Not too long ago, after my anxiety had a late-night brush with Esther Perel, I drove past a local community centre and saw a sign for an Italian-style sausage-making class.
I love Z, I think we have a good marriage. I desire him, I’m curious about him, etc etc. (Let’s not go on too much, lest I make you uncomfortable).
It seems, however, that we’re surrounded by couples who fall out of love over the long haul. Early on in our relationship, I wondered about this: I’m not so arrogant to assume that we’re better or different than other couples, than the couples who break up. And, because I love Z, I worried, I was afraid we’d eventually part, as these other couples had.
What could we do to prevent this? Were there any steps we could take, while things were good, to make sure they stayed good?
My anxiety over this is how I found Ms. Perel. I’d been looking for ways to keep our still-burning spark alive – the spark Z probably never worries about at all – and I took her advice to heart: “keep mystery and adventure in your relationship”.
While Z was blissfully unaware, I began to view each and every date we went on as a chance to preempt a possible dwindling of mutual attraction. The pressure was on. I needed to continually find more adventurous and mysterious things for us to experience together.
Because Z does not worry about us falling out of love, because he is in love with me and is generally contented with our life together, he does not view date night the same way. He has probably never heard of Esther Perel, or her book, Mating in Captivity. He had no idea the stakes were so high.
No idea at all.
Years before, I’d taken a fancy cooking class with my sisters. The instructors poured us wine, taught us to make all sorts of obscure things (rosti on a mandoline!), told us jokes, and sent us home full and happy. At the time, I’d thought: “I should do this with Z! He’d love it!”
At the time, Z had said: “I dunno, I already know how to cook a lot of things.”
I’d replied: “Exactly! A chance for you to be around other enthusiasts!”
So this sausage-making class? At the community centre? A fraction of the price and we could still cook? (By “cook”, I mean: “strictly learn to make Calabrese sausage”) Sign us up! What could go wrong?
Later that evening I asked: “Honey, how would you feel about taking a sausage-making class?”
Z: “I already know how to make sausage. I used to watch [insert name of hometown friend]’s Dad make it. With game he’d hunt himself.”
Me: “Well, this is with meat you buy. Probably pork. It’ll be new.”
In hindsight, I should have sensed that Z was somewhat reluctant. I should have sensed he didn’t have the same anxiety about “keeping our flame alive” that I had. Instead…
Never fear, I thought: I will have to press on for both of us in the quest to ensure that our marriage is full of adventure!
The morning of, Z made some noise about going out on a weeknight. By this point, I was so determined that we were going, I would hear nothing – not a word!- of criticism about the sausage making class or my decision to sign us up. We were going to that class, come hell or high water, and we were going to have a great time, goddammit. We were going to learn new and beautiful things about each other, and we were going to stay in love forever. FOREVER!
It was nothing like the other cooking class. Not fancy at all. No laughter, few samples.
There was no wine. The instructor, Luigi, meant business: he was there to share his stash of cayenne, not to tell jokes.
And technically, we didn’t even touch the sausage, we just watched people make it. As soon as we walked into that community centre gym, and saw the Rubbermaid tubs full of pork chuck and salt, I knew: this was a terrible date idea and I should not have forced it.
Sparks did not fly: only smoke from when they fried some of the seasoned meat in the classroom, to check the taste before stuffing. I learned what intestines looked like as sausage casing; we both learned that many Italian cooks will not mix garlic with onion. But no sparks, none at all. Instead, Z was grimly forbearing, and I was dejected.
After about an hour (early!), we slipped out. Me: “Do you want to stop and actually eat some Italian?”
Z: “Let’s just go home.”
We didn’t even take our sausages; we didn’t want to make a scene.
One of the community centre employees caught us in the hallway: “Leaving now? Do you want to take your sausages with you?”
Me: “Oh, sure! We didn’t want to be too obvious that we were leaving, but that’d be great.”
We stood by a pamphlet stand as we waited. Z looked at it, briefly. The employee returned with our sausages, made in rubbermaid tubs in a community centre gym.
As we walked out, I realized Z’d taken a pamphlet: “Learn to Speak Italian”.
I was stunned. He’d never expressed an interest in anything remotely like that! I had a quick flash of us on vacation in Rome, as Z skillfully ordered us a couple of cappuccinos.
“Oh my god – are you going to take Italian classes?!”
Z: “No – I just didn’t want to make it obvious that we were only waiting for them to come back with the sausages.”
There it was: my spark, my moment of novelty. Not that he’d wanted to take Italian (that’s new!), but that he didn’t want to make the employee feel used. Nevermind that we’d thanked the man profusely and that he probably hadn’t even noticed the pamphlet. Just that Z had had that thought: “Oh, maybe grabbing this pamphlet will make this interaction a little more smooth.”
It was, without a doubt, our worst date ever – 90 minutes of smoky burnt pork chuck and anxiety – but I had my discovery.
Even when a date is terrible, you can still learn something about your partner. Z learned about the extent of my anxiety, and I learned a little bit about his subtle thoughtfulness.