The Gastronomical We

The ad described the three-bedroom apartment as “spacious and nice—near Kennedy’s birthplace.” This seemed an odd hook for anyone trawling Craigslist for a crash pad. I had never lived in Brookline and wasn’t into Kennedy, but I was an older person looking to be someone’s roommate, and Brookline is where that could safely happen.

The family I was temporarily staying with—college friends of my brother—owned a South End brownstone, had twin girls, and didn’t like me because I recognized the way they spent a lot of money to make it look like they didn’t have as much money as they did. I’d put everything in storage and told myself it would just be for a year, until I saw how the impending financial crisis unfolded. I’d broken up with my longtime boyfriend, our dog died of cancer, and I lost my adjunct English lit gig at the New School because of union hierarchy. All I had with me in the windowless basement room were summer clothes, a laptop, and my life’s collection of spiral-bound diaries. I hadn’t looked at them in decades, but the stressful departure from Manhattan had made them something you grab in the fire.

In our email exchange, the holder of the room near Kennedy’s birthplace identified herself as Patience, and I immediately thought of a Patience I had known at a high school in New Hampshire. The school yearbook was the reason for the Patience in Peterborough, where my father was transferred when I was entering eleventh grade. It was oddly fortuitous that I could consult the bloated teenage script of one of my earliest notebooks to bring this sketchy memory into focus—a smart, shy, sturdy, but also dithering girl. You’d have to light a stick of dynamite under her to get her to make a decision or react with excitement.

The one Patience incident I recorded involved a cafeteria meeting of the yearbook’s Wider World Committee to brainstorm a perestroika spread no one really cared about. Because it was the yearbook, it was all girls, including a senior named Amy who was engaged to get married in five months. Being a Mormon, she was a virgin, but an organized one. She had a dilator kit she’d just received from the health office to prepare her “for intercourse.” Naturally we were obsessed and made her lay out the dilators on the lunch table—small, medium, and large (these were the days before XXXL anything). The arrangement went more like dilator, someone’s ice cream sandwich, dilator, someone’s soft pretzel. As we were deciding which size belonged to which guy within earshot, Patience threw up on everything.

When I rang the bell in the vestibule, the Brookline Patience would not buzz me in but tenuously came down the stairs partway to have a look. There was no mistaking it was her. I had remembered nothing whatsoever about her looks until that moment. Another thing I instantaneously remembered was that her father was an asshole.

She was relieved to have an applicant she could vet from personal history. She was the kind of person you’d call sweet but did not say memorable things. The point about Kennedy’s birthplace suddenly made perfect sense. After going through a brief spiel about myself—edited to normalize the fact that I needed one or more roommates at age thirty-seven—I started interviewing Patience. She was a copyeditor for the cooking magazine The Gastronomical We. “It’s actually an empire with offshoot magazines, cookbooks, and TV shows on The Food Network. You may know the motto: If you can eat it, we treat it.”

I nodded but knew nothing about cooking media. “It’s clever the allusion to the M.F.K. Fisher book.”

She looked moderately enthusiastic. “I’m glad you know that because most people have no idea.”

She was a graduate of UNH, beginning with biology and switching to English. She worked in the dying book publishing industry and was laid off from several jobs in Boston before family connections back home got her the copyediting job at “the GW.” Now, she said, she had finally realized her passion for food writing. The GW was giving her a trial run compiling answers for the section “What’s That?,” where readers sent in photos of unidentifiable cooking tools from old times or different cultures and the GW experts replied. According to Patience, the primary obstacle to fully embracing her passion was the dictatorial editor and head of the whole operation, Philson Flatow.

When she said the name I realized I had read something about him. “What’s he like?”

She shook her head. “Awful. If he doesn’t think you’re smart he tortures you.”

“Why not just fire you?”

She shrugged. “He would run out of people.”

The move into the large room near Kennedy’s birthplace was uneventful. There was a third roommate I still hadn’t met after living there a week. I was depressed about so many things—my failed relationship and the beloved dog I could no longer walk, the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China that together killed hundreds of thousands of people—that strangers in the bathroom seemed a remote concern.

Because I was trying to put together side gigs before my two classes started at Northeastern, I hung out at a neighborhood bar. In New York, this is what you did to find work. On day one I met Dexter the Kabloom driver who said he would put me in touch not with Kabloom but one of its competitors. I’d probably had a bit too much to drink with Dexter and his pals when I arrived back at the apartment and encountered Stanley Livingston, the other roommate who rolled his eyes when I laughed at his name even after having heard it numerous times already.

“Please don’t call him Stan,” Patience had advised beforehand.

“You mean I can’t say Stan the Man?”

