I hadn’t been home in six months. It was the longest I had ever been away. On my first morning back, my mom, hewing to our long established routine, took me along on errands with her, and then to lunch in town, to Orfino’s. It was like being six again.
Much to my surprise, nothing had changed. Because I had changed so much.
I had picked up a lot of pretentious habits while I was gone (ok, and before I’d even left). That’s because I was twenty and had been living in London. You can’t come home from six months in Bloomsbury without being kind of obnoxious. My form of faux brit was a relatively mild case, consisting of drinking tea constantly (with milk, of course, which I still do) and saying “ta” (highly annoying). I’d say “take away” instead of “take out,” but only when I remembered to remember to say it. (And in London, I’d done the opposite, of course.) And finally, I learned to love mayonnaise. Prior to living in halls, I had reserved mayo for turkey sandwiches only, and been repulsed by it in all other ways.
Now, here I was. Back in Briarcliff, at Orfino’s, my family’s (and indeed, the whole town’s) go-to breakfast-lunch-and-dinner spot (when it was open for dinner,) sitting across the table from my mother. Was Orfino’s even what it was really called? Or did we just call it that? Anyway.
“Did you have fun?” My mom asked.
Right. Did I have fun?
It was an impossible question.
London: Amazing and Horrible and Glorious.
When I got there it was pouring and freezing. When I left, it was the loveliest of springs.
In the time between the dark freezing rain and the lusty month of May, I’d made friends and seen the sights, and learned a bit about Bronze Age Europe and Linguistics. But mostly, I’d fallen in love with a boy, who had proceeded to break my heart into a thousand pieces.
I’d met him on a random Tuesday in late February, on an evening I’d planned to stay home. American friends had coaxed me out of my dorm to a pub, and one of their housemates had invited friends from home or run into them or something… you know how it goes. I’d been sulkily sipping at my vodka tonic, bored, when someone had brought up visiting the Dickens Museum. “I hate Dickens,” I snarled. From across the table, he caught my eye and asked, sincerely, “Why do you hate Dickens?” And I told him.
That’s when he got me. We talked and talked across the table, but when we all got up to leave, hours later, we somehow lost track of each other.
I spent the next few days trying to track him down through my friends’ friend’s friend’s friend, to no avail. Maybe he didn’t want to be found. By Friday, I’d given up, and went to see Good Will Hunting at the Odeon in Leicester Square with the same friends. In the middle of the first act, the film came to a screeching halt, and the lights came up. Apparently there was an issue with the projector. There would be no hunting of Will that night.
We, my group, found ourselves outside in the cool, damp night, lit by a thousand neon lights. And there, standing just a few feet away, in his group, he was too. When he saw me across the square, he lit up. I did too.
“It’s Michelle. Do you remember me?” I asked. I always assumed people didn’t remember me back then. It was clear from his face he did.
“Hi…” He said dreamily.
The next few weeks felt like years in their intensity. We were together all the time. We ate pasta in Camden, and went to movies, and hung out in Hyde Park. He stayed in my tiny, skinny room and took up all the space, with its single bed and motion activated lights and heat. The room was just about as long as he was. Then, one warm early spring night, while I was writing an end-of-term paper about Silver Age Roman poetry, he called me, and nonchalantly told me that he was really into a girl in his acting program. Like it was no big deal.
It was a big deal to me.
It was now between Spring and Summer terms, a three week break, which meant that all my English friends were gone, either home or abroad. My horsiest roommate had invited me to come and stay with her in Buckinghamshire for a few days, but I didn’t really like her, so I declined. I did not feel like seeing the Americans. I did not feel like seeing anyone. I was humiliated, and rejected, and sad. I was alone, in London.
I began to walk. Heartbroken, yet oddly exultant, I walked and walked and walked and walked, with no plan, just a direction. In the rain, in the sun, in the brisk wind. I walked from Clerkenwell to South Kensington. I walked from Islington to Camden to The City to Belgravia. I walked down twisty streets, through hidden, fenced gardens with ancient graves, sagging roses, and weeping willow trees, across Hampstead Heath, and Regents Park, and Russell Square, and Covent Garden. I knew where to get good falafel in Bayswater and bought trousers at Portobello Road. I saw movies. I dated an older man. I flirted with another. I lived on toast and take away noodles and Pret a Manger and tea and cigarettes. I never ate a burger or any other beef, because of Mad Cow. I took trips to Bath and Oxford and Wales and Bath again. A friend came to visit, and made me sadder. She so clearly hated London. I caught pneumonia.
The term started, and the weather changed. I still walked, and found nothing. The Brits came back, and I got really drunk a few times. Once while drunk, near Oxford Street, I pretended to be French so as not to give money to a gregarious panhandler, whom of course I gave money to anyway, because he was so contrite (I speak three words of French, so his French was probably better than mine.) I spent a lot of time at the British Museum. I took pictures of small things hidden in corners and delighted in the names of places and turns of phrase: Piccadilly, Cheapside, Lamb’s Conduit Street, Farringdon Road.
I was still low, but I learned that I could be on my own. I dreamed a lot. I worried more. Who was I? There was nothing for it but to drift through.
