Back to the story of my relationship with Bear. In honor of my wedding, which is suddenly less than a month away. Weddings are sneaky like that. Which is surprising, really, because the thing is giant and lumbering and trailing like 300 feet of ribbons and roses and lace behind it. Sometimes I get tied up in the ribbons. Which is why I decided to start writing about the love. For part one, where I meet Bear, click here. For part two, where I am clearly not on a marriage track, click here.
So where was I.…I was sitting in an office in Manhattan, emailing Bear and trying to get some work done. We’d met the week before for the first time. We were sending each other articles from the New York Times online.
I sent him one about a place that was selling pastrami burgers (yeah, you read that right) in Salt Lake City. It was a funny little piece in a series called United Tastes that reported food trends that expressed something about the intersections of different cultures.
I said something like, “Mmm….Pastrami. Burgers? As a Jew, I’m a little offended, but definitely intrigued.”
And he wrote back, “Want to go try one?”
I smiled at the screen and typed, “Of course!”
He said, “How’s this weekend?”
I said, “Well, I have a gig Friday night, but Saturday and Sunday are free.” I was playing in a friend’s basement, but he didn’t have to know that. Anyway, what was he talking about?
He wrote, “I’m booking the flight now.”
“Wait—“ I said, “I don’t think I can really afford this.” I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. My brain was stuck. Was he serious? Could anyone possibly be serious about something like this? I thought he might be. I thought he couldn’t be, but he might be. I didn’t know how I believed him, but I randomly, inexplicably did.
“You can get the next one.”
Right. When we go to Portland, Oregon next weekend for a hotdog.
I was grinning. The helpless kind of grinning where it commandeers your face and you have to just close your eyes and go with it. I felt hysterical. I jumped up from the desk and rushed out into the hall, where I squealed as quietly as I could. Squealing quietly is not easy. I called my mother, my father, Emily, both of my brothers. I was about to call my grandmothers and the rest of my friends when it occurred to me that I’d been out in the hall for a while and should probably go back in and sit in front of the computer and grin hysterically at the screen until 5:00. So I went back inside.
Dad wrote to me, “I want this guy’s information. Full name, please. Social security number.”
Mom wrote to me, “Are you sure you’re comfortable with this?”
“Definitely!” I said.
And then, after a humiliating experience with a keyboard in a friend’s basement, it was five in the morning on Saturday, and Bear was in a cab outside my building, looking half-asleep and sort of stunned and happy. The cab broke down in the fifties, and we stood outside in the eerie gray silence of the too-early morning, watching a man haul another man out of another cab so that we could get in. At first it looked like the second man was dead, but it turned out that he was only very, very drunk. We got in. We held hands. He asked how my gig had gone, and I said, “It was really terrible. But who cares?” He seemed to care.
He seemed to know where he was going inside the airport. I felt little next to him. We stood in line. He felt familiar. His face was so boyish, it was impossible not to feel comfortable with him. I was wearing a black shirt that kept slipping off my shoulders and jeans that were too big. And these awful, long, lumpy black Reeboks that I’d gotten when I was thirteen or so. My feet stopped growing then, and I hardly ever wear sneakers. But I remembered Dad saying you always should wear sneakers on the plane. It occurred to me on the plane that maybe Dad always said that because he always wore sneakers everywhere, and thought they were the best shoes for every situation, especially out of the ordinary situations with unpredictable elements. Bear was wearing khaki colored normal boy pants and a soft orange shirt. Probably from the Gap. I was so tired that I almost didn’t have to think about leaning against him. I almost just did it, without it having to matter. But it mattered. He put his hand on my leg. Just above the knee. It was warm and heavy.
When I had thought about this trip in the two days I’d had to think about it before it was happening, my mind went immediately to a blurry, overcharged collision of ideas that revolved around Bear lying with me in a bed. We were just lying there, as far as I could tell. But I could feel his whole body. And the strange, colossal joy of that overwhelmed me, even in fantasy. The entire trip was shaped like a chute— whoosh! Down to the bed. Down to the wild peace of my head on his chest. I didn’t know why it would be like that, but it would be. It would be an ocean of relief.
We walked through the burning hot Utah airport, and we signed up for a rental car. We got in the car. I reminded Bear to test his bloodsugar before driving. The finger sticker made its sharp pop as he pricked his fingertip. I can imagine the spring inside it every time. So tight and anxious. The slightest flick sets it off. He squeezed the drop of blood out onto the strip, which he’d fixed in the mouth of the machine. It was in the low 100s. Perfect.
He turned the car on and the radio came on with it. A rock song. We let it play as we maneuvered through the parking garage, out into the scorching dessert sun. The song switched. To something that had been on the radio the last time I’d seriously made an effort to listen to the radio, when I was thirteen. He’d been fifteen, and apparently he’d been listening too. I started singing. He started singing, a lot more quietly, and we looked at each other and said, almost simultaneously, “We’re in Utah!”
