September 17, 2010

Salmon For Dinner

We had salmon for dinner.  I couldn't decipher salmon from fish-sticks, and I hated fish-sticks.  But when he asked, I told him of course I liked salmon.  Of course.  He popped out of the kitchen, frozen fish in hand, searched my face and said, "Don't worry, you'll like it."  If he was the chuckling type, he would have chuckled.  Instead he just smiled and disappeared back into the kitchen.  I followed.

He pan-seared it and tossed on spices I would never associate with fish.  Things other than tarter sauce.   He stated with glowing pride that he had cut butter out of his diet.  And sugar.  It wasn't healthy.   I didn't believe him at first.  One of the last meals I ate with him was pizza doused in blue cheese dressing.  He swung open the fridge door - no butter, no sugar, no salt.  Momentarily, I saw a glimpse of us as adults, rather than as nineteen and twenty-one year olds playing house over summer vacation.

It was his early attempt at a healthy summer.  An investment in healthy habits perhaps sparked by days and nights with the emergency room sick. But already in those nights of the third week he would pull me closer in his sleep when LifeStar roared above us on its way to a call.   He was already telling stories of baseball bats disfiguring faces as my fingers traced his jaw line and came to rest between his chin and his bottom lip.  Later there would be snicker bars from the vending machine for an 11:30pm dinner and swigs of Nyquil to fall asleep on the nights he could turn his pager off.  Black coffee for the nights he could not.  Later we would talk about death more than usual.  Several states north of that tiny apartment next the the large hospital, I would concede to missing him but never worrying about him, purposefully replacing concern with pride.

But that July night I stood over the crackling salmon thinking of fish-sticks and butter and “OhDearLord how am I going to choke down this meal?”  I offer to help... um, sear? the salmon.  He smirks, tells me he wants to eat sometime before breakfast, and lifts me from the front of the stove to middle of the tiny kitchen in a single, effortless, one-armed swoop.  I protest his insult to my cooking skills and the swift removal with a scrunched face, until I can't hold it any longer and give in to a smile.  He is right.  A friend and I had a chicken 'mishap' that past semester.  A 'mishap' as in we had no idea how to cook the thing, spent more time discussing what to do with it rather than actually cooking it, and nearly gave us all salmonella poisoning.  He was the one to step in and...well...fix it. So instead I mill about the kitchen, opening and closing drawers as if to memorize where the utensils are kept for the week I would spend with him.

We ate next to his desktop mac with the picture I gave him taped to the side.  I took the futon and he sat at the desk chair, and I forgot to expect fish-sticks when I took a bite of the salmon.  I devour the salmon and the broccoli without butter and then stand up for seconds.  He smiles slightly before offering to get it for me.  I had long dismissed his offer and was halfway through my second serving before I realized the source of his smile: I loved the salmon.  Years later I would order it at his college graduation dinner and note his almost-smirk, and then again at my own college graduation but this time with a heavier, almost dull, notation.  That night I just took seconds and silently surrendered to his superior cooking skills.  

I put myself on clean-up duty, if not to claim a stake in domesticity then at least to assert some form of independence.   A cultivated assertion I lean on when I can’t hold on to titles.  I can’t hold on to the soapy forks either, and I’m splashing water across the counter, out of dish washing practice.  He changes the itunes mix and joins me in the kitchen.  Stands behind me and rolls up my wet sleeves, and I’m trying to find my independent assertions but it takes too long, and I’m leaning on him instead.  We stand quietly like that for a few moments, while Bob Dylan floats in and out. 

I’m running the sponge across the second-hand dishes, admiring the chipped edges and the strength of the plate to shine in the soapy water despite imperfections, wondering if my fifty-year old hands will look like my already water-pruned hands and will we still stand like this, forgetting to worry about titles and self-protection and mismatched future visions.  His hands interrupt my vagabond thoughts by plunging into the water. 

I’m startled and automatically protesting, standing upright on my own two feet now, and hanging on too tightly to the dish I was just admiring.  He asks me if I want to finish before breakfast tomorrow (twice in one night!).  I’m horrified that he is suggesting that I cannot. do. this. by. myself.  And I’m slightly insulted that he doesn’t think I can appropriately wash dishes.   “Come on, I’ll help you, it’ll go a little faster,” he reasons and kisses me on the cheek. 

He scoops up two forks, two butter knives, and the serving knife, and washes them all together in one seamless motion.  His itunes changes to the third song on the playlist.  I glance at the two plates I have washed.  He’s already on to the cutting board and my shirt is literally soaking wet.  I’d like to say that I burst into laughter, admitted defeat, and helped him finish the dishes.  But instead I only protest that I would get faster in time, and he looks at me with that smile and says “I know.”  I decide that doing dishes well is not directly proportional to being independent and that I would make sure I had a dishwasher when I “grow up.”  We finish the dishes together.

The apartment had too many walls to call it a studio but not enough rooms to call it anything else.  The futon transformed from dinner table to couch to bed depending on the time of day and the level of the air conditioner hum.  Highest when sleeping, my nose always felt like ice.  We pop a movie into the TV/VHS combo, keep the futon upright, and assume our then May-mid-day-TV-watching positions that would roll into early January days for too many years to come.  That night I laid somewhere between comfortably worn and shiny new, between his leg and the futon, between titles, semesters, and the scared beats in my chest.  That night I laid right in the middle of a strong safety and a quiet love.  When he told me my hair smelled like salmon, I asked if he minded.  He said not at all, it reminded him of our dinner.  And I knew exactly what he meant. 

We fell asleep that night to the scent of my salmon hair, the buzz of the air conditioner, and my cold feet pressed up against his warm calf.  We fell asleep somewhere in the middle.

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