Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
Tonight, I’m back in the kitchen. Today’s mission: risotto from leftovers. I’ve got a half-package of lardons (unsmoked matchsticks of bacon), one slightly manky onion, a couple handfuls of salad greens, and a few lonely frozen asparagus spears, languishing in the freezer.
First, fill up my stock pot with some fresh water. Throw in a couple stock cubes; it’s not as good as stock from scratch, but they ain’t bad. (Hey, I’m a working woman. Who’s got time to simmer stock during the week?) To give a more homemade flavor, I toss in 5 whole peppercorns, a crushed clove of garlic, and the ends of the onion and shallot I’ve just chopped. Let it steep while I get to my risotto.
In a pan, I start by browning my lardons, rendering out that delicious pork fat. Once they look tantalizing enough to eat, I remove them from the pan. On the way, one of those little guys may have accidentally fallen into my mouth. Oops. Add a touch of olive oil. In go one small minced red onion and a few garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt. Sizzle until fragrant, then in with my rice. Keep that pan moving, stir that rice around until those grains start to gleam. Now comes my favorite part: deglaze with the last glugs in a bottle of white wine. The whoosh is satisfying, and while the pan is simmering, I’m scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Oh, what lovely flavor!
Now comes the process of lovingly ladling my stock into the rice, then stirring. One ladleful after another, I’m imbuing this mixture with flavor, and feeding those grains of rice until they puff up. Partway through, I add my secret ingredient: a damn good scrape of nutmeg.
Add my chopped asparagus spears and lardons, finish the rice.
The finale: a tablespoon of crème fraîche for that unctuous mouth feel, and two generous handfuls of peppery rocket. If I had chives, I’d snip some of those bad boys over the top.
I serve up two heaping bowlfuls; F is wide-eyed like a little boy in anticipation; the aromas from the kitchen have gotten him salivating. To add heat, we sprinkle Espelette pepper over the top, and dig in.
A lovely moment of kitchen alchemy, a moment to myself during the week.
Self-care: Doing something just because it makes you happy, and for no other reason. Give yourself the privilege of finding joy in a simple moment. Recharge the spirit. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast. Take a hot shower and wash your hair. Wear a pair of comfy socks. Hug an animal. Write a letter to someone you love. Drink a glass of water. Enjoy a cup of coffee that’s JUST how you like it. Take a deep breath.
Me, I cook.
I love preparing fresh herbs and spices. Crushing red peppercorns for a shallot cream sauce to be served over fish. Grinding fresh nutmeg into buttery mushrooms. Grating cinnamon into an Indian-inspired simmering dish. Plucking a fresh bay leaf, snipping sprigs of thyme for a hearty chicken soup. Cutting the ends off a bunch of fresh cilantro for THE essential Puerto Rican seasoning, sofrito. Infusing annato seeds in warm oil to extract their vibrant color: the rich saffron red swirling into the yellow oil is a lovely sight. Adding a teaspoon of this rich orange-colored infusion will keep your pasteles from sticking to the parchment (or, if you’re going traditional, your banana leaf). I feel like an alchemist of flavor in my laboratory. This is my moment of bliss.
Yesterday’s act: bake cookies and share them with friends.
Gool ol’ peanut butter cookies: signature criss-cross top, crisp buttery exterior, soft inside. It’s very satisfying to stir into the smooth butter, and hear the gentle grinding of the sugar as you swirl through the complementary colors. The sound is what makes this experience so sensually authentic. Crack in an egg, and watch it resist incorporation into the gritty butter mixture. Oh, you little scamp, you… Coax it in with a sprinkle of flour. Roll bits of cookie dough around in your hands to make a small ball, the size of a king marble. Tines of a fork imprint the cookie to form a hashtag. Cookies bake until they puff slightly in the middle, and turn golden brown on the sides. 10 whole minutes of anticipation and mouthwatering. Cool until mouthburn can safely be avoided. Devour. Share. Enjoy. Repeat.
The house is quiet. Slide the wooden door closed, sit on my tuffet. Turn on my flashlight hanging by a string above, and open up a book. The inside of my closet door is decorated with song lyrics and stickers. This is my space.
Later, I expanded my territory to the basement. Despite the fact that I was on an ever-vigilant watch for the boogieman coming around the corner, it was my quiet hideout. I had a carpet that was older than I was, and the oil tank took up half of the room. One yellow bulb illuminated the space. But it was mine.
I’ve always appreciated solitude.
When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher say the words: “Choose a partner.” I enjoyed working on my own. Team sports made me anxious. I preferred individual sports. Solo activities like reading, drawing, painting, doing crafts, music, sewing, and writing were what made me feel happy and fulfilled.
Later, this would embolden me to satisfy my curiosity and see the world. Why wait around for someone else to join me? I am capable of fulfilling this dream on my own.
