Not actually. But I didn’t like how she made me feel. Behind, inexperienced, and so uncool it was painful. Of course, this had nothing to do with her or her actions towards me, and everything to do with myself. And my insecurities. It was a new job, I was still unhappy in SC, everyone else in that kitchen knew the rhythm and how things worked. How they worked. I didn’t. And it killed me not knowing.
There were inside jokes I wasn’t a part of, techniques I’d never heard of before, a storage system in the fridge that was entirely new to me. Next to her – tall, blonde, round blue eyes behind the hippest glasses – I felt as if I could bathe in a thimble. And often wanted to hide under one during my shifts.
My dislike for her was solidified the day she showed me how to make gnocchi (something I’d never done before, phony food connoisseur that I was). Her technique was simple and quick and almost effortless. She was as fluid as the water simmering between us. I was green with envy at her abilities. During conversation, I found out she was a few years younger than me and turned the deepest shade of forest. I felt so behind, she seemed so ahead.
And then, one day, she messed up. She left granola in the oven too long. Way too long. It was burnt. Charred. Inedible. She’d ruined a dish.
He raised his left hand, pointed his index finger upward. Eyes closed in thought. He chewed, waited a beat. They opened up, big and brown.
I had seen that look before, watched that procession from tastebuds to fingertips. It felt so good to witness again.
“Holy shit this is good! You were right.”
It was the first bite of our dinner. We had met at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate at my urging (always at my urging). We were sharing a bunch of small plates, this one being a roasted squash salad.
I sat across from Sam, seconding his expletives. I tried to appear humble at the dinner’s success but had known no matter what we had ordered that it would be phenomenal. And, better yet, knowing he would undoubtedly enjoy it, even after all this time apart.
I had anticipated a lot about my return to Wisconsin. Being more available for family functions, relishing the changing seasons, driving on winding farm roads. But I didn’t anticipate this, never could have in my wildest dreams. I was getting a second chance at friendship, one that had been very near and dear to my heart for some of my most formative years.
Sam and I met the first day of freshman orientation. We quickly clicked. I found refuge in his presence. A reprieve from the chaos of my new environment, new responsibilities. He was always upbeat, outgoing, a drawstring bag permanently attached to his broad shoulders.
One of the things we bonded over most was food. We loved eating it, loved talking about it. We shared countless meals at the dining halls in those first few months of school, ate at different restaurants in town, shared snacks in dorm rooms. There was one instance of him clambering into the trunk of my family’s SUV, already packed full, coming along to get frozen custard.
I got used to seeing his long, slender hands move as he ate. An extension of the meal, almost. Delicate, precise, punctuating his points – whether they be about the meal, a class, the news. One weekend, he went home and returned with dumplings made by his grandfather, an entire container full, a gift for me.
Before winter break freshman year, he shared these cookies with me, made by his mom. I was completely enamored. Crisp, sugary, sweet. He returned the next quarter with the recipe written in his mother’s hand, another gift for me.
After those first few months, we began to drift, our interests and issues taking us in different directions. His to South Africa, China, Spain and more. A gifted videographer and storyteller, his kind heart a driving force in what he created, the stories he told. Mine saw me sequestered to kitchens – at school, at home, in the South. I dove deeper into baking, telling my stories that way. We saw one another from time to time, walking across campus, but there weren’t any more meals, any more outings. In fact, we went nearly three years without speaking directly to one another, until a fateful message from him right before I moved back to Wisconsin.
That message led to texts that led to brunch. Brunch led to a walk to get cookies. That led to a conversation in a nearby park, sitting under the warm September sun.
“You’re very different than when we met. You’re calmer, more sure of yourself,” he told me while we ate. I nodded.
Before, I would have balked at the suggestion; adamant it was untrue. Not anymore. I knew he was right. I wasn’t the scared and sick teenager he had met all those years ago. He was different too, not entirely the seemingly carefree, boisterous ball of motion I remembered. He’d seen and experienced so much, collected memories and stories from across the globe. He had only ever supported me in those early stages of our friendship, encouraging my love of food, my written voice. After a lot of work, I had learned to support myself, a quiet confidence that wasn’t there at 18. He had it too. It permeates our time together now. We share more than food at meals. Hopes, goals, fears, flaws. I’m in awe at how much he seems to understand me (and himself) after all this time. It has moved me (and sometimes him) to tears every time we’ve been together. He claims my emotions are just as strong now as they were freshman year, he’s not scared of my tears.
And I’m thankful for that. For his mom’s wish of “Good luck!” on her handwritten recipe for these vanillekipferl. For his invitation to spend Christmas day with his family. For the chance to learn how to make those beloved dumplings of lore. For his his friendship, then and now.
A lot can happen in a year. 365 short days of learning, loving, and, yes, sometimes, leaving.
As you’re aware, dates are significant to me. Parks and Rec is also significant to me. And when I start thinking back in time in terms of years, I think of a scene in season five where Leslie asks, “are you better off now than you were a year ago?” She’s presiding over a town hall meeting into the first year of holding a seat on city council. To Leslie, life has certainly improved – she’s accomplished goals and made strides in her personal and professional life. Despite what anyone else says, Leslie feels accomplished (at least at the start of the meeting, what the townspeople do is a whole other story).
And today, I had to ask myself, “Am I better off now than I was a year ago?”
Because today is Danielle’s birthday. And, much like dates and Parks and Rec, she is important to me. She is largely part of the reason that I am better off today than I was a year ago.
Danielle is supportive of her friends – really and truly. She’s also unflinchingly honest and unfailingly hilarious. She is one of the few people I have encountered who puts forth actual effort into her friendships, they are important to her and she makes it known. I was lucky enough to experience this while living in Greenville, and even luckier that she’s continued to consider me worth the effort after my move. We communicate in memes and 90-minute phone calls, discussing everything from celebrity pregnancies to international travel plans.
Honestly, I’m thankful that “the breakup” happened – because if it hadn’t, Danielle and I would not be as close as we are now. She had gone through a similar experience the year before me, walking the path ahead. She was able to ask the right questions (even the uncomfortable ones) and listen intently, offering help and advice, wise and insightful. Her queries led me to discover more of who I was outside of someone else – a mirror whose reflection I couldn’t look away from. This experience, her comfort and friendship before, during, and after it, have guaranteed that I am better off.