I gratefully hop out of the dry radiator heat on the 32 bus and crossed Henry Avenue, up the front steps, around the side yard, and unlock the back door. I am the first one home. After dropping the backpack and a cold drink, I confront the refrigerator. I try to remember her instructions. Meat thawing in a plastic bowl, onions, garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, and something else, what? On a split cutting board wedged onto the narrow formica counter, I carefully chop the onion and dump it in the bowl. I smash the garlic with the side of the cleaver as she did it, pick out the papery peel, and chop the flesh. I douse the bowl with a liberal amount of soy sauce and fish sauce and then work it all through the half frozen meat until my fingertips are numb from cold. What is missing? Not salt; the sauces are salty. Lemongrass? In a cabinet under the oven, I find the small Smuckers jam jar she stores the dried lemongrass in and sprinked in half a handful, then thought better of it and tossed the meat to keep my hands out. For good measure, I dabbed the marinade with my pinky and tasted it. It was edible. My father comes home and goes upstairs to change. I turn on afternoon sitcoms while he putters about in his shorts and polo shirt, reading papers, my eye wandering up to the wall clock every fifteen minutes. At some point my brothers arrive and disappeare to their rooms. At five o’clock, I go back to the kitchen, measure out three cups of rice and fill the rice cooker to the 3.5 mark, then press the ‘on’ button, looking for the red light to flash. I put a rack in a long cake pan, and arrange the meat on top. It goes in the oven.
She hops off a different bus at 5:30. I hear her footsteps, close together, half the length of my stride, straining in heels under the weight of her handbag. I turn off the TV and move to the living room with a book. Mai dau? Get in here! I am careful to clear my face of expression and step into the kitchen. Did you put ANY sugar in the meat? Sugar. It’s inedible. Stupid. Now I have to fix it. She has me stand there to watch her mix four soup spoons of honey into water and soy sauce, and coat one side and then the other of the meat. She puts another cutting board and a head of broccoli in front of me. I ask you to do two things for dinner and I have to fix everything. I cut the broccoli into florets and dump them in a pot and leave the kitchen. Michael is waiting for me. We are taking a spin at the skating rink and then a slow walk through the woods to finish with cocoa at Rich’s house. He smooths the hair back from my forehead and holds my hand as we crunch through an icy veneer of snow on the path.
She retells my offense to everyone at the dinner table. They are all listening to the blaring tickety-tack of local news, each pair of eyes tracking the food as it travels from the center of the table on their chopstick ends to their bowl, then up to the television in the corner of the room.
Kitchens are rehearsal halls. There is dinner needed every day, school lunches to pack, dishes to wash, appliances to clean, parties to prepare for, tea and cookies and fruit to arrange appetizingly on trays for guests waiting in the living room. If I tried copying chopping techniques from Great Chefs of America on PBS, I would hear from her when they did not give the same results as her Vietnamese techniques. I watched her soak bowlfuls of sticky rice and dried yellow beans, swirling in food coloring and setting them under wide hats of pot lids overnight until they doubled in volume and turned a brilliant red-orange, ready for steaming. I arranged plates of fresh lettuce, cucumber, and herbs for weekend lunches, careful after one scolding to snip off only the tender leaves of mint at the tip of each branch. When we washed dishes together, she did not trust me with the soaping – she scrubbed harder and longer – so I stood at the rinsing sink and ended the assembly line by arranging them as she liked in the dish rack.
Some weekends Vietnamese guests came, and the kitchen became a stage. I learned the rhythm for welcoming each adult, showing them to the living room, answering their questions and smiling modestly while they cooed over things my parents had bragged about. Then I quickly ducked away, to find the trays she liked to use, the good glasses trimmed in gold plate. It was important to offer something warm and something cold to drink. While the kettle heated, we filled the caddy with jasmine tea, and plated cookies and cut fruit, enough for at least two extra portions for the reassuring impression of ease and plenty. They cooed again as I bent at the knees and maneuvered the tray onto the coffee table. My parents’ guests met me, but rarely my brothers.
My skin prickled with yearning for my own kitchen. When I finally got it, I obsessed over a nostalgic vision of Americana – rustic apple pies and country oatmeal – and adventures with foreign cuisines, anything Mediterranean or that required basil. That kitchen was in Manhattan, where we lived during residency. David once watched me sleepwalk, barely conscious post-call and naked, from the bedroom to the refrigerator to check on the firming progress of the custard filling in a tart I had started.
House hunting after many years of renting, I agreed to buy David’s first choice of house on the understanding that he would give me a new kitchen within three years. The old one had four doors, no counters, and an oven that became a health hazard when a gas line leaked and remained unfixable because the 1970’s parts were no longer in production. Renovate we did. Now I swing from the deep steel sink to the six burner range, moving homemade pizzas onto the heatproof counter. I shift farmers’ market pork from the freezer to fridge to thaw, and move riper tomatoes to the front of the glass refrigerator shelves. I make dinners and school lunches and birthday cupcakes while the boys finish art projects on the pine floor and track mud in from the back yard. I have a rotating menu but am careful to insert something completely new at least once a month. And when all the prep is done and the bowls and plates are full, I take my place standing on the inner edge of the counter where we eat, watching their forks fly and ready to pounce when Alexander raises his hand to his throat in the gesture for Water!
“Sit down!” David pleads. I stare at him, unable to comprehend how or why to do that.
Blue would explain, in the slow words necessary to use with a mild idiot, You are so far at that end of the spectrum, worrying about meeting other people’s needs, that if you worked really hard and became what would feel to you like a flaming narcissist, you might just approximate normal.