Food is weird

 

Breakfast, on the other hand, was much easier.
 
I’m sitting on the deck watching the horizon. Watching my pen mostly but sometimes I look up. Birds in flight. Green grasses. Gold and white beach. Silver blue water, some white mists coming off it. Dust probably, but to me it looks like evaporating salt. Beyond that is another strip of gold, the far side of the playa. And then gray green hills beyond, stretching in both peripheral directions. 

I shouldn’t mention any colors at all since each band is full of so many. By gold, for instance, I mean tan and brown and sage green and spring green and cream and velvet black and forest green.

I love the big sunglasses I got at the Paisley Mercantile. They shade my whole eyes, not like my small prescription shades. One of the two Yelp reviews for the Paisley Mercantile noted that no one says hi when you walk in, but I didn’t find that to be true. Also, I wouldn’t care if it was. The glasses were under ten bucks, and the guy voluntarily cut off the tag for me. The other reviewer was upset about not being allowed to throw out a coffee cup. 

Yesterday I had a hard time eating dinner. I’d had yogurt and granola for breakfast, and an apple and peanut butter for lunch, and at seven I still wasn’t hungry. But I told myself, it’s dinnertime, and you get to eat what you want here. No one is watching. You get to overeat. No one will know. There’s no dog begging for bites, and no human to have to share with.  really wanted to get the most out of this, except for I just wasn’t hungry. I reviewed again what I had eaten so far and concluded that I deserved minestrone and my leftover quesadillas from the Paisley Saloon.  

I sat and ate, and listened to Jackie Mitchard’s Still Summer, which I savored, and continued inserting spoonfuls, which I did not savor. I finished two mugfuls. The rest I poured into a piece of foil (I have no storage containers) to bring to the main house for Snickers. Snickers is Barbara the cook’s pig, and there’s a bin for scraps under the sink. 

I could have chosen to leave more for Snickers. But no, I ate as much as  possibly could. Then I had some chocolate chips and dried cranberries. I really don’t understand why I do this. Looked at on paper, it’s very odd. 

Outrageous fortune

"Nurse, get me the remote and a dog biscuit, STAT."
“No time to focus, this is a dog Martian collar halter biscuit serious EMERGENCY!”

Yesterday Toots came over to watch “Lovejoy” but we ended up watching Slings & Arrows. The temperature in the room changed, as she said, when we learned she’d never seen it. Lovejoy is a fun thing to bond over—our mutual adoration of Ian MacShane, our affection for the Lovejoy world where everyone pretty much just cares about antiques, enough to kill for them, but mostly just enough to look menacing and almost kill until Lovejoy ambles along and saves the day—or, at any rate, when the day gets saved by some ramshackle coincidence. Then they all go to the pub for a pint.

I wanted to make a test batch of chili because contrary to Dana’s email I don’t actually like to make chili. I just thought it would be easy and I know I’ve made it before, and it was good. But I don’t know what recipe I used, and browning the turkey always stresses me out. So I picked a recipe and decided to stick with it exactly and I did mostly, but I always pick the easy version in my online search—Easy Turkey Chili! Easy Thanksgiving Stuffing!—and then scoff as I cook because it doesn’t have enough interesting ingredients. So I add some.

I made the chili and set it to slow cook and then drafted our proposal for a new freelance project and corresponded with the shuttle service who might get me from Redmond airport to the middle of rural Oregon for the residency next April. They are willing to stop at a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for only fifteen extra bucks. I feel like I’m walking on bubbles, up on top of bubbles, because so many good things have happened lately and this is not where my heart is used to processing emotion. I’m trying to find a way to be calm and wise about it, so that when the many things are rejections and losses and just plain nothings, to which I am more accustomed, I can be just as calm and wise.

Taking a lunch break to read Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted put me on more familiar ground because it made me wonder, God am I just treading her ground with the small stories I’m sharing, only hers are about surviving an Alaskan mudslide whereas mine are about being afraid of ground turkey?

