Beneath the stains of time, the feelings disappear

This past month has been the cruelest April I’ve ever known, breeding icicles out of the dead land, mixing ennui and irritation, stunting dull roots with unseasonable snow. Cabin Fever Month is almost over, finally, and it’s going out with a soft exhalation of sunny updrafts that shake the new buds and cause the crocuses to bob like the heads of dashboard hula girls, and all is forgiven, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten any of its earlier depredations.

The phrase “mixing memory and desire” has always resonated deeply, but I’ve always internally translated it to “muddling nostalgia and craving.” Memory and desire are more literary and refined, the sort of emotions a well-bred lady might swoon with, requiring smelling salts, a lavender hankie, or, at the very least, a thimbleful of sherry, a turn about the topiary garden.

Nostalgia and craving are blunter, more animal and immediate, and therefore closer to my own experience. They’re also basically the same thing, except one is hunger for the past and the other is hunger for the future. For decades, I used to experience recurring, agonized, frenzied, gut-piercing nostalgia and craving—looking back through a rosy gel of subjective distance at some time when I was “happier” or “freer” or “more alive,” and in the middle of that, craving something that I couldn’t quite imagine but that I knew I would recognize when I found it, something I’d never had before but knew existed; it was all very convoluted, but no less intense for that.

These wild nostalgia/craving interludes used to feel like the emotional equivalent of huddling in a little rowboat, without oars, riding high ocean swells in a rain and lightning storm. When they hit, there were certain songs or pieces of music I could not listen to because they caused my soul to leap from my body in exalted agitation—during different eras, this might have been Schubert’s C Major Quintet, Al Green’s “Jesus is Waiting,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” or Cat Power’s entire “Jukebox” album. And during those times, I couldn’t eat at all.

What was I nostalgic for? What was I craving? I can hardly remember now.

These days, in my settled, contented, grounded middle age, when I crave something, it’s usually food, and when I feel nostalgic, it’s usually for a recent time that reminds me, tamely, of something in the present. This past April, with all of its icy winds and lowering skies and terrible vicissitudes, couldn’t shake that. It only made me more aware of how different my life feels now.

Craving, like nostalgia, has, in recent years, moved closer to home. These past few months, having no way to cook, being in the throes of kitchen renovation, I’ve become aware with renewed appreciation of the fact that our house is surrounded by a startling number of excellent restaurants, all within a three-block radius. There are other, equally excellent restaurants, five or seven or ten or twelve blocks away, but with such bounty, who needs to walk so far?

The restaurants within a 5-minute stroll of our front door are as follows: a funky, tin-ceilinged brick-oven pizza place that makes the best gluten-free pizza dough I’ve ever eaten; a Japanese noodle place with luscious sushi rolls drizzled with house-made mayo and toasted almonds, and slurpy noodles in rich broth with pork belly and halved hard-boiled eggs and scallions; not one, but two homey, stylish, slouchy, glam hipster bars that serve healthy gourmet food; a New Orleans joint with dollar oysters at Happy Hour and classic Louisiana grub and a tray of different sauces and pickled peppers on every table; a locally beloved Italian-French place with cozy booths and perfect tequila gimlets and a menu of Mediterranean-inspired dishes that changes all the time; an elegant Thai “street vendor inspired” tapas-and-skewer bar whose chef was recently up for a James Beard award; and finally, our favorite, a classic corner bistro with perfect steak frites, perfect simple salads, perfect pot de crème, and perfect service, décor, and everything else. (There’s another Japanese place, too, and it looks great, but we love our regular one so much, we’ve never seen any reason to try it.)

All this, within three blocks. Even during the two decades I lived in New York, no matter what neighborhood I was in, I never had this variety and quality of culinary excitement so close by.

