WHEN I WAS six years old, I found a baby in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. Wound in a sheet and nestled among the roots of a veritable island of overgrown potted jungle in the corner, it was exactly where no one but a six-year-old would look. You wouldn’t go back there unless you were obsessed with Where the Wild Things Are and knew a forest hung with vines when you saw one and your grandmother was taking forever to check in and wasn’t paying any attention to you anyway. Or unless you were a twenty-year-old front desk clerk, secretly pregnant and scared to death, who had just given birth on your lunch break in a third-floor suite which you knew wouldn’t be occupied all week because its carpet was being replaced. Then that potted jungle might look pretty good to you.
I had slipped stealthily away from my grandmother and wandered bravely into that forest in search of wild things. There, I found mostly dust, one heads-up penny I pocketed for good luck, two Rolos stuck to the floor which I ignored because even at six, I wasn’t eating Rolos off the floor, and, underneath a caladium, a tiny squirming thing I took at first to be Max in his wolf suit.
I could not, of course, have understood, but on the other hand, I must have understood because I hunkered down with the baby in my lap and leaned against the wall of the potted jungle and, to quiet her, stared into the eyes of my new friend without blinking once, ignoring the frantic cries of my grandmother and the wild rumpus of a lobby full of strangers pitching in to call my name, to peek under bathroom stalls and into the gift shop and out onto the sidewalk and a dozen other places a six-year-old might wander accidentally. It took another kid to rat me out, to poke his grubby face into my forest and cry, “I found her. I found her. I did,” as if his were the heroic act.
I watched my grandmother’s face pass from relief to anger to confusion all in a moment as she tried to work out how her six-year-old granddaughter had managed to slip away from her and give birth in under five minutes. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times before she finally settled on, “Janey, honey, tell me you did not steal somebody’s baby.”
Later, upstairs in our perfect room with its huge white beds and huge soft towels and huge windows full of a million glowing lights, after we’d escaped the media frenzy that had taken over the lobby when an ashen front desk clerk figured it was time to come clean, my grandmother held me in her arms after I’d changed into pj’s and told me she was very proud of me.
“You’re not mad?”
“I’m a little mad,” she admitted, “so don’t ever, ever run and hide from me like that again. But I am also very impressed.”
“Because I see the big girl you’re going to be when you grow up. And she’s lovely.”
“Because it was scary but you were brave. You didn’t know what would happen if everyone found you, so you stayed put and quiet and didn’t leave that baby. Even though you knew I might be mad. Even though you never took care of a baby before. Smart thinking and sweet and gutsy. You have a very full heart,” my grandmother told me.
I considered this. “We should take her home to live with us.”
“No, my love. That baby belongs to someone else.”
“But if she didn’t want her . . . ?”
“Not your baby, baby. But tomorrow, we’ll go to the toy store and pick out one of your very own.”
And later still, much later actually, my grandmother argued that this was where it all began. Traditionally, people like to trace this sort of thing back to eggs and sperms, but it almost always begins well before that. Jill thought it started when Dan saved the student government. Katie thought it started with the cream puffs. But my grandmother argued it was twenty years earlier in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. It’s always hard to nail these things down, but I think that’s probably a little premature. Myself, I put the no-going-back point with Jill in the cracker aisle. Everything else followed from there. Family may not be blood, but it is destiny. It’s not like you get to choose.
I MET JILL among the crackers at the grocery store the night before the start of classes, the night before we started graduate school, the night before we started teaching. I thought some Triskets or something would be nice to snack on while I panicked until dawn. Jill was loading a cart with boxes of saltines.
“Hey, you’re that foreign girl,” she began when she recognized me from orientation.
“I’m from Vancouver,” I said.
“Canada’s a foreign country,” said Jill reasonably. True enough I suppose. I was feeling perfectly at home though. Seattle is practically Canada.
“That’s a lot of saltines,” I observed. This wasn’t going well so far.
She shrugged. “They’re cheap. And I don’t like the grocery store.”
“So you’re punishing it by buying all its saltines?”
