Photo: Courtesy of Leigh Newman
There's a war going on in my refrigerator. In the lower right-hand drawer, where we keep our lunchmeat and cheese. Among the slightly moldy hunks of Cheddar, the wedges of dried, ancient Parmesan, the deflated skins of scooped-out Brie, lies a cheap plastic bag of cheese sticks.

For those of you in the world who remain innocent of cheese sticks, allow me to digress. Cheese sticks are the white, more cubed version of the American cheese single. They are wrapped in plastic. They are perfect for tossing in a lunch or snack bag. They may or may not be made of actual cheese (depending on the brand), and this last point is moot because they do not taste like cheese. They taste like dairy Styrofoam.

My kids, of course, love them. We cannot go through a single day without laying waste to a bag of cheese sticks, each of which contains eight sticks and costs about $3.99. Around 7 p.m., my husband comes home, roots through the trash, then holds up the crumpled, empty bag in triumph: "Caught! All of you!"

Then begins his lecture: "A big ball of homemade mozzarella costs the same, gives you two or three times the cheese and actually tastes like cheese!"
My response: "We can't live without cheese sticks."
His: "Yes, you can. Particularly when it comes to nutrition."
Mine: "You're really just upset about the money."
His: "Fifty cents a stick!!!"
Mine: "The kids love them. And I'm too tired to fight people under the age of 5."
His: "From now on, everybody in this house is going to cut himself a proper slice of cheese! No more cheese sticks!"
Mine: "Fine, you tell the kids. I'm going outside so as not to hear the crying and rending of flesh."
One month ago, he actually chased us around the house with slices of Cheddar in plastic sandwich bags. "It's the same!" he told our toddler. "It's the same! Only better!"

Our toddler looked at him with his big, wise baby eyes and solemnly shook his head. I agreed silently; it's not the same. A plastic sandwich bag is loose and limp and completely uninteresting. There is no tidy, artificial packaged feel to it. Kids love packages. This is why you can eat an entire bag of potato chips, then refill the salty foil bag with raisins, and the kid will eat them up—unlike when you put the raisins in a boring, china bowl.

If only my husband could put his vitamin-packed, delicious, cost-effective cheese in a shiny, sexy package.

Now wander with me, if you will, to my life beyond the kids and kitchen. A few days after the cheese stick showdown, I went to lunch with a woman. Let's call her Sue Ellen. She was a little older than me. She and I had worked on a project together. She was smart, successful, funny. I looked up to her. And, finally, she asked me out to lunch.

I was really excited. Most of my friends date back to the hairstyles and fashion choices of my youth (the time I cut off all my hair, the era of wearing shorts in winter). I was finally going to make a grown-up lady friend, someone who would know me as who I am now, not who I was then. We would talk about books and art and really mature things like slow cookers—instead of the time Leigh drove her car into a fountain (sober) or the time we all went to Scotland and wore Highland cow hats everywhere, including to the theater.
I arrived at the restaurant early. The place smelled of turmeric and promise. It was Middle Eastern. Sue Ellen and I could eat hummus together, I thought, the best way to kick off a friendship is sharing food. She swept in. She was beautiful—dark hair, white skin, dramatic eyebrows. We ordered. We drank our ice water. We shared the hummus. And then Sue Ellen began to talk. She talked about her elderly mother getting sick and having to care for her. She talked about the strain this had put on her marriage and on her sex life with her lover (!). She talked about how she had had a few miscarriages, and her feelings about those, and about the fight she had had with her sister, who understands neither the lover nor their mother.

Through these topics, I jumped in with a few stories of my own. I will spare you them. But they were intimate in nature. I felt that if Sue Ellen was sharing, I should share. We were starting a friendship here. I had to do my part. I could not sit there for two hours eating pita bread.

After a final glass of mint tea, we kissed goodbye on the cheeks. I started walking back to the office, thinking, "What did I say to this woman?" I felt mortified and, worse, pillaged, even though it was I who had done the pillaging by sharing too much when I wasn't exactly comfortable. Further, I couldn't help but wonder, "Did Sue Ellen tell everybody this stuff—marital affair to unborn child?"

At home, I stopped by the refrigerator, pulled out a cheese stick (who do you think eats a third of the bag?) and sat down at the table. The top of each cheese stick package is marked with a black arrow implying "pull down." I held onto it, the way I always do, making sure to get enough of the plastic between the tips of my fingers to remove it down in one long, exquisite rip—a rip that must be carefully managed (not too slow, not too fast) in order to keep the plastic from tearing and the cheese stick from breaking in half, a rip that makes a r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rip sound that is so innately gratifying to your senses, that I can only compare it to the joy of squishing your finger into the shrink-wrap covering a lump of ground supermarket hamburger.

And—bingo!—I realized that the reason why my kids loved cheese sticks wasn't the fancy plastic package at all, it was the rip. The kids, like me, love the attention the act requires, the noise it makes, the time it takes and the cheese it ultimately reveals. This is a concept we adults sometimes forget—in our rush to connect with people on the Web or at a cocktail party, in our rush to forge friendships we think we ought to have at this particular stage in our personal lives, in our rush to make people love us before they race off and find somebody else to love more.

Maybe Sue Ellen felt the same pressure I did (time to make a friend right now!). Or maybe she just tells everybody everything. Or maybe she felt instantly close to me, for some reason I don't yet understand. But I know for myself, when it comes to relationships, I can't cope with a 30-minute round of speed intimacy. I don't feel comfortable sharing that fast—or being the emotional receptacle of those that do.

What I'm looking for from a friend, and from myself, is the rip—that slow process by which she or I gradually, and with great attention, tear through our external packages and share not just information, but the feeling that comes with such a rare and delicate revelation.

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