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on vacation (see you next week)

On vacation.

like children

Pouring rain on a Tuesday morning, and the traffic is thick. I pry E and N out of bed earlier than early. The clinic will close at ten, and we need to file documents, get stamps on forms, find a room on the third floor, maybe the second floor. I have a plastic container in my bag. In this box is E's precious stool sample that must be inspected for worms before she will be allowed into a new kindergarden.

There is construction going on so we must wander around the entire hulk of a building before we can find an entrance. Jackets are checked. We wait in lines, where ultimately old women mumble behind tiny windows being difficult in any number of ways. N is not amused. E is already getting bored. I am just hoping to make some progress.

The doctor is out, and will not be back for three days. All of the other rooms are working but will not accept our half-slip of paper. N holds a finger up in the air. She  makes a phone call, and turns fast on her tiny feet. 

We stomp out through the puddles and the broken pavement. I smell smoke, like burning garbage.

Later, we park in front of a paid clinic. It is modern, quiet. There is no line. I pay about $15 and they take the sample for testing. We look at each other laughing. It could have been this easy, if we only knew. The mistake was following hundreds of people making themselves miserable to save $15. They are not poor. I saw their Porsches and Range Rovers parked in the lot. It's just some bizarre principle that drives them there.

It is late morning. The rain is still splatting down on us. I have the rest of the stool sample in my bag. It seems more than foolish now to be carrying it. In awkwardness, I did not think to throw it away inside. I look at E. She cracks a sideways grin. N shakes her head no. She doesn't want it in her car a minute longer.

In a strangely inspired moment I stroll over to a tiny garbage can in front of a furniture store. I rest the paper bag and the container inside gently on the ground. E squeezes my hand. Her eyebrows raise slowly.
"What are we doing Pop?" She asks, nervously.
"We're leaving your kaka!" I shout, and we run back down the sidewalk.
E is overcome with laughter, her knees kicking high in the air. N glances back at us, unsurprised. 
"We gotta get outta here!" I say, pretending we just robbed a bank.
"We're from Brooklyn!" E shouts at the cars whipping past us."Don't mess us around!"
Inside, she is out of breath and smiling as I buckle her seatbelt.
N eyes us both. 
"Three criminals on the run." She says under her breath.
"International incident." I say, and touch her shoulder as she pulls back into the wet traffic. 

I wonder if this is something E will remember, and how it will be filtered by time.


The weeks finishes out, E with us practically every day even though her mother is in town. She comes back, face upside-down, her arms slack at her sides. We plan a little dinner party for some of N's relatives. E will help me in the kitchen, and make fresh lemonade at the table.

I feel like celebrating in some vague way, without any obvious excuse. The menu kicks around in my head, eventually offering two paths, one Asian, one a dance between Southern France, Western Italy and Spain. There are beautiful figs in the market, and hard green tomatoes. I decide to listen instead of talk. The boxes of vegetables have made the decision for me.

First, the country pate, a smooth and yielding rectangle of chicken liver and ground pork, spiked with cognac, flecked with fresh sage and thyme, a stripe of sweet apple down the center. I test a little piece in a pan to see if it needs more salt, if I have pureed it smooth enough. I pop the coin-sized sample in my mouth and it yields, juicy and sweet, salty enough. It sings past the roof of my mouth right into to the top of my head.

It cooks for two hours in a second pan, a bath of water keeping it all moist and even. Late into the night we peel back the foil and eat little slivers. N nods quietly, her eyes giant in the dark kitchen. E is snoring in her bed.

We drink black tea, talking quietly.


The next morning I make the green tomato pickles, splashing just a soup spoon of apple vinegar into the pot with water and sea salt, with fragrant black pepper corns and crushed cardamon seeds, with a giant Chinese dried chile, with strands of red onion, the peeled skin from one lemon, mint, crushed garlic. It cooks down a bit. There are no containers left but for a squarish vase from Ikea. I cram the green tomatoes in, cool the liquid and pour it over them, adding more mint. It stands in the window all day, a plate over the top.

Then, the sorbet. Six red grapefruits are halved and squeezed by hand across the strainer. I love to feel them mashing up between my fingers like I am some powerful giant. Half of the juice is set aside, the rest simmered with a handful of cloves and a heavy dollop of dark Russian honey. E wanders in, with dolls to play with on the kitchen table. I dip a spoon in, ask her to taste. She nods yes after a moment.

I combine the cooked liquid with the raw juice and it somehow fits in the freezer after I force and shove my way around. N will stir it every hour or so, and taste it each time.


The windows are open. E was picked up again, but will be back later. Her mother is putting on a show again, dragging E to a fancy store to watch her shop for herself. Quiet music fills the room now, Tom Waits, Lanois, old Dylan. I peel shrimp and start the broth for the risotto from their skins. I roast peppers and almonds, garlic and little cubes of bread for the Romesco that will pool under the risotto.

