The second in an occasional series; the first: Sister Margaret (or: the first time I walked away from poverty)
The snow has been relentless. I missed the first wave, having been forced – entirely against my will, I’ll have you know -- to stay another day on my writing retreat in Manhattan because there were no trains home. The kids and Julie had off Monday, which was a gift, and they went to school Tuesday, which was also a gift. But they are off the rest of the week, which is, well, a mixed blessing. If I could have one more day to get on top of the mess in the house, to get my head back in the game, that would be a good thing. Instead I’m trying to catch some quiet moments alone where I can. Which is why I’m going to be late to the neighborhood snow day potluck at Kate and Pete’s house. The Brussels sprouts are my excuse – my, but they take a long time to roast, with just some olive oil and kosher salt.
When I arrive, the house is teeming. I’m laden with the Brussels sprouts (roasted to perfection, if I do say so myself) and half the sticky buns I baked this morning with Micah and his pals Ada, age five, and Zady, age four. Micah likes to measure and mix and roll things, but hates sticky fingers. Ada and Zady, on the other hand, are girls after my own heart. When it came to smearing soft butter on the rolled-out dough with their bare hands, they couldn’t get enough of it.
“Ooohhh! It feels so good!” They giggled, pinching off more butter and finger-painting it on the rectangle of soft, sweet dough. Micah sprinkled the cinnamon, I rolled it up, and everyone helped pinch the seam. I cut thick slabs and arranged the pin-wheels in the slurry of sugar and butter the kids had just spread with a spatula all over the bottom of the baking pans. The warm, sticky cinnamon swirl buns are… well, words fail. Possibly too much. I’m taking half of them to the potluck.
I take my food to Kate and Pete’s kitchen and put it on the counter. My Ada Ruby, their oldest, greets me with a hug. Jen and Tim arrive with a bottle of wine. Julie has put good beer in the fridge, Long Trail I think. Folks keep arriving, with salads, corn bread, chocolate cake. There are brownies in the oven, and the whole house smells sweet and chocolaty. The main course is sheer perfection: tortilla soup with lime and cilantro, avocado and red onions to sprinkle on top. There’s also black bean soup, but I can’t eat any, I’m already so full. I can’t find a plate to put Brussels sprouts on, so I just pinch a few with my fingers, then lick the salt off. Zady’s dad Zach sees me and smiles. He leans in and whispers, “I did the same thing.”
“Marta, those are so good,” says Pete as I squeeze out of the kitchen. “Brussel sprouts are much maligned and I just don’t understand why. I love them.”
“Me too!” There’s not much food I don’t love though. Licorice is the only flavor I really can’t abide. Everything else is about texture: oatmeal, tapioca, rice pudding – I can’t do it. It’s a shame too, because I love the idea of all those foods. I mean really, is there anything more cozy and comforting than a bowl of oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and raisins? Too bad it makes me gag.
“Hey Aaliyah, can I have that baby?” Aaliyah is one of Trixie’s best friends and our next-door neighbor. Trixie has known Aaliyah and her sister Qudsiyyah since they were all two and three year olds. For several years I took care of them before and after school, and had baby Ada during the day. “Marta’s daycare and taxi service,” the kids used to call it.
Aaliyah smiles and hands me baby Levi, Kate and Pete’s third child. Josiah, their two-year old middle son is showing us a few dance moves, much to everyone’s delight.
I settle on the couch and bounce the baby on my knee. Jen is beside me, hugely pregnant and looking uncomfortable. “How you doin’ babe?” I ask, and lay my hand on her belly. Jen is not only one of my dearest friends, but also my yoga and pilates instructor, with a studio in her home that is directly across the street from us. I take private sessions with her, and we’re bartering for childcare. It’s only recently starting to feel real that this isn’t just a plan, but a relationship. A new baby in my life! Suddenly I am so eager to have this baby on the outside. Not as eager as Jen is, though.
“I’m okay. I’m kind of sad, actually, but it feels pretty hormonal, not existential, you know?” I stroke her knee absently, assure her I do indeed know exactly what she means.
“I don’t think I’m going to stay for the movie,” she says.
I shake my head and whisper, “Me either.” I look round at this house full of people I love, every one of them a neighbor on my little block of rowhouses, most of whom I’ve known for years and years. Jen (the other Jen, Zady’s mom) and Q & A’s mom Kelley are hanging a sheet on the wall; Emilia has just arrived with an LCD projector. Movie night on the Terrace. This is a good life. My gratitude is deep. Still, I know my limits. “I’m going to leave when the movie starts, enjoy a little solitude before I put the kids to bed.”
I turn to listen to Michelle, on the other side of me on the couch. She’s talking about food. “We had a lunch meeting at work, and I’ve been trying to recreate this green been dish ever since. With cranberries and pearl onions. Oh my, it was so good. I can’t quite get it right though – I think I’m putting in too much olive oil.”
“Shelley, how many years have I known you? Seventeen? And I didn’t know you like to cook.”
“Has it been that long? Really? You know, you mentioned recently about knowing my father, and I didn’t realize you’d been on the block that long until you said that.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember your father. We moved here in 1992. I was just trying to remember how old your Erich was then? Maybe eight or nine?”
“Yeah, that’s about right. He’s grown now.” She sighs. “But food, yeah, I love food. I love everything about food. You know, some people say they like to eat, but don’t really like all the preparation – all that chopping and cooking, you know? But I just love it all.”
I smile, nodding. I remember last summer, when there was a huge block party to celebrate because Shelley had completed her degree. I do remember now eating some amazing barbeque pork on her stoop that day. That was when we talked about her father. How he went to Tuskegee. How proud he was – never bought anything on credit. Walked to the car dealership on the Avenue, paid cash, drove home with a new car, no note. Her parents were good people. Shelley is too. And I don’t doubt she can cook, because that barbeque was amazing. It’s all coming back to me.
“I was talking about this once with a girlfriend at work,” says Shelley, nodding her head in a sort of circular motion. “I said, ‘I love everything about food. I love the way it looks, I love the way it tastes, I love the way it feels and smells….’ And my girlfriend, she looked at me and she said, ‘Shelley? Are you talkin about food or are you talkin about sex?!’”
I touch her arm, laughing. “Shelley, good food and good sex? Just two sides of the same coin, if you ask me.”
“You got that right!” She’s still chuckling and nodding her head. “You sure do got that right.”