But I set that aside, because I can’t go down that road or I’ll never get to tell you how desperately important it was that Toots and possibly you, if you haven’t, see Slings and Arrows. Standing in the kitchen after she’d arrived, catching up from the week, having a slow drink before the chili, I can’t remember whether it was Dave or me who mentioned something Slings-and-Arrows-related and Toots said, “What’s that?”

And suddenly it was like an emergency operating theater. “What? You’ve never seen it? I think maybe I’ve heard of it. You. You have to. You can’t go another day. Lovejoy is out. But it’s not on Netflix anymore. We’ll find it. Where’s my phone? How do I? Oh, I’ll try the TV.” And then it was on Acorn, and we fixed our bowls, “Come on come on, we’ve got to fit as many episodes in as possible—there are only 18—does everyone have napkins? Okay, go.”

And this makes sense if you are the sort of person who can appreciate both the charm of one show which is really lovely even when it’s awful and the plot points only sort of connect, and the humor and utter seriousness of another that’s constructed of a thousand truthful details that build so cleverly to reveal what is wonderful and awful about loving something so much that it makes a fool and a hero of you, all at the same time.

Day 9: Already?

Turn around and go back down.
At the top, you must turn around and go back down.

Yesterday I was finished with the play. I’d gotten to a point of hating it that felt complete. I sent it to a friend, thus making it her problem, and prepared myself for a new something.

First, I finished watching the Bergen DVD someone lent me. Then I took a scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it from an old project, and ceremoniously carried it to the huge bonfire pile behind the house. Next, I changed clothes several times, looking for the right thing to wear for a walk to Lake Michigan. What IS the right thing? Packed a notebook because I planned to find a place to start writing the new something.

I walked to the lake, a mile or two away, trying to think of the new something, and then thinking about why there should or shouldn’t be a new something. All along the way were huge houses of the rich, surrounded by lots of space and long driveways and immense lawns. The only sounds were made by landscapers and their leaf blowers, and barking dogs.

When I got to the road leading down to the lake, I was met by a sign. “No pedestrians allowed on road.” Temporary fencing surrounded the park and walking path that led to the bluff about the water. I stepped around it and walked to the edge. I sent Georgia a text message, “having existential crisis. You busy?”

I stepped over another, flattened fence to walk down a long flight of concrete steps to the beach. When I got to the bottom there was another sign. “Entrance at top is CLOSED. Stairs may be used for exercise, but at the top you must turn around and go back down.”

The water was almost turquoise, joyous-looking, drinking in sunshine. Huge boulders, smoother than the ones on Chicago beaches, formed a neat, rounded cove. Everything was ready and waiting for another twenty degrees.

I walked along the beach and then found another way back up to the bluff, a long set of wooden ramps that were also closed, according to the sign. When I got to the top, the fence wasn’t broken, but I climbed over it and made my way out of the park.

Georgia called back and reported on people from her workday. The 22-year-old co-worker who’s done it all, including lucid dreaming. “I’m an expert at that,” she sniffed when Georgia mentioned that her young son had just gotten a book on it. Another co-worker who dispensed her usual portion of unhelpful tips. A customer who came in as she always does, playing Words with Friends on her phone and commenting on each move as if Georgia knows her friends. Another customer with a consistently bad smell who came for his lunch. She advised me to try my hand at a mystery.

I got to the library, sat at a table, took out my notebook which is bound with an old book cover, The Beginning Writer’s Handbook, and prepared to try my hand at a mystery. However, I had forgotten to pack a pen, so I read the latest issue of Fra Noi instead.

On the way home, I stopped at Walgreens and purchased a Signo 207 – in blue instead of black, for a treat, then popped into the Jewel, where I purchased toothpaste and candy. At dinner (vegan moussaka, greek salad, turkey roasted with carrots and celery), people were beginning to feel like people instead of residents.

After dinner I sat in the living room with my new pen and my old notebook. I started thinking there might be a different way through the play, and started writing some new scenes.

Day 3: Listing

Warmer than it looks.
“For nothing in the past stays fixed forever; as we grow and change the past changes…” May Sarton

1.  A World of Light, by May Sarton.

2. A walk in the prairie, by me. Twelve noon. Napped on a log bench. Got lost and had to use Google Maps to find the house.

