I can tell when a coworker has returned from an international trip by the treats left in the office kitchen. French macarons, or a plate of Baklava squares—the real thing, straight from the Parthenon. This means the mission was successful, and here is a token of the conquest. Like a severed head, only more civilized.
Often the treat comes with a note, something cheerful and inviting. “A slice of heaven from God’s country!” read one, folded next to a hubcap-shaped loaf of Irish soda bread. A wedge had already been cut out, giving me a clear view of its cross-section. The interior looked dry and coarse and reminded me of hardship. There were raisins spotted throughout, like ants petrified in tree sap. I sawed off a piece and took a bite, then walked over to the trashcan. “Heaven needs some enriched flour,” I said, spitting out the food, along with one of my crowns.
“Eileen brought that all the way from Dublin,” someone said. “Have some respect.”
“How is that disrespectful? It’s not like she baked it herself.”
One of our designers, Kyoko, returned from Japan with a bag of individually packaged candy. She displayed them in neat rows on the kitchen table, as if they were for sale. From a distance they looked familiar: bright colors, metallic wrappers, wacky logos. But upon closer inspection they appeared counterfeit. I picked up a Kit-Kat bar—the one friendly face—and then returned it once I discovered it was not chocolate, but green tea. Instead of a rich and creamy brown it was the color of pea soup and freckled with tiny liver spots. It was like seeing an old friend down the street, then rushing to him only to discover he’s been infected with a virus. What have they done to you? was all I could think.
“This is…interesting,” said one coworker as she chewed on a seaweed-flavored jellybean. This while I nibbled cautiously on a Dars bar—unsweetened cocoa mixed with ginger and wasabi.
Even sweets from the United Kingdom taste peculiar, too natural, or too sophisticated maybe. I’d always viewed the Brits as sugar experts, given the quality of their teeth. Up until high school I thought Willy Wonka was a real person. As such, I was shocked after biting into a “Jammie Dodger”, which looks like a Tollhouse cookie but is actually vegan shortbread with apple jam. It’s not that it was bad, but after the thrill of opening a flashy wrapper I expected something soft and fortified with chemicals. What I didn’t expect was unleavened bread topped with jelly. I checked the ingredients and discovered that nothing artificial was added, except for the letter U to the words “flavor” and “color”. That’s the problem right there. This candy is too hifalutin for my palate.
“You need some culture in your life,” a coworker told me as I spit an Earl Grey-flavored wafer into the trash.
I rinsed my mouth under the faucet and dried my face on my shirt. “What for?” I said.
“Because…” she said, the answer so obvious that all she could do was wave her hand around. “Because culture is good.”
I am told regularly that I need to get cultured—so often that the expression has lost its meaning. This time I was curious, so I sat down at the table across from my coworker. “Tell me…why is it good?” I said, crossing my legs, now making an effort to appear civilized.
She opened a Yorkie bar and took a bite. The wrapper looked like an American candy bar called a 5th Avenue, which is chocolate and peanut butter. The Yorkie, on the other hand, was biscuits and raisin. “That’s like asking why exercise is good,” she said.
“Exercise helps you get strong and live a healthy life.” I picked up a pack of Twisty Bits and examined it. “Is that was culture does?”
“It helps you live a fuller life,” the coworker suggested. “It broadens your view of things. Do I really need to explain the benefits of culture? What about education? Are you still undecided on that one?”
My problem with culture is that often people use it as an asset. They spend too much time proving they have it, and this defeats the purpose. Culture, by definition, is meant to enlighten, yet for some the line between enlightenment and status is blurry. Will a trip to Southeast Asia expand my worldview and help me appreciate a different way of life? Probably. Will it give me perspective on my own circumstances? It might. But in my experience the most reliable curriculum is pain, humility, and loss.
