“And then it is another day and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.” — Jenny Offill, Weather
A door opens.
A refrigerator in Tucson: three shelves. An open vase of cilantro reaches to jars of lemon juice, pickles, olives, mustard, a small floral pitcher, maybe filled with cream. A foil-covered bowl. A container of miso, a container of Greek yogurt, a plastic bag containing an open package of bacon. So much to contain. Half an onion face down on a plate.
A refrigerator in England: tall and thin, six shelves, a produce drawer, five dozen eggs, two liters of milk, orange juice, half a bottle of wine. Mandarins, tortellini, leftovers in aluminum, apples, celery, butter atop butter atop butter.
Not a fridge, a drawer, in Baltimore: filled only with pasta. Yellow and blue boxes, many of them open—you have to be ready for anything, you have to be ready for lasagne, rigatoni, spaghetti, orecchiette, penne rigate, pacherri, tortiglioni, for who knows which one you’ll need until right when you need it?
A refrigerator in New York: empty. Broken. Shit timing.
“You should go,” a friend texts me. I have been typing to my mother on and off all day from my babysitting job in Queens, where I still am, still holding the baby and building block towers for her to knock over, still singing and changing her diaper, though I keep myself from kissing her head every ten minutes, like I normally can’t help myself from doing. She drools, teething. “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it,” my mother writes, and I still haven’t made up my mind but when I clock out, pulling on my cowboy boots and my coat, I kiss the baby on the cheek and tell her parents I’ll be in touch.
The next day, my mother drives from Maryland and together we go to the beach condo that my grandfather left to his children when he died. The decision is quick and definite-feeling, even as I tell my roommates I imagine I’ll be back in a month or so. She stands by the car, not coming up to use the bathroom, and I trek up and down with a backpack of clothes, a suitcase of books and wine, a cooler and a grocery bag of food, whatever I’d picked up on my cursory trip to the supermarket two nights before, where I’d waited in line for a half an hour to check out, where the only flavor of seltzer left was coconut. The leaving weighs in our stomachs, in our entire bodies that hold their breath instinctively when walking by another person. Once we’re on the road, my groceries, my cheese from the shop where I work, where my boss says, “We’ll see you when you come back,” my sourdough starter in its Mason jar all tucked away in the car’s trunk, I sing along to a playlist I’ve made with friends just days before, quarantunes, we’re calling them. Only an hour in I realize that in doing so I fill the air with so many droplets.
When we arrive, the smell of the ocean greets us before anything else. The air is thick, and if I rub my fingers together, I can feel its humidness, its salt that grounds the body in space. In the back bedroom, my mother stacks the twin mattresses to make way for a tall Ikea shelf in the middle of the room, a freestanding pantry that we will fill to the brim: cans, and cans, and cans, boxes, pastas and beans and rice and sauces and things we feel like we are supposed to have. Certainly flour; I’m already a baker, and I don’t know yet how much mixing and folding I’ll do, how it will carry me from one end of the day to the other, how we’ll eat bread, tea cakes, cookies, biscuits, things I crave suddenly and intensely, rugelach, a full chocolate cake.
It’s determined from the start that my father with his asthma will stay far from me in Baltimore along with my brother and the animals, just in case. Living in the city, taking the train, having taken an airplane just two weeks before, having sat tightly by friends at a dim restaurant, how could I not carry something hidden inside of me? How could I forgive myself, already, for asking to be extricated? How could the body know anything of itself?
At Christmas mere months prior, my parents got a pair of puppies, and now, like a little kid, I beg for one of them to join us. A week and a half into our quarantine, my mother’s friend drives by on an errand before the state shuts down and brings Addie along with her. In exchange, I give her croissants, the first I’ve ever made. Later, I overhear my mother talking to my father on the phone about the puppy, the food he packed for her, enough for two months. 60 days that will carry us to the end of a season. I close myself in the bathroom and breathe hard and fast in hysteric response to this expanse of time, incomprehensible and long, an interruption in my imagining. I breathe and my body is a receptacle for air to move through.
