Globalism’s ascendance was supposed to send tribalism the way of the dodo. Yet from Waziristan to Williamsburg, tribal affiliations still dictate social order. There may now be more societal fluidity, but finding one’s tribe within nomadic urban cultures has never felt more urgent. And the tales told within ancient or temporary tribes shape and define these societal organizations. In this issue we turn to our favorite storytellers and poets, hoping to arrest time long enough for them to show us what life is like in our contemporary tribes. There are Julia Elliott’s cavemen and cavewomen wannabes in her story “Caveman Diet” and Alice Sola Kim’s teenage Korean American adoptees trying to find their place in the suburban jungles of “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying.” Roxane Gay looks at the complicated way her Haitian American family handles the consumption of food from both countries. We asked five very different writers—Stacey D’Erasmo, Tayari Jones, David Shields, Zak Smith, and Molly Ringwald—to give us short takes on moments of belonging (or not). The poets, including Tony Hoagland, Cate Marvin, and Eavan Boland, naturally cut to the emotional core of what it means to claim or to be claimed by a tightly bound group.Whatever your other tribes, because you have read these words, we now consider you part of the Tin House tribe. No initiation rituals or signifying tattoos necessary, just please enjoy the issue.
Current Issue #61
Fiction:Alice Sola Kim, Tove Jansson, Jess Walter, Julia Elliott, Alexander Chee
At midnight we parked by a Staples and tried some seriously dark fucking magic. We had been discussing it for weeks and could have stayed in that Wouldn’t it be funny if groove forever, zipping between yes, we should and no, we shouldn’t until it became a joke so dumb that we would never. But that night Mini had said, “If we don’t do it right now, I’m going to be so mad at you guys, and I’ll know from now on that all you chickenheads can do is talk and not do,” and the whole way she ranted at us like that, even though we were already doing and not talking, or at least about to. (We always let her do that, get all shirty and sharp with us, because she had the car, but perhaps we should have said something. Perhaps once everyone had cars, Mini would have to figure out how to live in the world as not a total bitch, and she would be leagues behind everyone else.)
The parking lot at night looked like the ocean, the black Atlantic, as we imagined it, and in Mini’s car we brought up the spell on our phones and Caroline read it first. She always had to be first to do anything, because she had the most to prove, being scared of everything. We couldn’t help but tease her about that, even though we knew it wasn’t her fault—her parents made her that way, but then again, if someone didn’t get told for being a pill just because we could trace said pill-ness back to their parents, then where would it ever end?
We had an X-Acto knife and a lighter and antibacterial ointment and lard and a fat red candle still shrink-wrapped. A chipped saucer from Ronnie’s dad’s grandmother’s wedding set, made of china that glowed even in dim light and sang when you rubbed your thumb along it, which she took because it was chipped and thought they wouldn’t miss it, but we thought that was dumb because they would definitely miss the chipped one. The different one. We could have wrapped it all up and sold it as a Satanism starter kit.
Those were the things. What we did with them we’ll never tell.
For a moment, it seemed like it would work. The moment stayed the same, even though it should have changed. A real staring contest of a moment: Ronnie’s face shining in the lunar light of her phone, the slow tick of the blood into the saucer, like a radiator settling. But Mini ruined it. “Do you feel anything?” asked Mini, too soon and too loudly.
We glanced at one another, dismayed. We thought, Perhaps if she had just waited a little longer—“I don’t think so,” said Ronnie.
“I knew this was a dumb idea,” said Mini. “Let’s clean up this blood before it gets all over my car. So if one of you got murdered, they wouldn’t blame me.” Caroline handed out the Band-Aids. She put hers on and saw the blood well up instantly against the Band-Aid, not red or black or any color in particular, only a dark splotch like a shape under ice.
So much for that, everyone thought, wrong.
Mini dropped Caroline off first, even though she lived closer to Mini, then Ronnie after. It had been this way always. At first Caroline had been hurt by this, had imagined that we were talking about her in the fifteen extra minutes of alone time that we shared. The truth was both a relief and an even greater insult. There was nothing to say about Caroline, no shit we would talk that wasn’t right to her face. We loved Caroline, but her best jokes were unintentional. We loved Caroline, but she didn’t know how to pretend to be cool and at home in strange places like we did; she was the one who always seemed like a pie-faced country girleen wearing a straw hat and holding a suitcase, asking obvious questions, like, “Wait, which hand do you want to stamp?” or “Is that illegal?” Not that the answers were always obvious to us, but we knew what not to ask about. We knew how to be cool, so why didn’t Caroline?
Usually, we liked to take a moment at the end of the night without Caroline, to discuss the events of the night without someone to remind us how young we were and how little we knew. But tonight we didn’t really talk. We didn’t talk about how we believed, and how our belief had been shattered. We didn’t talk about the next time we would hang out. Ronnie snuck into her house. Her brother, Alex, had left the window open for her. Caroline was already in bed, wearing an ugly quilted headband that kept her bangs off her face so she wouldn’t get forehead zits. Mini’s mom wasn’t home yet, so she microwaved some egg rolls. She put her feet up on the kitchen table, next to her homework, which had been completed hours ago. The egg rolls exploded tiny scalding droplets of water when she bit into them. She soothed her seared lips on a beer. This is the life, Mini thought.
We didn’t go to the same school, and we wouldn’t have been friends if we had. We met at an event for Korean adoptees, a party at a low-ceilinged community center catered with the stinkiest food possible. Koreans,amirite?! That’s how we/they roll.
Mini and Caroline were having fun. Ronnie was not having fun. Mini’s fun was different from Caroline’s fun, being a fake-jolly fun in which she was imagining telling her real friends about this doofus loser event later, although due to the fact that she was reminding them that she was adopted, they would either squirm with discomfort or stay very still and serious and stare her in the pupils with great intensity, nodding all the while. Caroline was having fun—the pure uncut stuff, nothing ironic about it. She liked talking earnestly with people her age about basic biographical details, because there was a safety in conversational topics that no one cared about all that much. Talking about which high school you go to? Great! Which activities you did at aforementioned school? Raaaad. Talking about the neighborhood where you live? How was it possible that they weren’t all dead of fun! Caroline already knew and liked the K-pop sound-tracking the evening, the taste of the marinated beef and the clear noodles, dishes that her family re-created on a regular basis.
Ronnie rooted herself by a giant cut-glass bowl full of kimchi, which looked exactly like a big wet pile of fresh guts. She soon realized that (1) the area by the kimchi was very high traffic and (2) the kimchi emitted a powerful vinegar-poop-death stench. As Ronnie edged away from the food table, Mini and Caroline were walking toward it. Caroline saw a lost and lonely soul and immediately said, “Hi! Is this your first time at a meet-up?”
