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What This Pandemic Has Taught Me About Food, Friendship, and Love

And how I've learned to redefine my relationships over the past year.
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Illustration by the multi-talented Thao Thai

Illustration by the multi-talented Thao Thai

“Do you remember the enchiladas?” my friend K asks me from her snow-covered bungalow in Chicago.

I do. I remember that first meal she cooked for me ten years ago, when we were just getting to know one another as twenty-somethings on the verge of everything. We’d met at a graduate school orientation, where we gravitated toward each other, her sensitivity and natural extroversion a magnet for my own wallflower tendencies. We were unlikely but fast friends.

K wrapped her enchiladas around fried avocados. On top of each, she ribboned a homemade sauce that simmered for hours on the stove in her apartment. She rained mounds of cheese into the glass dish.

“I made you the TexMex version of enchiladas,” she clarifies on the phone. “Really, it was a casserole.”

When my daughter began eating solids, K happened to be visiting. She insisted on trudging out in the dead of winter to buy enchiladas from the one Mexican restaurant in town, so that my daughter’s fledgling taste buds could acclimate to that manna of our friendship. We laughed when my baby spit out a mouthful, neither enchanted by memory or taste.

I reply to K, “I can’t eat enchiladas without thinking about you.”

I imagine my friend using a slippered foot to pet her golden retriever as she lounges in her wicker chaise, her husband making a pot of his excellent coffee down the hall. In early 2020, before the lockdowns, I was sitting next to her in her home. Another one of her dogs settled by my feet, whining for a lick of the gin and tonic I held in loose hands. I was lulled by the easiness of our kinship. As with all great friends, what truly mattered lay in the companionable silences between us.

These days, I miss her and her husband so much it hurts, like a gnawing in my belly. A kind of soul-hunger.

Like many reading this, I haven’t hugged a friend or even stood closer than six feet to one in almost a year, so it’s easy to remember the very last meal I had with a friend in person, before the pandemic swooped fully upon us.

B and I ate floppy slices of cheese pizza while watching ‘Brave’ with my daughter. The dread of COVID hung nearby, but not close enough to attend to. We made plans to get together soon, after the threat passed. At the end of the night, we pressed our care into tight hugs. The following week, our city was in lockdown.

At first, I committed to weekly virtual playdates and wine nights. But as the novelty wore off and the anxiety took hold, some of the group Zoom calls tapered. My circle got smaller. Once, B visited our home at a social distance, waving across an expanse of lawn. She left a tray of frosted cookie bars on our porch. I couldn’t make out every expression on her face, but I could hear the unsaid words:

You aren’t alone, though I know you feel that way.

In place of hearthside chats, or forced Zoom interactions, I’ve rediscovered my teenage affinity for long, one-on-one phone conversations, supplemented by ramekins of salty snacks. I racked up more minutes this last year than I have in probably the last decade. I’m quicker to text when I think of a joke or meme someone will like, and I’m not hesitant to express my affection in words, when hugs and shared meals aren’t available. Turns out, love comes easily in isolation.

My friend J and I are constantly texting about the minutiae of motherhood. Nestled within long paragraphs about Barbie Dreamhouses and our mutual love of Olive Garden are discussions about feminism and politics, books we’ve treasured and people whose faces still imprint on our minds.

“Do you remember the names of your first crushes?”

“Yeah, all of them. Lots of white boys.”

“Me too, girl. Why were there so many white boys?”

From one emoji, I can tell what kind of day J is having, and she always knows whether I need advice or sympathy. Our friendship is fluid and unconditional, moving with us through the first coffees of the morning to that last pilfered piece of chocolate from the pantry.

I write to her, “Motherhood would be lonely without you.”

“What would we have done without each other this past year?” she says. We may have collapsed into ourselves.

In some ways, we’re returning to Victorian customs of friendship: effusive longing expressed at a distance, through written words rather than nearness. We check in and send cheer-up pastries via Doordash. My daughter has received care packages from across the country, each filled with joy and longing and packets of strawberry-dipped Pocky. We let our luck in, even as the despair circles close.

And then there are the friendships that have ended. Some were quiet fades, with little inclination to seek closure from either party. Those were the easy ones. I imagine myself encountering them at a grocery store post-pandemic. We’d be awkward but friendly, swinging our baskets as we greet one another.

“Oh, hi. I didn’t expect to see you.” Like we’re greeting one of our past selves.

An ember might spark, a memory that brushes warm against our skin. But then we’d go back to our cars, our families, and would not think of one another again for a long while.

On the other side are the lost friendships that keep me up at night. One was a fissure through divisive politics. Another ended with an uncomfortable email about boundaries. The grief is still fresh on those, even as I feel confident about the necessity of our parting. Even as I initiated them.

But the loss that hurt the most was a slow one, not a rupture so much as a gradual weathering. Our separation had begun before the pandemic, but the gap widened afterwards, as if our hearts could not take the added pressure of an already-fraught friendship.

