Relationship Symbology: Sometimes a Pancake Is Just a Pancake

My boyfriend Joshua has a terrible disease. It’s tragic and incurable. And annoying. It’s called “Selective Blindness”, and it basically means that Joshua can’t find shit for shit.

But like, actually, guys. If Joshua doesn’t know where something is immediately, no amount of looking will ever uncover it. Even things that are always confined to a finite space− things that go in the fridge, for instance− will evade him in perpetuity if the item is not precisely in the spot he expects it to be.

Allow me to present a generalized but representative scenario:

Moments before the onset of the Selective Blindness, I will have said something like, “Josh, will you get out the Romano cheese?” because we are cooking dinner, and whatever we are cooking requires Romano cheese, probably because it is delicious. I know exactly where the Romano cheese is, because when Joshua opens the fridge to get it, I see it. Because it is there. In the fridge. Where it can easily be seen. It is not a furtive cheese.

Naively confident that he will see it too, I go back to chopping or sautéing whatever it was that prevented me from getting out the Romano cheese myself. Seconds pass. Joshua, bent over and peering into the fridge, is suspiciously silent. He cannot find the Romano cheese. What I imagine happens to him is this:

Once he fails to locate the Romano cheese in less than 1 second, every other food item and container in the fridge becomes wiped of its identity and any characteristic properties. All food and foodstuffs become blanks: Uniform, opaque cartons and Tupperware; label-less bottles and jars; empty, colorless lumps that were once easily identifiable produce items. All significance and means of differentiation are washed out of this chilly microcosm in a blink. What chance does he stand of finding the Romano cheese now? How can he tell one faceless product from the next? Within a few brief moments of staring at these soulless items staring back at him, he begins a rapid spiral of self-doubt: Maybe we never had any Romano cheese in the first place. And even if we did, what chance have I of extracting it from this anonymous army of goods? All is lost, ALL IS LOST!

There is no other way I can explain his utterly amazing struggle to find things that are literally right in front of him. Almost daily.

At this point, after the telling silence, I will usually hear him say something like, “Babe, we don’t have any.”

“Yes, we do,” I will say, more exasperated than I need to be.

“Are you sure?” And he will look into the fridge again in a half-hearted attempt to convince me that what he sees in there is a normal fridge full of food and a container of Romano cheese about to bite him in the face, and not a surrealist consumer hellscape.

At this point I will walk over, pluck the Romano cheese from where it has unsneakily been perched all along, smile a bit smugly at him, and go back to cooking.

But on the inside, my heart is shredding and I inwardly weep; Joshua is clearly very sick, and no one understands.

 

 

Joshua’s total ineptitude at finding things in plain or nearly-plain sight fascinates me, much to his chagrin. (Plus, I kinda get off on feeling omniscient, since I apparently know where everything is.) He got pissed at me recently when I told him that from now on, I wasn’t going to rescue him by finding the item, but rather play “Hot and Cold” with him while he searched so I could observe the struggle. That lasted about 10 seconds.

“Warmer…warmer…”

“Just tell me where it is!”

“Colder…colder… Cold. Ice.”

“That’s not fair!” he moaned. “It’s just easier to ask you.”

“I’m enabling you,” I said, knowing it was true, then handing him the Scotch tape.

I don’t want you to think that Joshua is lazy. He is very much the opposite. He wakes up early and goes to auditions. He works out like 5 days per week, which is usually 5 more days per week than I work out. He cleans and does other chores that I avoid like the plague. He’s a very driven, active person. He just has a disability.

His failure at locating things extends to information as well. If there is a nugget of vital info that he needs to extract from a block of text− say, the fact that an audition call is for women only− he will not see it. He will look over a contract and then complain that it doesn’t say anything about housing, and then I will turn directly to the section titled “Housing” and fill him in. He books bus tickets for incorrect dates. He misremembers appointment times. He even showed up in New York a week early for rehearsals for the national tour he was in− accidentally.

And what kills me is that he loves reading! He reads all the time! He reads books that would bore the skin off your face− books about finance and the Supreme Court− and he retains them and talks about them at length. The gap between his leisure reading comprehension and his reading-for-life comprehension is just one more tragic consequence of his Selective Blindness.

Once, I had to leave our apartment very early in the morning in order to catch a bus home because my grandmother was ill. He got up extra early to make me breakfast before I left− pancakes and eggs− because he is sweet and thoughtful like that. He’s never made pancakes from scratch before− I usually do it− but there are about 50,000 recipes online, and he was using one. That morning, I feel moderately confident that he can pull this off.

“Don’t worry about breakfast, just get ready,” he tells me. “I got this.”

About half an hour later, all packed and ready to go, I sit down at our kitchen counter. The pancakes smell amazing.

“Um…,” he begins, reassuringly. “So, I hope these taste ok.”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I don’t know how I messed them up!” he cries suddenly. “We didn’t have any milk, so I just used one of the milk-things we have in the fridge.”

(Between myself and my roommates, we often have about 4 different milk-substitutes at any given time.)

“Oh,” I say, imagining he has used almond milk or soymilk. “That should be fine then.”

“No… But it was all thick and gloppy.”

Thick and gloppy? What could he possibly have used that would be thick and−? Then I know.

“Did you use the kefir?”

“Maybe. What is that?”

“It’s basically yogurt,” I say, staring at him. I am stunned. I study his face to make sure he is serious. “Didn’t you look at the bottle?”

“No. I just grabbed something.”

