Though A Place at the Table takes place primarily in New York City, it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that I ever lived there. I was a frequent visitor, but I knew that I needed to spend real time on the ground if I hoped to write a book that actively reflects the experience of southern ex-pats (i.e. my characters) in Manhattan. And so my husband and I found an apartment to sublet on E. 91st Street, blocks from Central Park. A month before our New York adventure was to begin, our marriage ended, suddenly and dramatically.
Earlier that year my husband and I had moved to Nevada where he had been offered a professorship. After our marriage blew up I had a strong urge to return to my native Atlanta, but I decided instead to continue with the plan of living in New York. Only instead of going there with my husband, I would go on my own. We had paid for the apartment in advance, so I had a place to live, though little money to my name. But I was rich with friends. Katharine, my college roommate, lived five blocks away. She was pregnant with her second child and busy taking care of her first, Sam. Kasey and Christa lived in Brooklyn. Kasey and I went to high school together in Atlanta and she, Christa and I had all lived in San Francisco during our early twenties when none of us knew how our lives would unfold. I went on a walk with Katharine and baby Sam nearly every afternoon. I saw Kasey and Christa at least once a week. We had shrimp boils in their tiny kitchen, took trips to Red Hook to eat at the dive bar that served good barbeque, saw movies on Sunday afternoons. Often our good friend Jenny would come, too.
It’s two years later. My life looks very different now. I finished writing A Place at the Table, got a divorce, met a great man, and on May 21 of this year married him. Still I find myself thinking of that summer in New York often, the summer I tried to write a book in the middle of a disaster. I was so scared about finances. My husband and I had a money-pit of a house to sell before we could divorce, and no one had made an offer. He thought we should proceed with a foreclosure. I didn’t want to do that for a million different reasons, and we fought about it on the phone often.
Whenever my realtor contacted me to tell of potential buyers who had toured the house, I would write a prayer about them on a note card. I still have the cards. One reads: “Please let the folks with the backyard chickens want the house. They could use the old garage for a chicken shed. ” Another: “Please let the nice lesbian couple make an offer. Let them see how friendly and open the neighborhood is. ” I would place the note cards under my pillow, hoping that the prayers would somehow be activated while I slept.
I fixed nearly all of my meals at home, counting dollars but not calories. I ate Cameo cookies, dark chocolate bars, ice cream. I ate lots of Italian tuna, because it is relatively cheap and makes a good pasta dish when combined with sautéed red peppers, parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. I made copious amounts of pimento cheese. I would pack a jar of the bright orange stuff and a sleeve of Ritz crackers in my backpack and walk east to Carl Schurz Park. I would sit on a bench and eat the cheese and crackers, watching the flow of the East River below.
I learned to nurture myself like a mother might do. When a man I didn’t know asked me out I laughed inwardly, thinking, “You are not going out with anyone until you’re well out of your marriage. ” I felt like both a teenager and a mother, but I obeyed the maternal voice. The week my husband and I definitively decided to get a divorce I made myself countless grilled cheese sandwiches prepared in a cast iron skillet. I used Pepperidge Farm white bread, rubbing each slice with a raw piece of garlic before frying the sandwiches in lots of butter. Sometimes I would make a grilled Nutella and raspberry sandwich, drinking a glass of milk along with it.
I was often overwhelmed over whether or not the house would sell, whether or not I would be able to finish the book I was writing (and thus get the check I so desperately needed), whether or not my husband and I would part with grace. I remember one night lying in my borrowed bed in the middle of the city, once again feeling as if I could not breathe. I got up and paced. While I paced, something happened, a movement, a shift, the loosening of the rocks of a formerly impenetrable wall. I decided that even though I could not see a solution in front of me, I was going to have faith that things would work out. I am not saying there was a parting of the clouds or that the voice of God came down from on high. It was more a release, a recognition that my problems were too big for me to solve. And since I couldn’t solve them, at least not at that moment, the only thing I could control was how to approach them.
The next day my troubles were still before me: My realtor did not call to say the house sold. The dynamic between my (now ex) husband and I did not shift. I did not finish the book until a full year later. Yet something had changed. I let go of trying to know the outcome. I trusted that if I showed up, tried to clean up my own acre, tried to work on the book a little bit each day, tried to be as forthright as I could while dealing with my ex-husband, the picture would slowly come into focus and one day I would have a story of making it through a hard time that I could share with others.
Which I guess is what I’m doing right now.