Whenever I think of Swedish meatballs, I think of when my father died. Mrs. Foley from down the street brought them. She brought them again when Mother was diagnosed with cancer. No tragedy was official until Mrs. Foley was standing on the porch with a foil-covered platter and a grief-stricken look on her face. It will not be a good dream when I open one of the hundred doors in that endless dream corridor and find Mrs. Foley there with her Swedish meatballs. Not a good dream at all.
Although he made a sublime spaghetti sauce, Daddy’s specialty was pizza. He would start in the afternoon, making a simple dough of flour and water and yeast. He’d let it rise, punch it down, and let it rise again. By dark he would have collected his army of young helpers. He’d pass out a dozen cookie sheets rubbed with olive oil and give us each a handful of dough. I remember not washing my hands, and pressing grimy fingers into the soft, fleshy folds. When the pies came out of the oven, Daddy would slice them and we would sit around the picnic table in the kitchen eating directly off the pans. Once, after he came back from a trip to Italy, Daddy looked at the store for a thing called “goat cheese,” but found none. He hunted for a thing called “buffalo mozzarella,” again without success. We were relieved.
The morning I was scheduled to have the abortion, Frank made me an omelet. The eggs were overcooked and the cheese was leathery and the vegetables were dry and raw. I thought I was going to throw up. In the short time we’d been dating, I had not lost my temper with Frank, but that morning I told him his omelet was disgusting. I pushed the plate away and stalked into the living room and fell on the couch and watched the clock, waiting for it to say it was time to go. Frank wanted to go with me, but I said, “Why don’t you just do something else today?” I was pretty sure I never wanted to see him again. Frank must have known he would be getting the blame. He sat down, all tender, beside me on the couch and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And he waited for the answer: yes or no. Sometimes one word will change your life.
I took care of the baby without much help from Frank. We ate a lot of takeout. We had sex often, but Frank thought I was unfaithful. He was jealous of anyone who looked at me. And I wasn’t the best housekeeper. I didn’t vacuum enough and I never rinsed out the sponge. This was a problem. The day I left Frank, I scoured the bathtub and mopped all the floors and put clean sheets on the bed, crying the whole time. I swept the porch and washed all the windows. I vacuumed. I rinsed out the sponge.
Mother had been fighting so hard for so long. I made a huge batch of chicken-and-artichoke casserole and divided it up into little Tupperware bowls and put them in the freezer. I copied the recipe from a caterer she used to use. Once, when she was healthy, she’d taken a bite of theirs and tipped her head back and rolled her eyes and said, “This is what I want you to make,” assigning me the task of creating our own version. When she was sick, the celery seed and sherry and coarse ground pepper were off-limits. It wasn’t as good, I knew, but when I bumped the spoon into her mouth and she took a bite, she said, “Mmm, yes. This is delicious. This is just the way it’s supposed to be.”
Corn on the cob
For generations, the women on my mother’s side handed down Bluemont, a huge stone house with a wraparound porch overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. It was, always will be, my favorite place, even though we have lost it now. Sometimes Grandma would stop at the roadside stand for corn, and that night she’d pass a steaming platter of it around the great long table in Bluemont’s gold-lit dining room with all the windows open and a breeze blowing the sheer curtains into the room. When Grandma ate corn, we thought of a typewriter.
David was my second boyfriend. He was a socialist who hated anybody rich, or even middle-class. He said I was shallow and coddled. Once, I took him up to Bluemont and he sat in the dining room and berated the upper classes, with their summer retreats, numb to the plight of the city poor, sweating and dying of tuberculosis. I took it upon myself to be his angel of mercy, the deliverer of his happiness. I decided he was right — I was shallow and coddled and selfish, and had nothing worthwhile to say. But then I had lunch with my mother at the diner near my apartment, and over club sandwiches she suggested I consider a life beyond David. “You can’t be responsible for someone else’s happiness,” she said. She told me it was unwise to make someone else the center of your life. Because lovers leave and parents die and children grow up and move away. If you have made them the center of your life, you will be lost when they are gone. She said your center belongs inside yourself. The burden of your fulfillment is yours alone.