She stiffened. “Don’t ever call him that.”

Stanley had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Taiwanese immigrants. He immediately thought we’d bond over a bitter hatred of New York, where Puerto Ricans stole his sneakers on the J, making him walk home barefoot in the winter. He hated J-Lo for this reason, even though she was from the Bronx. I steered clear of this morass and focused instead on his tech job way out in Littleton. He made tons of money and sent much of it home to Brooklyn, because in Chinese culture the word for Social Security was “children.” I laughed at that joke. When I told him that I taught English lit and was also a poet, he laughed like Felix the Cat. “Your days are numbered!”

According to Patience, Stanley considered the seven year’s age difference between them the equivalent of a lifetime. He was obsessed with his boss’s daughter, a recent college graduate and substitute preschool teacher. She was blond, pretty, overweight, and would only eat white food. Her mother, Stanley’s boss, was a divorcee and windsurfing fanatic who once surfed alongside John Kerry at a charity event. Stanley often accompanied mother and daughter on outdoorsy weekend trips, although the daughter was not into any kind of sports and never wore the right clothes. The scenario as Patience described it raised one red flag after another. Having met Stanley, I was even more certain that the white food eater fixation could only end badly.

Patience and Stanley seemed to me characters from a picture book I might start reading to my nephews and after the fifth turned page have no idea where the story was going. During any kitchen chitchat, all I would think about was diplomatic strategies to get back to my room. I began hearing the Beach Boys song in my head—do my dreaming and my scheming, lie awake and pray—when stuck in a kitchen conversation about the best techniques for frying a pork chop. At times it seemed I’d do anything to get back in my room, even though its barrenness made me pine after my Riverdale storage locker like a Jane Austen character an imagined dowry.

The under-the-table job handling credit card transactions at the under-the-table florist was dismal, and after two weeks I walked out. I arrived home at an odd time in the afternoon to find Patience on the sofa sobbing. Part of me longed to sneak past the spectacle, but I realized I had no valid reason to be there in the first place. I learned that Patience had been given a warning in her performance review by Philson’s top henchwoman at the magazine, Margaret Votaw.

“That’s a terrible name,” I said.

“She yelled that ‘you have to be more aggressive in your pursuit of taste and flavor!’”

I couldn’t help laughing. “She said that with a straight face?”

She nodded. “They’re taking ‘What’s That?’ away from me.”

“Why don’t you get out of there?” I asked. “Can’t you be a food writer somewhere else?”

She looked at me with wet eyes and a bleak expression.

“Look, what are you, thirty-seven?”


“That’s not old these days. You can do it. Just put your nose to the grindstone. Throw back the last brandy in the Auvergne like M.F.K. Fisher.”

She couldn’t let go of the bleak. “I can’t go without a job.”

“You can find something to tide you over.”

“I can’t,” she insisted. “My father would be upset. I’m supposed to be looking for a condo.”

I strangely remembered her father from just one small encounter, when he picked up Patience after school in his long boat of a car and they tooted to give me a lift. He seemed old in comparison to most fathers and used a cloth handkerchief to wipe away the spit that collected in the corners of his mouth. As I chatted with Patience from the backseat, he broke in to ask, “Where are you from anyway? You sound like a hillbilly.”

“Your father isn’t the one being treated like shit by Philson Flatow,” I said to Patience. “This is about your well-being.”

“What I really want to do is go back to school,” she said. “At Tufts—to get a degree in food science. Then I could be a food science writer.”

“So why not?”

“The money.”

“Use the condo money.”

“I could never do that. It would break my father’s heart.”

“Doesn’t he want to see you happy?”

She didn’t reply.

The connection between Philson Flatow and Patience’s father seemed so obvious that it was boring to contemplate. During the previous weeks I had read more about the “the dark prince of the recipe world” and “the guy in the room who always knows more than you.” He habitually wore tweeds and a bowtie and was known as Mr. Roast Turkey and Root Vegetables. He had a homestead in the granite state where he hunted rabbits and curated an old-school library of classic literature—lots of boxed editions in hand-tooled leather. He was worth tens of millions, mainly because of the Food Network show Uncle Sam’s Kitchen. He had five kids ranging in age from four to twenty-eight and was on his third marriage. The current wife had started off as his secretary, moving up to executive producer before being branded with a ring. When he wanted those who worked for him to get lost, he shouted “Scarcity!”

I was having a hard time thinking of anything to say to make Patience feel better. There was no possibility of pets to brighten the horizon because she was allergic to everything. I ventured, “At least it was Margaret Votaw who told you this and not Philson.”

She sat back on the sofa. “We’re all supposed to go on a staff retreat at Philson’s next weekend.”

“You mean to his house?”

