What Sustains Me

I hear a noise, look away from the window. was thirty-one, a wildlands firefighter. She laughs harder. But I kept getting up in the mornings. I mistook him for a different thirty-year-old firefighter whom I had flirted with the summer before. I packed up and moved to another state to get my PhD. I took our seven-year-old son with me, and together, we moved into a tiny apartment on the top floor of a complex that typically houses undergraduates. She pulls him towards the bar near them. This is not where I say that I was fixed. I discovered that, if we were resourceful, we could go for almost a month without washing our clothes, but then I had to pack up all of the laundry, along with the kiddo, and go to the laundromat on the corner where, for hours, we sat side by side while the clothes swished back and forth in the washing machines, and I looked at my little boy—his feet not touching the ground, his nose in a Harry Potter book, and thought—this was not the childhood I had planned on giving him. He apologized through food. I went to my galley kitchen and started cooking. The young man pulls her arm as if to say, Come back. Together, my husband and I would have cooked an elaborate meal. The first time that I saw that poster, I texted my friend P.J., “I have found your doppelgänger at a hotel.”
He texted back, “Are you staying at a Days Inn?”
Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to have made that connection. My friend and I ate the carbonara while watching Dirty Dancing, and when I think of carbonara now, I think of my friend rather than my ex-husband. laughed at me and told me I was wrong. She grabs his hand—tugs—as if to say, No, you. In the elevator, there is a poster of a bearded man in a bright blue suit. A young woman in short denim cutoffs runs across the street, stops, then turns to stare at the young man running after her. Kept cooking for myself. It’s not easy to be alone five years after my divorce when my ex-husband is already remarried and has another child. He would hurt me, then prepare me the most elaborate meals that he had ever prepared. We called those “date nights.” We made bouillabaisse, spaghetti carbonara, chicken with forty cloves of garlic, lamb chops with olive butter. ***
Rumpus original art by   Elizabeth Schmuhl. I know that the woman I am now was always holding the hand of the woman I was then. Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in June 2018. Then, I poured a glass of wine, sat on my couch, watched more Pretty Little Liars, and ate a meal that went down easily after so many others had not. “Are you alone?” he asks. Once home in my little apartment, what could I do? I had done it all on my own. Wait, why are they stuck in a house surrounded by creepy dolls? I mean, Mona is obviously A, right? Kept driving. He knew how much I loved food, and how much I loved the time that we spent together preparing it, but soon, when he was beating me most of the time, he was also cooking most of the time. No, you. Finally, one quiet night, when my son was at his father’s, I pulled out a cookbook and chose some recipes that I knew my ex-husband would never have wanted to eat. Our apartment had a galley kitchen with no dishwasher, and we didn’t have a washing machine or dryer. Or doing anything that a normal adult would do. I live an hour and a half away in the town where I am finishing my PhD, but I’m flying out in the morning to Vermont where I will spend two weeks at a writer’s residency. He friended me on Facebook the next day and suggested that we go to the hot springs. She has a PhD in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio University and lives with her son in Athens, Ohio where she is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Ohio University. We moved on with our lives. He holds her up. I knew that I was safe. I don’t live in Columbus, Ohio. It was so beautiful that I took a picture and posted it in my Facebook feed. And when we weren’t fighting, he was apologizing. In my marriage, food was love. And apologies. He met someone he loves, and he deserves that. Another night, I cooked eggplant parmesan for a man who wanted to step in, to do it for me, and I said to him firmly, “I can do this on my own.”
Another night, I made myself cheese and crackers for dinner and wept because single parenting, and graduate school, and my future all seemed so unknowable. The bouncer looks on stoically. But when we weren’t eating and loving well, we were fighting. Candlelight flickers from the table, illuminating the cocktail in front of me. It’s not easy to be alone when I’m nearing forty and know the world is not kind to women of a certain age. She laughs. I still had so much pain. She was always tugging and saying, No, you. During the first year in my PhD program, I had to relearn all of those things. We became friends. I streamed the show Pretty Little Liars and knew that I was twenty years out of that show’s demographic but didn’t care. By the end of my marriage, I was merely trying to survive. Only a few winters before, I had spent the day after Christmas curled up in bed and crying in my parents’ basement because I had just left my abusive husband who I was still in love with. Do you know how hard it is to leave someone you still love? Still, I did it. For a moment, I would feel satiated. Because cooking by myself was boring, I brought my laptop in and set it up in the corner. The server puts down my roasted cauliflower, cashew, and crispy chickpea soup. He told me recently, “You never seemed desperate to me.”
I needed to hear that because it’s not easy to be alone. The Richie County 7-Eleven was in the heart of fracking country, and when I drove back to my tiny apartment, I could see caravans of gas tankers driving past me, flashers twinkling. It’s not easy to be alone when I’m eating cheese and crackers on the couch. And control. I made toasted, herbed rice, and I prepared a seasoned yogurt sauce. P.J. I felt satiated. at a bar in my hometown. I baked the beets, then peeled the oranges for a beet, orange, and black olive salad. No, you. Or driving. I could almost convince myself that they were fireflies. I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t. And he didn’t. He would cook whatever I wanted and I would lap the salty goodness into my bruised mouth. But when I’m sitting in a fine dining restaurant by myself because I have been fortunate enough to get a fellowship to a writer’s residency, and the server sets my soup in front of me just as I’m engrossed in the story of a couple I’ll never know, and I take a bite of that soup, which is so creamy, silky, and delicious that it is almost sensual, then I know that I have created the life for myself that I always wanted. I lean in closer to the glass. The meal sustained me. I’m spending the night at the same hotel that I always stay at—a Days Inn that allows me to park my car for free. One night, I cooked spaghetti carbonara for a friend even though the memory of my ex-husband throwing a hot bowl of carbonara on the floor still made me shiver. I stare out the window into the shadowy streetscape. More from this author → That teacher is super-hot, but I’m pretty sure it’s not okay for him to date a high school student. After all, I had no husband in my ear to criticize me for my pedestrian tastes. Time in the laundromat felt so long—stretched into painful increments—but it wasn’t as long as the nights, especially the nights when my son was at his dad’s. And coercion. Come back. P.J. And my food was ready. Hulu only had the five most recent episodes, so I had no idea what was happening in the story:
Who was A? I knew what I would have done on a weekend when I was married. “Yes.”
He smiles at me sympathetically, but I look back out the window just in time to see the young man being pulled into the bright bar by a force he cannot control. It was the day after Christmas, and also the day after my thirty-eighth birthday. In my hometown, in rural Idaho, going to the hot springs is “Netflix and Chill.”
We went to the hot springs. Every other weekend, I drove over the state line to the Richie County 7-Eleven in West Virginia where my ex-husband and I handed off our son for the one and a half days remaining in the weekend. When he reaches her, she wraps her arms around him, then tips to the side. My ex-husband wasn’t abusive to our son, but it was still hard for me to send them off together. I met P.J. We ate and loved so well. He asked if he could buy me a drink, and I said that he could. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been published in a variety of literary magazines. By the end of the marriage, I was rarely cooking. And another night, I walked through the snowy streets of my hometown to P.J.’s house after we had gone to the hot springs, and I didn’t feel guilty because I knew that the years following my divorce had been long and lonely, and I deserved to have a fling with someone who wasn’t going to hurt me. What Sustains Me

By Kelly Sundberg
August 7th, 2018

It’s Friday night—date night—and I’m sitting in a fine dining restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. She is drunk. I took a scoop of the rice, placed the beet salad carefully upon it, and added a dollop of yogurt on the side. Who will win? Kept doing laundry.