3. Two more one-minute plays.

4. A mind-expanding interview with another artist for one of the characters in my play.

5. Salmon with carrots and celery. Fried potatoes. Green beans with hazelnuts. Vegan cole slaw. Tiny, perfect squares of cheese cake in decorative parchment.

6. Another walk in the prairie, this time in the dark, with friends.

7. Cowboy bark.

8. One more try at a one-minute play.

9. Defeat.

10. More cowboy bark.

Not at all like a bird

roof of a shed
Note to self.

I have to eat slower. Last night I was shoving sweet potato fries into my mouth, four at a time. Swaddled in ketchup, smashed into brute taste force. Why? Today I can still taste the lettuce from my Greektown wrap. Probably because I didn’t chew that either. My dad ate very slowly. I used to eat very slowly. What happened? When did I get so impatient with the flavors I supposedly love?

There’s a cardinal outside the kitchen window, perched on the rusty shed in the next yard. He or maybe she – red mostly, but brownish wings – is eating a berry. It’s probably from the tree out front. The one I have to sweep up after every morning starting a month ago, or berries stick to the bottoms of shoes, and flies swarm, and the sickly sweet and rotten smell of ripe smashed fruit fills the front walk.

The bird keeps pecking into the berry, pulling back, twisting its head one way, twisting it the other, and then going back in for one more peck. All the time in the world for that one berry. I’m already thinking of my second cup of coffee. How much can I get done before rehearsal? Vacuum? Grocery store? Call Cuz to pick up where we left off yesterday, our phone call about one relative who has died, and another who probably will die today? I was on the el and it wasn’t the time or the place to mourn.

Stay in this thought. Don’t move on. I was impatient talking about things of the heart on a noisy el train. Feeling I was talking quietly enough, but everyone probably feels that way, when actually they are screaming, “So they turned off the respirator?” into the ear of someone trying to read a restaurant review in Red Eye.

The bird is gone when I return with my phone. He or she eats like a bird, and flies like a bird. I have to remind myself, that’s because he or she is a bird.

After we hung up, I sat and listened to a guy behind me eating some very oniony smelling fast food. The combination of crackling paper and smacking lips and onion smell was making me sick. I pretended I wanted to read the transit map and moved to the exit. I hope I don’t make that sound when I eat, though when I’m eating I don’t really care. I just want to get the fries in as quickly as possible, before I’m too full. That’s the problem with abundance. It can induce its own kind of panic, if you are not a bird.

Pizza doh

Malformed crust for a pizza
I wish I could say it tasted better than it looked.

I’m mad at food. Not all food, just the ingredients. Not all ingredients, just the ones I’ve purchased. Mostly the perishable ones. Unprepared, they wait in my kitchen. Five ripe tomatoes stare from a bowl when I pass by for a glass of water. Three bananas whisper, “Please don’t let us end up like the last bunch, peeled and shivering in a ziploc in the freezer. You say you’ll use them later to make banana bread, but by that don’t you mean toss them out?”

Saturday I cooked and prepped all sorts of fresh ingredients for a bunch of pizzas. We were having a birthday party for Xeena and Starbeck. Syd was making the crusts and bringing them over in the evening. So I browned sausage, roasted sweet peppers, sautéed potato slices, shredded prosciutto, cut up pineapple, cleaned arugula, sliced mushrooms, made sauce, and had Dave shred mozzarella, provolone, and parmesan. By the time Syd arrived, everything was arranged in bowls on the counter.

Her beautiful crusts were already stretched on pizza trays and cookie sheets, stacked and carried in by her brother. It was no work at all to load them up and pop them in the oven. “We should start a business,” we agreed.

The next afternoon, seeing the containers of leftover ingredients sitting in the fridge when I opened it to snack on leftover tiramisu from Xeena’s sister Esme, I said, “I should make a couple more pizzas, to use up that stuff.” It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my evening, it just seemed to be the thing to say.

