I arrived a few minutes past the appointed time at the jazz conservatory in downtown Berkeley. This was to be the first time I would see him sing publicly, although he invited me dozens of times over three years to various functions. Somehow I found a way to decline every invitation.
I agreed to this one because he was moving on. I felt hurt, scared, grasping.
He’d found someone who might actually give him a little attention. How could I fault him for that.
So even though it stung when I encountered him and his new friend on an Oakland street last weekend, I can’t blame him. I can’t blame him for taking the hand of a long-haired, long-legged new friend and striding purposefully down the block with her, his hat at a rakish angle, her hair billowing on the breeze of their wake.
And no wonder they were so fleet. It turns out he spotted us — me, my daughter, and my friend’s nine-year-old son whom we were hosting overnight.
He did the calculation. Here I am, I am sure he thought, holding hands with this new woman. There she is, the person I pursued for three years, with her 17-year-old daughter and their young friend, the young friend I played chess with in the early days of our courtship.
He did the math.
He decided it would be more awkward and painful to stop and exchange pleasantries than it would to pretend he hadn’t seen us and breeze on by.
I can’t really blame him.
The problem is, I did see him. Albeit with the barest peripheral vision. And I sensed him, his aura, his persona, his gait, his hat. Something made me whirl around and peer at the couple’s retreating backs.
I said, Steven?
The man didn’t turn.
Maybe it wasn’t him.
Was that Steven? I said to the air in general.
My daughter said, What? Holding that lady’s hand? I hope not.
I texted and called him right away. Did I just see you in downtown Oakland, I asked.
Hours later, after a brief denial, he texted that yes, that had been him. And yes, sorry, he’d meant to tell me sooner, he met someone, and she had a crush on him, and it was exciting.
So last night was a goodbye.
I went and watched him sing, for the first time.
He was on stage and had already launched into his first song when I arrived after a two-hour commute. I sat in the second to last row. I wore prescription sunglasses because I’d forgotten my distance glasses. His eyes sought and found me.
When he’d finished performing, he made his way back to me. He leaned over and kissed me on the mouth, which confused me. He put his arm around the back of my chair.
After the show, we walked to Ippuku, a Japanese restaurant in downtown Berkeley, for dinner. We sat side-by-side in a mini-booth separated from the rest of the room by a rustic bamboo screen.
We chit-chatted about the performance. The other singers. The teacher. The venue. The menu.
We ordered a number of items.
I was most excited by the tempura. I knew from experience the restaurant had a deft hand with the preparation. I had once had an extraordinary “bird’s nest” of vegetables sort of woven together, battered, and deep-fried. And every bite I took shattered, then gave way to steaming, salty yumminess.
I remember my single-minded focus as I licked the tips of my fingers and popped every single fallen crumb from my plate and plate’s vicinity into my mouth.
Like a perfect croissant that shocks in the way it shatters when you bite it. The exterior is explosive, the interior soft and humid.
We ordered an unfiltered sake. A carafe.
After we’d each had at least a glass, we fumbled our way to the task at hand.
He gave me an opening, and I remarked on how he’d passed us by with his new love, while I was parenting my daughter and a friend’s nine-year-old.
I guess that was already a low blow, designed to make him feel guilty.
He said he was sorry he hadn’t stopped. He didn’t know what to do. And when I put myself in his shoes, I could see what he meant. He really was between a rock and a hard place there. I understood why he side-stepped. Yet, I still thought it was somehow weak. A bit lily-livered.
I felt betrayed, ashamed, embarrassed. Abandoned.
And highly hypocritical.
The man hung in there far longer than anyone in their right mind would have.
I threw the barest crumbs, and he’d forgive me everything and offer me a clean slate. His hope never abated. His love was unwavering. It was meaningful. It was founded on something real, something we had both felt the moment we’d met.
There was something fundamental between us. Chemistry, I guess you’d call it. The problem was, once I got to know him better, all kinds of things dismayed me. We were diametrically opposed on several levels. He was polyamorous. I thought that was appalling, and immature.
Yet, as he pointed out himself, even though he was avowedly polyamorous and I was avowedly monogamous, when it came to our relationship, he acted monogomous, and I behaved like the polyamorist. Go figure.
The tempura arrived. It was Hen-of-the-Woods tempura. I expected it to be light, sharp, salty, musky, earthy, ambrosiac. Transporting.
It was… nothing of the kind.
The tempura batter was too thick. It was overfried, or fried in oil not hot enough. The mushrooms within the doughy covering were nothing to write home about either. They were deflated, flavorless. Sapped, zapped, sad.
Kind of like me.
We carried on. But without the tempura, I was lost. I waited desultorily for the rest of our meal. Some chicken on a skewer. Some udon noodles. Some Brussels sprouts. Suddenly, nothing tasted good.
All was little more than sawdust.
The sake was good, and did the trick.
My friend spoke, cruelly, of how exciting it was to have a woman who had a crush on him again. He spoke of her son, a young boy.
I said, Please take care of the boy. Please don’t get close too him unless you’re serious about this person.
He said, You know I don’t agree with you about keeping your kids away from the men in your life.
I said, You haven’t already met him, I hope.
He said, Actually, I have.
He paused and then said, Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I feel more passionate about you, physically.
Which only made me envision him in the act with another woman, which was not a lot of fun.
I think it was some kind of bone he threw me as I deflated steadily and dramatically beside him.
Of course I felt worse.
Soggy tempura. Soggy man. Soggy love. Soggy future. Soggy, ambiguous, extremely confused beliefs about love.
Cynicism blooming like, well, like a Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom.
Next time I get broken up with, it will be over a cracking good meal. A shattering shell of a yummy thing, I don’t care what. Something to remind me of why we go on at all.
It’s true. I can subsist for the perfect, elusive delicacy that makes up for the revolving door of men.
Enough with all of the fucking men, Colleen had said once.
She’s right. Enough with all of the fucking men. Bring on the fucking tempura, the shatteringly good croissant that cracks when you bite it, that falls apart in a shower of buttery crumbs.
I’ll take that.