Thomas was my first boss at my first job out of college. He was the first person I met in the city who inspired that insecure and unsure girl to do better, to be better. Our friendship lasted beyond that first job, and we later worked together for Coprodeli, a nonprofit helping the poor of Peru. Years later, after he and Gina had Mia, I was overjoyed to be asked to have a small part in her childhood.
So when Mark and I traveled to Chicago, all I could think about was how wonderful it would be to see my Chicago family again.
Blue Line El train, Damen stop. In that familiar heat, suitcases in hand we took that familiar walk, past the park where I’d stroll with Mia, past the café where I’d sit outside with a beer on a sunny day… oh, the bittersweet memories came flooding back. I was home, but not home. I ached to continue walking down Damen, all the way to my old flat where I found myself, finally, living alone for the first time. I ached for home.
“Papi! Papi! they’re here they’re here!” I see a little girl sitting on the front stoop, blond as a little Marilyn Monroe, turning to run into the house to get her Papi because we’re finally here. Mark turns to me and smiles. I’m smiling and can’t stop. “Abre la puerta, por favor, Mia, abre la puerta!” I hear Thomas’s voice from inside the house. Mia comes down the porch steps and opens the gate. She’s a little girl now, no longer a crawling baby. My heart swells and feels like it just may pop. Thomas comes out with Mia’s new little sister Lourdes and I don’t know who to hug or kiss first. This is always how it should feel to come home.
We sit around the kitchen chatting and catching up. Thomas goes to the cellar and pulls out a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo. Something to go with the pizza he’s put into the oven. Now, when it comes to wine, Thomas doesn’t play around. I know that any casual bottle he pulls out of that cellar is going to be fantastic. He reveals a bottle of Pesquera. I’ve always wanted to try this wine! But as usual, I drink on a beer budget these days. The Pesquera was heavenly. Oh, you must get a bottle of this. It’s worth a few extra dollars, maybe dollars you would have spent on something silly anyway, right? I mean, what if you get hit by a bus tomorrow and you die without experiencing a sip of this stuff? Tragedy, People. Tragedy.
For dessert, Mia and her Papi put on a perfect performance in preparing and serving the special treat. Mia, almost four, put a white napkin over her arm and approached Mark asking, what would you like for dessert, sir? After informing us that the dessert that evening would be the ‘especialidad de la casa’ (house special consisting of toddler chocolate cookies, strawberries and whipped cream arranged in grand style on a dinner plate) it was served with gusto by our hostess, Mia.
As we nibbled our fancy-pants dessert served by our fancy-pants hostess, said hostess informed us that she wanted to go to Seattle. I inquired, “Hm, Mark, do you think she’d fit in my suitcase?” Mark replies, “Oh yes, I do think she’d fit.” Mia’s eyes grow large, and a mischevious smile comes across her face. You can tell she’s contemplating the possibility.
Mark and Mia
The next day we tour the city by car, admiring the polished skyscrapers, the avenues walled in by buildings, the parks, the bigness of it all. I had almost forgotten how big this city is, after three years being gone.
That Sunday evening, I was excited to take Chocoholic Mark to my old place of employment, Hot Chocolate restaurant (an early foreshadowing, I suspect, of the amount of chocolate I would encounter in my life with this guy.) I expected to walk in the door and not recognize a soul save the chef-owner, Mindy.
Nope, not a chance. The old crew was still there, to my astonishment. Chocolate must breed loyalty.
Mark ordered the mac ‘n cheese and a little Scottish Ale with a disturbing name - Skullsplitter. I ordered the grilled octopus with cannellini beans and tomatoes and a glass of Gruner Veltliner... and then crossed my fingers. Finding perfect octopus is as easy as, well, catching one with your bare hands. I haven’t had perfect octopus since the first time I had it in Spain so many years ago. Over the years I continue to order it, hoping each time that it would come out as tender and juicy and flavorful as that first bite in that little joint in Lorca, Spain in 1995. It never does. I don’t know why I keep on betting my dinner in order to get that remote payout of a mouthful of octopus bliss. Isn’t the definition of madness continuing to do the same thing over and over again and each time expecting a different result?
This time, the octopus was perfect. Here’s to madness. We also have a new favorite beer. Skullsplitter Ale from Orkny Brewery, violently delicious, if you may. And combining that bitter and sweet ale with the rich salty cheese souped over those macaroni elbows? Hea-ven. Like I said, some jobs were better than others.
The dessert, however, was the real show - with complex combinations, deconstructions, miniature towers, sauces poured with a flourish and ice cream flavors that only Willy Wonka would appreciate. We ordered two desserts but were served five. Surely my old friends were just concerned that our blood sugars were getting dangerously low. A chocolate cake, deconstructed, the chocolate tart with meringue and salted caramel ice cream served with a homemade pretzel, doughnuts with hot fudge sauce and caramel corn, a berry tart with sweet corn ice cream, and lastly, something that isn’t on their menu anymore, a ‘flight’ of hot chocolates with cookies and homemade marshmallows… just for old time's sake, of course.
Hot Chocolate Flight with sweet treats
Mark was in heaven. I was concerned that I wouldn’t sleep for a week, buzzed on sweets. It was obscene. We ate what we could, but barely made a dent. We walked back to the house late through the warm summer evening air, bags of leftover treats in hand.
That night as I lay in bed, images of all my years in that city ran like a projection reel in my mind. This place feels like home, but so does Indiana. Seattle feels like home too, just without the patina of many years of hardship and love. Where is my home? I still ask myself, as I feel sometimes like I should choose. I roll onto my side, and Mark is there beside me falling into sleep. I put my head on his chest and feel it rise and fall. I’m calmed by the warmth, he breathes and his hand strokes my head. Hmm, home, I think. This is home.