Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lily Eats

The Patron Saint of Us

Clear as the meals are what I wore and the occasions for them. The first was for Noah, the occasion was Noah. I had on the long, brown, pseudo-tribal dress I would later wear to bid farewell to a man I had wanted to love, unable to properly find in my wardrobe a reflection of the peculiar mix I felt of high celebration and mourning. I had made a reservation, and the hostess whisked us almost immediately to a small, square table where the conversation flowed simply as it can only amidst siblings--young and acutely aware of each others' beauty, but free to converse unfettered by the phantom dinner guest of romance, possible even between two good friends who intend only to eat with each other.

They brought bread and sweet butter and we ordered soups—a sweet potato bisque and a hot, plain oyster stew—no potatoes or fanciful seasonings, just leeks and cream and fine, fat oysters. Noah was leaving to begin a new life and this was his goodbye—before flying three thousand miles, a wholly incomprehensible number to anyone, even if they’ve lapped back and forth across the country several times. He was taking with him the tent that was to be his home for the next six months, his pack, heavy bags of grains.

A whole sea bass came to us, stuffed with lemon wedges and sprigs of fresh mint. Noah ate the jaw-meat reverentially, and confessed, with the na├»ve eagerness I have only experienced from him two or three times in my life, that he had heard it was the best part of the fish. Then, with the gallantry I have experienced from him more than from any other man to date, he insisted I try it. Not out of obligation, but with his signature inborn sense that whatever he found to be the best must belong to me, too. That is how we have always walked around—absorbing things half by ourselves, and half by virtue of the joy we know they will bring to the other.

There was a platter of squash, faro, kale, wild mushrooms. “This will sustain me,” he said, “when I’ve run out of quinoa and am eating bricks of two-thousand-calorie emergency rations.” We both knew what he meant: This will sustain me when I am far from you. This giddiness, the shared secret that we are both still so able to be dazzled by the truly careful parts of life. The well-treated food, the family’s clammy hands reaching to pat each other across the table, handling each other as dearly as any meal. There was dessert, too, and we ate gratefully, but extraneously, like two people receiving a bouquet of flowers in the middle of a botanical garden.

The second was in New York. Adrian had called me to say she had big news, and after explaining that she and Sweeney had gotten engaged, I laughed and said I knew it was either a baby or a marriage. I congratulated her, from perhaps the deepest place I have ever been able to congratulate anyone. I could tell that I meant that their marriage would be a good thing to have in the world. As we spoke, veering into details on the phone, the knick-knacks of where and when, and the characteristically awkward proposal, thousands of old slides snapped through my mind. The fall that I had met Adrian, when we cooked breakfast barefoot together in our college dorm’s hall kitchen—oatmeal with cinnamon, salt, and butter, fried eggs on top. Sliding notes under each others’ doors with passages quoted about modern-day feasts, small proclamations of small love, an appreciation for bounty wherever we could find it in that interminably cement city.

Which was the same autumn I met Sweeney, a man sprawled drunkenly under a tree at eleven AM, full of opinions about a lecture we’d both attended on Gilgamesh. Which was the season when Adrian and Sweeney met, at a bi-weekly salon held at Sweeney’s apartment—they had a freezer full of various meats and I never saw anyone there eating at all. Just reading Proust and dedicating days to Rimbaud and when a shirtless Sweeney walked by, Adrian asked if she could pick at the blackheads on his back.

And they fell in together, as some people are blessed enough to do when they’re able to get in step with a city like New York. I spent eighteen months trying to love Brooklyn, but ultimately felt it was a foreign object of which my body was constantly trying to purge itself. I stayed for as long as I did for Adrian—which I told her at the time, but which I’m not sure she was able to believe. It seems rather a lot to me now, after so many yeas of unalterable friendship in different states—but at the time, I had no way of knowing that my exit from New York wouldn’t also be the end of my intimacy with the girl I loved more than any other I had known. I wanted to talk with her always—about flaxseeds, the process of distilling vinegar, Wallace Stevens, my fear that my housewife longings were un-artful. But she understood: We, as women, wanted a lot to do with writing and cooking and companionship, wanted a household wherever we went, and understood that the maintenance of such a life was not casual.

“He said, I’ve got your present, but I’m going to save it until after dinner,” she told me. Then, laughing, “But we never ate dinner, so at some point it just became, Well, I guess, now.” And of course it was a ring, too big, so she had to wear another on top of it until they could get it resized. I know now that some time had to lapse before I saw her—I had moved back to Baltimore, after all—but it seems to me that as soon as I got her phone call, I was off the bus in New York, climbing into Sweeney’s car for the drive back to their home. He was erratic, rolling cigarettes and sometimes even reading while he steered, and I remember telling him over and over that he should be a cab driver.

