Landscape of Butterflies by Salvador Dali'
At 55, friends don’t just roll down the turnpike and knock on your door, cradling a New York cheesecake. Being enrolled in the MLS program, believe it or not, can tax even old friendships to the brink, because once the semester kicks in, I tend to be stingy with my time. I have just started my last semester, by the way, and it began virtually unscathed by the demigods that love to torment me. But I have a long-term and loving relationship with one in particular, Chaos, probably because it played a significant part in the forging of my adult identity. Without intermittent Chaos marking my life changes, my goals and accomplishments might go unrecognized altogether. The semester was commencing quietly, the untapped psychic energy needing an event, so I invited my daughter’s boyfriend’s family over for dinner. The two have been “friends” since they were 14 and 13, and now at 16 and 15, the relationship is causing minor tremors in both households. I thought it was time to establish communication and create a comfort level that might come in handy one way or another. Worst-case scenario, we make friends who fade away a few years after it’s over. Other worst-case scenario, we become family. Either way, it’s best to climb this treacherous stairway with friends. So I did my best to make a good impression.
I actually mopped the floors and policed the back yard. I put the smelly rugs in the laundry room. I thought about dusting but knew I’d resent that much effort and blame my guests for being too troublesome, so I decided a little dust made the place feel homier. I thought about cooking Italian, but chicken and potatoes were on sale. I considered take-out, but my wallet said a thin, flat no. On the way to the supermarket, I realized dinner for eight could and most likely would become dinner for 11. I called my oldest son and confirmed it, 11 for dinner. Naturally I rounded it up to 12. Make that an Italian 12, which translates into 18 in most households. Shopping for dinner went like clockwork. I was optimistic enough to take some “me” time in the hammock, picturing an easygoing Sunday dinner with new friends — which lasted about 20 seconds.
That’s when an old, dear friend and her son called. They were on my side of town, wanting to stop in. It sounded like a before-dinner visit, and I thought that if they overlapped a little, it might take some of the pressure off the budding friendships. I flagged them on to the field as I added flatbread to the menu in my mind, foolishly thinking my daughter would be available to help in the kitchen and that her sister would happily bake brownies. But I forgot that the brownie queen was at a birthday party and wouldn’t return home until about 30 minutes before dinner was supposed to be served. The cautious adult in my head that I never mind said, “The chicken will take up all the room in the oven, and because you are cooking for 18, it will take twice as long to cook. You also might want to check and see if there are any pans left for the brownies.” When the door opened, I understood that being on my end of town meant my friends were circling the block. The kitchen stepped up to pre-chaos (that’s about warp factor-one); I washed and breaded the chicken while they visited, and we enjoyed a glass of wine as per our long-standing tradition. Soon the chicken was in the oven and the salad prepared. Immediately, the new friends were seen surveying the street, trying to figure out where to park because the front yard already looked like a Wal-Mart parking lot on Christmas Eve. My dogs sniffed and slobbered while being held hostage inside the door until I threatened them with banishment; not the friends, the dogs. As my guests made their way deeper into the house escorted by the flea-bags of Baskerville, I convinced myself I was still reasonably in control. The cacophony of animal, adult, and teenage voices ricocheting throughout the kitchen and family room were comforting because they reminded me of Thanksgiving. And just like Thanksgiving, the oven began smoking as if on cue.
Apparently, the cookie pans were too shallow, which caused the chicken ooze to breach the rims; we marveled in unison as the air filled with a fowl essence. The entire company distracted, I turned on the wind-tunnel fan. The smoke quickly disappeared into the garage, along with three previously living things from the back yard, a bag of groceries and a twenty-dollar bill. The hum and flap of indistinguishable remnants added a much needed dimension to the giggling from the companions lingering nonchalantly over a game of billiards. Making my way through the now Daliesque milieu, I began telling jokes and producing flatbread from the toaster-oven. Privately I thanked God that the pretense of order had become impossible to maintain. Everyone laughing at nothing was my cue to feign dropping a pan full of chicken by knocking it into the shape-shifting oven and catching it before it hit the floor. We extolled the virtues of peanut butter and jelly crackers with White Zinfandel. Nobody really cared any more; good thing, because I was in charge.
I burnt the last flatbread to a tar-colored crisp as my two sons arrived with friend Nicole in tow. Rob, the elder, introduced himself by picking up the smoking flatbread and telling me to go long. We bantered about the possibility of shingling the roof with it after it stopped smoking. Soon the brownie queen returned with her head swirling from an afternoon spent designing and riding virtual roller coasters. She and Norma, my new friend, won a small skirmish with the brownie mix, which stubbornly maintained the consistency of plaster while they spackled it into pan corners. The rest of us cheered them on as we waited for the lagging oven to expel shake-n-bake chicken for 18. Finally, the buffet was on board.
We haphazardly took our places at the formal dining table I inherited from my aunt. The table absolutely reverberates with family history, having embedded within its molecular memory the anxiety and laughter of about 75 Thanksgivings and as many Christmases, half-a-dozen weddings, baby showers, graduations, and a few funerals. We all fit comfortably around it — except Nicole, who had to cook her own fish fillet and eat off a tea saucer. She is frequently seated at the last minute because she doesn’t consume anything with feet, and inevitably comes up short of something consequential like food, a chair, or a plate. While watching her make the saucer work as if it were the norm, I felt all those memories silently shifting under the tablecloth, making room for the next generation; then and there I counted myself blessed to be standing, embracing my place among the old guard. I raised a toast to my good friend Chaos, because Chaos is my friend, and it has kept me from living a life of half-truths and pretense, and I am a better person for it.