Family Membership

I’m rooting through my wallet for the Costco card, the one that’s been used so often that only a smudge remains where the photo once appeared. Tan and I are always going to Costco together. Which is weird, considering there’s nobody at home to feed.

“Just come in on my card,” Tan says, impatient. He’s a hit-and-run shopper; I prefer to linger a bit. We share a Costco family membership. Tan bought it for us around the time Washington state made gay marriage legal.

“Can we do that?” I’d asked at the time.

“They don’t care,” he’d replied.

The bored guy at the entrance waves us in from the rain, and we join the middle-aged couples in their intestinal journey through the aisles. After so many trips together Tan and I know each other’s routine: blow past the flat-screen TVs, the jumper cables, the Vitamix blenders. Quickly peruse the pen selection. Hit the brakes at the pallets of beer and booze. Tan drops a six-pack into the cart for each of us. He’s a food-and-drinks writer, and a connoisseur of recreational depressants.

e

Here in progressive Seattle, other shoppers see us—two 50-something men pushing a big red shopping cart and kibitzing over olive oil and packs of ham-Gruyère pastries like an old couple at Zabar’s—and perhaps they assume we’re married. But Tan and I are something rarer than that.

“Is this one of their good ones?” I ask, holding up a bottle of Kirkland Signature California cabernet sauvignon.

“Read my story,” Tan snaps, and he breaks for the meat case, hoping for a Wagyu sighting. Clipped, barbed, self-referential—this is how we communicate with each other after so many years. I park the cart and head for the vegetable room. He knows where to find the cart. It’s over by the mangoes, where I always leave it.

Tan and I met when we were in our late 20s, in 2000. Both of us were ambitious young reporters chafing at our unglamorous beats in a suburban bureau of the local newspaper. Soon together we rented half of a rickety duplex directly under the surging Queen Anne radio towers, a local landmark. We joked that the reason the rent was so terrifically cheap was that we’d been microwaved until sterile. On weekends I climbed mountains, then hustled back to Seattle to attend book readings. In his free hours Tan, the son of Vietnamese refugees, sniffed out the best pho joints in neighborhoods where recent immigrants had settled. We were paupers-about-town, and with enormous appetites, and we bonded over good books, cheap deals, filthy jokes, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

Once, prowling Grocery Outlet, Tan found $50 bottles of Frog’s Leap chardonnay mispriced at $4.99. He cleaned out the store, returning home with a full case, and we hooted and danced around the living room like the boy in Where the Wild Things Are. In the shivery vegetable room I reach for a large bag of arugula and I’m transported back to that night—us tarting up Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas with arugula and then drinking ourselves silly on ill-gotten wine as we watched Sex and the City reruns and argued over which character we would most want to date.

And we both dated, a lot.

e

Tan is short and handsome, a charming misanthrope. Women approach him in bars; sometimes he plans to see them again. He told me about the financial consultant with the nice house overlooking Puget Sound. The professor who loved wine. The dominatrix. Always for him, the arc is the same: Intrigue led to less intrigue, which led to a pacing animal’s need to escape.

I am tall and reasonably handsome but stiff with strangers. Women do not approach me in bars. My own forays into romance rarely have lasted longer than a few coffees and dinners. Dating exhausts me. It’s always such work—the propped-up conversations, the painful silences. I see a laughing couple and I wonder, Whats it like to feel so at ease with your partner? To have no trouble filling the silence? Or to be so comfortable in silence together that theres no need to rush in and fill the quiet?

I am just smart enough to suspect that the problem, if one exists, lies not with our dates but in ourselves. Both of us are more in love with the idea of other people than with people in particular, and all that they require. Other people are a sweater that is too small; the closeness that warms also makes it hard to breathe. After nearly 25 years with Tan, though, things are easy and uncomplicated. Neither of us needs to fill the silence, or to entertain the other. Each can gauge the barometer of the other’s mood with a glance—whether he stands in sunburst or in squall. When I’m dating, I always have my guard up. I’m trying to be perfect, to never make a misstep. Tan, for his part, is breezily entertaining in any company, and inquisitive. We’re reporters, after all, and trained to be interested in whomever sits across the table. But when we’re together Tan and I can dispense with all that. We can be our flawed selves and not pretend we’re other than the people we are. We know what the other likes, and dislikes. Here he comes now, carrying a jumbo jar of chicken bouillon for me. Tan, a gifted cook, showed me how to add a spoonful of the stuff to the sauté pan to lend some depth of umami to any dish.

“They’ve got those chips you like,” I say. “The ones made of cheese.”

“The chips you like,” he says. “You killed off my bag the last time you came over, piggy.” Then he vanishes again into the aisle in search of the Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise he adores. I buck a bale of toilet paper into the cart for us to split, and a sack of pears and a barrel of dill pickles, the ones I know he loves.

