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Most of the stupidest things I have ever done I’ve done in the fall. I call it my First-Day-of-School syndrome, a bone-deep hangover from a time when autumn meant something. When I was eleven, the syndrome revealed itself in the tragically self-defining sartorial decision to match a pair of purple zip-up go-go boots with a Miss Piggy sweater. In the fall of my thirtieth year, it showed itself in the concoction of a nonsensical yearlong cooking project, to commence in tandem with the biblical ordeal of a New York move.
I did mention the moving, right?
The first clue that I was descending into one of my occasional bouts of seasonal madness should have been my mom’s reaction when I told her about the Project.
“Do you like ‘The Julie/Julia Project’ for a name? I think it gives it a sort of Frankenstein mad-scientist feel, what do you think? Did you get the link I sent you?”
“Yes . . . ? I did . . . ?” All her short sentences were wavering up into hesitant, high-pitched questions.
“Don’t worry. It’s just for a year. I’ll be cooking every night and writing every morning. It’ll be like a regimen.”
“Mm-hm? And why are you doing this again?”
“What do you mean?” What an obtuse question—though, I did dimly realize, one I’d not actually asked myself. I noticed my voice had gotten a little squeaky.
“Well—I mean, maybe this isn’t the best time to start a new project like this? While you’re trying to move?”
“Oh—no. No, no, no, no, it’ll be fine. I have to eat, don’t I? Besides, it’s already out there. Online, where anybody can see it. I have to go through with it now. It’ll be fine. It’ll be great!”
At my age, I guess I should know that when the timbre of my voice reaches such unendurably cheery heights, trouble is on the way. I should know it, but somehow I never remember until it’s too late.
It had started so well. The night after I wrote my first-ever blog entry, I made Bifteck Sauté au Beurre and Artichauts au Naturel—the first recipes in the meat and vegetable chapters of MtAoFC, respectively. The steak I merely fried in a skillet with butter and oil—butter and oil because not only did I not have the beef suet that was the other option, I didn’t even know what beef suet was. Then I just made a quick sauce out of the juices from the pan, some vermouth we’d had sitting around the house forever because Eric had discovered that drinking vermouth, even in martinis, made him sick, and a bit more butter. The artichokes I simply trimmed—chopping off the stalks and cutting the sharp pointy tops off all the leaves with a pair of scissors—before boiling them in salted water until tender. I served the artichokes with some Beurre au Citron, which I made by boiling down lemon juice with salt and pepper, then beating in a stick of butter. Three recipes altogether, in just over an hour.
“I could do this with one hand tied behind my back!” I crowed to Eric as we sat at our dining table, hemmed in by the ever burgeoning towers of packing boxes, scraping artichoke leaves dipped in lemon butter clean with our front teeth. “It’s a good thing we’re moving, or it would be just too easy. Like taking candy from a baby!”
After we’d finished our very good and buttery steaks and cleared away the large pile of scraped artichoke leaves, I sat down to write. I made a witticism or two about artichokes—“this was my first time with artichokes, and more than liking or disliking them, I am mostly just impressed with the poor starving prehistoric bastard who first thought to eat one”—then posted my few short paragraphs onto my blog.
The next day I got thirty-six hits. I know I got thirty-six hits because I went online to check twelve times that day at work. Each hit represented another person reading what I’d written. Just like that! At the bottom of the entry there was a spot where people could make comments, and someone I’d never even heard of said they liked how I wrote!
I was going to eat lots of French food, and write about it, and get compliments from total strangers about it. Eric was right. This was going to be brilliant!
Day 2 was Quiche Lorraine and Haricots Verts à la Anglaise.
