"When Words Are Inadequate"
Stan and Lawrence had their homework
spread all over the coffee table,
two pages of math by each of them,
half a dozen family-support pamphlets
for Stan's social studies paper along with
an interview of a shopkeeper for Lawrence's.
It still felt strange to have company
more often than not -- either they were
at Stan's place or Lawrence's place
but they were usually together.
They got more done that way.
Lawrence didn't know how to articulate
the way it made him feel, just that
it settled something inside him
that used to be so restless.
When Lawrence's mother came home,
he shooed Stan off the couch
so she could sit and watch the news.
Lawrence took her coat and hung it up,
saying, "It's my turn to cook. I'll start supper."
Of course Stan drifted into the kitchen with him,
having nowhere else to go in the meanwhile,
his tall frame draped against the doorway.
"I know it's your turn to cook, and I
don't want to be a pest," he said,
"but ... I'm not really comfortable just
standing around watching other people work."
Lawrence remembered the happy bustle
of Stan's home, how his family managed
to cook a whole meal with everyone underfoot.
It was noisy and chaotic and oddly appealing.
"I guess you can help," Lawrence said. "I'm making
Bengali chicken curry with potatoes, and basmati rice.
I got the recipe from Chatura Pai, so it's authentic,
not Americanized restaurant food."
"Okay," Stan said. "How'd you get that?
She hardly speaks to me in Home Ec."
Lawrence grinned at him. "Won it in a bet,"
he said. "I beat her at a game of chess.
It was that against my recipe for spaghetti sauce,
which she basically thinks is American tomato curry."
"Cool. What do you want me to do?"
Stan asked, stepping into the kitchen.
"First I need to rinse and soak the rice,"
Lawrence said. "While I'm doing that,
you can start prepping vegetables for the curry."
"I'll need to see the recipe," Stan said.
Lawrence handed it to him, saying,
"We're doubling the recipe, because
good curry never goes far enough.
Read the ingredients and calculate
the amounts for a double batch."
"I'm gonna screw it up,"
"You won't screw it up,"
Lawrence promised as he
washed the rice and set it to soak.
"I won't let you. Now give it a try."
"Two tablespoons of ... um ..."
Stan began, then trailed off.
"That's ghee, or clarified butter,"
Lawrence said without looking.
"How much for a double batch?"
"Two tablespoons doubled is four,"
Stan said, tracing the line with his finger.
"What is that in cups?"
"I don't remember," Stan admitted.
"Look it up," Lawrence said, pointing
to a chart on the refrigerator.
"One-quarter cup," Stan read.
"See, you're doing fine," Lawrence said as he
gathered onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes
along with cutting boards and knives.
"That's for cooking the onions. I'll dice those.
You mince the garlic and ginger."
Stan deftly peeled the garlic
and started mincing it.
Lawrence checked the living room.
His mother had turned on the television
but instead of watching it, she was
rummaging through the stuff
they'd left on the coffee table.
She didn't usually pay much attention
to Lawrence's homework, but at least
she wasn't complaining about it.
Lawrence donned his goggles
and set to work on the onions,
the chef's knife rocking gracefully
under his hands.
Stan was trying to giggle quietly.
"What?" Lawrence said.
"You're wearing part of your costume
in the kitchen?" Stan whispered.
Lawrence shrugged. "Where'd you think
I got the idea, anyway? I had to work with
stuff I already had, or could find easily."
He put the ghee in the pan to heat,
then added the onions.
Stan moved on to mincing the ginger.
"Whatever works for you, I guess."
Lawrence put the rice in the strainer to dry,
then stirred the onions, garlic, and ginger
together in the pan. "Start dicing the tomatoes,"
he said over his shoulder, and Stan did.
It was harder to figure out what steps
needed to be done in which order and by whom,
but it was a lot easier to make a meal
when he didn't have to do everything himself.
When the tomatoes went into the curry pan,
Lawrence pushed his goggles up,
using the strap to hold his hair back.
"Come here and keep stirring this," he said,
and Stan took over the spoon.
Lawrence heated more ghee in a deep pot,
toasted the rice, then added water, salt,
and lemon juice to start it cooking.
Peeking into the living room,
he saw that his mother had
fallen asleep on the couch.
Lawrence went out to cover her
with the striped blackberry afghan,
noticing that his own books and
Stan's pamphlets had been
put in stacks on the coffee table.
Then Lawrence returned to the kitchen.
Stan was watching him, one hand
still stirring the curry pan.
"It's sweet of you to take care of her
like that when she's so tired," he said.
"She's always tired," Lawrence said.
"Her job runs her around all the time."
"I bet she'll appreciate a home-cooked meal,"
Stan said. "You're a great cook."
"Yeah, I guess," Lawrence said.
It was one way he could show his love
without having to say anything about it,
but it still made his chest ache a little
because his father had been the family cook.
When he wasn't drinking out of the sherry bottle
instead of pouring it into the tomato sauce.
