What Sustains Me

By

It’s Friday night—date night—and I’m sitting in a fine dining restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Candlelight flickers from the table, illuminating the cocktail in front of me. I stare out the window into the shadowy streetscape. A young woman in short denim cutoffs runs across the street, stops, then turns to stare at the young man running after her. She laughs. When he reaches her, she wraps her arms around him, then tips to the side. He holds her up. She laughs harder. She is drunk.

She pulls him towards the bar near them. The bouncer looks on stoically. The young man pulls her arm as if to say, Come back. Come back.

She grabs his hand—tugs—as if to say, No, you. No, you.

I lean in closer to the glass. Who will win?

I hear a noise, look away from the window. The server puts down my roasted cauliflower, cashew, and crispy chickpea soup.

“Are you alone?” he asks.

“Yes.”

He smiles at me sympathetically, but I look back out the window just in time to see the young man being pulled into the bright bar by a force he cannot control.

I don’t live in Columbus, Ohio. I live an hour and a half away in the town where I am finishing my PhD, but I’m flying out in the morning to Vermont where I will spend two weeks at a writer’s residency. I’m spending the night at the same hotel that I always stay at—a Days Inn that allows me to park my car for free. In the elevator, there is a poster of a bearded man in a bright blue suit. The first time that I saw that poster, I texted my friend P.J., “I have found your doppelgänger at a hotel.”

He texted back, “Are you staying at a Days Inn?”

Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to have made that connection.

I met P.J. at a bar in my hometown. It was the day after Christmas, and also the day after my thirty-eighth birthday. P.J. was thirty-one, a wildlands firefighter. I mistook him for a different thirty-year-old firefighter whom I had flirted with the summer before. P.J. laughed at me and told me I was wrong. I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t.

He asked if he could buy me a drink, and I said that he could. He friended me on Facebook the next day and suggested that we go to the hot springs. In my hometown, in rural Idaho, going to the hot springs is “Netflix and Chill.”

We went to the hot springs.

Only a few winters before, I had spent the day after Christmas curled up in bed and crying in my parents’ basement because I had just left my abusive husband who I was still in love with. Do you know how hard it is to leave someone you still love?

Still, I did it. I packed up and moved to another state to get my PhD. I took our seven-year-old son with me, and together, we moved into a tiny apartment on the top floor of a complex that typically houses undergraduates. Our apartment had a galley kitchen with no dishwasher, and we didn’t have a washing machine or dryer.

I discovered that, if we were resourceful, we could go for almost a month without washing our clothes, but then I had to pack up all of the laundry, along with the kiddo, and go to the laundromat on the corner where, for hours, we sat side by side while the clothes swished back and forth in the washing machines, and I looked at my little boy—his feet not touching the ground, his nose in a Harry Potter book, and thought—this was not the childhood I had planned on giving him.

Time in the laundromat felt so long—stretched into painful increments—but it wasn’t as long as the nights, especially the nights when my son was at his dad’s. Every other weekend, I drove over the state line to the Richie County 7-Eleven in West Virginia where my ex-husband and I handed off our son for the one and a half days remaining in the weekend. My ex-husband wasn’t abusive to our son, but it was still hard for me to send them off together. The Richie County 7-Eleven was in the heart of fracking country, and when I drove back to my tiny apartment, I could see caravans of gas tankers driving past me, flashers twinkling.

I could almost convince myself that they were fireflies.

Once home in my little apartment, what could I do? I knew what I would have done on a weekend when I was married. Together, my husband and I would have cooked an elaborate meal. We called those “date nights.” We made bouillabaisse, spaghetti carbonara, chicken with forty cloves of garlic, lamb chops with olive butter.

We ate and loved so well.

But when we weren’t eating and loving well, we were fighting. And when we weren’t fighting, he was apologizing.

He apologized through food. He knew how much I loved food, and how much I loved the time that we spent together preparing it, but soon, when he was beating me most of the time, he was also cooking most of the time. He would hurt me, then prepare me the most elaborate meals that he had ever prepared. He would cook whatever I wanted and I would lap the salty goodness into my bruised mouth.

For a moment, I would feel satiated.

In my marriage, food was love.

And control.

And coercion.

And apologies.

By the end of the marriage, I was rarely cooking. Or driving. Or doing anything that a normal adult would do. By the end of my marriage, I was merely trying to survive.

During the first year in my PhD program, I had to relearn all of those things.

Finally, one quiet night, when my son was at his father’s, I pulled out a cookbook and chose some recipes that I knew my ex-husband would never have wanted to eat. I went to my galley kitchen and started cooking. I baked the beets, then peeled the oranges for a beet, orange, and black olive salad. I made toasted, herbed rice, and I prepared a seasoned yogurt sauce.

Because cooking by myself was boring, I brought my laptop in and set it up in the corner. I streamed the show Pretty Little Liars and knew that I was twenty years out of that show’s demographic but didn’t care. After all, I had no husband in my ear to criticize me for my pedestrian tastes.

Hulu only had the five most recent episodes, so I had no idea what was happening in the story:

Who was A?

I mean, Mona is obviously A, right?

That teacher is super-hot, but I’m pretty sure it’s not okay for him to date a high school student.

Wait, why are they stuck in a house surrounded by creepy dolls?

And my food was ready. I took a scoop of the rice, placed the beet salad carefully upon it, and added a dollop of yogurt on the side. It was so beautiful that I took a picture and posted it in my Facebook feed.

Then, I poured a glass of wine, sat on my couch, watched more Pretty Little Liars, and ate a meal that went down easily after so many others had not. The meal sustained me. I knew that I was safe. I felt satiated.

I had done it all on my own.

This is not where I say that I was fixed. I still had so much pain. But I kept getting up in the mornings. Kept driving. Kept doing laundry. Kept cooking for myself.

One night, I cooked spaghetti carbonara for a friend even though the memory of my ex-husband throwing a hot bowl of carbonara on the floor still made me shiver. My friend and I ate the carbonara while watching Dirty Dancing, and when I think of carbonara now, I think of my friend rather than my ex-husband.

Another night, I cooked eggplant parmesan for a man who wanted to step in, to do it for me, and I said to him firmly, “I can do this on my own.”

Another night, I made myself cheese and crackers for dinner and wept because single parenting, and graduate school, and my future all seemed so unknowable.

And another night, I walked through the snowy streets of my hometown to P.J.’s house after we had gone to the hot springs, and I didn’t feel guilty because I knew that the years following my divorce had been long and lonely, and I deserved to have a fling with someone who wasn’t going to hurt me.

And he didn’t. We became friends. We moved on with our lives. He met someone he loves, and he deserves that.

He told me recently, “You never seemed desperate to me.”

I needed to hear that because it’s not easy to be alone. It’s not easy to be alone five years after my divorce when my ex-husband is already remarried and has another child. It’s not easy to be alone when I’m nearing forty and know the world is not kind to women of a certain age. It’s not easy to be alone when I’m eating cheese and crackers on the couch.

But when I’m sitting in a fine dining restaurant by myself because I have been fortunate enough to get a fellowship to a writer’s residency, and the server sets my soup in front of me just as I’m engrossed in the story of a couple I’ll never know, and I take a bite of that soup, which is so creamy, silky, and delicious that it is almost sensual, then I know that I have created the life for myself that I always wanted. I know that the woman I am now was always holding the hand of the woman I was then.

She was always tugging and saying, No, you. No, you.

***

Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.


Kelly Sundberg's memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in June 2018. Her essay "It Will Look Like a Sunset" was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been published in a variety of literary magazines. She has a PhD in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio University and lives with her son in Athens, Ohio where she is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Ohio University. More from this author →