We go regularly to all of these restaurants, except three. We have to remind ourselves to go to the Thai place and the Mediterranean place and one of the bars, good as they all are. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is; they’re three of the most lauded joints in town. Finally, I realized that what drives me back to a restaurant is a combination of craving and nostalgia—for something in particular: the corner bistro’s steak frites, or the pizza place’s baby arugula pizza with pesto and goat cheese, or the noodle house’s shiitake-avocado roll, or the Cajun joint’s addictive, saucy, tender chicken wings, or the roast cauliflower salad with hummus at one of the bars.

I haven’t yet found that magical thing at the other three that induces me to go back, zombielike, drooling with anticipation like Homer Simpson headed for a box of donuts. All three places have exceptional food, but none has yet inspired in me that sweet-spot lust for a dish that announces itself on my palate in the mid-afternoon slump of my workday and makes me text Brendan, “Happy Hour chicken wings at 5?” and makes him text back within one minute, “Okay!!!”

I’m already half-seduced by the Thai place’s steamed vegetables with smoky eggplant dip. Last time we went to the Mediterranean place, I had grilled lamb chunks in red lettuce-leaf wraps with yogurt sauce; I think that might be it, but I have to have it again to know for sure. And the other bar has stools in the plate-glass window facing the street where you can sit and watch everyone go by as you drink and eat; who cares what you order?

As Kierkegaard said, “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.”

I think what he’s trying to say is that he would have loved the eggplant dip at the Thai place.

We’re going to lay down someplace shady, with dreamland coming on

Living without a kitchen for a season due to an extensive, much-wanted renovation is a first-world problem, of course, especially if you have enough money (albeit barely) to eat out a couple of nights a week as well as another house to decamp to the rest of the time.  So I’m not complaining when I say that we’ve had to adapt this winter, strategically, in certain ways, and also that we’ve discovered what it means to be forced to eat in restaurants: it’s not the treat you might think it would be.

For the past couple of months, maybe almost three, our Portland house has been filled with the banging and screaming of power tools during weekday work hours, and everything in it is covered with dust. We spend two nights a week there so I can go to my two Pilates classes and work my Thursday soup kitchen shift, and also so we can go out for Wednesday drinks night with our group of writer pals – our only social life, these days.

Brendan’s family farmhouse in rural New Hampshire, where we live the rest of the time, is isolated and remote, and winter is not over, although it’s late April, so when we’re here, we tend to burrow in and work all day, take long walks, cook much-anticipated meals, watch whole TV series at night (“Nashville” and “Battlestar Galactica,” lately), go to bed early, and sleep deeply till morning.

It’s just the three of us: Brendan, Dingo, and me. We’re a compatible and democratic little unit; there is no strife or discord amongst our ranks, and although no one is strictly in charge, things get done as they should, according to the strengths of each. The house is well-guarded against interlopers, chipmunks, porcupines, and UPS drivers, for instance, thanks to Dingo’s superior hearing and barking abilities and diligent – even obsessive – attention to outside goings-on from his lookout post on the window seat. We can go to town to replenish the larder thanks to Brendan, the only one with a driver’s license; he also keeps the fires burning in the fireplace, moves the laundry along when it needs noodging, and makes the best Italian food for hundreds of miles around. As for me, I sing  along with CDs and try to keep conversations lively, for morale. And so our little ship sails forth.

This weekend, the air temperatures are slightly less frigid than last weekend. A warmer wind blew in during the week and melted the lake and much of the snow. Yesterday, on our walk, the dirt road was soft and strewn with squished baby frogs who’d gotten in the way of the ten or twelve cars, mostly Subarus, of course, that drive along the road each day. The lake was a rich steel blue, choppy in the fresh breeze, shading to black around the edges. The mountains were cobalt hulks under a cloud-dense, abruptly sunny sky. Down at the beaver pond, we counted two new dams, making a grand total of five; their population is thriving, exploding even. A gosling swam behind its parents as they came bustling over to check us out. The little protruding hummocks near the shore had newborn, spindly stalks and greening moss.