At this Ronnie experienced split consciousness, feeling annoyed that she was about to be sucked into wearying small talk in addition to a nearly sacramental sense of gratitude about being saved from standing alone at a gathering. You could even say that Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness if you counted the fact that she was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline—Mini for being the kind of girl who tries to look ugly on purpose and thinks it looks so great (ooh, except it did look kinda great), her torn sneakers and one thousand silver earrings and chewed-up hair, and Caroline of the sweetly tilted eyes and cashmere sweater dress and ballet flats like she was some pampered cat turned human.
Mini had a stainless-steel water bottle full of ice and vodka cut with the minimal amount of orange juice. She shared it with Ronnie and Caroline. And Caroline drank it. Caroline ate and drank like she was a laughing two-dimensional cutout and everything she consumed just went through her face and evaporated behind her, affecting her not at all.
Ronnie could not stop staring at Caroline, who was a one-woman band of laughing and drinking and ferrying food to her mouth and nodding and asking skin-rippingly boring questions that nevertheless got them talking. Ronnie went from laughing at Caroline to being incredibly envious of her. People got drunk just to be like Caroline!
Crap, Ronnie thought. Social graces are actually worth something.
But Caroline was getting drunk, and since she was already Caroline, she went too far with the whole being-Caroline thing and asked if she could tell us a joke. Only if we promised not to get offended!
Mini threw her head back, smiled condescendingly at an imaginary person to her left, and said, “Of course.” She frowned to hide a burp that was, if not exactly a solid, still alarmingly substantial, and passed the water bottle to Ronnie.
Caroline wound up. This had the potential to be long. “So, you know how—oh wait, no, okay, this is how it starts. Okay, so white people play the violin like this.” She made some movements. “Black people play it like this.” She made some more movements. “And then Korean people play it like th—” and she began to bend at the waist but suddenly farted so loudly that it was like the fart had bent her, had then jet-packed her into the air and crumpled her to the ground.
She tried to talk over it, but Ronnie and Mini were ended by their laughter. They fell out of themselves. They were puking laughter, the laughter was a thick brambly painful rope being pulled out of their faces, but they couldn’t stop it, and finally Caroline stopped trying to finish the joke and we were all laughing.
Consequences: For days after, we would think that we had exhausted the joke and sanded off all the funniness rubbing it so often with our sweaty fingers, but then we would remember again and, whoa, there we went again, off to the races.
Consequences: Summer arrived. Decoupled from school, we were free to see one another, to feel happy misfitting with one another because we knew we were peas from different pods—we delighted in being such different kinds of girls from one another.
Consequences: For weeks after, we’d end sentences with, “Korean people do it like ppppbbbbbbbttth.”
There are so many ways to miss your mother. Your real mother—the one who looks like you, the one who has to love you because she grew you from her own body, the one who hates you so much that she dumped you in the garbage for white people to pick up and dust off. In Mini’s case, it manifested as some weird gothy shit. She had been engaging in a shady flirtation with a clerk at an antiquarian bookshop. We did not approve. We thought this clerk wore thick-rimmed hipster glasses to hide his crow’s feet and hoodies to hide his man boobs so that weird high-school chicks would still want to flirt with him. We hoped that Mini mostly liked him only because he was willing to trade clammy glances with her and go no further. Unlike us, Mini was not a fan of going far. When the manager wasn’t around, this guy let her go into the room with the padlock on it, where all of the really expensive stuff was. That’s where she found the book with the spell. That’s were she took a photo of the spell with her phone. That’s where she immediately texted it to us without any explanation attached, confident that the symbols were so powerful they would tentacle through our screens and into our hearts, and that we would know it for what it was.
Each of us had had that same moment where we saw ourselves in a photo, caught one of those wonky glances in the mirror that tricks you into thinking that you’re seeing someone else, and it’s electric. Kapow boom sizzle, you got slapped upside the head with the Korean wand, and now you feel weird at family gatherings that veer blond, you feel weird when your friends replace their Facebook profile photos with pictures of the celebrities they look like and all you have is, say, Mulan or Jackie Chan, ha-ha-ha, hahahahaha.
You feel like you could do one thing wrong, one stupid thing, and the sight of you would become a terrible taste in your parents’ mouths.
“I’ll tell you this,” Mini had said. “None of us actually knows what happened to our mothers. None of our parents tell us anything. We don’t have the cool parents who’ll tell us about our backgrounds and shit like that.”
For Mini, this extended to everything else. When her parents decided to get a divorce, Mini felt like she had a hive of bees in her head (her brain was both the bees and the brain that the bees were stinging). She searched online for articles about adoptees with divorced parents. The gist of the articles was that she would be going through an awfully hard time, as in, chick already felt kind of weird and dislocated when it came to family and belonging and now it was just going to be worse. Internet, you asshole, thought Mini. I already knew that. The articles for the parents told them to reassure their children. Make them feel secure and safe. She waited for the parents to try so she could flame-throw scorn all over them. They did not try. She waited longer.
And she had given up on them long before Mom finally arrived.
We were hanging out in Mini’s room, not talking about our unsuccessful attempt at magic. Caroline was painting Ronnie’s nails with a color called Balsamic.
“I love this color,” said Caroline. “I wish my parents would let me wear it.”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“I can’t wear dark nail polish until I’m eighteen.”
“Wait—they really said that?”
“How many things have they promised you when you turn eighteen?”
“You know they’re just going to change the terms of the agreement when you actually turn eighteen, and then you’ll be forty and still wearing clear nail polish and taking ballet and not being able to date.”
“And not being able to have posters up in your room. Although I guess you won’t need posters when you’re forty.”
“Fuck that! No one’s taking away my posters when I get old.”
Caroline didn’t say anything. She shrugged, keeping her eyes on Ronnie’s nails. When we first started hanging out with Caroline, we wondered if we shouldn’t shit-talk Caroline’s parents, because she never joined in, but we realized that she liked it. It helped her, and it helped her to not have to say anything. “You’re all set. Just let it dry.”
“I don’t know,” said Ronnie. “It doesn’t go with anything. It just looks random on me.”
Mini said, “Well.” She squinted and cocked her head back until she had a double chin, taking all of Ronnie in. “You kind of look like you’re in prison and you traded a pack of cigarettes for nail polish because you wanted to feel glamorous again.”
“No, come on. You know what I mean. It’s great. You look tough. You look like a normal girl, but you still look tough. Look at me. I’ll never look tough.” And she so wanted to, we knew. “I’d have to get a face tattoo, like a face tattoo of someone else’s face over my face. Maybe I should get your face.”
“Makeover montage,” said Caroline.
“Koreans do makeovers like pppppbbbbbbth,” we said.
