It seemed like such a good idea: I would phone my favorite local writer, Lysley Tenorio, an associate professor at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and together we would come up with some wild adventure—a hot air balloon ride, a scavenger hunt—during which we would sip wine and talk about his debut short story collection, Monstress. So I call him up.
“I’m living in Washington, D.C.,” he tells me sadly. Apparently his partner, Bruce, is the poet-in-residence at George Washington University. “I won’t be in San Francisco for months.”
“Well, this is awkward. At the very least, I was going to cook you a spaghetti dinner.”
“Oh.” There is a long pause over the phone. “We can do that. We can do that over Skype.”
So that is what we planned. Tenorio would be in his kitchen in D.C., and I would be in mine in the Lower Haight. Our laptops would be pointed toward our stove tops as we each cooked our own rendition of spaghetti and meatballs (Tenorio drawing from Martha Stewart Living, me from Cook’s Illustrated). We would make a martini. Or two. As long as we stopped there, we would surely reach some high point of literary and culinary conversation. Two martinis, tops.
“Thank you for not asking for some Filipino specialty,” says Tenorio, who came to America from the Philippines when he was seven months old. “I can’t cook real adobo.”
“Well, it’s Skype. I wouldn’t get to eat it,” I reply. “And then I’d have to cook my people’s food. Squirrel pie, I guess.” My family is from Kentucky.
To supplement my Cook’s Illustrated recipe, I am using my secret meatball method, which is to put a little bit of mozzarella inside each meatball so that I don’t have to worry about cooking them all the way through. My recipe also calls for sweet sausage meat, and when Tenorio hears that, he frowns. “You’re going to win,” he says, his eyes going to his first martini, nearly finished.
“It’s not a contest,” I say. “Well, actually, it is a contest.”
We begin to mix our meat, eggs, parsley, parmesan, garlic, and breadcrumbs (although my instructions call for bread soaked in milk instead of breadcrumbs). Then Tenorio and I each drop the meatballs into the sizzling pans. We pour second martinis and toast each other.
I first met Tenorio a decade ago at an artists’ colony in New Hampshire. It delighted me this year to get my hands on his debut collection, the wildly imaginative Monstress, filled with space aliens, superheroes, faith healers, transsexuals, and the Beatles. I felt like I was watching a writer at play in his mind.
“So, Lysley,” I say, turning from the food for a moment to talk shop, “what is the most surprising comment people give you about your book?”
“Are you already boiling water?”
“I’ve been boiling it all this time.”
“Damn,” he says.
“Well, people keep telling me that my stories are about betrayal—that in some way the characters always betray each other.”
I am mixing the anchovies and eggs for my Caesar. “That’s funny,” I say. “Because I think of the characters as loyal: the brother loyal to his transgendered brother, the Filipino boy loyal to his troubled mother.”
“I know!” Tenorio says. “I know! But people always say it's betrayal."
My meatballs, browned, go into the oven. I have 35 meatballs to Tenorio’s 17, but then, I have invited my friends upstairs, Richard and Eve, my twin brother, Mike, and my husband, David. Tenorio leans toward the video screen and whispers, “How many martinis have you had?”
“I think this is one and a half,” I say. “I think. You know, what I love most about your stories is how fun they are. There’s a sense of melancholy, but also joy. Women dressed as giant squids and boys dressed as the Green Lantern. A kind of hopeful transformation.”
“Should I have another?” Tenorio approaches the screen with an ice tray shaped like a gun. “I just got this,” he says, removing the ice gun and pointing it at me. “It’s called Freeze!”
My brother arrives with a bottle of red wine, which he opens and pours. On the other side of the continent, Tenorio is looking pensive. He and I have been talking about Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, about the places where Tenorio grew up and where he has lived. Bruce has just secured a position in the Bay Area, which assures a permanence to their life here. Tenorio adjusts his glasses and stares into his martini. At last he says, “I think I’ll probably die in San Francisco.”
“I’ll probably die in a Hong Kong brothel,” I reply.
“It’s funny to know where you’re going to die. But not when.”
“I’m having another martini.”
By some miracle, our spaghetti is done at the same instant. Steam fills the screens as both of us drain the hot water into the sink. Oil and pepper are poured over the noodles. The sauce and the meatballs go into giant bowls. My guests begin to take their places. Tenorio shouts from the screen, “Do you have candles? And cloth napkins? Damn!”
Our guests try the meatballs. Each side claims that theirs are better. But, of course, we will never know. Red wine is poured all around. I walk over to the screen with my glass, and Tenorio lifts his in a toast: “To writing and dying in San Francisco!”
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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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