I Found Love in a Hopeless Place: My Ex's Kitchen
With all the wisdom afforded by two semesters at Bard College and three months of love, at 19, Michael* and I committed to “moving in together” for the summer–i.e. sharing a full bed in his father’s converted garage. It was a big house in Lafayette, CA, where the dizzying dry heat encouraged a lush garden in the back. We shared the room with a pool table and an old couch that was periodically occupied by a rotating cast of Michael’s stepbrother’s bandmates. It smelled of sawdust, California pot, and Riley, a Prozac-addled pit bull rescued from an Oakland gang.
Michael had instructed me to call his father Jeff. No one called him dad, and Mr. Arnold was definitely not on the menu. He picked us up at SFO in a white SUV, which I soon learned was the vehicle of choice in Contra Costa County. I should have realized that I was in over my head from our first conversation. Jeff glanced up at the rearview mirror and asked, “Do you guys need any condoms? I’m taking Amanda to Planned Parenthood tomorrow if you need anything.” I waited for Michael to answer while his 15-year-old sister and I fidgeted under our respective seat belts. He and Jeff exchanged smirks in the mirror, silently congratulating one another on their casual, sex-positive parent-child relationship and on successfully mortifying the uptight girl from Connecticut.
I was at the upper edge of my diffident teenhood and particularly shy. Moving into a house full of eight to ten over-sharing strangers should have been a firm no. But I was 19 and an idiot, so there I was, awkwardly maneuvering my way through the two-story house.
Despite the transience of the house’s inhabitants, everyone gathered on Sunday nights for grand vegetarian feasts. There were always a dozen of us crowded around that long deck table like the Last Supper on the Island of Misfit Record Store Employees. Jeff’s second wife Karen and third wife Sue split grilled pizzas topped with sharp local arugula. Michael’s crust-punk stepsister Rebecca clutched a tofu hot dog in her right hand while balancing her rat Persephone on her breasts. Her dirty dreads fell forward to form a single gaping mouth, and she and her pet rat alternated bites. Amanda silently pushed grilled vegetables around her plate. Their goth step-cousin held court in the shade next to Jeff’s mother, the fog of Alzheimer’s shielding her from Jeff and Sue’s recounting of their latest visit to a nudist resort. Riley scavenged for scraps between the chair legs.
Jeff and Sue let us work at their consulting firm, but I left after realizing that my primary responsibility was to serve Michael coffee on demand. I found a paid part-time internship at a photo studio in San Francisco. Three days a week I walked 2.1 miles in triple-digit heat to the train station because I couldn't drive Michael's stick shift, and he couldn't (or wouldn't) give me a ride. After 40 minutes on the train, I walked another mile through three homeless shelters and a methadone clinic to get to work. It filled out part of the week, but even with the gig and the commute and Sunday dinner and sleep, I spent roughly 85 waking hours each week smoking Camel Lights in a deep loneliness. Between the walking, chain-smoking, and vegan food, I dropped 25 pounds that summer.
Michael and his family were unbelievably welcoming and generous, but I was out of my element. My uselessness formed a heavy cloud of guilt over my head. I clung to Michael with suffocating desperation and struggled to connect with his friends. My East Coast sardonic wit translated to Californians as bitterness. I felt threatened by a hiking-toned mermaid to whom Michael had lost his virginity. I didn't own rock-climbing equipment. I was an anxious teenager in culture shock with way too much time on my hands, discovering in front of an audience that the thing I thought was True Love was more of a misguided fling. Michael’s rock-climbing trips and poker nights increased in frequency. I smoked more cigarettes.
The only thing the Arnolds ever asked of me was to water the garden twice a week. Deep purple flowers and floppy green leaves stretched up a hill about the size of a tennis court. It required two hoses to get the job done properly. Maybe it was the vastness of the garden, or maybe it was the veil of my self-involvement, but it wasn’t until early July that I noticed a tree dotted with heavy ripe lemons. I automatically plucked an armload and set to work. Life had literally and figuratively handed me lemons, so I made lemonade.
The kitchen was in the center of the house, and soon a small crowd had gathered around a pitcher. This was my ticket to connecting with the people around me. I didn’t even have to talk! The kids in the house threw a party the following weekend. I stayed sober and woke up early the next morning, tiptoeing around the kitchen to make three batches of orange-scented French toast for all the hungover punks and hippies. They gradually rose from their makeshift beds of sofa cushions and balled-up hoodies, their tattooed fingers tearing at the sweet buttery slices. Golf balls of French toast slid passed their lips, which then turned upwards into little smiles. “Thanks, dude.” It brought me such joy to feed people and feel useful. I was hooked.
Sue had a large collection of Italian cookbooks, and I started reading them straight through like novels. Cooking was such a natural extension of my interests that it’s surprising that I hadn’t discovered it earlier. I love working with my hands and solving puzzles. It’s an improvisational and sensual medium that encompasses the balance of color, texture, aroma, taste, and temperature, but is also a completely practical pursuit. It can be solitary and meditative–mincing and stirring with laser focus. A few hours of kitchen alchemy turns humble ingredients into a magnetic force that pulls people together and vanishes just as soon. It’s pure magic.
The rest of that summer, I made ambitious multi-course dinners for Michael while he was at work in an attempt to reconnect. I struggled with technique and timing. Most of those early dishes were flops. There were broken sauces and raviolis that wouldn’t float, but I doubt even the most sophisticated and delicate soufflé could have saved us. Our relationship was over by the start of the fall semester, but my passion for preparing food is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
*Names have been changed.