“Well, the cheese is finally sent! You will likely receive it tomorrow. I suggest you make a grilled cheese sandwich with it, right away.”
I received this enticing email on Wednesday from an old friend in Spokane. What whim had caused him to mail cheese to me? Across the state, yes, but also across unfathomable reaches of space and time, as one reckons the distance between Spokane and Seattle, between a former life and this one.
On Thursday night I had book club after work. I got home late, full of pasta and wine, giddily replete after an evening of non-stop laughter with my fierce and elegant ladies. But I remembered to check the mailbox. And there it was–a slim box that I pried open to find a block of Vermont Cheddar with Habanero peppers.
I stood musing for a moment, looking at the brick of cheese in my hand. While I didn’t know exactly what had prompted this particular gift of spicy cheese, it was not without context. Food never is.
Neither of us had much back in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Spokane. Fine dining was not an option. Often enough, groceries weren’t either. I ate at work, mostly. Bass strings were more likely to be boiling on his kitchen stove than pasta. A pint of Haagen-Dazs Rum Raisin ice cream was a treat we savored.
I remember walking across the street to the 7-11 for microwave burritos in the wee cold hours of the morning, then hurrying back to bed with the molten meal. The winter it hit 70 below and how my forehead ached as if my very skull were freezing. Welcome to the Jungle playing on my Walkman while I rode the bus to work on summer mornings as the sun rose. The way the kitchen smelled when I walked in the back door of the Mexican restaurant where I did prep, the green of cilantro under my knife blade, the sting of Habanero peppers on my hands as I made salsa. The fatigue, bone-deep, of working all day at the restaurant, then going on to community college at night with the smell of grease and sweat still in my hair. The pop and sigh and first sip of the countless cans of Mountain Dew I opened to keep going. And late night meals of cold grilled chicken and tortillas, brought home from work in Styrofoam cartons.
There was struggle in those days–cold and penury and waiting hungrily for a glimpse of a better future, but also love and laughter along the way.
I held in my hand the essence of memory.
And so on Friday, per instructions, I sliced thick slabs of the cheese. Inside, the swirls of peppers were the reds and oranges of a tropical sunset. I buttered some French bread and made myself a hot, spicy, drippy, toasty grilled cheese for lunch. A very good grilled cheese.