WHEN I WAS a girl, I lived in a horse-y suburb of Washington, D.C., and the nexus of social life was an intersection about a mile from my house, just described by my sister as she makes a pot of tea as “a quaint promenade,” known colloquially as “The Village.” Next to an equestrian supply shop, now long closed, called the Surrey, was a coffeeshop called Tally Ho that my mother and I would often frequent. I was just learning how to communicate, and I genuinely believed that the words that corresponded to a grilled cheese and french fries were one hushed whoosh of sound like this: T-H-E-U-S-U-A-L. Between trips to the library across the street and any other errand that had to be run outside of the house, I was often indulged with this most comforting of foods. My mother continues to offer to pick me up “the usual,” to this day.
Years later, I was living in New York on my own, attempting to make a go of it, and floundering. Some days I couldn’t afford a bagel once a day, my job was a mission-driven nightmare, and my friends avoided my place, on a forlorn stretch of car dealerships–the sort of street that, if anyone else appeared at all on the block, you were in trouble. I was on a conference call at work late one night, having worked my usual fourteen-hour day, staring at the cubicle wall that inexplicably blocked a window (I’d tried to have it removed, only to encounter a truly Kafka-esque resistance), when I felt as though I was choking to death. I excused myself, and, not understanding the dynamics of extreme anxiety, embarked on a cab ride across the park to a hospital that I believed was my last few minutes on earth. I couldn’t breathe. It made sense. They gave me a prescription for Xanax that I never filled. A week or two later (during which I had not eaten any solid food, for fear of choking to death every time I swallowed), I went to Paris with my long-distance boyfriend. All I remember from my first dream trip is crying plaintively while hunched over a croissant I could not possibly consume. I did not eat a single meal in the ten days we spent in Paris, preferring to slowly skim the broth off of french onion soup.
When we returned to New York, I walked into my apartment, the sad, slummy one, facing an airshaft crammed with dirty diapers and cigarette butts, and a neighbor’s eager, fire escape-dwelling Rottweiler on the other end, and called the diner on the corner and placed an order. When the grilled cheese and french fries arrived, I inhaled them, and after a month, I was cured. For another couple of years, I still felt like I would die when I ate, but I knew I could do it. I quit that job, and started another that proved even worse. I kept going.
A decade has passed, and I seldom eat a grilled cheese. Tonight, an invitation came out of the blue that seemed too wonderful to contemplate, in a sweet, obvious sort of way that I have carefully learned not to discuss. I was nervous, as humans are wont to be, and there was a hailstorm. I wasn’t sure if I would make it there on time, and so I went outside and visualized the cab on its way to me in the pouring rain. It soon arrived and I found myself early, in midtown. I thought I might go for a coffee and then I saw one of those old-fashioned diners that make New York perfect –– a friend recently described a fight with his lover as the sort that made him retreat to one all night. I went inside and ordered a grill cheese, that, although I hadn’t ordered them, came with three perfect fries.
What is about the usual that restores a cool and knowing equilibrium to an unpredictable world? I’m not sure, and it’s certainly not a magic I’d invoke all the time. I spent this past weekend in the Hamptons with friends, and I cooked many of the meals for everyone, to such an extent that brunch was described as Christmas-like, for all of the options: a feast in which I gladly took part. It’s been years since I thought I was suffocating when I ate, although I did have a moment on the beach when I realized it comes to an end for us all.
Early in the morning, and just before bed, I indulged in a bit of reading for pleasure with Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s Love, Life and Elephants, which is her memoir of growing up in colonial Kenya and going on to do extraordinary work on behalf of the native wildlife. It is also a very passionate love story, and one of the things I found most profound and moving about the book was an emphasis on the role of natural cycles. Animals she loved were regularly eaten or disappeared, relationships failed, and people died. So it goes. In the midst of all of this, she never loses sight of what really matters, in some ways that are eternal and in some ways that are a little tough to envision given life without lions.
I copied down my favorite passage before I pressed the book into the hands of a friend:
Towards the end of 1962 I fell pregnant and I knew at once exactly where and when my baby had been conceived –– during a safari on the Southern side of the Galana River, one stormy evening as thunder rolled across the sky and flashes of forked lightning lit up the inside of our tent.
I treasure all that has consoled me. And I now possess an appetite for a new provision.