Seriously Bittersweet Love
I sit knees to chin in the preschool chair in my darkened church basement-turned-bistro at a community gathering of music and storytelling. In my role as church lady, I replenish the dessert table when the selections become low. One beautiful cake is ominously labeled ‘Seriously Bittersweet Chocolate Torte” Emphasis clearly placed on the underlined word ‘bitter.’ Fair warning.
I admit, I am tempted. I have been trying to lose a few pounds, but I have a serious addiction to bittersweet chocolate! I smile as I notice the inner argument I am having with my willpower is not unlike my struggle years before to quit my addiction to some seriously bittersweet love, emphasis on bitter. The kind of drama-filled, roller-coaster, anything-tamer-than-a-dish-throwing-argument-is-boring kind of love.
You see, I come from a long and proud lineage of seriously bittersweet lovers. Of difficult husbands and the women who throw stuff at them. It’s in my DNA. Passed down from my nimble forefathers artfully dodging projectiles launched by my foremothers in stories that have become family lore. Great-grandma pitching the sugar bowl at her chronically tipsy, but still impressively agile husband; sugar exploding into a sparkling crystal constellation on the freshly scrubbed cabin wall behind him. My tiny, diminutive grandmother chucking the cast-iron skillet at grandfather, who easily outran its trajectory on the long stride of his 6-foot-plus frame. (Seems he had a wandering eye, which those legs tended to follow.) My own father, handsome and charming and always late for dinner after tossing back a few cold ones with his buddies. Him leaning on the kitchen wall by the back door, my mother calmly listening to his worn out excuses while washing the same mason jar over and over and over again at the sink before suddenly throwing it at him with such force, it lodged itself in the sheet rock next to his wide-eyed face.
But, for me, it’s been 19 years since I gave up seriously bittersweet love. I remember very well when I first got hooked, and the day I finally quit.
My habit began in earnest in late winter of 1979 when I was 21. I was making meatloaf in the dark kitchen of the basement duplex my fiancé and I were renting. It was in a sad and slouching little rental neighborhood Northeast of Minneapolis. Soon after we moved in, three prison escapees were found hiding in their mother’s trailer across the highway from our backyard. Charming foreshadowing that I would only see much later, in hindsight. Although my soon-to-be husband and I had dated since I was 16, we’d only just been living together a few months leading up to our wedding. We had already called off the engagement once, the year before. I had doubts. Serious doubts. I’m pretty sure he did too. Here’s what I remember from that fateful day:
In the tiny kitchen of the duplex, the small windows are above my head at ground level. The hamburger I’m kneading feels cool and slippery between my fingers as I fold the raw egg, onion, bread crumbs and ketchup through the pink ground beef. I am thinking about how he is late coming home. Again. I can feel the warmth of the preheating oven next to my left leg as well as the preheating anger rising up in my chest.
As I shape the meatloaf into a perfect football, I see his boots as he passes the small window above me. I hear his footfalls in the stairwell as he descends to our apartment door, where he enters the kitchen behind me. He sees that dinner isn’t ready and throws a cutting remark, like a dagger, at my back.
He is impressively quick to dodge the meatloaf as it flies across the room and splats against the wall where he was just standing, landing where his head had been. It hangs there for a moment, the suction created by the raw meat holds it to the wall momentarily as we both stare at it, eyebrows raised, in a kind of reverential silence. Eventually gravity takes over and the pink mound begins to slide slowly down the beige wall, leaving a slimy trail of red ketchup and flecks of onion in its wake. I notice that the onions have been chopped a bit too big. I make a mental note to dice them much smaller next time.
Any doubts I may have had about us evaporate, and we get married a couple of months later. The next dozen years of our marriage were not much of a deviation from this benchmark of normal. Our love was volatile and familiar. Collateral damage was limited to a few loose doors hanging on sagging hinges and a kitchen wall phone that dangled on two thick wires from a dusty hole in the sheetrock. Too many angry goodbyes punctuated by a slamming receiver.
But one late night shouting match would become my epiphany. In the middle of all the yelling and screaming, I looked into the dim light of the hallway to see our preschooler standing there, lip quivering, tears falling. At that moment I knew with absolute clarity the fear he felt and pain he was in. I remembered it in every cell of my body. I saw my child learning from me what love looks like. I saw myself as a link in the chain of a legacy I was ashamed to be passing down.
But truly changing yourself is not easy. The final years of my first marriage were like walking barefoot along the razor’s edge of sanity. Each careful sliding step away from my old life sliced me to the bone. I was not only leaving my marriage; I was extricating myself from my own destructive patterns of loving. My recovery was not a straight road, as recovery seldom is. There were relapses when Cupid would come calling with a tempting romance clearly labeled ‘seriously bittersweet,’ and I would reach for it.
One day a coworker asked me what I thought of the new guy in the cubical next to mine, the cute one from New Jersey. She noticed we were going out to lunch a lot, and in her opinion he had a pretty serious crush on me. ‘Oh you mean Alan? No, we’re just friends, he’s waaay too good for me.’ I quipped. And he was good, and nice, and funny, and kind, and stable, and reliable, and seriously NOT my type.
But then something happened to me. I’d gotten the news that the guy I’d been dating for over a year was about to have a baby (in three months) with a woman he was also evidently dating for at least six months, according to my rudimentary math. In any event, it didn’t add up well for me. Let’s just say some dishes lost their lives that day. A few weeks later, I gave Alan a ride to pick up his car at a repair shop near the office after work. His car wasn’t ready when we arrived, so we sat and talked in the parking lot while we waited. He’d moved to Minnesota in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. He was an olive-skinned Asian among a population of pale Scandinavians. He joked that the people here were so white in the winter we were almost transparent. He nicknamed me ‘ever-clear.’ There was a moment in our conversation, in the midst of all the laughter and warmth, that I felt something shift inside me, and suddenly, everything changed. Because I changed.
I’ve told our children the story of how I fell in love with their father while talking about nothing in particular in the parking lot of the Tires Plus store. (How romantic, right?) Now, whenever we drive along Highway 94 through Plymouth, passing the Tires Plus exit on highway 55, one of them will say, “That’s where you fell in love with Dad, right mom? Because he was kind and funny and nice and he made you laugh.” Yes, yes I did,” I reply, smiling. “And I’ve been falling in love with him, one drama-free day at a time, ever since.”
Mammaste~Divinity in the Everyday