Day 3 I had to go to New Jersey to pass out comment forms and set up folding chairs for a meeting of families of people who died in the World Trade Center attack. The meeting was organized by the governor of New Jersey, for the purpose of making sure everyone knew that if they were unhappy about anything, it was the fault of the downtown government agency I work for. The governor of New Jersey was a bit of a prick. So I didn’t cook. Instead I ate pizza and wrote this impromptu piece of sparkling prose:
Wealthy Victorians served Strawberries Romanoff in December; now we demonstrate our superiority by serving our dewy organic berries only during the two-week period when they can be picked ripe off the vine at the boutique farm down the road from our Hamptons bungalow. People speak of gleaning the green markets for the freshest this, the thinnest that, the greenest or firmest or softest whatever, as if what they’re doing is a selfless act of consummate care and good taste, rather than the privileged activity of someone who doesn’t have to work for a living.
But Julia Child isn’t about that. Julia Child wants you—that’s right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end middle-management job and nothing but a Stop and Shop for miles around—to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste all right. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life.
And that blows heirloom tomatoes and first-press Umbrian olive oil out of the fucking water.
By the end of the first week, I’d gone on to make Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons and Poulet Rôti, Champignons à la Grecque, and Carottes à la Concierge, even a Crème Brûlée—well, Crème Brûlée soup, more like. I’d written about all of it, my mistakes and my minor triumphs. People—a couple of friends, a couple of strangers, even my aunt Sukie from Waxahachie—had written in to the blog to root me on. And now I was leaving my downtown cubicle every evening with a jaunty new step, shopping list in hand, contemplating not how I wanted to rip that friggin’ office phone out of the wall (or maybe the windpipe out of some bureaucrat’s scrawny neck), but instead my next French meal, my next clever gibe.
Eric and I had begun the move in earnest now. On the weekend we loaded up the boxes in our living room and hauled them in our aging burgundy Bronco to our new apartment, a loft, so-called, in Long Island City, which is not on Long Island but in Queens. (Which is, yes, technically, on the water-surrounded landmass known as Long Island, but don’t ever tell someone from Queens or Brooklyn that they live on Long Island. Trust me on this; it’s a bad idea.) We were moving there because Eric’s office had moved there, and commutes from Bay Ridge to Long Island City uncomfortably reminded us of Latin American immigrants knifed to death by bigots in subway cars en route to one of their three jobs at two in the morning. So now we would be living in a “loft.” It was a step forward, a brave experiment, the urban dream. And still I was cooking—joyfully, humorously, easily. This French food stuff was a snap! I wondered why everybody had been making such a big deal out of it all these years.
And then, in the third week, we got to the eggs.
“Julie, I want you to stop.”
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“Honey, this is just something you decided to do. You can decide not to if you want. You can just decide to stop.”
“No! Don’t you get it? This is all I’ve got. There are people out there, reading. I can’t just fucking STOP!”
I have been having this conversation with my mother my entire life. There was the time when I was six years old and had to wear my favorite sundress for the St. Valentine’s Day party at school—when my mother told me it was too cold, I stood goosepimply on the front porch in my Wonder Woman Underoos for two hours to prove her wrong. Or the time that I tried out for the drill team just because I knew I wouldn’t make it and then, when I did, refused to quit, and instead wound up spending eight months with a bunch of sorority girl larvae—turning bulimic and tying that stupid white cowboy hat onto my head so tightly that by the end of game nights I had to peel the leather strap out of the deep red welt it had burrowed into my throat. Or when two weeks before I got married I decided, in the midst of catering crises and maids-of-honor dress fiascos, that I had to make teeny-tiny sculptures of naked ladies out of Super Sculpey for two hundred guests. It’s the Talking Down from the Ledge conversation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
My voice grew steely and cold. “I’ve got to go now, Mom. I love you.”
“Julie, wait.” Fear on the other end of the line. Mom knew she was losing me. “Please. Honey. ^ ”
I hung up the phone. My neck had a crick in it; I twisted my head around, and the tendons popped. The trek back across my living room, littered with Styrofoam peanuts, was like the Bataan Death March.
“We’ll just take it easy,” Eric had said. “Slow and steady wins the race,” Eric had said. As a result of which, Eric and I had been moving for two and a half weeks now.
