"I kind of love that we just had an entire conversation about bay leaves."
He was sitting at my kitchen island. It was late, it was dark, and in a strange way, I had wanted him here, in this spot, even more than I had wanted him in my bed.
Well. Perhaps that's not entirely true.
With the clock ticking on such a precariously short visit, we spent a lot of our time together in bed. Almost all of it, in fact. I remember how the light in my bedroom changed with the day’s passing: the white-grey brightness of an overcast morning; the creamy sheen of a wind-swept afternoon; the orange-sherbet glow of dusk; and, finally, the off-black of a restless night infused with a pale beam thrown from the frosted globe atop my beside table. His eyes changed colour as the day bled out — from pellucid sky-blue to azure to a wicked shade of navy that he wore with authority past the witching hour. I was mostly guided by his touch and voice, but at one point, with my eyes uncovered and his face held so close to mine that his breath pooled in the back of my throat, he painted my insides with that indigo gaze. He himself remained free, but he had made sure to mark me indelibly.
So much of that time is now a blur in my memory. I had slept only one night in the three before his arrival. There was too much to do and no time for rest. I had an apartment to refurnish and reassemble after it had spent four months in barren quarantine (I learned firsthand that even new condominium builds are not impervious to the scourge of the urban bedbug). I had specialty shops to visit for supplies catering to very particular proclivities we would indulge. I had a rare object to track down so that I could give it to him as a departing gift. I had myself to primp and prepare. And, perhaps most important of all to me, I had ingredients to source and dishes to ready in advance of what felt like the most important meal I would ever cook and serve.
I wanted the dinner I made for him to be memorable. It had to nourish us in so many ways — with sustenance, with pleasure, with the exquisite rarity of each other's company. I wanted feeding him — feeding us — to be a labour of my love, but I didn't want to waste one precious second of his time with me, inside me, and around me at the stove. I needed to do as much as I could ahead of time so that when we were together we had only one objective: To feast. Wholly.
Tapas was perfect. A meal of small plates allowed me to do almost all the preparation in advance. It meant we could eat casually and with our hands, leaving room for conversation, touching each other, and looking out, side-by-side, at the night sky we both love so deeply. It was also a beautiful echo of the first dinner we had shared at a little Spanish restaurant tucked into a pedestrian alleyway of his city. Determined and brave, I had flown four thousand kilometres to him with barely any warning, the proof that I was not some virtual trifle — my words had meaning, and weight, and commitment. That night he had let me eat the last plump scallop from the bowl of ceviche and smiled when I blushed as deeply red as the wine in my glass every time he shook his head in disbelief and he told me how beautiful I was. We kissed for the very first time outside that Spanish resto, with strings of tiny white lights hanging over our heads, people walking past us in both directions, and never once blinking but rather letting his blue and my green ebb and flow until they came together into a colour only we could see in each other's eyes.
I carried the magic of that night within me as I shook off fatigue and prepared for this unexpected one. The food journey began with the cheese monger. He helped me pick a rich Manchego artesano and a good, buttery Iberico, but his most inspired contribution to the cheese plate was a Spanish blue. It was a queso de Valdeón that lashed the tongue with a stinging bite, and he had no idea just how perfect it was for the occasion. My guy at the fish market was similarly inspired. He suggested I use whole, head-on prawns for the salad I was making. They'd be wrapped in Serrano ham and quickly grilled, then set atop a bed of greens dressed with a pequillo pepper and sherry vinaigrette. "They're super-fresh and delicious," he said, "but you'll have to tear the heads off to eat them." He raised an eyebrow at the end of his sentence, a query about my squeamishness. Little did he know just how entirely up my alley a thoroughly brutish devouring was.
Perhaps ironically in hindsight, we didn't even get around to the salad that night. I also forgot to put out the amuse bouche — freshly shelled peanuts pan-toasted with bruised garlic and whole dry chilies then sprinkled with lime juice — while he was pouring the rioja reserva. I had made a list so I wouldn't forget any of the dishes, but I was too lost in the enormity of his presence to give it any concerted attention. What I did manage to do was heat a shallow layer of oil in a pan for frying the parboiled fingerling potatoes I had halved earlier in the day while he was napping tangled in my sheets. When they were blistered and crisp, I tossed them in a bravas sauce whose huge flavours might best be described as "lusty." While he finished arranging the cheese platter, I piled roasted red peppers marinated in garlic, anchovy, and capers on grilled baguette and reheated chorizo braised in red wine to serve with a bowl of fat hojiblanca olives to cut the richness.
Suddenly, there we were in my private realm, as I always imagined us: talking and laughing as we ate, our arms criss-crossing as we reached for more of this and another piece of that. He took out his phone and played me a song his daughter had recorded; he told me about the event he was headed to the next day. I regaled him with the stories behind objects scattered throughout my space that he pointed to and asked about. And every so often he would stop, search me with those piercing eyes, and press his mouth to mine. I had to reboot my brain every time one of those electric kisses shorted it out.
As the meal wound down, he was fishing around in the bowl of chorizo, looking for one last piece. He asked how the dish was made. "Oh, it’s so simple," I said. "You infuse red wine with bay leaves and then cook the chorizo in it until the wine turns thick and silky." He smiled thoughtfully, and a bit mischievously. "Do bay leaves really do anything?" he asked, thinking himself, I think, playfully provocative.
