Tag Archives: friendship

For The Birds

The sky over Banderas Bay is still heavy with gray clouds from the previous day’s storms when my friends and I embark on our last adventure in Puerto Vallarta. Cool air greets us, a respite from late summer’s humidity; the ocean murmurs behind us. We climb cobbled streets to meet our guide, Fernando, at a nearby OXXO, a convenience store chain with ubiquitous presence all over the country. Early morning traffic whirs along the road. Fernando waits for us next to his air-conditioned touring van. He dispenses warm hugs and hellos. We board the van, eager to leave the city for a morning with the birds. “Let’s go, girls!” says Fernando, blue eyes smiling.

The drive to El Tuito follows coastal Manzanillo highway 200 and veers southward and inland at Boca de Tomatlan, climbing from sea level into oak and pine country. Fernando inquires about our lives and professions, while providing little windows into his path from Mexico City to cetacean studies and Puerto Vallarta. We are all educators, so we describe boarding school life and offer statistics about demographics. (I don’t mention that I am a newly-minted former educator because the wounds to my ego are still fresh. My friends kindly uphold my omission.)

We spend all morning in the temperate mountain region, relishing the clearing cloud cover and a break from the heat. At over a thousand feet above sea level, the air hums with sound: the buzzing, chirping, and chittering of creatures that thrive in tropics. Fernando spots birds from barely perceptible movements in the abundant, green canopy, and he shuffles our bodies and our lines of vision to accommodate seeing what he sees. Within minutes, we’ve spotted nearly a dozen different birds, among them a male blue-black grassquit, small and, appropriately, bluish-black with white spots in the crook of its wings. Fernando, who warned us at the outset that he was a serious “bird nerd,” puffs with joy. “Look at him!” he says. “Watch… He will jump to announce his territory.” Sure enough, the grassquit bounces in place, a single spindly branch propelling him upward: Here I am! Look at me!

In the distance, a black-bellied whistling duck alights on a tree. Fernando says: “Quick! Two o’clock!” The group pivots as one, binoculars at the ready. The duck has large, ringed eyes that give it an inquisitive appearance, and long legs that match its bright coral bill. It is cuter than the average dinosaur’s descendant.

We drive further inland to Rancho Primavera, a destination known for its birding opportunities. Heavy blushing mangoes dangle from grove trees. Unseen birds entice us with birdsong. The caretaker’s dun-colored dogs follow our trek through the grass. Fernando whistles a series of staccato pygmy owl toots and, in turn, flushes out a cinnamon hummingbird, which we track as it zips through undergrowth. As if on cue, Fernando points to a blue-capped motmot resting on a low branch. It fixes us with its red gaze. We coo.

A male elegant trogon, resplendent with a brilliant red breast and shimmering green body, flits through high branches near the lagoon. It holds a moth in its beak; the moth’s wings flap wildly. The trogon divides its attention between us and the insistent call of a nearby female, reluctant to reveal the location of its nest. We turn to leave, and the trogon disappears from sight.

Photo Credit: (Who else but) Fernando

Fernando walks several steps ahead, his short brown ponytail swishing. He waves his arms: “Come on, girls!” We fall into a single line on the moist terrain, four birds in tow.

The tour concludes at a family-run El Tuito restaurant. Fernando confers with our young server, the proprietor’s daughter, whose shy smile betrays amusement over our group’s limited grasp of the Spanish language. We order beef machaca with eggs with tortillas, salsa, and Pacifico beers all around. Fernando chooses eggs with locally made panela cheese. We raise our eyebrows at the lack of peppers in his dish. He laughs. “I know,” he says, smiling ruefully into his plate. “I’m a weird Mexican.”

Thank you, Restaurante El Mariachi!

Fernando teases us all the way back into the city, no longer a guide but a friend. We exchange contact information while saying goodbye. He has an evening tour to run before going home to his beagle, Leia.

Later that evening, we lounge in the pool. Our eyes savor the sunset; our limbs bob in the cool water. We are, for a short moment, unburdened. Soon, my friends will return to their jobs at the school where we met. They’re girding themselves for three weeks of in-service; I know, because I used to attend the compulsory monotony, too. As we twirl and weave through gentle waves, recollecting the day, laughing, and singing along to ABBA’s “Fernando,” I find myself wishing that this year will bring them to new heights in the areas of their lives that truly bring them joy: their creativity, their pride and rewards of work, their connections with high school learners.

