“Noun!” Instructor Jennifer Crystal pointed at one of my classmates. “Lion!” my fellow student immediately responded. Jennifer wrote it on the board. “Okay, adjective,” she gestured to the next person. “Beautiful!” Some of us were quicker at this game than others. I think for “verb,” I finally came up with “punch.”
After several go-rounds, we had constructed a twenty-entry list comprised of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, proper names, exclamations, and a color, place name, and number. But this was no grammar class. We were working on personal essays. Today, instead of answering a traditional prompt, like “write about a scar,” Jennifer assigned us each to take the next half hour to create a story that used all the words on our list–sort of a reverse Mad Libs.
Twenty-seven years ago today, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of Lisa’s one-room “studio” apartment in Susan’s white four-door Jeep Cherokee, “Butch Running Truck.” Ostensibly, my friend Lisa was making the two of us a treat for my birthday. We climbed steep outdoor stairs and knocked on the glass door.
“Surprise!” Lisa and several of my other graduate school friends yelled.
“Eeek!” I countered.
We all sat on the floor talking, and then, as if by magic, out came The Cake, with twenty-eight candles on top (including one to grow on). When we were young, my sisters and I had that chocolate cake for every birthday. My mom had grown up not having to wait for birthdays to eat it: my grandmother had baked the two-layer, round, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting every week for my grandfather. The frosting had a bit of coffee in it, taking a little of the edge off its powdered sugar base. I usually asked for raspberry jam in between the layers, which, of course, my mom had included in her instructions to Susan. Yes, less than a year after having become “lovers” (as we referred to ourselves back then) and without having had any previous introduction (because while I was “out” to my parents, I wasn’t as far out as to talk about my “private” life), Susan had called my mom to get the recipe. She had smuggled the cake to Lisa’s earlier that day so that I wouldn’t catch even a glimpse of it beforehand.
That was my first of twenty-three birthdays with Susan, who made every single one of them special. I don’t mean the syrupy-sweet, overused “on your special day” kind of “special.” She tailor-made distinctive celebrations and gifts for me–and for many others. My sister and her family often came to our house for their August birthdays so that we could sit, surrounded by streamers and with party-hat elastic biting into our chins, and eat shish-kabab Susan grilled with her “Yummy Yummy Marinade.”
I first met Susan’s dining room furniture when we visited Fortress Fine Arts Storage in Boston, known to I-93 travelers as the building with the inflated gigantic padlock. I was in awe of the central elevator platform, which was large enough for a car, and the mystery of what valuables were within each surrounding compartment. I imagined a spy movie chase scene, the elevator moving a Lamborghini down as two gangs of masked bad guys acrobatically jumped on and off passing floors, grabbing gems and vying to drive the sleek sports car screeching onto the street.
Once inside Susan’s quite tame unit, we removed the plastic covering and out came the dark reddish-brown mahogany, Georgian-style table, six chairs, two sideboards, and glass cabinet that comprised Susan’s “antique dining room furniture.” Manufactured in the early 1910s, a shellac sheen shows off the wood grain. The features of each piece, like the tapered chair stiles and legs, the sideboard drawer fronts, and the round table top, are outlined with bands of light-colored “satinwood” (probably birch). To set off the mahogany from the satinwood, each band of satinwood is etched with two lines of ebony. All in all, the set paints a picture of stately elegance.
Little did I know then, however, that errant napkin threads or clothing could snag and eventually pull off pieces of those satinwood bands. Such pieces would join their kin in an envelope already in one of the sideboards, marked “D.R. FURNITURE,” in Susan’s chicken-scratch all-caps. I would soon learn that none of the furniture was rock solid; when an elbow leaned too hard, a body shifted suddenly, or a cabinet door fully opened, the furniture groaned. I didn’t know that underlying elegance was infirmity.