A Delicate Blend of Love and Tea Bags
I’m opening the fridge, zeroing in on my fourth Diet Coke of the day, when Ben appears in the doorway and declares, “I think we should get into tea. Like, hot tea. We could be a tea couple.”
The man has a glint of revelation in his eyes — the kind you see when a wiry-haired scientist surfaces from his laboratory after two sleepless days to reveal a potential breakthrough. “We could have a collection of unique craft flavors, and host tastings with our friends in the dining room. A tea couple,” he repeats, “that sounds like us. Don’t you think that would be great?!”
The next morning four boxes appear on our doorstep. Overnighted on Amazon Prime. Ben eagerly disembowels each cardboard cube to reveal a hand painted kettle, a monogrammed mug, and two-dozen canisters of complex, vaguely international flavors like “Mandarin Lavender” and “Spanish Campfire.”
I have never seen Ben drink a hot beverage in the four years we’ve been together, not once. He drinks canned, carbonated, artificially sweetened sludge like all good Americans. But I take no issue with him going through a tea phase — better than kombucha or any of the other New Age tinctures people here in Los Angeles claim to live by.
I play along, order a personalized mug of my own from an amateur ceramicist on Etsy, and for three days, Ben and I are a tea couple. He giddily arranges his new set of toys on the kitchen counter, memorizes the written descriptions of each tenderly curated blend. After dinner he offers me my choice from a pu pu platter of greens, blacks, herbals and oolongs and grins as I casually sip a spicy “Cleopatra Chai,” playing iPhone Scrabble with my other hand, as if this has been our little routine for decades. “Isn’t this cozy?” he beams, raising his steaming cup to two pink, upturned lips. “We’re tea drinkers!”
And so we are, until Ben remembers that he doesn’t even like hot tea or any of the activities one naturally does while drinking it, namely, curling up to re-read a Jane Austen novel or playing chess in the rain. By the weekend, our tea collection is retired to the back of the cupboard, joining an assemblage of olive oils and a neat stack of espresso paraphernalia.
“I’ve actually been thinking we should get into cheese instead,” Ben says, washing out the dregs of a now obsolete elderberry brew. “Not even wine, just cheese. Wouldn’t that be hilarious? Fuck the expensive drinkables, we’ll host stone cold sober cheese tastings followed by a box of Franzia. Ha! A cheese couple that doesn’t give two shits about good wine. Now that sounds like us.”
Ben and I share an apartment in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles. I picked the building, a sand-colored Art Deco six-plex, and so far we’ve lived here for six months. Moving in together has not felt like the dramatized “Big Step” that the shitty magazines I read at hair salons informed me it would be. But the move has highlighted a few unexpected details, one of which, for Ben, has manifested itself in an intense conviction that if he and I live together, we should probably have more in common.
And so began this exhaustive search to find a shared interest in the kitchen — merely one of Ben’s countless attempts to discover a hobby, any hobby, that he and I can master and enjoy together. Golf clubs, biking gear, yoga mats, watercolors, gardening equipment: they all sit, collecting dust in various corners of our apartment, evidence of our failure to settle on a mutual pastime.
It’s not as if either of us is lazy or can’t commit to an activity. The fundamental problem is simply that, when it comes to our spare time, my strengths and ideas of fun compared to those of my broad-shouldered, Pennsylvania-raised boyfriend put us on opposite sides of the adult playground — specifically, Ben on the jungle gym and me at the crafts table.
Ben is muscular and wears a mustache; I’m five feet tall and sport a complexion comparable to an 18th century apparition. Ben’s recreational preferences tend toward the rugged and hardily physical; mine lean artistic and near-sedentary. An avid outdoorsmen since birth, Ben hiked the entire Appalachian Trail at the age of 19 and since then has not left a single landmark peak in the continental United States unscaled. Ascending record-breaking elevations before lunchtime is as enjoyable to him as say, learning a new fiddle tune or mastering an impractical language is to me. Which is to say very. Ben wakes up on a Sunday morning and suggests we drive out to the Mojave desert and shoot bows and arrows, to which I deliver a lukewarm response in Irish Gaelic and crack open a secondhand paperback.
Our differing taste in hobbies doesn’t bother me though. I’m perfectly happy for Ben and I to have other, more important things in common, such as conversation and pizza toppings and interior decor — three more of my favorite, quasi-motionless interests.