I choose not to think about the fact that I won’t be returning to teaching with my friends. Instead, I’m reminded for the hundredth time of Emily Dickinson, my gap year muse: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul / and sings the tune without the words / and never stops – at all.”  Relaxing in the pool, still warm from memories of the day, I feel like I’ve just stepped into the sun after a long spell in the dark; my cells and spirit reunite, a small bird on wing.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under birding, travel

Friendsgiving

IMG_2679

Simple, fragrant place-setting: rosemary sprigs and fresh cranberries, strung with floral twine.

My husband and I moved to Utah in the summer of 2008. Eager to begin a new life out West and unfamiliar with the vacation realities of boarding school life, we arrived in early June, squeezing our belongings into a tiny duplex on Main Street. We knew no one. I can’t speak for my husband, who is an undiagnosed hermit, but as I sat amidst ceiling-high boxes and mismatched furniture in the stifling summer heat, I began to seriously doubt our decision. Then came a knock at the door. A school faculty member named Max stood at our threshold, smiling and welcoming us to town. He invited us to dinner at his house.

We quickly became friends with his family, whose children were close in age to ours and whose sensibilities and warmth won our hearts. They introduced us to several other faculty families. Our circle of friends grew. We hosted dinner parties; we enjoyed parties hosted by others; and, just like that, we weren’t lonely strangers anymore. We became part of a community that has supported us and nurtured us for the last seven years.

In our first year, I hosted an Orphans Thanksgiving for the faculty members who were unable to spend the holiday with their families. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. I have so many blessings to be thankful for. It only seemed right to share the day with others. I cooked the turkeys, and guests each brought a side dish. Over time, the tradition transformed into a gathering of an ever-growing family of friends. The guest list changes, but the joyous heart of communion remains.

This year, we grilled New York strip steaks, marinated liberally in rosemary, garlic, and olive oil — a low-stress alternative to turkey that requires much less clean up. I also tried out a hasselback potato gratin from the New York Times (amazing!). Hosting Friendsgiving gives me the culinary freedom to experiment and enables guests to enjoy not one, but two days of revelry and gratitude.

As Denise Chavez writes: “We have so much to be thankful for: Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, tacos of all kinds, Pad Thai, sushi, chicken chow mein, pizza, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, mariachis, symphony orchestras, rock and roll, rap, funk, rhythm and blues, rancheras, boleros, soul music, day, night, rain, snow, blue skies, clouds, our mothers, our fathers, the many ancestors whose blood and pulse of life we carry within us.” For all of these blessings and more, thanks be.

*

Friendsgiving is fun. Here are some tips from a few years of experience.

IMG_2700

Kids’ tables: Craft paper table covers and buckets of crayons are great for little hands. Slightly older child guests appreciate being treated with a little more care. I don’t use my best china, but I put out nice plates and juice glasses.
IMG_2709

 

 

 

 

 

Make thrift shops and garage sales your friends. You can score a handful of silverware, dishes, or folding chairs and tables for relatively little money. My tablecloth is a bolt of fabric from a craft store.

 

IMG_2710

Flowers. Bunches of fresh herbs are lovely too.
IMG_2714

 

 

 

 

 

Usually, I put out white plates. I opted to use my grandmother’s fine china this year. Life is short.

 

IMG_2716

Parlor tricks: Write notes of thanks to each guest. Ask them to guess the card you chose for them based on the cover art.

 

IMG_2720

Put out several carafes of water for guests to drink throughout the meal. I set up a separate drink station with a range of cocktail and wine glasses, a bucket of ice, and extra bottle openers.

 

 

 

IMG_2728

Noshes are important, too: crackers, nuts, cheeses, and fruits give guests a distraction while you’re carving the turkey or sneaking a glass of wine.

 

 

 

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

2 Comments

Filed under food, literature, travel

Lessons From The Big Easy

On February 2, 2014, I ran my first race: the New Orleans Rock N’ Roll Half Marathon. I traveled to the Big Easy with three girlfriends: Lori, who ran the race with me as a fundraiser; Casey, a frequent conspirator in food adventures; and Alethea, who drove from Georgia show her support. Though the run loomed prominently in our long weekend, so did our determination to find the best meals the city offered. What are four hungry ladies to do in the heart of Nola? Eat, and eat well. These are the abridged notes from a weekend I won’t soon forget.

IMG_20140131_102025

The adventure begins!

