The smallest package of tortillas at the grocery store is eight, cheese sixteen ounces, guacamole eight ounces, pre-seasoned rice half a pound and chicken breasts three to a pack. Total price to make a quesadilla, about $20 for all of the fresh ingredients, but only in the most basic form; any flair costs extra. Salt, pepper and chili powder won’t expire, and I can use them for other recipes over their two-year shelf life.
Twenty dollars is misleading. For that amount, I can make at least four quesadillas, maybe five if I stretch; the snag is that I have do so before the ingredients turn rotten – it’s a race against the clock to reduce the effective cost of each night’s dinner. A laudable goal, yes, but how many quesadillas can I eat in five days? Isn’t eating the same thing repeatedly one of the first signs of waning sanity? I do enjoy them, and prefer to make my own; a takeout quesadilla is at least twelve dollars. Plus, delivery, while delicious, carries a restaurant’s share of salt, leaving the quesadilla lingering on my tongue through the morning. The difference in calories is staggering; I once ate nothing but delivery and takeout for a week and struggled to button my pants.
Pastas, sandwiches, noodles – none fare any better; everything comes in bulk. I can’t eat six eggs before they go bad, or a pound of grapes, a half-gallon of milk, half a pound of turkey, a loaf of bread, a box of crackers or a package of spinach. A half-gallon of milk is the only option, the next size down is too small.
I’m not eeking by, I do earn a decent salary, but am sickened at the thought of waste. Throwing out spoiled food or pouring chunks of milk down the drain is contrary to the values instilled in me as a child. One of six boys, the idea of waste could not cross the threshold of our front door; too many mouths were there to let it.
There are, of course, simple solutions to my concerns. I could eat quesadillas four days in a row, three nights of turkey sandwiches, or a week of angel hair with tomato sauce, but taste buds crave variety and, when I’ve tried this in the past, the end result is takeout by the third, tired, night. I could freeze certain items like bread, tortillas or meat, and sometimes I do, but the freezer is a condensed wasteland where flavor dies. One time I didn’t sufficiently thaw a chicken breast and condensation from the bird dripped into the cooking oil and splattered, burning my hand.
This was all supposed to be temporary, two years, maybe three at most. We graduated at the same time with similar ambition; geography came between our plans to live together after college, and not only to save money. She accepted a two-year post hundreds of miles away, a teaching position in a federally-funded accelerated reading program for blighted urban schools, one which had started to attract the likes of college graduates from across the country. It was a worthwhile pursuit we both pursued, for the cause, and, as a stepping stone to careers in education.
On the same fateful day, it was she, but not I, who received the large envelope, accepting her to a location in Brooklyn, leaving me to accept my only alternative, an entry level financial analyst position in Chicago. A position many coveted, and, for the avoidance of doubt, I too thought a prudent path, one that would at least please my parents. With two different jobs, nine hundred miles between us, on two starter salaries eaten predominantly by urban living, our visits could be no more than monthly, the flights necessarily austere.
We met the second half of our second year of college, happenstance by the first seating chart imposed on us since the eighth grade. A seminar on Russian literature, capped at fifteen people, I got in through the waitlist, and later found out she had as well. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, amidst the pleasantly cool mornings with my uncle in the suburbs of San Francisco, I filled the daily void left by a part-time internship by picking up War and Peace, sitting pristine on his mahogany book shelf.
Starting a foray into the genre with one of, if not the, longest novel ever written, concerning a subject matter with which I was unfamiliar, posed a daunting uphill battle, especially for someone not otherwise inclined to read for a hobby. I worked three days per week, giving me four days to fill, and no friends with whom to do so. Three weeks into the summer, I’d explored everything there was to see, finally left with no option to stave off boredom than to crack the cover and give reading a try. Typically not easily impressed, digesting Tolstoy’s masterpiece represented the quickest I’d ever taken to anything new, birthing a newfound interest in this most revered of classical literature.
As I learned in the first day of the seminar, she too had started with Tolstoy, eventually moving on to Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. Her account of the inception of her interest grew from a less incidental path, “my father was a teacher, and he gave my sister and I these books to read in high school, which we did, and I couldn’t put down.”
