He turns off the flame.
“Go ahead. Whatever you want to know. Just ask me. It’s OK. We’re gonna be honest and we’re gonna be OK.” I don’t actually know what I mean by that, about us being OK.
He turns to me. “How was he?” Sam asks.
“Oh,” I say, surprised that Sam’s first question is about Jesse’s well-being.
“He’s OK. He’s good. He seems . . . like he’s adjusting.” I don’t mention that he seems almost bizarrely unflappable, that he is singularly focused on restoring our marriage.
“How are you?”
“I’m OK, too,” I say. “I’m a little stunned by everything. It’s very weird to see him. I’m not sure what to make of it.” I’m choosing vague words because I’m afraid to narrow anything down. I’m afraid to commit to any particular feeling more than another. I honestly don’t know what words I’d choose even if I was committed to specifics.
Sam nods, listening. And then he breathes in and asks what he really wants to know. It’s clear the first two questions were warm-ups and this is game time. “Did you kiss him?”
It’s funny, isn’t it? So often men see betrayal in what you’ve done instead of how you feel.
“No,” I say, shaking my head.
Sam is instantly relieved but I feel worse. I’m getting by on a technicality. Jesse didn’t even try to kiss me, so I don’t know if I would have let him, or if I would have kissed him back. But I still get credit as if I’d resisted. I don’t feel great about that.
“I’d understand if you did kiss him,” Sam says. “I know that . . . I guess what I’m saying is . . .”
I wait for him to finish his sentence but he doesn’t finish it. He just gives up, as if it’s too overwhelming to try to choose words for his thoughts.
I know how he feels.
He turns the burner on again and goes back to making sandwiches.
“You’re in an impossible situation,” I tell him. I want him to know that I understand what he’s going through. But I could never really understand it, could I? I have no idea what it’s like to be him right now.
“You are, too,” he says.
We’re both playing the same game with each other. We want to understand, we want to make the other person feel understood, but the truth is we’re on opposite sides of the street right now, looking over at each other and imagining what life must be like.
I watch him as his eyes narrow and his shoulders broaden from the tension in his body. I watch as he puts butter on a piece of bread.
Maybe I understand him more than I think.
Sam is making his fiancée a grilled cheese sandwich while worrying that she might leave him.
He’s scared he’s about to lose the person he loves. There’s not a fear on this earth more common than that.
“Let’s make these together,” I say, stepping toward the pan and taking the spatula out of his hand.
I’m great at flipping things with a spatula.
I’m not great at choosing what to add to a lackluster soup and I have no idea what cheese to pair with anything. But show me a half-baked omelet and I will flip it with the ease of a born chef.
“You keep buttering; I’ll flip,” I tell him.
He smiles and it’s honestly just as striking as watching the sun shine through the clouds.
“All right,” he says. He puts more energy into swiping butter across the sliced bread. It’s so yellow, the butter.
Before I met Sam, I kept sticks of cheap butter in the refrigerator and when I needed it for toast, I chopped it off in tiny chucks and futilely tried to spread the cold mess over the hot toast like a woman in a faded dramatization of an infomercial.
When Sam and I moved in together, he had this small little porcelain container that he put on the counter and when I opened it up, it looked like an upside-down cup of butter sitting in a puddle of water.
“What the hell is this?” I’d asked him as I was plugging in the toaster. Sam was putting glasses away in the cupboards, and when I said it, he laughed at me.
“It’s a French butter dish,” he said as he got off the step stool he’d been using and flattened the box the glasses had been in. “You keep the butter in the top part, put cold water in the bottom, and it keeps it chilled but spreadable.” He said it as if everyone knew this, as if I was the crazy one.
“I have been all over France,” I said to him, “and I have never seen one of these. Why is this butter so yellow? Is this some sort of fancy organic butter?”
“It’s just butter,” he said as he grabbed another box and started unloading its contents into the silverware drawer.
“This is not just butter!” I held the top cup part out to show him, as if he’d lost his mind. “Butter butter is pale yellow. This butter is yellow yellow.”
“All I just heard was, ‘Butter butter yellow butter yellow yellow.’ ”
“I think we’re both saying the same thing,” he said. “Butter is yellow.”
“Admit there is something up with this butter,” I said, pretending to interrogate him. “Admit it right now.”
“It’s not Land O’Lakes, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I laughed at him. “Land O’Lakes! What are we, Bill and Melinda Gates? I buy store-brand butter. The name on my butter is exactly equal to the name of the store I bought it from.”
Sam sighed, realizing he’d been caught. He confessed. “It’s all-natural, organic, hormone-free, grass-fed butter.”
“Wow,” I said, acting as if this was a great shock. “You think you know a person . . .”
He took the butter from me and proudly put it on the counter, as if to say that it was officially a member of our home. “It might cost almost twice as much as regular butter. But once you try it, you will never be able to eat normal butter again. And this will become your normal butter.”
After we had fully unpacked the kitchen, Sam opened the bread and took out two slices. He put them in the newly plugged-in toaster. When they were done, I watched how easy it was for him to spread butter on the slices. And then my eyes rolled back into my head when I took a bite.
“Wow,” I said.
“See?” Sam had said. “I’m right about some stuff. Next, I’m going to convince you we should get a pet.”
It was one of many moments in my life since Jesse left that I wasn’t thinking about Jesse. I was very much in love with Sam. I loved the piano and I loved that butter. A few months later, we adopted our cats. Sam was changing my life for the better and I was curious to see what else he would teach me. I was reveling in how bright our future felt together.
Now, watching him place evenly buttered bread onto the pan in front of me, I desperately want to simply love him—unequivocally and without reservation—the way I did back then, the way I felt until I found out Jesse was coming home.
We were so happy together when there was nothing to muddy the waters, when the part of myself that loved Jesse was happily and naturally repressed, kept neatly contained in a box in my heart.
Sam moves the slices of bread around the sizzling pan and I propose something impossible.
“Do you think, maybe just for tonight, that we could put a pin in all of this? That we could pretend I had a normal day at the bookstore and you had a normal day teaching and everything could be the way it was before?”
I’m expecting Sam to tell me that life doesn’t work like that, that what I’m proposing is naive or selfish or misguided. But he doesn’t.
He just smiles and then he nods. It’s a small nod. It’s not an emphatic nod or a relieved nod. His nod isn’t saying anything along the lines of “I thought you’d never ask,” or even “Sure, that sounds good,” but rather, “I can see why you’d want to try that. And I’ll go along with it.” Then he gathers himself and—in an instant—seems to be ready to pretend with me.
“All right, Emma Blair, get ready to flip,” he says as he puts the top slices on the sandwiches.