Caroline laughed and the nail polish brush veered and swiped Ronnie’s knuckle. We saw Ronnie get a little pissed. She didn’t like physical insults. Once she wouldn’t speak to us for an hour when Mini flicked her in the face with water in a movie theater bathroom.
“Sorry,” Caroline said. She coughed. Something had gone down wrong. She coughed some more and started to retch, and we were stuck between looking away politely and staring at her with our hands held out in this Jesus-looking way, figuring out how to help. There was a wet burr to her coughing that became a growl, and the growl rose and rose until it became a voice, a fluted voice, like silver flutes, like flutes of bubbly champagne, a beautiful voice full of rich-people’s things.
MY MY MINE MINE
Mom skipped around. When she spoke, she didn’t move our mouths. We felt only the vibration of her voice rumbling through us.
“Did you come to us because we called for you?” asked Mini.
Mom liked to jump into the mouth of the person asking the question. Mini’s mouth popped open. Her eyes darted down, to the side, like she was trying to get a glimpse of herself talking.
I HEARD YOU, MY DAUGHTERS
“You speak really good English,” Caroline said.
I LEARNED IT WHEN I WAS DEAD
We wanted to talk to one another but it felt rude with Mom in the room. If Mom was still in the room.
LOOK AT YOU SO BEAUTIFUL
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE WORLD
Who was beautiful? Which one of us was she talking about? We asked and she did not answer directly. She only said that we were all beautiful, and any mother would be proud to have us. We thought we might work it out later.
OH, I LEFT YOU
I’LL NEVER DO IT AGAIN
At first we found Mom highly scary. At first we were scared of her voice and the way she used our faces to speak her words, and we were scared about how she loved us already and found us beautiful without knowing a thing about us. That is what parents are supposed to do, and we found it incredibly stressful and a little bit creepy. Our parents love us, thought Caroline and Mini. They do, they do, they do, but every so often we could not help but feel that we have to earn our places in our homes. Caroline did it by being perfect and PG-rated, though her mind boiled with filthy, outrageous thoughts, though she often got so frustrated at meals with her family during her performances of perfection that she wanted to bite the dining room table in half. I’m not the way you think I am, and you’re dumb to be so fooled. Mini did it by never asking for anything. Never complaining. Though she could sulk and stew at the Olympic level. Girl’s got to have an outlet.
Mom took turns with us, and in this way we got used to her. A few days after Mom’s first appearance, Caroline woke herself up singing softly, a song she had never before heard. It sounded a little like baaaaaachudaaaaa/neeeeedeowadaaaa. Peaceful, droning. She sang it again, and then Mom said:
THIS IS A SONG MY MOTHER SANG TO ME WHEN I DIDN’T WANT TO WAKE UP FOR SCHOOL. IT CALLS THE VINES DOWN TO LIFT YOU UP AND—
“Mom?” said Caroline.
“Could you speak more quietly? It gets pretty loud in my head.”
Oh, Of Course. Yes. This Song Is What My Mother Sang In The Mornings. And Her Hands Were Vines And She Would Lift Lift Lift Me Up,Mom said.
Caroline’s stomach muscles stiffened as she sat up by degrees, like a mummy. Caroline’s entire body ached, from her toenails to her temples, but that wasn’t Mom’s fault. It was her other mom’s fault. Summers were almost worse for Caroline than the school year was. There was more ballet, for one thing, including a pointe intensive that made her feet twinge like loose teeth, and this really cheesed her off most of all, because her parents didn’t even like ballet. They were bored into microsleeps by it, their heads drifting forward, their heads jumping back. What they liked was the idea of a daughter who did ballet, and who would therefore be skinny and not a lesbian. She volunteered at their church and attended youth group, where everyone mostly played foosball. She worked a few shifts at a chocolate shop, where she got to try every kind of chocolate they sold once and then never again. But what if she forgot how they tasted? She was tutored in calculus and biology, not because she needed any help with those subjects, but because her parents didn’t want to wait to find out whether she was the best or not at them—they wanted best and they wanted it now.
Once Ronnie said, “Caroline, your parents are like Asian parents,” and Mini said, “Sucks to be you,” and Caroline answered, “That’s not what you’re going to say in a few years when you’re bagging my groceries,” which sounded mean, but we knew she really said it only because she was confident that we wouldn’t be bagging her groceries. Except for Ronnie, actually. We were worried about Ronnie, who wasn’t academically motivated like Caroline or even C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, what’s next motivated like Mini.
That first day Caroline enjoyed ballet class as she never had before, and she knew it was because Mom was there. She felt her chin tipped upward by Mom, arranging her daughter like a flower, a sleek and sinuous flower that would be admired until it died and even afterward. Mom had learned to speak quietly, and she murmured to Caroline to stand taller and suck in her stomach and become grace itself. The ballet teacher nodded her approval.
Though You Are A Little Bit Too Fat For Ballet, Mom murmured. Caroline cringed. She said, “Yeah, but Mom, I’m not going to be a ballerina.” But Mom told her that it was important to try her best at everything and not be motivated by pure careerism only.
Mom told us we were beautiful and special and loved, but that is not to say that she was afraid to criticize the fuck out of us. Once Caroline tried to sing the song about getting up in the morning to please Mom, and Mom just laughed. Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha, Oh Sweetie Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha!
“Mom,” said Caroline. “I know the words.”
You Don’t Speak Korean, Mom told Caroline. You Will Never Speak Real Korean.
“You speak real English, though. How come you get both?”
I Told You. I’m Your Mother And I Know A Lot More Than You And I’m Dead.
It was true, though, about Caroline. The words came out of Caroline’s mouth all sideways and awkward, like someone pushing a couch through a hallway. Worst of all, she didn’t sound like someone speaking Korean—she sounded like someone making fun of it.
But if we knew Caroline, we knew that this was also what she wanted. Because she wanted to be perfect, so she also wanted to be told about the ways in which she was imperfect.
Mini was the first to actually see Mom. She made herself Jell-O for dinner, which was taking too long because she kept opening the refrigerator door to poke at it. Mini’s brain: C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon. She walked around the dining room table. She tried to read the New Yorker that her mother had been neglecting, but it was all tiny-print listings of events that happened about five months ago anywhere but where she was. She came back to the fridge to check on the Jell-O. Its condition seemed improved from the last time she checked, and anyhow she was getting hungrier, and it wasn’t like Jell-O soup was the worst thing she’d ever eaten since her mom stopped cooking after the divorce. She looked down at the Jell-O, as any of us would do before breaking that perfect jeweled surface with the spoon, and saw reflected upon it the face of another. The face was on Mini, made up of the Mini material but everything tweaked and adjusted, made longer and thinner and sadder. Mini was awed. “Is that what you look like?” Mini asked. When she spoke she realized how loose her jaw felt. “Ouch,” she said. Mom said, Oh, Honey, I Apologize. I Just Wanted You To See What Mom Looks Like. I’ll Stop Now.
