I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s the fact that Brian showed up to class today with his new chef’s coat tucked into his checked pantaloons, or the fact that his dullard nature has him three paces behind everybody else. Maybe it’s because he calls the consommé raft a sofrito, or that he can’t figure out a three-sink system, moving sautiers from soap to sanitation without so much as a rinse. Maybe it’s because Junior is the only one laughing at his own insipid story about catching a homeless gentleman taking a shit behind the Walgreen’s dumpster; or maybe it’s because Junior acts the Philistine and quaffs his finished consommé from a mug instead of spooning it with the savor it deserves: “Fuck! I can taste it so much better this way!”
I lend him a napkin and sigh.
Me: “Just don’t keg-stand the stock pot, Junior.”
I don’t know what it is. I woke up this way, so lend my fellow students grace—they’re just add-on to my irritation–not the source of it–though their front-brain proclivities and tardiness to the kitchen unseat me at times. (On the contrary, I always beat Chef to the school, twenty minutes early being on-time, being on-time too late; and when it comes to using the old gray matter in the kitchen, I don’t use the pour spout when seasoning a velouté, nor grab the sherry bottle when a recipe calls for a dry white. I take myself way too seriously). These are just kids and I’m at present their current ages combined. Junior can’t even legally buy a drink; I’m in sober living with an advanced degree in transgressivism, my curriculum vitae espousing multiple stays in San Diego’s various detox facilities and one fated night atop the roof of my house (I digress).
No, it’s not Brian, nor Junior, or the particular manner in which they people a kitchen with youthful unconcern. I’m just wizened, not necessarily wiser–wizened. To wit: I used to think Bronte’s ‘Wuthering’ was actually a misspell, so were I a novel right now I’d be ‘Withering Heights’, a languishing tale certainly, and one featuring a Byronic hero gripped with ennui. Step aside Heathcliff; there’s a new broody dude to take your place. And appropriately he’s in funereal black beneath all the chef’s whites.
We are dicing onions. Junior is openly weeping—he’s in fact retreating to the kitchen sink every two minutes to rinse his hands and splash water on his face, lightweight—but I’m the one with the undefinable lump in my throat. It’s been stubbornly there since my 1 a.m. dorveiller, when taking a cigarette outside Amethyst I am hit with a kind of midnight melancholy. Usually I’m what I call a ‘Starry Nighter’, homage to Van Gogh who quoted “For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” He also said “the night is more alive and richly colored than the day” and I’m inclined to agree. But at 1 a.m. I feel the first rising of an as yet unborn sob, stuck in the passages somewhere. It’s night and I’m far from starry.
Junior: “Goddamn! Aren’t you crying?” Junior is furiously scrubbing his hands of onion juice again.
Me: (drily, and while chopping planks into batonets): “Just on the inside, Junior. Just on the inside.”
” April is the cruelest month”—I say it all the time in deference to T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’—and historically speaking, the beginning of spring marks the end of my ‘Mad Season’, when I seasonally—and like Van Gogh—switch out moods in obeyance to my bipolarity. Winter, I fly high—I am something Icarus, something sky-bound—but by April I can crash a mess of spent feathers and melted wax. There is a price to pay for flying too close to the sun, or, in my and Vincent’s case, too close to the stars. I wonder if that’s what it is today, my body acting on a particular muscle memory of a now dormant manic-depression. It’s been three years since I felt the euphoric rush of my Mad Season, but maybe there are vapors still. My sleeping habits have been closely mirroring those of my old manic self: first sleep, dorveiller, second sleep—maybe five hours en todo. Still I am not somnolent during the day, a nap is not necessary. Go, go, go until I force myself into Nod. Let the fulgurations cease. Be still.
The surface of the stock pot is itself motionless, the barest of bubbles marking the beginnings of a simmer and Brian is champing at the bit. He is poised with nutmeg because Junior is too, Brian not having an original thought in his head, and their collective choice of spice is questionable if not downright Philistine. Even Chef gives them a weary look as if to say, “What fucking now?” But not one to dampen their pioneering spirit, he just asks, “Nutmeg? In tortilla soup?” before leaving them to their own devices. I have Mexican oregano in lieu of epazote, which the recipe originally calls for, and am secretly hoping Brian and Junior over-season their creations (as they are wont to do) considering nutmeg is a kitchen poison in large amounts. Just a tablespoon straight up will give you a myristicin high, with norepinephrine flood gates wide open. I would like to see Brian on hallucinogens. It would make him at least interesting. Like a Dali clock or something. As is, he is the class dullard, a taupe paint chip of a person, done up matte. I try and give him the benefit of the doubt, but he gets lost in a room of only three workstations, often times grabbing my knife in error else my finished demi-glace, the latter of which is inexcusable and deserving of a fillet knife between the ribs. We are supposed to be a team, but lately I’ve been unapologetically spelling ‘team’ with an ‘I’. As in ‘I’ am saving myself. Junior’s already rifled through my knife set looking for his misplaced blade—and you never touch another man’s knife set, Bourdain famously saying, “Your knife is your cock”—and Brian is (he thinks) secretly weighing out my mise en place for reference when he can’t break down a simple recipe. ’32 divided by two is sixteen, Brian—it’s fucking sixteen. Now hands off my me-see.’