“That sounds amazing,” said Dave. First I did what I actually wanted to do. (Raking and mowing the lawn. Heaven. Chilly and quiet in the yard, sun going down.) Then I looked up an easy crust recipe because I didn’t trust the one Syd emailed me. (It didn’t say anything about the dough rising, and now it was too late to call and ask her about it.) The easy crust was my first mistake. Pictured.

No, my first mistake was letting the ingredients in the kitchen. If they hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have had to top my poor crusts, who’d clearly been saving themselves for a Red Rock canyon diorama, with savory sauce and fresh pineapple and sharp arugula and sweet peppers and perfectly blended cheeses, all of which could be enjoyed only by being scraped off the canyon floor with a fork.

A well-stocked kitchen is a constant reminder of what’s wrong in the world. People like me have too much food while others don’t have enough. The staring tomatoes remind me that I need to get on the neighborhood food bank donation list. Of course, I can’t donate the tomatoes and other fresh ingredients we all need more of. But at least I can make some room by getting rid of canned goods.

What I really ought to do is quit buying ingredients. Ordering takeout makes more sense and is a better means of overall food distribution. People who can handle all those ingredients can prepare the meals. People like me can order one meal at a time. And five ripe tomatoes can get the respect they deserve, without tormenting my psyche in the process.

Reality shows

It's like a show within a show.

Kismet and I went to Cici’s–or maybe it was Ceci’s–for mani-pedis. First we went to Whole Foods for groceries. I thought we’d need to drive, but Kismet said she’s used to going grocery shopping on the train. She shops from a detailed list. I made a list too. I almost stuck to it exactly, and only had to purchase one additional thermal bag when I checked out. We carried our purchases to Ceci’s or Cici’s or maybe it was Cice’s.

“Put them down!” they cried, pointing to our bags. “There!” They pointed to a spot that looked like it would be in the way. We smiled and nodded, but held onto our bags as we studied the wall of polish, choosing our colors. “Put them there,” my nail technician demanded.

“We’re okay,” I smiled, trying to decide between a dark glittery gray and a pale green.

“That’s a nice color. Very pretty. Put bags here.” Things went along as they usually do in a salon, me not sure how much conversation to make, messing with the chair massager controls, feeling nauseous when the massager thing pounded on my shoulders but embarrassed when it thumped my kidneys and pushed my hips out. Kismet paged through a magazine.

Finally I turned off the massager and looked at the TVs. There were two or three installed high on the walls. A reality show was on. Although there was too much salon noise to hear, closed captioning was on so I could read the lyrics and dialog. “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h.” “Great job, dude.” “Thanks, bro.”

When my nail technician sat me at the drying station, I was right across from a screen, so I could hear a little. Kismet sat across from me, so she could hear, too, though she couldn’t see the screen unless she turned around. Bro the team leader had to choose between Dude and a guy in red pants. He had them both sing a U2 song. I loved that they sang at the same time, like a high school audition.

Kismet and I agreed that we liked Dude better than Red Pants. Kismet turned around to check them out and didn’t like Red’s swagger any more than I did. But I felt Dude’s blazer and jeans looked too straight-laced compared to Red’s pants. I was sure Bro would pick Red. Kismet seemed less worried, or maybe less interested.

Bro: I love you guys both so much.

I tell Kismet, “He loves both the guys so much.”

Kismet smiles.

Bro: This is an incredibly hard decision. I never thought I would have to choose between two such incredibly talented people.

I tell Kismet, “It’s an incredibly hard decision, and he never thought he’d have to choose between two such incredibly talented people.”

Kismet nods.

Bro: Red Pants, you really surprised me today. I knew you’d bring it, but your theatricality really blew me away.

Me: “He’s talking to Red Pants. He knew he would bring it, but his theatricality really blew him away.”

The screen shows a woman and two little girls. A caption reads “Dude’s wife and two little girls.” Under it is the captioning of what Bro is saying to Dude. “There’s Dude’s family!” I say. Kismet turns around but they’ve cut back to Dude, listening to Bro. Kismet turns back around to face me. “Sorry,” I tell her. “They looked worried though.”

