It’s 7:37 p.m.
Do You Know Where You Are?
I am running for the train at Grand Central when I see him: a man, about six two, thin, shoulders beginning to hunch prematurely, balding, prominent nose and cheekbones. He carries a laptop case slung over one shoulder and a gym bag over the other. His eyes have the weary look of a man who has not yet had dinner but suspects it may be too late. One hand darts nervously to his ear, holding a cell phone or a BlackBerry. The other hand clutches the bag as if it’s his last best chance. He looks left, then right, like a skittish cat, as he navigates the crowd loitering at the fast-food stalls, ducks oncoming traffic, and dashes for the train.
I follow him through the platform doors. For a moment I lose him at the bottom of the stairs, then he reappears by the second car. A gray man in a gray suit, chewing nervously on his lip. An apparition. A reflection. A warning.
If he notices our resemblance, he doesn’t acknowledge it as he surveys the crowded car from the vestibule, then chooses a seat near the front. He withdraws a soft pretzel from his gym bag, breaks off a piece, and chews slowly and deliberately as he slumps against the window. I continue past him and sit at the other end of the car.
The train is filled with lawyers, bankers, and advertising
executives making their evening run up the golden corridor of Metro- North’s New Haven line: Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, Westport, Southport, Fairfield. It is a commute with which I have become too familiar in the four years since I left Manhattan. A commute I never thought I would be making. A commute that sucks the soul from me in great gulps and fouls the air like the smell from the backed-up bathrooms and the socks of the hedge fund trader who insists on putting his feet on the vinyl seat.
It is 7:37 p.m. I am late. Again.
My life took a turn for the worse when I stopped making dinner. Not all at once, but gradually, stealthily, until the life I had lived resembled nothing at all of the life I was living. One day I was carefree, creative, happy, and loving; fifteen years later I was impatient, claustrophobic, angry, depressed, and resentful. Once I had been thoughtful, romantic, attentive. Now I ignored my wife and stomped about the house. Once I had dreamed of a certain success, now I dreamed of dreaming. I took pills to help me sleep, and pills to keep me awake, and pills to smooth the transition between the two.
I can see the moment of transition as clearly as if I graphed it. But at the time it’s not as if I could have said: “Here, this is where everything will go downhill.” If anything, when I moved back to New York I thought my life was beginning its upward trajectory. Little did I know.
I learned to enjoy cooking during my first years out of college. In a sweltering Somerville apartment I made my first jambalaya in a huge cast-iron skillet. In graduate school in Iowa City, traveling, to the food co-op was one of the highlights of my day. Buying beans in bulk, grinding my own peanut butter, discovering locally roasted coffee was almost too much fun for a single person. Sure enough, I met my wife at the co-op. In a little black dress and a pair of Doc Martens, she was serving cheese and crackers to discriminating shoppers. Our love blossomed as we experimented with making our own garam masala and ghee. Warm afternoons spent baking samosas. Black bean burritos, fried wontons, and scrambled tofu. Neither of us was an expert, but we were energetic, and willing to try anything at least once. With each new meal we wooed each other, expanding our repertoire as we broadened our affection. Making food together was almost as much fun as sleeping together, and often led directly to it—the bedroom was right off the kitchen. Dinner was the first step of a dance that would last the rest of our lives. Or so we thought.
Soon, Christine’s Moosewood Cookbook sat on the shelf next to my Joy of Cooking. My Classic Italian Cooking. Her Greens Cookbook. She was twenty-five, red-haired, blue-eyed, her lips like something to rest on. I was thirty and still fit enough to work out with the Iowa track team. I had postponed a career in law to write the Great American Novel and fallen in love with a poet from Idaho. We spent three years living together on East College Street, reading Marianne Moore and Alan Dugan, Michael Cunningham and Marilynne Robinson. When it was time to leave, we took our spices with us, jars with labels we handwrote: coriander, cumin, rosemary, thyme.