She nodded. “He assigns you where you have to sleep. Some people have to share a bed.”

“Does he at least put condoms on the pillows?”

She laughed. “I mean, he’ll put women who work together in the same bed.”

“What about men?”

“No, just the women.”

“That’s piggish.”

“I guess it’s because space is tight.”

“Or maybe that he fantasizes about particular women in bed together.”

She had a habit of making the face of a prude as cover whenever some statement compelled her to reveal her prudish nature. “He has chefs come in and cook these amazing things for us.”

Just then Stanley came in the front door his usual cheery self. “Feeling better?” he shouted to the interior, just like the old “Honey, I’m home.”

I was surprised to realize he’d been there when she came home crying. He entered the living room holding a sheet of copier paper bearing a printed illustration. It was that woman from the comic strip Dilbert, the one with the trapezoidal hair. She was attached to a dialogue balloon that read “You have to be more aggressive in your pursuit of taste and flavor!” We laughed hysterically and Stanley was proud. “It’s Alice,” he said.

“I didn’t even know there were names,” I said.

“Oh, Stanley knows comics,” said Patience.

I experienced one of those moments of pure clarity—that these two were destined for each other—but somehow I couldn’t feel optimism. Maybe it was because the things that happen over several seasons of a sitcom rarely mirror the shortness, brutality, and nastiness of real life, even in Brookline.

In the weeks that followed, Patience managed to rally her troops. She started to volunteer unpaid on the Uncle Sam’s Kitchen set and also do testing at home for the GW. You’d think that living with an editor at a cooking magazine that specialized in rigorous testing would mean access to lots of amazing food. But what I came home to was mostly crappy looking substances in jars that were always spilling over on the countertop—that or fourteen different kinds of cornbread.

Patience’s big testing project of the summer was scouring cleansers, so for weeks, pots and pans that she had dirtied for testing were spread out on every available surface of the kitchen. This was the same time that, out of desperation, I starting writing consumer pieces for the Boston Phoenix, which was already balancing on a wounded wing. The only reason I was able to pry these hundred-dollar jobs from the hands of millennials was my bright idea of writing about products in alexandrine verse, like the last line of each stanza in Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain.” The editor was interested only because no one had done it before, like putting sea salt on caramel or a stick of bacon in a bloody Mary.

While I was writing about the best self-tanners, my stomach looked like photos of radiation victims from Alamogordo. This was during a heat wave, and it was sweltering in the apartment because Patience and Stanley were too cheap to get the gigantic air conditioners needed for those enormous windows. And I was by no means the moneybags to buck that trend. As a consequence, small fans were blowing from every angle in every room, like a bunch of yapping lapdogs.

One weeknight, the three of us sat deflated at a kitchen table colonized by All-Clad frying pans being used in the scouring pad project. You could hardly find a spot for your sweating water glass. It was at this moment I was struck by the obscenity that no one in this apartment was getting laid. But maybe that was because none of us had money. Patience and I were in the dying word business, and Stanley was saddled with a black-sheep brother who ran off to be a ski bum/concession vendor at Sundance. Everything seemed so hopeless and hopelessly hot that I pulled the T-shirt away from my sweating stomach. Stanley almost jumped out of his chair at the sight of the odd streaks of bronze. “Christ, what happened to you?” I didn’t even move from my slouch. “Life happened to me, Stanley.”

At the end of July, Patience managed to get me contract work on the set of Uncle Sam’s Kitchen, on the cleanup crew, what M.F.K. Fisher would inappropriately call being one of the “slaveys.” The enormous commissary kitchen had thirty recipe testers, mostly women, like a lab at Johns Hopkins. The Gastronomical We and its media empire were known for an intellectual recipe-testing platform that bordered on fetishistic. The people, however, were too dull for the word fetish—not especially nice but then not overly bitchy either except for two guys. My colleagues on cleanup were huge BU girls who did heavyweight crew and Central American immigrants.

Whenever Patience and I were working at the same time, she was so on task as to be alone in her impenetrable universe. The day I first got a load of Philson Flatow she had been testing a recipe for biscuits. He entered the kitchen with a boom. “Scarcity!” he shouted at someone. I was certain I could hear small clusters of rapid footsteps like the castle guards in Hamlet.

He had a nasal voice and a slight palsy to his head that—in concert with the bowtie, seersucker pinstriped suit, and spectator shoes—reminded me of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I imagined that the entire room was, like me, fighting the compulsion to run out and find a straw hat and cane to toss him. Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal! He was a spool of saggy old Nantucket-grade skin that could not survive outside certain Zip codes, a stack of moldering Pottery Barn catalogs on an overpainted Queen Ann porch.

