White Satin Ribbons
Yesterday was Halloween, my favorite holiday. True to form, I got incredibly excited at the last minute and turned into a whirlwind to get everything done. This year, I pushed things even further than usual, not even having bought a measly pumpkin by 4 p.m.
B., his sister Maria, and I were at my daughter’s tennis match at Merritt, a junior college up the hill from our house, when it dawned on me that I had no candy, no pumpkins, and the sun was already slipping behind the wooded hill on the opposite side of the tennis courts.
Nina was still warming up when I bolted, hurtling down the hill, jumping in the car, and speeding to the nearest Safeway. The giant cardboard boxes containing “normal” (non-decorative) pumpkins in front of the store were empty, but I found two adjacent to the parking lot, and one of these had a few forlorn, smallish pumpkins sprawled on the bottom. I leaned in and grabbed three, raced back to the entrance of the store, tossed them into a black shopping cart, and began scanning for candy, sure they’d be out.
Lo and behold, they had plenty of candy. Without a twinge of regret, I loaded the cart with ten or so bags of mini-Heath bars, Kit-Kats, Almond Joys, and the like and made for the 15-items-or-less register.
After five minutes in line, it occurred to me we had no dinner to speak of. I scanned in my mind’s eye the vegetable drawer (empty), the possibility of any kind of animal protein (eggs or meat) (none). Pasta was possible, but with no vegetables or meat, what was I going to make? Walnut and butter pasta?
I abandoned my place in line and raced to the produce section, tossed in carrots, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, parsley, and leeks. I squealed around a corner and across the top of the market to the other side of the store, grabbing two packs of organic chicken thighs, and found a place in a normal check-out line.
I read the tabloid headlines while waiting. Apparently, British princesses are feuding and Lori Loughlin is in bigger trouble than she thought. The young man bagging my groceries filled the first bag to the very top with candy sacks and began lifting it into my cart. He hesitated.
“It ripped a little,” he said.
The cashier said resignedly, “Don’t fill them so full.”
I looked at the young man’s crest-fallen, somewhat blank face and said, “It’s okay. I’ll hold it from the bottom.”
When I got the cart outside, I couldn’t take it all the way to the illegal parking spot I’d grabbed. I parked the cart at the limit and began schlepping the bags. I had to make three trips to get the candy, groceries, and pumpkins into the car.
Then, I sped back up the hill and watched the rest of my daughter’s doubles match. I took three photos of her from the back hitting the ball, capturing her good form. Tia Maria was breathless with excitement, anticipation, and dread as the girls swung precariously from winning to losing to winning again.
Several times, she turned to me and said in Spanish, “How strange that no one is cheering! In Venezuela, we’d be yelling and screaming and clapping and making all kinds of noise!”
I saw frustration and dismay on M.’s face. These North Americans. What is wrong with them? Why are they so afraid to live, to express themselves, to experience joy?
A man from Mexico, the grandfather of one of the players, sat with us for a while. When he heard Maria was from Venezuela, he said, “Oh, you’re suffering under Maduro…”
Maria cut him off.
“No. Chile suffers. Argentina suffers. All the world suffers,” my sister-in-law responded, her chin lifted.
Maria says the news exaggerates what’s going on in Venezuela. Yes, inflation is bad, she says, but the life is not bad. We manage. Everyone is managing just fine.
My nephew says to me, “Tia, don’t believe everything you hear. Your country has a vested interest in portraying our country badly.”
Then, my friend Jonathan deadpans, “Then why are 400,000 people pouring over the border to Columbia?”
Still, we are currently planning to visit the country for Christmas. We have a special mandate: to deliver B. to his family to rest for a few months.
Nina and her partner won the match. Maria was ecstatic, and I was reminded of how competitive the family is. She’s a champion swimmer (breaststroke) who now trains Venezuela’s talent. Her brother Gio won a silver medal at the LA Games in 1984 for backstroke. I remembered how naturally B. took to any sport at all. How we’d set him on skis one year for the first time, and watched as he effortlessly wove his way down the bunny slope.
When we got home, the sky was a deep lavender. I gave everyone a job. I asked B. to begin carving the pumpkins, knowing it was a long shot. Nina spread some newspapers on the dining room table. My son Javi and I tore pumpkin-carving utensils from packaging.
I unpacked the groceries, up-ending bags to release provisions faster. I turned the broiler on, pulled the broiler pan out, tore open the chicken and laid those thighs on the pan, salting and peppering both sides fast and furious. I whipped up in a small stainless steel bowl a few tablespoons of mustard, a tablespoon of Chinese chile sauce from the refrigerator door, and a couple of tablespoons of honey and spread that on the backs and fronts of the thighs, then set the pan on top of the stove so they could warm up a bit.
B. predictably gave up on the pumpkins, but not before flaring a little rage. I heard him getting frustrated and glanced his way. He was seated at the head of the table beneath the mirror, gazing helplessly and with some rancor at a single pumpkin plopped in the giant stainless steel bowl I’d given him for the pumpkin innards and seeds. He was flummoxed, overwhelmed. One more thing he can’t do.
I couldn’t help saying a couple of times, “You’ve done this a million times, B.” But, I stopped.
I told Javi to take over. “Help your father. He’s overwhelmed,” I said.
B. drifted into the kitchen and stirred the red onions I’d started in olive oil on the stovetop. I roughly sliced several carrots, the eggplant, half the cauliflower, half the broccoli, and something else — maybe kale, and tossed that in too, with several sprinklings of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
I felt the chicken thighs, which had warmed almost to room temperature and popped them into the broiler.
The candy! I grabbed a straw basket from the laundry room and some scissors and began slashing candy bags and dumping the contents into the basket lickety-split.
I ran to the front of the house.
“Hurry! Hurry! I see trick-or-treaters!” I hollered.