I have always been fundamentally unable to forget old lovers while in their presence—even to push the memories very far out of the foreground. So maybe that was it, or maybe it’s simply that being with the two of them has always felt like a kind of love affair to me. Whatever the case, I found my mind dutifully trudging back to their old room, how many different ways I had been their guest over the years, the fine gin-with-lemon-zest Adrian and I drank before crawling across so many borders to the man of her life. We were free to go anywhere. And remembering it, on the heels of their engagement, I felt not at all separate from the prospect of their wedding, but folded warmly in, as ultimately invited as I’ve often been with them.

But always she was the one extending. We always conversed first, she and I, with Sweeney to come later—tolerant of me, even admiring in some ways, but never so forthcoming. So the dinner was not really about him, but for Adrian, about us. Still, we prepared in front of him in their apartment, in a kind of spectacle and inclusion—both of us wearing her dresses, her stockings and shoes, layered under the necessary coats and scarves to travel to Manhattan by train in January. When we left, in a frenzy of embraces and kisses on the cheek, he was drinking juice from its carton and preparing to reheat some fried chicken he had stored in a plastic bag.

Even though I had called in advance to reserve a table, there was a wait when we reached the restaurant. It only lasted a few minutes, and we spent them marveling over the quiet lighting and loud diners, perusing the extensive wine list. When we sat, we ordered a white wine from Argentina, and I was grateful that the waiter poured the first taste into Adrian’s glass instead of mine. I would have been nervous, where she calmly took a sip and nodded her approval. The waiter, a young man who spoke so quietly that we didn’t hear a single thing he explained to us all evening, filled both of our glasses and left.

We glanced around us at what other people were eating—it was one of the only existing upscale raw-food restaurants. Things looked unrecognizable and good, and we were baffled over our menus until we saw a footnote—a prix fixe chef’s tasting menu. Five courses, and no hint as to what they would be. We both excitedly admitted we’d never ordered such a meal before, and I was reminded of all the times we had had such conversations—on the brink of doing something completely new next to each other. And it seemed perfect: To relinquish control and not haggle with ourselves, but give over to an inevitably long evening, able to look at each other and our plates with new eyes.

The waiter, too, was pleased, and in fact, our request seemed to stir up a kind of rallying in the restaurant. From then on, a new member of the staff came to our table each time, detailing the dishes to us in a common inaudible whisper before setting them down. The food was complex, and hard to remember now. A raw butternut squash soup with sage cream, corn tamales, oyster mushrooms prepared somehow reminiscent of actual oysters. A whole tray of different ice creams, displayed like petit-fours. And the wine was easier to drink than any I’d ever had—our cheeks flushing while we rehashed all of the “food dates” we’d had since we met, my quiet assertion that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known. What I meant was, there is no one else on this earth I’d rather share a three-hour meal with. No one would catch the light so consistently as you. No one has such love waiting for them at home, and such love sitting across from them at the table.

That was how it had been with her: We were able to laugh always, and always be heartened at my unflinching enamorment of her. It disturbed nothing but sat with us like the prophet Elijah, for whom the door was always open, a plate always left. I wondered at him as our bill was dropped off, then stopped wondering. He’s Sweeney, I thought, as we finished the last of the wine and paid. The good will guest, the absentee saint of this meal. How good to feel we have his blessing, and be able to bless him back.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lily Eats

Pent House, they call it the Pent House

The household is being reconfigured: A week ago we sat down with the building's super to add up the collective incomes of the roommates who intend to stay for a new lease. "I can't even rent to this group," he said, referring to people who make as little money as we do. But since he knows we'd never missed the rent before, he decided he would do it anyway, sighed at the defense he would have to pitch for us to the absentee landlord. Told me that even though I'm not going to be on the lease, he'll still take my phone number for contact info and "in case I need a date to the prom." Signing on for another year here feels a lot like promising to carry a child to term--all of us feel a little bit like we are putting down collateral on a responsibility we are only half-certain of handling, worrying about money, planning art shows, apprehensively approaching bringing new people into our world.

When I moved in, I was unfamiliar with all but two or three of the seven roommates, and I only had a real, established intimacy with one. He immediately left town for several weeks upon my moving date, and I forced myself out of my room--to talk, to cook soup, to review and respond to invitations to potlucks at people's houses who I didn't know. The summer lasted forever, and then it was simply cold. Not to any particular degree, but just the kind of cold that made it necessary that one find a bed-mate or wear a sweater or fill a hot water bottle before going to sleep. We all drank coffee. We all drank tea. I traveled the short road to being halfway in love and then took the long, empty-bindled hike out, able still to share vanilla cookies and peanut butter with the object of my affection through it all. During the denouement of this affair, I bought a one-way plane ticket to California. Crazed with the idea of seeing my brother, eating the fresh lettuces he and his wife shake free of their garden, distancing myself from the meals I cooked one-handed while the other arm tried to embrace a receding man. I canceled the flight nearly as soon as I'd planned it and suddenly saw my full body back at the stove, toiling towards no one, checking temperatures, going next door to flip a switch when all the appliances revolted and threw off the yoke of their circuit.