In Zoom class, we read Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. The book tells the story of a relationship’s rise and fall via auction catalog, presenting artifacts that make up two lives. Among the love notes and grocery lists is a set of four Polaroids, the insides of one of the lover’s friends’ refrigerators. I hold the book close to my face, trying to make out what’s inside, and I feel like I’m in a museum, the museum of domesticity, of hunger and plenitude and care. Inspired, I text several friends, “Would you send me a photo of the inside of your fridge? No need to arrange or art it up or anything!” I tell them I have no idea what I’ll do with the photos, and I don’t. It’s April 2020 and the yeast is gone. My mother and I plan our grocery trips carefully, make expansive and comprehensive lists after searching recipes we have never made before, and I know everything our refrigerator contains, from my jar of sourdough starter to the open box of baking soda in the door. I talk to friends daily, but, in their distance, can’t feel the inside of their homes except through a computer screen. As soon as I send the texts, the need is there, to know what my friends are eating, what’s going on inside their kitchens, inside of the spaces I’m no longer allowed to enter. When replies come pouring in, I gaze at them ravenously, zooming in, memorizing the ways my loved ones are living.
I think for a moment that I might share the photos I’ve received, creating some sort of compilation, but when I search @coronafridges on Instagram, I find an account of that name already exists, based in Spain: “Alimentación en tiempos de confinamiento.” Of course others would have the idea, would want to know how it is we eat now. From March to May, the account posts 200 photos, which feel similar to what friends and friends of friends have started to send me. The captions only state their locations: Quito, Beijing, Madrid, Mendoza. Ketchup and tahini, pickled onions and feta, Coca Cola, ravioli, dozens, and dozens, and dozens of eggs.
Some friends refuse to send pictures of their refrigerators, and I don’t know what to make of this. In a way I am offended: and why not? They don’t give me a good answer, but it seems clear I’ve touched a nerve. By declining to participate, they are, in a way, participating: what is it we refuse to share? What door, when opened, reveals a piece of the whole that can’t just be texted along for who knows who to see?
Each time I lived abroad, the distance between my loved ones and me sometimes felt like physical pain, what I imagined a phantom limb might feel like, close but not there. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of the faraway as blue: “The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.” In Ocean City, I stare at the Atlantic and feel gratitude and guilt. I stare at the water and feel here and not here. Solnit goes on, quoting Simone Weil, who said, “‘Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.’ For Weil,” Solnit writes, “love is the atmosphere that fills and colors the distance between herself and her friend. Even when that friend arrives on the doorstep, something remains impossibly remote: when you step forward to embrace them your arms are wrapped around mystery, around the unknowable, around that which cannot be possessed.”
Inside, and inside, and inside. How intense is that longing to reach an unreachable place, the unattainable friend, the unattainable everything, each segmented in boxes that appear on computer screens for work or study or happy hour, like we are playing house? We put on lipstick just to put on lipstick and after we close our laptops we go to the freezer and eat a scoop of ice cream straight from the carton. On the phone to a friend, I tell her that life in quarantine feels like life in a foreign country. We become foreign to ourselves, our people littered around the world on their own islands. I spend days feeling lucky, staring at water, walking maskless against the wind by myself, and at the same time, I feel covered, clobbered, by that blue of distance, the wanting that keeps the body and mind in a stretch towards what will never be touched.
Everything is impossibly far, even when our friends are nearby. Each of us exists in the distance, even in “normal life,” communal aloneness, that inner mystery that belongs just to the self no matter how close the relationship. But to gather around a table might break through the patina, an act so human its primary purpose seems to be to prove our existence. We cook or we place an order. Somewhere, food is prepared, a meal. It is put on plates, and there is silverware, and someone will pour water, wine. When everyone is seated and the glasses have clanged, we start in unison, we eat, and it’s something we have to do, and it’s something we are lucky to do in each other’s company.
A refrigerator in Latvia: a friend’s cousin, the one who showed me around Riga when I had a daylong layover, driving me to the best secret kebab shop and then to the beach, where we ate falafel in the sand; taking me for beer, insisting I try the chips and chocolate characteristic of the small Baltic state. Her fridge is filled with foreign things, containers with words I don’t understand and images I can’t quite decipher, though I decipher other parts well: the box of mushrooms, the jar of pickles, milk, butter, the inevitable eggs. More mushrooms, marinated in a jar, a pink beet concoction, what must be cheese, yellow and round, a barrel on its label, and, yes, a cow.