It was the first time I was truly out of my comfort zone, a stranger in an ever-so-slightly strange land. Unlike most American students, I lived in a dorm with mostly English “uni” students (one of whom is still a close friend) who, unlike gregarious Americans, weren’t exactly into forming pods or taking you under their wing and showing you around. On my first day in London, jet lag and dirty, I arrived to the flat and announced “Hi! I’m Michelle, your new American roommate!” The reaction from the two boys sitting at the big, filthy kitchen table was “bwahahahahahahaahahahaah.” Then one of the boys, the one with the spiky hair, not the blond, offered me a pickled onion sandwich and tinned baked beans in an incomprehensible accent (he was from Birmingham), which I declined politely before fleeing to my room. Only, I had to reappear nearly immediately, as I had no towels or shampoo or hair dryer. The boys were lovely and lent those to me, and we were soon great “mates.” But was it “fun”? No. Fun is not the word.
My mom was looking at me expectantly. Or she was telling me about what she liked about London? I don’t remember. I’d been home for 24 hours and was already bored. Briarcliff was so clean and American, and known. Nothing had changed since I left. Not one thing. I usually got a burger or a grilled cheese at good old Orfs, but that day, I ordered a chicken salad sandwich. I was already nostalgic for London, I guess, and the strange, sad, but independent person I was there, free to indulge in the weird things I wanted to do. Like walk. In Briarcliff, walking was not a thing easily done. But then again, this was the most spectacular chicken salad sandwich of all time.
In London, I’d learned to love “prawn mayonnaise”and it’s less sexy but still yummy sister “chicken mayonnaise.” Never “egg mayonnaise.” Blergh. All that walking had found me starving in some dubious hole in the walls, where the safest thing to eat was a chicken and mayonnaise sandwich.
Orfino’s started as a greasy spoon, but turned into a place that had really good pasta and other Italian food. The chef- the son of the owner- had culinary ambitions beyond omelets you see. Yet it had a lot of loyal customers who liked the omelets, (they were very good and thin) and burgers and tuna, (my dad, my sister, me. My mom went pasta a lot. She’s an adventurous sort) so even though it got nicer, with wooden tables and paintings of vines and Chianti and such, during the day, next to the wonderful pasta specials, you could still get your omelets if you wanted and wonderful crunchy spicy home fries. You could also get the best cappuccino this side of the Pantheon, thick and strong and sweet with milk.
How is a chicken salad sandwich ever spectacular? Well, this one came on whole wheat lightly toasted. Unlike most chicken salad, it wasn’t full of heavy dark meat nor was it greasy with mayo. This was primarily fluffy chicken breast, cut with celery, finely chopped parsley, and the slightest bit of onion. There was only just enough mayo to bind it gently together and I suspect it had all been run through a blender, because there was a wonderful uniformity of size in all the components. No giant bites of chicken slithering around, falling off the plate. No livery bits. Biting into it was like biting into a substantial pillow, with the exact right amount of crunch. It was missing a little salt, but that was easily fixed, and when I added the thin hamburger pickle slices it was perfection.
“So, is it nice to be back?” My mom asked.
I swabbed a perfect fat fry through a dab of mustard, the way I had always eaten Orfino’s fries. Sara, the waitress, had brought the mustard without asking if I wanted anything different. She knew me. A minute before, I would have given my mom an unequivocally snide and uncreative retort. Like, “Um, no. Americans are loud and fat.” But as I ate, I looked through the glass windows out onto the beautiful summer day. The old oaks waved their greenery in a soft breeze. A friend of my mom’s stopped to wave. A childhood friend’s parent walked past with a dog on a leash. Sara came over and topped off our iced caps.
“Everything good with you guys? Jill? Michelle?” She asked. I had known her my entire life too.
“Everything is really good.” I said. I forgot to have an accent. I had definitely changed over those months, but for a moment, it was really nice that everything else had stayed the same. And I was home.
As for the boy, the rest of that is a story for a different time.
RECIPE: Perfect Chicken Salad (With My Twist)
1 package boneless skinless chicken breasts (Of course you can also use left over chicken too- the kind that you used to cook chicken soup is the best! But even the rotisserie kind works.)
1 cup parsley
½ cup dill
2-3 celery stalks, trimmed, roughly chopped
1 handful cornichons (I just think they make everything better!)
1 granny smith apple (optional) cored and quartered
1 tablespoon of Hellman’s mayonnaise (more to taste)
1) Bake or poach or steam the chicken until it’s done. (If you cut it open it will look like cooked chicken and not gross and pink. The juice will run clear. Roughly 20 minutes. If you bake it, add some olive oil for moisture, please.)
2) Let the chicken cool. (You can even let it cool overnight).
3) Clean the herbs, and separate the parsley leaves from the fat stems, and the thin parts of the dill from the fat stems.
4) Put everything except the mayo in the bowl of your Cuisinart mini-prep or blender and run it until it’s chunky but not too chunky.
5) Add the mayo and blend once more, quickly. You don’t want to lose too much of the chunk. You can also spoon out the chicken and herb mixture into a bowl and mix the mayo in with a spoon.
6) Salt and pepper to taste
7) Serve on good bread and enjoy! Add more pickles if you want. Come on…