I broke up with David. I took an efficiency with a fireplace and a balcony and a view of the park and a bed with room enough for just one.
Daddy made popcorn for the Saturday Night Dance Party, the oldies program on public radio, and my siblings and I dressed up for it. In a trunk upstairs we kept a huge pink crinoline and a sequined black vest and bright kimonos and hats and boas. My brother wore stiletto heels, and an old silk chemise over his underpants. My sister became a middle-class housewife named Madge, or a bullfighter, depending on her mood. I wore a long, beaded evening gown. I remember our parade to the living room, and that dress’s heavy hem dripping down the steps behind me.
Grilled cheese sandwiches
My daughter still remembers the first time she saw me cry. The day the divorce was finally final, I came home from the courthouse and opened a bottle of champagne, as if to celebrate, but I started to cry. I felt the death of our family the way one might feel the death of an old friend. Mary, just three, stood in front of me and wrapped her arms around my thighs and pressed her face into my hips and held me tight. Then we made grilled cheese sandwiches.
My sister and I traveled to Greece on a freighter. Two weeks at sea, with no telephone or newspapers. Every night, the chef, Costas, made us something different for dinner. The day we crossed into the Mediterranean my eyes turned blue. That night I surrendered to the urge to kiss Gregorius, the ship’s carpenter. He was dark and sweet and poorly shaven. The next night Costas made beef tongue and served it with mustard. At dinner, the passengers commented on the rash on my face. I think Costas knew how I got it: from necking on the bow of the ship, cozied in the arms of Gregorius, with a full moon, a cool breeze, and a glittering sea.
After the drive from the grocery store to our house, Mother and I would sit in the car. We could sit in that stopped car for minutes and minutes, talking about everything: our hair, old boyfriends, the unity of the holy spirit. Sometimes she would be working on a chocolate soda, having stopped at the ice-cream shop after the grocery store. If she didn’t eat it right there in the parking lot, she would have me hold it for the mile to our driveway and then cut off the car and take it from me ceremoniously. We would sit there talking in the driveway and she would eat her ice-cream soda, reluctant, it seemed, to go back inside.
I was an account executive for a radio station, and Chet was a client. We were driving in his car down Midlothian Turnpike, trying to decide where to eat lunch. I was in the mood for a big, greasy burger with everything, but I couldn’t possibly suggest a drive-thru. Even though we were becoming friends, this was a business lunch, and you don’t eat at a drive-thru on a business lunch. So we just kept going. We drove out to his house. There were pictures of his family all over, photos of him with his wife and two daughters at the beach, in the mountains. Then we got back in the car and he drove to a pale blue Victorian with a FOR SALE sign in front of it. The house stood in the middle of a field of high grass, like in a Wyeth painting, with rippled glass in the windows. “This is the house you and I should have together,” Chet said as we stood by the car. He said it as if it were a comment about the weather. It would never happen. He drove me back to town.
Marriage is like the meal at a dinner party. Beforehand, you look forward to it. But when the plate is set before you, you discover things you have never tasted, unexpected things, things you have no interest in trying — even things you dislike. Beef tongue with capers. Braised eels in cream. Oxtails with anchovy hollandaise and pumpernickel toast points. Candied tripe. But you will eat what is served. And you will smile and be charming while you clean your plate.
Chet was married, but I should have kissed him anyway. One winter day, we ate lunch at the Bird in Hand. I had fettuccine primavera. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it began to snow. Snow is magical, like champagne. Open a bottle and everything is different. Possibilities roll out before you. We ordered wine as the lunch crowd dissipated. Our one-hour appointment unfolded its arms to take up an entire afternoon. We watched out the white window as the traffic thickened, receiving occasional weather updates from our waiter: such-and-such bridge has frozen over; schools will be closed tomorrow; expected accumulation, four to six inches.
