One time, I had to call 911. He tried a grilled scallop at a backyard barbeque. His face looked like a red balloon. It was about to float away.
So you call him, invite him for dinner.
He says: “Really?”
You say: “Yes, really.”
“Ok. Um,” he says. “Wait. What are you making?”
“It’s a surprise,” you say. “Just wait and see.”
Then silence. Uncomfortable seconds pass without a word, tens of seconds. You can’t take it anymore. You fold, tell him everything. You include information about the type of salt you’ll use for the chicken brine. You divulge where the capers for the rice come from. You promise olives, some smoke.
"We'll even call Cogan," you say.
He pauses. He sighs deeply. “OK,” he says.
“Don't worry, I won't make anything that will kill you,” you say. “Or put you into a diabetic coma.”
You know full well that he doesn't believe you.
You also know he prefers when you agree to prepare, cook, and serve the food at his house. You know he likes his meals on his own turf. He’s weird about eating over at other peoples’ houses. It’s a certain type of agoraphobia, linked only to the kitchen: the slight anxiety of not being in total control of the meal. You know this. You plan ways to exploit this idiosyncrasy. This will give you joy and pleasure.
You like to fuck with him, lightly of course.
As you skin the chicken you think about that time in the car when he threw the gear shift into reverse while you were doing 60 on the highway. You remember how Cogan then covered your eyes with his hands from the back seat, screaming, "Yay, Stevie!"
You remember how you freaked.
You remember the times he dared you to eat strange, dangerous things at the mall food court.
Three Cinnabons in three minutes. Two McDonald's Happy Meal's in five minutes.
"I only want the toy," he told you.
You feel yourself getting excited, revved up. The meal will be a masterpiece.
So, he shows up with Karen. She is radiant, ebullient. She hugs you as she walks in. Her embrace says, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
You trust her. He comes in after her. Two identical bottles of wine protrude from the deep pockets of his hooded sweatshirt. He is smiling. His jeans are too tight. He asks if the wine is kosher. It is. You compliment his choice and let him in. He walks directly into the kitchen. You forcefully redirect him to the living room, where Karen and Merri are catching up.
He says, “When are we eating?”
Later he says, “Where's Cogan?”
He looks at your books while you cook. He finds your current notebook, filled with poetry. You speak to yourself loudly in the kitchen, knowing he can overhear you. You say: “Where's the can opener?”
He sprints into the kitchen. Eyes wild, nostrils flaring.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he demands.
“HA!” you say.
He retreats back the living room, smiling as he goes.
You can hear him telling Merri about the way you were in high school. He knows that you met her in college, and that she loves to hear these stories, now delegated to the realm of myth and hyperbole. When he speaks he flails his hands. In his stories, he uses definitive words like "always", "biggest ever", and "greatest".
"I'm glad I never knew him in high school," Merri says.
"So am I," he says.
Now the olive oil is frying in the pan. You add fresh garlic, taking in the cloud of steam and smoke that erupts. You feel hot pin pricks of oil spattering the soft underside of your wrist as you stir in the onions.
You think, “Who wouldn’t want to eat this?”
Before you cook, he'll insist on inspecting the ingredients. He’ll reject half of them. He might want you to drive back to Whole Foods for some small, obscure item that you overlooked. While cooking, he might stand over your shoulder. You must not let him do this. He’ll want to cook something. He’ll say he has to do this, that you must let him. It is important, he’ll say. Things depend on it.
“What things,” you ask.
“Things,” he says.
You must refuse him.
You must ask him to leave the kitchen.
In the other room, you hear Cogan enter. He glides into the kitchen.
He asks, "What's cookin'?" He calls you buddy. He smells clean, like shampoo.
Before everyone eats, he has to shoot his insulin. He does this while seated at the table. But you hate needles. They make you nervous. You look away. He dares you to stick your thumb into his little machine that pricks the finger for blood testing.
"No way," you say.
"Pussy," he replies.
Ten years ago, this would have immediately worked.
"Let me have some wine first," you say. You are older and wiser now.
The meal is about to begin. The evening is set, poised. The air is pregnant. This is the part you have been waiting for all week. Anything is possible. The four bottles of wine add a tinge of danger to the air. This is what you live for--instances like these, where food, friends, and space blend together to transform a moment in time into an event.
Seth senses the arrival of such a moment and is transformed himself. The denim of his tight jeans melts away and turns into brown fur. His legs shrink, wither, and taper at the end until his boots morph into small, cloven hooves. His facial features shift and sharpen. His smile broadens, exposing a mischievous, toothy grin. You can smell the faintest hint of trees, of running water. The table cloth spreads out to become the forest floor all around. You are now sitting at a sylvan gathering with Shakespeare's Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, that mad, merry prankster of the woodland. Strange, mystical creatures appear out of nowhere. A frog jumps into your lap. Puck rises. He dances on the table. He throws his voice. He grabs the potatoes and juggles them. Your guests are mystified. From somewhere, you hear music. Everyone starts to dance. Clothing falls to the floor. You look down and your wine is gone.
But now it's just Seth. When he's not looking, you fill his empty glass to the brim with wine. You put another, ridiculously large piece of chicken on his plate. He notices the chicken and laughs as he eats it, bones and all. He washes it down with the extra wine you’ve poured him and dares you to drink another glass with him. You're full. Your face is flushed red. Your ears are burning. You are lightheaded, stoned on your guests.
Suddenly he produces a small plastic bag of roast potatoes from somewhere on his body. He tries to switch them with the ones that are already on his plate--the ones you made. You were anticipating this little stunt, and make no reaction when you see it happening.
“What the hell,” you ask nonchalantly “is that?”
“Nothing,” he says curtly. “Don’t ask questions.”
But the time for fuckery is over. Now it is just time to laugh.
You demand an explanation for the contraband. He mumbles an answer that sounds fishy to you. You look at Karen. She rolls her eyes. Cogan giggles (he's been drunk since Tuesday). Merri just shakes her head.
You inspect the smuggled potatoes. You smell them. They smell like wine and insulin. You laugh and try to pour yourself more wine, but the bottle is empty. You tip your head back and hold the bottle several inches over your mouth, catching the last few drops on your tongue. They are gritty, acrid, full of sediment, just like this moment.
Now the meal is almost over. You uncork another bottle as he is licking his plate. You lean back in your chair to survey the scene. You lift up your glass to make a toast. You know exactly what to say.
Smuggler Boiled Potatoes with Raw Butter and Herbs
Weirdly, although Seth refuses to eat cow's milk dairy, he'll eat butter, especially if it's raw. These potatoes are the type he might smuggle into your house if you invite him for dinner. Smuggled potatoes must be made this way, according to Seth, or they'll lack "a sense of humor".
1 1/2 pounds fingerling potatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted raw butter
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
Place potatoes in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until potatoes are just tender when pierced with a knife, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well.
While potatoes are simmering, heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. When butter is melted, add the thyme, basil and parsley. Warm until herbs are fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add drained potatoes to skillet and toss with salt. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper if needed.