Chicago, 1993: Dinner for One


Day off. No alarm. No train, unless I want to venture downtown. I don’t. I lace up my tennis shoes and grab the folding cart with wheels. I lock the door behind me—three locks, stacked vertically—then bound down the stairs and out the locked courtyard door. Thirty seconds to the sidewalk, turn left, take another left at the intersection, hit the walk button. Wait. Warm hits my face, rays of sun wrap me like a baby swaddled and I barely hear the horns, the traffic, the sirens I’m sure are there because they’re always there, part of the new din, my revised buzz. 

Red turns green and it’s my turn to walk. I head toward Dominick’s—I prefer it to Jewel—and think about what I might make today. On days that I take the train, I grab food court meals: drippy slices from Sbarro, burgers and fries, burritos stacked with spicy meat and sour cream. Today I want fresh: a salad, maybe, or potatoes I’ll roast until they’re crispy outside and creamy soft, tender in the center. Today I want slow: I’ll count the turns of the corkscrew before I pull the cork; I’ll lift the bottle as I pour a stream into my stemmed glass, fancy myself more sophisticated than I am because I bought this glass on my own, the one made especially for red. There are three others exactly like it perpetually parked in my built-in hutch. Rarely touched. 

I stop for a soda on my way, stand mid-sidewalk outside 7-11 and let others brush my body as they make their way past me. I close my eyes and draw long and steady on the pink straw, savor the saccharine fizz. I hold the liquid on my tongue, swish it around a bit. I imagine having a mother who paid attention enough to tell me to stop. Imaginary Mother would explain that the acid will wash away the enamel of my teeth, encourage me to instead choose water or milk. But that mother wasn’t My Mother. My Mother stocked our fridge with only Mountain Dew for her and Pepsi for us; Diet Pepsi once I hit sixth grade. 

Time for you to switch to diet. No guy wants to fuck a fatty. 

When I moved from home to here, shopping replaced church; now, these weekly treks to the grocery store are my sacred rosary, my private Novena. I linger over produce, make two or three laps around the store before putting even one thing into my cart. I study bottles of wine, pretend to choose one based on more than just the pretty label. Once I place one thing in the cart—usually the wine—the rest comes easily. Tonight I’ll need honey and balsamic to make a marinade for a steak—I already have the pepper, of which I’ll need one tablespoon—and I want potatoes, a veggie, and a long, skinny baguette of crusty bread. 

I smell and squeeze fruit and settle on plum, peach, and nectarine: one of each, because there’s only me. I can’t help but add a container of strawberries, then wander to the dairy case because strawberries deserve whipped cream. I remember a recipe I saw: macerated berries layered with a doctored, sweet mascarpone cheese whipped into a cloud and dolloped oh-so tenderly on top of the berries, juicy and so bright they almost twinkle. I need strawberries, yes, but blackberries and raspberries, too. 

My cart is full so I walk to the check-out, pick the one with the most people on purpose because the magazines lining the queue are one of my favorite indulgences. I dare not buy them, dare not bring them home. I know that if I buy one I’ll buy them all and even though they look harmless here in the fluorescent light of the grocery store, at home, stacked on my end tables and scattered by my bed, they’d look too much like My Mother’s Harlequin paperbacks, stacked and scattered and stashed everywhere. I can’t have that. I can’t let that smoky cling of her back in, no matter how obscure, how vague the reference. Instead I pick one up, thumb through to skim the headlines, and put it back before picking up another, and another, and another, until it’s my turn to pay. I’m pleased with myself and this self-restraint; smug almost, despite knowing that piety isn’t becoming of a good Catholic girl; but this self-imposed discipline feels good, if only for a moment. My redemption fades with each beep of the register. 

Home. Groceries unpacked, wine breathing, stereo flipped on, shower taken. I whisk honey with balsamic, olive oil, Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, then dunk a T-Bone, one from Dad’s most recent herd, into the shallow dish, swish it just a bit, and flip it over to coat both sides. I think about Dad as I do this, how he Jenga’d the Styrofoam cooler to pack the most meat, then covered the butcher-papered packages with dry ice before duct taping it closed. I carried it from Kansas to Chicago on a Southwest Airlines flight months ago, the last time I visited home. 

I drape plastic wrap over the steak and move on to the potato: scrub it, cube it, toss it in a bowl. I whack a head of garlic with my palm, grab the first clove to break loose, slice off each end, and work off the peel before smashing the clove with my knife. I dump Kosher salt on it before rocking the knife back and forth over the grainy mess to turn it into paste, then scrape it onto the side of the blade and use my finger to push the salty paste into the bowl of potato cubes. I drizzle with olive oil, crack a few turns of pepper, and toss it a few times to coat every cube of Yukon Gold before dumping it all onto a cookie sheet that I’ll slide into the oven later. 