* * *
Amanda and I recently went on a double date with another couple, Amy and Todd, friends of hers from a previous job. “They’re really into the finer things,” Amanda said on our way to the restaurant. I’d never heard that said about someone before. It sounded like a warning, so I shrugged and thought of conversation starters that would make Amanda and I appear like bumpkins. It wouldn’t take much. Mention the Die Hard movies and hair metal as often as possible, I thought. These are my go-tos whenever I want to embarrass myself.
We met them outside the restaurant, a place called No. 9 Park. It was chosen, as Amy put it, “for the sake of nostalgia”.
I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Did you come here when you were a kid?” I said.
“No,” she said with a chuckle. “This was Barbara Lynch’s first restaurant. We thought coming here would be kind of nostalgic, a trip down memory lane.”
I asked if her and Todd had their first date here. Amy said no, they’d only been here once, a couple years ago. “Had the place just opened?” I asked. Again Amy said no and explained that it was nostalgic because Ms. Lynch, the owner, now presided over a culinary empire, and this was where it all began.
Everyone seemed annoyed that I was pressing such an insignificant detail, so I dropped it. Still, I was confused. Don’t you have to be personally involved to experience nostalgia? For me nostalgia is sitting on my living room floor watching Three’s Company on CBS, or driving past the Waltham Commons, where I got high every day for five years. You can’t appreciate someone else’s fondness for the past. I mean, you can, but it’s not genuine. If Jay Leno and I walked into one of his old comedy clubs, only one of us would feel truly nostalgic, and it wouldn’t be me.
Our table “wasn’t the worst, but certainly not the best,” according to Todd. He seemed angry because of this, while I was still mesmerized by the clever fold of the linens and the two different forks included in my place setting, both gleaming silver.
“At least this table doesn’t rock back and forth,” I said. “Now that’s the worst.”
The server came and asked us if we’d like to start with a cocktail. Todd asked for something the server had never heard of, and then followed up by listing the ingredients: seltzer water, Belvedere, a lemon rind and a splash of bitters—basically a vodka soda with a couple pointless additions. “Have the bartender stir it in a martini shaker, please,” he said. Amy looked over the aperitif menu. She nodded in approval, then asked for a Fabiola. Amanda ordered a glass of the house red, and I said I’d have a coke when the food came out.
Todd asked why I wasn’t drinking. Technically he didn’t ask; he just made the observation and added a question mark at the end. “I’m in AA,” I replied. Usually I say, “I don’t drink” or “not tonight” and leave the rest to the imagination, but I wanted to make the evening as uncomfortable as possible.
“That sucks,” Todd said, shaking his head.
This was the first time someone said my sobriety “sucked”. It was a nice change of pace, since people typically offer some sort of encouragement or congratulations.
Todd continued: “I couldn’t live without alcohol.”
“Alcohol wasn’t really my problem,” I said. “It was painkillers. Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin…man, I loved them so much.” I held the menu to my face, and then peered over the top. “I used to snort them,” I added, just for good measure.
“Oh,” Amy said, raising her eyebrows.
Without consulting with us, Todd ordered appetizers for the table: Oysters, foie gras, and something else I didn’t want. Before committing to each dish he asked where the food was born. The duck was from the Hudson Valley. The oysters were from Duxbury, Massachusetts. The walnuts: a small town just north of Santa Barbara. Did he really need to do a background check on the ingredients? We’re going to eat the stuff, not elect it into office.
For the next forty-five minutes the conversation centered on international cuisine. It was non-stop. Todd did the talking while Amanda and I nodded along, pretending to care. My eyes watered from boredom. “No kidding,” I said, at least forty times. The more he spoke the sadder I got—not about me, but about humanity in general. Amy interjected once in a while, but mostly it was Todd, describing some of the more divine meals he’s had all over the world. “That was real bolognese. Not like this,” he said, pointing his fork down at his plate. “This is American bolognese.”
American Bolognese. That’s a great title for something, I thought. Maybe a one-act play about a zany Italian family from Queens.
