Thursday, April 22, 2010

A late night encounter with Miss Havisham

Last summer, I shopped for wedding dresses. Having found two that I liked, I stalled and put off the decision. Late one Saturday night, Alex, my fiancé, and I were walking home from a night out. It was a warm night in early September. The flowers were still spilling out of their large clay pots as we passed a newly renovated section of brick row houses, down the hill from our own home.

A door opened just a few steps before we passed it. A flurry of white fabric encased in a clear, thin plastic bag took up the entire doorway, as a woman’s head peered from behind and maneuvered it down the brick steps in jeans and heels. Behind her, a taller woman of about the same age – late 30s – followed.

“Anybody know anyone getting married?” she asked.

“We are next year,” Alex blurted as we passed by.

“Do you have a dress yet? We’re giving away this free wedding dress.”

I stopped.

“Really?! Why are you getting rid of it?”

“Well, I’m divorced,” the shorter woman said.

I wanted to ask ‘Are you Miss Havisham?’ remembering the jilted bride from Great Expectations. But I had the good sense not to.

“I’m getting married again next weekend and I already have a dress. It’s upstairs. This is a beautiful dress. It’s all silk. It’s a six-thousand dollar dress that I got for a thousand,” she said.

As she continued to sell the dress and I resisted, it grew awkward. The social etiquette for getting a free wedding gown from strangers on the street at 11 p.m. escaped me. I started asking random questions that only seemed inappropriate after the words were out of my mouth.

“Is it bad luck for me to take it?” I asked. “Was your marriage that bad?”

“Well, it wasn’t pleasant,” she said.

“Don’t you want to sell it? You could probably get a lot of money for it.”

“No, it’s not about that. I would love for someone else to have it and wear it on her wedding day.”

“Well, if I take it, I have to give you something for it. I wouldn’t feel right just taking it,” I said.

“No, I don’t want anything. This is your dress,” she said pushing the huge bag filled with poufy crinoline, satin and silk into my arms. I didn’t know how to handle the dress and felt uncomfortable taking it, so I draped it over an arm and held the hangar up with my other hand. I realized I had only seen a dim, blurry version of the dress through the plastic under the small streetlamp. It was pretty, but poufy.

“Well, I’ll try it on and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll give it back,” I said.

“NO” both girls said in unison. “We don’t want it back. We are actually on our way to a party where we were going to destroy the dress,” the friend said.

Again, feeling awkward and not knowing the proper etiquette, I said: “Well, in that case, I’ll take it. Am I ruining your fun for the night?”

“No, this is a much better option,” Miss Havisham said.

“Well, thank you,” I said. A hug seemed necessary, so I threw one arm around her shoulders while supporting about 15 pounds of fabric with the other.

We congratulated each other on our upcoming nuptials and went our separate ways. As they walked down the street behind me, I heard a smack and turned around to see them giving each other a high five.

I couldn’t help but wonder what was in that high five. They both seemed a little too eager to get rid of the dress.

I ripped open the plastic and tried on the dress the same minute I got in the door. It was pretty, and it fit like a glove. The top was simple and strapless, and covered in embroidery. But from the waist down, it was too much - a ball gown with layer upon layer of crinoline that swished when I walked. The dress required several feet of clear space on all sides. I could barely make it down our narrow staircase. Upon closer inspection I noticed a small, faded brown stain on the front, hidden in the folds of the silk.

I wavered back and forth as I looked in the mirror. It wasn’t either of the dresses I’d picked already, but it was free and pretty. I could put the money I’d saved for a dress toward the honeymoon. Unable to decide, I took the dress to my fiancĂ©’s parents’ house, pulled it out of the plastic and hung it on the doorframe in the archway to the living room. It floated there, turning on its hanger all night.

“It really is a beautiful dress,” Mary, Alex’s mom, said.

“I just don’t know what to do. It was such a strange experience,” I said. “They high-fived as we walked away. I’m not sure what that meant.”

“They probably were just really happy to have done something nice for someone,” Alex said.

“Maybe it was hot,” Jim, Alex’s dad said.

“No, I really think this was from her first marriage. There’s a tiny stain on the front. Why would they give it away if they’d stolen it?”

“The whole thing creeps me out,” Mary said. “It looks rather ghostly floating there in the doorway. I don’t think I could wear it. You don’t want to be worrying about anything like bad karma on your wedding day.”

When I got home, I laid the dress out on the spare bed. It took on a life-like form, the bodice propped up on the pillow and the wavy folds of silk flowing down the length of the bed, as if there was a pair of crossed legs under the cloud of fabric. Each time I entered the room, I startled at the sight of it. My initial perspective was that someone was lying on the bed.

