A long-term relationship has a lot in common with cleaning out a closet. Over the years, you learn what’s worth keeping and what can be tossed. In my nearly two decades with The One, we’ve often cleared the emotional and interpersonal closets of our lives, each time reshaping the sum of us. For example, I’ve come to acknowledge his Hess truck collection, which he uses as Christmas decorations, and his infatuation with Kenny G. He, in turn, accepts my love of kitsch and my need to control most everything. And over the years we’ve watched as my fascination with Glee, his preoccupation with teddy bears, our adulation of Martha Stewart’s first TV show, and my hard-core adherence to Atkins were rim-shotted into life’s wastebasket.
Yet one thing that has remained non-negotiable for both of us from the very beginning is chocolate cake.
☞ MAKE THE RECIPE: Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake
Back when we were still new to each other, though, we had no clue what was important. After The One and I had been together for two months, he spent a weekend visiting his mother in Baltimore. On the night of his return, we sat down to dinner—candlelit, of course, as he always insists on candlelight, even for ordinary weeknight suppers. He pushed the chicken around his plate, preoccupied and silent. “Do you think, if this thing is real,” he finally said, pointing his fork back and forth between us, “you can promise me forever?”
I set my bowl of Fiber One aside. So here we go, I thought. The conversation. By that time, I’d spent the past eight years serial-dating and getting any romantic notions of “forever” kicked out of me. I also knew how The One had been shunted from mother to grandmother to pastor and back to mother when he was growing up, and how much it had devastated him. The idea of permanence was paramount to his happiness. Yet I didn’t want to lie.
“No, mon cher, I can’t.”
Suddenly he looked like a five-year-old whose Big Wheel I’d accidentally backed over with my car. “I want to promise forever,” I rushed to say, trying to cheer him. “But neither of us has any idea who we’ll be in 20 years. We could grow apart.”
You’d have thought I’d run over his dog, too.
“Or—or—or,” I stammered, “on the other hand, we could grow closer. Right? That’s a possibility….”
He traffic-copped me, putting up his palm and cutting me off. “I get it, I get it. Don’t worry about it.”
We tabled the conversation and, over the following weeks, in place of arguing, did what we often do: We turned to chocolate cake. Not just any chocolate cake, but the culinary Eve from which millions of cakes have descended: Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake, featured on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa tin for more than 80 years. I’d never made it B.T.O. (Before The One), but it was a dessert his grandmother and mother had always baked.
And what a cake it is. If you’ve never tasted it, you simply can’t comprehend how it satisfies an addiction, soothes anxieties, halts arguments mid-accusation. Frankly, if the United States government sent these chocolate cakes overseas instead of troops, the world would be a kinder, more peaceful place. The cake itself is crazy-dense and moist—something The One loves. So moist is it that when you assemble the layers, your fingertips are covered with sticky chocolate crumbs that you simply have to pause and enjoy, looking for all the world like one of those sex-starved nubile young things on Showtime.
For me, though, it’s the frosting that slays. Well, my version of the frosting slays. I use twice as much butter as the original recipe, which makes it creamier, smoother, and less sweet. I’m ashamed to say it, but on more than one occasion, I’ve been caught unawares by The One and sundry friends with an entire spatula of frosting in my mouth. Still, I make no apologies.
Since then, it’s been our birthday cake, anniversary cake, impress-the-snotty-ass-guest cake, hey-it’s-a-Tuesday cake, even Valentine’s Day cake. But back then, it was our stuff-our-feelings cake.
I struggled to find a way to express to The One my hopes for us. I tried journaling, armed with pen in one hand, fork in the other. I verbally wrestled with my therapist, shouting at him for making me a romantic pragmatist—so realistic and clear-eyed about love that I couldn’t indulge in a little forever fantasy. I asked advice of friends who’d been together far longer than us. Nothing helped.
One month and several cakes later, The One arranged for us to spend New Year’s Eve in Paris at the home of two ridiculously pretentious and nouveau-riche friends. While walking through their monstrously enormous apartment, I was suddenly struck dumb. From their five-figure sound system wafted lyrics to a song—”When I Fall in Love”—sung by Céline Dion and Clive Griffin, that gave voice to what I could not.
To me, it syncopated our two contrary points of view. (If you haven’t listened to the song, now would be a good time.) “When I fall in love, it will be forever, or I’ll never fall in love” suited The One. It comforted him, made him feel at home. “When I give my heart, it will be completely, or I’ll never give my heart,” spoke to me. I couldn’t promise him forever, but I could promise that I’d love him completely for as long as I can. It’s my own personal forever.
I waited until Pretentious Frenchman and his O’er-Reaching Snot Boyfriend were gone and then led The One into the living room as the opening strains embraced the room. He began to speak. “Shh! Listen,” I shushed. As Clive crooned the “forever” verse, I laid my hand on his chest. “This is you.” Then as Céline glided through the “completely” stanza, I added, “This is me.”
We had yet to exchange vows of love—that would be later that week, on the Left Bank of the Seine—but in that moment my need to control things precipitously proclaimed, “This is our song!” And, completely uncharacteristically, he didn’t argue. He simply accepted it and understood that although he needs to be loved forever and I need to be loved entirely, we were committed to one another.
All these years later, the song has proven to be something worth keeping. It usually underscores Valentine’s dinners—the highlight of which is another great keeper of our lives: that Hershey’s chocolate cake. These days, though, the cake lasts half as long as it did back then. That’s because with age comes not only wisdom, but relief that you no longer have to have a 32-inch waist to attract love and that there’s no harm in seconds—or thirds.
So now it’s our literal closets that need to be cleared of those once-flattering flat-front chinos, medium-size shirts, and long-ago-loose sweaters.
But, hey, love is forever, right?