On Gay Modern Love: When The Chutney’s Gone (or Before I Came Out as a Lesbian, I Was the Worst Kind of Scary Sadshaw)

05Apr08

In which The Gay Recluse provides a gay alternative to this week’s Modern Love offering in The Times. Those looking for our quantitative analysis should click here.

When The Chutney’s Gone (or Before I Came Out as a Lesbian, I Was the Worst Kind of Scary Sadshaw)

By SUZANNE FINNAMORE and THE GAY RECLUSE

Published: April 5, 2008

As painful as it is to think about now, before I came out, I was a desperate, manipulative, neurotic monster, which is to say a very extreme Scary Sadshaw! Because I didn’t want to admit that I was gay, I viewed “a relationship” with a man – which is to say, marriage and children (i.e., what I had always claimed to want more than anything else) — as nothing more than a game; one I could approach with strategy and intelligence in order to get what I wanted. For example, I GAINED my husband with soup. Not charm, wit or lingerie – all of which had failed in the past – but soup! Not canned soup or deli, but real homemade soup, simmered for hours over a hot Jenn-Air. The kind of soup that makes your eyes roll back in your head and your body feel, for a brief time, safe (albeit in the creepy Todd Haynes’ sense of the word, obviously).

I carried this soup to him at work in shopping bags with handles (my fixation on such meaningless details just one of my infinite neuroses) — fresh split pea with ham or black-eyed vegetarian delivered in Tupperware while his co-workers teased and he strutted. Is it irrelevant that he made lots of $$$$? Not at ALL! What did I care what his colleagues thought? I would have done anything to get my hooks into him. As they say, time was running out. The sick miracle? He actually fell for it!

I believe my deceptively simple cabbage and rice soup, finished off with handfuls of Gruyère cheese and oversize garlic croutons, is the one that sent him over the edge. He admitted as much. That cabbage soup stands as the last crumbling brick in the wall of his bachelorhood. (This is still very painful for me to write about; hence all the bizarre tense changes.)

It explains how he was blinded into a formal commitment, despite his horror regarding legal matters. He was especially fearful of marriage, which he filed in his personal ledger of liability just below malpractice and above identity theft.

No doubt because we weren’t really in love, he could overcome the lure of my smooth, naked legs draped casually over his. He could handle the ambrosia of a new lover and all the mindless meandering that entailed. But he could not physically get past the delicious, sedative comfort of my soup repertory. It was like the date-rape drug and crack cocaine combined! By sadistic design, I was inexorably linked in his mind to the soup; I could giveth or taketh away. And in his life, as disciplined as he attempted to make it, the soup had gone from a want to a need. What a pussy-whipped loser he was!!! Do I sound like a complete and monstrous bitch? I totally was, but what did I care? He was mine!

In the beginning, I was on my best and most false behavior in many aspects, as was he. We sought the intersection of all senses, the folding together of sex and of wardrobe and the fey territory of bread pudding in whiskey sauce. We avoided all areas of conflict. Instead, elaborate rituals were made, based on erotic and dining preferences. Let’s just say he obviously had his own Issues: in this way we were perfectly matched.

It was the time of exotic vegetables and delicacies served in dim restaurants where candles wink on white tablecloths and coarse sea salt sits in a “cunning tiny bowl” (you know what that symbolizes). We ate out often in the beginning, better to admire each other over a wee marble table. We perched in small cafes, holding hands while the waiter discreetly avoided us, knowing his tip would be large, as all possibility is at the onset of love, even a fake and manipulative one like this.

I felt like a character out of the most clichéd Hollywood chick-flick, but I didn’t really care; I was already working on my “end game,” so didn’t mind playing the role of an urban Stepford wife. This is the time when metropolitan, professional, sadistic and neurotic (and in many cases, closeted!) women such as myself will happily swallow handfuls of antidepressants and then scrub their underused efficiency apartment kitchens, rolling up sleeves on carefully toned and sun-tanned arms. An apron will be purchased, maybe ten! The cornucopia of the freshest seasonal ingredients will appear, butcher shops with the finest meats and fish will be ransacked. Men behind the counters will literally tremble when they see me. Potatoes will be thinly sliced, thrown away and then sliced again, then crisply fried and seasoned with fresh sage. I will fire the cleaning service six times in the space of as many weeks. I will again prove incapable of writing in one tense, because I think it seems more “modern.” Most of all, I will be delusional.