No, it’s not even Brian that’s having me awry. I’m just off-kilter, I seemingly have absorbed the askew nature of the Culinary Institute’s environs, both in and out. The Institute is located in Barrio Logan, once San Diego’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhood, now an epicenter of gentrification what with the explosion of microbreweries, restaurants, and art spaces. This used to be where Mexican cartels would send scouts to pick up nortenos for their bloody street gangs, now it’s a great place to buy a taco (Las Cuatras Milpas FTW) and check out the latest installation at the Soda and Salt. Thing is, the CCAI is on National Avenue, which—like a magician’s tablecloth—has been picked up by the corner on its south side, then whisked away for all to clatter into place, detritus to the north side. We’re on the north side. Outside the Institute walls is a tent city, a homeless enclave in between the Barrio and downtown’s southeast center. The vainglorious Petco Park is in view as is the Central Library and the Transportation building. What lies in the middle is everything that has otherwise been displaced. Ten dollars? It’ll buy you a pint at the Park else a hit of meth on the street. To pay for either generally involves psychosis and, indeed, the avenue outside CCAI is full of angry zombies in crystal heat. Loud voices and displaced aggression. Drunks can be amiable, hotheads on meth vapors not so much. I steer clear of the tent city, though it’s only a stone’s throw away. The closest I get is the café table next door to the Institute where I take my cortado on the daily in avoidance of Brian and Junior at breaktime. It’s across from the blue tent where I believe a homeless man of importance lives. His blue canopy is much trafficked. I just drink my espresso and watch the comings and goings of the randos, think of later when I will be going to Jenny’s.
I miss Jenny, and maybe that is what is setting me off. How to describe. I don’t know, but my room at Amethyst bares her imprint. It’s a practiced devotion, but not slavishly so: I know she’s gone and I’m not wallowing. Still, her picture is in no less than four places. Jenn by contrast has erased me from her apartment, reduced me to one photograph which is in her ill-used kitchen and on the side of the refrigerator (wouldn’t it be good, I think, for the kids to have pictures of their daddy? I say nothing). We have established, me and Jenny, that there has been inequity—and I’m loathe to use such a pecuniary term but, sadly, most relationship words are—there has been inequity both in and outside of our togetherness. I sometimes lacked presence, erupted in fits of frustration; she sometimes lacked sentimentality, always needed to fix. I was the poet whose poetry was not needed and she was the begrudging muse who needed fewer words, more action. Still, we communicated so often and so well, that it is a wonder things were left unsaid, and unresolved. I used to love to sit on the rim of the bathtub with a cup of coffee while Jenny did her daily ablutions, staring at her adoringly while she practiced her mirror face and applied her foundations, did up her lustrous hair. I will never run out of words to describe her. But somehow, I think all conversation ended a long time ago.
Him: “I think I love you more than you love me.”
Her: “I think you’re right.”
(Followed by the inevitable throwing of objects, which admittedly didn’t help his case any).
I recently got a tattoo for Jenny on my upper arm. It is a print by Egon Schiele who is renowned for his lascivious lithography—sometimes bordering on the pornographic—and it is inscribed with Jenny’s name. Brian says, “Someday we’ll know what Thom’s tattoos mean…” Luckily the Schiele is on the bicep above the rolled-up sleeves of my chef’s coat. Brian nor Junior will not see it and they, being of a diminutive age, wouldn’t understand it anyway. They do not know that the man who carries such confidence in the kitchen and who is punctual to a fault, is in fact a broken mess. I can cut a 1/16th inch brunoise with ease, but there are hundreds of as-miniscule cuts which make up my heart. And speaking of cuts, I am also keenly aware of the Angle of Luis, which begins below my mandible, crosses the throat, and ends above the opposite collarbone. It is the imaginary line the executioner envisions to guide the guillotine for the cleanest severance possible (severance: another pecuniary word). I was severed in two on October 13th, left to my own devices, some say left to die. One applies alcohol to a wound, and I obligingly absorbed all things antiseptic. I could’ve died, and not just figuratively. The second and final death. I could’ve tattooed crossbones over the ‘;Amor fati’ stamp on my left wrist and just drowned in my thinking chair.