Bro: You were amazing and I knew you would be.

Me: “He’s talking to Dude now. He was amazing and he knew he would be.”

Bro: Your first notes were really strong. Really right on. And I thought, he’s gonna do it. Then your next note.

Me: “His first notes were really strong. Uh-oh, it doesn’t look good. If he doesn’t win he has to start all over, he was saying before. He’s got to support his family. They’re showing the family again!” Kismet turns back around but they’ve cut back to Bro. “Sorry,” I say again.

Bro: You are incredibly talented, there’s no doubt about it. This is such a hard choice.

Me: He’s incredibly talented, there’s no doubt about it. This is not looking good at all.

Bro: It’s really hard. But I’m going to have to say…

Me: “He’s going to pick Red Pants. I knew it.”

[Tense music plays]

Me: “Tense music is playing.”

Bro: I’m going to have to go with…

Me: “They’re showing the two guys. They’re cutting to their wives. Tense music is still playing.”

Bro: … I choose Dude.

Me: “Oh my god he chose Dude!”

“Yay,” says Kismet. She waves her new gorgeous nails. “I think we’re done.”

“Maybe we should give them a few more minutes.”

“I need to make appetizers,” she says, getting up. It’s Syd’s birthday dinner tonight. I can’t argue. I still need to make my salad.

We sling our insulated grocery bags over our shoulders, clearing a space in the salon large enough for four more women. I take one last look at the TV before we head out the door. Dude is hugging his family. “I’ll TiVo it for you,” Kismet offers.

“Please don’t,” I answer. We head to the train.

Nothing but trouble

Everyone dressed up for the Oscars. No lie.

I dreamed I went to young John Malkovich’s apartment to cancel my lie audition. He was about 30 and dressed in evening clothes. His huge 1930s apartment was lit with chandeliers and filled with people drinking cocktails. He came toward me with arms outstretched, very elegant with that leonine Malkovich walk but also like a society hostess.

I’d come to use Malkovich’s computer to email my cancellation, but I suddenly realized the auditions were actually being held right here in his apartment, right now at this moment. Yes, I’m having audition anxiety.

I tried a couple times over the weekend to cancel my audition. I told Dave, “I don’t think the story I came up with is the kind of story they’re looking for.”

“You don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said.

“But I don’t even want to get cast,” I reasoned.

“But you don’t think you will get cast.”

“I know.”

“Go ahead and cancel,” Dave said. “Then you can stay home all day Tuesday and not go out at all.” I have anxiety about turning out like my mom, who never wanted to go anywhere except TJ Maxx. That shut me up for a while.

But then Scheherazade called when I was at Walgreen’s, buying a curling iron for yesterday’s Oscar party. She’d heard about the audition and said her impression was that it was more for guys who would be one-upping each other with outrageous stories. “Like drinking stories,” I said, trying to choose between a 39-dollar ceramic curling iron and a 9-dollar non-ceramic one.

“Exactly,” she said.

“It’s not that I’m scared of auditioning,” I said as I pulled a 19-dollar compromise curling iron off the shelf, ceramic but only two heat settings. “I just feel like there are more important things I need to be working on.”

“If it’s not your thing, honey, don’t sweat it,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said, “it’s not my thing.”

“So don’t sweat it.” I love Scheherazade.

I typed up my story and had the lady from Final draft read it. At the Oscar party, I told my friend Xeena how this lie thing is taking too much time when I really need to be working on my play.  “So it’s not a fear thing,” she said.

“No, not at all.” I love Xeena, but she has these crystal clear eyes that seem to stare right into your soul. “I don’t think so. Maybe a little. But also I need to write a new scene for my play.”

“Hm. It’s hard when it’s both.” I got another plate of food from the Oscar buffet. My favorites were the spinach balls, blue cheese gougeres, mini fruit tortes, Nutella sandwich cookies, some kind of cheese that you put on a tiny skillet ‘til it melts and you put it on flaky cracker, peanut butter buckeyes, and champagne grape focaccia slices. All homemade by Vandamm Lovely and Kismet. I’ve given up drinking for Lent so I ate as much as possible.