It was agony. For a week and a half we just shuttled boxes. Then, on a Saturday, we managed to get our box spring and mattress moved. We left the cats in the old place that night while we slept in the new, making the disheartening discovery that at three o’clock in the morning, our loft apartment sounded as if it was perched in the center of a monster truck rally. On Sunday we brought the cats over. En route, one threw up all over her carrier, and a second beshat herself. The third simply fell into the psychic abyss inhabited by war orphans and the sole survivors of alien invasions, and immediately upon arriving in his new abode found his way up into the drop ceiling, from where he had not returned, though we could hear him prowling around up there, and occasionally yowling. Every once in a while we’d lift up a ceiling tile and slip him a bowl of Science Diet.
Eric and I had forged through several circles of hell in the last weeks—I named them the “Last-Minute Home Repair Hell,” the “Soul-Sucking Dead-End Job Hell,” the “My Spouse Just Turned Twenty-nine and I Didn’t Get Him Anything Hell,” and the “I Have Married a Raving Schizophrenic Hell.” We had bled, we had screamed, we had dropped peeled root vegetables onto the rotting floorboards of our new “fixer-upper” “loft” before picking them up and throwing them into the soup. So though we could now be said to be living in Long Island City, the word living seemed a rather cruelly euphemistic way of putting it. We were more like the walking dead.
The kitchen was a crime scene. Eggshells littered the floor, crackling underfoot. What looked like three days’ worth of unwashed dishes were piled up in the sink, and half-unpacked boxes had been shoved to the corners of the room. Unseen down the dark throat of the trashcan, yet as conspicuous as tarpaulin-covered murder victims, were the mutilated remains of eggs. If the purplish-stained shreds of yolk clinging stickily to the walls had been blood spatters, a forensics specialist would have had a field day. But Eric wasn’t standing at the stove to triangulate the shooter’s position—he was poaching an egg in red wine. Two other eggs sat on a plate by the stove. These I had poached myself just before Eric’s and my impromptu reenactment of that scene in Airplane! in which all the passengers line up and take turns slapping and shaking the hysterical woman, with Eric taking the roles of all the passengers and I the part of hysteric. These three eggs were the sole survivors of the even dozen I had begun with three hours before. One incoherent gurgle of despair escaped me, seeing those two pitiful things lying there, twisted and blue as the lips of corpses. “We’re going to starve, aren’t we?”
“How was your mom? Did she make you feel better?” Cool as a cucumber, Eric lifted the last egg out of the wine and laid it beside its sad blue sisters.
“I don’t know. I guess. You’re like Charles fucking Bronson, you know that?”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, you know, smacking your self-destructive wife back to her senses, dispensing violent justice to foodstuffs. Thanks for doing the last egg.”
“I didn’t do a very good job.”
“As long as it’s not me not doing a good job. For once.” I curled up in his arms, and soon was crying again, but gently this time, a mild aftershock.
“Babe,” Eric whispered, kissing my damp hair, “I would do anything shittily for you. You know that.”
“Yes. I do. And I thank you. I love you.”
“You love me? Who loves you?”
(Remember that scene in Superman where Margot Kidder is falling out of the helicopter and Christopher Reeve catches her, and he says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” to which she responds: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” That’s where this familiar rejoinder of Eric’s comes from. He says it all the time. It’s impossible to express how precious and safe it makes me feel, how held up in a pair of improbably large and blue Lycra-clad biceps—but anyone who’s been with someone as long as I have been with Eric understands the power of nonsensical phraseology.)
If this had been a scene from a movie the music would have swelled, but there was no time for romance. Because making Oeufs à la Bourguignonne is about much more than just wasting a dozen eggs trying to poach them in the red wine that was the only booze we had in this hideous apartment we had been so foolish as to move into. I grabbed a bag of Wonder Bread down from on top of the fridge and took out three slices. I cut a neat white circle out of each of them with a cookie cutter, one of an enormous set that Eric’s mom had given me for Christmas one year, which I had very nearly thrown out during the move. I cleared off one of the three working burners on the stove (checking burners before signing the lease being one of those smart-New-York-renter things I could never remember to do), threw a skillet on it, and began to melt half a stick of butter.
