I moved to a place on the water. “I think you can make a real home here,” my mother said, stepping in, weighted down with boxes. I felt the dark wood moldings and breathed in the lake, a salt-dusted almost-sea smell, and agreed.
Now the place has some furniture in it, and I’ve stacked its shelves with what little I own, and it still feels like something borrowed. You can hear the waves in every room. You sleep to their pull, wake to their breaking. It gives new meaning to the thing we say about sadness, that it feels like living underwater. The waves, it turns out, don’t sound so different from under water than from three floors above it.
The neighborhood is Rogers Park. The only people who know where it is when I tell them are the ones I went to school with. This is the neighborhood we had to pass through to get to “the city.” It’s the neighborhood our professor wrote a very good book about, which some of us read and the rest of us half-read.
Rogers Park is considered a rough neighborhood. I won’t belabor the point, except to say that it seems an especially popular notion among the people who live along the lake, where maroon Porsches hum by the fenderless parked trucks of the men who maintain these buildings. Large immigrant families grill meat over portable grills at the free beach in the day. Unmarked cars patrol the parks at night.
So it is not a particularly rough neighborhood, unless you count the constant reminder that others worry for their safety, or yours. We are fenced in by the patrol cars to the west and the plain clothes cops and the cameras and barking dogs and literal fences and many layers of locked doors that keep what’s out out. It is not a rough neighborhood, unless you count the spiders and the sharp rocks in the sand and the melancholy wave-sounds, which I do, but only sometimes, in my moods.
I live alone. My neighbors seem surprised when I tell them. Most everyone here lives with their people – families, spouses, friends. They are surprised, not just that I live alone, but that my people are so far, a country, away and that still I live alone. It makes me a bit of an oddity, an eccentric. But this neighborhood is forgiving of eccentrics. I’m the monastic girl on the third floor. The girl with the camera and the bags of vegetables. Once this was a point of pride.
Some nights I participate in studies for the business school. There always comes a time on these tests when you are asked to rate your level of agreement with a variety of statements. “I am independent.” “I don’t need other people.” “Compared with others my age, I am at least or more capable.” “I am the kind of person I want to be.” “I have strong beliefs.” And I find I have been answering them with less and less conviction.
Let me tell you what I mean. Last week, on the phone with the gas company, I very nearly wept. I was explaining that I could not be home to oversee a routine meter reading (because I work for a living, I thought, but didn’t say), and they were insisting that they’d stop my service if it couldn’t be worked out. “It doesn’t have to be you,” the woman said, “It can be someone else, family, a roommate, a neighbor, a friend. Anybody.” There’s no one else, I told her, in one of those underwater voices.
Here’s the thing: In my voice — even I could hear it — there was this suggestion of, “You mean it’s not just going to get taken care of? No one’s swooping in? It’s not going to just go away?”
We never quite outgrow 16. Which is, I suppose, one lesson of living in a rough neighborhood – if by rough we mean lonely and by neighborhood we mean my head. It’s the lesson of living alone, somehow further north than ever, where there is no mother or lover or standard low-grade boyfriend to open the door for the Public Gas guy. So I did it myself, this morning. And it went away.
Farmers’ Market Ratatouille
Or, more accurately, Farmers’ Market “Ratatouille.” As you will see, this is not a traditional recipe. More a cold roasted vegetable salad. But it pleases me not to call it one.
– 2 small summer squash
– 2 small red onions
– 1 small eggplant
– 2 sweet peppers, one red and one yellow
– Handful Sungold tomatoes, cherry tomatoes or petit heirlooms
– 3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
– Fresh basil
– 4 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
– 3 tbsp White wine vinegar
– 3 tbsp plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
– 1 tsp honey
– Vegetable oil (for frying garlic)
– Kosher salt and pepper
– Pea sprouts or micro greens, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Chop vegetables, except tomatoes, into uniform 1/2 inch cubes. Arrange in a flat layer in a roasting pan, sprinkle with 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Roast for five to seven minutes, until eggplant is tender but not mushy. Remove from oven, move to a bowl, and cool completely in the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, reduce 4 tbsp of balsamic vinegar by half. Set aside.
Combine the dressing. Mix 3 tbsp white wine vinegar, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp honey and about a tsp of finely chopped basil. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Fry the garlic. Arrange thinly sliced garlic in a small nonstick pan with about 1/4 inch vegetable oil. Heat oil slowly, over medium-low heat, just until garlic begins to brown. When garlic slices are golden, remove to a paper towel to drain.
Remove the roasted vegetables from the refrigerator. Toss with dressing and more chopped basil. Season with salt and pepper.
To compose the dish, fill one 8-oz ramekin with the roasted vegetable mixture. Place a plate face-down on top and flip both over, without disturbing the ramekin. Refrigerate 5 minutes.
Remove the ramekin. Sprinkle vegetable mixture with fried garlic. Arrange Sunsweet or cherry tomatoes around the vegetables. Drizzle the plate with balsamic reduction, and garnish with greens and more basil.
Admire its beauty. Destroy it with a fork.