When we left, a lovely young woman who was extremely drunk was also leaving, so we walked her to the train. Dave asked if she was from London and she said, “No, Pakistan.” Then a minute later she added, “I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. Yes, I’m from London. I’m really sorry.”

Then she asked what we did and when I said Dave was a violinist she said, “That’s brilliant. No one plays violin anymore. Everyone plays fucking guitar or fucking bass, I hate fucking bass.”

“I play bass,” I said.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

I laughed, “No I don’t. I was just messing with you.”

“Oh God,” she said, “I’m always saying these stupid things. Why do I–”

“No,” I interrupted. “I was lying.”

She didn’t seem to hear me. “I don’t know why I say these things.”

“But I was lying,” I said.

She didn’t seem to hear. “I’m British so I’m always bloody polite even though I’m always swearing and saying something insulting and then I’m always apologizing.”

“But I really don’t play bass. I wasn’t insulted.”

“I’m really sorry,” she began again. We were still a block from the train. This lying business is nothing but trouble.

Recipes for guilt

“Don’t break the chain!”

“If you have a moment to spare…” A moment? I’ve got to get through all my emails, finish a brochure, edit my audio, go pick up a woodcarving of my dog, get groceries, make dinner for our guests tonight, figure out my finances, and maybe write something. Yes, I have exactly one moment to spare. What’s up?

“We have picked those we think would make this fun.” Did you? When I did this last time, I picked those I didn’t think would get mad at me. Cousins, childhood friends. You’d think I’d pick people who cook a lot, but most of them are disciples of food blogs or they have multiple shelves devoted to cookbooks. They don’t need these emails.

“Please send a recipe to the person whose name is in position #1 below (even if you don’t know him/her).” Him? Do men ever receive these things? Dave’s never gotten one. Just me, and other women who won’t get mad, and also who can be counted on to do what they’re told. “The best recipe is the one you know in your head and can type right now.” Here are the recipes I know in my head: Toast. Everything else, I look up on my phone. Hard-boiled eggs, I look up every single time no lie. I always forget how long you let them boil and how long they should sit with the lid on while they simmer, and do they simmer or do you turn it off and leave the lid on, and it’s not like anyone wants a recipe for hard boiled eggs anyway.

Other, more recipe-sounding things, like pasta with whatever, I do based on whatever the whatever in the fridge happens to be – shrimp, tomatoes, basil, squash. There is no recipe. If there’s a recipe, it usually means I have to go get groceries. “Don’t agonize over it; it is one you make when you are short of time.” If I’m short on time, why would I be cooking?”

“After you’ve sent the recipe to the person in position #1 below, and only to that person, copy this letter into a new e-mail, move my name to position #1 and put your name in position #2. Only my and your name should show when you send your e-mail. Send to 20 friends BCC (blind copy). If you cannot do this within 5 days, let us know so it will be fair to those participating.” Jesus.

All these discrete actions combined are only going to take me one moment? It’s already taken me six moments to read this, fume, and write about it. By the time this is over, I’m thinking we’ll be at 46 moments, each of which takes approximately three minutes. That’s the cinematic equivalent of Red River, during which John Wayne ages about 20 years.

And yes, each friend I send this to counts as three separate moments. I have to decide whether each particular candidate will be annoyed by this message, whether they’ll actually do it, and whether I’ve sent them one of these in the past. If so, did I use their recipe? Probably not. Will sending them a new request be an admission of that? Probably.

“You should receive 36 recipes.” Last time, I got two.

“It’s fun to see where they come from!” I guess.

“Seldom does anyone drop out because we all need new ideas.” You know what? Let’s see who drops out. I wrote back to Jordan, the friend who sent this. Jordan’s not the type to send chain emails, so I felt safe telling her, “love this idea but I’ve done it before and can’t send it to 20 friends.” I did send a recipe to her and person #2, but it was one I’d copied from another email someone had sent me, which I’ve never made.