Almost immediately he began yelling at individual testers. He’d begin the accusation “Do you know that . . . ”—as in “Do you know that you never assault egg whites in that moronic fashion?”—but then never let the accused answer because he’d immediately overlay his words with the verdict “No, you do not!” Do you know that NO you do not! Do you know that NO you do not! I was already getting a headache from the repetitive assaults when I thought to worry about Patience. The other testers were obviously well-trained cooking-school types getting their daily razzle, but I wasn’t sure about Patience. Luckily she was baking biscuits and not igniting bananas flambé. What could possibly go wrong?

“Baking powder??!! You forgot the baking powder in a five-ingredient recipe??!!”

Apparently the large stainless thimble of baking powder was still sitting at Patience’s workstation after the goods had come out of the oven.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he announced, holding up a biscuit like Fredric March would a Bible in Inherit the Wind, “never create such a hockey puck in my presence.” Then he hurled the powderless puck at an eight-burner Viking stove and it shattered like a shot clay pigeon—a gesture more consistent with The Ten Commandments.

I waited for the dust to settle before approaching the newly demarcated Untouchable zone of Patience and her workstation. “Come on,” I said. “I’ll buy you a drink.”

Out on the street she began to cry, so we ducked into what had become my regular bar because it was close by and cheap.

“He’s a joke, Patience,” I said to console her.

She shook her head but didn’t remove her eyes from her beer. “It’s not going to work for me.”

“Hey,” I said with fake cheer, “you never told me the details about his crazy sleepaway camp.”

She continued to stare at her glass. “You don’t want to know.”

I laughed. “Yeah, I do.”

“There was a bed-wetter. Philson made a big show of having a whole bunch of his workmen carry the mattress across the front lawn.”

“Look, no one would ever fuck him, OK? You just know he’s got a penis like a thimble of baking soda.”

When she didn’t answer I hated him all the more. How could he pick on someone like Patience Purcell? She was supposed to inherit the earth, not be savaged over baking soda. I tried again. “He’s a nerd pretending to be a suave tyrant and that makes him a clown.”

She nodded. “Steve always called him a clown.”

“Who’s Steve?”

She looked down again. “He was my boyfriend for a while. I met him on”

“What happened?”

“He was Jewish.”

“That’s not really an event.”

“He wanted to marry a Jewish woman so I was his standby.”

“That’s not good.”

“But then he came round and asked if I’d convert.”

“Would you?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t even think about what I wanted because of my father. He didn’t know Steve was Jewish.”

“Oh, Patience, you’ve got to get beyond that.”

“It doesn’t matter because he married someone else—just this spring it happened.”

“Did you love him?”

It took a moment for her to answer. “I don’t know. He said he had an engagement ring in his pocket one night we went out and he lost it somewhere. It wasn’t in a jewelry box; it was just the ring. He said he was going to propose.”

“Why didn’t he propose without the ring?”

“Well,” she began, then hesitated and looked down again.

I was already annoyed. “Your father?”

She nodded without looking up. “I told him the ring was a big deal for my father. It really had to be a certain percentage of his income.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

She shook her head as if to make the tears fly away. “I think Steve made up the story about the ring. He lied to me from the start. He lied about his other women on J-Date. Why would he have a ring without a box?”

“I’m sorry that had to happen.”

She blew her nose for a long time. After a couple of tissues she laughed. “I did get a proposition though—only it was for a job.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

She nodded with another tissue already tented over her nose. “An email from Houndstooth Press.”

I laughed. “Do they pay you in dog biscuits?”

“They’re in the Berkshires. They’re planning on republishing ten volumes of the cookbooks of Vivian McFadden. She lives out there too.”

“I think I may have heard of her.”

“ ‘The grand doyenne of cooking’ from the 1970s. I guess she’s rewriting the books to update. They want me to be the copyeditor. To work with her in her home.”

I actually lunged to grab her by the shoulders. “That’s your way out, Patience! I think your stars are lining up!”

She was upset and disconcerted at being grabbed, and as I helped her recompose herself, I realized that despite the petty harassment and haranguing by Philson Flatow, Patience Purcell was known within the world of cookbook copyediting.

“You need to leverage that asset,” I told her.

She looked skeptical.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I’d have to move out there and give up that great apartment.”

“But you were going to do that anyway if you bought a condo.”

She wasn’t overweight, but her broad shoulders and abundant chest brought to mind an ox yoke rather than a banquet of décolletage. She seemed so planted.

“You can get a subletter,” I said, “someone like me.”

“I’d be so far away from my parents.”

I rolled my eyes like we were still in eleventh grade. “It’s just a few hours!”

“My father won’t do road trips anymore.”