"So what do we do next?" Stan asked,
mercifully changing the topic.
"Let me take over the curry again,"
Lawrence said. "You make the masala."
"What's a --"
"Masala means spice blend," Lawrence said
as he took the spoon from Stan. "Measure out
the spices one at a time, then pour them
in little piles on that flat white dish so you
can see which ones you've already done."
"That's clever," Stan said.
He read off the measurements
as he worked so that Lawrence
could check his math. Then
the spices went into the curry pan.
"Trade places again," Lawrence said,
passing the spoon to Stan.
"I'll cut up the chicken, and then
you can do the potatoes."
It only took a few minutes
to chop the chicken breasts
and scrape them into the pan.
"How big do you want these potatoes?"
Stan asked as he peeled them.
"Bite-sized pieces," Lawrence said.
It was weird how many questions Stan asked,
but then he was completely fearless and
probably didn't care if someone bit his head off
for asking stupid questions. It sure did
prevent a lot of mistakes, though.
When Stan added the potatoes,
Lawrence handed him the spoon again.
"Stir this while I deal with the rice,"
he said, and Stan took over.
Lawrence moved the rice off the heat,
then started tidying up the counter space.
"I could help clean up?"
Stan offered, still stirring.
There was no end to his helpfulness.
Sometimes it made Lawrence feel
a little uneasy, but he was pretty sure
that was just lack of experience.
He'd get used to it eventually.
"Okay," Lawrence said.
He took the cover off the rice
and then went to stir the curry.
Stan washed the cutting boards and
the knives, putting them in the drainer.
"Done," he announced.
"I need the cilantro from the refrigerator,
in the produce drawer on the right side,
and the kitchen scissors from the drawer
by your left hip," Lawrence said.
Stan brought him the requested items.
"Want me to stir while you cut?"
"Oh. Sure," Lawrence said.
He was used to alternating between
snips of herb and turns of spoon.
This was so much better, especially
since Stan had a near-magical knack
for stirring without smacking into
Lawrence's hands as they worked.
Then Lawrence took back the spoon
and handed Stan the scissors. "Rinse."
Stan washed the scissors
and put them in their drawer.
He found a cloth, wet it, and
wiped down the countertops.
Lawrence wouldn't have anything
to do after supper except for the pots
and the supper dishes themselves.
"Come stir this again," Lawrence said
as he took off his goggles and put them away.
Then he went into the living room
and nudged the end of the couch.
"Supper's almost ready, Mom."
She shrugged off the afghan
and headed for the bathroom.
Lawrence went back into the kitchen
and started fluffing the rice with a fork.
"Cover the curry," he said to Stan.
"Then set the table -- plates are there,
silverware's over here." He pointed
to the relevant cabinet and drawer.
Stan stacked up the dishes
and dealt them out on the table.
Lawrence put the rice into one bowl
and the curry into another bowl.
Then he realized that Stan had
set out trivets without being asked,
so he put the serving bowls on the table.
Meanwhile Stan had found the glasses
and brought those out along with
the silverware and the cloth napkins,
and Lawrence didn't have the heart
to make him go back for paper ones.
It was no big deal to wash the cloth
that usually came out only for holidays.
"I brought cookies for dessert,"
Stan said, producing a decorative tin
with chickadees printed on it.
"Are snickerdoodles okay?"
"They're fine, thanks," said Lawrence,
who was accustomed to one-dish meals
but happy to take more if he could get it.
"Hi, Mrs. Cunningham," said Stan
as they sat down at the table.
"Lawrence made curry."
Lawrence just stared at him.
Stan had done half the work!
"It smells good," Mom said
as she settled into her own chair.
That made Lawrence worry, because
she didn't hand out compliments
very often, but she seemed to mean it.
He waited, hands twisting in his lap, until
she tasted the curry and nodded acceptance.
"Eat something," Stan said,
elbowing Lawrence in the side.
Lawrence spooned rice and curry
onto his plate, and thank goodness
they'd made a double batch because
Stan would probably eat half of it.
The stuff was delicious, though,
warm and tangy-sweet with spices.
Stan was doing his conversation trick again,
never quite talking with his mouth full,
but tucking quick phrases between bites
as he vacuumed his plate clean
with impressive speed.
It was so much nicer than what
used to pass for family meals
in Lawrence's home that
all he could think about was
how to get more of it.
He wondered if this was what
'normal' really looked like.
"Where did you get the recipe?"
Lawrence's mother asked.
Lawrence startled at the question.
She usually didn't care.
"I, um, Chatura Pai," he stammered.
"She sounds like a good friend
to give you a family recipe like that,"
Stan prompted, looking at Lawrence.
What on Earth was Stan even doing?
He'd already heard the story.
"We're in chess club together,"
Lawrence said tentatively.
"She likes playing against me."
"That's nice," Mom said
as if it actually mattered.
