Another woman has come into my relationship with my boyfriend, and she's the best thing that's ever happened to us.
A week ago, a 22-year-old Japanese foreign exchange student named Mari moved in with us for the month while she studies English in the morning and hip-hop dances in the afternoon.
She is everything you could want in a boarder. She's polite, she came bearing gifts -- a bottle of sake, two sets of lacquered chopsticks and a fan splashed with a Japanese mountain range -- and she insists on washing dishes. I actually had to stop her from washing a paper bowl, that's how sweet she is.
Mari, though she would never know it, may be saving my hobbled and frequently toxic relationship, at least for now.
Aside from being tiny, a taut wisp of a thing with streaky highlights in her bobbed hair, she is totally vulnerable. Even with her handheld electronic translating device, it's difficult for her to communicate. She has never been to this country before, and everything from her bus pass to our currency is unfamiliar. We are all she has.
As her "home stay" parents, we are only required to provide a room, breakfast and dinner. Still, Mari, with her plastic bag full of gifts and her misspelled "Monkey Buisiness" T-shirt, is bringing out the best in us.
The night before her first day of school, my boyfriend, Brandon, spent an hour mapping out her bus route on the Internet.
"I think she'll be OK," he said, looking worried. "But maybe you should walk her. Don't forget, her bus leaves at 11:46 a.m."
The next morning, Mari made herself a bowl of cereal, washed her dishes and packed up her backpack for school. When we arrived at her bus stop on Virgil Street, the bench was littered with a pile of gnarled chicken bones. I was slightly embarrassed for my countrymen.
"Gross," I said pointing.
"Yes, gross," she said, but just laughed, gamely.
An urge from somewhere in the kishkas compelled me to give the girl a hug as I wished her luck in school. On my walk home, I was already planning what to make the three of us for dinner. Later that afternoon, I picked up some extra milk for her cereal.
As it happens, having a witness to your life and to your relationship can be positive. With Mari around, we can't leave messes or get in three-hour fights about nothing or eat a tub of macaroni and cheese for dinner on the couch while watching six TiVo'ed episodes of "Lost." Without discussing it, we have morphed into this "show" couple; part real, part what we wish we were.
We have this routine at the dinner table. Brandon teases me if I finish a beer, making a drinking motion with his hand, as if to imply that I drink too much. That's when I say: "He is handsome, but not smart," pointing to my head. This makes Mari laugh every time, a kind of remedial vocabulary vaudeville act. It's the kind of faux-sparring an actual, real-life happy couple might engage in, and even though it's forced by our joint need to entertain our guest -- and even though we've been fighting for months since he moved out here from New York -- it makes us feel happy, like a forced smile can make you feel happy.
One night, she was taking a late dance class and wasn't scheduled to be home until after dark. I could see Brandon looking out the window, pacing. We decided to pick her up at the subway stop, waiting across the street at the Circle K. When she saw us waving to her out the car window, the look on her face was pure euphoria and gratitude.
"Thank you! Thank you!" she kept repeating all the way home.
And I don't even mind how cheesy this sounds: money can't buy that feeling.
Speaking of money, don't think I'm some Mother Teresa taking in needy students to get closer to God. No, I'm just a girl with a mortgage.
Here's the equation: spotty freelance income + many months since last fulltime television job + three-bedroom house = foreclosure. When a friend forwarded the language school's Craig's List posting, I thought, I'm saved.
So, as I bragged to my friends about becoming Mrs. Garrett from "The Facts of Life," I booked not only Mari and another Japanese student for when she leaves, but also a 17-year-old French girl who arrives in October. My friends joke that maybe I shouldn't be welcoming a parade of young women into my relationship. This concern is beyond me. I'm not the jealous type. If one of my students gets a job hosting a network show, she'll be out on the street. But sleeping with my boyfriend? I don't even worry about it. I may have problems with Brandon, but he's no sleazebag.
And when it comes to playing the role of tall, handsome happy American man who can make spaghetti and who cares about your bus route, he's pretty convincing. Even to me.
Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She's on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.