The ghosts of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, companions who famously toured the French countryside in search of culinary delights, lured us into the French Quarter the evening we arrived. We chose Acme Oyster House for our inaugural meal. Hopes high, we walked to the restaurant, located a short distance from our hotel, and assumed places in line for, what we were promised to be, “enormous plates of fried seafood.”  After 15 minutes of unsuccessfully garnering the attention of the hostess out front, our stomachs loudly rumbling, the hostess approached us, took our names, and led us past several other parties-of-four to a table by the bar. We did not question our good fortune. Hunger is a powerful condiment.

Our server, Will, a young L.L. Cool J, served me my first po’ boy: the Peace Maker, filled with equal parts of sweet fried shrimp and spicy fried oysters, and “dressed” with spicy mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. L.L. Adorable also brought us our first – but not last – hurricanes, oysters on the half shell, gumbo with rice, and dark, savory seafood étouffée, also served with rice. Lesson one: Enjoying a meal in a new place with friends is a joy. Enjoying a meal in a new place with attractive friends gets you seated faster.

Arrive early on Bourbon Street, because after a certain hour, the crowds thicken and traversing them can feel something like salmon swimming upstream against the current. We enjoyed more neon hurricanes in the cobbled courtyard behind Pat O’Brien’s, where music played, fountains flowed, and heat lamps and colorful lights warmed the nighttime bar crowd. We found a table in the corner of the courtyard. One of our neighbors promptly hit on Casey. He slurred his way through two introductions, only to seem to reconsider, apologizing to her and offering her his beads in truce. (His friends, only marginally less inebriated, eventually hauled him out of the bar.), Lori donned a newly acquired masquerade mask for the rest of the evening, laughing with her whole being as her hurricane shrank in her cup. We left the bar around 11 p.m. to find that an Egyptian-themed dance party had overtaken the block. I started to nervous-sweat and begged my friends to remove me from the Isis-fest. Alethea received beads – Thoth beads – before we got away, as well as an invitation to a “pimps-and-hoes-nipple-painting” nightclub.  The three who remained without invitation tried not to take umbrage. Education: Inebriated men give beads freely. Drunken, apologetic men take a little longer to part with their beads.

Hurricanes... and that one crazy who ordered a Bloody Mary instead.

Hurricanes… and that one crazy who ordered a Bloody Mary instead.

Impressive beads... but still not Thoth beads.

Impressive… but still not Thoth beads.

At Laura’s Candies, off Chartres Street, two wizened shopkeepers informed us that pralines are pronounced “prah-lins,” like “naw’lins.” They encouraged us to share this knowledge with others. If only all lessons were so easily digested.

We made reservations for Saturday night at 6:00 at Commander’s Palace, the venerated Garden District establishment that nudged Emeril into the realm of culinary acclaim. We arrived by streetcar, with a cushion of time for allotted for exploring the neighborhood. As we roamed the quiet, tree-lined streets, admiring the architecture for which the area is renowned, we met a couple walking an enormous black mountain dog. G and P inquired about our attire (Commander’s Palace strongly recommends semi-formal dress), then pointed out houses of interest, such as the 24,000 square foot estate in which American Horror Story: Coven is filmed, and invited us to their home for after-dinner drinks. We felt giddy with possibility when we arrived at the restaurant.

Exploring the Garden District with three lovely friends.

Exploring the Garden District with three lovely friends.

Dinner at Commander’s Palace was everything we imagined… and more. Servers moved as elegantly as synchronized swimmers, clearing each course before delivering the next and coordinating their movements in unison, so that everyone at the table received their plates at the exact same time. Though Lori and I demurred from post-prandial libations chez GP, opting instead to rest prior to the race, Casey and Alethea joined the couple and had a famous night. They slinked back into the hotel room just after 2 a.m., buzzing with stories to share when we awoke. The take-away: Not all strangers want to stuff your pistol-whipped, half-mutilated body up their chimneys.

By race day, I suspected that the run had become ancillary to our epic meal docket. Nevertheless, we completed the race: Lori radiant with exuberance; me, hell-bent on finishing despite the searing pain in my right knee. I marinated in sweat and wrapped myself in a foil blanket like a sea bass ready for the oven. We hailed a cab. Kismet winked at me: our driver had two first names, a quirk I find endearing. Gary Albert (or was it Albert Gary?) enchanted us with tales of his six former wives and 15 children (all fictionalized) – a welcome distraction from sore muscles. I would have loved to sit with him, memorizing his deep, rolling drawl and seaside swagger, if only the fare remained static per quarter mile. Note to self: Find less expensive over-sized personalities to talk to.