N builds piles of dishes in the bedroom for each course, a napkin separating each one. She spreads candles artfully around the apartment, little clusters on tiny plates.

I pull the ten pound hunk of veal from the refrigerator. I need to remove the silver layer, to french the bones, yank a giant tendon from the center without knocking everything to the floor. The meat is pink and luminous. I grind sea salt and pepper, dot it with more of that fresh sage and thyme. It will absorb the salt and and I will add more in a few minutes. It rests on the kitchen table like some kind of trophy from the Flinstones, a dinosaur sized slab of meat and bone. N wanders in, saying "wahhaaa".


Two kilos of red plum tomatoes and fifteen figs are halved and salted, splashed with a little vinegar and olive oil. They roast at the top of the oven, a roof of sweet and salty vegetable flesh that perfumes the kitchen. The meat glistens below it. I splash a tiny bit of white wine over it at one point and it sizzles as it drips to the pan below. I make a little steam bath under it to keep the meat moist as things roast and develop for the next five hours.


E's mother is calling on the phone, screaming and making threats by seven. I have showered, pulled on a clean shirt. I hang up the phone, getting my mis-en-place organized as dinner will be served in less than two hours. She wants to fight right now, and have E call me in tears. She wants to make us all suffer, to feel what she feels. It is the most selfish of acts.

My phone rings many times. Text messages are sent. Threats are made. E is sobbing. She is scared she will not be back for the party. I close my eyes, try not to yell. N stands close to me, a hand on my shoulder sometimes. She gives me calm words in between the rings. She tells me I know what to do.

I keep cooking.

E offers some kind of story to her mother that is somehow acceptable. One last text is sent, asking me to make a promise. I reply in typical fashion "I can only do my best. This is Russia."

It works.

E arrives fifteen minutes later, her cheeks red from roughly wiped tears. N helps her pick out a dress. We wash her face, her dirty hands, pull a comb through her long wild hair.

And then the guests are splashing into the house, examining guitars and toys. The wine corks are popping, making that magic little sound. The seats are agreed to, then juggled and the giant round plate is lowered to the center of the tiny table. Slabs of pate, thin slices of warm ciabatta, and those madcap pickled green tomatoes. They eat it all, making toast after toast. E sits on my lap, then between two of the women who joke around with her as she asks me for lemon slices and the sugar bowl, as she makes lemonade for everyone.

The risotto is is rich and soft, the acid of the sherry vinegar in the Romesco beneath it cutting through the sweet tender shrimp. There are some crisp pieces of chorizo on top. E calls them Spanish bacon. N smiles her secret smile as her relatives ooh and ahh. She told them nothing about our menu, or what happens in our kitchen. They thought I was going to boil some pasta, maybe roast a big chicken or something.

E eats her shrimp, sucking out the meat from the tail then dropping them systematically in a tiny bowl.  The guests are getting full, their speech slowing down, eyes glazing just a little. We clear the plates, sip more wine. E stands up on the bench and waves her hands around. She tells everyone to be quiet, and tells the story of how we left the kaka in the bag in front of the furniture store. The room erupts in laughter.

The women are done eating, and I will not make soft polenta to rest the meat on. It will just be those roasted tomatoes and figs, dark and crusty at the edges, soft and salty sweet inside. The meat is the same, as I slice off each rib and try to place it on the plate without making a complete mess.

We finish off half of the roast and make it to the third bottle of wine, a Georgian blend that is fresh and acidic. It warms my throat, and rests perfectly on my belly. E is getting tired. N is making jokes about how she can never lose weight with me cooking like this all the time.

The table now empty we set out the last set of dishes. I crush a great bowl of pomegranate seeds with the bottom of a cup, pouring the juice out. It splashes like some kind of sweet warm blood into the white bowls. N pulls the grapefruit sorbet from the freezer that did firm up by some miracle. I spoon it in, serving it quickly and they are skipping the spoons just slurping it all down and grinning like children.




Comments

Suzette Sommer said…
Oh, my God --- those eyes.
liv said…
Luscious.
Although your life is complicated and by no means a jolly walk in the park....it is also luscious in many, many ways.
So very, very luscious.
I won't have to eat again today. I'll just come back here whenever I get a pang of hunger and be the invisible guest in the corner, licking her plate. Thank you.
Omgrrrl said…
Ummm...talk to me about the sherry vinegar in the risotto. I prefer vermouth.

This is, of course, a metaphor.

If you are creating food, you are creating hope.
Marco North said…
OMgrrrl - dry white wine in the broth and the risotto. The sherry vinegar is in the sauce I put underneath, the Romesco. Two different components in one bowl.
Banker Chick said…
Yummy,I was seeing and tasting the feast.

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