My parents’ friends Georgie and Patrick were rich. This was uncomplicated to me, even as a child. Enormous modern art paintings covered the walls of their large, airy house. Their kitchen boasted every gadget, tastefully—-silver, chrome, understated shine. They ate organic before anyone knew what that was. One day, when I was babysitting their kids, Georgie described to me how the family went to a farm once a week and got a box full of crisp, fresh produce, just plucked from the grounds. She was describing a CSA; I didn’t know what it was because it was 2001. They were different, and yet, we were all the same at the table, where we shared meals and grew, with each passing year and milestone, more familial.
One night, Patrick was cruel and vocal about the soup at dinner. He hadn’t made it, Georgie had, so it was flawed. He was the star chef in the house—-a Georgie dish on the menu was such a rarity that this is the only one I can remember. I thought it was delicious, a funny thick vegetable soup full of carrots and tiny pastas, perfectly cooked and shaped like stars. All of the grown men in my life were openly critical of their wives—-the soup incident is only noteworthy because, in all those years, everyone seemed mostly content.
We were frequent guests at Patrick and Georgie’s table. My parents went to their catered New Years Eve party, no children allowed, but my sister and I ran rampant and stuffed our faces from their overflowing refrigerator for the rest of the year. When we had dinner at their house, they made wild salmon and thick steaks on their grill, a grill that inspired awe in anyone who could be awe-inspired by grilling. My father and Patrick hovered around it in the dark snowy recesses of football season through the summer’s outdoor dinners, watching the meat grow dark and smoky.
All around us, the garden buzzed, verdant and thick with the hum of summer insects. Their little porch, one of many, sprouted out of the side of their house. Georgie covered the center of the table in tea-lights. Outside it smelled like citronella and sizzling coals. Summer was almost over. We ate so many things, meats and salads, tall cold glasses of something, but all I remember is grilled bread with tomatoes.
All year long we ate slices of mealy, lifeless tomatoes on top of hamburgers or tucked into sandwiches, a mushy obstacle teetering between bread and deli cheese. For a few weeks, though, in the summer, tomatoes sang. They became something else entirely. At home, I ate them off the vine in our front yard, sun-warmed; their skins popped between my teeth.
Patrick sliced bright red tomatoes and covered them in fresh basil and good, golden olive oil. It was on this porch that I learned that basil is best if you tear it with your hands; never slice it. That olive oil can be the thing you want to taste, and not simply a means to a cooked end. That bread, rubbed with garlic and grilled, is the very best food to eat, so good it makes everyone fall silent, happy and sated.
Patrick and Georgie’s guesthouse at the beach smelled perfect, an olfactory cocktail of warm driftwood and sunshine and children’s sunscreen. Because it was the summer, I was allowed to drink sweet iced coffees, practically milkshakes, that we bought from a stand every morning. There were big crepes served next door, full of cheesecake and Eastern Shore blueberries, or Nutella heated until it could drizzle, then drizzled on summer-sweet strawberries.
One night, while babysitting Patrick and Georgie’s kids, I ate all of their jellybeans. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. The next morning Jake wanted a jellybean and so did Tabitha, but they were gone and no one knew why. Ashamed, I cowered in the living room and pretended to clean off the coffee table. Georgie and Patrick paid me handsomely, kept me in good food and coffee, and I betrayed them by devouring their kids’ candy.
I was 13 and I constantly felt bizarre, especially there, surrounded by so much beauty—-beautiful Georgie, who wore soft linens and eased into yoga poses mid-conversation, beautiful beach house full of beautiful glossy magazines, beautiful family. When Tabitha told me about their other babysitter, I imagined that she was slim and small-hipped with a head of thick blonde waves. I was certain that she was in possession of everything I wanted and couldn’t have—-a pastel Aeropostale bikini, a deep brown tan, the approval of adults and adoration of little kids. I imagined this mystery babysitter sitting on the back porch, confiding in Georgie about a boy she liked as she bounced little Tabitha on her lap, everyone cocooned in the warm glow of belonging.
Thick around the middle, in an old blue one piece, my hair in two tangled braids that I was afraid to undo for fear of what my coarse hair might do next, I was, in my mind, wrong. Wrong all over, inside and out.
I ate the jellybeans because I had one and then had to have another, had to pair a few flavors together, then colors, and before I knew it the slick plastic bag was emptied except for pale purple Tropical punch and black licorice, the unlovables of the jelly bean world. I ate them with a kind of rapid, compulsive self-loathing—-nervous, twitchy, a bottomless pit. Afterwards I lay on the couch in a sugar rush, my little stomach poked out over the top of my khaki shorts.
My family joined us the next night. I was relieved that I could transition back into a kid and spend my days lying on the beach with my little sister after sleeping late in our twin beds. I was terrified of small talk, awkward with children, embarrassed by my body in my swimsuit, and ready to run in to my parents’ open arms. Even though I was too old for it, being one of the kids felt natural, better than feigning adulthood when I so clearly couldn’t.
That weekend I was privy to the secret thrill of Patrick’s family’s rollicking dinners. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles filled their plates and chatted loudly around fold out tables in the sunroom. Multiple generations of competitive home cooks turned out homemade bread and good butter, fresh sweet corn on the cob, little potatoes roasted with rosemary and salt, platters of steak—-oily and bloody and marvelous. Fresh torn basil and good tomatoes, everywhere, in the salads, in the pasta, on the crusty hand torn bread. The lights were low and everyone bustled, feasting and serving, feasting some more.
Those dinners are locked in my mind, so vibrant and present they could’ve happened months ago, not decades. Now our families are full of adults. They’ve been unstitched and rewoven—-houses and tables filled with new people, children grown up and far away. In four weeks, I’ll be married.
I try to imagine where we all could eat together again and it’s only one place—-at Tabitha or Jake’s weddings. I imagine the small talk, the white china, the catered food. A towering cake. Rich meats. A strange new dream connected with fine threads to a long ago time, when we all sat and ate at a table outside, all various degrees of young and fed.