I use tongs to flip the steak in its murky bath, then wash my hands, running a stainless steel butter knife over my fingers to erase the garlicky perfume before I open the berries. I wash and dry a handful of strawberries, a handful of blackberries, and just a few raspberries. I slice the strawberries in half and put them in another bowl with the still-whole blackberries and raspberries, and shower them with granulated sugar. I think of Grandma Hedy as I pick up the bowl and flip the berries up and over by moving the bowl forward and back and flicking my wrists—do it this way, sweetheart, because a spoon will bruise them. Bruised berries never taste as sweet as well-loved berries. The bowl of berries goes into the fridge to sit; I know that when I come back, they’ll have released their juices and be softer, happier. Ready. The mascarpone element is harder: I’ve not made it before, and I can’t remember where I saw the recipe. I’ll just wing it, I think, how hard can it be? I scrape the cheese from the tub to a bowl, sprinkle in sugar, roll a lemon on the counter and microplane the zest right into the bowl; the sunny yellow bits look like confetti against the cloudy white of the cheese. When it looks like I might have enough, I slice the lemon in two and fork one half: I’m too cheap to buy a reamer and I don’t need one because Grandma never did; she always just stuck a fork into the center and twisted. I fish the lemon seeds out of the cheese, then lick my fingers. The sugar is still grainy and the lemon puckers my face but it has potential, I think. It just needs time to mellow. I whip the mixture with my electric beaters until the sugar dissolves and the cheese is airy, thinking how Grandma’s arm must have hurt all those times she whisked heavy cream and sugar by hand into soft fluffs that she spooned over pound cake and thinly sliced strawberries, our treat on sweaty summer nights when My Mom dropped my sisters and me at Grandma’s to go to the bar, to someone’s bed, to anywhere we weren’t. I cover the bowl and park it in the fridge, next to the berries. 

I wander to the living room, turn down the music, and settle into the navy chair along the wall, the one that faces the windows that overlook the courtyard. I close my eyes and breathe. If I turn off the music it would be quiet, so quiet, not even a hint of the buzz there used to be. 

I open my book, start to read. There’s no clock in the room. I don’t wear a watch. I gauge time, when I need to, by the sun and the dark, the rumble of my stomach, the need to pee. My eyes grow blurry and my legs cramp underneath me. The sun is setting and it’s harder to see the page, so I wander back to the kitchen, flip on the light, and turn on the oven. I slide the cookie sheet with the garlicky potato on the bottom rack, peek in on dessert in the fridge and smile when I see the berries in an inky pool of juice. I flip the steak one more time, then walk into the dining room—eight steps—and to that set of windows, the set from which I can see nothing but the building next door, and think about everything and nothing until the smell of warm garlic brings me back, tells me the potatoes are done. 

Cookie sheet out, knob turned to broiler, steak plopped on tin-foil-covered rack and slid under angry orange flame. I listen to the cracks and pops happening on the other side of the oven door as I shake the potato cubes loose from the cookie sheet and onto my plate, next to the broccoli I steamed. I slice thick chunks of the crusty baguette and slather each with butter, then alternate bites with sips of red. I drain the bottle and close my eyes as I let the Cabernet pool at the back of my mouth. I don’t swish, like I do with soda, and I don’t think of her, either. Instead I think of how, when we talk on the phone, Dad says You love it there, don’t you, not having to talk to anyone, holing up all alone and ignoring everyone else? His tone is an accusation, a reminder that there’s something wrong with me even though I’ve finally found the quiet, finally made some joy. 

I open my eyes, push his voice from my head, turn the steak and slide it back under the broiler. I carry my glass to the dining room table in the center of the room—the lone piece of furniture—and set it down at the seat directly across from the windows. I’ve not yet hung curtains—why bother, when there’s only a brick wall to watch—and I like to look out as I eat, even though it’s dark, even though I can’t see anything. I pretend the view is spectacular—I imagine that I live downtown and see endless sparkling lights and the streets far below, perfect and golden in their distance. 

Back to the kitchen. Turn off the oven, add my steak to my plate of potatoes and broccoli and chunks of buttered bread, grab silverware. Settle myself at my table. I linger over my meal, no rush to be somewhere, buy something, talk to someone. I get up mid-chew, retrieve my book, turn off the music, and return to the food, flipping pages as I eat, taking breaks from the food to daydream at my whatever-I-want-it-to-be view. When I’m full I push the plate away, carry my glass and book back to the softer living room chair, flip on the lamp, and continue reading. It’s quiet, so quiet, but I can hear folks outside, talking and laughing. I wonder for a moment what they’re doing, if they’re happy, if they’ve found their joy, too, before going back to my book. 

It’s near midnight when I turn the last page, read again about the author. I’m ready for dessert, glad I remembered to take the berries from the fridge when I washed my dinner plate, hearing Grandma’s voice in my head again, the voice that reminds me that berries are best at room temperature, best when they’ve had a chance to make themselves at home. I stop for a moment, eye the cereal bowl I’ve grabbed from the cabinet above, then put it back. I take the four steps necessary to reach the built-in hutch, the one that has the special glasses, my cookbook collection, and knick-knacks I’ve carried from place to place. I open the pane that shields the three never-used wine glasses, take one from the shelf, and start to layer: sweet lemony mascarpone first, big scoop of berries and juice next, repeat, repeat, then top with a final dollop of cheese. I regret not buying mint because in the recipe I can’t find, the picture showed a beautiful glass of berries and cheese, just like this one, with mint leaves on the top; but then I remember that the leaves are just there to be pretty and this is already pretty enough. 

I rinse the glass that held my wine, place it on the towel to dry, then grab my dessert and a spoon and head to my bedroom. I turn on the fan, change into pajamas, pull back the covers, throw the too-many pillows to the floor, and snuggle in. I pick up the remote and click through channels before settling on the TV cut of “Overboard.” I remember but don’t care that My Mother once bragged she was often mistaken for a young Goldie and you can see it, right, don’t your friends say I’m pretty? I eat every bit of my dessert as I watch Goldie pretend to be Annie navigating her new reality, then fall asleep with the TV still on, sated and grateful for the buzz of the fan, for this place I call home.


Lisa Allen’s work has appeared in print and online journals and three anthologies. She holds MFAs in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry from The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program, where she was a Michael Steinberg Fellow. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the Best of the Net anthology in 2022. She is a co-founder, with poet Rebecca Connors, of the virtual creative space The Notebooks Collective, and a founding co-editor of the anthology series Maximum Tilt.