“So really, what did your mom say?”
“Wanted to know if I’d gotten the reservation at Peter Luger.”
My family comes up to visit almost every fall for my father’s birthday, because my father likes to spend his birthday catching a Broadway show before going to the Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a plate of creamed spinach, Steak for Six, and several dry martinis. That this year he would also get to spend his birthday helping his hysterical daughter finish moving out of her Bay Ridge apartment was just an unfortunate accident of timing.
“Are they really going to spend the night here?”
I shot my husband a look he knew well. “Yeah. Why?”
Eric shrugged, shook his head. “No reason.” But he wouldn’t look me in the eye.
My mother is a clean freak, my father a dirty bird, semireformed. Between them, they have managed to raise one child who by all accounts could not care less about basic cleanliness, but whose environs and person are always somehow above reproach, and another child who sees as irrecoverable humiliation any imputation of less than impeccable housekeeping or hygiene, and yet, regardless of near-constant near-hysteria on the subject, is almost always an utter mess. One guess which I am.
I also have a long history of trying to kill my mother by moving into highly unfashionable, and often demonstrably unhealthy, locales. It’s been years, and yet she still talks about my first New York studio like it was the “hole” in a Khmer Rouge prison. And of course there is no forgetting the day she saw the one-hundred-year-old crumbling adobe building in Middle-of-Nowhere, New Mexico, that we rented the first summer we were married. She stood at the doorway, the beam of her flashlight piercing the gloom and skittering across the floor as she searched for mouse droppings or the dead bodies of larger creatures, maybe humans. Tears welled up in her wide eyes. As long as I live, I will never forget the sheer horror in my mother’s voice when she whispered, “Julie, seriously—you’re going to die here.”
I stood over the skillet, poking at the butter. “Melt, goddammit.” I was supposed to clarify the butter—which is done by skimming off the white scum that appears when butter melts—then get it very hot before browning the rounds of bread in it. There were a lot of things I was supposed to be doing these days that I wasn’t. Instead I threw the bread in as soon as the butter liquefied. Of course the canapés—which is what I was making out of the rounds of bread—didn’t brown, just grew soggy and yellow and buttery. “Fuck it. It’s eleven o’clock at night and I do not give one shit about the fucking bread,” I said as I took them back out again and dropped them onto two plates.
“Julie, seriously, do you have to talk like that?”
Now I was turning the heat up on the winey egg-poaching liquid to cook it down for sauce. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Eric laughed nervously. “Yup. Just a little joke. Pretty funny, huh?”
“Uh-huh.” I thickened the wine with cornstarch and butter. Then upon each sodden canapé I balanced an egg before spooning the sauce on top. “The eggs wore blue; the sauce wore gray,” I muttered in my best Bogart impersonation, which was not very good at all—I’ve never been much good at impressions. In any case, the sauce was really more of a mauve color. It wasn’t a good joke, and neither of us laughed.
We ate our dinner amid the unpacking detritus, in silence. The egg tasted like the cheap wine we were drinking, only buttery.
It wasn’t half bad, actually.
“It’s good, honey,” tried Eric.
I said nothing.
“Just think, a week ago you’d never eaten an egg at all, and now you’re eating this. How many people, in their whole lives, ever eat eggs poached in red wine? We’re doing something hardly anybody ever does!”
I knew he was doing his best to comfort me, and so I gave him a watery smile. But he could not make the question go away, that unspoken one that hovered over our subdued table along with the gentle sounds of our mastication. “Why, Julie? Why Julia? Why now?”
When Julia and Paul moved to Paris in 1948, Julia was just along for the ride—and to eat, of course. She didn’t really know anything about food, not yet, but she was hungry—she could put more away than anyone (other than Paul) that Paul had ever met.
Paul was saddened by how his Paris, where he had lived for so long before the war, had been tarnished. The bombed-out buildings and the heavy military presence oppressed him. But Julia had never known the city any other way, so it wasn’t as bad for her. In fact, for her, life had never been better.