“I’m buying as many as I can now so I don’t have to come back.”
“They’ll go stale.”
“Saltines already taste stale, so it doesn’t matter,” said Jill.
“What about vitamins?” I said. She looked at me blankly. “Vitamins? Nutrients? You know, healthy food?”
“What do you know about healthy food?” said Jill, looking in my basket. Pasta, boil-in-bag rice, Triskets. “I don’t think that pack of gum is going to help you power through either,” she said. Also true I guess.
“I’m going to the farmers’ market tomorrow,” I said, even though it hadn’t been true until just that second. “I’m only here for staples.”
“I don’t eat vegetables, but you can pick me up after classes,” said Jill as if I’d invited her. “Maybe I can absorb some vitamins by walking near yours.”
“I’m Janey,” I offered, kind of blown away by her forwardness but glad to have a maybe-friend.
“I remember,” said Jill. “Janey from Canada.”
It didn’t take immediately though. We sat together in class usually, but that was about it. Then walking out of seminar one afternoon, I asked, “You don’t go home and eat saltines for dinner?”
“Or a sandwich.”
“A saltine sandwich?”
“Sometimes. What do you eat for dinner?”
“Pasta. Or rice. But with vegetables.”
“You cook them?”
“I microwave them. But still. You should come over for dinner.”
“I can take care of myself,” said Jill.
“Evidently not,” I said. It’s that statement that was truly true enough. I didn’t know that yet. She came for dinner. I microwaved frozen broccoli in cheese sauce and frozen peas in butter sauce and dumped both pouches over pasta. Penne in cheesy butter sauce with broccoli and peas. It contained some vitamins probably, but it was kind of gross.
“This is kind of gross,” said Jill.
“It’s better than saltines for dinner.”
“I’m not sure it is.”
I wasn’t sure it was either, so I decided we better learn to cook. Faced with the evidence, Jill agreed this was a good idea. How hard could it be? Cookbooks were books, and books were our specialty. I got several, read them, and we ventured back to Pike Place Market that Sunday afternoon. Jill proposed eating first.
“We’re here to cook,” I protested.
“We’re here to shop.”
“Then let’s shop.”
“You should never shop for food on an empty stomach,” Jill said sagely.
“The only food you’ve ever shopped for is saltines.”
“Not when I’m hungry.”
She brought us to a little hole-in-the-wall deli just up the street from the Market. It had tatty wallpaper and a sticky floor, two rickety tables with mismatched chairs, and a girl behind the counter chewing very grape gum and petting an enormous and impossibly placid (or perhaps catatonic) German shepherd.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“The food is great,” Jill assured me. “My mom loves this place.”
“You don’t like dogs?”
“I love dogs. But not in my food.”
“She’s wearing gloves.”
“To pet the dog.”
“There’s nothing on the menu over five dollars,” Jill raved.
“I am willing to pay extra for a sandwich without dog hair,” I said.
We opted for lattes instead. Afterwards, we wandered through the fruit and vegetable stalls, the fish stands, the cheese counters and bakeries, the nut place. The wine shop. We were a little out of our element, but it was fun looking. We were a little out of our element, but everyone was happy to look at our list and make suggestions. It was dark by the time we got home.
“I’m too tired to learn to cook,” Jill declared, collapsing dramatically to the floor.
“You had three coffees,” I said. But Jill managed to raise herself only as far as the sofa where she stayed for the rest of the evening, being helpful by copiously sampling the wines and cheeses and determining which ones went best together. I made the most laborious meal in the history of time. It took me thirty minutes to chop three carrots and a head of broccoli. It took an hour of Googling to decide how best to broil a piece of fish. It took two and a half hours to cook the potatoes, and even then they weren’t done because I had the oven at 350 because I was baking cookies at the same time (the cookies weren’t done either, but they were still fine because raw cookies are better than done ones anyway). It was after midnight by the time we finished dinner. I couldn’t imagine doing that even once a month let alone every night.
“Saltine sandwiches are better,” said Jill.
