Two weeks before B. and I started dating, I baked him a birthday cake. It was chocolate, four layers fused together with several inches of bittersweet ganache, entombed under an aggressive quantity of chocolate buttercream, and crowned with a pint of strawberries and blueberries. “A sex cake,” a friend said, cutting me off as I described it to her.
It was also a near catastrophe: halfway through the trans-Brooklyn subway ride to B.’s apartment, I cast a loving glance at the cake carrier in my lap and discovered that buttercream was oozing, crude-like, from beneath the lid. I arrived at B.’s apartment in the state of discreet hysteria that would later characterize many of the meals I made as our relationship hobbled toward its finish line. But this time it quickly turned to relief as I evicted several six packs of beer from B.’s refrigerator, shoved the cake inside, and shut the door.
‘A sex cake,’ a friend said, cutting me off as I described it to her.
When I opened it two hours later, no one cared that the cake looked like it had just come from a one-night stand, its berries strewn down its sides and its frosting lopsided. We were drunk, hungry, and high. When I presented it to him, B. looked deeply into my eyes and thanked me. Then he blew out his candles, and one of his friends began eating the cake with his bare hands.
B. was my first long-term boyfriend, and thus the first man I looked forward to feeding on a routine basis.
I had spent the first half of my twenties fumbling my way through a sort of boxed set of attractive but woefully unsuitable males. Our brief entanglements would be fun but underwhelming, and the food I cooked tended to function mainly as a prelude to carnality. It was a thrill to possess such a means of seduction, but it was short-lived; I always ended up doing the dishes on my own.
Looming over these swiftly preempted attempts at domesticity was the actual, relentless domesticity my parents had for more than three decades. After getting engaged on their third date, a mere three weeks after being set up by a rabbi’s fortuitously meddlesome wife, they proceeded to marry and cook for each other every night of the week.
I craved that kind of comfort, which in my mind smelled a lot like hot buttered toast.
They each had their specialties: my mother her chocolate chip cookies, renowned sour cream coffee cake, and dreaded tuna fish casserole; my father his penne alla vodka, crescent rolls, and countless loaves of French bread.
Watching them together in the kitchen night after night, I formed a shockproof association: Cook together and you stay together, even through the moments you hate each other and audibly fantasize, as my mother did on more than one occasion, about chucking it all for Tom Selleck. I craved that kind of comfort, which in my mind smelled a lot like hot buttered toast.
B. didn’t cook, though he claimed to have once made a pot of spaghetti for a previous girlfriend. His preferred means of caloric intake was via reservations, delivery, or corkscrew. I found this perplexing but charming, and viewed his eating-at-home habits as my Eliza Doolittle, ripe for an overhaul.
And he was a willing pupil; his appetite was impressive, encouraged from an early age by his family, Russian immigrants who survived wartime famine and Soviet depravation to come here and become successful business owners. They were believers in chronic celebration. Meals with B.’s family were almost surreally epic in both proportion and inebriation. At their annual company holiday party, held at a Russian nightclub in deepest Brooklyn, we downed Grey Goose and plucked sushi from a 15-foot long silver platter as the techno rendition of “MacArthur Park” throbbed in the background.
The meals I first made for B. were similarly exuberant.
Clearly, we would never be apart. We couldn’t even get out of our chairs.
I spent hours constructing sauces, finessing temperamental tart dough, buying shockingly expensive cheese, searching heedlessly for rhubarb in the dead of winter. I made untold amounts of pesto, bushes-worth of basil. B. ate it all, and I in turn devoured his appreciation, and the security of later washing the dishes together.
After spending a year or so in this fashion, we decided to move in together. The day we arrived at our new apartment, I made us a picnic that we ate on the dining room floor. Few things in life are more smugly domestic than a picnic on the dining room floor of one’s Brooklyn brownstone apartment; we could have been one of those couples in an ad for life insurance policies. Optimism, joie de vivre, and complete sublimation to the pronoun “we,” all embodied in a few slices of mushroom quiche and lightly dressed greens.
