Love & Sex

True Stories: Cleaving

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I guess the truth is that butchers intimidate the hell out of me. I've long had a bit of a thing for them, akin to the way many women feel about firefighters. Burly Irishmen covered in soot are okay, I guess, if you're into that. But I prefer this world's lock-pickers to its battering rams. Anybody with enough resolve and muscle can bust down a door; that kind of force I comprehend completely. I myself possess it, psychologically if not physically — just call me Julie "Steamroller" Powell. But a man who can both heave a whole pig over his shoulder and deftly break down the creature into all its luscious parts, in a matter of moments? That's a man whose talents I can really use.

I'm attracted to a butcher's intimate knowledge. Romantically, I imagine it's innate, that his nicked hands were born knowing how to slice those whisper-thin cutlets. I'm attracted to his courtly, old-world brand of machismo. Butchers are known for their corny jokes and their sexism, but when the man behind the counter calls me "sweetheart" or "little lady," I find myself flattered rather than offended. Most of all, I'm attracted to his authority. There's an absolute sureness to a butcher, whether he is chining lamb chops with a band saw or telling his customer just how to prepare a crown roast. He is more certain of meat than I've ever been about anything. Rippling deltoids and brawny good looks are nice, of course, but to me a butcher's sureness is the definition of masculinity. It strikes me as intoxicatingly exotic, like nothing I've ever experienced. (Well, not for years, anyway, not since I was a kid. I think of the teenager I was when I found Eric and took him to me, and it's like remembering an entirely different person.)

Maybe that's why I seem unable to open my mouth around butchers.


 If I'm dreading a conversation, I tend to practice it over and over in my head beforehand, perhaps not the most effective of preparation techniques. "I want to learn how to—" . . . "I was hoping you could teach me to—" . . . "I'm really so interested in what you do . . ." Ugh.

 

Ripling deltoids and brawny good looks are nice, but a butcher's sureness is the definition of masculinity.

This is far from the first butcher I've tried to ask for this favor. Weeks ago, I asked the guys at Ottomanelli's — my first butcher shop when I moved to New York City, and still my favorite. It's a tidy storefront on Bleecker Street with hams and ducks hanging in the meticulously polished windows and a tight awning overhead, red and white stripes as neat as the trimmed and tied meat and bones within. I used to be a regular there, and the guys behind the counter—brothers, I think, all of them in their sixties or seventies, white coats spanking clean despite days of blood and ooze—still always make a point of greeting me when I come in. It's not quite a "Norm!" sort of welcome, but there's warmth there.

But when I managed to ask, stammering, if they had a place for an apprentice with zero experience, they demurred. Not particularly shocking, I suppose. Instead they suggested one of the culinary schools downtown. I briefly entertained this notion, but it turns out culinary programs don't offer one-off classes on butchering, and I wasn't about to shell out twenty thousand bucks for a yearlong program teaching restaurant management and pastry making, my personal vision of hell. I proceeded to ask around at the handful of other butcher shops in the city, or try to, anyway. Half the time I couldn't even get the words out. When I did, the men behind the counter looked at me as if I might be a tad touched and shook their heads.

I press my lips together as the beseeching words run through my mind. And then, inevitably perhaps, he pops into my head, the one whom the word beseech sometimes seems to me to have been invented for, the man who called, two years ago, to ask me to lunch, the man I've wound up spending much of the last two years pleading with—for attention, assurance, sex, and love. The exception proving the rule of my marriage, the one man who, when he was not much more than a boy, small and dark, not so very attractive, found he could make me open my dorm room door in bewilderment, late at night, with a single knock. The one who, nine years later, discovered he could still do essentially the same thing. In my phone's contact list he is represented by a single towering initial, D.

But no. I'll not let him in, not now. I shake my head sharply, as if I could physically dislodge the errant thoughts. Find a butcher. Get him to teach you how he does what he does. Do it now. I don't know why I want this so much, what I have to gain from learning to cut up animals. Yes, I have a thing for butchers, but it hasn't ever before occurred to me to try to be one. What's going on here?

Maybe I just need distraction. D and I have been sleeping together for nearly two years now. I'm familiar with the landscape of addiction, and I recognize that I've built up a habit for him, no less real and physical than my habit for booze, which has itself grown stronger in the wake of all the various stresses of being an adulterer. And something is wrong lately, slightly off. Just thinking about that makes me crave a drink.