"Ah ... no, she's not really ... looking,"
Lawrence said, because her parents
had a matchmaker in mind and Chatura
was amenable and it was so not his business.
"I won the recipe in a game of chess."
Mom laughed. "Well, that's useful."
The approval made a warm flutter in his belly,
even better than the chicken curry.
Then Stan was off again, chattering
about his newest badge for Activity Scouts --
he had all the old Boy Scout ones, and was
trying to add as many of the Girl Scout ones
as he could before reaching the age limit.
"I'm trying to decide between Public Policy
or Truth Seeker," he said, refilling his plate.
Lawrence's mother tipped her head.
"Those don't sound familiar," she said.
"Oh, there are always new badges coming up,"
Stan said. "Social Engineering's after the merger."
He tapped his hip where the badge would be
if he were wearing his sash.
Lawrence was amazed that Stan could
remember them all, he'd earned so many.
As Stan talked, Lawrence ate and listened,
content to let him carry most of the conversation,
adding a comment now and then himself.
It was safer that way, although Lawrence
was beginning to suspect that even if
something went wrong, Stan could fix it.
Stan popped open the cookie tin
and passed around the snickerdoodles,
which turned out to be mouth-watering.
"Wow," Lawrence said. "What else
did you put in these with the cinnamon?"
"Cardamom," said Stan. "You were
making curry, so I looked up Indian spices,
and that's one we already had at home."
After supper, Lawrence's mother went upstairs,
leaving the two boys to their own devices.
Stan looked at Lawrence, one hand hovering
over his empty plate but not touching it.
"Can I help do the dishes too?"
"Yes, you can help," Lawrence said.
"You wash the dishes; I'll dry and put away."
"Okay," Stan said happily,
stacking up the tableware.
Lawrence went into the kitchen
and started filling the sink,
standing in front of it by sheer habit.
Stan came in and deposited the cookie tin
on the counter next to the bread box,
then simply bumped hips to nudge
Lawrence out of the way in order
to put the dishes in the water.
Lawrence took a dishcloth from the drawer,
mulling over the implications.
Stan made such a large presence in his life
that sometimes it was a stretch, not quite pain,
but an unfamiliar mass that Lawrence had to
shape himself around, even as Stan was bending
himself in new ways to accommodate Lawrence.
He wouldn't trade it for the world.
He didn't say anything, either.
What do you say, when
words are inadequate?
The soft swish and splash of water
was soothing as Stan worked,
and his hands never let go of a dish
before Lawrence had ahold of it.
They finished the whole sinkful
in less than half of the time that
it typically took Lawrence to clean up.
Then they moved into the living room.
"Oops," Stan said, shaking his head
over the stacks of homework
on the coffee table. "I shouldn't
have left my stuff all over the place.
That was rude, sorry."
Stan's pamphlets for Ladies' Space
and The Family Fixit Man and
whatever else were piled on his notebook.
Lawrence poked at them. "I guess Mom
just wanted them out of the way," he said.
"If she were mad about it, believe me, you'd know."
"Okay then," Stan said as he started
putting things into his backpack.
Lawrence wondered what Stan was up to
with the whole family act, and then decided
that he didn't care -- whatever the plan was,
he liked it better than being alone with his parents
or the horrible month when he wasn't speaking to Stan.
There was something soothing about spending
a few evenings a week with Stan, or part of a weekend,
that healed an ache he could feel but not name.
Lawrence wanted to explain
what a wonderful evening it had been,
but his throat closed over the words.
Instead he just leaned against Stan's chest.
Stan's hand came up to stroke his hair.
"Thank you," Stan said.
Lawrence huffed a laugh.
Stan was thanking him.
It was ludicrous beyond expression.
"You're welcome," Lawrence said,
because that was just what you did when
Stan wanted to be ludicrously polite
after he'd done you a favor.
Lawrence still didn't know
what normal was, beyond the
basics of faking it for company,
but he suspected that following Stan
would get him there eventually.
* * *
“Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.”
-- Alan D. Wolfelt
Lawrence's house is a tiny little two-story, two-bedroom cottage. See the outside, main floor, and upper floor.
Curry is a category of Indian food. See recipes for Bengali Chicken Curry with Potatoes and Basmati Rice.
Kitchen measurements make good practice for math. Most people find it easier to learn math that they actually use in everyday life than abstract equations in a book.
Here's an example of Sherry Tomato Sauce, such as Lawrence's father used to make.
This is the blackberry afghan, named for the little bobbles on it. It's one example of what I call a "box-bottom" afghan, made from many colors of yarn left over from previous projects.
I've always thought of snickerdoodles as mixed-spice cookies, but most of the online recipes only use cinnamon. Here's one for Cinnamon-Cardamom Snickerdoodles. This is the chickadee tin, the kind that is passed around from one kitchen to another for years.
Normal is elusive, based mostly on assumptions, but those can vary a lot across subcultures. Contrast healthy families with unhealthy families. Understand how to raise a happy family.