A refrigerator in France: individual yogurts, pickles, multiple hands of ginger; black cherry jam, so many kefir bottles, at least four. A large bottle of simple syrup. In the shadowed drawer is meat, a package wrapped in butcher paper like a gift. Beer, wine, a jar of beans, lettuce, few containers of leftovers because not much gets left over; in this house meals are planned carefully, breakfast lunch dinner. I spy something yellow, a bottle of something “naturellement énergissante,” I spy something desserty, little pots of chocolate for savoring after dinner, I spy what looks like a white log in a butter dish, wrapped in plastic: could it be mozzarella? A bûche de chèvre? It will get eaten, all of it, because where there are cleanly set plans, there is often follow through.
A refrigerator in California: packed to the brim. Maple syrup, basil pesto, orange juice, salsa; Better Than Bouillon, pickles, grenadine, whipped cream marked extra creamy, a Bonne Maman jar filled with milk. Excess and joy and berries, apples and carrots and greens and a container of what is undeniably leftover quinoa. Moderation, maybe, though there is no way to know how the whipped cream is consumed, if it goes on top of pancakes or in a bowl with blackberries or is shot directly into someone’s mouth. A black and white cat struts in front of the cold, peering in at the crisper, at the hidden things that reveal themselves when a door opens. The cat looks, and I look at the cat looking, at the way the scene becomes a scene, how an exhibition comes to be, the sweet things and the savory ones that come to mean health, and Sundays, and getting through.
Just as I receive photos of full fridges, food insecurity ravages the country as folks lose jobs and kids stay home from school. In the face of tragedy, the inside is brought out; refrigerators pop up around New York City, positioned outside restaurants and bodegas on city blocks, painted head to toe by volunteers, who sign up to clean them and fill them with fresh food. Just as the fridges fill, they empty out again, and the cycle starts over, goes on and on. I watch the developments on Instagram, feeling far from the place I’ve left, fearful for my hungry neighbors and inspired by the way community members commit to showing up for each other. Community fridges are a prime example of mutual aid, help outside of governmental support. Mutual aid can look like the sharing of funds: GoFundMe, Venmo, Cashapp. It can also look like vegetables, fruit, bread, milk, all put directly into the hands of those who need it. In his book Mutual Aid, writer and activist Dean Spade writes, “At its best, mutual aid actually produces new ways of living where people get to create systems of care and generosity that address harm and foster well-being.” Community fridges do just that, radiating care with bags of rice, jars of baby food, carrots, eggs, lentils.
If the pictures I am sent me bring the inward outward, community fridges abolish the idea of inwardness altogether, putting intimacy and sustenance in a place where anyone passing by can see it, can take from it what they need. The personal becomes public. When no longer permitted to share as we might once have, when the comfort of entering another’s space becomes illicit, how can we reach each other? Through snail mail, inserting our handwriting into each other’s homes, into places where our bodies aren’t allowed. Through video calls where we might bake together, measuring flour into mixing bowls, melting butter in our respective microwaves and skillets, kneading on the counter, all of our hands sticky at once. Through gifts left on porches, exchanges done in public: bread for soup, doughnuts for beer, cookies for cookies. Through extra groceries put where someone will find them. What we seek is nourishment: how to feed ourselves? How to feed each other? How to make do?
My mother and I meal prep like I never remember my parents doing when I was growing up. Later I ask if, when we were kids, she would make lists, plans for the week’s dinners. She can’t really remember, which means no. My dad did most of the cooking and shopping, and I remember having to remind him to pick up a vegetable (boiled green beans, boiled broccoli, salad that would be consumed without dressing) to go with whatever meat would take center stage. My mother remembers her own childhood much more vividly, the weekly schedule that pulled one year into the next:
She made a protein list and shopped once a week when we lived in Loch Raven village. As she did not drive or have a car, we would walk to the Giant on Loch Raven Boulevard on Friday evenings, shop, and my dad would pick us up on his way home from downtown. Sunday: roast beef with onions, potatoes, and carrots—leftovers into stew for Monday or Tuesday. Saturday: probably pan-fried hamburgers with frozen French fries cooked in Crisco and individualized, never tossed, salad. Weekdays (except Fridays): maybe chicken, pork chops…I don’t remember roast chicken as frequently as fried chicken. I also don’t remember many veggies; Granddaddy was not big on greens, as you know. Fridays: always fish—never fresh. Baked bricks of frozen perch. Tuna noodle casserole with cream of mushroom soup and crushed potato chip toppings. Maybe open-faced grilled cheese with tomatoes for a nice change. After we moved to Timonium in 1971, my mom got her license and a car and drove to the grocery stores. Yes, different stores for different things, meat from Giant, produce from Mars or Food Fair. The Wednesday paper had recipes, as it still does, and circulars from the grocery stores, so that would set us up with coupons and planning for the next week. After she started working to help pay for college, grocery shopping moved to Saturday, I think. Sadly, I do not think we kids were much help in the kitchen, but Joan and I washed and dried the dishes…
My mom and I have not lived together since I was in high school, save most summers, when I’d come home to Baltimore County between semesters or moves. She has visited me everywhere I have lived in the world, including New Zealand, where together we drove most of the country, fitting in as much of the map as we could in three weeks. She is game for a movie, a play, a meal; at restaurants when we’re offered a dessert menu, she’ll say, “Come on, let’s just look,” and more often than not we’ll share something sweet. My friends enjoy her company and her stories, and on the occasion that she visits their apartments with me, she’ll inspect them in a way that lets my friends know she cares for them, just as she does for me with mine, taking out the measuring tape, imagining what could be. At the end of my senior year of college, I drove nine hours to attend a friend’s piano performance, her senior recital. Two days later, my mother flew out to join me, receiving a private concert in my friend’s apartment. She drove me back to Pennsylvania so I could finish writing my final paper in the passenger seat.
