This is Summer: Season Five {Episode 5}

Garcia’s dinner 

The best Mexican food here 

In our opinion 

{Ravenswood, Chicago}

~Natalia 

That’s Nothing

We made the cake the night before.

1am driving home from bonfire conversations under the stars, my phone buzzes in my lap.

Where are you? Tam asks, hinting at the hours I know she’s already spent cleaning the house, amidst putting the three little sisters to bed.

On my way, I tell her. What do we need to do? 

And then we’re standing in the kitchen with the lights on low, casting short yellow shadows over the neat piles, the wiped counter. The day’s long hours etched on his face, he leans against the dishwasher while I mix cookie batter, eggs.

He pours the milk while I stir. Tam cleans the office while, down the hall, the rest of the family sleeps.

The clock ticking towards 2am, I unload the dishwasher while Tam sweeps. The scent of vanilla cake wafting from the oven mingles with the bonfire smoke still in my hair, and his sweater, and the dish-soap steam rising from the dishwasher.

Slowly, as if already in a dream, we finish the tasks, say goodnight, close doors on a long, working, waiting Saturday.

The next day, we’ve more than an hour between arriving home from church and the first buzz of the front door.

We’re three in the kitchen then; Tam and I and El Papa, too, rotating around one another, taking a turn at the sink, at the stove, at the fridge.

In the front room, three little girls step barefoot across the freshly-vacuumed carpet. The two youngest have arranged their egg hunt candy in piles, sorting foil-wrapped chocolate and off-brand jelly beans into rows and aisles.

The potatoes I made yesterday, two hours of peeling, cooking, layering, sit covered in the basement fridge. The cake is there, too; both spuds and dessert tucked into shelves already heavy-laden with a building’s worth of surplus food, drinks, groceries.

The kitchen counter empties, briefly. Papers, trinkets, plastic cups from the play kitchen filled with hair ties and assorted coins are swept off the speckled surface, leaving it unfamiliarly bare. Then, slowly, the space fills once more.

On one end, stacks of plates. Butter dishes. Salad bowl. On the other end, vases hold nearly every fork I can conjure from the cabinets, a napkin-lined basket awaits the rolls, who in turn await their time in the oven.

I swirl between kitchen and hall, move in quick, light steps through dining room, living room. Grab a dish, meet a guest. Check my phone, tidy a corner. The buzzer rings once, then again and again as the clock ticks towards 2pm, and with every buzz, the hum of conversation, of memory and story, of did you hear and do you remember grows yet stronger.

The bacon-wrapped dates, a dish we’ve anticipated since the morning, arrive, tucked safely under an arm and an umbrella. The press in the kitchen is tight then; our tummy-sucking, arms up, slide sideways rotating around one another grinding to a halt in the wake of the delectable appetizer.

It takes five minutes for each date, encased in crispy, dripping bacon, to be pried from the pan, set out on the largest serving tray that Tam can find. Five minutes and nearly 20 of them have been consumed, even before the tray leaves the kitchen.

There’s a list on the fridge. Dry erase-written sum of the dishes to be served. I’m standing there in front of the fridge, erasing things accomplished, when Tam leans over to check the ham, one hand pulling the oven door open, the other reaching into its heated center, meat thermometer extended.

Amidst the sound and the movement, there’s a moment’s pause. I watch her brow furrow, follow her eyes as they dart to the oven dial, then meet her wide eyed gaze as she darts to turn the dial, cranking it higher. The list and the ingredients, the cheese tray and the hummus bowl; it’s all there, it’s all served and ready, and we’re here in the packed kitchen with a ham that’s not been cooking properly.

What’s wrong? Someone asks, stopping short on her way through the kitchen, her eyes catching our own in that one, anxious instant. Nothing, we laugh, smirking at each other as she steps over the threshold, down the hallway.

And really, it is nothing. More than twenty guests, sitting in huddles throughout the living room, leaning into the conversation, heads and shoulders thrown back to laugh: that’s something. A kitchen counter laden with food, and standing against the counter, watching athletes and grad students heap their plates, returning once, twice for another plate: that’s something. Standing around the dining table, swapping corny jokes and puns long after the meal has been finished: that’s something. Collecting dishes, arranging and rearranging stacks to be washed with the helpful hands of a kind cleanup volunteer: that’s something. Sitting together, a family of seven so rarely in one place at one time, on the couch after all have left, clinging to the moments of wholeness: that’s something.

But a ham that needed another 30 minutes in the oven? That’s nothing.