Javi said, “I’m only doing one pumpkin.”
“Please! Do two! And ask your sister to do one!” I responded.
“Mom. Why do you always do this?” he asked.
“You can help, you know! You know the drill! You don’t have to wait for me to get everything going!”
At some point in the evening I discovered with surprise and pleasure all three pumpkins carved with lascivious smiles flickering merrily on the front stoop. I took pictures of them.
I pulled the cocktail shaker down and made me, Javi, and Maria Margaritas with fresh limes, Cointreau, and Padron white tequila. I swiped the cut-glass rims with lime and with kosher salt pinched between my thumb and index finger salted the rims.
The doorbell rang. It was our gregarious Gerard Depardieu look-alike neighbor, Kique, come for his Margarita.
“Yes,” he bellowed. “Of course I want a Margarita!”
Trick-or-treaters began appearing at the door in waves. I caught Maria scooping up fistfuls of candy for each trick-or-treater and stopped her, laughing, as the eyes of the children widened, looks of confusion and glee spreading over their faces as this nutty woman spouting a foreign tongue dumped heaps of chocolate into their open bags.
My daughter came downstairs. She was dressed as a cowgirl in the briefest pink velvet skirt, an embroidered leather vest, and her hair in two braids fastened with scrunchies.
I pulled the chicken out, turned them, popped them back in…
A few minutes later, I served them. They were too pink. I popped them back into the oven, turned the heat down to 375 F., and waited another five minutes. The brown rice was ready. The vegetables were ready. I sliced the sourdough and put a plate of good Irish butter on the table alongside the salt and the Peugeot pepper grinder. I lit candles.
The doorbell was ringing at regular intervals now, always followed by a smattering of little fists urgently knocking, just in case we didn’t hear the bell. Two lighted candelabras on the dresser that serves as a console flickered by the front door, casting trembling shadows on the walls.
I pulled the chicken out again, and we all sat down.
The doorbell rang as we served ourselves.
B. said, “That’s enough. Ignore it now.”
I explained to Maria that was impossible. If you have lighted pumpkins outside and a skeleton on your door, you are beholden to answer the door with candy at the ready. It’s a rule. “Una regla,” I said.
I was so excited. The Margarita tasted good. It felt good to see my son and daughter working together on the third pumpkin. I was happy my son had abandoned his Margarita in the kitchen, knowing he was driving his sister to one party and himself to another in our car.
The chicken was perfect, the sauce delectable. The buttered brown rice nutty and chewy. The vegetables sweet from carmelized red onion.
I looked at my daughter.
“You look great,” I said. “But, you can’t wear scrunchies. They didn’t have those in those days. Do you have ribbon?”
She did not.
Luckily, I knew just where a perfect length of white satin ribbon hid in the kitchen’s junk drawer just waiting for its moment of glory.
“I have it,” I said. I raced for the drawer, grabbing the scissors along the way.
“Here, cut it on the bias; it’s prettier,” I said, cutting the ribbon diagonally.
My daughter made off with the ribbon lengths.
When I saw her again some time later, she had been transformed by the ribbons. They were more precious than I could have imagined. She looked like Elly May Clampett, the pretty sister in The Beverly Hillbillies. The shiny white satin stood in stark contrast to her soft brunette hair.
And off she went, with my son. They turned a U-turn. I watched them go, praying my son would not hit a trick-or-treater and sending a silent entreaty to the universe to return them to me.
The night continued to unfold. Neighbors came. Former neighbors came. Our French neighbor Thierry brought his daughter, seven-year-old Laure, and plum wine sake and then returned home for a custard tart. A radical Catholic priest who lives up the hill came with a young friend. “I heard there’s a party here.” He accepted a Margarita, as did his young friend.
Neighbors from around the corner came by with their nine-year-old son. Kique began playing with the children, lifting them by their ankles and swinging them like pendulums until they shrieked with fear and pleasure.
B. was overstimulated, but managed to stay in the room. He interacted with no one, barely responding when friends and neighbors tried to engage him. His eyes darted around the room. He was afraid. Afraid of noise, fire, food, people… normal life feels like mayhem to him.
I saw people sneaking looks at his face. He is so changed. People who have only known him to be manic were amazed.
“He looks so different,” one neighbor said. “He looks terrible,” said another.
Maria shuttled from the living room to my bedroom where she was packing her things for departure the next morning. Daisy the dog traipsed from room to room, her toenails clicking rhythmically on the wood floors.
A giant marshmallow came to the door. Several Draculas. An octopus. A robot. Several versions of death and his scythe. Princesses, puppies, and a single, blood-shot eyeball.
The night wound down. A neighbor devoured the leftover chicken. We passed out the rest of the candy. Someone brought extra from their house. It began to be bedtime. The house gradually emptied.
I got into my pajamas. I did the rest of the dishes, those that Maria hadn’t already done. I got a big glass of water, splashed my face, brushed my teeth, and went up to Nina’s room, where I’ve been living for two weeks while Maria stays in my bedroom with her brother, B.
I texted Nina. “Take an Uber if Javi isn’t ready to pick you up.”
She promised she would.
She came home a short while later, and I breathed an audible sigh of relief. We chatted about her party, nothing of note, nothing she admitted to, anyway. I read in bed. We fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, realizing I hadn’t heard Javi come in, I crept down the stairs to the living room window and parted the blinds. The car was there, and parked well.
And just like that, Halloween 2019 is gone, marked by white satin ribbons, deviled chicken thighs, a visit by Tia Maria, a frightened B., a few photos, the taste of tequila.
Memories. Just like that, the present becomes the past. And if you don’t work to hold on to it, it vaporizes.
We think we’ll remember.
But, there is very little we remember.
Document, document, document your lives, people.
Make it count.