Sufficiently eclipsed by the fact that she willingly took to the genre at a much younger age, I offered, attempting to save face, “I’m hoping for greater exposure through the seminar.” She smiled, a warm sensation of affection overwhelming me in the moments until the professor arrived. I avoided returning her smile, attempting as best I could to downplay that her warm eyes and gently confident voice had stolen my affection.
Three weeks elapsed before I built the courage to break through the sheen of her effortless charisma, with a query to join me for a post-class drink. She agreed with a delightfully cheerful “yes,” but scoffed at my suggestion of vodka in honor of our seminar.
Exotic to an uninitiated philistine such as myself, she preferred red wine acquired with her sister’s expired driver’s license, a drink for which I lacked the palate to appreciate at my tender age. Unwilling to risk jeopardizing her acceptance, I acquiesced without hesitation. I made the correct choice. We sipped the red for hours into the night, the lights and sounds of others passing as noise in the distance, my face puckering less with each successive glass.
One week remaining until the start of my second-choice career, I waded through hundreds of misleading listings to find a one-bedroom with a full size kitchen, including a dishwasher, for a mere hundred dollars over budget. “This one’s great” she said, with an exasperated sigh, after helping me search for three days without rest. The final weekend as residents of the same city, we spent our solemn parting over lunch in the restaurant in which we shared, two and half years earlier, our first official rendezvous. A menu with prices bearable to the college-aged, its cuisine sufficed for sustenance, lacking any pomp. The same could be said of the booths. “For now,” she said first. “For now, too” I responded, grabbing her a taxi to the airport, keeping her in view until she rounded the corner.
Consumed by the gaggle of six male adolescents to feed on a round the clock cycle, my parents gave little attention to the quality of their food output. Other concerns took priority, chief among which maintaining the hours necessary to clothe, feed and shelter so many children. Neither lacked sufficient ability to prepare a decent meal, but their scant time and oft-frenzied approach produced results in kind.
Stringy, overcooked spaghetti noodles, clumped together by my mother’s attempt to squeeze two full packages into a single, insufficiently sized pot, arrived on the table in a large bowl as the primary staple of weeknight meals. I never saw my father cook anything other than an egg, yet he did so with the craft of an artisan on the rare occasions when he found the time.
With little hope of nightly omelets, I ventured to cook dinners for myself before my mother returned from work and assumed control of the kitchen space. She would come home, “please, you don’t need to do that, I’m cooking noodles tonight!” I often thought of giving in and letting her cook for me, frightened by her unwavering commitment to the task. By sixteen years old, I could no longer stomach the limp, chewy texture of her spaghetti, topped with tomato sauce that she watered down to spread across the starchily-bonded pasta.
Reluctance from my mother overcome through persistence, I built a solid repertoire of ten to fifteen recipes before college, which, far from gourmet, bested my eventual roommates by measure of ten to fifteen. After one year without a kitchen, and three years of subpar kitchens, both filthy from cohabitants and lacking dishwashers, the kitchen in my one-bedroom suited the rekindling of my recipe repository. Aside from the budget-breaking expense, shopping at a residential grocery store returned a sense of normalcy to my weekly routine beset for years with anything but.
The palpable irony that shopping and cooking for two might only be marginally more costly than for one was not lost on me. I anticipated her promised return to Chicago, among other things, for the ability to serve meals for two, affording prudence in buying and cooking bulk ingredients. My idyllic perception of evenings after work included glasses of wine commensurately improving with maturing tastes, relishment of joint company in front of the television, or in earshot of one another quietly indulging a literary passion save for the roaring fireplace in the background.
A Thursday, the night before picking her up at the airport, she placed her foot on the image of our future, and pressed with the force of a trash compactor. Our routine phone call, 10:05 p.m. her time, 9:05 mine, provided the callous forum in which she extinguished my vivid conceptions of the subsequent years.
Routine pleasantries included mutual recaps of the day, covering such banalities as lunch and brief accounts of expected plans for the weekend. That coming weekend, friends of mine from a young age intended to meet us for dinner on Saturday. Questioned what restaurant she thought best, her voice slowed, deepened and stuttered, followed by the distinct sniffle and the unmistakable pangs of audible tears. What I first mistook for an impending sneeze gravely dawned, finally confirmed as she spoke. “I..I’m…I’m not coming.”
