Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Perfect Meal Final Draft - A Feeling of Home

A Feeling of Home

A kitchen is a kitchen.  Friends are friends.  A house is a house.  My home can still be my home.  These were the breaths I took entering the yellow house of my friends’ after passing the train tracks that delineate the border of Kalamazoo College’s bubble, and Kalamazoo.  The living room was the cleanest I had ever seen it.  The shoes were stacked neatly in a pyramid by the door, the table cleared except for a few coasters and the series of science test tubes that haven’t been broken in with vodka yet.  All the DVD’s were stacked, the chairs were clear of video game controllers and homework, and the mood was set with draped soft Christmas lights.
This is when I knew: my friends cared.  They were going out of their way to make their home a welcoming space, even though all I needed was a kitchen and some chairs for guests to sit on. Within the past week the house went from being my unofficial home to my ex’s house where most of my friends still lived and hung out.  
Many of these friends partook in my unbirthday party on South Haven’s beach back in May.  I had just finished a show, and decided it was time to unwind and relax with friends and finally acknowledge how wonderful life is; hence an unbirthday.  We piled into vans and sedans like clown cars to car pool to the Meijer by the highway, each car in charge of a food subject to help with our cookout, with a budget of ten dollars per person.   One group had fruit, one had buns and condiments, another had paper goods, another had side dishes.  I then crossed my fingers and we were off, hoping to get safely from point A to B on Memorial Day weekend.  It turned out to be a lovely day of cold water and 90 degree weather in South Haven, complete with laughter and sunscreen and excellent food which I still can taste if I try.  It was the beginning to establishing my permanent friendships. It was also the first day I started dating Keeney.  
Now, almost half a year later, I was again organizing a similar get-together, this time within walking distance of the K College bubble.  Hosting in the dorms was not an option.  I wanted a house.  A home.  I wanted people to feel like they were getting a small and cheap convenient getaway, even if they already lived in that same yellow house.  People were so broke and bogged down with life that a potluck wasn’t an option, so instead I figured a Stir-Fry where everyone brought some kind of a vegetable to throw in a large pot would work.  My peers were having trouble even finding the time for grocery shopping, so I did it instead and split the bill later on.  I went the night before the party with some of the house members on their regular grocery trip to the same Meijer I had been to for the South Haven gathering.  This time I spent a little over twenty dollars on some basic vegetables for the expected fifteen guests.  As I threw broccoli, asparagus, sweet onion, and a multi-colored pack of sweet peppers into the cart, I made a point to thank Rachel Horness for “letting me hitch a ride”, to which she said “Thank you for coming along.”  This was still my family.
The organization process was similar:  I used a poll on a Facebook event to figure out available times, and found a happy medium between the friends who could come.  Fifteen was the original count, but I had the aching suspicion that no one was going to show.  With theater auditions and exams and final projects already dwindling numbers in the cafeteria and increasing revenue for Maruchan’s Ramen, I feared the three of us present at the start time of 5:30 would be the only guests.  There was already one person creating intentional space, so my paranoia whispered that more would follow suit.
In South Haven, we had laughed and ran around, the sand almost too hot for our callused feet.  There were tickle fights and stolen hats and borrowed bathing suits and massage trains on bathroom towels acting as makeshift beach towels.  Whether I was clambering onto someone’s back to stay out of the frigid water, or falling off them and squealing with the cold; basking in the sun at the end of a pier while I missed the fact Keeney was trying to flirt and impress me with his experiences in sailing or we all were helping my friend Zac distribute the meat and vegetarian burgers he had grilled; or I was cleaning sand off of a fallen slice of pineapple for my own personal succulent dessert, I was smiling and comfortable.
I was now uncomfortable.  It was thirty minutes to an hour after the original time set for the event.  As my foot tapped, I was afraid that the food I had bought for fifteen wasn’t going to be eaten at all.  But of course, the rest of the crew finally ambled in late, creating a grand total of eleven. Topics ranging from bras and beards to classes and chicano studies comfortably were passed at the same pace as cooking duties.  Knives, pots, and cutting boards were exchanged between scrambling hands, and jokes were interchanged like counter space.  Chicken was cooked in a separate pot for the non-vegetarians, and the rice was slightly burnt in a pleasant smokiness. Garlic brought by a friend was simmered in olive oil and sesame seeds in the wok (also lent), preparing for the items I had already bought at the grocery store. Water chestnuts and pineapple were later contributed and added.  I stole a slice of pineapple from the can, hoping to taste South Haven again, but instead I tasted nothing.
He was everywhere.  When I went to the upstairs kitchen to grab more silverware, he was in the empty space of his room where my toothbrush used to sit on his bookshelf.  He was in the chicken sizzling on the stove that I had thawed that had originally been used to make him Chicken Marsala to celebrate our five months together.   He was in the awkward smiles and "are you okay?"'s I received whenever I was caught looking at the steps to upstairs, even though I knew he had already cleared out before having a chance to bump into me.  It’s hard to plan a perfect meal when the person you ideally want there won’t be.
