The night keeps coming on so strong

There’s a certain time of day, sometime after sunset, when people generally seem to feel the urge to gather together by a fire or a stove or a Hibachi or another common source of heat and food, and hunker down together to eat and drink. People I know who live alone have told me that they’re perfectly fine all day until shortly after the sun goes down. In that hour of oncoming darkness, they feel a sudden awareness of loneliness and a desire to break bread, as it were, with other people. When I’ve lived alone, I’ve felt it, too.

Of course it’s wonderful to eat with other people, but cooking for one, that one being your own damn self, is a useful skill to have for those nights when you’re the only person around. After my husband and I separated, I moved into my friend Jami’s loft, which I sublet for three months while she was out West, and then, when she came back to town, I got my own apartment. I found that when I lived alone, I looked out the window a lot more often than I had when there was someone else in the house with me, as if looking at the outside world were some instinctive way of feeling connected to other people.  I became much neater living alone than I’d been when I was married. My husband’s and my house was generally messy and cluttered, dishes in the sink, laundry not put away, stuff covering the dining room table, and I didn’t care, and neither did he. In my own place, I kept everything neat and shipshape. There was no clutter at all.

I thought of the hour after sunset as a hump I had to get over, a period of restless bleakness during which I yearned for company. I wanted to go out and eat in a restaurant just to be around other people. Suddenly I missed my husband, missed being married. On some especially blue evenings, I almost, but never actually, wished I had a roommate. And I regretted the solitary nature of the writer’s life – other people, normal working people, spent their days with coworkers, rode the subway home with a crowd, walked through thronged streets. I worked at home, and here I was. Of course, I had Dingo, but a dog just doesn’t cut it in the blue hour.

To shake this sense of desolation, I went into the kitchen and started chopping things. I made just enough dinner for me, a simple and comforting and filling meal — one broiled chicken thigh, or even two, with a baked sweet potato and a side of garlicky red chard, for example, or cauliflower curry over basmati rice served with cashews, Sriracha hot sauce, and cilantro, or a puttanesca with gluten-free pasta and plenty of anchovies, capers, olives, and hot red pepper flakes. In those days, I ordered groceries weekly from Freshdirect. I always had plenty of food in the refrigerator and cupboard because I’d planned ahead; keeping my kitchen well-stocked was another effective bulwark against loneliness.

When the meal was ready, I heaped up a plate, sat at a table set for one, and feasted. I looked out the window at headlights and taillights streaming beneath the spangled struts of whatever bridge I was looking at; Jami’s loft in South Williamsburg had a view of the Williamsburg Bridge, and my apartment on Monitor Street in Greenpoint had a view of the Kosciusko Bridge. I daydreamed about falling in love again. Sometimes I put music on. Sometimes I lit a candle. Sometimes I wolfed down the food so I could get back to my email. I always drank wine.

These meals for one had a counterintuitive, resonant coziness. Eating by myself in my own apartment, single and alone again for the first time in many years, I should have felt, but did not feel, sad. Because I had taken the trouble to make myself a real dinner, I felt nurtured and cared for, if only by myself. Eating alone was freeing, too; I didn’t have to make conversation, I got to focus on my food without thinking about anyone else’s needs at all, and that made it taste even better. I didn’t have to share my dinner or worry about taking too much food: it was all mine. I could sing along to the music and wear pajamas and eat with my hands and drink the whole bottle of wine and lick my plate clean. Who would know or care?

Dingo lay at my feet, and little by little, as the evening went on, his company became, once again, sufficient. When I was done with my food, if there was anything left and he was allowed to have it, I gave him a scrap or two. Then he and I went out into the now-dark evening and made our rounds together, ambling along the sidewalk. I waited while he sniffed intently at tree trunks, lampposts, and bushes and deposited a squirt of pee on everything, lifting his leg as high as he could get it and often missing the thing itself, unwittingly sending his little stream out into space to land on the sidewalk or street. He squatted; I hovered behind him with a bag at the ready, scanning for the nearest trash can.

Then we went home again and spent the rest of the evening together. I read a book or wrote emails; he lay nearby and watched me. He always turned in before I did.

Sleeping alone was another luxurious pleasure that should have been depressing but wasn’t. I got to hog the covers, sprawl across the whole mattress, use all the pillows, and move around as much as I wanted without worrying about disturbing anyone else. No one snored in my ear or talked in his sleep. No one woke me up. No one stole the covers or accidentally nudged me with his leg or got up and creaked the floorboards on the way to the bathroom. After my satisfying solitary dinner, I was the captain of my bed, the master of my sleep. But even so, I longed for a bedmate – the urge to fall in love again became stronger and stronger as the months went on.

Then, of course, I met Brendan, and that was the end of the blue hour, cooking for one, eating everything all by myself, watching the cars streaming over the bridge, and daydreaming about falling in love.

