Once upon a time, I was a time traveler.
The voyage started on a cross-country flight to Baltimore, followed by a fitful sleep in my teenage bedroom. The next night, flanked by old friends, I drove for five minutes to Mt. Washington, parked, and prepared for takeoff. I took my seat at the Desert Cafe and accepted a menu from a server I’d accidentally known for half of my life.
I was thirteen years old the first time I walked into the restaurant, where we were throwing a party for my mother. These were her happy years, when she wore skirts and soft leather knee high boots, when she flushed easily and laughed a lot. We gathered on the top floor, passing plates of falafel and hummus, shouting over each other and talking in pairs.
I wanted to grow up and live in an apartment that looked like this, with golden pots on the walls, silver star lanterns dangling from the ceiling, low benches topped with tattered cushions. It was like we were in the most beautiful version of a home. Much better than our new house, which hadn’t settled into itself yet and showed only the gentle treads of family life.
Golden light suffuses the memory, smudges it like Vaseline on a lens. A love affair begins, a clock is set in my mind and I countdown to when I will return: older, prettier, changed.
The restaurant map of my adolescence was full of chains and fast food, limp noodles in cheese sauce and hot brownies soaked in melted ice cream.
The Desert Cafe let me pretend to be an adult. I ate dinner with tea-lights on the table and no parents in sight. The menu offered a series of firsts: za’atar, black coffee, mujadarrah, baklava, the combination of mango with curry powder, and Vesuvius cake. My friends and I possessed neither age nor money, but The Desert Cafe took us in anyway. The hostess never begrudged us a seat unless we committed the restaurant sin of arriving during dinner service to only order dessert.
My best friend Jamie and I flat-ironed our curls and wore torn jeans and little beaded shoes we bought at Value Village. I smeared silver lipstick on my eyelids and painted my lashes until they fanned out like spider thighs.
Perched on the front porch of the Desert Cafe, we narrated our life stories in two hour chunks while we ate fat wedges of cheesecake and drank black coffee.
I was sixteen years old, sitting across from Jamie as we gazed glassy-eyed at what we thought was frosting. My fork punctured velvet, my tongue was coated in the slow dissolve of cocoa and fat. When the waitress passed, she broke our wedge of Vesuvius cake into a butcher’s diagram and taught us the word “ganache.”
This moment doubled my culinary vocabulary. Food wasn’t trendy yet, and the internet was what Jamie and I would go back to my basement and stare at together, analyzing pithy missives, then lobbing them at boys. Ganache was wet in my mouth, with that rich breve in the center of the word, silky and stiff. I ordered it every weekend for the next year.
The unspooling of our secrets over chocolate-smeared-dessert-plates was the main event: almost nothing else ever happened.
Once we hung out with the waiters from the restaurant next door. Once we broke into a festival at the pottery shop and danced to a samba band. Once we drank bad wine from a plastic cup at a gallery.
Nerves splintered with sugar and caffeine, we waited for the wild night that could happen if we just kept showing up.
On college breaks, I went to the Desert Cafe for reunion lunches. Gathered with high school girlfriends, freshly returned from far flung schools, we’d ask for one more: one more appetizer, one more piece of cake, one more cup of coffee. We ordered the way you always do at a long meal, because for once in your life you can buy the thing you want the most: more time.
In my early 20s, summer made the wine glasses sweat. The table boasted an empty and the next bottle was a third gone. Ashley laughed as Josh studded every second sentence with a string of expletives that inevitably pissed off the only other diner in the restaurant, who always had a kid. “Every glass stays full and save room for dessert” was our cardinal rule.
Laughter verging on hyperventilation and $7.00 white wine: these were luxuries we could afford. We were old friends, so we pulled out our old stories and punchlines. We announced the names of people we hadn’t talked to in years, intoned them loudly, then compared notes. The waitress remembered us and smirked. We were trouble, but at least we kept showing up.
At nearly 24, I moved to San Francisco. I had fallen in love with a man and a city, and packed all my books and clothes into suitcases so I could make a faraway home with both. I criss-crossed the country often and when I did, I landed cross-legged on an old velvet cushion with a mouth full of ganache.
When my dad was sick, I came back for a week. Jamie and Danny, the man she would marry, put together a dinner for my 25th birthday. They reserved my favorite table, where we drank wine and ordered cake and fought about pop music. Here were three sets of shoulders to lean against as I banged my palm on the table until Josh poured another round. I was so lonely in California. Being together in our place, on one of our nights, felt like family dinner. The kind we saw in the 90’s sitcoms we grew up with, where everyone likes each other and every laugh is right on cue.
I ate my final dish from the Desert Cafe in my parents’ living room, at a crab feast the night before my bachelorette party. It was one of those crackling moments when every world joyfully collides: my parents and my husband’s parents, all of our siblings, Jamie and Josh and Danny. My sister taught my future sister-in-law how to crack crabs and we put our elbows on the newspaper-covered-table and told old stories. At the end of the meal, tradition: a Desert Cafe cheesecake, studded with thick Berger cookies.
I went to the Desert Cafe for more than a decade. I never changed my order. They barely changed the menu. The interior, the exterior, some of the staff: it all remained frozen in time. I could dip back into every version of myself. I could sit beside my ghosts and eat.
Childhood homes, decades spent with an intact family, neighborhoods with all the same spots, they look like they’re making a promise: Here is one thing that won’t change.
Except of course, no one and nothing can make that promise and keep it.
After I moved to San Francisco, no one I knew went to the Desert Cafe. Because I was “visiting” when I was around the people I loved, when it was time to choose a dinner location, they let me take them to the past.
The swish of time is less obvious when you live in a place with no seasons, when you sometimes only go back East for Christmas, where everyone is home and sleeping in their old rooms. At dinners in November and December, our fellow East Coast friends who live in San Francisco still refer to their holiday trip as “winter break,” even though we’re in our 30s.
Now old friends try to make those long ago lunch plans but they never materialize. People have apartments in close enough cities that they don’t come home, or parents who moved and didn’t make room for them, or in-laws who turn the holiday schedule into a nonstop rollercoaster of hi-how-are-you, see-you-next-year.
At the end of October 2016, the Desert Cafe closed. The “For Lease” sign on the front door shut down my time machine, and since then, time has shifted.
When I tell Jamie the Desert Cafe has closed, she is holding her first baby in her arms.
Two weeks later, my parents break up after 30 years together.
For months afterwards, my dreams are collages of the past. Every night I chew through settings scrubbed clean, bodies since stretched with time and age. I sit in the dusky lavender glow of a summer day in Baltimore, at a small table inside the Desert Cafe. Outside, Mount Washington grows thick and hot, pricked by fireflies and mosquitos. When I wake up, my jaw is so tight it clicks.
If I met my teenage self, passed her table, she would straighten her spine a little, maybe roll her eyes— the minute reactions of a very young person in the presence of an adult.
I can’t lie to you: the last time I ate at the Desert Cafe, it was terrible.
And it was open for a few years between that meal and the time it closed, years in which I went home almost too much, for weddings and bridal showers and graduations. Years when I kept showing up in my family and their house and suddenly there were old friends I didn’t see, relationships that tapered off, dishes I never felt like ordering again.
I never moved into an apartment that looked like the Desert Cafe.
I don’t miss what showed up on my plate.
I miss plenty of time to keep in touch with anyone you’d ever want to keep in touch with. I miss the times when my family was happy and all in one place. I miss the idea that there was one magical restaurant that was a crystal ball into my glamorous adulthood. And I’m sitting there with Jamie or Josh or Ashley and we’re trying to figure out the tip. We’re breathless. We have no idea what we’ll do next. It could be anything.