She forced the start of the sentence with her tone easing quickly once past the opening. By the somber inflection, no further clarity was necessary, but I permitted the agonizing sequence to unfold. “Huh, what’s wrong?!, why?” Confusion marked my question; our relationship lacked signs of approaching its end and her blunt statement caught me off guard. “It’s…it’s not easy to say.” Her pause, then the unmistakable modulation of shamefully elongated words, “saaay,” left little doubt as to the reason. Unsure whether I wanted to hear it, she finished before the opportunity to stop her, “I’m in love with him…Mike, we’re moving in together and I’m staying in Brooklyn.” I never knew a Mike.
Eleventh grade was the only previous occasion in which I found myself similarly situated, albeit many shades lower in severity. Our relationship played out in the manner of hormonal infatuation. She accompanied me to the dance in the fall, our link spurred by the encouragement of our already-coupled mutual friends. A pleasant experience together, we met for a movie the following week and became inseparable. Others pursued her, but loyalty stood prominently among her virtues.
The turn to spring, the celebration of six interlocked months behind us, rained heavily on our previously blooming relationship, upon her return from the much-cherished weeklong break of the season. She far off, in Mexico with her sister, three years our senior, I remained home building my savings bussing tables at a steakhouse. Debaucherous broadcasts live from at or near her location, kept constant on the tv at the insistence of less-ambitious brothers, disrupted my brief respite at home after dinner shifts. Resentment, however unwarranted or unconfirmed, consumed the moments of freedom between work and bed. Yearning for a way to make contact, I peered through the television screens, perhaps lucky to catch a glimpse, I saw her face in that of every sultry reveler.
Upon her return, the precarious connection between us shattered under the weight of my distrust, unfounded as it was. Our vows not to fall victim to baseless insecurities proved futile. The bright green eyes above her genuine, perfectly arched smile morphed to furrowed brows and an insatiable scowl. The superficial facade of our relationship unfastened, the inevitable termination of our time together arriving hastily before the start of summer.
Unrelenting bouts of self-pity, resentful anger and hormonal mood-swings spread across the balmy summer nights, becoming acceptance only once the leaves had fallen and the temperatures plummeted. Losing love to the plague of unsubstantiated distrust accomplished, I vowed to learn from the mistake, lest it consume me once more.
The void that I had long ago overcome returned, instantaneously, with the close of our final conversation. Life required adapting in nearly every facet. Security that accompanies the consistency of a relationship vanishes instantly without a hope of resurrection. Weekend plans, even a nightly itinerary tailored around phone calls, disrupted the ordinary flow to which I had been accustomed.
Short term disarray pales to conceptions of the long term. Marriage, children and a house in the nearby suburbs, none of which I perceived in the immediate forefront, but assumed inevitable, vanished, left for substitution by trips to the grocery store, alone, on cold nights, still grasping how to add variety to meals without wasting bulk ingredients. A three bedroom house, similar to that hosting my childhood, dropped beyond reach, the scourge of a single salary in a big city forever precluding me from the income required.
In a closer timeframe than the future, each passing day inflicted abundant reminders of the adjustments required to adjust to life alone. Offering canned responses to the onslaught of inquiries as to what happened or whether I would be able to cope was made all the more difficult by the enduring shame of inadequacy, having lost her to another man. A man I didn’t know, and probably never would; nor would I have such desire, other than to verify the shortcomings I wished upon him.
Initially, any measure possible to facilitate her return I considered and evaluated between bouts of resentment. The truth evaded me – a mix of denial and the miles between us, across which I lacked the opportunity to witness indicators of her apparent dissatisfaction with me. Whether we grew apart slowly or in an instance of passion were questions to which I would not gain the eventual solace of closure, however painful. Instead, the task involved reconstituting a routine, finding a means of moving forward on my own, starting first with rekindling the comforts of companionship.