Corn and monkfish chowder for one

In a tablespoon of butter, sauté one chopped celery rib, half an onion, diced, 2 minced garlic cloves, and half a chopped green or red pepper till soft. Add 2 cups of fish stock or low-sodium chicken broth, a bay leaf, a pinch of thyme, a dash of cayenne, and plenty of black pepper. Add one good-sized potato, cubed. Simmer, and when the potato is soft, mash some of it in the pot to thicken the soup. Add ½ cup of corn and one medium-sized monkfish filet cut into bite-sized pieces. Simmer till the fish is cooked through, 5-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. When the chowder is done, take out the bay leaf, stir in ¼ cup of half and half, and dish into one large bowl. There should be enough in the pot for seconds. Avail yourself of  Tabasco and fresh parsley if you want to.

Someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear

On Thursday, we drove down to pick up my mother at Logan Airport in Boston. She’d flown in from Amsterdam, where she’d been for the past month, and where my sister Susan lives with her husband and two sons. She was stopping off with us for a week on her way home to Oracle, Arizona. She’s gone on a vegan diet recently. On her first night in Portland, we took her to the Green Elephant on Congress Street.  On her second night, I hauled up the wooden patio table from the basement and set it up in the new dining room and lit candles. For our first official meal in the new house, Brendan made pasta with pea sauce, grated parmesan optional.

Last night, here in the farmhouse in New Hampshire, I made a stew of sweet potatoes and green chard in a spicy cashew sauce (cashews, hot red peppers, garlic, ginger, vegetable broth, and fresh thyme, simmered together and whizzed in the blender) over brown basmati rice, with a side of oven-roasted, salted kale. Tonight’s menu is bean burgers (white beans, oats, olive oil, a splash of almond milk, chili powder, and salt in the Cuisinart, formed into patties then fried in peanut oil till crisp and light) with cottage fries, spiced sweet and regular potatoes, and, on the side, a red-leaf lettuce salad with sautéed portobellos and shallot-mustard vinaigrette.

“A vegan feast,” I said.

“Can’t we just say ‘a feast’?” said my mother.

It’s a fun challenge, cooking with yet another dietary restriction. No gluten, no animal products – there’s still a lot to eat. I don’t miss anything, at least not yet – although today I felt a mysterious resurgence of a longtime urge to buy a meat grinder and make my own sausages.

Over dinner last night, we looked at photos from throughout my childhood – the early years in Berkeley, the mid-years in Arizona, late adolescence on the East Coast. My mother was, in every single one of these pictures, younger than I am now – something that always gives me a little start. I’m surprised not by her youth back then – she has always seemed young to me, all my life, even now that she’s 75 — but by how old I am now. Probably because my mother had kids and I didn’t, I always think of her as older than I am, at every phase of her life and mine.

When I woke up this morning, I remembered the paper route I had in seventh grade. After school, on weekdays, I delivered the Phoenix Gazette – an afternoon paper — the Arizona Republic was the morning one — to various ranch houses in our neighborhood. On Sundays, though, the Gazette put out an early-morning edition, so I showed up at the station before dawn on my sturdy three-speed blue Schwinn with its three baskets, front and sides. I had the biggest route on my station and was the youngest carrier and the only girl, so I wasn’t popular with the older boys. It didn’t matter that I’d worked hard to expand my route, going door to door in my free time and drumming up new customers. I was the skinny, bespectacled girl in braces and braids who had the biggest stack of papers to fold, and so they acted as if I didn’t exist.

The Sunday Gazette had to be assembled section by section and rubber banded. Our station was an empty lot. In the light of the streetlamps, in the chilly desert darkness, we yawned and loaded up our bikes and the canvas carrier bags we slung across our chests. The boys talked and joked amongst themselves. I worked as fast as I could to get out of there, then pushed my laden bike into the street, mounted it, and was off. I loved those silent, empty, sweet-smelling, predawn mornings, alone with my bike, my thoughts. I told myself stories under my breath as I rode along, sang songs, daydreamed about the people whose newspapers I threw onto their dewy lawns.

When I finished my route and all my baskets were empty, I rode through the bright morning sunlight and the church-going traffic over to the McDonald’s on Bethany Home Road, which was already open, and got myself a chocolate shake. I drank it on my bike as I rode home. I always got home in time for the Top 40 countdown with Casey Kasem on KUPD. It was 1974, so that meant Olivia Newton-John, Chicago, War, Anne Murray, the Ojays, Paul McCartney and Wings, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and Helen Reddy. My sister Susan came into my room and we listened together, singing along earnestly to every song. Sundays meant pancakes in our house; and we all took turns making them. We used the Joy of Cooking recipe, which involved beaten egg whites; they were crisp and thick and fluffy and addictive. We smothered them in margarine and Aunt Jemima’s. I generally ate so many I was nearly comatose for the rest of the day – my record was twenty-seven at one sitting.

Years later, my mother told me that on a few Sundays, at the beginning of the school year, when I first started my route , she got up at 4:30 along with me, silently, so I wouldn’t know, to make sure I was safe. She got onto her own bike right after I left the house and followed behind me to the station. She waited, hidden from my sight, while I put the papers together and loaded up my bike, and then she followed at a distance while I wove my way through the wide, sleeping Phoenix streets. I never had any idea she was there.

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