“It’s okay,” said Mini.
Mom thought that Mini should be eating healthier food, and what do you know, Mini agreed. She told us about the dinner that Mom had Mini make. “I ate vegetables, you guys, and I kind of liked it.” She did not tell us that her mother came home near the end of preparations, and Mini told her that she could not have any of it. She did not tell us that she frightened her mother with her cold, slack expression and the way she laughed at nothing in particular as she went up to her room.
Caroline would have said: I can’t believe your mom had the nerve to ask if she could!
Ronnie would have thought: There’s being butt-hurt about your parents’ divorce, and then there’s being epically, unfairly butt-hurt about your parents’ divorce, and you are veering toward the latter, Mini my friend. But what did Ronnie know? She was still scared of Mom. She probably hated her family more than any of us—we knew something was wrong but not what was wrong—but she wouldn’t let Mom come too close either.
“Have you been hanging out with Mom?”
“Yeah. We went shopping yesterday.”
“I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
“Caroline, that’s not fair! You had her first.”
“I just miss her.”
“Don’t be jealous.”
We would wake up with braids in our hair, complicated little tiny braids that we didn’t know how to do. We would find ourselves making food that we didn’t know how to make, stews and porridges and little sweet hotcakes. Ronnie pulled the braids out. Ronnie did not eat the food. We knew that Mom didn’t like that. We knew Mom would want to have a serious talk with Ronnie soon.
We knew and we allowed ourselves to forget that we already had people in our lives who wanted to parent us, who had already been parenting us for years. But we found it impossible to accept them as our parents, now that our real mother was back. Someone’s real mother. Sometimes we were sisters. Sometimes we were competitors.
Our parents didn’t know us anymore. They couldn’t do anything right, if they ever had in the first place. This is one problem with having another set of parents. A dotted outline of parents. For every time your parents forget to pick you up from soccer practice, there is the other set that would have picked you up. They—she—would have been perfect at all of it.
Ronnie was washing the dishes when a terrible pain gripped her head. She shouted and fell to her knees. Water ran over the broken glass in the sink.
Honey, said Mom, You Won’t Let Me Get To Know You. Ronnie, Don’t You Love Me? Don’t You Like The Food I Make For You? Don’t You Miss Your Mother?
Ronnie shook her head.
Ronnie, I Am Going To Knock First—
Someone was putting hot, tiny little fingers in her head like her head was a glove, up her nose, in her eyes, against the roof of her mouth. And then they squeezed. Ronnie started crying.
—And Then I’m Coming In.
She didn’t want this; she didn’t want for Mom to know her like Mom had gotten to know Caroline and Mini; she didn’t want to become these weird monosyllabic love-zombies like them, them with their wonderful families—how dare they complain so much, how dare they abandon them for this creature? And perhaps Ronnie was just stronger and more skeptical, but she had another reason for wanting to keep Mom away. She was ashamed. The truth was that there was already someone inside her head. It was her brother, Alex. He was the tumor that rolled and pressed on her brain to shift her moods between dreamy and horrified.
Ronnie first became infected with the wrong kind of love for Alex on a school-day morning, when she stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing her teeth. He had stood there not a minute before her, shaving. On school-day mornings, they were on the same schedule, nearly on top of each other. His hot footprints pressed up into hers. And then he was pressing up against her, and it was confusing, and she forgot now whose idea all of this was in the first place, but there was no mistake about the fact that she instigated everything now. Everything she did and felt, Alex returned, and this troubled Ronnie, that he never started it anymore, so that she was definitively the sole foreign element and corrupting influence in this household of Scandinavian blonds.
(“Do you want to do this?”) (“Okay. Then I want to do this too.”)
Ronnie hated it and liked it when they did stuff in the bathroom. Having the mirror there was horrible. She didn’t need to see all that to know it was wrong. Having the mirror there helped. It reassured her to see how different they looked—everything opposed and chiaroscuro—no laws were being broken and triggering alarms from deep inside their DNA.
Sometimes Alex told her that they could get married. Or if not married, they could just leave the state or the country and be together in some nameless elsewhere. The thought filled Ronnie with a vicious horror. If the Halversons weren’t her parents, if Mrs. Halverson wasn’t her mother, then who was to be her mother? Alex would still have his family. He wasn’t the adopted one, after all. Ronnie would be alone in the world, with only fake companions—a blond husband who used to be her brother, and a ghost who would rest its hands on Ronnie’s shoulders until the weight was unbearable, a ghost that couldn’t even tell different Asian girls apart to recognize its own daughter.
Mom was silent. Ronnie stayed on the floor. She collected her limbs to herself and laced her fingers behind her neck. She felt it: something terrible approached. It was too far away to see or hear or feel, but when it finally arrived, it would shake her hard enough to break her in half. Freeing a hand, Ronnie pulled out her phone and called Mini. She told her to come quickly and to bring Caroline and it was about Mom, and before she could finish, Mom squeezed the phone and slammed Ronnie’s hand hard against the kitchen cabinet.
YOU ARE A DIRTY GIRL
Ronnie’s ears rang. Mom was crying now too. You Do This To These People Who Took You In And Care For You, Mom sobbed. I Don’t Know You At All. I Don’t Know Any Of You.
YOU’RE NOT NICE GIRLS
NO DAUGHTERS OF MINE
When Mini and Caroline came into the kitchen, Ronnie was sitting on the floor. Her hand was bleeding and swollen, but otherwise she was fine, her face calm, her back straight. She looked up at us. “We have to go reverse the spell. We have to send her back. I made her hate us. I’m sorry. She’s going to kill us.”
“Oh no,” said Caroline.
Mini’s head turned to look at Caroline, then the rest of her body followed. She slapped Caroline neatly across the face. You I Don’t Like So Much Either, Mom said, using Mini’s mouth to speak. I Know What You Think About At Night, During The Day, All Day. You Can’t Fool Me. I Tried And Tried—
Mini covered her mouth, and then Mom switched to Caroline. —And Tried To Make You Good. But Ronnie Showed Me It Was All Useless. You Are All Worthless. Caroline shook her head until Mom left, and we pulled Ronnie up and ran out to the car together, gripping one another’s hands the whole way.
We drove, or just Mini drove, but we were rearing forward in our seats, and it was as though we were all driving, strenuously, horsewhippingly, like there was an away to get to, as if what we were trying to escape was behind us and not inside of us. We were screaming and shouting louder and louder until Mini was suddenly seized again. We saw it and we waited. Mini’s jaw unhinged, and we didn’t scream only because this had happened many times—certainly we didn’t like it when it happened to us, but that way at least we didn’t have to look at it, the way that it was only skin holding the moving parts of her skull together, skin become liquid like glass in heat, and then her mouth opened beyond everything we knew to be possible, and the words that came out—oh, the words. Mini began to speak and then we did, we did scream, even though we should have been used to it by now.