Their apartment on rue de l’Université was chilly, heated by a potbelly stove during a cold winter. The apartment had an odd L shape. Paul could lean out of the window in the living room and take a picture of Julia leaning out of the window in the bedroom, with the rooftops of Paris all around her. This eccentric, fusty apartment was where Julia learned to cook, and she loved it.
Still. Julia’s mother was long dead by the time she and Paul got the Paris flat, dead long before she had married or even met Paul. Which is sad, of course. But at least she didn’t have to worry about presenting her mother with a dark, smelly apartment, with a kitchen at the top of a creaky stairway, with an odd, somewhat sinister bathtub.
Actually I don’t know anything about their bathtub; it might have been quite nice. It was ours that was frightening.
Our new kitchen was quite large, by New York standards anyway. It was its own separate room, with a bit of counter by the sink and full-sized appliances, lit by an industrial fluorescent fixture. The first thing we’d done once we’d moved in was to tear out three layers, nearly a hundred years’ worth, of nasty tile down to the floorboards. These floorboards were dark and damp and rotting slightly—we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do about that yet. But I liked the kitchen—it was why I took the apartment, why I was blinded to the faulty jalousie windows and the strange black tub and everything else that was so terribly, terribly wrong.
The bathtub was black porcelain, set up on a raised platform so you had to climb two steps to get in. If this sounds kind of sexy, in a Las Vegas kind of way, it wasn’t. For one thing, the tub was rusted out and badly caulked, and the bathtub surround was of that molded plastic they used to use in less-expensive motels in the fifties, and it was cracked. The steps up to the tub were made of plywood covered in an adhesive no-slide rubber stuff painted battleship gray. Being two steps higher just brought you closer to the disintegrating drop ceiling and the hole cut into it for the dangling light fixture. The light didn’t work, was more or less just a gaping black hole out of which you could not help imagining horrid beasties falling down on you while you bathed.
The apartment was long and low, with linoleum floors all painted the same battleship gray as the steps to the tub, which gave it the feeling of a submarine’s interior. At the front was a large picture window framed on either side with sets of jalousies, which are the glass louvered windows you see in small towns all over the South. This also sounds nice, and it also wasn’t, because Long Island City is not a small southern town.
When my mom first saw the tub, she laughed, but it was not a nice sort of laugh. When she saw the jalousies, her eyes grew wide again. “Julie, they don’t even shut right. You’re going to freeze to death.” A freight truck slammed over a large pothole right in front of the building with a room-filling crash. “That is, if you don’t go deaf first.”
We had dinner reservations at an Italian place in midtown. I hustled everybody out as soon as I could manage, took us all to a bar beforehand, and tried to encourage the most orgiastic atmosphere of eating and drinking possible, succeeding so well that I had some trouble holding steady enough to pour us all into cabs at the end of the night. But it wasn’t enough.
By midnight we were all bedded down together in the “loft” for what would prove the longest night I have ever had. Every passing car had lost its muffler, every 7 train hit the sharp curve behind our apartment at eighty miles per hour with an unearthly screech, and every sigh or irritated rustle from the air mattress set my teeth on edge and my heart racing. I know I did eventually drift off only because I jerked awake again at five a.m. to find my mother up, in her nightgown, with her forehead pressed up against the jalousies, muttering furiously and shaking her fist at what appeared to be a two-hundred-foot crane rolling slowly past the apartment, backward, beeping loudly, presumably so that none of the bustling pedestrians overflowing the sidewalks of Long Island City at five a.m. would dart out into the middle of the street and get hit by a slow-moving two-hundred-foot crane.
The first crisis of the morning came when U-Haul, to no one’s surprise, lost our truck reservation. “Exactly the kind of thing to expect in New York,” as Heathcliff pointed out. (My brother’s name is not, of course, really Heathcliff. Texans of Scotch-Irish descent do not name their red-headed children Heathcliff. I just think it’s funny to call him that—because it pisses him off, and because “Heathcliff” does rather speak to the whole sardonic, brooding aspect.)