I loved the melting wok of people who were.  They were from different walks of my life, brought together through cooking.  Some had already overlapped at other points, others were entirely new flavors to each other. I focused on the excitement of introducing circus folk, choir folk, theater folk, and other odds and ends to each other; mixing together like the stir fry: easily and with some saucy conversation.  My original invite list consisted of thirty people, not because I expected them to all come, but because I have at least thirty people on this campus who I consider to be worth celebrating as friends, and in many ways my family. 
I hovered and fluttered between the living room and kitchen.  In between playing hostess and offering up my chopping expertise to the kitchen dwellers, I caught tidbits of conversation about the Chicano Studies debate at K.  As I set down paper plates, mugs, burger king collectable plastic cups, and a hodgepodge of different silver wear pilfered from the cupboards of the house, I listened to my peers in the living room.  Zac was offended by how support of Chicano studies focused more on skin color rather than cultural differences.  As a person who identifies with latino culture but doesn’t have dark skin, he felt excluded by the way the issue is being communicated in the community.  Others lent their advice and their knowledge of other race studies and hurt identities at Kalamazoo, and I was able to return to the kitchen without fear of the conversation over bubbling.  Just like the mixture of foods in the stir fry was tailored to allergies and food preferences, I was thankful to have friends who could come together under simple circumstances and mesh without leaving themselves at the threshold.  I never had to be tense about things getting to heated, not because my friends are all the same by any means, but because they’re the type of people to have openness to explore all things; and in this case, new people.  I can trust my friends to soothe tempers, or readjust the fire.
Finally, the soy sauce was added and we grabbed servings.  We split the drinks Abby had gotten at Bottom’s Up between plastic burger king glasses and mugs.  People hummed joyful moans through mouthfuls of food, but the only thing I really tasted was my drink. As I requested, no high fructose corn syrup or alcohol was wanted, so varying flavors of nine bottles of Snapple was shared amongst the elleven people.  It was the only thing that I wasn’t in charge of.  
There was the apple that tasted like cider and tea, and then there was the sweet tea that, in the words of Abby “tastes like raisins covered in sugar”, instead of tea made from black and green tea leaves as the label would suggest.  The Arnold Palmer was grabbed the least as seconds and thirds graced paper plates.  Conversation stayed quiet as words couldn’t find their way past the mixture of rice, vegetables, and chicken, being shoveled into hungry maws.  Once the wok was scraped clean, paper plates were discarded, bottles were added to the returnable pile, and silver wear and cups were hand washed and returned to the drawers and cupboards in either the main or second floor kitchens.   Most people trickled out to return to final projects and exam studying while a few stayed to help me quickly put the food away.  The “smokey rice” went in Tupperware, and we bagged the water chestnuts and remaining yellow pepper together in a ziplock for the house to keep.  The asparagus and carrots went up to the second floor fridge, and silverware and cups were washed, dried, and returned.  It got easier to pass his room every trip to the upstairs kitchen.  I kissed my fingers to my lips and then touched them to the door in respect, and left the house.
When I later asked one of my shyer friends “Did you have fun tonight?” she replied, “I did!  It was like the best social interaction I’ve had in a while. I wish I got out more, but I don’t feel like I know anyone well enough to ask people to hang with me.”   These are the moments that remind me what makes an ideal situation.  Now a friend of mine knows a few more faces, of people I really care about, and has a chance to have more social interactions. The space, once familiar, may have rubbed me the wrong way at first, but there I had given my wonderful friends a chance to unwind, and to get to know each other. To have taken this person and bring her into a created safe-space is even more rewarding then a full belly, and helped the space feel safe for even me, even if just in reflection.
In time, home-base will be home-base again.  In the meantime, my home will be wherever I carry my friends with me, and wherever we can find a wok and a shmorgishborg of everything else we could ever want to throw in our melting pot of experiences and overlapping interests and disinterests. At this dinner, I celebrated people.  My people.  The people who move and inspire and care for me, and the people who define home for me.  The people I love for their faults and their experiences and their intellect and for their ignorance and stubbornness.  Anything labeled with perfection or ideal is probably always going to be missing something, but in the temporary moments of my dinner, I feel like I got close.  This meal was never about the food, or the stress of no one coming, or delegating shopping or cooking tasks, or intelligent conversation, or the struggle with who wasn’t there.  I don’t think my perfect or ideal meals ever will truly be about the food.  It is about reminding myself where home really is.

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