My sweetheart revealed something to me the other night before dinner—a deeply held conviction she'd managed to guard for more than two decades.
"The napkins," she said, pointing to the purple rectangles I'd tucked under the rim of each of our plates. "They're facing the wrong way."
I looked: the same wrinkly eggplant-colored squares of cloth we use all the time, unless we're using the blue-and-green Guatemalan ones or the flower-sprigged ones that look like bistro curtains in the south of France.
I'd arranged the napkins the way I usually do—a tidy oblong (or if I'm feeling fancy, a triangle) with the fold under the plate and the loose edges (straight or pointed) toward the left. It's the way my mother taught me to do it when I could barely see over the edge of our teak dining table.
The right way.
"Nooo …" I said, more puzzled than obstinate. "That doesn't make sense. The fold goes on the right. It's neater that way. Besides, then you can grab the napkin by one of its loose edges and shake it out into your lap."
Elissa was resolute: "Fold goes to the left. You always do it wrong. And it bugs me." She pulled one of the napkins from under a plate, flipped it over and set it down again. "See?"
What I see is that, after 24 years, I don't know everything—not about table-setting and not about my sweetheart. What else, I wonder, has she been keeping under wraps? And what am I concealing in return?
When I was a child and my mother correctly guessed what I was thinking, she would say, "Anndee, I know you like a book." Which only made me want to snap my covers closed and latch them with one of those tiny "Alice in Wonderland" keys. My story was simple: Only child, loving parents, solid education, writerly ambitions. But I wanted to be one of those enigmatic girls, difficult and mysterious. I wanted a sordid past, or at least a complicated one. I didn't want to be so easily read.
Then, at 26, I advertised for a writing partner and met Elissa. Every other week, we swapped stories: true ones that we wrote as memoir and cloaked ones we called short fiction. For two years, we never saw a movie, never took a walk, never met for beer. Instead, we peeled back the layers of our lives through the writing we critiqued and revised over countless Saturday morning coffees. By the time we confided our mutual attraction, under a full moon in McKenzie Bridge, it seemed inevitable that we would spend our lives this way, warmly tangled in words.
You know how it goes. At first, you're hungry to know each other: Tell me about biking around Europe. Why did you break up with that guy in college? What made you go to the yeshiva? What made you leave the Washington Post?
The years slide by. One day, you start to describe the time you gave a ride to that guy in Durango, and she furnishes the punchline, "Yeah, and you dropped him off under a double rainbow just outside the Grand Canyon. I know."
After two decades, she can tell, from the clip in your voice, that you're mad at your mother; you can guess, by her eyes' cloudiness, that she's missing her dad. She senses when you're worried about a deadline. You know when her blood sugar is low. And isn't that what you wanted? To surrender your secrets, to be this thoroughly, deliciously, maddeningly known?
One night, you wonder if this is why people have affairs: to flee the hot, queasy light of exposure, to back up to square one—flirty, mysterious, where relation is all about cracking each other's code.
The next night, you and your honey argue, for the 93rd time, about how much pasta is too much.
On the third night, a piece of your sweetheart's past lands on your foot.
The hardcover black book tumbles off the shelf in the kitchen, and I pick it up: cracked spine, curry-stained pages. Elissa used it to brainstorm menus for the café where she worked, a long time ago, in Portland, Oregon.
I thumb through, getting whiffs of her life pre-me: a life in which she whipped up something called Eggs Sardou and planned a New Year's weekend brunch featuring ginger pancakes and cranberry coulis. A recipe for broccoli, mushroom and walnut salad is hand-scrawled on the back of a scrap of manuscript, a short story—by her? by someone else?—that includes the line, "This is just one too many."
A week or so later, it happens in reverse. I come home from my parents' house with an armload of artifacts: snapshots of my wild hair days, when it looked as though a marsupial was asleep on my head; a faded Boston map from the summer I lived in an illegal sublet near a liquor store; an airmail letter, frail and blue, from the boy I loved in high school.
Some prom photos snag a cuticle of memory: Did I tell you that Adam refused to dance, that we argued all night, that I cried before breakfast in front of Peggy Kohl's house, still in my limp, flowered gown?
Like magicians' handkerchiefs, each story is knotted to another, one bright revelation tagging the next. Did you know I was afraid to dive until I was 12? That I used to admire Ayn Rand? That I collected stuffed Harlequin figures? That I once had a phobia about swallowing?
Did I tell you, my love, about the guy I ditched at 9 o'clock so I could dance with women at the bar under the Morrison Bridge? Or the time I went to Mexico with a sweetheart I'd known for two months? Or the moment I knew—when you walked into the Oasis Café in that leather jacket, notebook under your arm—that you were the one?
Yes. No. Yes. Tell me again.
Even after all this time, we are still coming out of hiding. We are still holding back. We are still, sometimes, strange to each other.
Twenty-four years, and we sit down to dinner. I know, without asking, that she wants a glass of water along with her wine. She knows, before tasting, that my lentil soup will need more salt. And the napkins are folded the wrong way. No, the right way. Actually, it depends.
"Did I ever tell you about the time I slept on the beach in Israel, near Eilat?" she says. "No," I answer, easing my napkin from under the plate—backward, forward, it doesn't really matter—its loose edges thrown open like a book.