~Natalia

Sunday Afternoon Ice

We’re going to Naf Naf, I tell her, my voice hushed. We’re sitting side by side, in a pew far closer to the front of the church that we originally intended. I suppose that’s what happens when you arrive at 10:28am for a service that begins at 10:30am.

She nods in enthusiastic agreement, offers a response, as all around us, the morning’s worship set fills the high-ceilinged room, and outside, the first snowfall of 2015 settles slowly into grass, street, and car.

Of course, we’re still there two hours later, as the last of the lingerers shrugs coats onto shoulders, tightens scarfs around winter-pale necks. We’re still in the stone-tiled lobby of the building, our voices echoing across the wide space, and outside, the snow is still drifting down, blowing across the street in gusts whose strength we can barely assess from our insulated standpoint.

Slowly, in stuttering stops and starts that have one of us ready and seven others meandering each in their own direction- slowly, we get ready to leave. Four of us leave, pushing through the automatic side door out into the white-sky brightness of a winter day of white clouds and white snow and white, swirling wind. Another has already left- he’ll meet us there. Two others, a third then, are nowhere to be seen, but coming soon, no doubt.

It’s always a process, leaving this Sunday morning building.

But then, we’re six, there on the steps, and that’s enough for a party- and two more coming later- and we begin the walk to lunch, to that Chipotle-style promise land of Mediterranean food and the most unique french fries I’ve ever eaten. It’s a two-block journey; to the corner, past Subway, Pot-Belly’s, Jamba Juice. Across a plaza and a street and another plaza. Past Fountain Square and a towering office building or two, and even the black steel building that used to be Borders. You know, back when Borders existed.

We’ve made it around the corner, are nearly to Jamba Juice, when the wind hits. Blowing across the plaza in huge, snow-colored gusts, the cold whips at our ears, pulling hair every which way, and shoving tiny bits of ice down the necks of our coats, into our sleeves, down our boots. Heads down, we shriek, the wind carrying our voices away just as soon as the syllables leave our lips.

The father far ahead of us now, a little girl clasping each hand, we fall behind, fighting against the scorching, searing, freezing winter wind. My tights quickly turn from black to white, as the wind plasters bits of snow to the thick knit. My eyes turned down to shield them from the stinging flakes, I turn sideways, almost discombobulated, thrown for a loop, by the ferocious wind, and our need to move through it.

Shrieking still, fighting, and yet laughing at the fierce absurdity of it all, we cross the street, pass the (long empty) fountain, and finally, finally, step- or collapse- through the restaurant doors.

Shaking shoulders, brushing our arms, stamping our feet, we will the cold away from us. Inside moments longer, we pull coats off, slip scarves into pockets, stuff them down sleeves. Catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I laugh to see my head covered in ice; snow that had melted ever so slightly, frozen again atop my head.

We unwind and unwrap and settle in, moving erratically around the little restaurant as our group slowly arrives. Coats in a pile, purses scattered across seats, we occupy twice as much space as necessary, but the little girls have opinions, have a plan, and when the food is ordered, arrives, they direct. You there, you’re sitting here, you can go on that side.

And we sit, eight there in the warmth, with the food before us and the ice melting off our boots, into puddles below us. And the biting chill outside rivals the glow of contentment inside, and we linger long there, over out pita, our fries, our falafel. And when we go outside once more, stomachs full, hair now thoroughly melted, the wind is not quite so bad, and the cold is not quite so bitter, and the friendship is all the richer.

~Natalia

Fancy Night

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Two weeks, or really more,
Of deadlines hanging above us,
Stress mounting as due dates approach,
Sitting in class, we whispered
Fancy Night,
Marking the day in our minds,
A reward for hours, days, of effort.
And there’s more to do, of course;
More tests, more papers, more work.
But last night, we exclaimed over dresses,
Curled hair in the bedroom mirror,
And relished dinner and dessert
In a window seat downtown,
And it was wonderful.

~Natalia

Midnight Hallway

It’s nearly midnight and I’m perched on my tall bed.

Computer balanced on my lap, cursor blinking where I’d left it, mid-sentence.

I’ve paused, hands in midair, listening.

In the hall, on the other side of the thick wooden door, something rustles.

I lean off the bed, watch the tiny space under the door for movement, shadows.

Nothing moves.

I turn, settle back onto my flattened pillow once more, run fingers over my keyboard; I’m about to write-

The sound once more. A silent hallway, devoid of voices, and yet something moves, crinkles, just beyond my door.

I slide off the bed, pad the two steps to the door, open it slowly.

Krista, also known as The Neighbor, looks up rather guiltily from her seat on the flat carpet across from my door.

