He dislikes being complimented on things he has not worked for. Once, he is irritable with me when I tell him his eyes are beautiful. He is brusque when a friend says she likes his haircut. I pretend to dislike being complimented on things I have not worked for, but actually, it’s just that I don’t know how to respond gracefully. I am always hoping to be told my eyes are beautiful, especially by him.
He doesn’t like driving. When he drives our car, he hunches over the steering wheel like someone protecting something. He passes dangerously close to parked cars. Sometimes I cannot help gasping a little bit, which hurts his feelings. I don’t like to drive either, but I’m better at it. I had always taken for granted that one day I would have a partner who liked to drive and would absolve me of having to do any driving, but in fact, quite the opposite has happened. I drive the many, many short distances, but we split the long ones.
He does not write things down. His birthday cards to me say, in their entirety, Happy birthday! He has never kept a diary and does not see the point of recording everything — or perhaps he cannot accept the boredom of having to go back through it all. For him, it is much more important to live a full life than to write a full life, which I think is the right way to be. But I cannot help writing everything down: lines from books I loved, plans for what to cook, a diary entry every single day. I do not have his faith that I can hold onto anything without language.
He likes to act on the spur of the moment. He buys gifts the night before or the day of the occasion, somehow always with great success. When I first met him, he walked to the supermarket every single day to buy dinner. This makes him very good at spontaneous loveliness: unexpected ice cream on an evening walk, calling his parents to say hello, kissing. He is also good at accepting sudden change, like moving countries or losing a job. I like planning everything. This makes me very good at exams and remembering the birthdays of even people I don’t much like, and all my gifts are organised several weeks in advance. I am less good at accepting change, sudden or otherwise.
When he wakes to find that Saturday is sunny, he goes to the basketball court with three litres of water in his backpack. For him, exercise is not a chore. When he is playing basketball, he appears impossibly graceful, performing a private physical music all the way to the rim. I have no particular love of basketball, but I have learned a lot about it now: what a lay-up is; why Michael Jordan is important; who has the most beautiful arms in the league. He likes to watch a game because he loves basketball. I like to watch a game because it is revealing about American culture in ways the participants appear to be unaware of. He watches the game only and mutes the ads, the halftime show, the cheerleaders. I want to watch it all, and him.
He is easily, guiltlessly bored in art galleries and churches, where too much depends on aesthetics. He is visibly impatient outside the Catholic church in Murnau-am-Staffelsee, where snow falls in drifts on the dome and the gorgeous dead. In the Tate Modern, he does not look at the room of lilac Rothkos for more than a few minutes. He is not impervious to beauty, but no part of him is sentimental, and he has little interest in whether loving art makes you a better person. I am beguiled by both Murnau and the Rothkos, and I like to think loving art matters, but perhaps that is only self-serving.
His father’s father’s father was Māori, but he looks perfectly white. When we are in Germany, everybody assumes he is the German speaker, which cuts me in some deep, inarticulable part of myself. He does not speak any language but English. Because of how he looks, and therefore how he is treated, he has not had occasion to feel bitter on his own behalf, and his essential optimism is one of his great charms. I love him in spite of and because of it. I am half Chinese and could never pass for white. My Cantonese needs work — but my German, which is not a family language but one I chose to love, is absolutely fucking outstanding. I can be cheerful, but I carry a little bitterness with me always, woken in my gut by words like oh but you speak so well. I am not sure what I am loved for.
He rarely performs himself, not even when he needs to impress. He is one of the only people I know who has not prepared a story about himself especially for other people. When I spot him across the park, slightly pigeon-toed and squinting at his phone, he is already precisely the person I wake up next to each day, who rolls over with his eyes still closed to offer the day’s first words: good morn, foghorn or it’s TOO BRIGHT or once, half-asleep, I love you. I have many stories about myself that I have prepared especially for other people; sometimes for individual people. I do not like this in myself. But it seems important that the story I have for him is closest to the story I have for myself. When he sees me from across the park, I abandon all pretense and smile as big as I feel, without thinking of how I look.
He and I go to the movies on a Thursday night and share popcorn like people on a first date, except he unashamedly eats most of it. He always wants to sit in the middle of a row near the back, for the best view. I always want to sit wherever nobody else is sitting, for the privacy. He has an abhorrence for pretentious movies in French. I have a weakness for any French movie, because, well, I am pretentious, and I love seeing how much of the audio I can piece together with the subtitles. He always needs to pee partway through. I always get cold in the theatre. We both like popcorn. He holds my hand without thinking through the whole two hours, and after four years the thoughtlessness is so dear to me I can hardly watch the movie.