Yesterday I met the neighbor on the other side, Ralph. He was passing through his yard from the garage while I was standing outside. For some reason I found myself behaving like a Stepford wife. He said, “We were just wonderin’ if you were going to put the flag back up,” and instead of saying, Yeah, we’ll get to it at some point, I was like, “Oh yes! We’ve purchased a new one. The old flag was so torn and faded we didn’t feel it was right to fly it.”
“Was it?” He scrunched up his eyes. “We never noticed. We just sure like looking out the window and seein’ it.”
“Oh, yes!” I said. “It’s terribly torn up. We’ve wrapped it up and have it sitting on a shelf. We’re not sure of the proper thing to do with it.”
“I guess maybe they burn them,” offered Ralph, “but we’re sure glad you’re putting the flag back up.”
“Oh, yes,” I said again, like I couldn’t imagine a yard without a flag.
Yesterday I made my first batch of pasta noodles. Kate was making linguini, and invited me to come get over my fear of the pasta maker.
I didn’t exactly want to go, because although Dave bought me a pasta maker for Christmas (by request), and the thing is set up and sitting on the counter, I haven’t been at all inclined to use it. Store bought is usually good enough. And if I need fresh I have an excuse to drive up to Pasta Fresh out on Harlem and Belmont, where I can see owners Tony and Tina and be handed a hot slice of focaccia while I wait for them to pack my order, and where I can enjoy the feeling in that little shop, which always reminds me of the eve of Christmas Eve years ago, when I went there for the first time. I’d moved out to that neighborhood after a breakup and was thoroughly depressed about life and dreading the holidays and wanting only to hide out in my hobbit hole of a basement flat in my cousin Lizzie’s building.
But Lizzie dragged me out on some cooking errands. She made me go to Caputo’s so she could get her produce. Then she made me go to Pasta Fresh so she could get noodles for the lasagna. Like a zombie without an appetite I trundled along, waiting til I could get back home to my two loyal mutts who would not annoy me by speaking English and expecting me to speak it back.
Then we got into Pasta Fresh and something happened. They greeted us so cheerfully, the white-haired man and his sexy wife, and started making up Liz’s order. Then they brought out a warm arancini, cut up and steaming, and tried to hand me a piece. “I don’t eat meat,” I said. So they returned with slices of calzone. To be polite, I took a bite, and then another. It was like the cheerful ghost of a calzone — impossibly light, with chunks of fresh tomato, not too much cheese, not too doughy. To wash it down, they handed us flutes of champagne. I ate and drank, and felt cared for by people I’d never met.
Liz asked Tony how things were going and he said something slightly sad, maybe about missing people who were gone. But he was smiling and he raised his glass to us. I felt a rush of Christmas spirit, joy and nostalgia and some sort of fellowship you can only share with strangers. That moment picked me up and lifted me past my sadness, and the holidays went better after that.
Looking back, I don’t know what I had to be sad about. A breakup? So what. It wasn’t like I’d lost my parents yet. I hadn’t even lost a dog yet. But of course, your heart doesn’t grade on a curve. So anyway, I like going to Pasta Fresh. And I’m afraid of my pasta maker. It’s so shiny and silent.
But when my friend Kate cooks, I show up. She serves delicious food and always makes it look easy. So it’s not just good to eat, it’s fun to be around when she’s cooking. And having claimed I wanted to learn how she made noodles I figured I might as well do it on a night when she had a fresh Puttanesca sauce ready to top them. So off I went, accompanied only by dog Django since Dave had a rehearsal.
Kate let me do almost everything – add three eggs and two tablespoons of water to two cups of flour and a half-cup of semolina, mix them, knead them (Kate had to take over briefly because I didn’t knead hard enough), and divide into a couple of balls. Let sit a half-hour and then feed through the pasta machine, level by level until it’s thin enough. Then through the other part to split into noodles. Sort of amazingly easy. And heaped with the sauce, so so good. Django is not big on starches, but she kept her mouth open like a bird, waiting for each next delicious strip of saucy goodness.
I think the solution is not to go less to Pasta Fresh, but to have noodles more often, so I can fit in some of my own. Because I didn’t even mention the other thing about Pasta Fresh, how it’s right near Palermo Bakery, where the best cookies in the world can be purchased. But that’s another story.
I was at HarvestTime, the smallish and wonderfully stocked and also extremely reasonable grocery store where everyone in our neighborhood, from Viking stoves to WIC cards, loves to shop. Fresh and diverse produce, good organics, surprising treats like warm squares of spanakopita and fresh dolmades.
So it’s Sunday afternoon, so of course it’s crowded. I’ve just gotten my cart and started into the huge produce section. I’ve grabbed a pint of strawberries – $2.49! I see rings of dried figs, which can be either magnificent or too dry, and wonder if it’s worth the risk. There’s an extended line of carts along that side so I can’t get close enough to check them out. One of the carts belongs to a woman who was just ahead of me as we came in. Red hair, plump body that looks even plumper squeezed into tight black capri pants and some kind of fashion tee shirt. She was smiling so cheerfully when she extricated her cart that I assumed she was with someone, mid-conversation. But as we started through the store, her stretch pants jiggling in front of me, I realized she was alone. Something about her made me think Australian. The type that turns out to have this great, unfettered perspective on life and not taking it too seriously, that you feel you could appropriate just by becoming friends with her.
So we’re at the figs, and I could just wait until she or the Korean man next to her makes a selection and moves along, clearing the way. But instead I say, no preamble, just trusting my voice to cut through the shoppers’ din, “Could you just hand me a thing of figs?”
And she hears me like we’ve been friends forever and replies, in a British accent, “Certainly!” It’s almost too easy. My new international friend I met at the grocery store! She’s sexy and confident in her body and her easy breeze lifestyle. British can be as chill as Aussie if you get the right region, Suffolk maybe, or Cork.
She hands me the package of figs and I choose an appellation I sometimes use with my best girlfriends. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I say it with a slight Western twang, so it’s a sign of respect, playfulness, good nature, you name it. But also, I realize a second too late, just as her face changes from sunny look to closed book, it can sound like acknowledgment of an elder. I can’t add, “I don’t mean Ma’am like you’re older than me, because honey I’m sure you’re not,” ‘cause that’s just overkill for a package of figs. And maybe the frown is her just trying to remember what ingredients she needs for her Sunday barbie recipe?
But in any case, there is no more friendly interchange. Although we remain in sync throughout the deli section, dairy case, bread aisle, and even checkout lanes, each setting out our items on parallel counters in perfect time, there are no more easy smiles. I try to catch her eye as we leave with our bags full of food bargains, but nothing doing. Is she as sorry about our lost friendship as I? Is she wondering where the hell some middle-aged woman gets off calling her Ma’am? Should she have worn different pants? Was it cilantro or mint that went into the tilapia recipe?
We’ll never, ever know. My probably British or maybe even Aussie friend is lost to me forever. She’ll never know I kept the figs, which on closer look were definitely too dried out, in my cart as an homage to her. I will eat them as my penance. Next time, I’ll just say Thanks.
Yesterday I learned Dave had forgotten to do his invoicing. I got angry, I went for a walk with the dog, I calmed down, I came back, and we had a laugh over the fact – at least to me it’s a fact – that both of us will always have our things, Dave and money, me and keys, and we’ll try to change, and even think we’re changing, but we just won’t change – may not change – enough to really – ooh that sounds negative. The end.