“Yes, but after you poured it into the measuring cup and you noticed it wasn’t the right consistency, didn’t you look at the bottle to see what it was?” I am practically begging him to just tell me that he did. Haha, just kidding! Of course I read the label after realized it wasn’t milk!

He gets fidgety and defensive. “No! I don’t know… I mean, it was where the milk usually is.”

I look at him the same way I saw my mother once look at me the first time I had an ocular migraine. One of the symptoms is mild confusion, and I was mixing up my words hilariously. At that point, no one in my family knew what was going on, and my mother couldn’t help but laugh and tear up at the same time. This is really funny, but I’m scared because I don’t know what’s happening to my daughter. And this is how I look at Josh.

He has just grabbed an unfamiliar product from the fridge thinking it was milk, poured it into a measuring cup and realized it was not milk, and then proceeded to pour it into our food anyway without bothering to find out what it was.

I go to the fridge and pull out the bottle of kefir.

“Vanilla kefir,” I say, pointing to the part of the bottle that says both of these things.

“I figured it would be ok,” he responds, weakly.

At this point, I remind myself that Joshua has just done something incredibly nice for me. He has gotten up at the ass-crack of dawn to make me pancakes before I take a long journey home for what will probably be a very emotional visit. He is being a good, supportive boyfriend. Plus, the pancakes smell really awesome.

“I’m sure they’re fine,” I say, smiling.

“I’m sorry,” he says glumly.

“No, really! They’re probably fine.”

We eat, and Josh continues apologizing. He even texts me apologies after I leave.

They were, in fact, some of the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted.

 

 

When I tell my mom the pancake story later that day in the car on our way to the hospital, she does not laugh lightly as I expect her to.

“Oh, Shannon,” she says, shaking her head. “You cannot marry this man.”

This advice is unexpected.

“You think it’s cute now, but in 20 years it will drive you crazy,” she explains.

You see, my father also suffers from Selective Blindness. Growing up, I felt the ramifications of this most acutely when he, rather than my mother, did the grocery shopping.

“Aw, Dad. You got strawberry PopTarts. I asked for cherry.”

“What do you mean?” he’d say, puzzled. “They’re PopTarts.”

Now, I realize I was lucky not to end up with dog treats.

But my mom’s (half-joking) assertion nagged at me. That Josh’s inability to locate the stapler on the desk was indicative of a larger problem that would open up a sinkhole in our relationship sounded ridiculous, but not within the context how we, as a society, actually talk about our relationships and their potentials.

You often hear one partner’s behavior or quirk cited as a “red flag” or a “sign” that he or she is not actually the “right person” for you. He forgot to get you a card for Valentine’s Day? That’s a sign that he isn’t thoughtful and deep down, doesn’t think you’re special. She gets prickly when you ask her about her career goals? That’s an indication that she’s terminally insecure. He cancels a date to finish a big project at the office? He clearly doesn’t put your relationship first. She can’t text you back in a timely manner? She’s definitely cheating on you.

We love this shit− this “relationship symbology”. We love picking out the flaws and momentary lapses in judgment and blowing them up into rules and reasons why this person will or will not be the “right” long-term mate. This is an epidemic in magazine culture, especially with women’s publications. Every other article and quiz strums at and ultimately feeds this tendency: How To Tell If He’s Really Committed! (He lets you leave a toothbrush at his place!) Is He Really Interested? 5 Ways He Says It Without Saying It (He uses emoticons when texting and emailing!) These purported cause-and-effect relationships are ludicrous, yet we consume them like Halloween candy and spend hours searching for and theorizing about them in our own lives.

Look, I am not saying there aren’t valid warning signs. Like if he tortures animals, or the only way she can enjoy sex is if you’re being beaten unconscious with a mace (and you’re not into that), or he refuses to meet your parents and always comes home with used condoms in his pockets, then you’re probably safe assuming that these are endemic problems that have wider and deeper implications. But when he forgets to water your plant when you go away for the weekend…? Maybe ease up on the fortune telling and don’t jump to the conclusion that he’ll forget your future children in the bathtub.

I am not above this domestic astrology, I admit. Many a time, especially during fights, I have grabbed on to something my significant other has done/said and thought, “This means we’re not meant to be together.” which completely ignores the fact that I don’t even believe that anyone is “meant” to be together! I fall into the trap. I look for these relationship omens, these harbingers of future joy or dissolution.

And I do it because I, like most of us, want to know the future. I want to know if someday he’s going to break my heart. I want to know if we’ll get married and be happy or get married and be miserable. I chase after these things as if they exist, already fulfilled, behind a veil somewhere that I can’t quite reach to sweep aside. But that’s totally wrong, isn’t it? Because I can’t know which of these things will happen because they can’t happen unless I do them. The answer is not “out there” somewhere; it’s being created moment by moment as I live my life.

That’s hard to swallow, but it’s true. Sometimes that makes me feel like I have been stripped of all direction; other times, it makes me feel powerful. No small detail, no innocuous idiosyncrasy or one-time aberration in my relationship plainly exposes its inherent “rightness” or “wrongness” for me. There isn’t even a definite right or wrong; there are only choices.

Sometimes a pancake is just a pancake.

 

(A version of this post appeared on Thought Catalog in May 2013.)

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One thought on “Relationship Symbology: Sometimes a Pancake Is Just a Pancake

  1. Your father’s PopTarts are pop tarts comment may stem from his father’s harbinger of Motor oil is motor oil. Ray put used oil in his clunkers. I said, Ray, you put that dirty oil that the stations keep in those barrels in your car? He said, I scape the scum and get the oil right off the top of the barrell.
    The crown royals of oil. Loved your pancakes too.
    Ron

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