Lori and I ran to support this very deserving young lady.

Lori and I ran to support this very deserving young lady.

While Lori and I cleaned up post-race, Casey and Alethea sought out snacks to tide us all over before a late lunch.  They found luck at Café Beignet on Royal Street, where one can purchase a trio of beignets (they are typically sold in threes) for $3.99, including tax.  Beignets, the state doughnuts of Louisiana, are squares of choux dough, which blister and puff while deep-frying in oil and are sprinkled with powdered sugar immediately prior to serving.  The powder explodes in flurries with each bite. Over the next two days, we visited the café several more times, leaving small avalanches of sugar in our wake. Lesson: If one beignet is good, three is better.

Where the beignet magic began.

You had us at beignet.

During our brief time in New Orleans, we also ate at Ernst Café (killer fried green tomatoes), the Green Goddess (truffle cheese grits, sweet potato biscuits, and a bloody Mary sufficient to make a girl swoon), Domenica Restaurant (thank you, GP, for securing our reservation last minute on a Sunday night!), and the Ruby Slipper Cafe, where we ate our last New Orleans meal prior to leaving. If we’d arrived ten minutes later on that Monday morning, our wait would have quadrupled: the line only lengthened during our meal, a testament to the quality and reputation of the institution. At the Ruby Slipper, “there’s no place like home,” a philosophy that appears on their walls and menus alike. Maybe that’s why our Irish coffees felt so invitingly warm on that brisk gulf city morning; or maybe it was the service, true to our every experience in New Orleans: honest, easy, delicious, and so very genuine.

20140201_115529

Ernst: Crab Cakes.

Ernst: Fried Green Tomatoes.

Ernst: Buffalo Shrimp Salad.

Ernst: Fried Green Tomatoes.

Ernst: Fried Green Tomatoes.

The view from Green Goddess.

The view from Green Goddess.

Many, many thanks to Alethea, Casey, and Lori (and Maggi!) for sharing their photos in this post! When’s our next food adventure?

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

2 Comments

Filed under food, literature, travel

Back to Beginnings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shot at night in low light with a flash… and four friends willing to be scalded in the process of capturing a single good photo. This, to me, signifies true love.

In this new year, I find myself going back to beginnings. Eater Provocateur started as a creative outlet for my inner MFK Fisher, a vehicle for self-expression with the side benefit of bringing culinary joy to others.  Entering the teaching arena diverted my energy, dividing my attention inequitably: scales tipped towards the classroom, leaving behind the whispered remnants of a blog, dusted with shreds of faded photographs past.  These days, I write as often as I can (which is not as regularly as I would like). I cook only rarely, and my camera and my food intersect awkwardly, like lovers who have grown apart but still try to maintain the pretense of an intimate relationship. Thinking of my forsaken blog causes me to wince.

Friends advise that I shouldn’t worry about my absence from the electronic world. They are, in ways, right – isn’t it more important that I engage as a human being among fellow humans? Logically, this makes sense, but it doesn’t ease the guilt of abandonment or the mourning for the lost solace of each passing day. A blog is like a child or a spouse: it requires constant, devoted attention. The reciprocation, once provided, sustains the giver. Deprived of such dynamics, the partners stray. I have been wandering in the weeds.

Nevertheless, I am blessed with friends who want, earnestly, to help keep me on track. If I make French onion soup, with toasted baguettes topped with bubbling smoked Gouda, they rally around me in support, armed with oven mitts and professional-grade cameras… a boon to a girl who started a blog with an Elph and a dream.

So I’m going back to my roots. I used to think an ambitious person could market herself in the food world and succeed according to the effort she put forth. Adulthood, and Amanda Hesser’s Food52 advice to budding food writers, convinced me otherwise. Realistically, the reach of my writing is constrained by the economic sensibilities of geographic distribution. Publishing trends and books sales are similarly disheartening. The modern literary forum is so different from that which fostered MFK Fisher and Julia Child. That knowledge is, reluctantly, and maybe must be by necessity, okay with me.

I’m still a girl with a food dream. It would be awesome to one day realize my life in terms of writing about food for a greater purpose; I’m just not there yet. I couldn’t have started this blog without the help of the friends and readers who buoy me, without those shouts of support right from the beginning. Thank you for joining me on this blog’s journey so far. Let’s make this a great year to get back to our roots… together.

