on balance, what remains

A friend of mine and I spent some time talking about the relationships on HBO’s Lena Dunham vehicle, “Girls.” He said, “Adam and [Charlie] are bookends for each other in regards to what degree of danger/comfort women want in a relationship with men.” Adam = Danger. Charlie = Comfort.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about how other wives (or soon-to-be-ex-wives) I know have tried to find a balance between “danger and comfort,” or between passion and contentment, with their spouses. Passion can fade. Contentment can get dull.

Is it possible to find that balance? Is there any excitement in all that is predictable, that could make any routine more appealing? Can one be content with all that is unsettled, in order to make life less scary?

***

In 1963, my parents met. At their wedding.

They have lived through or enjoyed international relocation, grad student life with English as a second language, a lay-off or two, four more domestic relocations, another lay-off, starting and running a business, raising three children to be equipped to put themselves through college and/or grad school, three weddings yielding two sons-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and seven grandchildren, a heart attack, cancers and their remissions…

They’ll celebrate 50 dangerous, comfortable, exciting, boring, devastating, and thrilling years of marriage in a couple months.

I don’t know how they do it exactly, but mostly, it seems they want to. Be married to each other, that is.

“I smell something.”

That was our son, about a half hour ago, as we entered our neighbor’s home to check on her pet bunny while she and her family are away.

I smelled the lingering aroma of scented candles. My neighbor’s house always smells sweet.

But it simply smelled different to our son. We left our neighbor’s house, locked it up tight, and crossed our street, hunching our shoulders in the cold air. We walked into our house, and I smelled something, too. We had just had chana masala, some garlic naan, and some samosas I still had in the freezer (made by my mother and me back in July).

It smelled like home. Our home.

When I was in middle and high school, I would get so irritated when my mom made Indian food. Our house smelled different than all my friends’ houses. I wanted our house to smell like… smell like what? I don’t really know, now that I think about it. I just didn’t want our house to smell different. Because I was a teenager. I’d leave to go to a basketball game and my clothes would smell like all the garlic, onions, ginger, spices… all the hot oil frying poori or pakora… (I’d feel embarrassed. I wanted to smell fresh and clean and cute. Like Love’s Baby Soft, or later, Liz Claiborne. Because that’s not embarrassing.) This is probably why I still, to this day, have an unhealthy attachment to the smell of clean laundry. April Fresh. Mmmmm.

Flash forward 25 or 30  years: I cook Indian food far less often than my mother, but when I do, I’m so happy… I feel like I’m succeeding. I can actually make our kitchen smell like my mother’s kitchen–she is a phenomenal cook. And when I make Hello Dollies, or chocolate chip pan cookies, or quesadillas, or french fries… I’m succeeding again, making the treats for us as my mom made for us, all sweet and starchy and buttery, making our home smell like… comfort.

Which means our home smells like the home I grew up in: warm and clean and inviting. It smells like it has a kitchen that is used multiple times daily, with a sink that never hosts dirty dishes for more than 30 minutes. It smells like clean clothes, clean towels and sheets, dusted and polished furniture, bleached bathrooms, fresh scented body wash, fruit scented shampoo (for the kids). And when our windows are open and my husband mows the lawn? It’s just so perfect.

And our son, noticing a different smell in a different home… He knows what his home smells like. And from what I could gather, he prefers it to others. It makes me so happy. Of course, he’s five. In 10 years, who knows.

But for now, I am succeeding.

thresholds crossed

“I know you’ve been spying on me for her. I know you have. I just want you to acknowledge it so we can be friends. I think we can be good friends.”

Imagine you’re at work, doing your thing, and some woman you barely know–who happens to know, independently, two friends of yours–calls you up and presents this as her “Hi, how are you?” The woman was convinced that when I attended a party at her house as a guest of Friend 1, I was doing so because Friend 2, now dating this woman’s ex-boyfriend, had encouraged me to do so, so that I might “report back.”

The woman went on and on, for a few minutes, which to me, felt like about four hours. She went from sounding very mean to very sweet in every other sentence. It was extremely unsettling, not to mention the fact that her claim was utterly absurd and seemed to be due to her very raw state after a very bad break-up. And also maybe a little case of paranoia.

“What the hell are you talking about? Did you really just call me at work in order to say this? I did no such thing, I happen to be friends with 1 and 2, and this is crazy. No, we will never be friends.” And I hung up on her.

Another person, a nicer, more compassionate person, might have helped her navigate her way through her fears, calmed her down, and then gently ended the conversation, promising to have lunch in the near future, and then, given the magic of passing time, never see her again. She was, after all, a friend of a friend.

Not me. She called me at work and accused me of being a spy in some stupid love triangle. She questioned my motives, and thus my character. At work. Game over.

Now, it was pretty easy to end that “game,” since I had no prior relationship with this person, no time invested, no feelings expressed, no experiences shared. But I’ve ended the game with one who could reasonably be called a friend. I’d been to her home, she’d been to mine, we’d spent time together over drinks with several like-minded friends. But she’s one of those people who needs to be in charge of everything, even if the thing in question needs no management whatsoever, like a happy hour gathering. She’s one of those people who, no matter what you say, will somehow turn the conversation back to her.

Maybe you’re thinking, ‘We’ve all got people in our lives like that. No big deal.’

With her, though, there was more. Maybe it was when she pulled me aside at a party and said, “My husband and I were talking about you… We think you’re really bright and intelligent, it’d be good to spend more time together.” Or when she said at a happy hour to me, “I can’t have kids, I don’t have kids, you should bring your kids over to my house, they can play with the dogs and we can have lunch, I’d love to be around your kids.” Now, I don’t know what you would make of that, but I got the distinct impression that for her, I served a purpose. Her purpose, whatever that was. She made me uncomfortable.

When I’m uncomfortable, I get prickly. At subsequent gatherings, if she said something ridiculous, I’d counter it. If she said anything at all, I’d counter it. I wanted to serve her no purpose. And then she and a dear friend of mine, S. (a kinder, more patient, more accepting friend than me), had a falling out. A couple months later I contacted some friends to get together for a happy hour, and I did not include the woman who hurt my friend S. Game over.

My threshold is low, I guess, when it comes to relationships. It’s perhaps too low. But the relationships I have with people are mutual at minimum, and luckily, none make me even remotely uncomfortable.

Why settle for less?