In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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A man in his kitchen must exhibit dexterity with a chef’s knife. That’s essential. He should also possess a devil-may-care nonchalance around the spice rack and a cunning knowledge of various cheeses. Good, you’ve sailor-knotted your apron. That’s important. You are also wearing oven mitts. A little excessive, but she might think it’s cute. She has a sloshing glass of vino in her hand and a grin on her face. Excellent!
Don’t call it vino.
You’re off to a good start — no, a great start, buddy. Though you have only three go-to meals in your culinary repertoire — a chicken dish, a fish dish, and something involving broccoli — you like to pretend you’re improvising an original creation on the spot whenever you cook for guests: “Hmm, this chicken Marsala tastes OK, but maybe it needs a little . . . I don’t know, tarragon?”
Cut it out. You’ve been putting the same amount of tarragon in the sauce since 2006.
Marissa appears comfortable on your black leather couch. It’s a mystery why you volunteered to cook on a first date, but it’s too late now to start ruminating on your self-destructive habits. The goal for this evening is to avoid looking inept and/or insensitive.
Question: Is she a vegetarian?
OK. Concentrate. Think. You should know this. You should always know a dinner guest’s food politics in advance. Does she eat meat? Does she despise the evil practices of Big Agra, as you do (most of the time)? Is she doing the paleo diet and hoping for some fatty animal proteins?
Calm down. You’ll just have to wing it. It’s not a disaster. Marissa doesn’t seem judgmental over there on the couch. Nice work, buddy. Really, congratulations. It’s been more than six months since Aubrey walked out on you, and you’re starting to feel strong again. The dirty socks are in the hamper; your underwear is clean. This date might be exactly what you need to raise your spirits.
It’s time to cue up a solid anecdote. Everyone in the break room at work loves your stories because you employ a wide range of funny vocal inflections and facial expressions. In fact, a sign recently posted by management — PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL OF OTHERS IN THIS SHARED SPACE — attests to your ability to provoke laughter. So tell Marissa about that time you and some of the guys from the office—
Wait. She’s standing. Why is she standing? She doesn’t like your black leather couch? Are the backs of her thighs sticking to it? Is it too hot in here? It is hot in here. For the love of God, knock the AC down, you cheap bastard. Splurge a little.
She’s looking around the living room. Thankfully your plants are still alive. That speaks well of you. Women appreciate a man with living things in his domain — except, of course, spores and mold. She’s flipping through your Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk records with a smile on her face. Good move hiding those Judas Priest and Iron Maiden albums way in the back.
Start calmly chopping the vegetables. You’re looking good in the kitchen, utterly in command: oven mitts off, apron secure. If only Aubrey could see you now. “Learn how to cook,” she said, her sweet lips glistening with pomegranate balm. “God, you’re a grown man. What is this? Broccoli casserole? I can’t eat this.” Why do you feel attracted to women who treat you poorly? Probably a childhood wound, and you know how deep those go. Like rings in a tree. Good luck changing those destructive patterns.
Whoa, stop right there. Don’t even start thinking about Aubrey. That’s a rocky road you don’t want to travel tonight. Deep breaths, buddy. Top off Marissa’s wineglass. Put on a little music. Something smooth. Keith Jarrett. Tell her it will only be another minute. Start humming. Humming is always good. Shows confidence. Men who enjoyed happy childhoods have a tendency to hum.
Of course, if you’d performed better in the sack, then Aubrey would not have left you and you wouldn’t be in this predicament.
Inaccurate. You’re an excellent lover. Several girlfriends have told you this. “You’re definitely not bad in bed.” That’s a direct quote from Jane in college.