DO YOU WANT TO DIE BEFORE I TEACH YOU EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW
The car veered, a tree loomed, and we were garlanded in glass, and a branch insinuated itself into Mini’s ribs and encircled her heart, and Ronnie sprang forth and broke against the tree, and in the backseat Caroline was marveling at how her brain became unmoored and seesawed forward into the jagged coastline of the front of her skull and back again, until she was no longer herself, and it was all so mortifying that we could have just died, and we did, we did die, we watched every second of it happen until we realized that we were back on the road, driving, and all of the preceding was just a little movie that Mom had played inside of our heads.
“Stop,” said Ronnie. “Stop the car.”
“No way,” said Mini. “That’s what she wants.”
Mom’s sobs again. I Killed Myself For Love. I Killed Myself For You, she said. I Came Back For Girls Who Wanted Parents But You Already Had Parents.
“Mini, listen to me,” said Ronnie. “I said it because it seemed like a thing to say, and it would have been nice to have, but there is no way to reverse the spell, is there?”
“We can try it. We can go back to the parking lot and do everything, but backward.”
“We can change the words. We have to try,” Caroline said.
“Mom,” said Ronnie, “if you’re still here, I want to tell you that I want you. I’m the one who needs a mother. You saw.”
“Ronnie,” said Caroline, “what are you talking about?”
From Mini, Mom said, You Girls Lie To One Another. All The Things You Don’t Tell Your Friends. Ronnie thought she already sounded less angry. Just sad and a little petulant. Maybe showing all of them their deaths by car crash had gotten it out of her system.
“The thing I’m doing,” said Ronnie, “that’s a thing they would kick me out of the family for doing. I need my real family. I need you.” She didn’t want to say the rest out loud, so she waited. She felt Mom open up her head, take one cautious step inside with one foot and then the other. Ronnie knew that she didn’t want to be this way or do those things anymore. Ronnie knew that she couldn’t find a way to stop or escape Alex’s gaze from across the room when everyone else was watching TV. Stop looking at me. If you could stop looking at me for just one second, then I could stop too.
Mom, while we’re speaking honestly, I don’t think you’re any of our mothers. I don’t think you’re Korean. I don’t even think you come from any country on this planet.
(Don’t tell me either way.)
But I don’t care. I need your help, Mom. Please, are you still there? I’ll be your daughter. I love your strength. I’m not scared anymore. You can sleep inside my bone marrow, and you can eat my thoughts for dinner, and I promise, I promise I’ll always listen to you. Just make me good.
They didn’t see Ronnie for a few months. Mini did see Alex at a concert pretty soon after everything that happened. He had a black eye and his arm in a sling. She hid behind a pillar until he passed out of sight. Mini, at least, had sort of figured it out. First she wondered why Ronnie had never told them, but then, immediately, she wondered how Ronnie could do such a thing. She wondered how Alex could do such a thing. Her thoughts shuttled back and forth between both of those stationsand would not rest on one, so she made herself stop thinking about it.
As for Mini and Caroline, their hair grew out or they got haircuts, and everything was different, and Caroline’s parents had allowed her to quit ballet and Mini’s parents were still leaving her alone too much but she grew to like it. And when they were around, they weren’t so bad. These days they could even be in the same room without screaming at each other.
There was another meet-up for Korean adoptees. They decided to go. School had started up again, and Mini and Caroline were on the wane. Mini and Caroline thought that maybe bringing it all back full circle would help. But they knew it wouldn’t be the same without Ronnie.
Mini and Caroline saw us first before we saw them. They saw us emerge from a crowd of people, people that even Caroline hadn’t befriended already. They saw our skin and hair, skin and eyes, hair and teeth. The way we seemed to exist in more dimensions than other people did. How something was going on with us—something was shakin’ it—on the fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth dimensions. Space and time and space-time and skin and hair and teeth. You can’t say “pretty” to describe us. You can’t say “beautiful.” You can, however, look upon us and know true terror. The Halversons know. All of our friends and admirers know.
Who are we? We are Ronnie and someone standing behind her, with hands on her shoulders, a voice in her ear, and sometimes we are someone standing inside her, with feet in her shoes, moving her around. We are Ronnie and we are her mom and we are every magazine clipping on how to charm and beautify, the tickle of a mascara wand on a tear duct, the burn of a waxed armpit.
We watched Mini and Caroline, observed how shocked they were. Afraid, too. Ronnie could tell that they would not come up to her first. No? she said to Mom No, we said. For a moment Ronnie considered rebellion. She rejected the idea. Those girls were from the bad old days. Look at her now. She would never go back. Mom was pushing us away from them. She was telling Ronnie to let them go.
Ronnie watched Mini and Caroline recede. The tables, the tables of food and the chairs on either side of them, rushed toward us as their two skinny figures pinned and blurred. We both felt a moment of regret. She once loved them too, you know. Then her mother turned our head and we walked away.
Poetry:Tony Hoagland, Cate Marvin, Maya C. Popa, Eavan Boland, Jenny Browne, Jennifer S. Cheng, Thomas Sayers Ellis
CRAZY MOTHERFUCKER WEATHER
SLAUGHTER AND WISTERIA
MINE'S NOT A POLITICAL HEART
AN ISLAND OF DAUGHTERS
SIGHING FILLS THE AIR OF LIMBO
Features:Mike Smith, Elissa Altman, Sara Roahen, Robert Anthony Siegel
Members Only:Stacey D'Erasmo, Tayari Jones, David Shields, Zak Smith, Molly Ringwald
Once upon a time, in the ’90s, there was a place called Body & Soul—but, although it happened in a place, I never thought of it as a place. I thought of it as a kind of perpetual motion, maybe an emotion. It was a dance party that happened on Sunday afternoons in a warehouse on Beach Street—it started around 4:00 and it was absolutely over by midnight. No hanging around, no night slipping into day; the bar was minimal at best; I don’t think there was anywhere to sit. But why would you sit? You went to Body & Soul for one reason and one reason only: to dance. Once you passed through the door of the warehouse and the weapons check, you were in a large, charm-free, nondescript space, sort of dimly lit, DJs at the back (or were they on the side? hovering on a platform above?), and from edge to edge, from horizon to horizon of this space, were the people who needed to dance, who had been waiting all week to get there, to get here, to go to the place, and to stay in the place for as long as possible. Midnight was an arbitrary cutoff point—these were the people who would dance as long as they could, as long as it took.