“So then you go visit them. You’ve got a car.”

“But with the GW, I can walk to work in ten minutes.”

I managed to convince Patience to at least drive out to there and talk to Vivian McFadden about the job. A day before she was to go, however, more fate intervened: She had taken the subway out to the Chestnut Hill Mall and fell down the steps at Hammond Street while running to catch the train. She’d gone to Bloomingdale’s with a coupon for a one-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven and came back to Brookline by ambulance with a broken foot. When I went with Stanley to drive her home from Brigham and Women’s, she was in good spirits because the Dutch oven had not been damaged. It was her left that got broken, but because she had a manual transmission, she declared that she could not go to the Berkshires for the interview.

“Yes, you can,” I said from the backseat. “I’ll drive you.”

Stanley laughed. “You don’t have a car.”

“I’ll rent one.”

He laughed even more. “With whose money?”

My backseat guile seemed to have touched something in Patience. “If you really want to go,” she said, “we can take my car. You can drive it.”

That night I went out with Stanley to fill the tank of Patience’s pristine Golf and pick up a prescription for her. Given that he didn’t drink, there was no going on a bender with him at my local bar. He used the excuse of being Asian to get out of alcohol, but then he used that excuse to get out of a lot of things—going to a movie or a museum or a poetry reading. And yet he made his lunch sandwiches with white mushy bread and the worst kind of packaged sliced ham and processed yellow mustard—exactly like my Irish grandmother who prepared some of the most repulsive foods on earth.

Stanley was an enigma but at the moment an enigma obsessed with Kettle Korn, so when I stopped at Cleveland Circle to get us a couple bags, he had no problem eating it wantonly in Patience’s pristine Golf.

“I don’t understand the food people,” I said, stuffing my face.

“Me neither,” he said with his fist in the bag. “I know how to take the stem out of garlic and that’s it.”

“That’s a pretty good start.”

“Patience goes crazy over those Polish baking dishes.”

“You mean the Boleslawiec stuff?”

“I don’t know what it’s called, but she feels guilty whenever she buys another piece. And I never knew that people used TV trays. She sets one up in front of the TV and now she’s got me doing it.”

I nodded. “It’s like she’s from another era.”

“She’s obsessed with that old HBO series Band of Brothers. She made me watch the entire thing with her on DVD.”


“Her father was in the big one—duh-ba-yuh duh-ba-yuh two.

I laughed. “He looked like he was in duh-ba-yuh duh-ba-yuh one, and that was twenty years ago.”

“I think it’s funny that she always says ‘my father” and never ‘my dad.’ ”

“He sounds like a tyrant.”

“I think he hates everyone who’s not an old white guy from New Hampshire.”

I would have happily slept with Stanley Livingston despite his quasi-racism and tendency to steer every conversation away from sex, but given his aversion to older women, this was not to be. The next morning I had a hangover not from the Kettle Korn but from writing poems in my room with a bottle of Prosecco. I luckily remembered the orgy of Kettle Korn, and in a mad dash I rushed out to vacuum the car at a place on Harvard Avenue before we left for the Berkshires. And here is where the strangeness occurred. I had the fat nozzle on the backseat floor while using my hand to rake out the kernels from under the passenger seat. I don’t remember the feel of anything different, but one swipe disengaged a silver sparkle that I swear I didn’t imagine. With a clink it was inside the industrial box, this evidence that Steve the Jewish suitor was telling the truth. Patience needed to know this, but I couldn’t tell her now when so much was riding on getting her out west so she’d take this job.

I began to feel almost happy on the drive. “Stanley told me you really like Band of Brothers.

“It’s very emotional for me,” she replied. “It gets to me because of my father.”

“What did he do in the war?”

She shrugged. “Rode on a ship I guess. He was in the navy but never saw combat.” She looked out the passenger window. “He doesn’t really like Asian people because of the war.”

I gripped the wheel tighter. “Well that’s something he’ll have to work on.”

“Did I tell you that his first wife ran off and never came back?”

“No,” I said. “When did that happen?”

“A few years after the war.” She spoke in an uptalk that seemed to be requesting validation. “He filed for divorce because of desertion. For a long time no one could find her, and then sometime in the eighties he found out she ran a motel in Florida.”

“When did he marry your mom?”

“Not until 1970. He had another wife.”

“Did she run away too?”

She laughed. “They got divorced. But first they had my brother, Steve.”

“It’s funny that you have a brother named Steve—given the guy you might have married.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But my brother—or I should say half-brother—is a lot older. He was born in the fifties. He lives somewhere in California. He’s estranged from the family—I mean my father.”

“That’s kind of sad.”

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s sad.”