Heathcliff is the guy you’d want to have as your second in a duel or watching your back in a firefight, as your vice presidential running mate or your partner in any reality-TV show that might involve speaking foreign languages, jumping off tall cliffs, or eating bugs. It is impossible to imagine him screaming at service personnel on the phone or having catastrophic hissy fits on subway platforms, two activities I indulge in frequently. Because of this, and also because Eric was nursing a hangover, which I felt responsible for, it was Heathcliff I took with me to deal with the U-Haul predicament, which was resolved with remarkable ease. (If it had been Eric with me, the day would have ended with us rebuilding a diesel engine with a giant timer ticking over our heads, in front of a live studio audience, while Hindu mechanics who disapproved of my mode of dress jeered at us and pelted us with stones. Or something.)
Everything was going just swimmingly, as far as I could see. The only outstanding question was Sally.
Over the summer my friend Sally had been living with her most recent boyfriend, a Brit working on his dissertation and trying for a job at the UN. But he had recently fled back “across the pond”—as he gratingly termed it—under suspicious circumstances, and Sally was moving back into her old place, an apartment she’d been living in off and on for the past few years. Sally used to be a rabbinical student, and it turns out that one of the great advantages of being a rabbinical student in New York is that even after you drop out you still have access to all of these wonderful old prewar apartments on the Upper West Side. People are always leaving to go on a kibbutz or pursue higher education or something, and so someone’s always looking for a roommate. Sally had been in and out of this particular apartment two or three times already. The only disadvantages to this arrangement were that she had to live on the Upper West Side, and that with all the comings and goings, the apartments didn’t tend overly toward hominess, or furnishings for that matter. So Sally was planning to bring some movers by the Bay Ridge place in the afternoon to take the big Jennifer sofa bed, our last major piece of furniture, off our hands. But I kept trying Sally’s cell, over and over, and she wasn’t picking up. And then, on the way out, we heard the radio reports of five random shootings in a Maryland suburb—as it happened, the Maryland suburb Sally’s parents lived in. “Oh no,” I breathed.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” said Eric.
“I hope so. If her parents have gotten shot, I don’t know what we’re going to do with that fucking couch.”
“Why are you doing this again?” Mom sighed as we took the Sixty-ninth Street exit off the Belt Parkway and drove down quiet blocks of houses with lawns and then along the great green swath of park, a majestic view—of the Verrazano Bridge (where John Travolta’s friend killed himself in Saturday Night Fever), of New York Harbor, of Staten Island—rising up beyond.
It was the same question she had asked me about the cooking project, and the answer was the same, as well. The same, and equally inexpressible. I could not explain the soul-sick feeling I got underground late at night, when there hadn’t been an R train for forty minutes and the platform was as crowded as if it were rush hour. I couldn’t explain how cut off I felt, sealed in a pneumatic tube of a commute that spit me out each morning on a gray sidewalk teeming with business suits, and spit me out again at night in peaceful, isolated, hopelessly square far Brooklyn. I couldn’t explain why I thought another year like the last would ruin me, maybe even ruin my marriage. I couldn’t explain it because there was no explanation, I guess.
Mom was well aware of the situation that would meet her inside the apartment, mostly because of twenty-nine and a half years of history, but also because of an incident two weeks before. Basically, what happened was that our landlady in Bay Ridge, a sweet woman with a raging Brooklyn accent whose hobby was taking old photos and making them into greeting cards with off-color jokes about aging and the sex lives of married people inside, had seen the apartment. We, of course, had had no intention of that happening—at least not until I’d hired someone to clean the stove, and spackled over all the nail holes, and glued back the piece of the ceramic towel rack I’d broken off. But the landlady used her key and came into the apartment before all of that was done, and she left a message on our new answering machine. She was horrified. She was going to have to get the oven replaced. (The oven worked fine.) Please don’t bother with cleaning, just get your stuff and Get Out. Basically.