At first, New York City seemed the perfect move for a couple whose first date was at the only authentic Mexican restaurant in eastern Iowa. Within a few blocks of our Upper West Side apartment, we were surrounded by culinary representatives from most of Latin America as well as India, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, and the entire European continent. But life would be different in New York, as I quickly learned when the managing partner at my law firm called me in to his office to tell me he had noticed I wasn’t working as late as my colleagues. Most of the associates ate dinner together in the firm’s small conference room, and I was conspicuously absent. My hours had suffered, as had my work. His warning made me realize I was going to lose my job unless I ate dinner with the other lawyers—whom I barely knew and didn’t care for. We weren’t in Iowa anymore.
For the next few years I ate from some of New York’s best restaurants— in the comfort of a windowless room—as I learned to ply a trade about which I was ambivalent at best. The law was not the intellectual challenge I had expected, but a dull grind through a mountain of paper: tedious, amoral, and merciless. I brought home leftovers for my wife, who had taken to ordering in from Burritoville or Ollie’s while she graded English papers. Our tiny kitchen barely held enough food for breakfast, let alone a full meal. When we did eat together— on weekends and vacations—cooking was a distant memory. Instead, we subsisted on white cartons, aluminum containers, and plastic utensils. I rose most mornings at five to continue writing what would become my first novel, while the buses and garbage trucks rumbled below on Broadway.
The birth of our son and then our daughter forced my wife back to the kitchen. But it was a journey she made alone. As it was for many Manhattan parents with small children in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, mealtime was a multistage affair: kids, then adults, then leftovers. Though Christine managed to turn out the occasional dish with tofu or chickpeas, the logistics of preparing a meal for four in a kitchen with two burners, one chair, and no oven rarely flamed the culinary imagination. The living room doubled as a dining room; the sink became a table, and the food pyramid an Egyptian hieroglyphic. Strange smells from other apartments wafted up the hallways, few of them inspiring confidence in the gastronomic talents of our neighbors, most of whom we avoided as we clanged up and down the elevator. If New York was a melting pot, there were some funky things burning.
In the mornings, I walked my son to preschool. In the evenings I often jogged home alone, detouring through Central Park for a few extra miles. Professionally, my career had finally gathered momentum. I was working for CBS, doing First Amendment litigation that I enjoyed, and had published a novel and then a memoir about my indentured servitude in private practice. By the time my son started kindergarten, I was writing a third book, traveling regularly for work, contributing to various publications, teaching, and practicing law. I was the typical overachiever, unable to say no to anything, incapable of pulling my hand back as it reached for the next brass ring, keeping my gaze fixed on the distance, wondering what was just over the horizon.
But no one owns New York; we just rented it. The city was no place to raise a family, despite the proliferation of strollers on the sidewalks. Kids needed space, light, grass, and schools that didn’t cost twenty-five thousand dollars and require IQ tests, achievement tests, blood tests. Their parents needed peace. On West Eighty-sixth Street, my son’s first word was “loud.” My daughter played in a sandbox without sand. And so, after eight years in Manhattan, we bade farewell to our tight quarters, telling ourselves we were headed for a better, more spacious abode, with room for us and a table for dinner. We went north, as so many had before us, venturing into southern Connecticut where Mr. Blandings had built his dream house and John Cheever had torn it down. We would be content with a serviceable kitchen.
With a fifty-five-mile commute, however, getting home in time to eat, let alone cook, was a practical impossibility. I rarely returned before eight or nine o’clock at night, which was simply too late for our children. Sometimes my wife waited for me; more often, I picked up something at Grand Central and ate on the train: pizza from Two Boots, samosas from Café Spice, a turkey sandwich from Junior’s. Some nights I didn’t come home at all. In addition to teaching at New York Law School, I was working for a media insurance company in Kansas City, which required frequent trips to the Midwest. The travel to Kansas, along with the commute to Tribeca, made me feel like a man without domicile, an itinerant mercenary, a nomad.