I decided against wearing it and stuffed it deep into my closet and then pried the accordion doors closed. I’ve thought about trying to sell it on eBay and putting the money toward the wedding, but I haven’t been able to open that side of the closet and look at it since.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Stolen Lasagna

I’ve never understood the idea of secret recipes, unless a profit is being made. But just to keep something so delicious from others so they can’t share in the same joy seems trivial and cruel.

I once dated a guy who would never share ANY recipes with me, all of which he obtained from his mother.

“Nope. It’s a secret,” he’d always say when I asked for one.

I used to watch closely and memorize the order of ingredients long enough to get it on paper, where the recipe would be mine forever.

I made my beloved banana bread one day at his house and left the recipe card on the kitchen counter, I was sure. (I have a short memory so I still need the recipe.) A few weeks later, I wanted to make the bread again, but could not find the recipe anywhere. (I’m also very disorganized. Thanks Mom.) I asked him about it.

“I haven’t seen it, but I’ll keep looking,” he said, in earnest.

“I’m sure it’s there. Keep looking, please.”

I wound up just calling my mom for a new copy soon thereafter.

I was also desperate for his mother’s unpatented lasagna recipe, which she got in secret too, from watching her Italian mother-in-law, who also refused to share recipes. I had been asking for it for a while, but he’d taken it out of his recipe box and hidden it. A few months later, things had already started heading south (hoarding recipes was the least of it) and I knew we wouldn’t be together much longer. I was at his house alone with his sweet dog one day, toward the end, and decided I was going to find and copy that lasagna recipe before we broke up. I couldn’t bear the thought of never having it again. It was one of the best dishes I’d ever had.

I’d long forgotten about losing my original copy of dirty banana bread by this point. I flipped through his recipe box. Still no dice on the lasagna. The kitchen was large with cabinets that went almost all the way up to the ceiling. I stood on a chair and looked inside all of them, and way up high on an empty shelf that neither he nor I could reach, tucked deep in the back corner, was an index card. I reached in and grabbed it. Lasagna! And underneath the lasagna was my original banana bread recipe.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Banana Bread Chronicles

I LOVE my mom’s banana bread recipe. As a kid, I’d eat three or four pieces at a time, and there was almost always a loaf in the house. It’s so moist and heavy, the kind of density that gives you instant indigestion if you eat it too fast – and with this recipe, inhaling it is the only way.

I now make it myself occasionally, but when my mom makes it these days, I’m suspicious of it. The recipe hasn’t changed, but the end result varies depending on her moods and wits. My mom is very scatterbrained, which has gotten worse with age. The first indication that this trait had affected my beloved banana bread was when I was in high school. One day after school I came home and helped myself to a slice or two. I bit down hard into something rock solid. After checking for all my teeth, I found a large white object that resembled a human bone the size of a finger. When my mom got home, I asked her what it was.

“I’ve been looking for that!” she said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s part of the handle to one of the tea cups. It fell off the shelf and broke while I was making banana bread.”

My mom’s kitchen is sometimes a fire hazard and not just because it contains an oven or even because she occasionally leaves a gas burner on overnight. My mother hoards so much clutter that things are always falling out of cabinets or off shelves. In college, I cleaned out the medicine cabinet and found medication that was prescribed before I was born and a contraceptive that had been off the market for years. With so much clutter, it becomes hard for her to clean or even see dirt in the house anymore. Which brings me to my next banana bread story. . .

One day I was devouring a slice from one of two loaves my mom had made when she asked how it was.


“I won’t tell you what happened to it.”

You can never say that to someone especially while they are still eating and not expect to be subjected to an inquisition.

“What do you mean? Tell me.”

“I dropped it on the floor, but it was probably the other loaf.”

When my mom gets caught, she likes to talk herself in circles or change her story rather than fess up.

“How do you know it was the other loaf?”

“Don’t worry, it was. I’ll eat that loaf.”

“Mom! What do you mean you dropped it on the floor? The whole pan? After it came out of the oven?”

“Before I baked it.”

“But that’s . . . in liquid form. How did you still have any batter left to use?”

“I scooped it up.”

“What?! With what?”

“My hands. I just pushed it all back in the bowl.”

“From the floor?!”

I looked at the half eaten piece of bread in my hand.

“No, no. Don’t worry. It wasn’t that loaf,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“It wasn’t. The other loaf is in the kitchen. It wasn’t that one. Don’t worry aboooouuuuuutt it.” she whined.

And this is why I make my own banana bread . . .