by Joelle Hann
I knew the box was coming but expected it to be small. The size of a shoebox, or maybe a jewelry case. So when I was handed a box big enough to house a couple of Queen-sized duvets, my heart stopped. I didn’t have enough space in my Brooklyn apartment for whatever was inside. It suddenly felt less like a gift and more like a headache.
“I’m getting you a present!” David had said, several weeks earlier. We’d been having long phone calls for a couple of months, him in Chicago, me in Brooklyn. We’d met on a weekly Zoom cocktail hour, organized by mutual friends, during the first weeks of shutdown, then started flirting in private texts. The phone calls followed. Illinois’ high COVID levels had prevented us from meeting in person so far. The word “relationship” was not yet on the table.
But a gift, that was significant. That was a step. Blood had rushed to my face.
“So, I’ll need your address. And also, what spices do you like?”
“I just love this spice store I discovered and I want to buy everything. But that’s crazy, so I’m buying them for friends instead.”
My blush had subsided. “So, actually this is a present for me,” he’d said, as if reading my mind.
I had thinned out my spice cupboard earlier in the pandemic, chucking whatever was expired or unrecognizable, leftovers from some long-gone roommate, or a dinner party I’d once had. I didn’t want more clutter.
“Please! Pretty please, let me buy them. You’re going to love them.”
I loved that he wanted to give me something. I also knew that he could get lost in worlds of his own making. On the phone, he tended towards monologues rather than conversations. I could put him on speaker phone and walk into another room without him noticing. But, then again, why crush his enthusiasm?
I let him make a list. I could always use more turmeric and cardamom, I reasoned. “But no cinnamon. I’m the one person on earth who does not like cinnamon.”
Several weeks later the shipment had not arrived. That wasn’t a bad thing except that it added to my doubt. I wondered if David was someone who made grandiose gestures without following through, like proposing marriage without offering a ring.
He copped to it before I could bring it up. “I lost the list,” he offered on one of our phone calls. “It must be here somewhere under all these other piles of papers.”
I tried to reframe his fumble. David was brainy and tech obsessed. He didn’t so much fall down rabbit holes on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter as run down them. Of course he’d lost that list! His cluelessness was almost endearing. His love for gadgets and his new efforts to learn to cook produced some interesting purchases. The excess of spices was one. A self-contained grow box of salad greens was another. It had an embedded light to help sprout basil and lettuce from plastic soil pods — all on his bookshelf.
My friend Max, who, long before I’d met her, had been a popstar in Australia, was staying with me when the oversized box finally did arrive. I hauled it upstairs into my sun-streaked kitchen pausing on the landing to catch my breath.
“We have to film this!” Max exclaimed, pulling out her iPhone. She moved the table from against the wall into the full sun. “This is incredible! The light is fantastic!”
I squinted into the blazing sun, stripping the tape off the box. She brought the phone in for a close-up, then pulled away for dramatic effect. I dug toward the bottom, tossing out wads of crumpled brown paper, looking for an end to the packets inside — 20, 25, 30, 50? Seven kinds of dried chilies; countless spice jars; a boxed set of pre-sweetened hot chocolates and chai, a Chicago-themed trio of spicy garnishes, one called Chicago Deep Dish, containing shelf-stabilized cheese. A lot of cinnamon.
“My god, this guy must really like you,” Max swooped around me as I unspooled each item, reading its label out loud into the camera. “That’s gotta feel good.”
“These can’t all be for me.” I said, showing Max the labels trimmed in scarlet, embossed in gold. Who was I supposed to be, to relish all of these things?
There was no chance I would use the hot chocolate or the chai mix. I made chai at home, brewing the ginger, cardamom, saffron and black tea on my stove. I had Dutch-processed cocoa in my cupboard already, but if I wanted hot cocoa, I’d go to my favorite coffee shop where they made it better than I ever could. What to do with seven kinds of chilies? There was no turmeric.
To my surprise, in Max’s unboxing video, I don’t look disappointed. I look like I’m enjoying myself. I posted the clip to Instagram where it got a lot of comments. “I’m jealous — and also loving this!” said one friend. “I watched this all the way through!” said another. “Who is this admirer? How do I get one?”
I sent a copy to David. I felt queasy about all the excess; the shipping label cited $230 spent. I could not gush so the video stood in as my thank you. He seemed satisfied, admitting that he’d sent my Instagram video to the spice company. They’d wished him luck in his courtship, a word that now made me wince. If he was going to spend so much on me, why not buy AirPods, something I wanted?
I remembered years ago when a boyfriend had taken me out for my birthday at the Gramercy Tavern, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. I’d been ambivalent about him and I think he’d known that. But I couldn’t deny that the amuse bouche romanced me, especially with the wine pairing, and the duck confit that followed, served from the left, and the creme brulee with the hard, burnt-sugar crust we had to crack before spooning out the buttery insides. I hadn’t broken up with him just then.
