Friday, September 23, 2016

Love Story #5: Comfort Food

Dear McDonald's,

You know how I feel about you. I know how you feel about me.

José, the day manager, knows my order by heart. The teenagers working the after-school shift always break it to me gently if your milkshake machine is down for repairs again.

My friends know how I feel: They've seen the paper bags. They've caught the telltale whiff of french fries lingering in my car.

For god's sake, my husband knows. He's witnessed me, curled in the fetal position, pale and sweaty, whispering your name.

I know it's not safe, this feeling. Middle-aged suburban mothers don't just go around telling the Internet that they love a fast food cheeseburger with a side of fries and sometimes a medium Coke and also a chocolate shake. That they love the powdered salt generously dusted over the fries. That they love the near-meat flavor of the burger patty.

But I do. I do love it.

When I am in the midst of a migraine, my stomach churns. Yet, sometimes the best medicine for my jackhammering temples is a meal. McDonald's, you are the only one I want when pain has taken me to the brink of sanity and exhaustion and/or the toilet bowl. Your delicious chemical slurry stays down, calming the choppy waters of my gut. The sound of ice gently knocking about in my wax cup soothes me.

Tonight, my husband took one look at me when he arrived home from work, and he knew. The sunglasses, the ashen complexion, the tight set of my jaw. He sent me off to bed with my meds and an ice pack. But 2 hours later, I padded down the stairs, mascara smeared in a semicircle below each eye, my bangs at a right angle. "I need food," I moaned.

At 9 o'clock at night, he went to you. For me. Your milkshake machine was broken, but your fries were fresh and piping hot.

I've seen pictures of McDonald's hamburgers left to mummify out in the open. Not a speck of mold to be found on the bun or beef, even after months. They say that means you're bad. That you can't be trusted. That it's not natural. Well, they can judge us all they want. But you and me, we're going to grow old together.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Love Story #4: Let There Be Lights (and Darks and Delicates)

Dishes: awful. Toilets: gag. Dusting: insert annoyed, sneezing emoji here.

Then there's laundry. I love laundry.

Send me bright whites. Send me darks. Send me towels and bulky bedding and delicates. Send me grass stains, pit stains, greasy collars, and musky socks. No underwire bra or woolen sweater will be turned away. Yea though my basket be heaped with fitted sheets and boys' underwear, I am unafraid. Nay! I rejoice.

For a few years in the late 90's, I worked for the Gap. It was the height of the khakis craze. Everyone was jumping and jiving and lining up to buy our pleated-front pants, the perfect wardrobe piece for swing dancing or easing into middle management.

It was during those heady retail years that I perfected my folding techniques. My brain buzzed with college class schedules, upcoming tests, research papers, and shopping mall Cinnabon buns. Folding button-downs was my Zen meditation: Flatten the shirt, button side down. Fold each arm across the back. Fold the left, then the right side inward, toward the middle, at half the width of the space between the buttons and the side seam. Fold the semicircular bottom of the shirt upward, creating a straight line. Take the bottom of the shirt and fold upward again, stopping at the shoulders, creating a rectangle. Turn the shirt over, tidying the collar if necessary. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat for 8 hours per day, several days per week, for 4 years.

Christmas, Easter, back-to-school season -- whatever devastation hit our store, I found myself moving calmly among the racks and tables, ministering to the toppled piles, righting what was wrong. Thoughts of tests or thesis papers still dogged me, but when I placed the last delicately folded cardigan atop its stack, both serenity and power coursed through me. "Behold!" I wanted to shout to the customers, "From the rubble, a perfect tower of poly-blend knits has risen."

Though nearly 20 years have passed since I last sold a pair of button-fly jeans or a waffle-knit tee, my love for the tidying of clothes has only deepened. What I wouldn't give go back in time, to whisper into my own ear as I sat slumped in the university library, "One day, you will have your very own washing machine in your very own laundry room. Being 40 ain't so bad, kid." My LG WaveForce high-efficiency, top-loading, mega-capacity, agitator-less washing machine is, unquestionably, my personal miracle maker. A stinking, mud- (mud? yes, please be mud) mud-splattered school uniform goes into the LG, and 45 minutes later, its sins have literally been washed away. Deadlines may be piling up at work. My son may hate his dinner for the seventh night in a row. My car tire may have a slow leak. But, behold! We are wearing clean underpants and our shirts are folded into virtuous rectangles.

In the Catholic faith, there is a patron saint for every craft, career, or affliction. Saint Hunna is the patron saint of laundresses, a woman born of wealth who devoted her life to the poor, particularly known for washing their soiled clothes and bathing their bodies. She is often called the "Holy" Washerwoman." Though, to me, the word "Holy" always seemed a bit redundant.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Love Story #3: The Pattern of Chaos

Math makes me clammy. In the presence of a percentage or an equation, I lose my bearings, get fogged in. When I'm suddenly on the hook to split a bill three ways, numbers bear down on me like a dream. And not like the lambent dream world I've built out of words, the Wonderland constructed of "susurration," "sfumato," and "skylarker." To me, most of math is colorless and blinding.