We know other things about each other, too. Tan knows about the woman I chased to New York many years ago who was able to open the stubborn dark knot of my heart. For her I finally dropped my guard, and my selfishness, and I saw for the first time how life can grow larger when you give yourself to someone else. Tan also knows how far I fell when the woman decided I was not for her, and how I locked away some things to ensure they would not be scalded so badly again. For my part, I know that Tan sometimes repeats himself, and that this fact terrifies him because his father died of Alzheimer’s disease. But we choose our moments carefully to talk about such things. And even then, we refract their heaviness through the brown of a whiskey glass or the steam rising off a bowl of biang biang noodles. Then the hard things can come out.

In time I left the newspaper and became a travel writer. Tan rose to become a popular food writer at the paper with a gift for tracking down great food in random strip malls. Often our work took us to impossibly romantic destinations: skiing in Canada. Drinking wine in Napa. Llama trekking through Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Finding the best lobster sticky rice in Greater Vancouver. We rarely brought romantic interests on these assignments, though. The few times we had mixed work and romance, neither got its due, and everybody ended up resentful. So we took each other instead. Tan knows to wander off when I’m scribbling notes. I know to let him order the siu mai for both of us when he’s reviewing the latest dim sum palace. I used to worry that people would misunderstand. Perhaps I felt the need to broadcast my availability. Now I let people assume what they want about Tan and me, and who we are to each other. After more than two decades, our shared bachelorhood has outlasted any relationship with a woman, for either of us. It has become its own defining relationship for us both.

We’re halfway through the store now. Detergent. Trash bags. A quick speed down the drinks aisle, blurring past the pallets of Coke and Red Bull. The sight of ginger ale spurs another memory: One night when we were housemates, Tan found me curled on the bathroom floor, vomiting. An ogre was hammering a red-hot railroad spike through my eye socket. I had no family in Seattle nor a partner to look after me in an emergency. Tan carted me to the ER, then stuck around until after midnight while I drifted in and out of consciousness with the migraine, even though his sisters were visiting. Returning home, I still couldn’t hold down food. So Tan went to the store and bought ginger ale.

A day later I staggered to the kitchen, saw the cut-rate bottle of ginger ale and began to holler. “You bastard. I was dying and you didn’t even spring for Schweppes?”

“You were so out of it, you couldn’t tell the difference!”

We argue like this for sport. It is affection, and entertainment—to see whose blade is sharpest that day. Tan is back again, this time with a case of V8.

“Christ,” I say. “Who still drinks V8?”

“You look like you could use a can.”

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These days I live a few hours from Seattle, in the country. Tan and I see each other often though. He gives me cookbooks. I bring him eggs from my chickens. He picks me up at the airport when I fly in from out-of-town assignments. I edit his drafts and help sharpen his sentences. Both of us complain loudly about these obligations. It is our regular shtick. We complain because we know we will do it. We will never let the other one down.

I cannot recall that we ever have hugged each other. Yet we talk almost every night.

“You’ve seemed lonely so I thought I’d check in on you,” I say when he picks up the phone.

“You call me because I’m the most interesting person you know,” he replies.

Hardly crackling repartee. But it’s as comfortable as falling into an old leather easy chair. We then skim the surface of our day. I ask Tan to remind me of that story he liked in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He tells me how to make a perfect soft-boiled egg. We talk about dating, which both of us still do, if sporadically. We take turns bitching about work. And we make plans to see each other.

Sometimes, though, I think about the companionship that I glimpsed years ago with that woman, and what a wonder it was. In those moments, I worry that this long-running episode of “The Odd Couple” with its comfortable rituals of Costco runs and nightly phone calls, has become a crutch. I lean on its comfort, and away from the chances I might take to find that again.

But is so much easier to return to the big city and settle into the amniotic comfort of our routine—the meals, the drinks, the shared history told and retold though each of us knows it by heart—instead of opening a dating app and trying yet again. Still, I do try, on occasion. So far, no luck. I tell Tan that it’s hard to meet someone who feels right. It would be more honest if I said how hard it is to let my guard down as I get older and expose my true self to another, knowing how complicated and messy life is at middle age, and now that I know the pain that’s possible. A person can die from exposure.

And I would be sad, too, if anything ever caused this buddy picture to end. Not many partners, after all, would put up with their mate buying a 15-pound shoulder of imported Serrano ham, as I did at Costco with Tan two Christmases ago. And then leaving it on the counter for weeks as if in some tapas bar in Seville, as Tan and I also did, slicing at the ruby flesh until mold claimed the balance of it. I would regret if anything happened to this strange gem we have made. Tan is not the partner I ever pictured myself spending so much of my life with (and he would say the same). But we do not choose the people who end up mattering the most to us. In this life, if we’re very lucky we get two families: There is the family we’re born into. And then there is the family we find.

At the register, Tan starts pulling his items out of the cart. Most of the stuff, I just wave him off. Whatever we owe each other won’t be settled today. If it ever will.

“Don’t forget to get gas,” Tan says as we push the cart toward the exit. “It’s cheap here.” He’s repeating himself again. I don’t give him a hard time. We wheel out into the rain together.

“Yes, dear,” I say.

A contributing editor at Outside and Runner’s World, Christopher Solomon has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, National Geographic, Men’s Journal, and other publications. 

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