Melanie Hoffert

The Culinary Lessons of a Person Without Needs

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ear the collapse of my relationship, I was unreasonably jealous of broccoli. Not just broccoli, but also leeks, olives, toasted walnuts, green onions, asparagus, Parmesan-Reggiano, wild-caught salmon, and hand-crafted noodles. And I fretted around fruit; gorgeous blueberries and mangos; apricots and tangerines; kiwis and limes; fruit that would rival a Sherwin-Williams collection in all of its varieties and pigmentations. One does not know how threatening the splendor of a sliced pear can be—the pocks on its skin, the holy white of its meat—until the pear becomes a substitute for touch.

   I met my love as I stepped into adulthood. She was fourteen years my senior and married. She had hired me to be a technical writer. In our first meetings we had talked about creating software training manuals, all the while I wondered how I’d survive a lifetime of soul-dimming work. I wanted to write words that held meaning, not instruction.
   One day while we met at her desk, I noticed a delicate watercolor of flowers spilling from a glass Coke bottle. “That’s beautiful,” I said after we had finished with our agenda.
   “Thanks,” she responded.
   “Who painted it?”
   “Me,” she said, almost embarrassed.
   From there, our conversations drifted into books, music, and art; soon after we entered into a love affair of almost two decades.

   She was an artist and her art extended to daily living. She taught me about the criticality of a high-thread count, the wonder of thick lotion, and explained why a properly sharpened knife will improve one’s life. When we were together she’d instruct me to brush my hands over surfaces: sea glass and linens and granite and moss. She’d draw my eye to the almost transparent bark of birch trees, and ask me to breathe in the pureness of bell-shaped lilies of the valley. She explained how gardens worked and had me reach into raw soil. Before we’d go inside she’d walk the yard’s edge and collect twigs of wild bittersweet, still dangling with pieces of earth, and thrust it into my hands.
   As a writer it was my nature to observe, but through her I began to see the the world as a visual artist might, mapped and layered and framed by light. I learned to savor.
   For her, cooking was an art second only to painting. And over the years she taught me how to properly heat oil before adding garlic; how to stir risotto patiently without stopping; how to delicately stuff Asian dumplings with minced shrimp and then seal the edges with dampened fingers; how to remove popovers from the oven not a second too early; how to whip oil and vinegar into a coruscating glaze; how to grill halibut on cedar planks until flaky. I learned about cream and butter and sea salt and how a cookie should be both crispy and chewy. I learned to be mindful of color in food preparation, to never serve a mono-colored plate.
   She also taught me how to deconstruct a recipe. “Close your eyes: What do you taste?” she’d probe. Then she’d push me deeper, to search through each layer of flavor until I’d erupt with, “Lemon! Cardamom! A pinch of red pepper!” She could recreate an entrée she’d had at a restaurant like someone who can play piano by ear.
   I knew how to cook before we met, but my understanding of food was limited to growing up on a North Dakota farm where I often had to prepare “dinner” at noon for my dad when my mom ran into town. I made hamburger hotdish with egg noodles and stewed tomatoes. I mixed SPAM-, egg-, and tuna-salad sandwiches, all of which were bound with Miracle Whip and chopped pickles. I could also heat hot dogs, TV dinners, and slap together a baloney sandwich with iceberg lettuce. There were only a couple of summers where my parents kept up a garden, and so cans of watery corn, peas, or green beans served as side dishes. In eleventh grade I won a prize for my chili at our town’s Crop Show. Chili became my signature dish (my secret ingredient a McCormick seasoning packet).
   When she came into my life and taught me about food, I could no longer eat the local fare when I returned home.

   Her hair was straight brown and, though they carried a certain sadness, her eyes seemed to shimmer like copper. Her essence matched her physical beauty in its darkness. Not the darkness of evil, but that of mystery and privacy and everything forbidden. And so when she confided in me, Virginia Woolf might as well have come back from the grave to make me her confidant. The words my boss entrusted me with became like sacred stones. And I collected her.
   When we were getting to know each other, she had told me that her seven year-marriage was ending. After a few months of working together, I nervously told her that I was gay—something I still felt the need to confess at that early point in my life. I also shared that I was in my first serious relationship with another woman, but nothing felt like I had imagined it would. I wasn’t in love.
   And so we set out to get to the bottom of it all—the nature of relationships.
   At day’s end, before she had to pick up her daughter, she’d come to my cubicle wearing a long, caramel-colored wool jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. I felt silly, young, in the flowerily dresses that I had purchased for my first professional job. This was the late nineties, and I would have much preferred to be in a flannel shirt and jeans. But she seemed unmoved by my lack of sophistication and was instead hungry for my insight.
   When we talked, we'd carve words into legal pads as we questioned the meaning of connection, of commitment, of marriage and the folly of trying to define it all. I now see that we were making prescient maps of where we were headed. We were falling in love.