Except for fractal geometry. I was introduced to this branch of mathematics while editing for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science several years ago, and I've been an ardent fan ever since. Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, or the geometry of nature, described "self-similarity" in forms: If you cut a cauliflower in half? You still have a cauliflower. In fact, if you were to break a cauliflower into a thousand tiny florets, you would have a thousand tiny cauliflowers. The cauliflower is self-similar. A cloud, too, is self-similar -- billows upon billows upon billows. A nautilus shell is self-similar, its chambers growing smaller and smaller as they spiral toward an impossibly small central room. Fractal geometry gathers to itself the objects that defy tidy Euclidean geometry, with its circles, cones, and squares. It welcomes what is deemed chaos, even as it catalogs chaos's graceful patterns.

The news has been terrible this week. The news has been terrible all year. The news is terrible. At a distance, it all looks like horror or bluster, often both. But there are patterns to be found there too -- systems like a sinister nautilus, leading into dark and darker rooms.

So I think about Mandelbrot, gone 6 years now, describing in his deep, accented voice, the human lungs. Our lungs branch out from the trachea all the way to the alveoli, like trees hung upside down in our chests. We, too, are filled with chaos. And, thus, we, too, are filled with grace. If only we could move through the fog of panic, the dreamland of variation, to look close, closer, very close, until we see, groping about, our arms, our hands, our fingers branching out toward one another.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Love Story #2: Date Night

Shelby proposed after 9 months. We married 9 months after that. Nine months later, I became pregnant. Per tradition, after 9 months, our son was born.

Compared with other couples, my husband and I had a relatively short courtship. No years of lazy brunches and weekend road trips stretched behind us. Instead, we tried to elope on our second date, but we couldn't find any flights to Vegas. Thusly thwarted, we locked ourselves in the unisex bathroom of a hipster speakeasy and kissed as romantically as two people can kiss after they've both drunk a hipster speakeasy's worth of cocktails and tried to elope to Vegas on their second date. Otherwise, until we could make things official, we took turns commuting between Shelby's home in Virginia and my home in Maryland. We cursed our way through hours of D.C. traffic just to spend a night ordering Chinese takeout and watching DVDs. 

Third date
Now we have a 3.5-year-old. At last, Shelby and I live in the same state, but our son is a kind of human I-495 -- loud, dangerous, unpredictable, and always at a standstill when we're in a hurry. If dinner is scheduled for 6:30, our son will need to sit, fully nude, on the toilet at 6:28 while being read to from My First Outer Space Encyclopedia. We may not be driving, but there is still a lot of cursing. We may be covering fewer miles, but on a typical night, the distance between my husband and me is sometimes greater. One of us is doing the dishes while the other is putting our son to bed. One of us is grocery shopping while the other is at the office. One of us is taking out the trash while the other is going through mail. One of us is on one end of the couch. One of us is on the other end of the couch. 

But then there is date night, amazing date night, like a wide open road to anywhere. A babysitter or a grandparent or an aunt or a friend swoops in to keep our son blissed out on fruit snacks while Shelby and I reclaim us. Sometimes we dress up. Sometimes we go on an adventure. Whether I'm wearing flats or heels, though, I make a point to hold Shelby's hand or to take his arm as I walk. There is no preschooler about to dart into an intersection, about to eat the candy he found stuck to the sidewalk. My husband and I relax. We lean into each other.

Inevitably we talk about our kid: how he is awesome and weird and sometimes awful and hilarious. But this is a kind of palate-cleansing routine. By the time our drinks have arrived, let's say, the conversation has moved on. Or, in some cases, moved back. We cover the territory other couples may have scoured years ago: What did you want to be when you grew up? ("A fashion designer." "An actor." "A doctor." "A member of a SWAT team.") How many times have you been in love? ("Like out of 80 relationships?" "Eighty? You've had 80 relationships?" "Maybe I'm setting the bar low for a relationship." "Yeah. I think you might be." "Well, I married you." "Yes, yes you did.")

There is always at least one moment during date night when my husband's face comes into total focus: his dark brows, his sea glass-colored eyes, his golden skin. I feel nervous. He chose me? He chose me.

Lost count date
Some dates nights find us wading waste-deep into raucous political debates. Other nights, we hunch together and talk about God and the universe and let fear and awe and hope bounce between us like reflected light. Then there are the times when we go to a bar and drink beer and yell, "Eat it, loser!" down the sandy length of the shuffleboard.

At the end of the night, within a moment of walking back through our front door, we ask about our son: "Did he use the potty? Did he break anything? Did he bite, kick, hit, or lick anything?" Like a couple of Cinderallas, we are turned from Shelby and Jess back into dad and mom. But when we climb into bed, we sleep closer together -- his hand around my waist or my head against his shoulder -- so that, wherever distance may be, it is not between us.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Love Story #1: The Reset Button

Today is the first in a weeklong series of love stories. They are not bodice-ripper stories. They are not tales of tender romance. There will be no account of the first time I laid eyes on my child (which, to be honest, was kind of like, "Wow!" but also a little like, "Gross, dude.") No, these are the overlooked loves, the little joys that sustain us even when world news makes us sad, angry, and hopeless. These stories are a bit of gratitude, which is at the heart of love.

