I hate doing the dishes, and in 27 years of marriage I’ve hardly ever done them. She cooks at least two meals a day, sometimes three, from scratch, and cleans up the mess. That’s the deal.
One of the most exciting things about putting down the daily drunk was the highly anticipated discovery of the new me. And it was an exciting discovery. So much more productive, so much less moody, so coherent and responsible, and so much less having-to-be-carried-out-of-the-family-restaurant-drooling-and-howling. And dare I say it, happier and better adjusted? Yes! I dare!
The new me was ready to conquer some high mountains, and he did. Then, in January, the excitement started to wear off. No more daily self-pats on the back for having put down the beer can, rather, a kind of grim gaze off into the future, a gaze that pierced all the way to death and realized, “This is pretty much it.” Instead of being the heavily self-congratulated person successfully dealing with a horrible problem I became another ordinary non-drunk, and the stripping away of my heroic, self-congratulatory status felt like what, I imagine, one-shot TV wonders feel like when they go back to the McDonald’s day job.
This I could handle until another realization started creeping in. All the little hints and signs were there, and they all said the same thing: No, you are no longer drunk, but guess what? You’re still the same old asshole you always were.
I still remember the moment it hit me. She had hauled in ten sacks of groceries and set them on the floor, then gone off into the bedroom to take a rest. “What the hell,” I thought, “I’ll unload the damn things.”
One by one I emptied each sack. Milk. Bacon. Eggs. Flour. Kale. Quinoa. Vegetable oil. Strawberries. Spaghetti. Olives. Somewhere between the cans of tomato sauce and the bags of celery it hit me. Out of all these groceries, none of the things inside were for her. Left to her own devices there would be two bags, not ten, and they’d contain natto, tofu, oshinko, gobo, miso, green tea, and chocolate … not bacon and peanut butter.
Then it double-hit me. For 27 years she’s been cooking for me, not for her. For me. I wasn’t the same old asshole I’d always been, I was worse. More than six thousand nights of her life on earth had finished with a mountain of dirty dishes, and six thousand magical mornings later they were all clean, no matter that the labor of scrubbing scalded curry off the bottom and edges of a giant pot was the cherry on top of four hours’ labor over a stove. And the next day’s round of servitude in the kitchen never started until all the things that were cleaned got put away the following day so that they could all be used again.
So, it’s not completely true that I hardly ever did the dishes. To come clean, I hardly ever even bothered to set my own plates in the sink because, man.
Alcohol, not sobriety, was what allowed me to see a better me. The un-drunken picture in the mirror, un-hungover and un-looking like a dead cat, was the real picture, and however clean and clean-shaven that face now was, it was dreadful compared to the drunken, haggard one.
So that night, I think it was in mid-February, I did three things, all of which attracted extraordinary notice and eyebrow raising. I placed my dishes in the sink after eating, then washed them, then put them away. I didn’t touch anyone else’s, but after I finished she looked up at me with a gentle smile and said, “Thanks.”
To which I answered, “You’re welcome.”
For one week I did this, and the second week I took all the plates off the table, rinsed them, and loaded the dishwasher. Each time dinner started she was waiting, curiously, to see what would happen at the end, and when it did, each time she said, “Thanks,” and that word made me shiver inside.
To which I answered, “You’re welcome.”
The third week, because I awake before everyone else and make my coffee, I set the kettle on the stove and opened the dishwasher, pulling out the clean plates and cups and glasses and silver and stowing them in drawers and cupboards, and I wondered this: Is there anything more humiliating than realizing that at age fifty-one that your narcissistic, assholic self is just beginning to acquire the slight veneer of decency that most people have acquired by age ten?
There is, of course, and easy answer to that — yes. The more humiliating thing is to realize you’re still the same old girl you used to be, and not to care. I could do that, actually, but only with the help of a good stiff drink.
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