I was 21 years old when I met Ari, recently returned from a year abroad and about to embark upon my senior year. He was my new Classics-major roommate with the thickest eyelashes I’d ever seen. We lived in a creaky, barn-red house with five other people who unknowingly became witnesses to a clandestine courtship.
In those first weeks we had only brief encounters, usually late at night in the kitchen. It turned out Ari was nearly nocturnal. At 9pm, I’d hear him thump down the stairs to the kitchen, where I soon found myself drifting towards. Pretty soon it became a kind of ritual: us meeting there in the heat of the summer at all hours of the night. During all those times I rooted around for a late night snack as he prepared his breakfast, I became taken by his eccentricity, elemental sweetness, and habitual frumpiness.
Eating facilitated talking. And so we ate—spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar, thick slices of buttered country bread, refrigerator leftovers. We talked. We fell in love that summer.
Our first kiss occurred after cheap gyros from the Greek place rumored to be trafficking drugs. Our first fight happened over Afghani style samosas. The first time my heart turned over for him was after unexpectedly spectacular pizza in a sleepy fishing village on the Oaxacan coast.
We had a terrible hunger for each other. Never had I felt more piquant and alive than when we were cooking a simple breakfast together. We spent hours in embrace on Sunday mornings, clasped together like a romaine heart. Our love had a ripeness that I had waited for my entire life.
At the start of our relationship I was the more competent cook, but Ari caught up during the two years after college when we lived in small-town New Mexico. I was in Teach For America, working more than 60 hours a week coaxing 7th graders into reading and writing. My life was a whirlwind of ungraded papers, lesson plans, and grad school night classes. I was too harried to cook, even though I felt everyday as if I were starving: for relief, for those moments of breakthrough and clarity that we live for, and oftentimes for something delicious that would take me out of my head and my classroom and ground me in my body.
Ari was not too harried to cook. As an occasional substitute teacher, he had an abundance of time. While I was in my classroom experimenting with teaching metaphor, Ari experimented with slow cooking goat, baking salmon fillets, and teasing fresh flavors out of limp vegetables from Walmart. On most weeknights I graded papers while he rolled matzo balls or simmered rice stick noodles in red curry. We ate at the dining room table or standing up by the kitchen sink. We ate side-by-side on the stoop, our knees touching. We ate until we were full or until we fell asleep or until we’d had enough.
As Ari’s meals grew increasingly more elaborate, our love changed. What had been thrilling about him at the start—his talent for dabbling—wore on me during the New Mexico years. I resented that he was at home most days, possibly surfing the Internet or streaming a movie, while I was struggling in the classroom. We were a portrait of youthful bliss, this handsome couple with a two-bedroom house and a cat, doing good for the community. But we had begun to unravel in ways I mistook for growing up.
After we moved from New Mexico to the Bay Area, I encouraged Ari to pursue jobs in a professional kitchen. I figured irregular hours and eccentric personalities would suit him; if he could make hundreds of satisfying meals for me, surely he’d be able to do the same for others and make money in the process. I bought him a cookbook by Alice Waters and penned words of encouragement on the inside flap. I offered to walk with him to neighborhood restaurants to drop off resumes. I pushed and pulled.
Nothing ever worked out. Because it just didn’t. Or because Ari never tried hard enough. Or because he never wanted what I wanted for us.
Our ripeness had become something else entirely.
Still, he cooked for me until the very end.
After I moved out, we carried on for a long time as if nothing had changed. We’d divided our things—he got the cat, the food processor; I kept the camping gear, the spice rack—but we weren’t quite ready to let each other go. He showed up at my new apartment in the city with a chicken to barbeque. I drove across the Bay for fresh, hand-cut linguine. We made love on our Craigslist bed as tenderly as if we hadn’t just broken off our four-year commitment.
Yet, because there were reasons for our parting in the first place, we drifted further and further apart over time. Instead of rendezvousing every weekend in each other’s kitchens, our encounters dwindled to once every month or so. While it had always been our habit to cook together, we began to meet at crowded restaurants, because that’s what people do when they are in the beginning or the aftermath of a serious relationship. It’s what you do when you no longer share a kitchen or any prospect of a shared future together.
It has been years now since our split. Life has gone on, but I still seek out Ari on a somewhat-regular basis, just to make sure he hasn’t slipped through the cracks. I’m not sure what we mean to each other now, but I know life wouldn’t feel completely right without him; it’s an odd thing to miss something but not want it back.
Not so long ago I invited Ari to spend the day running errands with me; it had been a while since we’d seen each other last. It was rainy that day, a bit gray. Completely different from that gilded afternoon when we first met. He made me wait a few minutes outside his apartment building before emerging in the passenger side window, smiling shyly.
For a fast second seeing him felt like coming home.
At Berkeley Bowl we shared a cart just as we used to, taking turns pushing it up and down the aisles. He picked up bags of rice; raw almonds; red lentils, which he explained cooked quickly and, when seasoned with Indian spices, made a nice “curry kind of thing.” Sometimes one or both of us would wander off in search of something or other. Every so often I found myself scanning for his narrow frame. I found myself observing the familiar lines of his jaw, his elegant wrists.
How easily I forget the piles of dirty dishes, the boiled over remnants crusted to the stove, the tornado of pots and pans.
What I remember and perhaps hunger for are the meals—ceviche, butternut squash gratin, carne asada—prepared for us to share. I remember Ari standing at the range, stirring with a wooden spoon, his jeans loose at the hips. I remember his beckoning hand offering up a forkful of something warm and delicious.
What we had wasn’t perfect and it didn’t last, but our years together were rich and full: full of food, full of life, full of love. Ari didn’t work. He didn’t clean. But in his way he nourished me.
Our trip to the supermarket is the closest we’ve gotten to our old life together, to cooking and sharing a meal. I gather Ari doesn’t cook much for himself these days, and I wonder if it’s because it causes the same dull ache that I always feel in moments like this, when the memory of everything that was ever good—all bound up with the smell of chicken soup or sautéing onions—washes over me, flattening and expanding me all at the same time.
While I was off searching for sesame oil, Ari had divided the contents of our cart. I found him standing in line. He gestured to his cart, absent of my things: a metaphor for our now-separate lives.
I’m checking out, he said. And he smiled at me, as if to let me know that everything was all right, and I smiled back because, after all, everything was. Everything has changed, but we are all right.