Eric, of course, knows I'm fucking someone else, has known for almost the entire period of my affair with D. He even knows that, in distressing point of fact, I'm in love with this other man. I don't have to tell him this. We basically share the same mind, after all. Once, I was proud of and comforted by this nearly paranormal connection. That my husband knew me so well, and I him, seemed proof of a love superior in all ways to all others. Then D happened. We fought about it when Eric first found out, of course, or rather I cried and Eric yelled and marched out of the house into the night for a few hours. But after that, there was only exhaustion, and quiet, and in all the months since we've barely spoken about it at all. Sometimes, even most of the time, everything seems fine this way. But then, this talent we share emerges and proves itself the stealthiest, most vicious weapon in our arsenals. We can delve into each other's heart and deftly pull out the scraps of filthy hidden longing and unhappiness and shame. With a look or a word, we can deftly rub these into the other's face as we'd push a dog's nose into its mess on the living room rug.

Eric knows that I'm in love with this other man.

We'll be sitting in front of the TV, say, into our second bottle of wine, watching some Netflix ix DVD. I always have my phone on silent when we're together, so Eric doesn't hear the trill or feel the buzz against the sofa cushions. But still I'm tense, glancing at the BlackBerry screen whenever Eric gets up to go to the bathroom or stir the soup. When he gets back to the couch and sits, I'll press the soles of my feet up against his thigh in a gesture of affection intended to make me seem comfortable and happy. But eventually, unconsciously, the nervous energy builds, and I'm tapping my bare feet against his pants leg. "What's the matter?" Eric will say, grabbing my feet to still them, not taking his eyes from the TV screen. I'll freeze, stop breathing, and say nothing, waiting to see if there will be more, but there won't be. There doesn't need to be. We'll stare at the television as if nothing at all has been said; when D does send me a message, if he does, I'll be afraid to answer it.

I can do the same to him. Some night my husband will go out. "Drinks with work buddies," he will say. "Back by nine." Nine o'clock and then ten will, inevitably, come and go. The first time this happened, a month or two after he discovered I was sleeping with D, I was surprised and worried. He came home that morning at two thirty and woke me up to confess, remorsefully, that he'd been on a date with another woman, that it wouldn't happen again, though I told him — ah, the pleasure of being the sainted one for once — that he deserved to be able to see anyone he wanted. By now I'm used to it; I don't expect him home, probably until dawn. I can instantly tell, from the tone of voice when he calls or the phrasing of his e-mail, that he's going to be with the woman he's been seeing off and on for nearly as long as I've been fucking D. I'm not even angry; I'm pleased. The text I send him at a little after eleven is always more than gracious: Sweetie, can you let me know if you'll be home tonight? I totally understand if you won't be. I just don't want to worry.

It might take him twenty minutes to write back, or an hour, or three. But he'll always write the same thing. I'll be home soon. I know I'm fucking up everything.

No, I'll write, all sweetness and light, you're not fucking anything up. Have fun. Come home whenever you like. When I hear the lock in the door I'll initially feign sleep while he undresses and cuddles up guiltily beside me in bed, but I'll make sure I give his hand a reassuring squeeze so he knows. In the morning I'll pretend not to see his wish that I'd scream or cry, show my hurt and thus my love. I'll poach an egg for breakfast, smiling. Nothing will be said. This is how I punish him.

When he leaves for work I'll report everything that happens to Gwen, the friend I go to with all of this. "I really don't mind. He cares for her, you know? He deserves some relief."

"Julie, honestly? I love you, but I don't know why Eric stays. I really don't."

Gwen says all the things a good girlfriend should, and every once in a while she offers to beat up my husband or my lover for me, depending on who is driving me more crazy, which is nice. But at the end of the day, she can't quite fathom the situation I find myself in.

"I know. When did we start being so nasty to each other? I mean, it's not all the time, it's really not. But—"

"Do you really see this getting any better?"


A few miles before I hit the interstate, I come over a hill and my BlackBerry goes all atwitter in the cup holder. I pick it up eagerly, though with a pang as well. I'm surprised in the moment that I'm almost disappointed the thing is working again.

 

Two messages, two men.

The first: How's the meat?

The second: Mhm.

Does everyone talk like this, in these codes? I decipher both perfectly. One pulls at me with a thousand strands of anxiety and obligation and love and solicitude and guilt; the other with a single knowing yank, the secret guttural syllable that brings me to heel.  

To both my answer is the same: I'm on my way.

Excerpted from Cleaving by Julie Powell.
Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Julie Powell thrust herself from obscurity (and an uninspiring temp job) to cyber-celebrityhood when, in 2002, she embarked on an ambitious year-long cooking (and blogging) expedition through all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously was adapted into a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in August 2009. Her writing has appeared in Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and more. A two-time James Beard Award winner in Journalism, she was awarded an honorary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and was the first ever winner of the Overall Lulu Blooker Prize for Books.