Yesterday, in the early afternoon, Dingo and I went out to sit on the porch and take stock of the outdoors. We lounged in the sunlight, smiling at each other. This was a strange, tense week; the news close to home was terrible, and the news further away was as bad as it always is. But here we were, dog and human, on a porch in weak but certain sunlight. The trees were all still bare, with knobby little buds, but the grass was turning green, and the crocus spears were finally poking out of the dirt.

As befits the change of season, we’ve been eating and drinking much more lightly – less meat, less booze, less butter for the humans, less food in general for the dog. But even in the most ascetic of diets, there has to be some indulgence, although that becomes relative: a decadent pleasure in the early spring is different from winter’s sausage and cheese and olives, heavier, chewier luxuries.

Last night, at cocktail hour, I opened a bottle of Pinot Noir, poured a couple of glasses, and set out a plate of hors d’oeuvres: slices of English cucumber, whole red radishes, flaxseed-and-sesame crackers, and a bowl of spicy hummus. With our glasses of wine diminishing at our elbows, we devoured the whole plate while Dingo lay at our feet, accepting any bits of cucumber or radish that came his way.

The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance

Running a marathon is a brave, ridiculous act of endurance and hope and derring-do and personal triumph.  It transcends politics. It transcends everything. It’s a big throng of people, tens of thousands of them, all nationalities and races and religions and colors and shapes and ages, shoulder to shoulder, striving together for the same thing, to the same end: to get to the finish line.

I ran the New York City marathon in 2002, after 9/11. All the past year, I’d felt sad, helpless, angry, horrified, devastated, shocked, all the things everyone else around me was feeling. Running the marathon went beyond the personal to the civic, communal, soulful.

While I was training, I raised money for an independently funded track program for inner-city kids, which let me feel I was helping someone, somehow; I needed that. On race day, after years of watching from the sidelines, it was a thrill to join the crowd pounding and sweating their way through all five boroughs.

A few miles from the finish line, I started crying: there I was, in Central Park, I’d made it. With less than two miles to go, I stopped running to hobble, wrung out and in pain. The runner next to me cheered me on. We’d been running side by side since the Bronx; I listened to him and ran the rest of the way. After I crossed the finish line, euphoric, I was grinning and high on endorphins and relief and pride, walking around with a space blanket over my shoulders, my legs shaking.

Who would bomb the finish line of a marathon? Why?

This morning, I poached some eggs and served them over spicy kidney beans with avocado alongside and Cholula chipotle hot sauce on top.  We couldn’t finish our breakfasts; this almost never happens.

Oh, the questions of a thousand dreams, what you do and what you see

I learned how to make stir fry from my college freshman-year roommate. Actually, Lisa was my second college freshman-year roommate. My first one and I didn’t much like each other. And I hated living on campus. I was two years older than most of the other freshmen, due to my high school chairman’s giving me an out-of-date financial aid form during my senior year of high school, and then my own inertia during my first year off when I should have been re-applying for financial aid, forcing me to defer a second year.

Finally, in 1982, I got to Reed and moved into one of the “cross-canyon” dorms, a bunch of identically cold, modern one-story buildings with linoleum floors and track lighting and soulless little bedrooms barely big enough for one person, let alone two strangers. After living and working in Europe for a year, and then another year living back at home with my mother and sister in upstate New York, working at a construction job, I found dorm life both too claustrophobic and too public. I hated the big cold communal unisex bathrooms as much as I hated having to share a room. And I loathed the food at Commons, the Reed dining room.

I petitioned to be allowed to break my room-and-board plan. Because of my quote-unquote “relative maturity,” the authorities let me. After my first winter break, I moved all of my things into a plain little apartment near campus to live with my friend Lisa, whose other roommate had just moved out. Rent was $125 a month for both of us, and in return we each got our own bedroom, plus a bathroom with a tub, a little balcony and an open kitchen-living room. It was nothing special, but I set up my record player, hung my Japanese parasol over the single bed, and set all my books on the little bookshelf. I found a lamp at a thrift store, and I was in business.

