December 17, 2008

First kiss

I must find the way through all the screens on the stage that slide one in front of the other. I want to shout, “Fire.” Like the clown in the theatre who called out to the laughing crowd while the coulisses burned, while the crowd applauded, disbelieving. I slide the scenery panels of my life through the backstage grooves while they burned and no one sees the fire.

In Charade, when Reggie/Audrey says to Sylvie, “I admit I came to Paris to escape American traditional, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for French Provincial,” she has just told Sylvie she is going to get a divorce because she does not love Charles. “That’s no reason to get a divorce,” Sylvie counters. “With this years’ clothes … .” On that mountain in the Alps, Reggie has no idea where Charles is. I had no idea where or who D. was.

Do you remember when Michelle Obama wowed Paris shortly after Barack took office, when she kissed Sarkozy while Barack tried to figure out the ‘bise’ with both Carla Bruni and a young girl in a crowd? Barack demurred I read in Britain’s The Daily Mail: “Mr. Obama … apparently pointed out that his wife, Michelle, was watching. Finally Sarkozy persuaded him to allow himself to receive the traditional French greeting.

And didn’t we all wonder what Carla and Michelle had for lunch? Or am I the only one, a thin woman, with an obsession over what everyone is eating and who is cooking?

D. had no problem with the kissing of other women in front of me—I who cooked like a mad woman in search of the perfect recipe, in search of the joining of family, in search of the belovéd. MFK Fisher says, “…I still think the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few … .”

Two years before we separated, he kissed the first woman at Cloud in Dupont Circle, at the bar. I walked home alone at half past midnight, a lipstick in my pocket (no keys, no money) and waited for them, D. and S., a woman I had begun chatting with at Firefly down the street on New Hampshire Avenue. We had been eating dinner at the bar.

Firefly: In the dusk and then the dark, fireflies flash their tails. Male fireflies control this flash of light to signal their desire; females flash their willingness. It’s a cold light, no heat, the result of a chemical inside them: Luciferin. Their taste to predators is bitter. Some say that frogs who eat too many of them may also glow. I’ve wondered how the frogs consume the bitter taste. Why aren’t they warned off with the first bite?

I watched them, D. and S., with a bitter taste in my mouth.

I walked home and waited for them on the stoop of our four-story one-hundred-year-old Victorian that we were renovating in Adams Morgan. Actually, D. renovated the old lady, relentlessly, for seven years. I wanted all the men out of my house so that I could write: I worked in the fourth floor attic. That night I ended up putting S. to bed in the third floor guest room. When the two finally left Cloud, S. was smashed. Her Mercedes was parked somewhere in a garage nearby. A homeless man helped D. get her into a cab after she fell, hit her chin on the curb—I learned, as I cared for her with an ice bag and a cup of Chamomile tea, that she had just had a facelift and the bleeding on her chin was a slit in the work of the artist: the plastic surgeon.

In the morning, I met them at the long granite island in my chef’s kitchen. D. had made S. a cappuccino from our Miele built-into-the-wall espresso machine.

You’re thinking? It was quite a kitchen. Okay so maybe you are not thinking that but you must know that this kitchen had a place for everything and everything in its place. This part of the renovation I had a hand in. Thus, my obsession with the refrigerator and its metaphor: I’m getting to it. But for now: Get this: I had three SubZeros: the refrigerator and freezer and the two refrigerator drawers in the island for fresh fruits and vegetables and meat and fish.

I ask the two: “So you want to tell me what was going on last night?”

S. looks truly bemused. D. does not. I tell them that they were … Well, you get the picture. D. has nothing to say. S. tells me—and I believe her—that she doesn’t remember, that she doesn’t know D. from anywhere except last night, that she’s divorced with one child and that if we could take her home, she’d be most grateful. We do (I vomit in her bathroom. I am overwhelmed with loss and throwing up my food seems the exact right response. I think this after I clean her toilet, wipe her sink and beg to be returned to our Old Lady of a house.).

When we are home, D. gives the explanation that turns out later to actually make quite a bit of sense even if it did not at the time: “I don’t know what I am doing.” You’ve got to admire this kind of honesty (Have I said that before?).

After all, I love him. After all, we are all flawed human beings. After all, we are all in search of the belovéd.

Later, I focused on what Michelle and Barack might be having for dinner in Paris and Barack’s confrontation with ‘the bise.’

The only doughs I haven’t made are puff pastry and brioche. I wrote this line and I wondered if it should have been the first line of this story. But clearly it was not as I had then become the woman who never cooked.

Here’s a Talmudic question I have puzzled over—the one about the two men in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man should drink it. And so I considered after D. left me if I should cook anymore. After all, my mother died in 1990, my sister three years later at 53, and my father hard on her heels.

I thought of the pie I’d made that would not congeal— the lemon meringue pie, the dessert I’d thought was my father’s favorite. But I knew I couldn’t make Martha Stewart’s recipe for mile-high lemon meringue pie with the twelve egg whites atop the filling that would not set no matter how long I stirred the yellow lemon and butter and sugar mixture on the stove, no matter how long I kept the mixture in the refrigerator to cool, congeal, coalesce. Something must have been missing from the recipe. I made this pie three times: for Thanksgiving, for Father’s Day, for my father’s birthday. My mother and father and sister had laughed—and so had I—when I cut into the beautiful pie with its perfect meringue, the pie that sat on my glass pedestal, when we watched the filling run down the glass plate, around the rim, wind its sweet yellow ribbon on the pedestal, on the base, onto the fine linen cloth I had laid on the table. The last time I made the pie, while I was laughing, I shouted, “I’ll never make your favorite dessert, Daddy. I give up.” “But my favorite,” he said, “is cherry.”

While he was still alive and stricken with Parkinson’s disease, a broken hip froze him after repair in the shape of a W—the first letter, a living metaphor, of the question I asked: What do I deserve? There I stood with my father who was about to die—my mother and sister, gone. I believed I had all the water. Would I drink it?

No, I thought, because suddenly I knew what was missing from the recipe, from the yellow ribbon of lemon that would not congeal. I knew that the water must go in the pie, mixed first with a bit of cornstarch for the sweetness to hold firm. I did not know what I deserved or what was just. I knew only that I would make the pie, that it would be hard to make and that it would be my favorite.

That’s what I thought before my father died. And then he died. And then D. kissed S.

And then and then and then. Bad transition, but seems to fit here.

On that day after the night of the kiss, I no longer believed I would make the pie.

I did believe in The Princess and the Frog. My hair is shoulder length—and snow white. I am no virgin princess, but I sure want the fairy tale. I want to go to sleep and be awakened by my prince.

But how do we know who is who? We are in the game of Charades.