My mother was treated to the subsequent hiccupping hysterical crying-jag-type phone conversation, which lasted most of an hour. So she knew that she might be faced with a problem.
It wasn’t that bad. There wasn’t a smell, or rats, or maggots. (The maggots come much, much later.) Humiliated but proud, I had, despite my landlady’s edict, gone ahead and hired a woman to clean the stove. (What can I say? I was raised in proximity to a self-cleaning stove, and have never been able to square my belief in myself as a person possessed of free will with the act of getting down on my knees to stick my head in a box befogged with carcinogenic fumes and scoop out handfuls of black goo.) But if we were to conduct ourselves as responsible tenants and not trailer trash, there was a hell of a lot left to do. So for several hours we all scrubbed and painted and packed and swept. Mom even cleaned the drip pan under the fridge. I had never known there was a drip pan under the fridge. At last the apartment was empty but for the ugly fold-out sofa. It was 3:30 and—oh, I forgot to mention this part of the story—we had theater tickets that night. Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Eighty bucks a pop.
“So—what the hell do we do with this thing?”
“You haven’t heard from Sally yet?” asked Dad.
“Nope.” I was trying very hard not to be angry about that—if Sally’s mother had been shot through the head at a Texaco, I’d really feel like a heel being pissy about some couch.
“Well,” said Mom briskly. “I think she’s missed her opportunity. I say we take it to Goodwill and be done with it.”
By transferring a good deal more into our decrepit 1991 Bronco than was wise, my brother, father, and Eric managed to squeeze the sofa into the U-Haul. The boys then all piled into the front of the moving truck. The plan was for them to find a Goodwill and turn in the U-Haul while Mom and I headed straight back to Long Island City in the Bronco. After we unloaded it, we’d still have plenty of time to freshen up before the play that night. So Mom and I hoisted ourselves in, started up the Bronco, and headed off.
The view from the on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, just before the entrance to the Battery Tunnel, is lovely, with the sparkling harbor, the lower Manhattan skyline, picturesque Carroll Gardens unfolding below, but that is not what I will always remember about it. I’ll remember instead how even in the best of times the traffic here, where the Gowanus and Prospect expressways merge, is heavy, and that the ramp is quite high off the ground, and quite steep, and that it has only one lane, and no shoulder. I will remember it as exactly the sort of spot you don’t want to break down in.
Long and tedious story short, Mom and I kissed our play tickets good-bye. Once we were towed off the beltway to an Atlantic Avenue gas station staffed by many very polite but none-too-helpful Sikh gentlemen, I stuffed my grease-stained mother into the back of a taxi and then waited for several hours for the tow that would get me and my incapacitated Bronco back to Queens. Mom got back to the apartment to find herself faced at the door with an upended sofa bed blocking the stairs. The search for Goodwill had been, apparently, in vain. This was the last straw for a woman without much in the way of native patience who had nevertheless gotten through this arduous day without complaint. She was exhausted, her hip hurt, she was dirty. She leaned up against the couch and wept.
Luckily, Eric had opted to stay and wait for us back at the apartment while my father and Heathcliff went to go make use of at least two of the very expensive Broadway tickets. When he heard the sofa’s foot rock and bang against the wall of the entryway he came to investigate, and found my mother there, sobbing against the gray stain-resistant upholstery. He moved the couch to one side, and she was able to just squeeze past it and up the stairs, where she promptly collapsed onto the formerly white chair she had bought when she was pregnant with me, to use as a nursing chair, which she had given me when I came up to New York. “Oh my God,” she moaned. “I’m never getting up again.”
“Elaine,” asked Eric, “is this place really that bad?”
“I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I’m sorry I got your daughter into this.”
Elaine looked around through the splayed hands she had rested on her face—at the picture window with the broken jalousies, at the rotting floorboards in the kitchen, at the odd space at the other end of the long, open room, a sort of short tail of an L. She looked around thoughtfully, and then gave Eric a small but warm smile. “You didn’t get my daughter into anything she wouldn’t have gotten into herself. Besides, we’ll make it work. Now, the important question is—do you have orange juice?”
