He left a few hours ago, but I can still hear Matt’s voice echoing in my ears. I love the sound of his voice, but this quiet moment, in which I am trying to gather my thoughts, is pretty nice too.
Matt arrived on Friday afternoon, and we spent the weekend trying to reconnect with each other after three months apart and a conversation in which we were so close to breaking up that afterward, I felt like we had broken up. I even had a break-up hangover the next day—not the kind induced by alcohol, but rather by heartache and agonizing indecision. It’s not surprising that seeing him this weekend felt different, because it was different. How much of that difference would turn out to be transient, and how much would become permanent? The only way to find out was to try, once again, to love him. It was time to practice love.
For all the magic and mystery that we attach to love, it seems to me that it’s a lot like any other human endeavor. We aren’t born knowing how to do it very well. If we’re lucky, we’ll find good teachers along the way, people who show us what love looks like in action. It’s romantic to idealize love, but if you don’t know what to do with it when the wheels fall off, you are in deep trouble. I think it’s no coincidence that, of the people I know who are enormously happy in their relationships, most of them have made huge mistakes in love, bad decisions that resulted in divorce and massive upheaval. But they weren’t afraid to try again, and, hopefully, do it better this time. I admire their resilience.
What does it mean to “practice love?” To me, it means embracing the idea that love is messy and imperfect. It’s scary, because to love someone is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to rejection and disappointment. When Matt arrived on Friday, I could feel both of us hanging back a bit, watching the other person, trying to find our footing after a rocky patch of uncertainty. I was quiet and subdued. Matt felt distant to me, even though he was so close I could reach out and touch him. But I decided not to worry about this. Before his visit, we had made up over the phone, and I thought that we had resolved any lingering doubts about what we were to each other. I had said everything I wanted to say, so when he was finally in the same room with me, and I could feel hesitation hanging around us like smoke, I decided to believe that with time, the smoke would clear and we’d find the love between us.
That belief was an act of faith, and it worked. What also worked was doing stuff together, the same kinds of things that had brought us together in the first place, cooking and eating and enjoying each other’s company over glasses of wine. Romance often carries with it huge expectations for physical and emotional intimacy, but friendship does not. Friendship is granted a wider latitude, which is probably one of the reasons that friendships usually have a longer shelf life than romances. I loved and trusted Matt as a friend before we became more than friends. Our romance may have felt tentative and delicate, but our friendship did not. It felt solid—solid enough to help us find our way back to romance.
Way before the wheels came off, I had planned a few surprises for Matt’s birthday this month. One of those surprises was dinner at Veritas, a wine bar and bistro in my neighborhood. We’d talked about going a number of times, and I thought it would be fun to surprise him with a dinner reservation. So on Friday night, we walked over to Veritas, underneath a cloud-strewn sky at dusk. Inside, we were seated at a windowside table for two. Matt took full advantage of the wine list and the option to order half-glasses, and we were able to sample five different wines over the course of a single meal. We drank half-glasses of two white wines, which Matt called “cheap wines,” but I heard as “sheep’s wines,” resulting in confusion and laughter. We tried two Pinot Noirs, and I learned that I really like Pinot Noirs, especially ones with a balance of fruity, herbal flavors and some tannins. I see more Pinot Noirs in our future. We also shared a half-bottle of red, a house blend of sorts, I think, which was also quite nice. I was pretty charmed by the whole parade of wines that made their way to our table. The food at Veritas was great, too—cold and tangy gazpacho, salmon ceviche, seared duck breast (which Matt was kind enough to let me try), an outrageously good risotto made with savory, meaty shiitake mushrooms and a pile of vegetables. The whole experience was really lovely and easy—Veritas took such good care of us, even fixing me that risotto as a vegetarian entree by special request. It was a special evening, and its timing could not have been better. I think we needed it.
The next day, we focused our attention on meals made by our own hands. In the morning, we braved the heat and humidity to visit the farmers’ market in Bryan, where we found baskets of fresh okra, fuzzy peaches, fat carrots and yellow squash, and the best find of the day, fresh figs. We were really lucky to find the figs because Matt had been sighing over his memory of this roasted fig thing he makes, where the figs are drizzled with honey and balsamic vinegar, then roasted until they soften and wilt under the heat, and the sugars start to caramelize. Then some sort of cheese (more about that in a moment) is just barely heated on the hot roasting pan and placed on top of the figs. Served as an appetizer, each bite-sized morsel is a marvelous combination of textures: meltingly tender fig, oozing sweetness, and chewy, salty cheese. Matt’s roasted figs were addictively good—now I get what all the sighing was about.
For the cheese, we used Brun-uusto, a baked cheese that is usually served hot off a grill, melty and a little charred. I don’t particularly like this cheese on its own if it’s not grilled, but when just barely warmed and sitting atop a syrupy, roasted fig, it was very, very good. And as Matt mentioned when he was assembling things, the saltiness of this cheese is perfect with the figs.
After the figs were devoured, we put together a tag-team-effort entree: a dish I’ve come to think of as “Matt’s okra” and an off-the-cuff version of baked eggs in which the eggs are baked between layers of salsa-spiked cornbread crumbs, and the whole thing is topped with some tangy shredded cheese. Matt makes his okra dish a little different every time I request it. The base is always the same: a big handful of really fresh okra and a pile of thinly sliced onions. The seasonings are Indian; this time, he made friends with the cardamom and popped open half a dozen pods to add to a skillet of oil-slicked vegetables. Alongside the cardamom appeared cumin, curry powder, cinnamon, salt, and probably black pepper. The cooking process is a cross between sautéing and slow-cooking. By the time Matt declares the dish ready to eat, the onions have melted and the okra has just a little bit of snap left in it. The leftovers are fabulous too.
After our dinner of roasted figs and cheese, spicy okra, and hearty baked eggs, we sat on the couch, drinking wine, talking, laughing, and touching, until my eyelids grew heavy and I began sinking into sleep, Matt’s voice still telling stories on the other end of the couch. I didn’t want the evening to end, but I could only hold off sleep long enough to say good-night and crawl into bed. I was full—of food, of wine, of laughter, and most of all, of the connection between me and this man who feeds me, inspires me, and loves me.
“I went broke believing that the simple should be hard,” sings Matt Nathanson in “All We Are.” Perhaps this is the danger with love. My Matt (who is not Matt Nathanson) tells me that love is simple—it’s other things that are hard. I don’t know. What I do know is that when Mr. Nathanson sings, “In the end, the words won’t matter. Cause in the end, nothing stays the same,” he is right. Nothing, not even love, stays the same, but if we’re lucky and if we keep practicing love, our love can grow with us. That’s what I want. I think in those moments of uncertainty, we’re trying to figure out if our love is going to grow with us, opening up like a flower, or if it has died on the vine. Only time can reveal the answer, but in the meantime, I think a few great meals can’t hurt.