At 29, I was a bit like Dingo when I first got him: skinny, skittish, unsure of how to behave, wild, afraid to trust, and most comfortable on the street. I’d been in New York for more than two years and had never had a nice meal in a good restaurant. I had been living for the past year and a half in a 300-square foot studio apartment with a cold, depressive, barely-there boyfriend. I had absolutely no money; I worked as an office temp when I could get work, could hardly make my student loan or credit-card minimum payments, and could never seem to get out of debt.
I ate most dinners alone at home – a lot of it takeout, rice and beans with extra hot sauce, deli soup, mu shu vegetables, slices of pizza, as well as the few odd little things I cooked for myself — squid with rice or steamed vegetables with baked potatoes. I used to walk by restaurants, bistros and elegant Italian places, and peer furtively inside, dying for anything on the menu – but even if I’d had enough money to eat there, I didn’t think they’d let me in. Some childish part of me believed that good restaurants were for other people, real people who knew how to order properly.
Back then, I had just started my first novel, In the Drink. Very early, before I had to go to work, I would leap out of bed, having lain awake much of the night on a hamster wheel of panic. I had to write a novel. I had to get published. I was turning 30 in August, and this birthday loomed in front of me: if it came and went, and I hadn’t achieved anything, I was afraid I would explode in a white-hot burst of frustration.
I made myself strong tea in a large porcelain pot I’d bought in Chinatown. I sat at my little table and drank cup after cup as I read what I’d already written, despaired, edited, chewed my cuticles, and finally wrote another new page, then another. Sometimes I felt electric with joy at the words that came from my fingers, and sometimes it felt agonizing and terrifying, and I left the house in the same panic I’d been in all night. And, at whatever stupid job I had to go to, I jotted down ideas as they came to me in the big hard-bound notebook I always kept with me.
As a kid, I wrote heaps of poems and plays and stories freely and happily, with gusto, as a natural offshoot of reading. During the years I spent in school, goals were set for me: creative-writing assignments in high school, creative writing classes and a creative thesis in college, then MFA workshops and thesis. Now, I was on my own. No one cared whether I finished a novel or spent the rest of my life as an office temp. Writing this first novel was crazy-making; I was sure there must be some secret method, something all the other novelists knew, the key to the kingdom. I was obsessed and driven and frenzied, sure I’d never figure it out. Then, the next day, I caught fire with excitement. I laughed out loud as I wrote and walked through the city afterwards feeling exalted.
A couple of years later, not surprisingly, I was still working on In the Drink. My 30th birthday had come and gone and I was still not published, still not married, and yet somehow I hadn’t exploded in a white burst. I was now, for the first time in my life, making good money, working on the fiftieth floor of the World Trade Center as the secretary for the legal department of DKB Financial Products, the swaps-and-derivatives subsidiary of Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank. I paid off my debts. I spent my downtime at my job writing at my desk, looking out over New York Harbor.
That year, I met my future husband, a man who understood that restaurants were democratic, open to anyone who could fork over the money it cost to eat there. It was the mid-90s, a golden time, financially speaking. He was raking it in as a building contractor, renovating Upper East Side apartments, building shoe stores and designers’ showrooms. We met on weeknights after work and took turns treating each other to dinner.
He took me to restaurants and ordered for us both: steak frites, artichokes, frisee salads with lardons and a poached egg, steak tartare, raw oysters, asparagus. He took me to Coney Island for raw clams at Ruby’s, then over to Brighton Beach for lamb soup, pelmeni with sour cream and sautéed onions, blini with caviar. We went to the Savoy for roast chicken, to a tiny Italian place on Jane Street where the owner made his own wine and came out to pour it for us; we ordered his excellent venison and fresh pastas. I inhaled all this food; I would have rolled around in it if such a thing had been possible.
Rice and Beans
From a Puerto Rican takeout place, order a big aluminum dish of rice and beans with chicken and extra hot sauce. From the deli next door, buy a six-pack of Bass Ale. Try not to haggle obnoxiously with the deli guy over the price, and fail. Also fail to convince him that his prices are criminal; buy it anyway. Bring this feast home, take off your shoes, eat everything alone at your rickety little table and wash it down with cold beer. Wriggle your feet and shiver with hard-won happiness.