Now, I’m 30. I stamp my train ticket, find a seat to plonk myself down in. I watch the world pass me by, and imagine myself flying over the fields, frolicking and dancing around barefoot. I see my reflection in the train window, and I can see those other Mes in a kaleidoscope of brilliant reflections. I nod, they nod, we all nod. This feels right.
I am free to do what I want, travel where I want, and live how I choose.
The question is: Where to go from here?
It’s my day today. I’m taking off, all alone, to have an adventure in another city.
I get on the train while the sky is still black. It slowly fades to blue, then pale yellow when I step off the train at my destination. The morning is spent poking around the quiet walkways, before shops even open.
It’s lunchtime. There’s an inviting café that serves tapas, and my stomach is starting to rumble. I sit in the back, surrounded by funky art: psychedelic cartoon faces wink at me while I consider the menu, which is written in chalk on a large piece of slate.
I choose a mild Catalan saucisson, with sardine rillettes, a creamy fish spread that I enjoy on crusty brown bread. Last, the server brings out hot spinach puffs in flaky pastry, served with lamb’s lettuce (mâche) and balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve got a glass of beautifully robust red wine to enjoy with it. The meal is deeply satisfying, and there is nothing to distract me from savoring each tasty morsel.
After, I continue walking through town, getting lost in small side streets, following no particular direction. I appreciate the care and attention each shopkeeper has put into their window display. Light, texture, color, and movement are all incorporated to attract and delight the passersby. I make my way to the central square, where the Christmas market is in full effect. Artisan truffle products stand next to gleaming handmade jewelry and leather-bound journals. Now this is a market.
I order myself a cup of vin chaud and rest it on a barrel to take out my notebook. The hot spiced red wine goes down smoothly and sweetly, and I’m absorbing the scene. Above my head are pine garlands, clusters of gold ornaments, and twinkling lights. The carousel with grinding pipe organ music is a fine backdrop to the squealing delight of children.
The sun is so brilliant, my eyes start to water as I make my way back to the train station. Stamp my ticket, step up from the platform onto the small local train that will bring me back home.
I ease into a seat next to the window. A group of teenage girls giggles into the car, bringing along a typhoon of pink sparkles and flowers. They speak unintelligibly fast about some incoherent, yet apparently highly important, subject. I am unmoving in the midst of this thick fog of unbridled youthful female naïveté. It’s almost painfully resonant and familiar.
In a flurry of hair flips, they disappear at the next station. In their place, a woman about my mother’s age gets on. She quietly sits in the seat facing me with a journal and a book about food, puts on some sunglasses, and gazes out the window.
This local train is pulling us through endless green fields, sensuously illuminated in the golden sun. The trees are bare, except for the clusters of mistletoe that are suspended in their spindly branches like Christmas ornaments. The sunlight is so warm and inviting, one could easily imagine it was spring or summer.
I’m brought back to a childhood memory: visiting a relative’s house in the summer, and running around the seemingly endless back yard. There were no obstructions, nothing between me, the grass, the hot sun, and boundless lightness within myself. That is the feeling I want to go back to. The source of life. Pure joy, safety, warmth, freedom, possibility.
I notice my reflection in the glass. I’m smiling to myself. The woman’s reflection is just next to it, facing mine like a time-lapse mirror.
Later that evening, F and I are around the fireplace at our friends’ house. The wind outside thumps at the windows, but we’re cozy and safe inside. We’re toasting with some bubbly, and just enjoying each other’s company.
It’s been a day of quiet fulfillment and loving kindness. My heart and soul are full to bursting, and I am overcome. I smile into my glass of bubbly, and my eyes well up. Where I’ve been, where I might be tomorrow, are not my concern.
I am living Now, which is just where I belong.
The 8 o’clock hour. If I am to make or break this day, it’s decided in the 8 o’clock hour.
I crack open an eye to get my bearings.
When the sky is still thick, before the sun clears away the mist. The world is silent. The shutter is cracked open just enough for me to see the day. The window faces west, and a soft glow comes through the pinpricks. Good morning, world.
In my fluffy robe and socks I feel like a human-sized stuffed animal as I pad out to my little spot next to the window that overlooks the garden.
This morning, the sun kisses the trees and houses. The sun drips through pine branches and makes them look illuminated from within. The ground hasn’t been touched by sunlight yet, and the remaining leaves are painted a dull purple. Ferns fan out in a beautifully random spread, and the grass looks a deep turquoise-green. Dusted with a gentle frost, the ground looks like a delicate still life.
I stir some honey into coconut milk for my morning treat. It’s a rich soothing comfort to my empty grumbling stomach.
From my little window, this is all mine.
My fingers itch, and I smile to myself.
It’s time to write.
Today is made.