Todd held a forkful of pasta up to Amy’s mouth. “Try this,” he said. “Is that parsnip? It’s subtle, but it’s there, right? Interesting. I’m not sure I would have done that.”
Amanda asked Todd if he cooked. Here we go, I thought.
As a matter of fact, Todd did cook. He considered himself “something of a novice”, an expression I’ve only heard movie characters use, just before they land a 747 or shoot a clay pigeon from an impossible distance. His specialty was a Middle Eastern lamb tartare, and making it involved a trip to a Turkish dry goods store as well as a butcher shop that was four towns over. “All we have in our neighborhood is a Market Basket, and, well, it’s Market Basket.” He laughed at this.
Market Basket, as it happens, is one of my favorite places in the world. I love how clean and orderly it is. I love the retro smocks the employees wear. The supermarket has everything imaginable, from paperbacks to fresh lobster, and when you get to the register it’s like you’re at an A&P in the fifties.
When I mentioned that, Todd looked to Amy and winced. Then he looked back at me. “I’m trying to make the best dish possible,” he said. “I don’t really care how people are dressed.”
I couldn’t believe what a humorless asshole this guy was. How could Amanda call these people friends? I pondered this while Todd dove into step-by-step instructions on his signature dish. “You start the night before with the yogurt,” he said, at which point I tuned out.
Amy didn’t say much the entire night. She acted like a prisoner, always deferring to Todd or asking him leading questions. “For that you use a special cheese cloth, right?” “Peru was incredible…wouldn’t you agree?” I pictured the two of them watching TV while Todd criticized the sound design or commented on how the leisure class never drank from a highball glass. This while Amy complimented him on his insight. Was she always like this? I wondered. Or was she slowly infected by Todd’s culture, like the Japanese Kit-Kat? Sad, to think she used to be creamy chocolate, and now, after five years with Todd, she was green tea.
Against my better judgment I agreed to dessert. “Whatever you want. You choose.” I checked the time. We’d been in the restaurant for over two hours. The dining room had turned over twice since we arrived. When the dessert came, Todd asked us his first question of the evening.
“Do you two have any plans this summer?”
We did, but we were too tired to think, so I shook my head and said, “not really”.
Todd sat back in his chair, satisfied.
We split the check down the middle, which wasn’t exactly fair given they had six cocktails and we had one. Afterward they asked us to join them for a drink at the bar next door. They must have deemed us a suitable audience.
Amanda yawned, and I patted my belly. “I gotta get home and take a crap,” I said. All night I’d been waiting to say something tasteless, and there it was.
The next morning I went to my regular Sunday AA meeting at the American Legion hall near my house. The clientele there is older and hardened, a lot of retired union workers, men and women alike. The meeting is held in the basement function room, which is dim and smells like carpet mold and burnt coffee. There is a bar along the back wall. No one is allowed to sit there, so says the chairperson as she reads the introduction. This makes sense for many reasons.
The room is filled with round tables. I imagine this is where the spaghetti dinners take place on Friday nights. For now the room is temporarily dressed with AA banners. LIVE AND LET LIVE. BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD. REMEMBER WHEN. A man steps up behind the podium and introduces himself as Rick from the Quincy noon meeting. He doesn’t want to spend too much time on the past, he says, because he doesn’t want to glorify it. But he gives us a quick timeline of events that includes running away from home as a teenager, joining the army, going to jail and living out of his car for a year. I imagine each of these is its own incredible story, but Rick wants to get to the important stuff—getting sober and all of the gifts that come with it: starting a business, meeting his wife, buying a home, having a kid. Then he adds, almost incidentally, how his kid died of an overdose two years ago. “He had the disease,” he says. He stops and takes a breath, and then he keeps going, ultimately arriving at a message of strength and hope.
I sit in my chair and listen, my attention completely on the podium. Nothing in the world exists at that moment except Rick from the Quincy noon meeting. When he finishes the room thanks him, in unison. He walks off the stage, and I feel something good, like my worldview has just broadened, like I’m happy to be alive.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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