had set down the soundtrack to my adolescence, that I listened to “Paper Bag” so many times I’ll be humming it from the grave, and even though Apple tours about as often as Harper Lee decided to pen a follow-up, his aversion won. I was too scared of sketchy Old Town to brave the concert alone. I met my ticket buyer at the Lloyd Center Nordstrom’s, and when the envelope passed into her hands she looked at me as though I had slipped her the reins to her dream pony.
“My girlfriend is going to be so excited,” she said, hugging the paper to her chest. “She loves Fiona Apple.” I wondered what it must be like, loving the same threads of life together.
This is the scab I don’t stop picking, the fissure between us that trips the life I otherwise adore. A small world is enough for Matt: house, Netflix, garbage ziti. I am greedy; I lust after the city, the memories, the experience of being somewhere in a there. I go to readings, shows, new bars alone. He doesn’t chase after. “See you when you get home,” he says. I come back to the missing half and feel that I’ve left some untraceable part of myself behind, the absence between us unable to balance. I’m getting older and the drive to adventure has waned. I feel like I’ve sanctioned a part of my core to die.
And it is such a petty, awful thing to hold against someone whose crime is holding “you’re the only one that I need” as a truth. In a life with a man who cheers me on my best days and reaches out on my worst while I snap and recoil, begrudging you don’t like to do stuff with me sounds and feels and is appalling.
Then there are the times I end up drinking happy hour wine at Bluehour before a friend’s book signing, and the room is in pairs and I cling to my bar stool like a raft in the ocean, feeling strange and misplaced up until that night in the Pearl Room at Powell’s, when acquaintances laugh at the ghost whom I pretend sends his regrets. “Are you sure you’re married? The only place we’ve seen him is in essays.” That is when my heart tenses. That is when my mind wanders away.
What Sam does for a living is unobtrusive to our lives, maybe computer systems analyst or architect. Something utilizing her logic and precision. She works diligently but not excessively; she’s always home on the weekends for our adventures. Every once and a while she’ll have a late night and she’ll send me a text message: I need a drink. Doug Fir @ 8:30. Wear that skirt, the one that’s indecent. Even after six years together she reaches toward me and gives me a start; bursts into my daily routine to liven it up, to remind me you’re everything, you’re mine, I love you. We both reach and meet, not always in the middle but even in the long scheme of things.
Sam’s parents live down in Corvallis, where they both teach at Oregon State University. As specialists in Women’s Studies (Dad) and Education for Social Justice (Mom), they were quicker to embrace our relationship. I had to deal with conversations with my mom who wailed, “I thought you liked men! You had a Johnny Depp poster in your room!”
When Sam and I arrived at her childhood home, her mom handed me a silver Mezuzah with silver etchings. “Never be afraid to embrace what speaks to your heart,” she said.
Her dad is a riot; one of those men you’d hate to have as your own father. “We could never get Sam into a girl’s bathing suit,” he would say over a glass of wine to the entire room, convinced he was doting. “She insisted on wearing boy’s trunks because, as she put it, a onesie felt ‘too sticky.’ And who are we to force her into some predetermined gender role? But then when she turned thirteen, and her chest started to pucker—“
“DAD!” I squeeze her hand; give her a nudge with my knee.
At our own home, a two-story loft with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook some combination of city and waterway, there is no TV and no dead air. Conversations are continually rolling down the hallway and up the stairs, lulling for reading or working or sleep. Compliments bubble up and are given without hesitation—we know the other’s heart; that we love to feel cherished.
“I can’t believe how right you were about the living room swatches,” I tell her, admiring our loft’s remodel. “You’re like the Pantone whisperer.”
“That jacket is cut so well on you,” she says.
“Did you do something different with your hair this morning? It’s so kicky and cute.”
“You were right about the shoes,” she admits. “They pull everything together.”
Sam adores my style. Before we go out she’ll stop me in the hallway, turn on the light and request a twirl. She always looks sharp and put-together, like a Banana Republic mannequin. She runs—running is a part of her being—and she gets irritated when I won’t join in. “You know I can’t run,” I tell her.
“Anyone can run,” she insists.
“Easy to say when you’re a B-cup.” She’ll sometimes leave in a huff, but after a few miles the steam has evaporated.
With Sam, each new week is a chance to learn, to meet new friends. We email each other links to the Portland Fermentation Festival, Aimee Mann at the Baghdad, Bicycle Basket Parade Day, the Moulin Rouge! Spectacular Spectacular Sing-Along. Each of us is up for anything, unless we’ve contracted the flu or are under a deadline. Life is never a rut or a slog. It’s a sloppy burst pomegranate, and we’re lapping up the seeds.
Sam knows Naomi Pomeroy. They went to Lewis and Clark together.
“I think I’m going to marry Sam,” Christian decides. “Where the hell do we find her?”
I don’t know if the universe makes pieces that fit so well together. I like to think she’s sitting at Extracto Roasters on Northeast Killingsworth with her elbows propped on a yoga mat roll, drinking free trade black coffee while girls with Cheshire cat tattoos at the next table over discuss the urban chicken cooping workshop they recently attended. Perhaps she knows the complication of a relationship gnawing on itself, has discovered that love cannot keep us intact, that it sands like a glacier. She’s daydreaming about the quiet possibilities of the country, and of the airy soufflés her dream wife would make. Tabitha, she thinks, and she grins in spite of herself. Just like that shitty old show.
Photo by Dean Pasch