My middle son and I spent Wednesday afternoon glued to NPR, circling around each other in the kitchen, as horrified as we had been on 9/11—although then, I sheltered him from all the details of destruction, distracted him with activities more suited to the five year old he was than hearing even more about the assault on America enacted by terrorists. Thursday, we procrastinated his packing process. Today, after I gave him a haircut and we folded yesterday’s loads of laundry, he finally pulled out of the driveway at 6:00 p.m. with a filled vehicle—driving back to a grad school semester in a state that’s among the Top 6 (clearly, not an honor) for per capita coronavirus infection rates—after saying the words that prompted my tears: “Thanks so much for all the wonderful meals during quarantine.” Ten bonus months with him, over.
This emptiness of multiple sorrows has prompted a memory from decades ago to rise today, sharp and clear and persistent. It is late afternoon on a summer day before my senior year in college, and I am standing in front of a kitchen sink, looking onto a gorgeous courtyard, an oasis of flowering shrubs and birds and privacy within its gritty urban surround. I am housesitting an enormous home, completely alone in its thousands of square feet, its high ceilings, its multiple floors, its many bedrooms and bathrooms. (In my wanderings around the house at night to check that I am still, in fact, completely alone in it—goosebumps rising as I turn lights on before entering hallways and checking closets—I am reminded of nightgown-trailing heroines in English novels or Southern Gothic stories.) As I stand at the sink, I am thinking about two men I love. Both are far away from me. One, I am dating; the other writes me more, letters of beauty.
I decide that the thing to do to accompany my impossible thinking is to make and eat toast. I gather supplies—I’m not sure how many slices I’ll prepare, but I have a fresh, dense sandwich loaf, butter, jam, honey, a cinnamon sugar spread that I’ve creamed together. I toast a slice and butter it and revel in its simple perfection. The next one, I enjoy with jam. Then honey, then cinnamon sugar. I vary the pattern as I continue, sometimes two of the same in a row. The courtyard outside is sinking into shadow, my reflection in the window appearing against the dark. I realize I have consumed the entire loaf, heel to heel. My belly, full; my heart, still breaking.