Now I learn that my mom and I are good roommates. We read on the balcony or the sofa or the bed, together and apart. She sets up a folding table for me in the front bedroom. “A desk,” she says. She’s given me a chair, a lamp, a view of the ocean. I write, or I try to. I log onto class. I bring tea and a blanket and I look out, lost in the sense of something that goes on forever, writing while she prepares the condo for eventual renters, removing doors to sand and paint them. When I can’t take it anymore, I retreat to the living room and we have dinner together, some nights fending for ourselves, as often happens back home, and some nights sitting at the table, starting together. Most nights I put on an episode of Mad Men; many nights I make an Old Fashioned, and together we travel through time, one of us on the couch, the other in the chair. When I bake or cook, she washes the dishes, saying it’s a job she’s never minded. Lucky for me, because it’s a job I dread. I make a mess, she cleans it up; we eat cake. We take Addie for walks on the beach and laugh at how she pounces at pinecones in the sand, how she runs delightedly toward the water. Days pass into days, and we mark them with lists.
Together in a way we have never been so together before, my mom and I stockpile eggs and yogurt, lemons and onions, and when we come home, the puppy yelping at our arrival, we stand at the counter and wipe everything down just in case.
A refrigerator in Ocean City: home away from home. Isolation home. Freezer on bottom, fridge on top, its two doors open like shutters on a window, greeting the day, or like curtains parting to reveal a stage where children will put on a show for their parents. Whole milk, which we never drank growing up but which is the only kind of milk I drink now, the real thing, full-fat. Seltzer in six flavors — the need for variety, choice, excitement, newness at noon, and again at three, and again at six. Pale ales and bitters. Full crisper drawers, mandarins, pears, orange bell peppers, carrots, tomato paste, a bag of lettuce. A blue glass mixing bowl filled with leftover salad, covered in Saran wrap. Whipped cream, cream cheese, strawberries, a jar of Castelvetranos, hummus, creamy tomato bisque from the store, a covered tin can of bacon grease, juice to mix with vodka, half an eggplant in a Tupperware, lemons and limes cut into quarters and eighths. A cheese aging facility in Brooklyn sells bundles of cheese, and I’ve chosen the “I Miss My Friends Box,” five one-pound blocks. Each offering sits nestled in the deli drawer, wrapped in butcher paper and marked with its name: Smoke Signal, Tubby, Bufarolo, Goatlet, Queen of Corona. I remove each from the fridge and create a scene, a cheese diorama, unwrapping and laying each offering on a marble block alongside a freshly baked loaf of Hokkaido milk bread. I sing, “fiiiive pouuuunds of cheeeese” to the tune of “A Heart Full of Love” from Les Misérables, a musical I don’t even like very much. I open a jar of jam and I have done it, I’ve created an aesthetic, I will take a photo and post it to Instagram later, and the satisfaction of the likes my post will receive will be no match for the satisfaction I already feel at being the kind of person who thinks, “Why not buy five pounds of cheese,” who has actually gotten really good at making bread, who decides that all of this is a priority. In the deli drawer there are also tubs of port wine spread, there’s a bit of lunch meat, surely, ham or turkey, there’s a zip-seal bag of shredded mozzarella, and scattered along the bottom are sticks of string cheese, that taste of childhood and rubber.
