I used to know how to toss things together
in a skillet, how to crumble leftovers
together and make a decent meal.

Now I only follow recipes,
go down the list of ingredients,
check them all off. There are rules to know,
rules I once ignored.

One ingredient before another,
only this much of that one thing—
minced ginger, tablespoon of curry,
quarter cup of scallions—
or it might ruin the dish, throw
all the flavors off,
make a mess of the intended taste.

I used to date boys who bent rules,
who said things they did not mean,
or did things they wanted to retrieve,
later, with mouthfuls of apologies.

They broke up and came back
but it was hard to tell, after a while,
if they were coming or going,
if it was the first time or the last.

I dated men with no jobs
but with professed ambitions; men with demands
about how I spent my Sunday evenings.
Men who flirted hard
but not always with me.

They broke rules, but I broke them, too.
I re-dated men. I dated men with cats,
men separated but not yet divorced,
men who clutched Bibles too tightly
in their hands. Men with tempers.
Men who loved their mothers
but did not like them.

I went from winging it—thrashing for
sweet when all was bitter—

to going back to the list:
kind, honest,
makes me laugh.
Blends into my family.
Lets me speak.
Says what he means.

And then the rules:
Take one big trip before committing.
Watch how he talks about his last love.
Don’t skip steps. Don’t accept substitutions.
Remember a simmer works better than a boil.
If it burns, toss it out, start all over.
Don’t try to save something
already losing
all its flavor.