The most obvious source of comfort, my friends. I had many in the vicinity, my bonds with them the victims of neglect over the four years of an enduring, serious relationship. We saw each other, not as routinely as we once had, much of which is attributable not only to the commitments of a relationship, but to growing responsibilities of careers, errands and the reduction in energy proportionate with age.
I knew them for years, but I had changed, and with them otherwise involved, our once unbreakable cohesion collapsed with time. They, too, had their own lives to lead, and without the inescapable mental turmoil that required the cure of a differing preoccupation, lacked similar desire to amuse themselves with the likes of me.
Intermittent dinners, or drinks after work, temporarily distracted from the seemingly endless continuation of malaise. But its eventual return assumed priority of the restless nights. From my appearance, there was little indication of tumult; weight stayed constant and shaving an integral part of the mornings. Maintaining conversations without revival of the dismal topic kept others from the details of my situation. Yet a strong facade could not support the crumbling walls within. Drastic action, of a nature that is normally confined to those with a greater appetite for risk, was necessary.
The manifestation of unchecked indulgence assumed the form of a six-pound ball, shy of one foot in diameter. She was ten weeks of age when I brought her home, still unable to walk on all four legs, instead hopping like a rabbit for mobility. Her brown fur puffed outward, bearing resemblance to arm hair after running a static-cling inducing dryer sheet over top of it. Her tail curled upward at all times other than when in furious motion side to side.
Other than the jingle of her collar, and her whimpers when I departed in the morning, she made little noise. When she ate, her metallic nametag contacted the bottom of her ceramic food dish, distinctly indicating that no more food remained but that she continued to lick the bowl, hoping for another scrap. Disproportionately large brown eyes projected a melting stare from above her glistening wet nose.
Most importantly, we were a match. In the evening, she laid precisely beside my leg, stretching the length of her body to absorb the radiant heat that comforted her to rest placidly in front of the tv. Otherwise quiet, at night, from the confines of her bed tucked into the corner of my bedroom, she let out mild snores, occasionally with her paws moving to display a dream in progress.
She and I had different diets, one human, one canine, preventing her from helping me achieve a benefit from scale in the purchase of groceries, with the exception of boiled chicken breast and pumpkin in the week she had an upset stomach. There was no escaping her in the confines of a one-bedroom apartment. Into the bathroom she followed; into the bedroom and back out, she followed, watching me, ensuring I did not leave unannounced.
She jumped up, placing her paws on my leg while I ate dinner, returning to the ground on command to do so, receiving a token bite in return. Her efforts manipulated me into getting for her exactly what she wanted, no means of resisting her entrancing stares ever becoming apparent. She hid under the bed when it was time to leave the room, knowing that I would relent in feeding her a snack to coax her to where I needed her to be.
No greater feeling was there than when she rest her head on my leg, the remainder of her body outstretched behind her on the couch. From my vantage point, she looked up to meet my gaze, the whites of her eyes exposed at the bottom. I had fallen in love and would do nothing short of my best to ensure that she knew it. I came home as early as possible, whether departing work or the sporadic nights with friends, not wanting to keep her waiting for me, or to keep myself away from her.
Her reflective eyes captured images of the reason she became my companion, serving as a merciless reminder of the void I attempted to fill, a figment of that which evaded me. Conversations with her included only one participant; although she could hear, she could not listen, could not respond with anything other than acknowledgement of my presence. On the streets, we met couples who raised their dogs together, the dog either a proxy or test run for a child. When we returned home, she raced through the door into the apartment, just as quickly turning around for me to remove her leash, there being nobody else to greet. Dinner for two came from separate places, the stove for one, and the door of the refrigerator for the other.
I walked her with my head fixed on the ground, at first to make sure that she refrained from eating small pieces of trash on the sidewalk, later to avoid the eyes of passing strangers, particularly those vying for her attention. She was with me, and that could not change; not with the promise of a treat or a chin rub from another soul. I would not fall prey to the passing glares of another once more. Other dogs on the street did not heed my unwelcoming approach to strangers, pulling their owners, against their will, in her direction. With my focus primed downward, the quieter and quicker dogs provided no warning to their imminent approaches, startling the both of us. Only then would I offer to raise my head, if not the least to ensure the avoidance of approaching trouble.