And who hasn’t given gifts that were more about themselves than the recipient? For my part, these included second-hand novels with strong feminist plots that I’d given to my mother when I was in college, in a desperate wish that she’d liberate herself from my controlling father. I’d made healthy meals for my sister-in-law who avoided vegetables, preferring pizza and Doritos. When I was 22, I’d given a high-school friend the wedding present of a bird cage, an unsubtle metaphor for the way I felt she was trapping herself in a loveless marriage.
I realized that the very best gifts sometimes knew the receiver better than they knew themselves. The Gramercy Tavern boyfriend had once bought me an incomparable ring. One friend regularly sent me eye-opening books that I would have otherwise passed by. Max had an instinct about the clothes I should try.
The night I received the oversized box from David, Max invited her Aussie friend Matthew and his boyfriend Scott over for dinner.
“They’re fine — they’re careful,” Max said, justifying the invitation of strangers into my home during COVID. “Matt loves to cook. He’ll cook for us. Show him the box.”
Dinner was splayed chicken rubbed with cacao and chilis dug up from the depths of the box, plus vegan pudding and wine. After, I gave the boys a tour of the rest of the spices, taking a closer look myself, now that the shock had worn off. They oohed and aahed over the varieties of chilies — mulatto, ancho, guajillo, chipotle, New Mexico, chile de arbol — the cinnamon, the hot chocolates.
“Take whatever you want!” I plied Matt and Scott with packets. I slid the cinnamon sticks into small plastic snack bags, labelling each with a black Sharpie. I made a bag for Max, too, who exclaimed, “It’s antiviral!”
Matt passed on the hot chocolates and chai mix. Like me, he didn’t want the added sugar or dehydrated milk powders. But Scott was curious. For a moment, I got caught up in his fascination with the chilies, their odd, flattened shapes that ranged from plump to skinny, matte to shiny, the evocative descriptions typed up on the pretty labels. We googled “guajillo” and “korintje,” and admired the many rolls and folds of cinnamon. I wondered what made the Ceylon cinnamon “quills” and the korintje “sticks,” and why one was a fat roll while others were slivers and shavings. It did seem like if I learned to cook with seven kinds of chilies from around the world my life might be more interesting. I might even find a compatible boyfriend in my own city.
Scott asked repeatedly if I didn’t want to keep more for myself. I wavered, drawn in by the suggestion of faraway places and cultures: Turkey, Ceylon, Madagascar, New Mexico, even Chicago. Places I wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit for a long time under pandemic travel rules. But then I remembered how I hated clutter and I swallowed my fantasies. I insisted that they take what I foisted on them. “Please, you’re doing me a favor.”
What spices were left after our dinner, I shut into the box and put under my desk, unable to either move them into my cupboard or throw them out.
I did not text David in the week that followed, and he wasn’t in touch much, either, except for a quick note about the fun of courting.
But the budding romance now seemed as artificial as that plastic box of red-leaf lettuce sprouts growing in David’s 57th floor apartment in downtown Chicago. It was cute and kind of a miracle. But it was also unlikely to produce much satisfaction before becoming a lot more work than either of us had signed up for.
Maybe we both had needed a pie-in-the sky fantasy, a sparkle of connection at a safe distance. Some light flirtation to get us through a difficult period of isolation.
Max stayed with me for several more days. After my morning walks, as I sat down to a day of work, she’d call down to ask if I wanted a coffee. Later, she’d bring me a cup, with milk she’d frothed by hand. “I made it strong. I know that’s how you like it.”
She’d walked out of her way to find organic coffee beans so that I wasn’t ingesting pesticides, and she insisted that the milk be organic. She brought the hot drink downstairs and across the living room and put it in my hands. It was a simple gesture that cost her nothing but gave me a lot. “Sometimes all you need is a good cup of tea!”
A few weeks later I gave away the rest of the spices. The hot-chocolate set went to a friend on her 50th birthday, and the remaining chilies and cinnamon went to two chef friends who’d driven up from North Carolina for haircuts and facials in Manhattan.
For myself, I ordered a half-pound each of organic turmeric, cardamom, and ginger and dispensed them into clean glass jars that I had on hand. There was still room in my cupboard for the right kind of spice.
Joelle Hann has published essays, journalism and poetry on NPR, in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Poets & Writers, McSweeney’s and in many other print and online outlets. She was a writing fellow at CUNY’s Writer’s Institute from 2015 – 2016 and a poetry fellow at NYU before that. Joelle lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can read her clips at www.joellehann.com and find her on Twitter: @joellehann
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