Creative Writing

THE OTHER HALF: A Creative Non-Fiction Essay About Nostalgia, Loss & Food

This piece of memoir was written for a Master’s in Professional Writing seminar at the University of Southern California. It is in memory of my dear friend/adopted god-father Joe Kennedy who always believed in me.

Sunset Clouds

The Other Half

By Danielle Charbonneau

You wonder if that meal was really as amazing as you remember it, or if it was just the first real meal you had eaten in weeks. You had been living off 25 cent ramen from the vending machine in the basement laundry room of your grimy Denver studio. The laundry room peeked out above ground to what you called “crack alley.”  The vending machine was the 80s kind — the kind you slip a quarter into a slot and turn the plastic knob to manually spin the coil and dispense your packaged chicken noodles.

You give yourself credit, however, for getting creative with seasoning. You added ranch dressing or teriyaki sauce, Chinese five spice, lemon pepper, or parmesan to the broth to change up the flavor day-to-day (whatever was still in the side door of your empty fridge). With your rotating ramen flavors, you drank cheap white wine from a solo cup. It’s no question the meal with Joe was spectacular by comparison.

There was that perfect chicken, cooked in Joe’s small green camping BBQ in the middle of his cracked driveway out front of his RV. Joe glazed the thighs and drumsticks with a thick sweet BBQ sauce, thinned with a touch of orange juice, and topped it with ribbons of orange zest. Hickory chips cooked the chicken till it was slightly blackened, the skin candied and crispy with a hint of smokiness. The dark meat inside peeled off tender and juicy, with just the right amount of grease. After the first bite, you remember letting out an orgasmic mmmm that made you self conscious, but you couldn’t stop: You kept mmm-ing and mmm-ing with every divine bite, astonished at how intoxicating the meat was with its perfect, candied orange crisp.

Joe served the chicken with two plump, roasted tomatoes, stuffed with sweet, delicate crab meat and bread crumbs. He baked it in the RV’s miniature oven, which always reminded you of your childhood easy-bake. He had grown the tomatoes himself in a small garden box he built out of old railroad ties. The tomatoes grew bushy on a spiraled metal rod in the corner of that box. Jackson loved stealing those tomatoes right off the vine, their juicy seeds spilling out the corners of his mouth as he bit, coating his golden fur with stick — you’ve never met another dog that loves tomatoes like that.

With the chicken and stuffed tomatoes, Joe made a Caprese salad with thick slices of buffalo mozzarella, and fresh basil picked from his garden. He always told you that one day he would teach you how to make fresh Mozzarella from scratch using rennet and cheesecloth, but he never got the chance. He drizzled the salad with balsamic vinegar in a way that surprised you. While you wanted to slather and drown your food (more is always better in your book), Joe had a light touch. His seasoning restraint bewildered you considering his lack of temperance with everything else (mainly vodka).

Sliced cucumbers with a glittering of sea salt and sweet white corn on the cob (grilled over the hickory after the chicken) made it feel like summer. As the sun set you basked in the glow of delicious simple living: Joe didn’t have much — a Golden Retriever, an RV, a jeep and a garden — but it felt perfect for a summer afternoon (and was a glorious reprieve from the cave you’d been hiding in).

You remember feeling a similar sense of bliss the last meal you had with Joe. The nurses at hospice let you sneak him out the side door. You bought a $110 bottle of champagne, real glass flutes and tart strawberries. It felt weird to buy an alcoholic, dying from Cirrhosis, bubbly on his deathbed, but the nurses said the damage had already been done. So you, Joe, Jackson and his family picnicked at a park as the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains and listened to Carribbean music on Pandora. This time, Joe’s family brought the food — BBQ ribs, cole slaw and corn bread with honey butter.

Joe had had a whole series of gourmet meals that week. You raced around Denver buying Shrimp Louies, soft shell crabs, Chicken Tikka Masala, filet mignon, Bagels with Lox and Capers, and various other treats to appease his deathbed bucket list. You’re not sure, however, if it was Joe that was eager to have these things, or if it was you, eager to outrun and avoid him. You hated him seeing you so skinny and broken. It was easier to keep moving — to have a task and mission (one you could control) than to sit still and watch Joe’s eyes grow more fluorescent, his feet swell past elephant and his skin yellow and bruise in extravagant tie-dye patterns. You spent more time in the car those weeks than you did by his bedside.

One morning you went to the drive thru of a family-owned Mexican restaurant and waited until it opened. You bought a breakfast burrito with paprika-coated potatoes, spicy chorizo, scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese folded into a grilled, homemade tortilla with a side of pico de gallo (with fresh jalapenos, which seemed important).

As you pulled out of the parking lot and headed down Colfax Ave. towards the VA (the way you had gone every day for two weeks), something stopped you. You went back to the RV to take a breather. You ate half the burrito. Joe’s appetite was gone by then, but you continued to buy him food anyway. Half would be fine, you decided. You put the other half in a plastic bag, cold and alone. You’re not sure how much time passed as you sat numb in his RV and stared out the window. The garden was now dried up.