Lisa and I had, on the whole, an easy, warm, uncomplicated friendship, unlike my relationship with my first roommate, who frankly hated my guts (something to do with locking the door to have sex with my boyfriend and making her wait till we were done? something to do with my personality, which was earnest and perky and Pollyannaish in those days? both? other things? well, I didn’t like her much, either).

Here in my little box of a room with its cheap hollow door, thin walls, low ceiling, and sliding glass window, studying in my bed, leaning against my green corduroy “husband” pillow, listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash while incense burned on my nightstand, I felt I could breathe finally.

It was Lisa’s apartment, though. I moved in to an already-existing household. She had a certain way of doing things and certain expectations of me.  I have always been a deeply private person. Lisa liked to come into my room in the evening and perch at the foot of my bed and have talks. To me, this was invasive; to her, it was cozy and congenial. She liked to fret about my current relationship and tell me what was what; I preferred to live and let live, no advice, no judgment, no noodging. I chafed sometimes under her big-sisterly clucking and wide-eyed admonishments. She was sensitive and could sense me chafing, and, hurt, she retreated. Things were a little chilly until I approached her to assuage her wounds.

“I’ve always been this way,” I told her with my usual earnest eagerness. “I am weird, I know that. I’m so private.”

“You are not weird! No no!” she told me, shaking her dark curly head and talking in a funny, high half-duck half-Japanese voice.  “I just love you! I love to talk to you.”

One thing Lisa and I agreed on absolutely was food. When I moved in, she already had a well-established everyday menu, and, to keep things simple, I fell right into it. I loved the consistency, the lack of thought it required, the tastiness and healthiness of it. And it was cheap, and I always knew what was for dinner. And breakfast.

On Saturday mornings, Lisa and I walked up the hill to the Safeway on S.E. Woodstock and did the week’s shopping. Without discussion, we always bought a staggering heap of vegetables, including Chinese cabbage, bok choy (I can still hear her trilling “bok choy!” in that funny voice, cracking me up in the produce section as she flung a big bunch or two of it into our cart), and hot little Chinese red peppers. We bought baking potatoes, one each per night, as well as chicken breasts and ground beef (we both hated tofu), soy sauce, and sesame oil. Shopping for our everyday breakfast was even simpler, because every breakfast was the same: strong French roast coffee with half and half and sugar; English muffins with real butter and raspberry jam.

Every night, in our tiny galley kitchen, we pricked and oiled two huge russet baking potatoes and stuck them into a hot oven. Then we stood side by side, chopping everything we needed for that night’s meal, nice and small, a good assortment, a little more than we thought we’d need. We grated ginger and minced garlic, little heaps of both.

Lisa’s recipe went like this: Over high heat, sauté the meat first in soy sauce and sesame oil, a little of the garlic and ginger – cut-up chicken breasts or a wad of ground beef – then take out and set aside. In more sesame oil and soy sauce, sauté the rest of the ginger and garlic, the minced scallions and hot red pepper till just soft. Add the rest of the vegetables in this order, stirring for a minute or two in between: slant-cut carrots and celery first, then thinly sliced red or yellow Bell peppers, then zucchini and mushrooms, then broccoli florets, then the chopped greens. Stir the entire time. Add more oil or a little water if it starts to stick. Add the meat back in with its accumulated juices just before it’s all done and stir well and cover for a minute or two.

These stir fries were incredible, and I’ve never had a better one; 30 years later, I still make them according to Lisa’s recipe and still serve them over the scooped-out innards of enormous, well-baked russet potatoes. The fluffy white potato soaks up the sesame-soy-ginger-garlic-meat juice gravy. The vegetables, because they’re all cut small, meld together.

Into the crackling potato skins, Lisa taught me to put butter and salt and pepper and fold them together into madly delicious tacolike things.

With loaded plates, we sat at our little dinette with its gold-flecked Formica top, on matching chairs with padded seats, and feasted. Lisa didn’t drink, and neither did I in those days, or at least not much, so we didn’t have booze. We always ate with chopsticks. There were never any leftovers. The next night, we always started fresh.

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