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.

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