I drank my first cup of coffee at a Horn & Horn Smörgåsbord, a now-defunct Baltimore area buffet chain. Pans of lasagna, vats of tater tots, dark pools of beef gravy surrounding islands of salisbury steak -- for $9.99 per person, we ate as much as we wanted and in whatever Frankensteinian combination moved our appetites. I'd plucked feathers out of the batter on many a wing, yet the vast chafing dish of fried chicken always called to me. I enjoyed my chicken with sides of pickled beets, cottage cheese, peaches in syrup, and a cup of frozen yogurt slathered in plasticky hot fudge.

Despite our intrepid attitude toward eating, my family did not (and does not) have the gastrointestinal fortitude to withstand bulk quantities of weapons-grade ham steaks or potatoes au gratin. We carried a full bottle of Malox with us on every trip to Horn & Horn.

Two years after my mom died, my family hired Ms. Leony, a tender, quirky Filipino woman, as a nanny for my sisters and me. Ms. Leony often joined us at Horn & Horn, storing the all-important Malox in her oversized purse. After a particularly gruesome gorge, Ms. Leony had poured herself a cup a coffee, but suddenly pushed it away and instead fished the Malox out of her bag. She unscrewed the cap on the bottle of antacid and chugged it tableside. My dad shot her a sideways look, but seemed to think better of saying anything. A man in a nearby booth, I recall, had entirely unbuttoned his pants. Horn & Horn was not the place to judge.

"You want my coffee?" she asked, sliding the mug in my direction. "I'm allowed to have coffee?" I marveled. She looked at my dad. My dad solemnly nodded. I was 10. I didn't know anyone my age who drank coffee. I assumed that youth coffee drinking was part of the mysterious, amazing Philippine culture and cuisine with which I was becoming familiar: lumpia, pancit, chicken adobo, and coffee with six packets of sugar and a generous glug of cream. I took a tentative sip. Then I chugged.

That first cup tasted exactly like warm coffee-flavored ice cream -- more reward than kick-in-the-pants. It wasn't until I was a freshman in college that I realized one could drink coffee without sugar, or, rather, without quite so much sugar. When I sidled up to the college coffee bar, sugar packets crammed in each fist, my classmates would stand back, dramatically arcing their over-plucked brows at me above their cups of black brew. I slowly weaned myself from a six-packet-per-cup habit down to one packet. Kicking the cream would require me to revisit the family tradition of carrying a bottle of Malox in my purse. The cream stayed. The cream still stays.

During the student years, years short on sleep and long on doubt, I leaned on coffee. No, I curled into coffee. Like a toddler curls into his mother when he is overtired and overstimulated and ready to fight and ready to cry and needs something, please, Mama, something. For every packet of sugar I'd cut from my mug, I'd added an extra cup of coffee to my daily meal plan. By my senior year of college, while working two on-campus jobs, one off-campus job, and commuting 2 hours roundtrip to school, I drank a pot or more of coffee each day. "This cup," I kept telling myself, "will keep me going." And again, "This cup will be the thing." Some of my cohorts got drunk or got high. I got caffeinated. Sweating and vibrating atop an examining table, my family doctor finally intervened. "Coffee is not a substitute for sleep, Jessica. You, and let me be frank here, look like crap." He wasn't wrong. But he didn't get me, not like coffee got me. Coffee knew I had circles under my eyes and a hand tremor, but it held my shoulders in its warm grip, keeping me upright.

Eventually, school gave way to work, and pots of coffee gave way to 7 hours of sleep. For a few years, coffee and I cooled off, pecking each other on the cheek each morning, occasionally chatting in the break room at the office. Then parenting happened. A precious 8-lb flesh and scream bomb obliterated sleep, sanity, self-assurance -- my entire reality. Not long after I gave birth, my husband began setting the coffee pot to self-start. Come 5 a.m., with a soothing "blip blip," the carafe would be filled as if by fairy magic, and no matter how little I'd rested the night before, no matter how depressed or overwhelmed or angry or giddy or sick I felt before that blip, my mood instantly improved the moment I plucked a mug from the cupboard and poured myself a cup. Fresh coffee. New day. Anything was possible. Some mornings, I had only 10 minutes to myself to gulp it down before my son stirred, hungry and in need of a change. But those 10 minutes were transformational.

Now a preschooler, my son is much more generous in doling out my sleep allowance. Yet I still make a point to wake at least a half hour before him. I slip down to the kitchen, listening for the tell-tale "blip blip." And on those rare afternoons when I have time alone, I sometimes sneak out to a coffee shop, where I can literally steep myself in the smell of roasting coffee beans while drinking a vanilla mochaccino (which is maybe, probably a sign of sugar packet backsliding). If I'm in a daring mood, I bring along a notebook and my laptop. Office life has kept me busy. Parenting has kept me busy. My health could be better. It's been a long time since I've written. I'm out of practice. I feel tired. I feel doubtful. Then I tip the cup to my mouth, and think, "New day. Anything is possible."