I went to Body & Soul when I was newly in love. I had left someone for someone else and the new one and I would go to Body & Soul like shipwreck survivors, dancing because there was nothing else to do and nowhere to go and no rescuers in sight. We went there with the two friends who would still have us. My old life had been very comfortable and well-appointed; my new life, I could tell already, was going to be a thing of fire and air, of salvage. No one from my old life even went dancing anymore; they were done with that, often because they had kids. We were two women and our friends were two men, but at Body & Soul gender felt like one drop of water in a larger ocean, the ocean of the beat. We had all been used to clubs that were mostly girls, or mostly boys, or, sometimes, mostly queers in general. There were lines, however much one didn’t want to say that. Once, when the new love and I went to a nearly entirely male circuit party where the drag queens tossed candy into the crowd, the men on the dance floor whipped the candy at us so hard it left marks. None of the four of us would ever have gone to a straight club. And although we didn’t exactly say this either, most of those clubs were mostly white. The new one and I were the only women we knew who weren’t having kids; our two friends didn’t much go to the gym, wore T-shirts, hung around with radical fairies. The four of us were lost toys even on the Island of Misfit Toys not to mention being, at forty, considered too old in some quarters to be going dancing at all.
But at Body & Soul, none of the usual rules of social and socioeconomic segregation applied I don’t know how they did it. In that space, for those hours on Sunday afternoons, you felt as if you were at the epicenter of all the races, all the ethnicities, all the sexual orientations, and all the genders, uptown and downtown, the young and the old and the in-between. Body & Soul felt like a secret: you either knew it or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, you weren’t there or if you were, you wouldn’t stay. Part of the secret was how to leave your identity at the door; the only allegiance was to the beat. Suddenly, because of the shipwreck, because of all of it, because of being fairly sure I would never be a mother both for reasons I chose and reasons I didn’t, I knew how to do that. I knew how to trade my identity for the beat.
The DJs, wherever they were, played a lot of house music, which, actually, I never liked, still don’t. Every Sunday afternoon that I went in there, I thought, How am I going to dance to this? It was like diving into cold water. Or like diving into cold water with an electric current running through it. And bears. House music, to me, was like being lost in the hallways of some house I didn’t know, and the hallways kept going, and then you’d turn a corner, but the hallway was the same. But I always kept going down the hallway anyway, and then the next one, and the next one. I thought then that I was missing the right drug-music connection, that there was something to be on that made those blank hallways make sense, or be more interesting than they were. But I was never on whatever that drug was, so it was like this continual mix of ecstasy and boredom, like an endurance test of pleasure. I didn’t like the music, and I wanted it never to stop.
In some dance places, you feel that you’re watching people perform, that they are momentarily different than who they are ordinarily—the lawyer is a fawn, the shy musician is a stripper, the plumber is a creature from outer space. But at Body & Soul, it was the opposite. It felt like the place where all the masks were off, and what you were seeing in every face and what everyone was seeing in yours, was the beat. People didn’t dress up to go to Body & Soul; they stripped down, as if to get as close as possible to the way the thing moved and to move with it. And in this way, the repetitive quality of house music, which always seems like it’s about to come and never does, was right. The thing just moved and the point was to keep moving. At Body & Soul, I was with the people who never thought they were too old, too gay, too straight, too white, too black, too short, too bent, too respectable, or too poorly coordinated to dance.
On one of these afternoons, or maybe it was evening by then, or maybe it was night, my new love and I moved from where we usually were on a thick edge of the crowd and ventured closer, then closer still, to the churning middle. Then we went into the middle, and then we were in the middle of the middle, which was like the source of everything and felt nearly unbearable. There was a chorus that kept repeating, “the game of love, the game of love.” It was strange: there in the middle of the middle, we were surrounded by strangers, as far as possible from worlds we had both left behind, and yet it felt as if we were in the center of everything, at some core of humanity. We were at once more alone, more in exile, than we had ever been and more deeply embedded in the heart of the world. I thought, Did I wreck my life to go into the middle of the middle with her? The answer, of course, was yes.
Body & Soul, as such, closed in 2005. The space that it was in was taken over for condos. There are still occasional Body & Soul nights in various places—they have a Facebook page. There was one in Naples recently. Maybe it’s the same, maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. It never was a place, anyway; it was always only the moment when the middle of the middle happened, and everyone was gone and everyone was there.
Interview:Annie Baker and Benjamin Nugent
Lost & Found:Matthew Specktor, Eric Nelson, Maria Bustillos, Sharon Sook Yan Wong, Ann DeWitt
Not long ago, I attended a book party in New York. The host, an urbane and high-powered magazine editor, toasted the author warmly, claiming that“this is a book that might explain Los Angeles to the rest of us.”Charmed as I was by the tribute to my native city, I was also confounded. What is it about Los Angeles that seems to demand an explanation, an argument, a plea, even? One might say a book “describes”San Francisco, or Paris, or even New Orleans, but “explains”? Only Los Angeles, that most vaporous and bewildering American idea (I’ve always thought of it as somewhat akin to Italo Calvino’s “Penthesilea,”the city he describes—in Invisible Cities—as merely “the outskirts of itself”), seems to demand as much.
Enter Eve Babitz, whose radiantly specific Slow Days, Fast Company (actually, the full title is Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.: Tales, but we’ll get to those subheadings in a moment) might serve to explicate LA better than any other book I’ve ever read. Except it does more than that, naturally–so much more. If there’s a reason Babitz’s book isn’t better remembered, isn’t as widely circulated as it deserves to be, I’d wager it has something to do with that subtitle, or at least with that deceptively gratuitous-seeming “and L.A.”(Shouldn’t The World and The Flesh be signposts enough?) Slow Days, Fast Company is, as you’d expect if you know anything about Babitz’s life story (goddaughter of Stravinsky, famously photographed naked with Marcel Duchamp, lover of everyone from Ed Ruscha to Harrison Ford, etcetera), studded with boldfaced names and locations. Musso & Frank, Ports, Tana’s, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin: the Los Angeles of the late 1960s is magnificently accounted for. And yet, of course—or perhaps not “of course,”since if there’s anything that’s a drag about the way Babitz is remembered, it’s how she tends to be presented as some scenester whose books are practically incidental, Mata Hari with a paper trail—what renders the book worthwhile isn’t merely the experience it describes. Rather, it’s Babitz’s radical intelligence, her insight, her style. Like her generational and aesthetic peer Renata Adler, Babitz has a nervous, windblown eye, a knack for perceptual and associative leaps. Like her West Coast fellow Joan Didion, she has a stringent–in fact, rather stark–intelligence. Unlike Didion, she clamps down on the geography of Southern California in a spirit of pure exuberance, even exultancy. Writing about the Santa Ana winds and a night when they “were blowing so hard that searchlights were the only things in the sky that were straight,”Babitz comments on Didion’s regard for such winds as evil forces, and then notes: “Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.”