We were two little kids in an arbitrary little car on a little highway in the middle of an arid, infinite golden land. In the distance, dusty mountains pushed against the pale, expressionless sky. We had landed on Mars. Anything could happen. We were smiling straight ahead, and then glancing at each other, afraid to smile directly into each other’s faces.
I wouldn’t have been able to imagine Bear singing along with the radio a few days ago, but now that he was, I could see how he would. I could see how unguarded he was, and how quickly he opened to joy. He scrunched his adorable goyish nose and did a hardcore rocker face that looked like a six-year-old boy imitating a supervillain.
He drove straight to Crown Burgers, the place with the pastrami burgers. The city grid is simple. It was like the Mormons really, really wanted us to eat their burgers. It was a ridiculous little fast food joint, with stuffed pheasants pinned to the walls and strings of dirty silk ivy looping up the doorframes. We sat at a table in the back, two of the legendary culinary concoctions on red plastic trays in front of us, under a bevy of chandeliers, and looked at one another. Suddenly, I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Well, here we are in Salt Lake City,” Bear said. “These pastrami burgers better be amazing.”
We looked down at the burgers. A few pink slivers curled at the edges of the buns, tangled in shredded iceberg lettuce and slicked with mayo. It didn’t look like any respectable Jewish pastrami I’d ever seen. But the world was changing. I took a bite. Not bad. Something about it worked. I realized immediately that it wouldn’t have come together in the same manner had the pastrami been the kind I’d grown up with. This casual, curling meat was pastrami destined for companionship with ground beef. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. Really.
Bear said, “I like you.” He had grease on his chin and the sweetest eyes I’d ever seen. Are guys even allowed to have eyes that pretty? Green. A subtle light green. I’d thought they were blue and was pleasantly surprised. Green is the rarest eye color.
I said, “I like you, too.” We took matching bites of our burgers.
“So,” he said. “Does this mean that we’re—dating?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Just because you flew me to Salt Lake City doesn’t mean I’m going to date you!” He looked so teasably earnest.
“No, I know,” he said too quickly. “I didn’t expect that.”
“We’ll have to see how things go,” I said. “I want to be the one who does the asking out, ok?”
He smiled. “OK.”
I sounded pretty cool. Bear had to run out to the car and get his blood kit. I watched him through the bank of windows with their seedy half-open horizontal blinds. He actually jogged. Like he was in a hurry to get back to me. I looked down at the gory remains of my burger. I looked at a dead pheasant on the wall. I was so happy I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I was happy and I was happy and I was happy. We’d walked up a mountain trail, looking for a waterfall that was rumored to be somewhere towards the top of something. The dust we kicked up stained my legs nearly to my knees. Bear was drenched in sweat. We’d forgotten to bring water. While he was in the shower back in the hotel, I picked it up his shirt and smelled it. Something magical happened. My heart paused. It was a “the first time in my life” moment. I’m not sure if it was actually my heart, or if it was my brain. Or if it was everything at once. I paused, stuck in place. I had never smelled anything so good. I put the shirt down, in slow motion. I walked back into the bedroom. And then, as though I’d stepped into a Disney movie, I twirled in front of the full-length mirror. My wet hair lifted into a straight line behind me and droplets flew from it and speckled the glass. I grinned at my reflection. The shower shut off and I jumped into the bed. A few minutes later, Bear came into the room, looking bashful. He sat down on the bed.
What happened next is confusing. I wish there had been a hidden camera somewhere and I could buy the footage on the black market. Not that I would be able to explain myself then. But at least I’d be able to watch myself in action.
For the record, he kissed me first. But it was a very nice kiss. And then I attacked him. Viciously. He was much larger than me, but caught completely off guard, and he fell back, helplessly pinned. He was laughing—not at me—with utter surprise. He was laughing like there was no way he’d ever imagined anything this extreme happening. It all registered somewhere, in the part of my brain that was still human. Mostly I was concentrating on eating him alive.
It was the beginning of a beautiful romance.
The concierge at the hotel was a very blond man with perfect posture and a perpetual grin. He said, “New York City! We don’t get a lot of folks from there! What brings you here?”
We explained as best we could. His eyes went from wide to wider, and then returned to wide, in the space of a moment. “That’s just great,” he said. “I am partial to a good crown burger myself.”
We picked up a map and borrowed some sunscreen from the concierge, who eagerly handed over his personal bottle.
“What should we do now?” I asked.
We drove around Utah Lake. The land was a breathtaking, teetering balance of wild against calm, centered by that stark, achingly wide-open sense the Southwest has of making you abruptly smaller than you ever imagined you could reasonably be.
Back in New York City, Bear and I made pastrami burgers in my apartment. The pastrami was from Zabars. They were delicious, and I changed my mind about quieter, less flavorful brands being the only legitimate option for a burger. Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate and support Crown Burgers’ endeavors. Because I definitely do.
* * *
Un-Roast: Today I love the ridiculous faces I can make, without even trying very hard. It takes a special face to be able to look that weird.
P.S. Shout out to Janetha, who lives in Salt Lake City! Your city changed my life!