A refrigerator in Baltimore County: a photo I cannot find, but I know what it contains. So many sauces, mustards, salad dressings, bottles of soy sauce, opened and used twice, maybe three times, maybe a year ago. Dozens of eggs and kale and meat, and meat, and meat. Beer, an open bottle of California Chardonnay. A house of one cat and two dogs and two men, a father and a brother, three and a half hours away, secluded in their own verdant and dog hair-filled isolation. The daffodils bloom around them, popping up from the ground with their trumpet noses to greet the change of season, unbothered by our goings-on.
My father turns 61 in May, seven weeks into this particular separation, and we plan to meet midway, the four of us convening at a picnic table where it has rained. We bring the puppies, the two of them reuniting. “You sure you don’t want to switch?” my brother asks. “I think you’d really like Lula.” “No,” I say, “we aren’t switching. We can’t.” While I’m sure Lula is a perfectly nice dog, I’ve taken on Addie, small and dark, as my second self, second soul, security blanket who sleeps with me at night. When there is not writing and there is not baking and when even reading seems difficult, there is this animal and the way she runs in the sand, and I can’t trade her in. “Sorry,” I say, “she’s my dog now.” “She’s not your dog,” says my dad. “They’re both our dogs,” and this might be more to my mother, a hint of a question, what’s going on here? I wipe down the table with disinfectant wipes and spray everyone’s hands with sanitizer. We set out towels on the table benches and sit on opposite sides to eat the crab cakes we’ve picked up for my father because we’re Marylanders, after all, and there is no other celebratory meal we know better. We cut the cake my mother has made, orange and buttercream, and I say we won’t hug, because we cannot, should not hug, and though it has been enough time, who really knows how much time is enough time? And haven’t we been to the store? But finally we do hug, quick and sad, our masks on our faces, and though we could all go home to the same house we decide not to for reasons we can’t fully say. With time gone from us, rhythm is all that we cling to. My mother is still sanding and painting. Meanwhile I start teaching English online to children in China to fill my days, to find purpose, to pay rent on the room in New York that exists as a time capsule for how I left it. I make lasagna, I make bread, my mother makes the chicken with its schmaltzy cabbage that we see on the Internet and which is, in fact, really good, and when they are ready for us, she and I eat tomatoes, and tomatoes, and tomatoes.
In summer there is more outside to be had. I’ve spent four months at the beach with my mother, a season by the ocean, time that expands and expands, though soon it blips. In July I come to Baltimore to housesit and make a little money. On my birthday, two friends come sit on the porch and bring croissants, cheese, cucumbers. We drink wine and eat ice cream cake and talk for six hours as the sky darkens and the lightning bugs come from wherever they’ve been, and our brains wake up and we don’t hug but it feels like we are versions of ourselves again. We read to each other and sit very stilly to listen to Nina Simone. Before she sings, she speaks to the audience, and though we sit on the deck more than half a century later, me in a new red dress, we are there. “Time is a dictator, as we know,” she tells us. “Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch, and is it alive? And then one day you look in the mirror and are old, and you say, Where did the time go?”
July is turning to August and everyone asks me what my plans are. It’s less of a question of if than of when: I have been paying my rent for five months now, and it is time to return. I choose a date: August 5, twenty weeks exactly from the day I left. Now more than one hundred community fridges can be found in all five boroughs, and three days after I return to Jackson Heights, one is installed in my neighborhood just blocks away.
On the Jackson Heights fridge’s Instagram page, organizers write, “Sharing food is revolutionary. It comes from a deep place of love.” The caption continues, “We will also be intentional on keeping this fridge stocked with cultural staples for all the people that make up our hood: everything from tortillas to paneer to lemongrass to okra to plátanos.” Free food, comida gratis. The fridge is protected by a roof that can withstand rain and snow, that shelters a pantry and an Amplify Library, a book-sharing box for works by Black writers. Now that there’s a fridge in my own backyard, I want to dive back in to the community I’ve left for so much longer than anticipated, to make up for lost time, to exert care in a practical, edible way.