A styrofoam cup of horchata next to her, taco clutched in one hand, her deep blue eyes crinkled into laughter before her mouth- temporarily full of taco- could catch up.

I laughed, too, sinking on the floor across from her, working to contain my amusement to a quiet-hours appropriate decibel level.

Of course, it’s a scene I’ve seen many times before: Krista, cross-legged in the night-lit hallway, laptop, textbooks, Bible spread around her.

But tonight I’ve caught her mid-bite in a midnight snack, the taco wrapper rustling with every delicious bit, and maybe it’s the hour,

or maybe it’s the stories, adventures, let’s-get-fancy-just-because nights we’ve shared,

but there in that midnight hallway, we can’t help but laugh.

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Dressing Up for No Reason Fall 2013.

~Natalia

Cinco de Mayo

We gotta have a Cinco de Mayo party, someone says. Our meetings, those conference room fiestas, swaying in our spinning chairs, crunching tortilla chips topped with rich guacamole; those meetings are on Monday nights, and ending the year with a Monday night Cinco de Mayo fiesta just seems right.

So we plan. Sitting in that campus apartment, propped in the same places we’ve each sat all year long; in the miniature papasan, Eli balanced on the edge of the couch, laptop balanced across her legs, on the floor, within easy reaching distance of the treats. Every Wednesday afternoon, we buzz into the towering white apartment building, swing into the little apartment, take our seats, and plan.

Authentic Mexican our goal, we write shopping lists for carne asada and all its accessories. Tortillas (corn, in the paper package), salsa, queso, seasoning. We order platters of rice, beans from a restaurant, estimating expected attendance and guessing at serving size. We prepare the grill, book the roof party space. I spend an afternoon collecting event posters from the basement copy center, then excitedly pinning them to bulletin boards throughout campus.

Monday afternoon, party day, rolls around and our team is split; three scramble into a car we’ve rented from school, weaving down 94 on our way to food pick-up and taco ingredient shopping. Five others stay at school, setting up, and our shared text thread beeps intermittently: Did you start the grill? Do we have chips? We bought treats! Can you bring a tray? Don’t forget the music!

I ride in the backseat, shiny silver trays of beans, rice, resting at my feet. In the trunk, 130 tortillas and 16.5 pounds of thinly-cut steak gently slide with ever sharp turn we take on the way back to school.

An hour later, there’s a party. Of course, “wherever two or three latinos are gathered, there is a party” but here on the fourth floor roof in the fading sun, the music plays a Latin pop background to the hum and spark of conversation, laughter, and the crunching of tortilla chips and takis de fuego. Along the east wall, the fire in the grill flickers to life, pale gray smoke billowing in the wind towards Michigan Ave, the Hancock, Lake Michigan.

There are forty people on the roof by the time a portion of the meat is ready, and the thin, savory strips of carne disappear from the table in minutes. As the sun sets and the purple dark of city night settles around us, the white light of the doorway shows the silhouettes of our peers, friends, and guests as they continue to arrive. The wind whips the streamers we’ve hung, carrying with it the clatter and exclamations of a fiesta.

We’re three at the grill; one seasoning the carne, his hand red with seasoning salt and meat. Nico and I stand side by side before the grill’s flames. She grips meat tongs and a knife, systematically placing, flipping, checking, moving, removing strip after strip of the juicy steak. It’s the tortillas that occupy my hands. Arranging them on the grill, flipping them, sliding and shuffling them across my half of the grill; this one here, that one hotter. This one’s done, that one’s crispy. My fingertips are red and soft from grazing across the grill, but it’s warm here, next to Nico, our hands over the flames, and soon, we’ve established a rhythm.

Meat on, tortillas on. Meat off, tortillas off. We prepare and we heat and we cook, and behind us, on the roof, the people come, go, move, dance, laugh, eat, and eat some more. As the night winds on, we run out of guacamole first, then queso, then beans, plates, and silverware. As darkness settles yet deeper, the crowd on the roof dwindles, the remaining friends gathered in a loose circle around the grill, for here is the heat, and here is the food.

And in those late night moments, we are most authentic. Cook the meat, heat the tortillas, we pass carne asada tacos into outstretched hands, slurp cold rice from dixie cups. Then, the meat finally gone, we roast marshmallows over the grill’s flames, pulling the sticky balls of the tips of the steak knives (the only roasting sticks we could find) and sandwiching them between Maria crackers.

And we’re dancing and laughing on the roof, hair and clothes pungent with the scent of grilled meat and the spring wind on that Cinco de Mayo night.

~Natalia

Last Night Dunkin

I’ve been reflecting on this past school year, Mar tells me. We’re walking side by side, and I’m probably too close to her, leaning in to listen as we sway around corners, between passers-by, but she doesn’t seem to mind, or notice.