I never imagined, when I was stir-frying in my Iowa City kitchen, that I would become the father who left for work in the morning before the sun rose and returned after his children were asleep. As a man who taught his wife to make risotto ai funghi, I assumed I was safe from the dull conformity of suburban life, the stratified gender roles of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. Yet here I was, trudging to the train station to catch the 6:01, the newspaper clutched in one hand, a half-eaten bagel in the other. That was me wandering around the parking lot trying to find my car in the darkness. One day I stopped cooking dinner, and the next day I woke up in a gray flannel straitjacket. What was a father to do?
I leave the train at Green’s Farms station. A dozen other men and one woman exit with me, all of them from the rear car like battle- hardened veterans who know the exact location of the stairwells and the shortest distance between two points. My doppelgänger is nowhere to be found, and I assume he departed at an earlier station, proximity to New York being a direct reflection of the size of a man’s wallet. Westport, where I live, is not exactly the golden mean, but it is more affordable than Darien or Greenwich, and certainly better than Rye, Scarsdale, or Larchmont, the hallowed Westchester suburbs where the commute is at least thirty minutes shorter and houses are proportionately more expensive.*
By the time I arrive at my home, it is 8:55. My daughter is asleep, but my son is awake, and lies in bed reading Archie comics. He has gone through two boxes of his mother’s old comic books, and is now rereading his favorites. His long legs stretch across the blankets, and he wears a dozen “Live Strong” bracelets of various colors on his left wrist and a seashell necklace around his neck. Nine years old, with size nine feet, a mop of sandy brown hair, and as skinny as a broom handle.
“I thought you said you were coming home early,” he says.
“I was, but I got stuck on a conference call.”
“What’s a conference call?”
I wish only for my son that he will never experience a conference call, that the world of corporate machinations will forever remain foreign to him. Lately, he has been IMing me in my law school office. I find it both startling and depressing, like a man who has discovered hairs sprouting from his ears.
I describe my telephone conversation with the insurance claims handler I was counseling, but he has already returned to his comics. I kiss the top of his head and tell him lights out in ten minutes.
Across the hallway his sister is asleep, one arm splayed above her head, the other clutching a stuffed puppy. She wears a pair of her mother’s old pajamas, which are nearly thirty years old but fit her perfectly. Her hair is bleached a summer blond from chlorine and salt, and she wears a rope bracelet around one ankle. I brush a damp lock of hair from her mouth and tuck her gently back into the blankets, then close her door behind me.
I go downstairs and retreat to my office, where I reply to
e-mail for the next forty-five minutes. When I emerge, it is nearly ten o’clock, and I startle my wife in the kitchen.
“I thought you were upstairs,” she says.
“I was checking my messages.”
“I was about to come up.”
Instead of responding, I thumb through the mail on the kitchen counter.
“How was teaching?” she asks.
“Okay,” I say, ripping open the electric bill.
“Are you coming to bed?”
“In a few minutes.”
I’m not exactly sure why I can’t put away the bills, or why I have to check my e-mail compulsively, or why I sequester myself in my home office with the door closed. These are things that I should probably talk about, but I can’t.
My wife shrugs, and leaves me there in the kitchen. I wish she would try harder to coax me upstairs, but given my unresponsiveness, I can’t say I blame her. I have become untouchable in the last few years, immune to expressions of affection, until my wife and children have begun treating me like a cantankerous uncle, tiptoeing around my bad humor and swollen feet.
I finish separating the payment demands from the catalogues and credit card offers. I throw the former on my desk, and the latter in the trash. I remember, as a kid, wishing I could receive as much mail as my own father did; now that I do, I realize all he received were bills.
Finally, I trudge to the bedroom and find my wife asleep with the lights on and a book splayed across her chest. Her glasses have slipped crookedly down the bridge of her nose. As she lies there, the tension drained from her brow, I can see the faces of our children in hers: the broad plane of my son’s forehead, my daughter’s high cheekbones, his freckles, the swoop of her lips. I lift the glasses from my wife’s face and set the book on her nightstand. Then I brush my teeth, swallow an Ambien, and climb into bed beside her.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Dinner with Dad by Cameron Stracher. Copyright © 2007 by Cameron Stracher. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.