January 19, 2020

Meant2Be: Wud den? (What then?)

A five-pound bag of Peruvian seabird guano sits on my computer desk. I’ve wrapped it with a big, red bow. It’s the best fertilizer there is, second only to bat guano, which is twice as expensive and almost impossible to find. 

Along with a new dog leash, the gull and pelican droppings are the gift I’m giving to my husband for his 75th birthday. The leash is for Sheyna, his golden retriever, whom he grooms and cleans like a baby. I’ve fooled my husband into thinking Sheyna is an Irish name, but I know it’s Jewish. Which I am and he isn’t. 

The guano is for his vegetable garden. Whatever he plants, blooms. Everything responds to his touch. He makes the world beautiful with his hands. 

To celebrate, he’s chosen the (now closed) Villa Italia, a greasy Italian restaurant. He wants to eat there out of nostalgia. Years ago, we had “our booth” and went there on Saturday nights. He had a going flirtation with our regular waitress — Eva. All that remains of Eva is “Eva’s Special,” a pizza smothered in fatty sausage. 

Tonight, the dinner is terrible. The salad is not young and my steamed vegetables are cold. The waiter is beyond rude, and when I tell him to take back the sad carrots and zucchini, he refuses. I now hate Villa Italia, but our adult children are celebrating with us and my husband is having a ball, so I don’t complain any further. 

I feel like my spaceship has landed on the wrong planet. This can’t be my life. But it is. 

When they bring our tiramisu desserts, staff members come out and sing “Happy Birthday to You” to my husband. He beams and I forgive them for everything. The whole place joins in the song and our dinner ends on a festive note. 

Soon, we’re home. My husband loves the guano and the leash. I didn’t have time to get him a card, so I quickly jot down whatever thoughts come into my head. 

I met him when he was 33. He was a beautiful man then. Now his skin sags and his backside looks like the face of one of those perpetually sad, wrinkled pedigree dogs: a Shar-Pei. He’s almost deaf but refuses to wear a hearing aid. When I complain, he says it’s my fault because I’m mumbling. In those moments, I’d like to bash him over his hard head with my favorite cast-iron frying pan. 

He’s always worked with his hands and, although he’s never made any real money, is content with little. I am not. I’m a former princess of the royal Schlanger clan from Manhattan’s Sutton Place. We had a 24-hour doorman and a view of the East River. I expected more from life than our little suburban house, our little life, and do blame myself, but more often, blame him.

He reads my birthday note. It took me less than five minutes to write. I barely thought about what I was saying because my mind was elsewhere. He reads it very slowly and is then silent. His shoulders shake, he covers his face with his hands and — he is crying. 

I see tears slide down his cheeks and I am shocked. He’s from Texas and has a pure cowboy ethos. I’ve seen him weep only twice in our 40 years — once when his father died and when we were hippies and I slept with his best friend. 

I never wanted to marry him in the first place, but whenever we were apart I discovered I couldn’t live without him. Our children are wide-eyed. They have never seen their father cry. My daughter takes the note from his hand and reads it out loud: 

Dearest, every night when I go to bed and feel your warm body next to mine, I am content — there is nothing sweeter on this earth. I will always love you and in your eyes, I see the strapping young god you were in those thrilling days of yesteryear. You are my hero. Stay with us another 75 years.

As I watch my husband carefully fold the ordinary piece of Staples copier paper that I’ve written on as if it is a sacred parchment, I know that he loves me and my returning that love means everything to him.

Things in life I have not been given: a private jet, a walk-in closet, live-in help, a flat stomach, an Academy Award, a hit series based on my best-selling novel and starring me. 

Things in life I have been given: a husband who totally loves me and whom I love. 

I throw my arms around him and kiss his craggy face. My children watch, knowing that their parents love each other; that outweighs whatever neurotic, foolish mistakes we made in their upbringing. My husband wipes away his tears with the cloth he uses to clean his computer screen. He pats Sheyna, picks up the guano and goes outside to fertilize his tomatoes. 

Wud den? Could it be any other way?

Carol Schlanger is a working actress, storyteller and artist-in-residence for the Jewish Women’s Theatre. Her memoir, “Far Out,” has been optioned for television.

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