Listening to songs like: “You didn’t see me I was falling apart/ I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.”
No, Brian and Junior will not know this, my brokenness, nor see my Schiele. The tattoo depicts a male lover resting on crossed arms in a woman’s lap, she nude-save-for-stockings in genuflection over him. He is subordinate in his pose, kneeling before her, and the woman’s hair cascades over his crown. Her eyes are closed and her hands disappear beneath his crossed arms to rest in between her thighs. It is a highly sensuous drawing–not necessarily sexual–and I am subordinate to Jenny in the manner the tattoo depicts. Sometimes I’m even damn near placative so as not to upset any extant intimacy between us. I have worshipped Jenny far more than she ever will me. It is the truth. I have to accept that. She is her own person after all, but– goddammit–she was *my* Dulcinea. Dulcinea and ‘dulce’ share the same root—‘sweet’; I ink my flesh, I keep Jenny’s pictures, I relish this, the sweet honeyed pain. In my way, I practice the perverse devotion of the abandoned, the love in which some who have been abused love their abusers. “Batter my heart” and all that.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
I am quoting John Donne here. And ‘Amor fati’ is Epictetus, Dulcinea is Cervantes. Brian will never know what my tattoos means let alone understand them, and the less he and Junior know of me, the better. They do not know that I’m soon to be an ex-, that my current state is ‘broken’ though Jenn forever tried to fix me. People have always tried to fix me. When I was a child, the doctor wanted to twist my scoliotic backbone into a brace and correct me. When I was a boy, the doctor wanted to break my jaw and rewire my mandible into something more presentable. People have always wanted to fix me.
But they always proposed breaking me further first. Every. Fucking. Time.
I still love. Does that make me fixed? Even as I am broken? Jenny says she doesn’t believe in ‘broken.’ But.
In ancient times, the Chinese used to mend broken pottery with gold so as to make the pottery more precious in its damage. In the kitchen, if you break a Hollandaise you can fix it by whisking in an extra egg yolk, enriching the sauce. The latter I tell Junior as we work in pottage and mother recipes. He doesn’t know I am working in metaphor, and not just in Escoffier.
Me: “The added yolk helps the emulsification.”
Junior: “Wait—why not just add an extra yolk to begin with?”
Me: “The sauce has to break first, Junior. Only THEN can you fix it. Get it?”
‘To fix’ necessitates ‘to break’, and ‘to break’ engenders a fix. The snake eats its tail and so on: that old orobouros again, which, to think of it, my Schiele tattoo somewhat resembles. So Brian, if you must know: my Schiele tattoo represents me and Jenny, my Munch tattoo represents my ambivalence in its particular Madonna/whore fashion; my ‘Amor fati’ stamp represents my love of fate despite its inherent hardship. My Picasso penguin? Well, it’s just a fucking penguin. You know, sometimes things are just what they seem.
‘Sometimes things are just what they seem,’ this I tell myself as I drink my cortado in the shitty part of the Barrio in avoidance of my fellows, in my attempt to be solitary though the tent city is a bustle with meth-heads and the trafficking of wares, the air staccato with junkie complaint: I am just a broken man with a lump in his throat on a cruel April day, and it’s just like the three and reticent days prior. That’s it. THAT’s what it is. I needn’t think any further. I need only think that later I go to Jenny’s where I will be thankfully divorced of Junior and Brian and in the company of my loved ones. I will inevitably check the refrigerator to ensure my picture is still clipped there and, if buried behind other papers, I will move it to the front; I will inevitably watch Jenny apply her ablutions as I once did on the daily, but now as she prepares to go out for her every-Tuesday night with the girls; and I will watch her change from a backless number into a dress that better suits her, with a neckline that plunges to an empire waist, her decolletage on display and the sideways crescents of her breasts; and I will inevitably tear up at this, all this lost, things being as they are, and I will maybe feel a lift just being close to her despite her most likely being far away; and I will remember her in her best black outfit, the one with the particular rouching, and in seeing that how I used to know her beauty and know that it was in part mine and know that everything and everything would in the end no matter what be all and forever ok.
“April is the cruelest month”—Day 150 of sobriety