Happy New Year!

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

1 Comment

Filed under food, literature, travel

I Heart…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…Because I Call Them on a Saturday Night and They Are Gracious

A group of friends went to dinner in an early celebration of Mother’s Day. They hired baby-sitters for their children; they coordinated a carpool to a city an hour’s drive north, where they had made reservations at Communal, a restaurant that boasts locally sourced, seasonal menus. At Communal, they ordered wine, appetizers, and six entrees, which they shared, family-style, in an amber-lit, partitioned room. Some partook of dessert, which was also shared. The friends split the bill without quibbling, and tipped their servers well. One of the men offered to drive everyone home. Hunger sated, spirits buoyed, they returned.

I was fortunate to be part of this dining experience. My friends and I live in a rural area with limited dining options, so planned events – I call them food pilgrimages – provide us with rare moments of socio-culinary joy. The details of this meal have since faded into an overall impression: the food was delicious; we had a great time. But one dish stood out: skirt steak with roasted piquillo peppers.

I could not stop thinking about the steak the following day and well into the evening, so I called the restaurant about twenty minutes before they closed. To my delight, one of the chefs agreed to talk with me. I apologized for the late hour and asked if he had a couple of moments. He assured me that he did, then he told me how the dish was made: ingredients, pointers, and all. Dear chef, had you been standing next to me, I would have kissed you.

*

… Because They Know How to Make An Experience Unforgettable

My friends, Casey and Laura, occasionally abduct me for a girls’ night out. Recently, we ventured to Chef’s Table, which is located in Orem. Chef’s Table is an eight-year recipient of the Best of State Award in Fine Dining. The restaurant is a luxury that we, on school salaries, can afford only on choice occasions, so we tend to make the most of them.

When we arrived, they seated us in the east room, which has floor to ceiling windows overlooking Provo Canyon. The setting sun blushed against the grey, striated upper crags of the Wasatch front, shrouding the lower valley in evening shade. We nestled into comfortable leather chairs amidst the tinkle of forks and low conversations.

One of our servers brought us a basket of warm, doughy rolls with a side of kalamata butter. We promptly ate them all. Casey, bedecked in a long grey dress and her signature red lips, ignited as the rush of umami engulfed her. We began to talk more animatedly, debating what to order. Which appetizers sounded the best to share? (Three cheese fondue with sourdough crisps and onion soup gratinée.) What entrée were we least likely to replicate at home?  (Lamb with white beans and sausage goulash; mushroom stuffed filet with ‘whipped’; and sirloin steak with truffle frites.) What type of wine should we drink? (Ravenswood Red Zinfandel.)

A change rippled through the dining room sometime in between the second round of rolls and the uncorking of the wine. The room quieted. Other diners, mostly couples, were watching us as we sampled from each other’s plates: spoons swooping, glasses tippling, murmuring in a near-rapturous state. It occurred to us that three boisterous women, high on delicious food and wine, might pose a date night anomaly. Glancing mischievously at one another, our eyes made a silent pact to provide our fellow diners with the entertainment they sought. Unapologetic foodies, we murmured louder.

By the time our entrees arrived, we didn’t really care what the couple seated across from us – who ate their entire meal one-handed, their opposite hands entwined in a sustained, tabletop embrace – thought. I turned my back to the balding man among the party of six in the corner of the room. He had actually leaned forward in his seat, neck craned, ear cocked in our direction. Casey playfully returned the favor. “Maybe we should invite him to join us,” she mock-whispered.

Our servers offered us countless rolls and unending butter; they refilled our glasses, removed plates, replaced silverware, and inquired about our satisfaction with each dish. I think our antics secretly amused them, though the befuddled hostess may have lamented her placement choice. Perhaps we’ll warn her next time: Beware! Foodies Gone Wild! On that night, however, our fleeting celebrity was well worth the cost of the performance.

*

… Because Making Others Happy Makes Them Happy

Joe, the chef de cuisine at the school where I work, rides a motorcycle and rocks out in a band. He recently got his last name tattooed on his forearm in large cursive letters, and is someone to whom I might turn if I needed food advice, special ingredients, or, perhaps, the name of a hit man.