Inside I was a raging monster, but outside – at least around him – I was a picture of serenity. I made all manner of dishes as though born to it. If pressed for time, I would remove prepared food from takeout tins and fob it off as my own. Obviously I lied about everything, telling myself it really was just the smallest bit of chicanery, nothing like the real farce our marriage would become. I didn’t know this yet. I was still smashing takeout cartons into the trash and covering them with the outer leaves of romaine lettuce. This woman seems very disturbed, now. (I began to refer to myself in the third person: how scary is that!). I am not afraid of my garbage anymore.

For some reason, I want to introduce a metaphor (I guess?) about the stages of a relationship, which I will refer to as “the beginning,” “the middle” and “the end,” except oddly enough, “the beginning” will symbolize the beginning and so forth. (How totally post-modern and clever is that?) Anyway, in “the beginning,” I bent over backward and did high kicks to demonstrate how well tempered and smart I was, yet in a “nonthreatening” way (at least relative to what was coming!). He slipped from bed each morning to fetch coffee and serve it up bedside, exactly as I had trained him to do. Our life was rife with soft Bach sonatas and flaky croissants and bud vases with a single stalk of freesia. All of this was quite nauseating, even to me.

But it gets worse! Cloth napkins were “whipped out” for every meal. There was much serving of coffee and tea and even breakfast in bed (wait, did I just say that? whatever…), along with the morning newspaper and an insouciant smile. We were both losing weight despite drinking wine as if it were water and eating – omg!!! – fat-laden foods. I put this down to the sex: appetite fans out and succumbs to carnal recreation. (I know, sorry – carnal recreation? yuck – I’m just trying to give you a sense of how fucking insane I was – and still am!!!)

Needless to say, he was completely eviscerated. He began to plan intimate at-home dinners-for-two, making sure that I understood this was something he did only when he was truly in love. He chose the music with care. I am afraid I gasped, realizing he loved Whitney Houston as much as I did!!!

He could debone a chicken, perfectly whole, in five minutes, leaving it intact but spineless. (Incredibly, he had no clue this was exactly what I was doing to him!!!). I got a thrill out of this! I thought it was a magical impossibility. It’s amazing what clues I missed, and what I treasured. I actually have no idea what I’m saying here; no, I do! I can’t pretend! You see, I’m still trying to make it seem like it was his entire fault, even though I hated him for obvious reasons! Equally amazing is how easily it can be let go, in the fullness of time. But this was the beginning, the inky genesis. What Edna St. Vincent Millay (who I can now admit is one my favorite lesbian writers) would call “… the dry seed of most unwelcome this.”

Oddly, however, as much as I hated him (and myself) the marriage developed a perverse momentum that still gives me – goal-oriented as I am – an odd satisfaction to consider. If not for the middle, I would never have known the contentment of serving my husband the last lamb chop while he speaks of my accomplishments in glowing terms. Mornings he makes coffee, although gone are the days of nice sticky pastries, and the bud vase has somehow disappeared.

Why am I writing in the present tense here? I don’t know. My head is spinning – help!!! It matters not, we are in the middle, and life is rattling right along, together with the plain stoneware dishes in the dishwasher (the better dishes and thin-stemmed crystal goblets are once again relegated to special occasions).

Our bodies trade fine restaurants for bustling diners. His pans now commingle with mine. I feel that my work is done and that I should be afforded rest. Even though I’m going to sue the shit out of him soon – just as I knew I always would – I worked hard to get him! This does not happen; nothing ever rests in the middle.

We have begun to eat off each other’s plates; this is itself tantamount to commitment of a primal nature. The middle means marriage, and sharing, it also means opening up to the grinchy day-to-day reality. He is nevertheless shocked when I stab his hand with a fork and he has to go to the hospital.

We talk about “The Marriage” now, as if it were a fairly nice person in another room. Everything is buzzing along like bees making honey, and like bees, everything seems to be, well, kind of a lot of work. Yes, we have started using paper napkins, but only because it is too much trouble to send the laundry out that often. Of course it is. Of course it is. As I scream at him at least fourteen times a day: I HATE TROUBLE!

In fact, the stomach is still connected to the heart during the middle, but not in as direct a fashion. Now all impulses must pass through the brain, and so we are a bit more cautious with our heavy cream, a little afraid to gain weight now that the sex is down to once every two days — still a startling amount! (As if. We were so not having sex anymore! That’s just me stepping back into the closet for a moment.) And who can deny the comfort of being able to eat dinner in front of the television? No one. Or at least no one who doesn’t want a chopstick directed into the center of his eye!!

