1. I’m at a dinner party and there are a bunch of new faces. The conversation floats around from politics to economics to dating. I’m quiet. Every now and then I say something to one of the guests whose views on all three make me recoil. We move to the living room, where we eat molten chocolate cakes with scoops of vanilla ice cream, the insides of the cakes warm and gooey, the ice cream soft, cold, melting. More people have joined us and a few conversations are going on simultaneously. Did he really just say that all women harbor secret fantasies of being raped? What the hell is wrong with him? One of the guests asks if I’m quiet because I’ve had too much to drink or because I have nothing to say.
2. “I can’t tell what you’re thinking,” he says, looking at me like I’m a riddle he can’t solve. “Say something,” he says. “I’m listening to you,” I say, leaning forward. There’s a lull in our conversation and I look at him, reflecting. He rushes to fill it in. “It’s ok to just be quiet,” I say. “Try it.” It happens again shortly after, and you can tell he’s making an effort to settle into it, but he’s uncomfortable, and he starts laughing nervously. After that, I become self-conscious when it gets quiet- I’m aware of his discomfort and it makes me uneasy.
3. I’m at a restaurant with friends; the décor is clichéd Greek: pots hang from the ceiling, straw garlands with fake garlic adorn the bar. The ocean glimmers darkly beyond the glass enclosure; clusters of people talk loudly around us. I’ve just come back from visiting my grandmother, and I’m still processing the visit. I probably should have canceled. But I stopped at home; changed; went out anyways. We’re sitting on backless stools, drinking wine and eating artichoke hearts paired with hard, salty cheeses, citrusy ceviche, warm focaccia topped with grilled vegetables. There’s the clatter of forks and knives against plates, the hum of conversation, laughter from a nearby table, and I try to snap my mind into the present, but it’s still sitting with my grandmother. I didn’t ask enough questions. They left me here to rot. I’m so lonely. Please, please don’t go.
4. My little brother has driven from Jerusalem to have dinner with my cousin and I. I’m sitting with two of my favorite people, but I can’t relax, I’m still shell-shocked from the conversation I had earlier. How motivated are you from 1 to 10? What else could you possibly do? “Charlie,” she says, squeezing my shoulder. “Put it aside.” I bring the glass of white wine to my lips; I’m not sure I know how.
5. I’m in the car with a pretty, blond-haired girl and we’re speaking French. I’m making an effort to keep the conversation going: how long ago did you move here–where do you live–how do you like it here–what do you miss–do you speak Hebrew. I’m stringing them along like beads on a necklace. And then it’s her turn and she asks how long I’ve lived in Tel Aviv (5 months) and before that? (New York) and what did you do there? (I went for my ex-husband’s job). Oh. (I recently got divorced). Is it hard, if you don’t mind my asking? (I don’t. It is). And then the barriers come down and the conversation gets interesting. I stop threading beads, relax, turn fully towards her. You want to talk about what hurts? That, I can do.
6. “Tell me something,” she says. My stories, they’re not at the tip of my tongue. I have to claw at my skin, pry open stitches, scratch them onto the wall, the blood dripping from my fingers.
Small talk makes me jittery. It’s easier with people I’m already in a relationship with; when the small talk is couched in the context of a relationship; when between the lines of how’s the weather and how was your day, she knows that my mood dips with the rain, and that I’ve spent the past few months building a new life for myself, amidst heartbreak and tears; when I mention being sick, she knows it’s the first time in eight years that I’m sick alone. It’s small talk that’s rich with context, with story, with background, forming part of a larger, ongoing dialogue. But the kind that just functions to fill the air between two people, to pass the time? It requires an effort from me that can, at times, feel supernatural.
It was especially difficult in July, when I had just arrived in Israel. My marriage was unraveling, but I hadn’t yet decided that I wasn’t going back. It had been a year since my last visit, and people wanted to see me for coffee. For a while, I didn’t have a working cell phone, which made it easy to avoid them. I walked around Jerusalem wearing purple sunglasses. Most of the time, my eyes were red, glossed with tears, but it was summer and people didn’t question the omnipresence of my sunglasses. I would meet my best friend for breakfast, place my sunglasses on the table and cry.