Jordan wrote back to tell me no problem. She added that she’d only sent the email because the person who sent it to her was a good friend. And the friend had only sent it to Jordan because her aunt asked, and the friend felt guilty. Jordan added, “I imagine her aunt felt obligated to someone; and then I see a very long line of women exchanging recipes from guilt.”

One day, no one will send these messages anymore. Instead, people will send recipes just when they feel like it, with no expectation that anyone’s going to do anything about it. Until then, when I want a home-cooked meal I’ll concentrate on getting myself invited to Kismet’s. We had dinner there Sunday: grilled-cheese-with-apple-and-dijon on homemade honey-wheat, with cream-of-tomato soup, followed by Marzipan cake topped with raspberry-and-rosemary-and-black-pepper magic. Her husband used to blog about her amazing cooking, but he’s dropped off lately. I hope this picture re-motivates him.

Family soup

Grandma getting married
“If I didn’t marry him, it would have been someone else.”

Cousin Gina is in town. Yesterday she came for lunch and we talked a mile a minute like we always do, rushing to catch up before one of us has to leave. I was missing my dad enough to talk to him in the car the other night, and Gina is the answer to an awkwardly asked prayer. “Dad, I miss you. I just miss you. I want to see you. You know? Dad? Hey jerk, I got right of way! Merry effing Christmas to you too.”

Gina’s mother’s mother, Albina, and my father’s father, Jerry, were sister and brother. Whew. While Jerry was still in Italy working up the passage to get to Chicago, 15-year-old Albina met a girl on Taylor street named Mil, and they became best friends. When Albina’s big brother got to town, he liked Mil, too. “Everybody was after him, he was that good-looking,” Grandma would tell me, when I went to visit her and eat Salerno butter cookies. “For some reason he wanted me.”

“Oh Gram,” I was 10 and eager for all romantic details, “How did he ask you?”

“Ask? It was understood. After he decided, he would follow me around. He wouldn’t let me talk to nobody else.”

“What if you said no? Don’t you ever think about what might have happened?”

“If I didn’t marry him, so what? It would have been someone else.”

“Then you’re glad it was him?”

“Sure. He was Albina’s brother. He was good to me. So?”

Gina and I made a salad and had it with a soup I’d made a few days before. She kept calling me Martha Stewart, having no idea that I’ve always wanted to be someone who makes big batches of soup but have never managed it. I picture us eating soup all week, a quick meal that’s homemade. Finally, this week of all weeks, I made a pot only because I had beautiful leeks that needed using, and it’s been nothing but trouble. I worry about it constantly. Are we going to eat it all before it goes bad? When will it go bad? Three days? Two weeks? Should I warm up just a little each time, or the whole thing so I can boil out the bacteria each time? And what if I’m not in the mood for potato leek? Most of the time I’m in the mood for pad kee mao.

I don’t know what it is about Gina that brings my dad to me. Something in her eyes, and the way she can laugh even when she’s crying. And of course, because some of the same blood flows through our veins. We cried about our parents, just for a second, just when I cracked that my family is falling apart, and talked about bread, houses, Italy, work, writing, her kids, our dogs, aging, soup, figure skating, and I forget what else. Then she left to pick up her brother from the airport, and I went to get my hair cut, go Christmas shopping, and hustle to a Hanukkah party. 

There is never enough time to tell Gina everything and ask her everything from a year’s worth of living in different parts of the country, but I got my fix. Thanks Dad, or Santa, or maybe just Gina for making the drive to Chicago. And now she’s got me thinking about Grandma Mil, who knew when to spend six hours in the kitchen, and when to reach for a can of Campbell’s. 

Mil was a great cook, but she saved it for special occasions. Savoury fried smelt and garlicky olio uolio on Christmas eve, and other things I can’t spell but can hear her say in her high-pitched voice. She was one of ten kids. When she was four, her parents had their house moved from Taylor to Peoria Street. Mil’s mother wanted the kids to live in a better neighborhood, but also wanted to die in the family’s first American home. Mil always remembered the sight of her house rolling up the street and around the corner. “You don’t forget things like that,” she once told me. “It’s the little things you lose, like who was the youngest.”