   Spring came that year with lilacs, with rain, with the rebirth of the natural world. She began her divorce. I ended my relationship. Each of us stepped into our own maze of grief. Hers laden with fear for the well-being of her child. Mine filled with the naivety of youth, convincing me that I couldn’t survive a break-up.
   We continued our conversations, though we were now charting maps with our bodies. As our grief lifted we became lovers, though I wouldn’t have used this word then. The word was insufficient, grounded in the body. Sex, yes. Love, yes. But we also took on the persistent ache of vulnerability that one agrees to carry in return for transcendence with another person.
   “Who are we to one another?” I’d ask. “Why does naming us matter?” she’d respond.

   When I’d arrive at her house in those first few years, the kitchen would usually be sticky with the dew of boiling water or fragrant with garlic. And the arrangement on her butcher block table was always a sight to behold. Into thimble-sized bowls, from which a humming bird might sip, she would have measured the ingredients for our evening meal: paprika, cayenne, spindles of saffron, ginger, orange zest. As she started to dismantle her vibrant spreads, tossing the spices into pots and pans, I thought about the elaborate sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks who, when they were done, destroyed their masterpieces.
   Perhaps expressions of the purest beauty are not meant to last.
   Cooking, first her thing, became ours. Each evening we had together, we’d embark upon a journey to assemble some sort of culinary indulgence. Neither of our kitchens were large, nor did we have thousands of dollars of high-end equipment, but her presence and mastery made it seem as if we were at an exclusive cooking retreat. We’d sip from glasses of wine that would travel the house as we moved about. In the summer we’d sauté’ fresh produce with the windows open, our redolent meals mingling with mowed grass and smoke from grilled steaks. In the winter, as snow fell, we’d dice potatoes and carrots for stew, following a recipe from her mother’s worn Betty Crocker Cookbook. The thick aroma would beckon memories from earlier times.

   As the years passed, I moved on to other jobs. She stayed at the software company and then started a painting business. I bought a house. She kept the one from her marriage. We were apart for a time and then came back together. As we progressed, our early meditation on relationships never lost its relevance. Using language to name us as a couple always felt klutzy and unfitting. She didn’t think of herself as lesbian, nor did I ever refer to her as such. I didn’t like labels and so this seemed like an incidental detail. It concerned some of my friends though. And sometimes, shamefully, I would watch whether she breathed a little more quickly around men.
   Our arrangement seemed to defy convention, too, because we maintained separate homes during all of the years that we were together. She wanted her daughter to finish school before making any changes; both of us preferred our own house and were unwilling to move into the other’s. Over time this became an increasingly sore spot for me. To be together, we had to fight traffic to get to opposite ends of town. Each weekend began with painstaking negotiations about how we should split our time.
   Our lack of convention did not, however, preclude us from accruing the headlines often shared by two people who navigate life together: Parent Death, Job Loss, Financial Strain, Failed Ventures.
   The Loss of Intimacy.