I volunteer to translate an informational flyer into French and, once my two-week quarantine has lifted, add my name to the weekly volunteer roster, joining a group chat where volunteers give updates on the fridge on a near-hourly basis: “She’s rather empty and could use some love!” “A 9-year-old girl brought sweet potatoes and chicken :)” “Big box of tomatoes from our CSA coming that way!” When I pass by, there are usually people clustered around, cleaning and organizing and dropping off and perusing and picking up. I go back to work at the cheese shop and drop off leftover baguettes after my shift, wiping down shelves, running into volunteers who seem to have a better sense of what’s going on. As the days get shorter, though, I abandon my shifts, tired after work. I visit the fridge every once and awhile, bringing cans or fruit, tidying the contents, but it would be a stretch to call myself a volunteer.
I start babysitting for a friend in Brooklyn, and she and her family become the only people with whom I take off my mask, the only people I hug. My friend is an excellent cook, and often when I arrive, the apartment smells incredible: roasted chicken, porkchops, fish she has vacuum-sealed and frozen and that, when cooked on the stove, is tender and fresh as the day it was caught. She plans her meals for the week, making all sorts of things I rarely make for myself because I am one person and not four. Often when there, I’ll do bits of meal prep: set the oven to 350 (which actually means 300, because it runs hot), take four potatoes, wash them, dry them, cover in olive oil, puncture all over with a fork, and bake directly on the oven rack for an hour. Wash, dry, and chop kale into thin slices; mince garlic; toast breadcrumbs. Chop leftover chicken breasts into small pieces and set aside for later, when my friend will turn them into sliders.
And then there’s the fridge. The bottom shelf removed, the crisper drawers open to create their own ecosystems with an order I soon learn to follow — on the left, celery, Brussels sprouts, arugula, cucumbers, bell peppers, avocados; on the right, limes, berries, apples, mandarins. On the shelves, homemade things: rice, pasta, Thai curry, leftovers from yesterday, leftovers from the day before turned into something new. Milk and cheese and butter and eggs, wine and beer and lemon ginger health shots, peanut butter, pickles, mayonnaise. I make lunch for the kids, and she texts me and tells me to eat: try the leftover curry with the quinoa, and make sure to add a squeeze of lime, a splash of soy sauce. Or the slaw, with ginger dressing, soy sauce, sesame oil, miso. “What do you eat for dinner when you’re at home?” the kids ask me, and it’s like I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever eaten in my life. What is it that I eat? “Oh, you know, pastas, and salads, and soups and stuff,” I say, but already they’ve moved on to some other subject, and the question turns toward the existential. What lives in my own fridge, my own pantry, what meals conjugate in past, present, future?
In Queens there is a fridge split in thirds: the middle shelf all mine, the drawers, the shelves on the door, shared with my two roommates. A puzzle, a Jenga tower, a Tetris screen, on the right there are jars atop jars: mustard, pesto that’s likely gone bad, the same for the miso, kimchi begging to be used, an open jar of clotted cream that couldn’t possibly still be good even though it’s not blue. Sourdough starter. Sourdough discard. A yogurt tub filled with brown bananas for banana bread; a yogurt tub filled with yogurt. Eggs, milk, beer, Thai red curry paste, jam, a jar of homemade pickles from a coworker, a tiny jar of koji from a friend who’s gotten especially into fermentation lately. Whatever’s been cooking that week: rice, or quinoa, shakshuka, or ratatouille, or a Spanish omelet, or linguini with homemade sauce, tomatoes and onion and mushrooms and plenty of garlic. Broccoli and berries. A bag of spinach that I hope I won’t end up dumping in the compost bin on Sunday morning: morality test. Maybe an open bottle of wine. Unlike my friend, I rarely start the day with a quiche in the oven, or with stew bubbling on the stove. Instead, the cooking happens after work, or at the start of the week, the leftovers stretching me through the week’s end, or not at all. Sometimes dinner is cheese and crackers, and sometimes that is enough.
A refrigerator in New Zealand: a drawer of sodas (Sprite, Coke, something fruity and colorful, labels hidden), a door of condiments (mayonnaise, mustard, aioli, jam), a drawer of Tupperwares, a loaf of bread, thirteen liters of milk. A work fridge, that impermanent, spare, shared thing, where lighthouse keepers, search and rescue boaters, have tea at the end of the world. Milk for coffee, and coffee, and coffee, milk for milk’s sake?