We stopped in front of the farmhouse and turned down a long unpaved driveway. The place was starting to fall apart but was immensely appealing nonetheless. The grass was so green and the air sweet. There was a storybook I read to my nephews in which a mouse’s house was “a butterfly net for unforgettable days.” This seemed to be that.

“It casts a spell,” I said after I turned off the engine. We sat in the car staring at the sunken roof of the porch.

Patience grinned like a schoolgirl. “It’s kind of scary.”

Suddenly there she was, the old lady waving at the threshold. She was wearing a pantsuit—not the Hillary Clinton kind but one that was there at the creation in the 1970s. Dashiki print, top and bottom. I was impressed.

Vivian McFadden, I learned from reading, had fallen out of culinary favor with every sector of the food world, but lately photos of her had been showing up on blogs because of a sudden obsession with seventies retro—not the cuisine but the look and design of kitchens.

“Come, you girls, inside,” she yelled. “Yes, hobble in with your bum leg.” Her outstretched arm did not move, but she twitched her fingers rapidly. I immediately noticed her red fingernails, the last thing you’d expect on a cook.

Inside the door, the aroma and moist warmth of a kitchen in heat was seductive beyond belief. I felt a rush of nostalgia for something I could not identify; Patience, meanwhile, started into successive fits of sneezing.

Vivian called out for a Gigi, and a tiny middle-aged Asian woman came from the direction of the heat, wiping her hands with a dish towel.

“Gigi handles most of the craftsmanship,” said Vivian, “but I still stir and taste what’s in the pans.”

When Gigi laughed the effort quickly cascaded into coughing.

“Cigarettes!” cried Vivian. “She can’t get off the old tobacky!”

Gigi turned and waved her hand. “Oh, go ______ yourself.” The key word was undecipherable.

The house was a mess with too many undusted old things, yet it excited the child in me. It was somewhat dark because of a farmhouse construction that had hardly been tampered with. If I had to venture a style, it would be Tuscan and Provencal country meets back-to-the-earth British modern circa 1962, when the Terrence Conran thing was new.

Patience sneezed throughout our tour while I took it all in with awe—the kitchen’s old iron chef’s stove from maybe the 1980s, the incredibly wide and probably original double porcelain sink that was now stained the colors of a map in the time of Magellan, the copper and the stainless and the cast iron and the brown-bottomed enamel and the colorful ceramics from every vacation destination of your dreams—all of it reassured me, gave me hope.

“Are you OK?” I whispered to Patience, who was already encumbered by a crutch.

“I’m allergic to dirt,” she whispered back.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had divined the source of her discomfort: droppings in clusters that were way too large for mice.

Vivian looked out the large window over the sink to direct our attention to distant neighbors who were putting up a stockade fence she did not approve of. “What am I over here, a Visigoth?”

When I leaned to have a look I saw Gigi smoking on the back porch.

“That song ‘Don’t Fence Me In,’ ” she continued, “that was a Roy Rogers trademark that was written by Cole Porter of all people.”

“Cole Porter?” I said.

“Yes, Cole Porter! I know because my husband wrote books about show people. And that Roy Rogers—he always wanted to be a dentist. This was way before that hideous restaurant chain of his.”

Suddenly a commotion of wildness could be heard in the living room—something was tearing across the open pages of the Times left hither and yon on the carpets.

“Cocoa, sweetie pie!” Vivian exclaimed while clapping.

Into the kitchen dashed a furry bullet of floppy-eared rodent.

“You have a rabbit?” said Patience, aghast.

“It belongs to our little neighbor girl. Her cruel, evil parents had had enough and were kicking out the bunny for eating woodwork. Can you imagine—all over woodwork! So of course I took in the refugee, mainly so the girl can play with her.”

“I think Patience might be allergic,” I said.

“No!” said Vivian in shock, staring at Patience.

Patience nodded and blew her nose with a macerated piece of tissue.

“OK, shoo-shoo, little Cocoa-Mocoa,” said Vivian. “You’re giving this lady the sneezies!”

Vivian flicked her hand at me. “Go open more windows for your friend!”

Just as I got to the windows facing the road, I saw a tall, gangly teenager coast on his bike to the center of the yard. He was already lifting one leg over the bike before it came to a stop; then he jumped off and let the bike drop in a single movement.

“It’s Trey!” Vivian exclaimed when he appeared at the door. “Trey is here to make us lovely mojitos!”

The boy entered the house wearing long silky basketball shorts and pulled-up tube socks under shower slides. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen.

“I am something of a bartending school for our local teens,” Vivian explained as Trey headed straight for the pantry with the booze. “I tell them don’t waste money on the Harvard course if you need money in college. Come to me.”

