Discovering Manhood in Soapy Bubbles

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Modern Love

It wasn’t until I started doing dishes that I realized men in my family don’t do dishes.

At parties, I rarely saw Martins men helping out in the kitchen. Instead, our grandmothers, aunts and female cousins (all Portuguese and Argentine immigrants) would cook and serve the meal, and afterward the men would stack their plates near the sink like a Jenga tower before returning to the table, where they would finish their wine and pick their teeth as the women cleaned up.

I decided I would be a different kind of man. When I moved in with my girlfriend, Natalie, I became a man who did dishes.

This was in 2015, after we moved to San Francisco from San Diego and started living together after seven years of dating. At 25, we wanted to be closer to family.

Natalie already had a good job in the tech industry. I was bartending. In our new life, she cooked and I cleaned up. She fed vegetables into the Spiralizer, creating noodles from zucchini and beets, and made dishes like parsnip-kale gratin, which tasted wildly nutty and was surprisingly filling.

I wasn’t working full time and washed many, many dishes, a task made even more involved by appliances like the Spiralizer, which had to be disassembled and all of its parts cleaned individually.

Before we had a sink, we had a deal: I would have the final say on where we lived if Natalie got to decorate. It went like this. At Ikea or Pier 1 or wherever we were, she would ask, “Do you like the gray or white curtains?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. What else is on the list?”

“You’re allowed to have some input, too.”

“They’re great. Let’s go.”

As we decorated the house piece by piece, I almost didn’t notice the emerging theme: a white couch, white bearskin accent rugs, a fluffy white duvet and an excessive number of pillows. She ordered a gold-plated bar cart and organized our liquor bottles by color, choosing not to display my rare bottles of mezcal and Japanese Scotch because they didn’t match the motif.

When I asked to hang my guitars on the wall, she questioned their color, and I said the color shouldn’t matter because they were my guitars and I thought they should be hung on the wall in the living room where everyone could see them. After all, they’re essentially works of art: a Guild acoustic in dark cherry and a Fender Telecaster Sunburst.

But even with the guitars, the house still looked stereotypically feminine. The whole situation — the décor, my constant dishwashing and the relative lack of income on my part — began to gnaw at my male ego and my role as a man sharing a house with a woman.

My masculinity is a patchwork shaped by the gender norms that saturated my childhood. Men were fixers of things, sportsmen, smokers, fast car drivers and womanizers, rugged and confident. My father was some of these things, and I was some of these things, too, but mostly I was not.

For example, we loved playing basketball so much that my father had a hoop cemented in the driveway with floodlights installed over the garage. But with other masculine stereotypes, we whiffed. Such as when we got a midnight blue 1967 Mustang to fix up but outsourced most of the work because we’re not handy.

I also saw darker masculine traits in my father and wanted to be different because I didn’t think those things made a good man or a good person, really.

Like his leering at waitresses. His stubbornness. His unwillingness to apologize or admit fault. His refusal to do household chores. How he lifted his legs while watching TV so my mother could vacuum. When I was 14, my parents got divorced, and I didn’t want to emulate that, either.

For years these forces had molded my sense of masculinity, and I didn’t realize how hard it would be to break free. Once Natalie and I were living together, it turned out that my ideas about being a man living with a woman involved the most traditional expectations for my role: protect, provide, unclog toilets and kill bugs. And according to this macho yardstick, I continually came up short.

I stayed home while she worked. I did dishes. I couldn’t seem to hang curtains or put together furniture. On my rudderless journey to establish myself in a new city and a new role, I was floundering.

I contemplated this while washing dishes. To distract myself, I started counting them: two large square white plates, a small floral-rim plate, two bowls, four coffee cups, six forks, three spoons, a Granton-edge chef’s knife and a frying pan.

I even developed unnecessarily regimented washing routines: First, put all silverware in a cup with hot water to soak, then wash plates, bowls, cups, serving utensils, silverware, pots and pans, in that order. And I had drying-rack theories: Start with anything ceramic, then put glassware around the outside to corral loose dishes, then silverware, then pots and pans and stainless-steel bowls.

Meanwhile, Natalie seemed to have everything figured out in the world beyond the kitchen, and I envied that certainty: her two-bus, one-hour commute, her workout classes and co-worker happy hours. I was frustrated and moody and reconsidering my decision to move, not only to this place but also in with her. Natalie’s successes should have been celebrated, but her light served only to darken my shadows.

Maybe it was the other looming deal we had made before moving in together: I was to propose after a year of cohabitation. I hadn’t because I didn’t feel like a man and couldn’t present myself to her as one in that way. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t who I thought I should be.

So I ignored our engagement pact until it resurfaced while we were driving back from her grandfather’s 90th birthday party, when I couldn’t escape.

“You haven’t even started thinking about it,” she said. “You haven’t even made a plan.” At the party, she and her cousins had consumed enough Cabernet to get a French battalion drunk.

“I know. I haven’t,” I said. “But to put a finite date on it — come on.”

“It makes me feel like this doesn’t matter to you. It makes me feel like these past seven years have been a waste.”

“It’ll happen, but ——”

“When? And when will you break out of this rut? Because you’re unhappy and you take it out on me and that’s not fair. You make it seem like it’s my fault you can’t find your place here.”

“I am unhappy. I’m still trying to figure out why.”

When we got home, she took a blanket off the bed and set up camp on the couch.

The next morning we cooled off and made breakfast. Once we finished with the sweet potato and rosemary hash, I gathered our plates to start washing the dishes. The only sounds in the kitchen were running water and clanging silverware and toothy brush in rhythmic rotation.

I wanted to tell Natalie I understood her frustration. I wanted to say I knew that in her eyes the house or the chores or the job didn’t make me less of a man. I wanted to say thank you for allowing me the room to find my place in all this newness. But all I could muster was, “I’m sorry.”

On my soapy knuckles I saw a reflection of every dish I had ever washed. And it finally dawned on me: Doing dishes isn’t about masculinity or femininity. It’s about having a clean kitchen.

Natalie waited as I puzzled all this out, dish by dish. She unboxed masculinity for me, teaching me that a man loves, cares, trusts, understands and does dishes — all the things a woman does. It took a woman to show me what it meant to be a man.

Two years later, I have found my place. I have a full-time marketing job and am also a full-time graduate student. Natalie and I share the housework but she still cooks, and I still do the dishes. Just as many as before.

In doing dishes I find solace. I roll up my sleeves and start in on the cups, plates and bowls. When I’m washing dishes, I’m not thinking about my father or where my idea of masculinity comes from or if the man I’m becoming is enough. I’m focused on the task at hand.

I don’t feel more like a man now, but I do feel as if I am the man I was meant to be. And next month, Natalie and I will become the husband and wife we were meant to be. Yes, this past New Year’s Eve I finally put down my soapy sponge long enough to get down on bended knee and ask.

She didn’t cry (out of shock). I did.