BY SUSAN BAGEL
Time is always in flux around me. I blink and hours pass. It’s not until I hear the car door slam closed as I pick up my kids from school that I’m finally jerked into reality. I glance at the clock and realize my morning is already over, my quiet solitude now overtaken by my perfect family. I don’t know how much time I’ve lost, what moments I’ll never get back.
It’s been exactly 15 years since I married Mr. Bagel, and his face is still the first I see every morning — that gentle, doughy face I married, kneaded by the signs of life. A wrinkle here, some extra padding there, but still the same Mr. Bagel I vowed to spend the rest of my life with. It has been 15 years of perfect happiness. Of perfection. Mr. Bagel and I are as happy as ever, our love as filling and essential as grain. He completes me.
A sourdough starter gets better with age. It resists the cycles of human life: our accumulation of many years’ forgetfulness, the blurring of days, and the insistent thoughts that things didn’t used to be this way. No, a sourdough starter grows in power with each passing year, gaining life by way of yeast and fermentation.
Each morning, as inevitable as bread in a proving drawer, the sun rises on the moisturized face of my husband, Mr. Bagel, and I smile. I practice that smile in the mirror for him. I lose time smiling there, in my perfect moment of stillness, waiting for Mr. Bagel to wake up. Smiling so much that my face aches with the pain of so much happiness.
I knew I needed to give him the perfect gift this year, as thanks for all he does to support this family. He recently got promoted at work and he has been working so hard with his boss, Amanda; he is waking even earlier, staying late at the office, barely touching my cooking in lieu of the cafeteria breakfast that he and Amanda have as they finish up their big, complicated project that, of course, goes right over my head.
But while he may be the breadwinner of our beautiful family, I am the breadmaker.
So I decided to give Mr. Bagel something special; to show how the endless love and devotion he gives me is reciprocated. I needed the gift to be perfect. Something to show that all these years, the slow drip of time, the endless days that became nights, that then became days again, were worth it. I decided to give him the ultimate symbol of our love.
A sourdough starter requires perfection. It needs understanding. Rye flour. All purpose flour. Water. Dedication. Unconditional love. Time.
On the first day, I created light in darkness, with rye flour and water coming together in a jar.
On the second day, I added more flour and water. The starter rose and fell, like waves in the ocean.
On the third day, I added more flour and water. The starter sparkled like the stars on the night I married Mr. Bagel (he gets sunburned so easily).
On the fourth day, I started to see the edges of the sourdough starter’s soul. It rose and fell, taking its first breath, a sign of new life.
On the fifth day, the starter nearly doubled in size, my hope growing in equal measure. The thought of baking with this starter consumed me. I could feel the warmth of a slice of freshly-baked sourdough bread.
On the sixth day, I added more flour and water. The starter bubbled. I thought about how Mr. Bagel and I could be buried with this sourdough starter. It would grow finer with age as we enjoyed the golden years of our lives. It would be ready tomorrow — the perfect gift for the perfect husband.
The seventh day was my day of rest. The last six days had been a labor of love. The starter, safely in the refrigerator, could now wait a whole week between feedings. I woke early, overjoyed to show Mr. Bagel his anniversary present. I can’t remember the last time I felt this happiness — I ran down the stairs like a child on Christmas morning, eager to open my refrigerator and find my sparkling, bubbling, perfect starter inside.
But it wasn’t there. Frantically, I scanned the countertops, the windowsills, the drawers, and the shelves. The starter was nowhere to be found. I turned over the whole kitchen, the pristine expanses of marble now cluttered with pots and pans.
At last, I found it. Lying limp in the garbage, cast aside like it was nothing. My starter — cold, pale, oozing into the rot. My hopes and dreams were there with it; dripping into the depths of the trash can, contaminated with vegetable scraps and pencil shavings, shredded documents, and empty bottles of Mr. Bagel’s 6-in-1 moisturizer. I felt a scream bubble up inside me, but nothing came out. Mr. Bagel had thrown it away earlier that morning, thinking it was something gone bad.
The starter, once teeming with life, was finished. Dead.
You must know — you have to know — the utter devastation I felt. Part of my own soul is rotted, mirror to the twisted, broken thing at the bottom of the trash. I still feel it — a phantom limb, or maybe a phantom fullness, as my body craves something that can never be reproduced. I would think I were pregnant if not for the fact that Mr. Bagel asked that I get my fallopian tubes tied for our ninth anniversary. Also, we haven’t had sex in three years.
I started to lose more time. Weeks passed. I slept in more. I stopped baking after the fifth quiche burned.
But, well, what is a sourdough starter? Sure, it was my life, the entirety of my focus and care and attention for an entire week. Sure, a part of me still grieves, will always grieve, for the life now smothered among the detritus.
But what is that, really?
Nothing, in the face of the rising sun over my husband. Till death do us part. My feelings don’t matter — only my husband does. Sometimes, I even wake up before he leaves. He’s never hungry anymore. Maybe I should tr y ciabatta. It’s only five months till our 16th anniversary.