Last year, two important-to-me relationships came to their end. One of them was the kind of friendship you think you will always have — where the other person is like the sister you never biologically had. I’ve tried to write about this — fictionally and non-fictionally, and I kept hitting a wall. The right words just weren’t there. Until I went grocery shopping and came across a package of white corn meal.
I wasn’t always crazy about cooking, but in 1999, I took a trip that changed my life. It was a road trip that wound from Denver, to Santa Fe, to Roswell, to Dallas, to New Orleans, to Atlanta, and eventually south to St. George Island (where I horrified my then-boyfriend by getting my right ear pierced for the third time — maybe that’s why I love that piercing extra hard?).
Spending time with my best friend in the south was always precious, whether we were roaming graveyards to photograph tombstones, or shopping. Breathing the air was like breathing soup (Hi, Houston!), and I still wilt quick in the heat, but spending a day fishing in the Gulf of Mexico was like visiting another planet. We came away sunburned, and wrinkled from ocean water. And later, exhausted, we bought live blue crabs from the island docks. We made a crab boil and spilled it onto the table with only newspapers for plates. We ate with our fingers, sucking those shells dry.
Countless days we spent in Atlanta, long afternoons talking about food and prepping dinners in her kitchen: wide doors open to the green back yard, large table spread with food in its various stages, nearby shelves bowing under the weight of cookbooks she never looked at because she seemed to carry every recipe in her head. Peeling garlic turned into a meditation; everything else fell away when that fragrant bulb and crackling paper were in my hands.
Some years ago, I got new neighbors; they moved in right next door, where once six college-aged boys had lived and plagued the neighborhood. The boys hadn’t been there long, but I worried about the new people. After meeting them, I knew I had no cause to worry, and when C. and I realized we shared a birth day (if not a year), it seemed certain we should be friends. Girls born in July are remarkable.
C. also had an appreciation for food (discovered when I made us a birthday tea), and when we started spending time cooking together, it seemed as if we had always done so. She taught me some of her favorites and I showed her many of mine. I taught her how to properly measure dry ingredients, which solved her mystery of why her cookies always sucked. She also wanted to write, was an accomplished swimmer, and loved Colorado the way I do — there were mountains to be explored and animals to discover. She never laughed at my French.
One of the things she taught me how to make were arepas. She told me how they were traditionally made, and how she liked to add to them (oh, cilantro and shallot). With her speaking rapid, fluent Spanish, she hauled me to the proper market where I could explore a wealth of new ingredients. One of these was pre-cooked white corn meal.
I found that corn meal in my regular market recently. I said “oh!” right there in the middle of the aisle, because it was like running into an old friend. I realized that maybe this was a way to finally talk in some way about these extraordinary women with whom I parted ways. Not all friendships last forever, C. told me many times. And while I agreed, I never felt that either of these friendships would fall into that category because they were so present and alive.
But sometimes they do, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. When you are constantly kept at arm’s length, there is a strange relief in taking a step of your own back, and another, until you can breathe again. Until you know you’re going to be okay because these women gave you things you will always carry. You can keep these gifts close, though nothing else remains.
Every time I peel garlic. Every time I make arepas. Some part of them is still here.