Chef Joe is one of the most generous people I know. On my daughter’s birthday, he posted a big colorful sign in the cafeteria. He offers food samples and overages he can’t use to anyone who will take them. He’s given me honeycomb and Thai peanut marinade; he’s even given me duplicate cooking books, because he knows I share his love of food and because he has excellent taste in aspiring food writers who live in his immediate vicinity. Generosity isn’t an air or obligation for him; it’s his manner of being.

I can attest to Joe’s generosity specifically, but in my experience many food people share this quality. I do, as do my food-loving friends. I have yet to meet an ungracious chef. Generosity of spirit marks those who love to share their meals: it compels us to commune, to inquire, to enjoy and delight. Our spirits are propelled by the appreciative gestures and smiles of our efforts. It makes Joe happy to make others happy. It makes me happy to make you happy.

*

… Because They Give Me A Reason To Write

To all my friends in food: Thank you for helping to make the world a happier and infinitely more delicious place. Thank you for giving me direction and literary purpose. Happy, happy Thanksgiving!

I thank you!

I thank you!

Leave a comment

Filed under food, literature, travel

Secret Squirrels

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Recently, I orchestrated my greatest culinary coup yet.  I pulled off the ultimate surprise party – a belated birthday brunch for one of my dearest friends, Lori.  Lori and I started working together six years ago, both of us relocating from the South.  We quickly realized that living and working at a boarding school carry complicated dynamics, which are difficult to explain to those who live outside of the boarding arena and which sometimes impose tricky, uncomfortable situations within the boarding community.  Simply put, living at a boarding school is like being on reality television, 365 days of the year… Which is why it was a little amazing that the party secret didn’t leak two minutes after I distributed the invitations.

Part spitfire, part sage, Lori has helped me overcome countless emotional hurdles.  She mourned with me when I lost my mom, and she has coached me through struggles with my children and with some choice haters.  Her bright blue eyes positively twinkle with mischievous sass, but make no mistake: she is all heart. I knew that whatever I planned would have to be big.

Coordinating an in-house party for upwards of 30 adults and children requires planning and endurance. Logistics come into play, because summer vacations comprise a variable element in boarding school life.  When will the maximum number of potential guests return home from their vacations?  How many seats do I have available?  What if some guests RSVP and others don’t – what is an acceptable median for invitations extended?  And, most importantly, who should I invite?

The answer changes with each party and harbors an implicit caveat: everyone can’t be invited to everything, especially in a boarding school community, where faculty are united by chance, tamped into a fish bowl, and expected to accord in peace while living on-call, 24/7.  There are too many members in the community and too few venues in which to host events of such magnitude.  Ultimately, the decision falls on depth of experience – the friends with whom one has laughed the most.

When the day came, we hovered in a darkened corner of my living room, smirking when we heard Lori ask her husband, my co-conspirator, where everyone was.  He came in, nodded at us, and gave us the verbal cue: “I don’t know, honey… Maybe they’re all outside.”  She entered the room.  We yelled, “Happy birthday!” She twirled in a double take.  And we laughed all morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

© 2013 Julia Moris-Hartley

Leave a comment

Filed under food, literature, travel

Tiny Ninjas

The naked man standing in the hallway across from my Las Vegas hotel room covers his crotch with both hands and grins at me.  Though I need to leave the room, my momentum halts. I slam the door quickly, sealing myself inside.  My friend, Casey, a tall, bodacious blonde, stops short, looking confused. I’m not sure how I articulate the naked man’s situation, but Casey seizes the moment, pushing me out of the way and pressing her phone to the door’s peephole. She snaps multiple photos of his toned derriere as he furtively knocks on his locked room door.

I blush, breathing hard, my back pressed against the wall like I’m evading a zombie in pursuit.  Casey gives me the play-by-play peephole recap: the couple who encounters the man there in the hall, naked as the day he entered this world; their playful responses, goading him into reluctant laughter; the man’s gratitude when Casey tosses him a hand towel from our bathroom; the best wishes we offer him when we finally stop giggling, compose ourselves, and leave the room.

The elevator light dings at the end of the hall, smoke lingering in the stagnant air.  Casey turns to me, blue eyes sparkling, and says, “This is going to be the best day ever!”

*

Casey’s friendship comes with many perks, among them: travel, random naked men, and opportunities to try new foods.  Casey travels frequently for work. Usually my children and my teaching/tutoring schedule prevent me from accompanying her, though I would like to, but sometimes serendipity grants me its favor.  Casey’s most recent trip to Las Vegas occurs during my school’s spring break.  Would I like to join her for a few days of sunshine and fine dining in Vegas?  Yes.  Yes I would.

