Invisibility (featuring Moroccan Chicken with Saffron, Tomatoes, and Honey)
I plopped down on my couch and surveyed the changing landscape of my New York apartment. My boyfriend for 4 ½ years had moved out a few weeks earlier and, though I was responsible for that decision, the vacancy of my life was now all mine to behold.
Amelia jumped up on the couch and pressed her face against mine. Ok, right, I’m not completely alone.
I turned on the tv and grabbed my ipad to check my email. I had read the beginning of an email earlier, somebody from high school had tracked me down, but I’d stopped reading after the first “how are you doing/ it’s been a long time/ I don’t know if you remember me”. I just didn’t have the headspace at that moment for a reunion (sorry, but most of the people that contact me this way want money I don’t have or information about people I’ve long lost contact with).
I opened the email again. As I said, nothing really pulled me in until I got to the very end… the name on the business signature.
It’s important to say here that I was a mess in high school. I know, I know, everyone is a mess in high school, but I had been in a very bad car accident on spring break the year before high school started and I had been in the hospital for most of that last term. I had been accepted into The Bronx High School of Science before I had been hit by a car; before the coma, before the body cast, before the learning disabilities. When I started high school, I was trying to access a pre-accident brain that no longer existed. I was overwhelmed and confused. I struggled immensely. I was also awkward in my body, constantly tripping and walking into things. I dreamed of the days when I felt smart and cute and alive, but they were long gone. I developed a superpower that would stay with me to this day: invisibility. I blended into the woodwork so as not to bring attention to my inability to do things well. I barely existed.
He was a senior. I was a freshman. One of my friends, Sam, had an older brother, Paul, who was good friends with him, Francis. We never hung out outside of school, but once in a while he would walk me from school to the train or we would sit together and talk at lunch. He was always a good listener. He seemed genuinely interested in the things I was saying. I had such a crush on him that I would blush every time he approached. I stumbled through our conversations and would often break out into a sweat because I was so nervous. I’ll never forget running into him next to the auditorium on the last day of school. He saw me before I saw him and he called out to say goodbye. He was off to college– to Berkeley– far, far away. He was full of energy and maybe a little last-day-of-high-school-Budweiser. I had many more years of school to go and felt embarrassingly unsophisticated. He gave me a big hug and said goodbye. I wished him luck and watched longingly as he faded into my past.
But then…almost exactly 30 years later, something reminded him of me so he tracked me down through my business website. And what did I do when I saw his name at the bottom of that email? Well, I kind of freaked out. I couldn’t sit still. I ran around my empty apartment screaming his name over and over again. It was insane. I’m 44 years old. I finally calmed myself down and spent a few hours writing my reply. I was playing it casual, but interested. His email signature said he was living in Portland, Oregon and was an architect. I asked him questions about his life. Why Portland? Why architecture? Wife? Kids? I rewrote my email about 40 times- blushing, sweating, grinning. I felt 14 again, but better, because I’m not 14.
A few days later, I was in line at Trader Joe’s when my phone let me know I had a new email. It was from him. He was glad I remembered him (!). He wrote, “If I recall, I had a mighty crush on you back in high school.”
And now, I would like to make a public apology to all the people shopping at the upper west side Trader Joe’s that day, because I made a squeal that was really not appropriate for grocery retail. I turned to the stranger behind me and almost showed him the email I had just read. I was filled with so much excitement that I jumped in place for a solid minute. It could not be contained.
I went to cook and then walked my dog and made myself dinner, the whole time writing the response in my head. I was still playing it cool. I told him, in so many words, that I had a mighty crush on him too back in the day. What I actually said was, “Right back atcha”: casual, easy going, breezy, but in reality: terrified, excited, and very interested. He wrote, “I’m coming to New York to see family in a month or two. Would you like to grab a cup of coffee?”
“Sure”, I said, “I drink coffee…”
I’m a minx.
In reality, I was still reeling from my breakup. As much as I wanted to explore a rompy rebound with my high school crush, I found him much more compelling than that. We became pen pals, writing every week in the beginning and then more and more frequently. I wrote to him honestly about the end of my relationship. I wrote him about work. I wrote about my family, friends, pets. He listened. He responded. He was supportive in a way that didn’t make me feel like he was just putting up with my dialog until he got to speak again. It felt different than anything I’ve ever done. I was different. I was broken from my breakup– broken down and then broken open. All I could be was myself.
We decided to have dinner instead of coffee.
I was nervous.
That’s putting it mildly.
30 years is a long time, and of course, we both look totally different. But there was a moment, right after we were seated, when he was laughing and I saw in his smile the boy that he was back then. It was as if an alarm clock rang inside of me. Him. Holy crap. It’s really him. No time had passed at all.
We talked for hours and hours. We ate tapas (Tia Pol) and walked on the Highline. We sat outside and told stories while looking at the sky. We split a sundae at a coffee shop. We didn’t touch. We didn’t kiss. It was too soon for me to get romantic, though it was, by far, the most romantic date I’ve ever had.
You can’t rewrite history, but your perception of it can shift. I have done a lot of stupid things in my life because I felt I was invisible. Would I have done those things if I knew at least one person could see me? Probably. Does him seeing me now make people on the streets of New York suddenly stop their blind charge right into me? Nope. But it means that, when I stand on top of a mountain with bright red hair and shout out to the world “DO YOU FUCKING HEAR WHAT I’M SAYING?” at least one person says, “Yup.”
We write every day now. We see each other whenever we can. All I can say is it’s nice to know I wasn’t wrong about everything in high school.
When Francis was here last, I had a party in his honor, introducing him to my best friends. We had a Moroccan feast, which I cooked of course. Here is the recipe for my Moroccan chicken with tomatoes, saffron and honey. It is one of my most requested dishes in catering/ private-chef-land, because it hits all the best points on your tongue. It’s a perfect fall meal.
Moroccan Chicken with Saffron, Tomatoes, and Honey
- 4 pound chicken, cut into pieces
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 can whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained
- 2 tablespoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/ 2 teaspoon saffron
- 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the oil and butter in a large sauté pan. When the butter has melted but before it browns, place the chicken pieces into the pan, making sure not to crowd them. Sear until the chicken has browned, about 5 minutes each side and then transfer the chicken onto a plate. Keep the hot pan with juices and fats on the flame.
- Place the chopped onion into the hot pan and season gently. Lower the heat under the pan and sauté the onion until it softens and becomes translucent. Add the drained whole tomatoes, the cinnamon, the ginger and the saffron. Let simmer for 2 minutes to distribute the flavor throughout the pan. Add the chicken pieces back to the pan, spooning sauce over the chicken (the sauce won’t be too saucy yet and that’s ok). Cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Transfer the cooked chicken pieces to a serving dish. Stir the honey into the simmering sauce, and taste for seasoning. Let it cook, while making sure it doesn’t burn, for about 5 minutes.
- Spoon the sauce over the chicken and enjoy!