It’s 1992, and I find myself sitting on a metal folding chair in a church basement recreation room. There’s a bunch of people around, a lot of noise and laughter, but I’m focused on a slice of cake perched on my lap. Cake. Costco sheet cake. At least I think there’s cake in there, somewhere below the mounds of white frosting glistening phosphorescent under the fluorescent lights. The cake is pretty, though, offset by pink and green floral piping. This complements the layers of flower leis I have draped over my neck, I think. Birthday cake. It’s my birthday.
I’m one. One year sober.
How the hell did I get here? Two days ago, I had my fortieth birthday.
You know that age-pivotal turning point in your life? Your thirties are gone. I don’t even remember my thirty-ninth birthday. That was spent in the last dark days of a week–long blackout. (God, at least I don’t have to go there again.) Right now, old age is definitely creeping up and I’m thinking I am supposed to be somewhere in my life.
And that place is not particularly in a church basement with a bunch of strangers.
I have waves of conflicting emotions. Guilt, remorse, shame, relief, hope, and an odd sense of comfort holding this piece of cake in my lap. “Feelings, not facts!” my sponsor would rub in. Yeah, one day
at a time, and now I’m forty with one year sober.
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person you would want to know.
Cultured, sophisticated, intellectually aware, traveled. Tall order coming from a family background like I had, where the highest level of education was ninth grade until there was me. A broken childhood, fragmentary education, eleven different schools before dropping out for the second time in the middle of my junior year in high school.
At least I was smart enough then to know my life would not get better without an education. So when I was nineteen I picked up a GED book, studied hard, and sat for the exams. Eventually, college followed, and
my world opened up.
Johnnetta Betsch Cole taught Cultural Anthropology, and she was by far the coolest, smartest professor I had. Our assignments? Pick an ethnic culture, explore the common foods, make a dish, and bring it over to her house. I don’t think professor Cole ever had to cook, and her trick to make sure we finished off all the beer in the keg? Dump a half bottle of Tabasco sauce in the oil before the popcorn pops.
Our conversations would always go to the same places, in her huge New England kitchen with the poster of Che Guevara prominent on the lemon yellow walls. Student housing, politics, human rights, and hunger.
I would have my own food gatherings too. A way to get to anyone’s heart is through their stomach, right? And a maybe less obvious way
for the needy insecure person I was then to get some validation.
One night I had a dinner party with friends and invited the University Arts director over for a seven-course Chinese dinner. Pat could have been an Anthony Bourdain stand-in; she’d traveled the world and eaten just about everything known to man. That night after slurping and munching through melon soup, sweet and sour chicken, beef and broccoli, Sichuan green beans, pork fried rice, chow mein, and almond cookies, Pat looks up at me and says
“That’s one of the best Chinese meals I’ve ever had.” Flattered and charmed I was, but I’d put a lot of work into this dinner. Studying recipes, getting the right ingredients.
Amherst had a local Asian Foods store, and I went there to find what
I needed to cook. “I’m looking for glass noodles?” The store owner looks at me funny. “Maybe cellophane noodles?” “Ah” she says,
“vermicelli” I’m laughing, “Marco Polo.”
I was pleased enough with my cooking skills then, slamming out elegant dinners even though I would usually finish a whole bottle of wine before guests arrived — and I made sure there was plenty of wine.
That, and the fifth of Stoli vodka I kept in the freezer. It became the absolute startling fact when I finally went on to hit the legendary bottom, coming to in a residential woman’s alcohol and drug treatment program. In Hawaii no less.
The whole goddam world had changed.
Time and gravity defied me. Words escaped me, and I was lucky if I could get through a day without crying my eyes out. Patience, tolerance, acceptance. Good God. I’m doing chores and serving my rehab counselors lunch one day and one says to the other.
“Should we tip her?”
“Yeah,” Gloria says, “Here’s a tip, don’t obsess.”
When I was given the task of making the graduation cake for one of the residents who completed the program, it was like, yeah, I got this.
It was a box cake, nothing fancy here. Easy, until I burnt it. What an embarrassment; I can’t even bake a stupid box cake. My world had changed. But being the creative addict I am, I cut the layers of cake in half, scraped off the charcoal pieces, and filled it in with ice cream. It’s an ice cream cake!
Cake. Birthday cake. Sitting there in that church basement, not really willing to put myself into a sugar coma. No. I really think I can do better than this now.