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The Woman Before Me

I find the letter in a drawer while trying to KonMari our bedroom. The handwriting on the envelope is measured and hopeful and dotted with hearts, and my own heart flutters as I unfold the notebook paper inside.

The writer is young and ardent. “It won’t be easy,” she says. “I know that. But we’ll do it together, and that’s what counts.”

It feels a bit intrusive, reading her romantic professions like this. It feels unseemly, unfair, like I am spying on them from the bushes. (And to do that, I’d likely choose my son’s yellow binoculars over the green ones; the green ones are better for long-range dino hunting. Obviously.)

I look over my shoulder—still alone—and sit down on the bed to continue reading.

My husband’s admirer paints a picture with her words of the stolen moments they’ve shared: walks by the water. Dances in the dark. Cupcakes he taught her to make, treats she describes as “orgasmic” (gag me with a toddler spoon).

She waxes poetic about the love growing between them that she believes will never fail.

Her idealism is sweet. Her unwavering faith in my husband and in the God who brought them together, is inspiring. 

Does he wish he was with her now? 

***

I used to make him dinner. OK, scratch that—there have been times I have made him dinner. Lasagna. Enchiladas. Stir-fry.

Usually? I’m throwing pasta into a pot or suggesting we call out for chicken pho again. 

But the woman before me made him osso bucco from an Italian cookbook gifted to her by her mother. She paid attention to the way he considered ordering it when they went out for Italian and then secretly plotted to surprise him by inviting him to dinner. Her apartment was spotless, candles were burning, music from Pandora drifting in from the laptop in her bedroom.

It’s worth noting that osso bucco is veal, and oh my goodness the woman before me knew it must be love if she was willing to purchase and cook up baby cow.

When one makes osso bucco, one must tie it up with string so the tender meat doesn’t slip away from the bone as it simmers. She had planned everything but the string. The twine she dug out of her closet was blue, and of course that meant the steaming water was, too. When my husband arrived, the water was blue and the meat hadn’t simmered long enough, and oh how they laughed when she asked him how it was, and he said “Maybe you should try it before I answer that question?”

It was tough and bland, and for a second she felt like a failure. But then she saw his eyes, brimming with adoration and acceptance, and in that moment she knew that to him, she could never fail.

Tonight, we sip on pho over TV trays and watch our next episode of Ozark. And I feel pretty darn good about that. The kids are fed, clean, and sleeping. I’m off duty now, I think. I sneak a sideways glance at my husband as I turn that thought over in my mind.

***

Her words are still with me as I pour the chili sauce and grape jelly into the crock pot, making sure to cover the frozen meatballs, setting the timer to go off in time for the Super Bowl. Her words are with me as I dice the onions and garlic and carrots for the new chicken soup recipe I felt inspired to try. What am I trying to prove? I think, as the vegetables simmer and the smell of garlic fills the house. 

She probably cried when she wrote that letter to my husband. Tears of anticipation, and hope, and fear. Tears of joy that spilled out with the word “remember?”

But I can’t remember the last time I cried writing a letter to my husband. Can I even remember the last one I wrote? It was probably an email. Or a text. Something along the lines of “HAHA naked babies in a wagon” with a corresponding photo of the kids (because my gosh, those jokers never wear clothes). 

The woman before me was too shy to share her heartfelt words in person, but my husband and I know the curves and angles of each other and there’s no longer any need to be coy. 

Do I imagine a little spring in his step as he enters the kitchen? “Mmm… smells good!” he says as he sneaks a peek at the meatballs. This wasn’t a surprise—he picked up the ingredients at the commissary, our boys in tow—but maybe that part doesn’t matter.

The solitary hours she poured into planning the perfect meal hadn’t really worked for the woman before me. Besides, my husband likes to cook. He would have kept that blue twine out of the water, I’m sure.

The meatballs are ready, and my husband plates a few. They are tasty, sweet and a little spicy. Perfection.

“Do you need help with the soup?” he asks, seeing the mess I’ve made on the counter. I should probably let him help, but I don’t, because I keep grasping stubbornly to this image I have of the ideal wife—a wife who single-handedly cooks and cleans and still has energy to play with the kids and maintain intimacy with her husband—the wife the woman before me longed to be.

And sometimes I wish I could still be her, the woman I was when I wrote those hopeful words to my husband on our wedding day.

But I am not the ideal wife, and she was not the ideal woman. We are the same. And in my own way I’m still trying to keep the meat from slipping off the bone.

***

That day in my apartment, he told me he didn’t mind the blue water. He said it would have been okay if I had skipped the twine altogether.

“But then it would have fallen apart!”

“And?”

“It would have looked disgusting!”

“It doesn’t matter what it looks like—and maybe it would have cooked better that way?”

“But the recipe said—”

He laughed. Because for all my planning and highlighting and following directions, the meat wasn’t ready. No amount of pointing to the cookbook would change that fact.

We put the meat back into the pot, this time unbound and sprinkled with salt. We let it simmer while we ate our salad and watched a movie. Before he went home we tasted the meat again, and it melted on our tongues, bursting with flavor.

***

My husband sits next to me at the table and tastes the chicken soup.

“How is it?” I ask.

“It’s good,” he responds cheerfully, reaching for the salt and shaking it no less than twenty times. I scoff (because gross), but when he offers me a taste I am stunned to learn he is right. 

We laugh together, and I catch his eye. “Thanks for making soup,” he says. 

And I remember, at least for the moment, that we will never fail.

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