   A friend of mine told me recently, after her husband passed away, that they hadn’t had sex in fourteen years. They had everything else, a stunning costal home, meaningful jobs, great kids, their friends. When she told me this, I wondered how many people endure the loss of intimacy—whether in the body, word, or gesture—for years on end. And how many different ways we try to fill or escape this loneliness.
   In the readers’ comments under the article "When Sex Leaves the Marriage" in the New York Times, people seem to be pleading for help. Their exchanges read like a pop-up support group. I identify with their desperation: communication has stopped and they can’t penetrate the layers of rejection that have settled; they are alarmed about trying to traverse a lifetime of commitment without intimacy; they wonder if and how to leave. The author cited a study from the General Social Survey, which has tracked related survey data since 1972, and indicated that on average, married couples have sex about once a week. In some of the readers’ accounts, they hadn’t had sex in months and years.
   When she and I settled into a relationship, touch pervaded our shared time—like air. I never thought about our touch as sex, not like I had previously experienced it anyway. In the early years our bodies would meld together in a world of white. That’s what I remember—white, her touch, spring rain, that transcendence. You couldn’t have convinced me that our physical connection would wane; nor that I would spend nights, hundreds of nights, curled on my left side, turned away from her sleeping form, while I stared into darkness and obsessed about the chill on my back—the assault of space. That bedding may forever hold the salt of my tears.
   I tried many approaches to deal with my own feelings of abandonment. I braved inevitable rejection and initiated contact. I languished in hurt like the best of martyrs. I ignored my longings and focused instead on writing and other activities that generated wonderment. I convinced myself that my worries were trite, given that the world is a mess. And I thought about the history of relationships. Isn’t intimacy a relatively modern convention? My great-grandparents had separate bedrooms for their entire marriage.
   I imagined leaving, but I couldn’t fathom our ending.
   “It’s not about you,” she’d say when I pressed her about the lack warmth or what her thoughts were about why our love making had stopped. And I had believed her. I believed that it wasn’t about me, because the natural world reminded me daily of our connection.
   And I had learned that I couldn’t reach her during sullen periods where she consumed herself with pain-induced soul searching. She was an artist, after all. But even if it wasn’t about me, it didn’t stop a crippling insecurity from becoming my stalker.
   Sometimes I’d relax into the idea that relationships go through cycles; that our distance was temporary. But just when I got to a state of peace, someone would mention that they were concerned about their relationship because they hadn’t had sex in an ungodly amount of time—a month. I would come unhinged. Validation! I’d once again convey to her my concerns. In return she’d tell me that life with her would never be easy—it wasn’t her nature—and that I needed to focus on myself. She couldn’t make empty promises, which only served to make her more untouchable and necessary. Our talks left me doubled-over.
   Sex is, of course, just one of countless modes of connection and validation between two people. And I wonder if I would have been as pained by our physicality if I had been able to understand the root of our difficulties. In other words, as I look back, I wonder if the physical became my focus because it was tangible—something easily named. Because as a whole, it wasn’t the lack of touch that was the killer, it was the coldness that stiffened our affection.
   After some time, she no longer wanted to talk about it. There, again: the assault of space.
   I tried to heal my chronic longing. I indulged in countless spiritual paths and read numerous books to become A Person Without Needs. In telling this to a friend, I recall her saying, “Yes, that’s all fine and good, but relationships are like ecosystems. While we don’t have to be co-dependent, we do actually need each other. Right? I mean, trees need water.” This, like many other interruptions of my quest to be needless, stoked my dejection. Even though I tried to conceal my sadness—to not bother her with my wants—it permeated through my pours.
   How exhausted my love must have been to have become someone else’s lifeblood.

   What didn’t wane between us was time in the kitchen. And as the years passed, the hours we dedicated to evening meal preparation increased. Cooking became the most concrete way that we experienced the sultry and the sensual. Together we’d shape products of the earth into delicious forms wouldn’t have existed without our energy.
   But in the later years I didn’t want to cook. I wanted to sit, to talk, to hold hands, to return to the days where we’d fall into one another; the days when we were in perfect balance. And so my heart would sink if I found her emptying grocery bags. I began to begrudge glossy recipe books and prolonged preparation. I wanted to tell the Barefoot Contessa, Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver, and Martha Stewart to take a hike. I’d glare at fresh produce, as if the inanimate hump was capable of ill intent toward me.
   “Can we just order a pizza?” I’d suggest. Sometimes we did. But mostly we’d cook, we’d eat, and then we’d break dark chocolate like communion and sink into bed, exhausted and full.

   When her daughter left for college, simplifying logistics, the merger of our households became a point of contention—not celebration. By that time, multiple years of spring rains had returned without the return of her touch.
   But then there would be days when and she’d cup my face, tip my chin, and hold to my lips a spoonful of something sublime. “Try it,” she’d say, her eyes eager for my reaction to her select ingredients.
   Perhaps this is why so many of us stay for years even when so much feels lost: That glimpse of an opening. That memory of a beginning.
   “I do so many things to show you that I love you,” she’d say. And she did.
   On our last morning together she turned toward me in bed and put her hand on my back, closing the gap. We knew the end was near. But I didn’t move. I let the tears come once more. Soon after I would leave the relationship that had curated my entire adulthood.

   Years have now passed since the end of my relationship, but just today I sliced a tomato and felt sorrow settle in my throat. So much that is familiar and routine in my life is attached to my past, to a person. I may always quietly grieve, as there is no way to quickly shed the impact bestowed by sixteen years—nor do I necessarily want to.
   I mostly cook in solitude these days. As I slice, grate, assemble, and heat, I know that I have access to a world of invention and pleasure. I see in my own hands, in my own existence, the transient nature of creation: we make, we partake, we release. Yes, we release, even as the soft pain of what is lost nests in our chests. And when I serve the meal I give thanks, as one might say grace, for all of the beauty that makes this brief life one worth savoring.

 

MELANIE HOFFERT's memoir, Prairie Silence, won the 2014 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Orion, The Utne Reader, Ascent, and elsewhere. Both New Millennium Writings and The Baltimore Review selected her as the recipient for their Creative Nonfiction Awards.