Every morning, I wake up to at least an hour's worth of dishes compiled like careless found objects in the sink. I am supposed to mind this, but routine is the initial draw of any kitchen, and I find myself falling into them like a daily prayer. I brew a cup of coffee to drink as it grows cold between shifts of scrubbing. I wipe down four different flat surfaces with a reusable rag, I sweep the kitchen floor and sometimes empty the cat's litterbox, fill his food-dish. I read Diane di Prima's account of farm-life with three men:

"I would get up with Billy and go over to the kichen in the big house, where I would get the coffee going, fry a bunch of home-fries, and make eggs and oatmeal for the men. After they split for work I would slowly get dressed, clean up the house and our shack, weed the garden a little, read, write, walk, listen to Big Bill's short-wave radio. The time passed very quickly, and then it was time to boil the potatoes--each of them ate three potatoes at supper, and you had to boil another two apiece for home-fries the next morning."

Dishes dripping, I hearken back to this and think it sounds, for all its gendered qualities, like the ultimate high life. How I admire what every person in this house brings to the table: Adam's declaration that "I only like food that tastes bad"--an unwillingness to explore any worlds beyond pasta and oranges, tomato sauce and packaged hot chocolate. Brent's restaurant wisdom and appreciation of sharp knives, earned through a series of high-stress kitchen jobs. John and his girlfriend's frequent forays out into the late-night world for cartons of ice cream. Sal's stringent observance of cast-iron rules, concern over the regularity with which he consumes bacon. Amanda's tiny portions and fried lima beans and inexorable sweet tooth. Zach's morning egg sandwich that he offers to double and give one to Amanda, which she always refuses, and which she always then takes a bite of anyway. Dave's cheap cereal that tastes like honey graham crackers in a bowl, his pious observance of protein in the morning, earnest attempts at buying groceries which never stop him from usually eating out.

We've had "family dinners" that found Amanda sweating over her cookbooks, pizza parties, pan-seared scallops, surprise birthdays with two cakes, going away parties with peppercorn-infused vodka. Dinner at an expensive pasta restaurant--complete with wine--when Dave, John, and I felt we couldn't hack it anymore unless someone else brought us food unarguably hot and rich. Mornings brewing coffee in any one of a number of ingenious ways--through filters that are too big for their use and therefore folded, into a percolator which doesn't work and instead serves as a large urn, in a French Press that was the fourth one to shatter in the apartment. Guest visits from a fine-dining sous chef friend who plated each of us a desert comprised of concord grapes, homemade gelato, goat cheese and figs on toast points with a honeyed balsamic vinegar browned-butter sauce.

Prospective roommates keep emerging from the Baltimore woodwork: a filmmaker who none of us knows but whose videos we looked up and which made us certain that, as Danielle proclaimed with absolute authority, "He loves sushi." A fiction writer who I've only seen take beer by way of sustenance. The leader of a dance troupe who doesn't like that we smoke indoors but loves the space, as anyone with an inclination towards large movement would. A photographer with whom I once shared a wall, and who spent a semester in Italy ignoring men to write me letters detailing the juice of market pomegranates. None of us knows who will be here when spring opens its full doors. None of us can predict what we will be eating. I can only suspect that I will be in the usual realm of ritual-dining: For now it's been oatmeal with sunflower seed butter and thin raspberry jam that Val brought back for me from Spain. Pho broth that's been on sale for months at the natural food store with sweet potatoes, green peppers, garlic and ginger, crimini mushrooms, kale, pinto beans. It takes me a week to eat what I cook in one day. Sometimes a lamb burger wrapped in lettuce when I get off work at the bar--pickle slices and manchego and bacon layered lustrously on top of it.

Breakfast is never until at least noon, though I've often been awake since eight or before. First there is coffee, the dishes, the kitchen, at least two cigarettes at the table at the far end of the wide main space. Sometimes almonds or an apple to stay me while I go about my day pretending I have no early appetite, sometimes nothing. Then, as the house begins to wake up, people emerging blearily from the stage curtains that separate their rooms, we find at least two or three of us ready to eat at the same time. The kitchen is suddenly populated with the hunger of late-to-bed, late-to-risers, their truest cravings coming forth with their first light. If it must be bacon. If you must move out. If you don't have any coffee use some of mine.