Maybe afterward, when we stood outside the restaurant, giddy with wine and snow, I should have stopped fumbling with my keys and looked Chet dead in the eye and said, “All I really want to do is put my mouth full on yours and kiss you thoroughly and well and long. Right now, with the snow falling on us. May I, Chet? Will you let me, just now, just this once?”
Although the three-for-a-dollar, whole-wheat Safeway brand will do, soft white Wonder bread works best. Lay one slice on the counter top, pound it flat with your fist, peel away the crust, and work the bread into a circle. When the circle is even, lift it over your head and say, “Body of Christ.” Break and eat. Amen.
One Saturday, I came home from Christmas shopping and found a black package with purple ribbons waiting on my doorstep. My name was misspelled on the tag, which said, “From Santa.” Inside was a stunning set of white silk pajamas. But they were size petite. (Who would think I was petite?) The label was from a snazzy little boutique downtown that serves bottled water and probably charges a girl just to look at the merchandise. I went there and inquired, but they refused to identify the buyer for me, so I traded in the mystery gift for a voucher. In spring, the culprit surfaced. Kurt called me out of the blue, and when I accused him he quickly confessed. He was one of those country-club types with no clue. At his invitation, I met him for lunch at some chichi patio restaurant. Finally, Kurt asked me how I looked in my pajamas. I pulled the voucher from my purse, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it into his potato salad. “I don’t wear pajamas,” I said.
On the last night of my second marriage, my husband said he wanted to cook. By my third glass of wine, he’d only just laid the butterfly chops on the grill, and still had not put heat under the rice. “I’ve been negligent,” he said. There was much I could have said in return, but I was done trying to talk.
A delicacy from the East
One night Maurice made me dinner. We shared marinated green beans and mushrooms, and smeared vegetarian pâté over crusty bread. We ate at his coffee table, Japanese-style, and he told me he was going to D.C. the following weekend and he would bring me back a surprise. His description was like a riddle for me to guess at: It would taste sweet, like fruit, but it had no seeds or skin. It was not a drink but something to lick. A delicacy from the East, he said. Finally he explained that it was an edible powder, and he would brush it over my naked body until I was beside myself with desire and he would lick and taste me everywhere. We had been going out for about a month and a half but I felt like he was going much too fast. That night we necked on his couch and he told me he wanted to bring me to the edge and keep me there for hours and hours and hours. All this talk, but I could not let him in. This thing seemed to have its own rules. Maybe every relationship does. I went home after midnight, all wet. The next day on the phone I told him that maybe we should take a break.
I was working as a receptionist for an architectural firm. During that time, I never went out on dates because I didn’t want to get a baby sitter. It was too big a pain and never worth the effort. Occasionally, I could call the daycare and tell them I would be an hour late, and I would go out for a drink after work. I did this once with Mario. He was a carpeting manufacturer’s rep. He’d drive down from D.C. every few months to sell to the architects. Anyway, I only had an hour, so I chugged down my Scotch pretty fast, on an empty stomach. I was ready to leave. It was what you call a courtesy date. And it was Dutch. Finally Mario finished his beer and walked me back to my car. He sat in the passenger’s seat and started kissing me. “I have to go, I have to leave,” I kept saying. Within minutes he had reclined my seat, crawled over my gearshift and was lying on top of me. It was dark, and the parking lot was empty, and I remember I had my sunroof open. “I have to go now, it’s time for me to leave.” We kissed and kissed and he felt so good on me — it had been so long since I had been kissed, since I had felt someone on me, and he was on me with all his weight, his hands touching me under my shirt. I told him, “I have to go, I have to go.” I was saying, “I am leaving now,” and trying to leave, but not quite, still liking what was happening to me. My legs were not apart and we had all our clothes on, but his body pressed against me just so. I was breathing and writhing and he was kissing me and he knew what was about to happen, knew it when it started, and he said aloud, “She’s lost it.” I came, holding my breath, keeping myself from whimpering or groaning. Not wanting to come, but feeling it all through me and not being able to stop it. Hoping that he wouldn’t know, but he did. He knew. I saw him one more time after that. We ate Buffalo wings in Georgetown.
