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.

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