At some point Cocoa had been placed in my arms and I was stroking her downy back. In no time at all, Trey emerged carrying three mojitos on a tray. He placed three coasters on the coffee table and the sweating, aromatic drinks atop the cork. Then he flung the round pewter tray vertically into the air to make it spin. When he caught it, he handed it to Vivian. Like a superhero, he was off again—out the door and flying on his bike.

“Go, go, go,” said Vivian upon noticing me with the rabbit. “Go put Cocoa in her kennel in the den so your friend won’t be wheezing.”

I accepted Trey’s lovely mojito and was dismayed that I couldn’t drink after that because I was driving—and not only driving but driving Patience’s Golf.

When we sat at the table with the tall chilled wines lined up like Chippendale dancers, I whispered to Patience, “One of us is going to get drunk and unfortunately it can’t be me.”

I hadn’t expected that I’d be the one having all the fun. Despite the dirt and the clutter and the rabbit poop, Vivian McFadden was a wonder—the Willy Wonka version of Mrs. Havisham.

At the table the subject of Vivian’s cookbook series with Houndstooth turned quickly to Philson Flatow.

“I am philosophically and ethically opposed to everything he does,” she declared. “That man is an ogre and a pimp.”

I smiled at Patience as if to say See?

Vivian looked at me specifically. “An ogre and a pimp!”

I nodded. “The very opposite of an officer and a gentleman.”

“Yes!” she cried, “with a hand-whittled cherry spoon stuck up his ass pardon my French!”

“He went ballistic on Patience over biscuits,” I said.

Patience nodded. “I forgot the baking soda.”

“Why would you ever want a recipe to come out the exact same way every time?” Vivian asked. “How tedious is that?”

We both shook our heads.

“Mistakes are the beginning of discovery,” said Vivian. “Experimentation is the beginning of discovery.” She paused before addressing Patience. “Tell me some state secrets, you.”

Patience looked uneasy. “The secret of good piecrust is vodka.”

“Well of course!” she shouted. “Everyone knows that! The secret of good bouillabaisse is vodka. The secret of good Peking duck is vodka.”

Patience looked confused.

I caught her gaze across the table made the subtle gesture of tipping a glass.

During the salad courses of sweet and savory, Vivian regaled us with stories about her cooking heroes, most of them women outside Jacques Pepin. She had written a biography of Elizabeth David and adored the woman, knew text from her cookbooks by heart.

“One of my favorite passages is her writing about what booze to bring on a picnic. ‘For a very hot day, Pimm’s No. 1 couldn’t be bettered but involves some organization in the matter of cucumber, lemonade, oranges, mint, borage and all the paraphernalia.’ Can you imagine all this on an impromptu picnic? Crazy but so, so right!”

“I’ve never had Pimm’s,” said Patience.

Vivian laughed. “Then you haven’t lived! Although I will say it’s pretty ghastly.” Then she had an idea. “Let’s go have a look at our dinner!”

We followed her into the kitchen. Gigi was doing something to sautéed greens while on the old stove the lid of a large blue enamel frying pan could barely contain the hot steam from its pungent interior.

“Voilà!” said Vivian as she plucked off the lid, only to reveal a well-used oven mitt resting atop an otherwise beautiful paella. “How did that get there?” she asked of the world. “Gigi! Who left this hideous thing in here?”

“You did.”

“No, I did not.”

“Yes, you did.”

This time when Gigi said “Oh, go _____ yourself,” I realized that the word I thought undecipherable was no word at all. She just inserted a placeholder.

With Gigi’s help, Vivian made us an unforgettable meal. Patience cleared her plate and had seconds despite her ailments. She wouldn’t take Benedryl because she was on Advil. And the Advil was because she scared herself out of taking the codeine the night before. The only thing I could do for her was keep filling her wineglass. She was my drinking proxy.

“Why did cooking have to become competitive,” Vivian wanted to know, “become a sport? Men took over and made it a sport to watch on television rather than to actually do with art and love. We’re a fat and lazy nation because men don’t actually play sports but drink beer on a sofa and watch other men sweat and run around. And now men drink wine on the sofa and watch other men sweat and chop onions like a jackhammer.”

“They have contests everywhere,” said Patience.

Vivian shook her finger at the world. “What’s going to come of this food obsession is that ordinary people will no longer cook improvisationally for joy and relaxation.”

“I wish more people could see you in action,” I said. “Maybe there would be hope.”

She waved away that thought. “People always ask ‘What happened to you?’ as if I failed miserably on a life course that somebody else decided for me. All I’ve done is stick to my guns and convictions in the face of offers to swap my very soul for cash. They wanted me to do a cooking show called ‘12 Steps,’ where I would surrender to a ‘higher power’ and admit to my misguided ways. That is to say, at eighty-three I would relearn how to cook! Can you imagine?”