*

Casey convinces me to get a foot massage with her, despite my reservations. She is far more massage-friendly than I am, and she promises me that this experience will be “amaze-balls.”  (After the morning’s nude review, I’m not so sure.)  I reluctantly accompany her to the Foot Spa in Vegas’ Chinatown. I stress all morning in anticipation of the massage.

Golden curtains divide the spa into several intimate spaces.  A radio quietly plays classical music.  Water trickles from a waterfall in the corner.  I can’t see anything but tile flooring with my face pressed into the plush brown spa chair.  My massage therapist clearly struggles with her previous life as an angry ninja.  She karate chops my back with exaggerated gusto.  I begin to question the term “foot massage,” and how precisely it correlates to the face, scalp, arms, back, and butt.  My contemplations arrive belatedly in our hour-long session.  I beg the woman who “massages” me to be gentle.  I whimper.  At times, I clench every muscle possible in order to evade the pain.  I decide, resolutely, that I definitely do not like people to mess with my spine.

When the time comes to settle the bill, I realize why she’s been so rough on me.  She doesn’t understand a word I say.  I tip her $8 – about 25% – for the mercy of escaping alive.  My kidneys ache; patchy purple bruises begin to blossom under my skin.

Outside, Casey’s oversized grin confirms that she, too, has succumbed to ninja torture.  Sunlight assaults our dimmed Zen eyes.  Casey peers at me and asks, “We’re still friends, right?”  I assure her we are. But a teensy tiny part of me receives satisfaction in the mental image of the tiny ninja – all knees and elbows in full attack mode, perched on Casey’s back.

*

Casey is a gateway drug.  We first met at work five years ago.  Casey introduced me to important life skills, like smart, intentional networking; opening myself to new experiences; and being 100% genuine and true to myself at all times.  I learned these by observing her.  Then, she upped the rush by absconding me to different restaurants and kidnapping me for purposeful writing (and eating) retreats.  She seamlessly inserted herself into my family’s life, showering my kids with superhuman affection.  I just can’t see myself quitting her.

*

It’s not my place to judge ninjas.  Foodies are kind of like tiny ninjas: ever on the prowl; stealthily stalking the next delicious meal; unsheathing our swords in the rarest and most tragic cases of food injustice.  Our attacks are little… but impassioned.  I spend the last day of our trip in bed, felled by a persistent, nagging sinus infection.  The inside of my head feels like it’s going to implode.  Casey has made plans to eat at Gordon Biersch, and all day I’ve felt pain in my face as well as my heart, lamenting that I won’t join her.

I watch her as she perches, cross-legged, on the floor in front of a huge mirror, braiding her long hair and applying makeup to her porcelain face.  “What time is your dinner thing?” I croak.

“We’re meeting at six,” she says, lips relaxed, smoothing on her signature red lipstick.  “Dinner starts at seven.”

I sit up in bed, the jackhammer in my brain momentarily ceasing, and look up the menu online: gorgonzola-pear salad, lobster bisque, blue crab and artichoke dip… Ingredients that I cannot purchase within fifty miles of my home.  Casey eyes my computer screen in the mirror’s reflection.  “It’s only half a mile away,” she says, her voice lilting.  “Worst case scenario, if you start feeling really bad, one of us could bring you back to the hotel. Or you could even take a cab… It’d be really close….”

Somewhere deep inside, a tiny ninja rallies to life, shrieking out her battle call.  I join Casey for dinner.

*

When the server sets out a large plate of crostini aside a bowl of creamy white, bubbling crab and artichoke dip, I dance a gleeful rumba in my seat.  I haven’t eaten since breakfast.  One glass of cabernet has gone straight to my head.  I am ravenous.  This dish – not so much an appetizer, as it appears on the menu, as an entrée – is the highlight of my day.  I have Casey to thank for luring my sorry butt out of bed.

Back at the hotel, Casey climbs into her bed, pulls the covers up to her ears, and says, “I’m sorry you feel so bad, Jules.”

“I’m sorry I am such a wet blanket,” I say, honking into a tissue.  “I’m so lame.”

Casey snorts and asks me if I need anything. I think of the thousand ways she has impacted my life and my attitude towards life since we met.  My gratitude to her knows no bounds.

Even ninjas need friends.

Hello, sunshine!

Hello, sunshine!

© 2013 Julia Moris-Hartley

Leave a comment

Filed under food, literature, travel