“How are you liking New York?” she asks, narrowing her eyes at me.
“I like it,” I respond, purposely not giving her much meat.
“I don’t see how you could,” she says.
Are you f—ing serious?
“I don’t see how anyone could live anywhere but here.”
You lived in New York for what? 40 years? Leave me the hell alone.
She has a hand on her hip, signaling that she’s just getting started. I slide my sunglasses back over my eyes.
“I’m so glad you like it here,” I say. I flash her a smile, walk away.
She leans back in her chair, says: It’ll be easier for you when you let go of trying to please everyone.
Growing up, my parents always remarked that I was so talkative. Tellement bavarde, my mom would say with a sigh, in half exasperation, like it wasn’t a good thing. I wonder when it stopped; when things shifted; when I pulled all of that speech back into my head.
I have days when I’m melancholic and in my shell and it’s taking all of my energy to process something all of those people sitting in the cramped hospital corridor and how scared she was when they brought the needle to her eye and how much money it costs to grow old and how dependent you become and how difficult life is and will I have to face all of this alone? and- what’s that?- you expect me to formulate sentences? Plural? As in more than one? All I want to do is retreat into my bedroom and close the door. Oh, and be a dear and pass me the chocolate, will you?
There are days when the air bears down on my skin, and it all feels so heavy. The universe is a dramatically different place- like someone turned a dial on gravity. I get out of bed, get dressed, go through the motions, and each step takes so much energy. I literally need to sit down, brace myself, before I can continue. On days like these, words sink through my body like quicksand; tears float to the surface. I pull myself through the day, collapse into bed at the end of it. Word count: minimum.
I find it’s easier to brace the crowds armed with brownies. I’ve (therefore) made a lot of them, and this is my favorite recipe, hands-down. It’s of the fudgy persuasion, you know, the best kind, really: thick and dense and rich. The chocolate is front and center, loud, unapologetic, a total scene-stealer. I had some crème fraiche festering on my countertop and it was delicious paired together: the lofty, tangy, vanishing crème fraiche with the insanely chocolatey brownies. They are equally perfect paired with a tall glass of milk. In fact, these are so good that they’ll end all need for small talk. Their eyes will open wide, and they will be reduced to ooohing and ahhhing. But if you’re faced with someone particularly insistent, and they decide to poke into your life and critique it, withhold the milk and let them gag on it.
The Baked Brownie
from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
These are my favorite brownies- fudgy, and rich and super chocolatey. They’re easy to make, and pretty fool-proof. The recipe doubles easily, and freezes beautifully (I made a double batch in the pictures above).
Yield: 24 brownies
1-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons dark cocoa powder
11 ounces quality dark chocolate (60-72%), chopped coarsely
8 ounces butter (2 sticks), cut into 1 inch cubes
1 tsp instant espresso powder
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
5 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat your oven to 350F/ 180C.
Butter the sides and bottom of a 9x13x2 glass or light colored metal pan (or line your pan with parchment paper; I’ve often used disposable aluminium pans).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder. Set aside.
Configure a large sized double boiler. Place the chocolate, butter, and the instant espresso powder in the bowl of the double boiler and stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and combined (and look utterly, utterly luscious). Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water of the double boiler. Add both sugars, whisking until completely combined and remove the bowl from the pan. Mixture should be room temperature.
Add three eggs to the chocolate/butter mixture and whisk until just combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until just combined. Next, add the vanilla and stir until incorporated. Be careful not to over beat the batter at this stage or the brownies will be cakey.
Sprinkle the flour/cocoa/salt mix over the chocolate. Using a spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet until just a trace amount of the flour/cocoa mix remains visible.
Pour the mixture into the pan and smooth the top with your spatula. Bake the brownies for 30 minutes (rotating the pan half-way through baking); check often towards the end to make sure you remove the brownies when they are just done, but not dry. Check for doneness by sticking a toothpick into the center of the pan; they are done when the toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs.
Cool the brownies completely before cutting and serving. I like to place the pan briefly in the freezer, for half an hour or so, which makes it easier to slice them with nice clean lines. The brownies keep well in an airtight container for up to a week, and freeze beautifully.