Until I met the pizza guy I had spent time with four men and they all went to the same college, with me: Dave, the architect; Asher, the African-Americanist; Josh, the intellectual property lawyer, and Tim, the computer guy I married. I have changed their names. They were all really smart. Then, I met the pizza guy, and I learned something absolutely mind blowing: you did not have to go to that college to be smart, and by smart I don’t mean at your core a genius but incapable of much speech. I mean French film smart. You could be this kind of smart and make pizza for a living.
I was forty-six at the time.
The evening I learned this I had really wanted pizza, so I made these foods at home instead, to avoid going down to the pizza place and getting a slice: homemade pulled pork (this took four hours), homemade gazpacho, homemade organic chocolate cheesecake, and really good chocolate smoothies. I must have wanted the pizza really badly.
If I had to do the obvious math and say that each of these men represented one of the dishes I lost time on that night, it would probably go like this, but I don’t think that any of these men or dishes represents lost time. If the pizza guy was ultimately my muse, and in being blond and nameless he certainly fit the job description, then I needed, perhaps, to eat these foods after making them, and be with these men for long periods of my life, to see my muse when he showed up, dough on his hands, flour on his white apron. Otherwise, he might have been there all along, but I might only have had eyes for the dough.
So it would go like this: Dave would be the pulled pork, Asher would be the gazpacho, Josh would be the organic chocolate cheesecake, and Tim the smoothie.
Pulled pork takes a long time—you buy the pork shoulder or the pork butt, and it just sits there silently in the oven for three and a half hours. The trick is, you make the sauce separately—never use bottled sauce—and you simmer it on top of the stove for five minutes or so. And where the recipe says to use sugar, use a little molasses instead. Much more complex. That’s Dave.
Gazpacho takes five minutes, and the trick is to use plenty of carrots. For years my gazpacho was much too smooth. Why wasn’t it like the gazpacho in the restaurant? And make sure to use the little containers of cherry tomatoes instead of the canned tomatoes they say to use in the recipe. Also rougher and more textured. That’s Asher.
For the organic chocolate cheesecake, obviously make a simple graham cracker crust—no one lets you do that anymore. Why can’t we leave well enough alone? What’s all the fuss about? What’s tastier than a simple graham cracker crust? Use vanilla yogurt instead of sour cream and you have slashed the fat and you don’t have to use much sugar now. And there you have Josh.
Last but not least, there’s Tim the trusty smoothie: for this little number you want to hit the almond milk hard. This stuff is delicious and it’s nature’s best-kept secret, next to New Jersey. Some frozen Oreos and cream yogurt, Hershey’s syrup, almond milk and ice and your kids will love you like they always meant to but just didn’t.
Serve everything with a Nutella jar full of fireflies and some wild daisies—let you and your cockapoo think it’s all about wishes. Because it is, isn’t it? All about wishes and whether you decide to make them or not. Or whether you are afraid and toss them all to the crowd, to world peace or to your elderly relatives. Make some wishes, for Heaven’s sake. Pluck the daisy.
I’m a little like Emma Bovary, who lived through books, but not as well read, even though I am an English teacher and talk a good game. I do like stories, because they are an easier way to think about real life, as Woody Allen once said about sports. I have a fairly short attention span unless I am truly engaged, and then I have a problem with stopping something before I am finished. We all have our little ways.
I used to be rather interesting looking; a wonderful poet once wrote that my eyes “shoot darts of fire.” Mostly, I suspect, I was enigmatic. This gets old when you get old, and in your late forties it’s not really hot to be mysterious, but rather straightforwardly, obviously, fit and tan. No trying to figure anything out, just ridiculously fit and tan. I am neither of these, since I never bothered to get fit after bearing three children (I was just too tired to exercise, my life being a hamster wheel) and I am never outside unless you include driving, which is how I spend my life.
The summer I met the pizza guy was a summer of change: I got divorced, moved, and dealt with the impact of this change on my children. The crazy thing about being a devoted working mother is that you actually disappear. It’s amazing. In the course of all the momentum you sustain, a chemical reaction transpires and you cease to exist. This must be why your coworkers around you plan parties to which you are not invited; this must be why your ex speaks only to the children. You are not there.
Imagine the magic when the pizza guy says this:
“Do you like jazz?”
You swivel around to see if someone else is there, in this room, at this counter.
There is only you. You are wearing a light green skirt made out of sweatshirt material, and a cream tank top from the sporting goods store with skinny spaghetti straps and a built-in sports bra. You have sparkly diamond-encrusted flip-flops on because they were near the door. They are your daughter’s.
Is this man talking to you?
“Yes,” you say.
“Because you know Clarence Clemens died this week and all, and he was great and all, but there is another musician from Red Bank, he was amazing, and you should listen to his saxophonist, and then listen to Clarence, and compare the two.”
There is a pause.
“What’s an Italian Cheeseburger?” you ask.
“It’s like an Italian Hot Dog, with all the stuff, but a cheeseburger.”
The room is large and you are in it, and he is in it, and there are two other people in it: they both work there and they are both smiling at you. One looks as if he could be the pizza guy’s brother, and the other could be his niece. They look like a family. You have heard about these places: family-run businesses.
Why are they all smiling at you? Is there something on your face? Are you handicapped? Are you benignly insane? You have suddenly started to exist here, in this floury place, inside these walls, one of which features a beverage case.
You know you must never come back because when you do, it won’t happen again, and you will just be a lady ordering pizza. Maybe they are all on drugs right now, maybe they have decided to do drugs as a family, so that the lovely niece won’t go outside the family to try them. That’s it.
You pay and back away and say something about the Italian Cheeseburger and how it sounds so good. It does sound good.
Everything feels different now because you existed for a moment. Like Cinderella after the ball. You sweep but it is not the same. Someone catches you singing a little tune.
You ask him if he will deliver to the next town, where you are moving.
You do not have the money or time for these, but if you did, you imagine they taste like the following imaginary ones:
The two of you go to see a French film.
“The thing with the French is that not only are they not afraid to show silence, like everyone says, but to show someone truly alone doing something in real time.”
“Like in ‘Welcome,’ have you seen that?”
“It’s this immigrant, in France, and he is training to swim the English Channel to see this girl he loves, in England.”
“So, they show him swimming, over and over. It takes a lot of time.”
You can only manage monosyllables. You are the one with the Ph.D. You are in a state of mild shock, like when you broke your ankle on the wet grass, but shaking less.
Blanche DuBois said that sometimes there’s God, so quickly. She was an English teacher! She liked a delivery boy too, but he was really a boy.
This man is a man: he wears wire-rimmed glasses and he is tall. His blond hair is washed. His legs move when he walks in this way: he moves them slowly, and he walks fast. This must be because he is tall.
It is as if you have just been born. You make very simple observations like this one: long legs move differently than short legs.
It is not for any of us to ask where we have spent the last half a century, nor is it for us to care where the daisies go when it rains, whether fireflies will endure indoors. There is only this: life is not a line, nor is it a circle. It is a Nutella jar, washed clean, with a big hole hurriedly cut in the lid.
You can breathe as much air as comes in through the hole, and make it as long as you can. Or, you can find your way out of the jar.