In honor of a former boyfriend’s birthday, I am telling the true story of the first of his birthdays we spent together, and a follow-up conversation we had after our breakup.
Honor is perhaps not the right word, unless you consider any honesty being honorable. I’m not giving real names.
Dating Dan was a subtle seduction into becoming a verbal punching bag. The smile he initially greeted me with on our dates eventually became a disinterested glance, and I tried desperately to get us back to where we’d been. Until a pan of lasagna forced my eyes open.
It was Dan’s birthday, and I’d promised him the best lasagna he’d ever tasted. All afternoon I labored over boiling and simmering the sauce, cooking up the sausage, slicing the cheese and layering it all between the strips of pasta. I made breadsticks, watching the dough rise and twisting each piece into shape. When the cake cooled, I carefully decorated it. Add a vinaigrette dressing for the salad and a bottle of good wine. I surveyed what I had done, and was satisfied.
He arrived late, as usual, and I silently fretted that the breadsticks were no longer warm and the salad was looking a little limp. Still, my anticipation of his pleasure washed over me.
He took a bite of the lasagna, and grimaced. A few more bites were forced down.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What is this meat?” he asked.
“Sausage.” Of course.
“Why would you put sausage in lasagna? You’re supposed to use hamburger.”
“Sausage is traditional in Italian cooking.”
“Who told you that? Why did you make this? Why didn’t you just go to the grocery store and buy some from the freezer?”
He continued to berate me and I stood there quietly. I was humiliated. I sought a response, but my mind went blank. Not that it mattered. Any words I could have found to defend myself would have stuck in my throat.
It didn’t stop that night. For the rest of the time we were dating, he never missed an opportunity to bring up the sausage (not hamburger) in the lasagna. Even after we broke up, on the sporadic occasions we saw each other, he continued, until one day it got out of control.
I’d taken care of his cat, Freddy, while he was on a business trip, something I was happy to do since I didn’t yet have a kitty of my own, and Freddy and I were good buds. Dan arrived home early, catching me still at his place, and almost immediately launched into a preposterous lasagna attack.
“Well, I had a free day, so I flew down to North Carolina to visit Tony,” he said, a little too casually.
I was on guard at once. “You had a free day on your business trip to New York, so you caught a flight to North Carolina?”
“Isn’t that expensive?”
“Not if you travel roundtrip in one day. I got a special fare. It was a discount airline.”
“Really. Who’s Tony?”
“Tony, my best friend from grade school. You’ve heard me talk about him.”
I knew all his friends from grade school, and none of them were named Tony.
“You’ve never mentioned him.”
“Yes, I have. Anyway, I probably never told you this, but Tony’s mom is a real famous chef in Italy. She’s from…” he paused, seeming to search his memory. “Sicily! You know, Sicily.”
“Yes, I know Sicily.”
“Anyway, she’s a real famous chef, she’s like, the Julia Child of Italy.”
“Really.” He didn’t catch the tone.
“Yeah, and she was there when I visited, and I told her…”
“Wait. Did Tony live with his dad or something? I mean, when you were kids.”
“No, he lived with his mom. And dad. Both of them.”
“Yeah, she took a break to raise him.”
“She took a break from being the Julia Child of Italy to raise her son in the public school system in Minnesota.”
“Okay, go on.” This was a rare opportunity. Give a man enough rope, and he’ll hang himself.
“So I told her how you’d made the lasagna with sausage, and she couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, for hours. She said that was the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard, using sausage in Italian cooking.”
“The Julia Child of Italy has never heard of using sausage…” I shook my head.
“She couldn’t stop laughing.”
“She lives in North Carolina?”
“No, she lives in Sicily. She was visiting Tony for the weekend.”
“The holiday weekend. It’s a holiday in Italy. Freedom Day or something.”
“You visited him the weekend his mother arrived from Italy? During her very short visit with her son?” He nodded. “Okay, go on.”
“She was like a second mother to me.” Chin up, challenging me to contradict him.
“What’s her name?”
“Uh, Maria, I think…but she goes by something else professionally. I forget what. Anyway, she couldn’t stop laughing. She laughed so hard and so long, she didn’t have any time to spend with Tony.”
“Or you, I’m guessing.”
“She didn’t have any time to spend with Tony.” He repeated with emphasis, and paused. “You ruined their weekend together with your lasagna.”
Now it was my turn to laugh, assuming any part of what Dan told me was true and Maria had, indeed, had uncontrollable fits of mirth at my expense. Dan was annoyed, which only made me laugh harder.
A mutual friend filled out the rest of the story for me. A year or so later, Dan starting dating an Italian woman, someone born in the U.S. of — you guessed it — Sicilian parents. She invited him to dinner and (do I need to tell the rest of the story?) when he found out her mother was serving lasagna, he jokingly asked if she’d used sausage, planning to launch into this story about his ignorant former girlfriend.
“Of course,” she replied stiffly, and the conversation went downhill from there. Dan would never tell me any part of the story himself, but I had imagined something just like it for so long, so I was pleased as punch to hear it from our friend.
But the sad thing is, I haven’t made lasagna since that birthday so long ago. And my lasagna was damn good.