This year, the ticks in Hudson are the size of the head of a pin. You look at them with amazement they can be that small. The man I live with examines a tiny black dot I show him, and we go upstairs to get tweezers. He holds my arm under a bright light and grabs the critter, pulling up firmly but not too fast. I can see the skin rise up slightly as the tick holds on, then off it goes and into the toilet. The spot itches for a few days afterward, like a mosquito bite.
I have been reading a book-in-progress written by a friend—a book about memory, as all narratives are—and I suggested he add another layer to the story, the layer where the narrator talks directly to the reader about how they are feeling now, in the process of remembering the past. The narrator tells the reader where they are located and what else is happening around them as they reflect, just like in any other scene. The narrator tells the reader what different thoughts and feelings are stirred in the act of looking back—anything, really, to show thought-in-action, both the thoughts-in-action recalled in the person they look back on and the thoughts-in-action of the person speaking now, sitting in a café or climbing a mountain, let’s say. Each memory is the bite of a tick that holds on with its tiny mouth parts, and you raise it up for inspection and see its tiny legs squiggling in the air. Wow, you think, that has been lodged in me.
The other day, I found myself thinking about a night in a car. I am fourteen and struggling with school. Girls want to be my friend. Boys want to date me. I have dated a senior. By spring, he’s dumped me.
At a school dance, a junior comes over, the older brother of a classmate—they are the richest kids at Woodmere Academy, I’ve been told. I live in Long Beach in a section called the Canals. The junior has a Jaguar. He’s small and wiry. His hair is dark and curls at the neck. He talks fast about nothing. I’m flattered or something I can’t think of a word for. I can taste that moment of confusion because it will happen to me many times going forward. What is going on? What does the person want from me? It’s my first year at the fancy school.
He asks me to go for a drive. I say I’ll miss my ride home. He says he’ll drive me to Long Beach. I get in his car. It’s red. The seats are buttery. He puts his arm around my shoulder, pulling me to him. I think he likes me. I think that life is a series of doors, some of them car doors. We stop for burgers and shakes on Sunrise Highway. I don’t know why we eat. He pays. We drive along dark, sleepy roads lined with mansions like the one where he lives, with a tennis court, pool, and dock by the bay.
He stops the car and kisses me. I don’t like it. He’s groping, insistent, untender, breathing hard and pressing against me with his eyes shut, forcing his tongue into my mouth. I have been kissing boys since I don’t know when—boys I play kickball with on the street outside my house, boys in summer camp I sneak out to meet, boys who tell me about sex on the jetties that cut into the ocean I can walk to from my house.
Junior doesn’t care what I feel and it’s a shock, and inside the shock I think I should have known this would happen, although it did not occur to me. It is never going to occur to me. It’s just not the way I think.
I tell him to stop. He doesn’t stop. I push him off me, saying I don’t want to do this. My voice is even. I act like I’m tired and want to go home. He touches my breasts, and I push him off harder. That’s when he starts shouting. He says, I thought you were easy. That was the language boys used in those days. If I am fourteen, then it is 1961. He says You must be a slut or Why would you get in a car with a boy you don’t know? He says the reason seniors date me is because I’m easy.
This is false. I’m not easy at all. Nothing about me is easy or will ever be easy. (Ask anyone who has ever known me.) It’s a mistake boys will make going forward, and they will always be surprised, and I will always be surprised by their surprise because almost the minute I understand how I am seen, I forget how I am seen. In order to feel free again, I suppose. In the car, I think it’s weird that even something I know isn’t true can make me feel bad about myself. I feel bad or sad because a cloud has parted, and in the light of the parted cloud I see how I am seen. I believe what the junior says about the way I am understood. It’s wrong, but what are you going to do? It’s one of those experiences that, looking back, you are actually lucky to be clued in to since you had no clue. It will happen many times in my life, not only with boys. Girls will tell me things about me they dislike. Girls will tell me the reasons they have lost interest or lost a sense of safety around me. I will see things from their perspective each time as if it is a flash of light I have never seen, and I will feel freakish and devastated until the next morning when I wake up, wondering what exciting thing is next.
In the car, I say to E—that is the name of the boy—I say, You need to drive me home. He pounds the steering wheel and says he won’t drive me home. He never intended to drive me, and he can’t believe I thought he would. I say, Well, how am I supposed to get to Long Beach? He says I can get out of the car right here. He doesn’t care. Why should he care?
He’s cursing me and pushing me toward the door and screaming at me to get out. I don’t know where I am. It’s all darkness and trees. I don’t have enough money to take the train even if I could get to a station, which is probably miles away, and even if I could get to a train, on the other side is my house, miles away from the Long Beach train stop.
I have no one to call, although I doubt I would have called my parents, had they been home. They are traveling out of the country. I’m supposed to sleep at the house of my mother’s friend, S, but I don’t go there every night. I think it’s cool my parents have left me alone. I feel moving through me the energy of coolness that is probably always the same as aloneness and freedom, and I think, too, that there is something weirdly detached in the belief my parents have in my independence. They aren’t afraid for me. I’m not afraid for me. Except in the car, right then and there, I am afraid because I can’t quite see how I am going to get out of this one.