“You’re too drunk to judge,” I said.
“That’s true,” Jill giggled. “Plus imagine how much worse this would taste if I’d helped.”
By Thanksgiving, I had mostly figured out what I was doing with seafood and vegetables, but animals with feet still eluded me. I could not get my head around reaching down a hole in a turkey (made when its head was chopped off), pulling out a bag of its guts, and replacing them with bread crumbs. As a solution, I proposed we be vegetarians. We made a feast without turkey. But it is hard to feast small. I made latkes (it was almost Hanukkah too), homemade applesauce (“Why buy when you can torture yourself?” asked my grandmother in an e-mail passing along her mother’s recipe), braised scallops (“Very vegetarian,” said Jill), roasted beets, and mini cream puffs with a variety of fillings for dessert. We lit candles and gave thanks—for having made it to the holiday, to the end of our first term, to the end of the year. We said thank you for the miracles of the semester—for learning how to cook, how to teach, how to be grad students, for not having to eat frozen spinach in cream sauce over boil-in-bag rice for dinner every night. For friendship.
You don’t get through graduate school without alliances. It’s like war, international diplomacy, and middle school—perilous climates untenable without support. For this I had Jill. And also like war, international diplomacy, and middle school, graduate school is rife with archnemeses. Everyone has one. Ours was Katie Cooke. Always overdressed and over madeup, she knit during seminar, used color-coded pens to take notes, and wore her reading glasses on lanyards which always, always matched her outfits. She sat in the middle of the front row if the chairs were in rows and right next to the professor if the chairs were around a table. She raised her hand to answer every single question posed. She was a Victorianist and a Mormon. We spent long evenings over beers that first semester mocking her. It was our stress release.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, we still had lots of leftovers, so we brought mini cream puffs to seminar. Everyone was wildly impressed that I had made them myself, even Katie. She cornered us after class.
“Those cream puffs were amazing,” she enthused. “You must be such a great cook.”
“I’m learning,” I said noncommittally. “Slowly.”
“No, those were really good. And healthy. Because they’re small so you can eat lots of them and it’s still okay.”
“Good point,” I said, wondering if she were crazy as well as annoying.
“No one cooks in graduate school,” Katie added.
“Sure,” I managed.
Suddenly she grabbed my arm. “You have to teach me how,” she whispered.
“You have to teach me how. I can’t cook. I should be able to cook. My last name is Cooke.”
“You can’t cook?” Jill was incredulous. “You’re like some kind of domestic goddess. You knit during class. You’re wearing a suit.”
Katie shrugged. “Yeah, but I can’t cook.” This was surprising. Both that she couldn’t cook and that she was talking to us. Katie is often surprising. She sneaks up on you in ways you never expect. I didn’t know that yet.
I wanted to say, “I don’t really know how to cook either. I’m just a beginner.” I wanted to say, “It’s kind of a busy time of the semester right now. Maybe another time.” I wanted to say, “But we don’t really like you.” Instead, I panicked and said, “I’ve been practicing on Sundays. Jill helps by tasting and providing commentary. You could join us.” Jill glared at me.
“I have church until at least noon,” said Katie.
“Okay,” I said.
“I could come after though. Do you buy anything?”
“Do you buy anything? I can’t buy anything on Sundays. But other people can cook for me. As long as I don’t pay them.”
“Thanks,” said Jill.
“I guess you could come after the shopping but before the cooking,” I offered.
“I’m so excited,” said Katie, clapping her hands. That made one of us.
That Sunday, I grilled mini pizzas and winter vegetables. Jill sat on the sofa, drank wine, and grilled Katie.
“So . . . Victorianism, huh? Kind of tight ass,” said Jill.
“Not so much . . . prudish,” Katie substituted, “as ordered, restrained, dignified really. Full of contradictions too.”
“Is that why you’re a Mormon?” Jill pressed.
“Because of the contradictions?”
“That too. And the prudishness.”
Excerpted from The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel.
Copyright © 2010 by Laurie Frankel.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.