A refrigerator in Brooklyn: orderly abundance, and plenty of booze — wine and champagne in the door, a smattering of craft beers. Bottles of Topo Chico and cans of San Pellegrino lined like soldiers, like a child’s toys at ready attention, pushed to the front the way I organize the refrigerators at the cheese shop. I wonder if the photographer prepared her fridge to send it to me or if it’s always like this. The crisper drawers open to reveal globular bounty: artichoke, red pepper, purple cabbage, cauliflower; baby carrots, a head of lettuce, Brussels sprouts in their net. A cold still life. Lemons, an apple, a tomato. Containers hide leftovers, and I need to know what’s inside, what these people ate, what comfort food, what beautiful, fresh thing went with the wine, whether it was thought out, whether it was a random craving. One day a year into the pandemic, I sit in the park and overhear a woman tell her daughter, “I have no idea what I’ll make for dinner tonight,” and yet I know just from the way she says it that something will come together, that her children will eat a warm meal they’ll forget by the time next week rolls around. Tonight I thought I’d follow a recipe in the bookmarked, crumb-crusted book a friend lent me before texting, “Please keep it, I’ve loved it for years and now it’s time to pass it on.” When I arrive home late from babysitting, though, from the place where the children ask, “What do you eat at your house?” the idea of chopping an onion seems impossible, the further thought of sautéing it, of warming rice, of adding the other ingredients, all of them ready and waiting, seems like something that will have to wait till tomorrow. I think of the bread I wanted to make, how it would be so easy to start, just some sourdough starter and flour and water in a bowl and covered with a clean dishtowel. This requires, however, rising, and I simply don’t have the will. Instead, dinner is cheese and rillettes from the market and crackers and a Guinness. It’s good, actually, even if it wasn’t made from a well-worn cookbook. I think still, though, of this refrigerator with its hot sauces, its apple cider vinegar, its pesto, its kimchi, and I want to know what they had for dinner tonight, if they sat together at the table, if they sighed as they took a bite, “That’s good.”
A refrigerator in Berlin: German in that way that is just so clearly German. Before there are labels or brands to give it away, there is a pickle jar of tall, thick asparagus stalks in water. Asparagus in Germany in springtime. Spargelzeit. There are also bowls of new potatoes, cherry tomatoes, a bag of spinach, a carton of coconut milk, a lone green kohlrabi tucked behind a container of what might be leftover soup; in the shadowy background are leaves, herbs of some sort, maybe radish tops. Did she go to the market with a plan for the week? Or did she follow what was beautiful? If anything, we remember we are not in a void. We are in spring, lush, waking spring, and even if the outside quiets, the asparagus protrude from soil, demanding to be noticed.
USE BY APR 10. USE BY MAY 09. SELL BY MAY 22. A refrigerator on Long Island bursts with milk gallons, egg cartons, pizza dough, yogurt cups and cream cheese and a quarter of a watermelon wrapped in Saran, tortillas and tofu and bags and bags of vegetables, mushrooms, onions, celery, Brussels sprouts, so much that can’t be made out. There’s an urgency and an intensity to the contents, to the nowness that says, “children live here,” to the preparedness and the knowledge that none of this will last, that all of it will go, soon, that that’s the way of things. Though I do not see it in the photo, I know that at the front door are hand-drawn signs in the window, “THANK YOU for the food + deliveries!” One of the boys signed his name backwards because the note was taped on the other side of the window and he thought it would show up inversed, like looking in a mirror. Every bit reflected, the outside versus the in.
When I come home from work, I climb three flights of stairs past the smells of whatever nice things my neighbors make for dinner. Spices — curry powder, cumin, chipotle pepper. Smoked meat. Something Italian, something warm. Once in winter, I left gingersnaps outside the other apartments on my floor; my roommate and I waited by the door until it was quiet and then, like elves, dropped them off with notes, “from your neighbors,” an attempt to push against the anonymity that separates our walls. Two neighbors wrote back and we were giddy; we magneted their cards to the fridge.
Outside my window is the 7 train, which blazes by in a way that first startled me from sleep but which now comforts like the crashing of waves. A man at a bar down the street sings karaoke, and the taco truck that went viral now has a line that stretches down the block. Horns honk and dogs bark and somewhere someone is on the phone. There is comfort in all of this, in the continuation of living. On the other side of Roosevelt Avenue, brick apartment buildings look over to my own, and inside there may be doors that open to whole gardens, whole other countries containing thousands of people whose names I will never know, even if I live here for the rest of my life.
Katie Machen is a writer, cheesemonger, and amateur home baker based in Queens. She is a reader for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Katie is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction and an Adjunct Lecturer in English at Queens College, CUNY.