Our meals were bound up in the kind of romanticism that lends acts like loitering on a subway platform a patina of, if not exactly excitement, then significance. Every weekend I’d make pancakes or French toast or some other affront to the glycemic index, and B. would eat it all as we picked through the Sunday Times. We ate languidly but with purpose, and, at least in my memory, bathed always in sunlight. Clearly, we would never be apart. We couldn’t even get out of our chairs.
Eventually, we bought a dining room table. It had panels that allowed it to expand, which made me feel very grown up. But the table, with its allusions to the loud, hazy holiday meals of extended family, demanded duty: the duty to see this house-playing experiment through to its presumed outcome.
Before we lived together, that was what I thought I craved.
It was too late; I was past logic.
I wanted to reach into the future and eat it with a fork. But as we settled into the apartment, I gradually realized that what I’d actually been craving was the fantasy of eternal security. But the reality we were discovering was that, despite going through the requisite motions, neither of us seemed entirely prepared for where this was supposed to go. The idea of marriage, though it trailed me in the kitchen like an unpaid intern, almost never entered our conversations. It felt almost embarrassing to bring it up, as if it was an expense we knew we couldn’t afford.
Not long after the table’s arrival, my cooking began to take on a vaguely grim intensity: meals were no longer a spontaneous lark or an exercise in hedonism, but markers along the road to a rapidly encroaching future. It was like fantasizing about owning one of those tiny, meticulously appointed gourmet shops: Everything is a dreamy montage of small-batch jam and ripe cheese until you start thinking about 10-year leases and bargaining with the mob to get your trash picked up.
And so it was that I had my salmon meltdown. The plan was simple enough, a romantic dinner for two. Drink, laugh, go to bed, consummate. But then, I realized deep into the dinner’s preparation that I only came home with one salmon filet. I didn’t take the discovery well. It wasn’t like we couldn’t have just split the fish and gotten on with it. But it was too late; I was past logic. The creeping fear of the future crashed into my fear of failure.
After stress-chugging two glasses of red wine, I laid down on the kitchen floor and began to cry. Somewhat inexplicably, B. didn’t run out the door screaming, but, looking concerned, instead propped me up in a chair. We ate the salmon, and then I went to bed, waking a few hours later to vomit.
It’s hard to say when we began to disintegrate. It was a gradual, sneaky, quietly insistent thing. B. chafed increasingly against our nights spent in instead of out at the bars where he liked to drink with his friends.
I cried into a bowl of noodles as a roach skittered up the wall.
He began ordering more take-out, plastic containers of Thai curry. I took each one personally, even as I eventually became resigned to them. What came—or more often didn’t come—out of the kitchen said more than we knew how to. Lacking any real motivation to whip up monuments to domestic bliss, I began eating a lot of cereal.
The downfall of our relationship came in a bowl of pumpkin soup. I was working as baker at a café where I had embarked on a guilty but chaste flirtation with one of my customers, a woodworker with distractingly beautiful hands. We talked, laughed, giving and taking looks, and one morning, he brought me a container of soup he’d made the night before. It felt impossibly romantic, to be cooked for by someone. I brought it home and lapped it up, concealing it from B. as though it was a love letter.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, I found the words to ask B. what I’d been afraid to ask myself: “Where do you think this is going?”
We didn’t break up right away. We decided to see how New Year’s Eve went, which was badly. I remember little except standing in the rain on a sidewalk somewhere in Brooklyn, B. drunk and yelling at me, and then offering repeated, smeary apologies on the endless subway ride home. A week later, we broke up over dinner at a Malaysian restaurant where I cried into a bowl of noodles as a roach skittered up the wall.
A few weeks after that, with our belongings packed in boxes destined for separate apartments, we ate our last meal together. It was take-out from a Middle Eastern restaurant we’d always loved. We spread it out on the dining room table. I took a bite of some lettuce and immediately spit it out. It tasted like dish soap. I called the restaurant and found myself saying mean, semi-coherent things to the man who picked up the phone, things I would have been ashamed of had I not been sharing my last meal with my almost ex-boyfriend, on the dining room table we’d bought together in a blush of hope and good intentions. The man at the restaurant offered to send someone over with a new order. “No,” I said, suddenly feeling very sad. “You don’t understand.” I looked at B., who was looking at his hands. “It’s too late. We’re leaving.”