But Ben is intent on finding a hobby, the perfect compromise of a leisure pursuit that will forever define us as a couple. I see envy hijack his face as he watches our brawny neighbor and his rosy-cheeked girlfriend jog down 3rd Street in matching Brooks running apparel, breathlessly chatting and grinning between strides.
A “running couple.” This is also an identity we’ve tried.
“Crossing that finish line with you was one of the greatest moments of my life!” Ben wails, romanticizing his memory of the 5K we completed last April, the one and only race I ever ran with him. “We accomplished that together. Doesn’t that mean ANYTHING to you?” He pivots in a huff and squeaks out of the living room in his brand new Nike minimals. I shrug and continue tuning my ukulele.
Hobbies in and of themselves do mean something to me. Growing up, they meant everything. From the age of six, my after school schedule was packed with rehearsals for the school play, private lessons in a variety of string instruments, and perfecting my conversational Italian.
But here’s the difference: I was good at these activities. Call it a character flaw, me being a spoilsport, but I have only ever been capable of enjoying hobbies that target my natural soft-handed gifts. Anything else — as in, anything requiring physical strength or endurance — I’ve historically hated and quit. Yoga and ice-skating are a few key examples. As a kid, Ben took horseback riding lessons and kayaked down the Susquehanna River, endeavors I would have crossed off my list after taking one look at the necessary equipment. Anything involving a helmet and/or life jacket has simply never been my cup of Cleopatra Chai.
However, being rather smitten with someone has this way of making you find wild enjoyment in things you never would have given a chance before, and this phenomenon has given Ben’s and my opposing proclivities some hope. Recently, we’ve taken to camping together, and this might be our jackpot. Tent camping is earthy and adventurous enough for Ben, and at the same time entails little more than sitting by a fire, drinking Jack Daniel’s from a flask. I even possess the proper skillset for camping thanks to all my experience pissing outside and falling asleep on the floor during college. Plus, a stick with two jumbo size marshmallows on either end is about the amount of weight I can comfortably bench, so all in all, it might be kind of perfect.
Still, as nice as it is to have something Ben and I can do together, I like the idea of having my own separate hobbies for the same reason I like having my own separate friends. It’s icky to become the type of couple that speaks exclusively in first person plurals. “We absolutely love Asiago, it’s our favorite Italian cheese,” “We go biking every Saturday, we live for it,” “Oh, we’d love to come to your dinner party, but we have our couples’ tambourine lesson that night.”
Plus, sharing a hobby means I can’t be the best at it. And if I can’t be the best, then how am I supposed to enjoy myself? Honestly, is it really necessary to make me reckon with the fact that I’m a sore loser with no physical prowess for the mere sake of being a fun girlfriend? I don’t want to be fun. I want to win.
Or, maybe, if I examine myself closely, this whole hobby thing goes a little deeper than that. Perhaps if I choose to think hard about it, my less than gung-ho attitude towards Ben’s otherwise charming endeavors comes from a place of self-preservation.
It is in the realm of possibility that in some subconscious way I don’t want to find our perfect hobby, because I don’t want to donate any more of myself to the fracturable entity that is “us.” That is “Amanda and Ben.” By now, we’ve been together for almost a fifth of my life. We share a lease and a social calendar, we pee with the door open, we wake up every morning smelling like each other’s skin.
And that’s all wonderful. But maybe I’m scared that with every piece of furniture Ben and I buy together, every mutual friend we make, every thing and person and activity we acquire that’s ours will make it exponentially harder for me to discern and extract myself from the messy, intertwined globule of our relationship if things ever, heaven forbid, crumble like a well-aged Asiago.
Or maybe I’m not that cynical — just paranoid. After all, if my main beef with my boyfriend is that he wants to go on weekend bike rides together, who am I really to complain?
I doubt he’d ever confirm it, but part of me suspects Ben’s relentless search to find this hobby has to do with our prognosis as a couple in a different way. In a way that makes a lot of sense. It’s as if, to Ben, finding something we both independently love to do but enjoy even more as a pair will confirm once and for all that I’m the girl for him.
So that ten, twenty years from now, through potential marriage and kids and financial snafus, during times when we feel like we’re on different pages and can’t communicate, we can simply go into the kitchen and make some of our special elderberry tea, or strap on our sneakers and go for a run, and remember that we’re right for each other.
Guests will leave our house after an evening of expensive cheese and crappy wine and think, Man, those two are so well matched; and they’ll be right, because not only will we have the same goals in life and agree on pizza toppings, but when shit hits the fan, we’ll have something fun we can do together to take the edge off.
To blow off steam. To kick back. To help each other through the years.