Why are you thinking about this now? Jesus, don’t sabotage tonight like you always do. Pour some oil into a heated pan. Not that kind! The extra-virgin olive oil. Yeah, it makes a difference. Now chop some garlic cloves, three big ones. Fill the apartment with the aroma, but don’t let them burn. Are you working from a recipe? No, why would you? Cooking, like jazz, is all about spontaneous inspiration. Do you have any mushrooms or spinach? Let’s just take a look in the fridge. What’s in this carton — heavy cream? Oof, that’s expired. Put it back. No worries. We’ll build a red sauce instead. Standard but reliable. You’re going to need pasta. Vermicelli. Penne. Ziti. Rigatoni.
All you have is elbow macaroni? What kind of poor excuse for an eligible bachelor are you? You can’t serve her children’s pasta. Look at these empty cupboards. And why is the fridge door still open? What will Marissa think if she sees this crime scene? A half-eaten tuna sandwich on a plate, sticky packs of soy and duck sauce in the butter tray, various mustards and habanero-pepper sauces. Do not let her get even a glimpse inside this disaster. The refrigerator is the window to your soul. Close it, quick.
Hold on. Stop everything. It’s obvious what you’re doing now. You’re intent on screwing this up on purpose. You still love Aubrey, don’t you? You miss her. Despite Marissa’s presence in your living room, you’re still thinking about Aubrey. And why not? Aubrey saw you for who you really are — nobody — and she felt comfortable critiquing you. What is she doing right now? Oh, probably holding a blue or green drink, throwing her head back and laughing at a rooftop party in Bed-Stuy, where she moved to get away from you. Young men in tight pants and expensive eyewear are clustered around her, admiring her firm gymnast’s body and miserable attitude.
Stop. Dude, stop. Give it a rest. Clearly you want to hamstring this very promising Marissa situation because you’re too chicken to begin a new relationship right now. Your debilitating fear of intimacy is making everything—
Marissa’s leaning in the doorway with her glass of wine, smiling. She’s no Aubrey, but she’s not too shabby considering you’re as bald as a stone, riddled with basal-cell carcinomas, and have no-pack abs under your wrinkled shirt. Nobody would drive all the way across the city just for one of your inedible dinners. This woman, for whatever reason, is into you. Yes, that’s right. Now you’re thinking like a man. Took you long enough. She is definitely not here for the food. According to all the peer-reviewed literature in the field of online dating, a woman decides within the first five minutes if she’s going to sleep with you or not. Presumably Marissa has already made that decision. She’s smiling at you. A charming anecdote might be the best move here. Break the tension.
Wrong. Refill her wineglass. Dim the lights. Take off the apron. Unbutton the dress shirt. Let it hang open a little to expose your pectorals, still pumped from your pre-date push-ups.
Honestly, are you that shallow? The evening’s events will transpire of their own accord. Just be yourself. You’re a loyal friend, a solid citizen, and a caring man who nursed his mother through a long illness. You repaired your relationship with your father and became a cherished member of your family and your community.
Nevertheless you should take off the apron. We’re all in agreement about that.
Marissa’s probably nervous, too. Think about her for a second. After all, you’ve got the home-field advantage here. Say something nice to her. Say, “I’m glad you’re here.” Because you are glad she’s here. You haven’t had sex in six months. You’ve been extremely lonely. Aubrey really hurt you. Admit it. You can learn from that disappointment.
Tell Marissa dinner will be ready soon.
In the meantime talk to her. Find out what she likes to do. Hobbies? Special skills? Has she ever played a musical instrument? Where does she see herself in five years? Have a conversation. Find out what makes Marissa unique. Ask if she’s ever been disappointed in love and had her heart broken. Let her talk about it openly and honestly if she’s so inclined. You might learn something. You won’t have to ask her what the heartbreak felt like, because you already know how it feels to be crushed and demoralized by another human being. Stay with that feeling for one second. Own it. You’re going to be OK. Pause right now and breathe. Be in your body. It’s not so bad. You will get through this.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Marissa says, stepping into the kitchenette. “Everything OK in here? Do you need anything?”
Bravo to Greg Ames for “Don’t Call It Vino” [January 2016]. In my twenty years of reading The Sun, it’s one of the few stories to actually make me laugh out loud.