I nod, Oh, yea? I ask, turning away from her to glance ahead, to “watch where I’m walking” as the mother would say. Next to me, Mar nods, hums an affirmation, then begins to share what she’s been reflecting on, swirling lessons and memories with wondering and laughing, her crystal-clear blue eyes flashing softly as she recollects.

That was three days ago, Mar’s school reflections. And now the school year is over and she texts me not from two doors down but from an several towns away, and I’ve begun to reflect, as well. Reflect on the past year, and the spring semester that just ended. Reflect on this upcoming summer months and last year’s summer months; what might be the same, what I’ll do differently. What I hope, what I pray.

You’ll hear some of my reflections here, no doubt. Stick around this space, come again to visit, and I’ve a strong suspicion that you’ll find stories of the past months; words and notes looking back on the last eight months, most of which flew by in a steady, busy, contentedly-whirlwind pace. And tonight, my second night at home for the summer, and the first night in which I did not fall asleep on the couch before the little ones had even been tucked in, I’m reflecting upon, remembering, my junior year at Moody Bible Institute, and I return, again and again, to Friday night; my last night at school for the year, and Mar’s last night at school ever.

Packing night, of course. Packing and cleaning, frantically rubbing scuffs off the wall, vacuuming under beds in preparation for our year-end room checks, crossing fingers and daring to hope that we’ll not incur fines for this carpet stain, that chipped wall paint, this dresser drawer set askew.

Up and down the hall, doors are propped open, and those that aren’t open and close frequently, swishing open, then softly banging closed. As the night ticks later, passing first 8pm, then 9pm, rooms empty and the hallway fills; suitcases filled to near-bursting lean against the off-white glossy walls. Garbage bags of bedding, winter jackets, and occasionally, actual garbage, lie wherever they were tossed haphazardly in the race to prepare for our checks.

Then, after our crazed rush to hurry up and wait, Nelle is in the room, checklist in hand. She opens drawers, clicks the closet light on, runs her long, shapely fingers over the top book shelf. With a breath of relief and disbelief, I hear her say I’ve done well, there are no fines, my room checks out. Sighing, smiling, I sit on the sheet-less Tall Bed, the plastic-wrapped mattress under me crinkling when I reach for my phone. As Nelle’s blonde-gold hair disappears through my open doorway, I read the messages that illuminate my phone.

Dunkin? The group thread reads. They want to go to Dunkin.

That’s a Mar thing. America runs on Dunkin Donuts, but Mar absolutely thrives on any kind of donut, and Dunkin is a convenient block away, offering such thrilling services as coffee drinks “happy hour” and 24-hour service for late night snacks and those awkward when-is-this-date-gonna-end-let’s-go-to-dunkin-because-everything-else-is-closed moments. So this same group thread is replete with Dunkin plans: Let’s go. Are you going? Meet in the plaza? Want anything? Come with!

And on Friday night, as the clock in the plaza slowly moves towards midnight, we beep down to the lobby, meet the guys, and then we’re walking through the quieting Chicago streets in our sweats and jackets, crossing the street under the el tracks to finally step into the orange glow of Dunkin. We’re seven, there in the donut air, tired and stressed, oddly disoriented by the sudden up-ending of our year-long routine. We’ve had all year to prepare for the end, to know that one day in mid-May, we would spend our last hours of the year in the school in the city that we love. But it surprised us nonetheless, and we order drinks, bagels, and sit in a line along the rosy pink-orange wall. We eat and laugh, conversation ebbing and flowing as we munch and think, alternately wondering at the year’s apparent end and pretending that it’s not really over.

Then, bagels finished, iced coffee reduced to a cup of milky ice cubes, we stand, push through the door, step through the Chicago streets, back to school. I’ve thought about going upstairs, sleeping, being alone, but something keeps me, and I stay where they stay, curled on the worn-in blue couches in the lounge. And we’re eight people now, and just as many conversations, and we talk across and talk over, but easily, gently, relaxing into the evening as midnight turns to 1am, and our eyes begin to droop.

Minutes after 1am, we part ways. The guys to their dorm, Krista, Mar, Di and I to our respective rooms. And then Saturday morning’s graduation came, four of our Dunkin buddies, really Dunkin’s biggest fans, march down the aisle with caps, gowns, their diplomas awaiting them on the stage, alongside the school’s president. And graduation disperses what the end of school displaced, and we’re none of us in the same place we spent the last year, but memories of that Dunkin night, and so many others, are not easily erased, and nor are their reflections.

~Natalia

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