Night Swimming

I am sometimes just a wind-up nostalgia doll. Pull my string, watch me go.

So when I started craving fresh basil pesto on cheese tortellini this afternoon, I thought that perhaps this craving was the start of some wonderful, half-forgotten sense memory that would be worth pursuing.

So I tilted my chair back, closed my eyes, and let myself drift off into a pleasant little mid-afternoon nap, allowing my freaky little neurons to take me where they would.

I woke up sweaty, hot, and sad.

So. Not all memories are good. And June 1994 is probably at the very top of my list of Months I Never Want To Relive. Even in nap form.

It was hot, for one thing. Hot like only the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts can be hot. I had graduated from college one year earlier, and was only a few months away from selling everything I had and buying a one-way ticket to San Francisco, though I didn’t know that yet.

Every day followed the same pattern. Wake up stifled in a hot, airless attic bedroom, your limbs covered in mucky sweat, your arms and legs flung wide across that rock-hard futon you bought when you were a sophomore.

Pull on some cutoffs and a ratty old T-shirt. White, V-neck, and threadbare is generally how you like them. Turn off that useless old window fan before you go, because that highly strung roommate of yours says it will throw a spark when your back is turned and burn the whole place down. She’s right, but you’ll be long gone before that happens.

Grab your smokes and some cash. Hit the street, but dive into an air conditioned shop as soon as humanly possible. Good God, it’s hot and sticky out there, and you are no longer quite skinny enough to keep the tops of your thighs from rubbing up against each other in these shorts. So the tops of your thighs are hot and sticky, too.

Thornes Marketplace won’t throw you out, you can wander in there for hours. The used bookstore. Faces. The goddamn Mountain Goat. You can’t afford anything in any of these shops, but dear God it is too hot to be outside.

Run out of stores to loiter around in, buy some Orangina and a bagel at Brueggers, take it up the hill to the library, where the blessed AC is always set to glacial. Sit in that one glorious arched window seat that the librarian never seems to walk past on her hourly There’s no food or drink allowed in the library rounds. Eat too quickly. Start shivering from the chilled sweat on the back of your shirt. Press your back up against the thick glass of the windowpane to dry it off. Leave a mark.

Wonder if there’s time for a nap before work. Decide there isn’t.

Wait just long enough to notice that the branches on the big tree outside are starting to bend and wave, turning the silver undersides of their leaves up towards the sky in that strange way that always means a storm is just minutes away.

Stay inside and wait out the short spell of rain and thunder that has been moving through every day this week at exactly this hour. It doesn’t make it cooler, doesn’t break the humidity, but each day, you hope that it will.

Sprint down the sidewalk to the restaurant while it’s still raining, duck in the kitchen door. Let the screen door slam behind you, because it pisses off Tom, the head cook. Peel off shorts, T-shirt, socks, and shoes in favor of those weirdly starchy black-and-white checked pants and the snap-front shirt with the short sleeves. Only the line cooks wear the heavier chef coats, which, oddly, are rumored to be much cooler than the short sleeves you and the other pantry cooks are stuck wearing. Step into those thick-soled Dansko clogs.

Dive into the walk-in cooler, grab a five-gallon bucket of peeled onions, set up an enormous cutting board, set it down on top of a carefully folded white terrycloth towel for stability. Sharpen a knife. Chop. Chop. Chop chop chop.

Work in that hot, loud kitchen for ten more hours, sweating and laughing and singing and flirting and listening to The Cure on the boom box over the spice rack. When the line cooks take their one beer each outside and sit side by side in the back alley overlooking the parking lot, knocking the backs of their shoes against the crumbling concrete wall in rhythm with the music still wafting out from the dishwasher’s station, you can wipe down your counter and change back into your street clothes.

One of the cooks, the tall one, the one you went skinny dipping with last week, will try to catch you around the waist and croon a little Neil Young in your ear. But you already know how that story’s going to end, he’s already been kicked out of the house by the wife you didn’t know he had, and you spin out of his grasp without a backward glance. You thread your way past the rest of the cooks and their long legs and swinging feet. Chuck Taylor hightops, checkered Vans, Tevas.

Nate, the mayor’s son, is hosing down the mats at the bottom of the alley. He’s the one who always insists on playing the Cure, who makes up and sings out those funny, sarcastic poems of his while he’s setting the pans back in the racks after drying them with the rag he keeps tucked into his apron strings.

You should have gone swimming with him last week, not that tall, skinny cook with the weird thing about Neil Young.

Maybe that new late-night restaurant is still open on the corner, the one where they make all the pasta right there in the basement, where the girls hang out from the coffee shop, where it smells like a greenhouse full of nothing but basil when you open the door and the blast of heat from all the pots of clean, boiling water hits your face.

Basil, flour, oil, water. Tiny nuggets of cheese all twisted up into the shape of a bellybutton, coated in olive oil and bathed in mashed-up nuts and salt and herbs.

Yeah, it’s just as hot in there as it is outside. Maybe hotter. But it’s a good sort of heat. The kind of heat that makes the whole day come rising up easily from your pores, all airy and clean and dry.


Image by Jeff R

4 Thoughts.

  1. I don’t know if the tiny details are mostly made up or amazingly accurate examples of your keen sense of observation, but they are wonderful to read. Like a short story. Lovely.
    (And how long were you in SF? I was there from ’92 – ’99)

  2. All those details are stored from real life in my old junk shop of a brain. This one was pure autobiography.

    Oh, and I didn’t last long in SF, lovely city though it is. Turns out I’m way too much of a reserved New Englander to really thrive in California. I moved out there in early September of ’94, and by January I was in grad school at Syracuse. Insanely grateful to be back east again. Insanely. Grateful.

  3. Wow. This piece reminds me of the two “How to Be/come” stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. (one of my favoritest books ever) I am aching for that pesto you describe.

  4. Beth,
    How beautiful. The details, I almost wish you had described the end of October. It is the only thing I truly miss about the East (from Chautauqua County in NY). I absolutely know there are certain memories just left in the old junk box, cause there’s just no way to put them to good use bringing them out. Mmmm, now I’m hungry! ~Thank you for sharing this with me.

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