I mean there is a world of understandings of me I know are not me.
I start to cry. I’m acting. I can’t see myself getting out of the car on a dark street in the middle of the night in I don’t know where. I don’t drink, and my mind is clear. My mind is always clear. I will never drink enough for my mind not to be clear. He bangs his fists on the steering wheel again, blaming himself for getting into this mess. Suddenly, he turns the ignition and starts driving, drumming the wheel. He goes crazily fast for the forty minutes it takes to get to Long Beach until we turn onto my street. He stops across from my house, which looks small and pathetic and is completely dark. The house is an embarrassment.
I tell no one this story. At school, when I pass E on the stairs or see him at a basketball game—he’s on the team—my stomach hardens. We do not exchange another word. I know something about him, although I don’t know what I know. I don’t know whether the thing I know and also don’t know is about him or the world or me. I don’t know how these things are going to determine my life, not then, but looking back, I can tell you that a version of the night I spent in E’s Jaguar has very nearly determined my entire life in the comic sense of mistaken identity.
I mean there is a world of understandings of me I know are not me. There is an understanding of me as A while I am B, and every so often I will be reminded I am seen as A, while I know I am really B, and sometimes I will call attention to this misunderstanding, even as a young girl, and I will be dismissed, and then later—really, only a few years later—lots of girls who have spent nights in a red Jaguar will find each other in order to remake the world.I have been thinking, too, about Roadrunner (HBO Max), the documentary I recently watched that profiles Tony Bourdain. At first, I wondered in an abstract way if the story was going to be about male beauty so outsized the man doesn’t know what to do with it. I was thinking about Marlon Brando and Albert Finney, the way both men destroyed their bodies. If you look at the mouth of Marcello Mastroianni, with its full lips and slight overbite, you can see the mouth of Tony Bourdain. If you look at the mouth of either man, you disappear into the mouth.
Tony was a friend of the writer Joel Rose, whom I knew for a while and very much liked, and Joel and Tony were close, and one night Tony joined a group of us and took us to a restaurant he admired. This was before Kitchen Confidential was published. Joel was encouraging Tony to write because he thought he was good, and Tony was a good writer.
Kitchen Confidential (2000) is a brilliant ode to appetite and pain. Appetite and pain go together for Bourdain, as, in the book, he cheerily describes knife wounds, burns, water blisters, and amputations. At one job, a friend forms amazingly lifelike severed fingers and penises out of sweet dough and food coloring and leaves them in walk-ins and aprons. Bourdain loves his weathered hands, which appear to him as a museum, each scar and deformity inscribing a story of risk and survival. He loves the infinite colors, textures, and smells of food; he sees the world divided between eaters and what’s edible, categories whose boundaries aren’t always firm, as when describing his own body—“a bony, whippet-thin, gristly, tendony strip of humanity”—that would make for tough kebabs.
In this book, he doesn’t tire of the wonder he can conjure with a plate of food, the moment of presentation creating a mind-altering state where beauty and anticipation interrupt the diner’s awareness of death. He can produce something similar for the reader with language, from descriptions of the pristine seafood arrayed in a Tokyo market to kitchen slang (jiz refers to any reduced liquid, marijuana to chopped parsley) to the spectacle of the Rainbow Room’s changing facility: “All the cooks’ necks and wrists were pink and inflamed with awful heat rashes; the end-of-shift clothing change in the room’s fetid, septic locker-rooms was a gruesome panorama of dermatological curiosities. One saw boils, pimples, ingrown hair, rashes, buboes, lesions, and skin rot of a severity and variety you’d expect to see in some jungle backwater . . .” Tony knew, beautifully, the trick in life is not disapproving of the things we love.
I wished the documentary had shown Tony in his confident, knowingly elegant element—cooking and running a kitchen. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about traveling Tony and the enormous fame that grew around him and what he could do with it and what was, it sometimes seems, a case of this man’s mistaken identity. We don’t know him from the film. It’s not that different from watching one of his travel shows and listening to the summaries and blurbs he wrote that often sound like wall texts at exhibitions.
He isn’t intimate in front of the camera. He’s shy. When he feels something powerfully, it subsumes him, like the way he fell for the Italian actress Asia Argento, who sometimes seems embarrassed by his ardor in the footage shown of them together. He’s much older than her and doesn’t appear to know it. It’s an easy confusion. Only the younger ones keep track of age. I remember when I kept track of the ages of older people. Now, everyone younger than me looks like time.
After Tony died, Les Halles, the restaurant he was running when he wrote Kitchen Confidential, became a roadside shrine with notes and pictures pinned to the walls. He represented beauty and kindness and curiosity and freedom to a lot of people. I don’t know enough about who he was to know if what I am about to say might be something he would have agreed with. I came away feeling this man lost the stability that had sustained him before he hit the road and cashed in on what the world was willing to pay to look at him. He stopped cooking, and he stopped writing, and without that sense of containment, life was too much like water, and you can’t swim forever.
*Some of these thoughts on Bourdain are from a review of Kitchen Confidential I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2000.