The Bronco and I did eventually get back to Long Island City at around 9 p.m., and after unloading the incapacitated truck and turning in the U-Haul, I came up into the apartment to find my mother bathed, with a large gin and juice in her hand, wandering around contemplating. “This back room is too cramped for a bedroom. Why don’t you put the bed over here and make this space into a sort of jewelbox of a dining room? It could make a great room. I’ll send you some sheers to hang, to soften it up. You’ll need mirrors. And maybe a flokati rug would be good.”
That night at eleven o’clock we all met at Peter Luger for Dad’s birthday dinner. Dad and Heathcliff had had a great time at ^ (Dad’s a big Edie Falco fan.) They’d even managed to find a friend of Heathcliff’s—well, an ex-girlfriend, actually, Heathcliff’s the kind of guy who can always dig up some ex-girlfriend when he needs to—to take one of the play tickets, and she came to dinner too. We had Steak for Six and creamed spinach, and we managed to get in lots of martini toasts before my dad’s birthday had officially ended. Mom started drawing on a cocktail napkin to show me how she was going to rig some special curtains at the front window to block the street noise, and chattered on about some great cheap floor covering that we could use to hide the rotted floorboards in the kitchen.
“See, now this is great,” I sighed, holding up my martini to the light, good and tipsy and digesting well.
“Yeah,” agreed Eric, pushing back his chair. “Now if only we had some eggs poached in red wine.”
My mom glared up from her napkin, jabbing her pen at him. “Don’t. Even. Joke about it.”
So there it was—midnight. My father was sixty, and we lived in Long Island City, instead of just walking around it dead. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
“So after an hour or so we’ve got perhaps a vial full. Alice is up to her elbows in scales, I’ve got popped fish eyes all over me, in my hair, we’re both holding thoroughly squashed trout or whatever they were, one in each fist, and peering sideways into the beaker to see if we’ve got enough of the stuff. It’s a sort of cloudy pinkish color. The odor is, well, potent.”
The new registrar sat with her back against the wall, squeezing her cocktail glass in one giant hand, sloshing it either for illustrative purposes or because she was drunk. Her big wide face was bright, her hair a hysterical rust-colored halo. All around her sat men and women in various states of insobriety and hilarity, some squeezing the stems of their smuggled martini glasses along with her, others nearly off their chairs laughing. Paul knew it would be best for him to join in the fun. But the racket was all too much, so instead he nursed a gin and orange at a small oilcloth-draped table in the corner and eavesdropped. The estate where they had the OSS shacked up down here in Ceylon didn’t have an actual bar, but someone had obligingly, and hastily, re-outfitted the parlor with a smattering of tables and mismatched chairs for the thirsty Americans. The room was small and crowded, and in the tricky yellow light of the gas lanterns, Paul could easily make himself unnoticeable.
“‘So,’ I say.” The registrar smacked her big mitts down on the tabletop, leaned in, cocked her eyes leftward, eyebrows flying. “‘So,’ says Alice.” Her eyes darted to the right, wide at first and then narrowing in comic suspicion. All around the table, anticipatory giggles as the registrar drew out the moment nearly unbearably, hunkering down and cutting her glance back and forth. “‘Who gets the first cocktail?’”
“Say! I’m so hungry I’m going cross-eyed!” she shouted. The mob heigh-hoed their agreement. Paul was surprised to feel a needy grumble of his own, the first he’d had after weeks of gnawing Delhi Belly. “I know what let’s do! Let’s go down the hill to town. I passed a restaurant the other day that smelled delicious!”
“Oh, can it, Gregory!” crowed the registrar merrily. “My stomach isn’t up for any more canned potatoes, that’s what it’s not up for! Come on—shall we eat as the Ceylonese do?”
Was he intrigued by this annoyingly ebullient, oddly compelling giant of a woman? Or was he just hungry? Paul didn’t know, and he didn’t ponder too much, either—he just went with them.
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