N and I had been friends since middle school, when we bonded over our packed lunches. They were new to my public school after years at a private academy, and I thought they were unlike anyone else I’d met. Assertive, a little brash, and completely individualistic. They offered me a slice of cucumber dipped in rust-red seasoned salt. I nudged towards them a mini can of Pringles.

“What do you think potato chips are made of?” they asked, holding a Pringle up to their eye like a biologist discovering a new species. “Chip dough?”

I thought for awhile and answered sincerely, “I don’t know … maybe, potatoes?”

They stared at me, then laughed uproariously, drawing the attention of the kids around us. I had to join in. Decades later, one of us could mutter, “Potato chip dough,” and send the other into a fit of giggles. Our friendship cascaded us past first loves and crappy jobs, endless pints of Cherry Garcia consumed while pulling all-nighters in college, weddings in the heat of June, cross-country flights and road trips and children that curled like shrimp into each other’s arms.

In our thirties, after writing our prescient ten-year plans, N’s life became something new and brave and beautiful. Once again, I found myself moved by their confidence. I wanted to be there by their side, in the same way I’d always been, but things had shifted. They had new partners and friends who were bold and interesting and near, and I was hopelessly codependent. Our communications were brief and unsatisfying. I struggled with my own abandonment issues. It became less painful to let them go than to become a footnote in the new story they were writing. We didn’t have a break-up conversation, but we knew.

When I show my daughter photos from my wedding, I point N out to her. They wore a navy shift dress and carried a bouquet of white flowers. After my husband and I said our vows, our wedding party hopped in a pontoon on the lake and went for a joy ride, rather than walking back down the aisle. We took huge bites of bison sliders and tossed homemade chips into each other’s mouths. N laughed loudest of all, their freedom a thing of beauty forever.

“That’s my oldest friend,” I say to my daughter. I can’t bear to use the past tense with N.

I remember how they held her as an infant so I could catch up on my sleep. How they carried a specific brand of tortillas in their suitcase, from California all the way to Texas. They were determined to wrap thirty burritos for our freezer, one for each day of the month, in order to ensure we didn’t go hungry during those blurry first weeks of parenthood. Actually, twenty-nine burritos. One fell on the floor and they ate it, because they knew that I, germ-phobic and easily grossed out, wouldn’t.

“You still love them?” my daughter asks. She trips over nonbinary pronouns, but she tries. It pains me that she doesn’t remember N.

I love N in an essential and unchanged way, even as we can’t manage more than a few words in passing. My past is awash in shared moments with them, and my heart will forever bear a space for them, like a spare room under lock and key.

“I really do,” I say.

“You should call them,” my daughter suggests.

In a time where phone calls are the most accessible form of communication, it’s not bad advice. But I don’t, not yet. I worry I have some growing yet to do. The words don’t come.

The pandemic has clarified so many things in my life, and none more so than my friendships, which have pivoted to opposite ends of the spectrum: some more intimate and fuller than ever, and others so fragile that they’ve snapped into the abyss of memory, the strands of affection barely visible as they whip out of my eyeline.

My daughter is obsessed with friendship, calling every stranger her “best friend.” Her heart is so open and brave that it threatens to crack mine, so protective am I over her. I wonder what I have to teach her about friendship. I consider that maybe she’ll teach me the most.

This pandemic will end. I recite that litany, a believer in nothing but sheer human perseverance. We’ll endure, won’t we? We’ll find new versions of ourselves through all this. My mind runs through scenarios of reunification with my friends.

“When this is all over, we’ll drive to see you,” K promises.

I daydream, “We’ll eat at that new restaurant with the honey-butter biscuits and then we’ll go thrift shopping. We can stay up late watching terrible reality TV about housewives in Salt Lake City.”

I almost hear her nod over the phone, “Should we cook together?”

I’m not grateful for the pandemic. I can’t be grateful for anything that has taken lives from so many, and stolen nearly a year of carefree living from others. But I’ve learned something about myself in this time. I know that I can be a good friend. And I can also be a neglectful one. My relationships are cavernous and a bit ineffable, even through the mundanity, and it’s okay if I don’t always understand them. It’s okay if they tighten my chest in pain, and fill it with radiance, all at the same time.

A few days ago, N popped up on my social media feed. They wrote a funny caption about eating a package of gummy bears they found in their basement. I grinned, imagining their incorrigible sweet tooth, the one that had me trekking across Chinatown to find the perfect selection of snacks for them, so long ago.

Before I could be too self-conscious, I commented on their post: “I’m not surprised the gummies disappointed, but I still find it VERY ENDEARING that you ate them anyway.”

“I chewed and chewed,” they wrote back almost immediately, adding a tear-faced emoji. It was exactly the kind of random, self-deprecating humor that captivated me in that cafeteria when we were eleven years old.

I was flush with joy. Our exchange wasn’t a heart-to-heart by any means, but it felt like an opening back to that spare room I’d reserved for them. And maybe there are other spare rooms I have yet to uncover. The gatherings have paused, but they will—must—resume eventually. When they do, I will be greedy for every moment.

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