James and I shared a red leather booth at Faraday’s every time I visited. It became “our table.” One afternoon it was raining and we went there for lunch. It was then he told me that he only wanted “a buddy.” He ordered me a bowl of cold cucumber bisque. I had been trying for years to replicate my mother’s cucumber soup. Although this soup was not as fine as Mother’s, it was hearty and refreshing and rich. I said I only wanted a buddy, too. I was lying.
“Old black women,” Reggie said, “cook the best.” He was dicing potatoes, green peppers, onions. The iron skillet was smoking hot with grease. This was how his grandmother made hash browns. “White people don’t know how to cook,” he laughed. The first time I cooked Reggie breakfast I made eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and juice and arranged them all on a tray and brought the tray up to my room, where he was still snoring. I balanced the tray on my vanity and sat down on the bed to wake him. I tried little kisses, tickles, puffs of air in his ear, but he was sleeping so hard I couldn’t rouse him. Suddenly, the tray on my vanity tipped and all the dishes and cups and glasses hit the floor with a huge crash and there was food all over the rug and it was an awful mess. Then he woke up.
I had always called it “carbonara with tuna instead of ham,” but my daughter came home from her father’s one day calling it tuna-pea pasta. Her stepmother made a similar dish, but with a clear base, not creamy. “Which do you like best?” I asked, so that I could make it the way she wanted. “I love them both,” she snapped. “Don’t make me pick a favorite.”
Dinner some night
Through all the moves, all the packing and unpacking over the years, I have lost Tara’s phone number. She scribbled it inside a matchbook at 3 A.M. in the parking lot of a bar called the Library. It was the spring after I had left Frank and I was fumbling in the dark, trying to get back to my self. I went to the Library that night to hear a band play, and I was dancing by myself, in the corner, when Tara approached me and introduced herself. Her boyfriend was the lead guitarist. We went out to my car to smoke a joint, and we stayed there past last call, past closing, with the seats reclined, laughing and talking. Tara was like a day at the beach. Tara was hooky and sunshine, freedom and mischief, all bound up into one restless, dazzling package. She lay across the passenger seat, stuck her legs out the side window of my car, and rested her head on my lap, laughing hysterically. Her hair was like a wide pale tablecloth over my legs and I was secretly wishing I could feel it against my skin. Her kiss was brief but unhurried, brief but soft and complete, and it left a fire in my mouth. “Let’s cook dinner some night,” she said, breezily handing me her phone number — as if we would live forever, as if, at any time, any night, we could pick up where we’d left off.
If you really look, you can find a few recipes for skordalia. I tried one with cannelloni beans and bread crumbs. I tried one that called for chicken broth. And then I quit trying. Sometimes it is only when you quit trying that you remember. Years before, I’d waited tables at a Greek restaurant. Stella floated around her kitchen like a cloud. One day, chopping parsley beside the steaming stove, a gray strand falling over her dewy, girlish face, Stella gave me her recipe. “A few potatoes,” she said, with her thick Greek accent, “olive oil, lots of garlic, some lemon juice. Very simple.”
It always starts the same: a pot of water on to boil for bow ties or capellini or rigatoni. In the pan I put the oil and garlic, vegetables, maybe some meat — whatever I can dig up. Sometimes it’s a cream sauce, sometimes a red sauce, sometimes herbs and oil. It turns out different every time. It has no name. But I always know when the fumes have reached the others, because one or two will drift in to investigate. They come into the kitchen from other parts of the house where I can’t see them or talk to them or know what they are doing. “What’s for supper?” they ask. And I say, “I don’t know.”
A portion of this essay appeared in An Ear to the Ground: Presenting Writers from Two Coasts (Cune Press).