Such dancing spirits abide, indeed preside, throughout Slow Days, Fast Company. That “flesh”in the book’s subtitle isn’t incidental either: one is reminded that the Bloody Marys at Musso’s (“unparalleled in Western thought”) smell like cinnamon, that the Hamburger Hamlet in Palm Springs is drastically inferior to the ones in town, and whenever Babitz opts to describe actual flesh, the effect is close to jaw-dropping. Of one character, a singer named Terry Finch, she writes, “Her eyes were a strange gray color, her teeth were small and white, and her inside bones were brittle lace. But she was covered with skin that always seemed as though she’d just stepped off the yacht, tan and poreless, with cheeks the color of baby’s feet. One by one her eyelashes spiked their way around her gray eyes, a miracle of textures.”The precision and the playfulness of such writing, at once vulnerable (“baby’s feet,”“brittle lace”) and pointed, are miracles of texture themselves.
Yeah, yeah, then. Babitz serves the beauty of her subject and manages to write about Los Angeles—that Los Angeles of hipsters, actors, producers, musicians, managers and maître d’s—both as someone subject to its laws and lures and as someone comfortably above them. Addressing her own beauty, which was no slouch, Babitz writes, “The truth is that when you’re as voluptuous and un-hairsprayed as I am, you have to cover yourself in un-ironed muumuus to walk to the corner and mail a letter. Men take one look and start calculating . . . where the closest bed would be.”She goes on to attribute this to healthy skin, a particular brand of rouge, and nice teeth, before throwing this away in a manner no less charming for being disingenuous: “Anyway, any fool can want to sleep with me; it doesn’t take a genius.”Which is all well and good, except—
Maybe it does take a genius, since Babitz’s perceptions, her aphoristic formulations, are legion and strike me as both startling and profound: “All art fades but sex fades fastest.”Too rueful for Wilde, not bitter enough for Dorothy Parker, but if you told me it was Seneca, or even Schopenhauer, I’d believe you. Elsewhere, her observations are lighter (“The act of waitressing is a solace, it’s got everything you could ask for—confusion, panic, humility, and food”) or ecumenical (“I love hordes. They screen out free choice; you’re free at last: stuck”), but they’re forever accurate, it seems to me. The shrug with which this book greets even its darker topics (heroin use, say) is not so much a concealment as it is an accent. A way of wearing its genuine wisdom very, very lightly.
In this, and in its infinite sensuality bound to an equally expansive intelligence, Babitz’s book reminds me of nothing so much as Anatole Broyard’s legendary memoir of Greenwich Village in the 1940s, Kafka Was the Rage. Broyard, too, was a celebrated lover as well as an intellectual, and his book is dedicated as much to describing the joy of fucking as it is to stories about Delmore Schwartz. Of course, it is also gorgeously evocative of New York City. Three things that, like Eve’s Los Angeles—or like my own—cannot possibly be explained.
Readable Feast:Roxane Gay
My mother is not a woman with a passion for cooking, but she harbors an intense passion for her family. Throughout my childhood, she prepared healthy, well-rounded meals for us. My family sat together at the dinner table. We talked about our latest school projects–a suspension bridge made out of balsa wood, a baking-soda volcano, a goal scored in a soccer match. My brothers and I bickered, usually over who would do the dishes. My parents talked about things we only half understood, often about the American neighbors or excitement over my father’s latest construction project. We talked about the goings-on of the world. We talked about what we wanted for ourselves. I took it for granted that this was what all families did—come together and become an island unto themselves.. The food we ate was good, but it was secondary to our connection. My parents always made it seem as if my brothers and I were terribly interesting, asking us thoughtful questions, urging us to be our best selves. If we were slighted, they were defensive on our behalf. When we had some small moment of glory, they reveled. I fell asleep most nights flush with the joy of knowing I belonged to these people and they belonged to me.
My brothers and I are now all in our thirties. We have careers, families, but nearly every day we still send each other e-mails and text messages that most people would find incomprehensible—inside jokes, YouTube videos of people getting slapped (for which my brothers share a penchant). My parents still sit next to each other, closer than necessary. An air of profound intimacy surrounds them. More than forty years into their marriage, it is clear—they choose to be together.
When the family convenes now, we share meals in the same way we did so long ago. The television in the family room is turned off or muted. The phone generally goes unanswered. My youngest niece can be found crawling in and out of someone’s lap because she does not like to be constrained by her high chair. She prefers to sup from the plates of others. She jabbers at us in the largely inscrutable language of toddlers as though she’s deeply involved in our conversations. We talk about our lives. We debate and try to solve the world’s problems. We are a holy space. We love each other hard.
The only way I know of moving through the world is as a Haitian American, a Haitian daughter. A Haitian daughter is supposed to be a good girl. She is respectful, studious, hardworking. She never forgets the importance of her heritage. We are part of the first free black nation in the Western Hemisphere, my brothers and I were often told. No matter how far we have fallen, when it mattered most, we rose.
Haitians love the food from our island, but they judge gluttony. I suspect this combination rises out of the poverty for which Haiti is too often and too narrowly known. When you are overweight in a Haitian family, your body is a family concern. Everyone—siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, cousins—has an opinion, judgment, or counsel. They mean well. We love hard, and that love is inescapable.
My mother did not teach me how to cook and I demonstrated little interest in being taught. I just enjoyed watching her prepare our meals from the periphery of the kitchen—the efficiency with which she pursues the task has always impressed me. Her brow furrows in concentration. She can hold a conversation, but when something demands her attention, she hushes. She always wears latex gloves, like a doctor—to avoid contamination, she says. She is known to add a drop of Clorox to the water when she is washing meat or fruit or vegetables. She cleans a dish or cutting board or bowl immediately after it has been used. Save for the aromas wafting from the gas stove, you might not even know my mother was cooking.
Throughout my childhood, my mother prepared a bewildering array of foods—American dishes from the Betty Crocker Cookbook or the Joy of Cooking one night, and a Haitian meal the next. The dishes I remember, the ones I loved most, are Haitian—legumes, fried plantains, red rice, black rice, griyo (pork marinated in blood orange and roasted with shallots), Haitian macaroni and cheese—everything served with sauce and spicy pickled vegetables, everything made from scratch. This was how my mother demonstrated her affection.
My mother didn’t believe in processed foods or fast food, so I have never eaten many foods people take for granted—TV dinners, Chef Boyardee, Kraft Mac & Cheese. She was ahead of her time. Her stance infuriated my brothers and me because our American friends got to eat magical foods like Cheetos and Chips Ahoy and Little Debbie snack cakes. I vowed that when I grew up, I would fill my home with clear glass bowls of M&M’s.