I laughed uproariously at the coincidence. About a week before I had come across a Bon Appétit article online about bay leaves. "Do Bay Leaves Actually Taste Like Anything?" it was called. With an excitement that can only be mustered by a true food nerd, I recounted the article's principle tenets: fresh versus dried leaves; the kinds of dishes where such a delicate flavour truly shines. The more ingredients and therefore flavours there are, the more the bay leaf is lost in the cacophony. The simpler and more streamlined the dish, the more the bay leaf thrives. I'm glad I did not grasp in the moment how painful a metaphor that would turn out to be. Instead, I simply relished the moment, leaning back and memorizing what he looked like ensconced in my kitchen and what it felt like to luxuriate in face-to-face conversation that meandered into unexpectedly wonderful places.
I had baked cheesecake, his favourite, for dessert. To fit with the tapas small-plates theme, I made tiny, individual cakes in muffin tins, and topped them two ways: with northern-Ontario blueberries sweetened with maple syrup, and with a glossy chocolate ganache I had made at 3am mere hours before his arrival, tempering Callebaut dark with sweet cream as his plane travelled eastward to me, chasing the dawn. We ate those cheesecakes on the way to the airport for his departure; they had been ignored the night before. There we were in the back of a taxi after a mere 30 hours together, eating little cakes from a plastic storage container with the fancy enamel-handled dessert forks I had tossed into my bag as we scrambled to get him out the door and to his flight on time. I remember him looking over at me as he took his first bite of the one draped in ganache. He used his fork to point repeatedly at it as he chewed silently, nodding his head. I’m glad for that memory now, as I have no recollection of how those cheesecakes tasted.
Even though we had woken early that morning, it evaporated. Before I knew it I was giving him a little package of Canadian-flag temporary tattoos and maple-sugar candy, a souvenir for his son. And then I was holding the gift I had searched out for him: a vintage compass. I knew it was the one for him the moment I saw it. It had beautiful patina and was still functional. When I held it in my hand I could feel the journeys it had been on — it knew how to lead. His life was in the middle of upheaval when he came to me, and I wanted to give him something that would always help him find his way. I wanted to give him something that would help him navigate every one of life's adventures. And if I'm honest about my intentions, I wanted to give him something that would always point the way back to me.
In the end, this gift that I had searched so diligently for betrayed me. I had wrapped it with meaning. I sat facing him on my couch as I offered it to him, prefaced with a quote that referenced, unknowingly to me, a pseudonym he used for himself that was taken from a book he had noticed on my bookshelf the day before. The synchronicity of it all gave me shivers.
But all that compass did was lead him to someone else.
I knew even before I stumbled on the evidence, the intimate comments between them buried deeply in the archives of one of his social media presences. Several months after his visit, I was having lunch with a new friend. She was telling me about a mutual online acquaintance, and a man this woman had met virtually. Oh, the things he told her. How he longed and ached for her. How she was magnificent and rare. How brilliant they would be together if only they lived in the same place. My stomach turned. I knew those words. They had been said to me. I knew better than to ask, but I did anyway: Who was he? I remember willing myself not to vomit when I heard his name.
Everything he had said to me over two years pounded in my brain: "You have touched and connected with me unlike anyone else I have ever met"; "We long for the same thing"; "What I have explored with you is deeper and richer than with anyone else"; "I would throw everything I am into you if things were different"; "Do not doubt I have loved you as much as I have allowed myself."
I don’t think those words were lies. But I no longer believe them like I once did.
I needed to hear it from him. And he told me, finally. In one of the last things of substance he ever wrote to me, he changed that story he had been telling me for weeks and months that had turned into years. I was no longer the woman he thought of daily with yearning:
"Are you the only one I have feelings for? That is not that case."
I had become a "case." An instance. One in a collection. I had been prepared never to see him again after I fed him and he got on that plane, but what I was not prepared for was his attempt to rewrite our history. I returned to that image of him sitting at my kitchen island that I had etched into my memory. I recalled our conversation about bay leaves. That’s exactly what I was: a beautiful, rare bay leaf. And my distinct, particular flavour was now lost in the cacophony of others’.
I thought of the pieces of me that lay somewhere in his possession: A talisman that had protected me through one of the most difficult periods of my life that I sent to him in a moment of his dire need. Birthday gifts that had been chosen and planned and crafted to carry multiple meanings and resonances. A mixtape that I had illustrated by hand, a soundtrack for a bad boy with a guitar. Messages delivered on days when I knew the world for him seemed hard to face. And most telling of all: My earnest attention. My belief in possibility. Over time, I had essentially given him all of me, bit by bit: my body, when I could, and the very best of what I carried in my mind, my heart, and at centre of my being.
The distance between us was always an easy excuse. I had the will and ability to move. The truth is that what I offered him was not what he truly craved. If it was, there would have been no debate. That’s how humans are built. We pursue the things we cannot do without. Even though I have moved forward, I’ve carried the pain of that truth with me — the idea that who I am and what I gave was somehow not right, or somehow not enough.
It’s taken me a full year since that last night together to understand there is more to the truth.
As I searched myself recently in quiet meditation, I found the vestiges of him left behind: The dark smudges on my heart from the doubt I always had. The dents in my gut where it had ached every time his words and actions would clash in utter dissonance. The tarnish on the joy I felt when giving to him as opportunities for him to reciprocate came and went unseized.
The whole of the truth is that he was not able to sate my appetite, either. I was ravenous for someone who wanted to go soul-deep with me without fear. That couldn’t compete with his desires, which were carefully chosen to protect him from risk. So where we lived never really mattered. Even if we had been in the same place, we would have starved in each other’s presence.
His appearance in my life coincided with a hunger I have never known, and I always assumed that meant he was the one who was supposed to satisfy it. The hardest truth of all has been the realization that he is not. That he could not.
The hardest truth of all has been the realization that I still hunger for the one who will.