“That’s awful,” said Patience.

Vivian sighed. “There is no balance, I’m afraid I must tell you. We all choose to go down with the ship in our own way.”

It was clear from the look of sickened dread on Patience’s face throughout dinner that she did not want this job. Vivian seemed to recognize this state of affairs. As I was helping Patience hobble onto the front porch, Vivian snagged my sleeve with her red talons. “Pssst. Do you want to work for me, honey?” It was one of the most tempting offers I’d ever received. But I realize that working out of the home of Vivian McFadden would for me be a rapid (although not unpleasant) slide into alcoholic oblivion.

Patience was so deflated and hung over the next day that we skipped our planned visit to Edith Wharton’s house and drove directly home. Through the silent miles I debated telling her about the engagement ring but could not think of a decent way to bring it up. Also, I was depressed by the state of life in 2008 as Vivian described it. Just as we passed the exit for Worcester, Patience declared, “Vivian’s right. The cooking field is too competitive, too stressful.”

I laughed. “True, but I think you can make a go of it somewhere.”

She shook her head. “I’ve been thinking about everything for the past hour. I started off a bio major but couldn’t handle the part where you cut up dead animals. Cooking at the GW has helped me overcome my aversion to cutting up dead animals. So maybe now I’m ready to go back to medicine.”

I wondered how you could say you were willing to go back to a field you hadn’t even started, but more so I was flabbergasted by this about-face.

“Last week I got another job offer,” she went on. “There’s this position copyediting at a new stem cell magazine, and I think I’m going to take it.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said. “What about your passion for food writing?”

She shrugged. “Stem cells pay a lot more.”

Back at the apartment we found Stanley eating in front of the television. Right away I knew something was wrong.

“I thought you were going to Mount Washington with Leslie and Karina?” Patience asked him.

We soon learned that Karina, the windsurfer’s daughter who ate only white food, had told Stanley before the trip that she was instead going to Old Orchard Beach with the boyfriend she’d had for more than a year. “This was a surprise,” he said, looking down at his food. “It would be awkward going on the trip with just Leslie.”

He had ordered enough Thai for five people, and Patience said yes to his offer to share. I said I had an errand to run, leaving the two of them eating on TV trays in front of the television, watching cooking shows. I had to go out to my bar with my diary notebook. I felt sad and betrayed, lonely for New York and my friends there, lonely for my conservative brother and his family in Indiana—even for my miserable parents in Pittsburgh.

I had made up a story that the clusters of apartment buildings near Kennedy’s birthplace were like those European spa towns in Thomas Mann’s time, spanking-clean sanctuaries standing healthfully defiant against the shadows of tubercular grottoes. Brookline itself was another time and place—all those hospitals, all those fleece jackets and Teva sandals. It was always a Sunday afternoon on Beacon Street—sunny blue-sky days, birds chirping, flowering trees heaving their cleavage in every direction, and yet sadly empty of people—except for people of color accompanying bone-white seniors with walkers.

Something made me cry after just one gin and tonic and I couldn’t stop. I don’t know why, but I went with it—literally out the door and down the street several blocks to the coin-op carwash. I went to the little room with the large man inside and pleaded my case. I was vacuuming my car yesterday morning and didn’t even feel the ring slip off my finger. It was only later that I realized it was gone. I’m completely devastated.

My plea seemed to have little effect until I added, My fiancé’s doing another tour in Iraq.

The man inserted a little key to open the door and took out the giant bag that wasn’t ever supposed to be pierced by a screwdriver. It was a filthy mess, but the man gave me a stick. Luckily it was still dusk, and I poked and poked amid the random assortment of crap that people sucked out of their lives. Finally there it was. I reached into the dirt.

“It’s a nice-looking ring,” he said. “Aren’t you going to put it on?”

“I want to disinfect it first,” I said. Then I gave him the last twenty dollars I had.

I walked down the street almost happy to remember that my classes started in a week, and with them a stipend deposited into my checking account. I thought how I might take my notebooks to a bar farther afield than Brookline. Maybe with a little cash I’d get a room in the South End, get to know provincial Boston. Maybe I’d rent a Zipcar and see the North Shore. Maybe some people don’t want to be saved. Maybe because of their allergies to dogs, dirt, and change they preferred boundaries and bullies, heartbreak and stolen dreams. With their Polish bakeware, TV trays, and Band of Brothers, they would plod warily into the future with companions averse to cocktails, poetry readings, and all older women. I did not know why this has to be, but I have it on good authority that we all choose to go down with the ship in our own way. §