I went to boarding school at thirteen, running from something beyond myself—a violation of the worst kind. What happened was my secret and I thought that if I didn’t have to face my family, I might be able to live with it. At school there was a dining hall, open for many hours a day, and we could eat whatever we wanted. Most of the food was terrible, damp and malodorous in the way of industrial food, but there was a salad bar and unlimited peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I finally had unfettered access to all the food I had long been denied out of love. The Grill offered frappés and hamburgers. There was pizza delivery. There was a convenience store within walking distance where I could get submarine sandwiches and all the junk food I had always longed for.
I was lonely and fucked-up and completely out of place, but this new kind of food made me nearly forget everything I wanted to forget. I found comfort. My body expanded. My doctor said was blossoming, the very opposite of what was happening. I was swallowing my secret and making my body explode.
When I went home that first Thanksgiving, my parents were shocked by the weight I had gained, about twenty pounds. And so began a decades-long family mission to solve the problem of my body. They tried chiding both gentle and somewhat strong; encouraged me to be more active, to attend fat camp, to try a liquid diet; and gave me memberships to popular weight-loss programs and weight-loss books as holiday gifts. They were perplexed by this change in my body. They worried. They love hard. They meant well. I tell myself this now when I am flush with the anger of memory.
It was a relief to return to school, and, eventually, go to college, and then run even farther afield. I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied. I made myself bigger. I made myself safer. I created a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared to approach me. And I created a boundary between myself and my family. I was of them but not wholly one of them. My lean, lanky, distinguished father; my mother petite and beautiful (when I was a child, her hair cascaded down her back, so long she could sit on it); my brothers tall and athletic, handsome (one of them knows it and will happily tell you about all his charms)–and then there was me, ever expanding.
I cannot enjoy food around my family; but to be fair, food is not something I can enjoy around most people. To be seen while I am eating makes me feel as though I am on trial. When we do eat together, my family watches me because they are concerned. Or, more accurately, my family used to intently watch me eating, monitoring me, to try to control and fix me. Now, they have largely resigned themselves to this state of my body. Now, I feel like they are watching me yet looking right through me. I’ve been a vegetarian for years, my mother even longer, but somehow they constantly forget. They ask about my diet, my workout routine, as if staying abreast of these mundane details might change my body into what they would prefer. They want to help. I accept this, or I try to.
It is late in life to begin such a thing, but I am learning to cook well, learning to feed and nurture myself the way I long should have and long denied myself. I ask my mother for her recipes and she is both helpful and vague. She shares the basic ingredients and cooking techniques, but I can never quite replicate the taste of her dishes. When I asked her for a recipe for soup joumou, which Haitians prepare for New Year’s Day, our Independence Day. This is what my mother offered:
Two heads of cabbage
Cilantro and parsley
–Cook meat until tender over low heat. Season to taste with garlic, salt, black pepper, and hot peppers.
I have never attempted this recipe.
My mother always insists she is giving me or my sisters-in-law the complete recipe but I cannot shake the sense that she is holding back even more than the obvious. It is as if she keeps a secret or two to herself, so what makes her cooking unique, her affection for her family, will always be in her possession.
Sauce is the staple of many Haitian meals—tomato-based, fragrant, delicious. Even when my mother makes American food, sauce is on the table. It goes with everything. If my dad sits at the dinner table and doesn’t see the sauce, he asks, “Where is the sauce?” and my mother scowls. Sometimes, she is simply teasing him and the sauce is in the warming drawer. Occasionally, she wasn’t in the mood to make it.
I never seem to hold on to the most important elements of my mother’s recipes, so when I am trying to cook certain Haitian dishes, I call home and she patiently walks me through the recipe. The sauce, simple but elusive, stymies me. My mother reminds me to put on my cooking gloves. I pretend that such a thing would ever find a place in my kitchen. After a stern reminder to wash everything, she tells me to slice onions and red peppers, then set the vegetables aside. My kitchen fills with the warmth of home. The sauce always turns out well enough but not great. I cannot place what, precisely, is off and my suspicion that my mother has withheld some vital piece of information grows. As I eat the foods of my childhood prepared by my own hand, I am filled with longing, as well as a quiet anger that has risen from hard love and good intentions.
There is one Haitian dish I have mastered—our macaroni and cheese, which is filling but not as heavy as the American version. When I attend a potluck, an activity I dread because I am extraordinarily picky and suspicious of communal foods, I make this dish. People are always impressed. It makes them feel more cosmopolitan, I think. They expect there to be a rich narrative behind the dish because we have cultural expectations about “ethnic food.” I don’t know how to explain that for me the dish is simply food, a dish I love, but one I cannot connect to in the way they assume. Most Haitian foods are tied up in my love for my family and my quiet, unshakable anger.
And still, when I am with my family, when we become that resilient, defiant island. I allow myself to be a part of them. On New Year’s Eve each year, we all convene in Florida and attend a gala at my parents’ country club. There is a five-course meal—lots of tiny, twee food. There is drinking and dancing. Even surrounded by a hundred other people, we are unto ourselves. We return to my parents’ house around one in the morning and the party continues—furniture moved, konpa music playing, more dancing, my brothers and cousin who is more brother than cousin and me staring at the breathtaking spectacle of this family, the beautiful beast we become when we are together. I allow myself these moments. I am trying to forgive and make up for lost time, to close the distances I put between us even though it was necessary, for a time, for me to be apart from them. These are the people who know not all of me but know enough, know what matters most. They continue to love me so hard and I love them hard in return.
Sauce (according to my mother, which is to say no two recipes are the same)
1 can of tomato sauce
An equal amount of water
1 yellow onion
1 red, orange, or yellow pepper
Fresh sprig of thyme
1 habanero pepper
Salt and pepper
In a small saucepan, bring a can of tomato sauce and an equal amount of water, some olive oil, salt and pepper, and a clove of garlic to a boil on low heat, then turn the heat off. Just before it’s time to serve the meal, add the onion, red pepper, a sprig of thyme, and a whole habanero pepper if you want to bring the spice. Increase the temperature and simmer until the vegetables are cooked but still crisp. Serve with anything, because sauce is delicious.
Macaroni and Cheese (again, I learned to make this from my mother)
1 can of condensed milk
1 box of pasta of your choice
8 ounces or so of shredded Parmesan cheese
1 stick of butter
Salt and pepper
Boil lightly salted water and cook the pasta of your choice—rotini, elbow macaroni, penne, shells—until the pasta is al dente. When the pasta is ready, drain it and add a can of condensed milk, a generous amount of black pepper, a stick of butter, and six ounces or so of Parmesan cheese. Mix all of it together, then transfer the contents to a baking dish. Cover the pasta with more shredded Parmesan and bake in the oven at 375 degrees or so until the top is nicely browned—about forty-five minutes, give or take.