In over a year of writing about life in the sandwich, I realize I’ve devoted very little print to my companion in the middle: my mustard, my guy. He’s right in here with me, but so often my attention and energies are diverted to either my mother or my children. They’re the squeaky wheels in the house, and he hums along more quietly. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need attention, too, and so I dedicate this Valentine’s column to him.
He’s the only man in a houseful of women, and I can’t help thinking that must be disorienting and lonely. Sometimes, when I’m cuddled on the guest room bed between daughters, watching Gilmore Girls or a goofy romantic comedy, he opens the door, takes a wild-eyed glance at the television screen, and retreats.
There are often weeks when my mother has more dates with him than I do; when they’re down at the Coliseum cheering on the Warriors, and my daughters are out at sleepovers or with friends, and I’m home, alone. I don’t normally mind this. Alone means time to read or write or listen to my own favorite music; but sometimes alone is lonely and I wish that I were out with him instead, at a play or browsing a bookstore, holding hands.
Our very first dates were in bookstores; he’d lead me over to a shelf and pull out a book, read me a few lines of something, and I’d swoon. Even now, our favorite evenings out are at bookstores. Our best vacations are ones in which we each pack heavy bags stuffed with books and journals. We lug them to some pretty room overlooking water, and forgo the kayaks and the sightseeing for books and each other.
It’s harder for the two of us to get away these days. In earlier years, my mother would take care of the girls, or they would go to friends’ for sleepovers. But now she’s the one who needs taking care of, and we need to manage some intensive negotiating around who will stay home and keep Nana company. It’s hard on weekends when both of them have been invited to go out with their own friends.
When I had known him only a few weeks, I was asleep in my little studio apartment when my phone rang at three in the morning. “Listen to this,” he said. I drowsily put the receiver against the pillow and leaned my ear into the sound of his voice. I could hear the pages turning and then his inhalation: “Here….” Slowly, he read the words of Martin Luther King, one of his more obscure sermons. His voice cracked open a little bit and my heart fell right into the crack. I imagined Reverend King sitting at his desk, penning these words in the lonely darkness of one night, never imagining that decades later, a man would be reading them to his new girlfriend, and that in this way the girl would fall in love.
He has said those words to me many times in our twenty years together: “Listen to this.” I’d come stand next to him in a bookstore, or I’d move my pillow closer to his in our bed. He read me the poems of Rilke, and of Neruda, and of a girl named Etty who loved trees and then died in Bergen-Belsen. And I always held my breath, waiting for that exact second his voice slipped off its track, by just a millimeter, when you got to the part that moved him most. His eyes would moisten and he’d grab raggedly for another breath before continuing on. And in that moment between breaths, before he regained composure, before he wiped the tear away, I was the most in love.
In recent years there hasn’t been time for this kind of reading. While he’s been on one side of the wide bed (we bought an extra-wide king when the girls were small and four of us often ended up wrestling for space in the middle of the night) with Gastroenterology Today and I am on the other side with the latest Poets & Writers.
More often, though, I’ll wake up and there will be several forwarded articles in my email box, pieces that he read when he woke up early (he always wakes up hours before I do) and thought to share, something odd or curious or moving.
Recently, I saw a new book cracked open next to his pillow. I asked, “Do you like it?” and was a little afraid he’d shrug and say, “Oh, it’s okay.” And then the conversation would be over, and I’d go back to my magazine, or maybe turn out the light. But he turned to me with that look on his face and said, “Oh God.” His eyes shone with tears and he riffled the pages till he found that place about the boy sitting in the shaft of sunlight, and his voice faltered in that old way as he read to me. And he took off his glasses and again, I fell in love.