Once the baby arrives – yes, I got what I wanted! – and eventually outgrows the “football in a bucket” phase, one or the other of us begins trying to get away:

“Let me be the one to run to the store for butter.”

“But you got to go last time.”

The middle is a different kind of feast, the casual kind that doesn’t require stiletto heels or crisp shirts. There are some “disturbances in the field” (I won’t pretend I made that up) but nothing that cannot be solved with a fat bottle of merlot, a bucket of steamers, thigh-high stockings, a low-cut blouse and a little coaxing. You see how crazy I still am when I write about this period of my life, contradicting myself almost every other sentence?

The middle is nice, if you define “nice” as startlingly brittle. It is a pity it cannot last longer, but I must exact my revenge on my father, the hatred of whom I have completely transferred onto my husband. I have heard tales of couples staying in the middle for decades, of favorite dishes being served every Sunday and dependable anniversary dinners at Chez Panisse. DO I EVEN NEED TO SAY HOW MUCH I HATE THEM???!!!!

It hasn’t been so for me, or for many of my equally neurotic contemporaries. Yet, now I know with a bittersweet thump that at least I am out, now, so perhaps I will try love again: appetite is a dull constant, like a lurking cluster headache. The more I say I won’t, the closer my desire creeps behind me.

The end, when it comes, will be heralded by the cessation of all romantic dinners whisked to small tables by officious waiters. Gone are the days of the constructed salads and the butterflied lamb rack. Translation: we got a divorce (as in it already happened) and I got custody!!! It was EXACTLY what I planned on.

As for the homemade soup? It is extinct. One may try making soup at the end, but it will not have the same effect, and in fact if the stamina exists at all, it is probably mania or terror in disguise. Soup will be scorned. More likely, one of us or both of us are hunched over a bowl of Thai noodles, while the other is on the computer in another room, with the door closed. The door closed. Does this ring any bells? I don’t refer to wedding bells. Hemingway bells. OMG! Can you see how I’m losing my mind!

If meals are shared, it is with the television on, and loud. This to avoid discussions of “The Marriage,” which neither of us wants to broach any longer, as it has become a rather unreliable and dangerous character.

Meals have slipped into the realm of the ordinary and grim: frozen shrimp, overcooked chicken parts. Iceberg lettuce appears like a weather-beaten old friend, along with bottled salad dressing, slapped down on the coffee table along with an array of other condiments that cannot perform the kind of magic that would transform these silent meals into anything but ghastly and penitentiary-like.

I WOULD silently reminisce about the time of holding hands over a plate of warm goat cheese with chutney and watercress, but there is no chutney. My husband, the sparkling conversationalist, has turned into a monosyllabic drone, the male gourmand is now unable to find a stick of butter in plain sight and openly complains about the ratio of vodka to vermouth in his martini, which I continue to make for him, like the butler in a Jack Benny comedy hour. I’ve become Rochester.

True, I had let myself go in the area of the nurturing domestic, as evidenced by the fact that standing very near to the dishwasher while the dry cycle steam rises from its vent is as close as I’ve come to cooking in a long time. When he works late I watch “The L Word” and fantasize about taking a lesbian cruise.

I no longer buy his favorite cheese at the market. In fact, I wouldn’t know it if I saw it because my eyes have gone slitty from trying to tell if he is lying about his long lunches. He in turn will watch me for signs of sexual abandon but will find none; the day the coffee in bed went, so did my insatiable urges. Not to mention I hate his disgusting cock and beard, which makes every sexual act feel like a punishment: the word “frigid” will not begin to describe the revulsion I feel for every molecule of his body.

Yes, we had reached the end (note: there is no tense I will not use in this essay!!!). No more track, baby. End of the line; feel free to take this train back to your point of origin, if you can, which you definitely cannot. My new name: Ms. Bitter Black Hole of Vengeance!

Since the divorce, I acknowledge that I don’t control which way the metaphysical bread is going to fall, butter side up or down. But since coming out, at least I can see how fucking crazy I used to be! The problem is that that some kinds of damage can never be healed. (As you can no doubt detect from this piece of writing!)

With this kind of mystery and the overall shortness of life, serious long-held regrets have no place except front and center. Still, it is better to just wait and see. Hang on tight to that bread. Accept. Not for anyone else, naturally. For my child (who looks just like HIM) and me, for what I recognize is now my family.

Suzanne Finnamore lives in Northern California. This essay is from “Split: A Memoir of Divorce,” to be published April 17 by Dutton.

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