Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I lived alone for the three years I was in graduate school. My apartment was perfect for me, though the complex had its quirks. 

(I just searched and searched to find I've never properly written about Little Bosnia in Syracuse. Remind me to change that one day.)

It was the only time in my life that I lived with a gas stove-top. At first it scared me, although I'd be thrilled to have one now.

Most of the units were filled with refugee families who had been relocated to central New York via the Red Cross, but at just a mile south of campus, there were scattered graduate students here and there. They were mostly Asian. For the first year, I was the only English-speaker in my building. 

Right before the beginning of the second year, the unit across the hall from me turned over. Another graduate student moved in, a soft-spoken guy named Jesse. We waved friendly hellos but he was new and I was accustomed to living in my head without conversation.

One evening Jesse knocked on my door. He had made too much food. It was a habit, he said. He was hesitant even as he spoke. Did I want to come over?

He was nervous and it's not for what you're thinking. It was the end of the day and he had gotten comfortable in his home look. It was the first time I had seen it. His make-up was dramatic and beautiful. His heels were taller than I could walk in; his dress, adorable. I smiled. In a flurry of words he explained he felt compelled to act masculine in his male-dominated field of study, but this was how he felt himself. He was exploring surgery after graduation. He made a charming woman.

Jesse would knock maybe once a week. He loved to feed me, to nurture. He was Latino but had grown up over a Chinese take-out. He had this insert he fitted into the heating element on his stove to hold a wok. He taught me how to make stir-fry as his neighbors had taught him.

When we cooked in my kitchen I used a spatula, tongs. I made a mess. When we cooked in his he used just long chopsticks in his wok. His movements were precise, dextrous, elegant. I needed the security of more than skinny sticks. 

Jesse taught me how to cook with chopsticks, how to eat with chopsticks (and how to pluck my eyebrows).

At the end of the school year I closed up my apartment because I'd be moving down to Manhattan for three months. I stopped by to say, "see you in August!" We hugged. He patted me on the ass and wished me an adventurous summer. 

When I got back the week before classes started, I knocked on Jesse's door. A Bosnian grandmother with a  baby on her hip opened the door. Jesse was gone.

Sometimes I set the table with chopsticks. My kids like to use them for the most American of foods, like chicken nuggets and hot dogs. I show them how to work the upper stick, how to fix the lower one in the folds of their thumbs. They giggle. They like the sport of it. They don't know that chopsticks remind me of a gentle friend, suddenly come and suddenly gone.


This post was inpsired by our book club selection:

Headmaster Percivial Chen is a proud Chinese born man who runs an English language school during the cusp of the Vietnam War. In his refusal to accept his adopted country's turbulent times, his gamble becomes a life changer. Join From Left to Write on November 15 as we discuss The Headmaster's Wager. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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