My Last Meal In America
In a choice that I want to believe was deliberately poetic, I began the month-long process of deporting myself from the United States on Canada Day.
It was July 1, 2012; a hazy Sunday morning in Los Angeles. My 6’7″ Californian boyfriend was at the wheel of my scuffed-up white Jetta, my life’s belongings stuffed in the back. The cat was in the window, watching me go with her usual indifference.
I should have been crying; After all, I was leaving a place I loved against my will, headed back to an old, outgrown life across a border and three time zones away from the handsome giant in my driver’s seat. Instead, I snapped a Polaroid of the cat through the haze and wished that Hollingshead was open. But it isn’t open on weekends or mornings, and life doesn’t always work out the way you’d like.
Hollingshead is a deli in Orange, California. It’s actually part-deli, part craft beer store, part bar, part Green Bay Packers fan club, if I’m being journalistically accurate. It’s the kind of place that always gets a barrel of the rarest brews out there, like Russian River’s Pliny the Younger or anything aged in bourbon barrels for many months or even years. The kind of place that has mugs behind the bar labeled with its regulars’ nicknames. At Hollingshead, my football-coaching, ex-D1-lineman boyfriend Jake is ‘Tiny.’
In addition to selling over 500 hard-to-track down bottled beers and keeping another 22 on tap, Hollingshead has mastered the fine art of sandwich-making. They’ve mastered it to such a degree that it is the only place I ever want to eat lunch; geography, immigration law, and their limited hours are the only things that stand in my way.
I’ve been back in Canada for two months now, and I still toss and turn in my childhood bed dreaming feverishly of their squaw bread. Specifically, the Great Scott sandwich on squaw, which I ordered the first time Jake took me there. It’s fairly straightforward as sandwiches go: Smoked turkey, bacon, avocado, Swiss cheese, mayo, honey mustard, lettuce and onions. The bread is so airy and pillowy because it is steamed — yes, STEAMED — never toasted. But really, I don’t even care what they do to it. They could douse it in rat poison for all I know and it’s still goddamn heavenly.
But — and here’s the kicker — it’s not even about the bread. I know some sandwich aficionados will tell you that a sandwich lives and dies by the bread that envelops it, but I believe that a truly excellent sandwich is about teamwork. You can’t have overcooked chicken breast on an otherwise flawless chicken club; you can’t put grade-A Montreal smoked meat on slightly stale rye.
As far as I can tell, the three-generation family that runs Hollingshead has a deep and wizened understanding of sandwich proportions. The Great Scott is a pretty standard deli offering that has been elevated because of the sheer mathematics behind it: there is the exactly perfect amount of everything in between those two bread clouds. Nothing is fighting to overpower anything else. Not even the lettuce gets lost in the background. It’s the great sandwich democracy, almost more American than America itself.
My boyfriend likes to say that everything in the universe is based on mathematics, and though I love him and his cockamamie theories, I still have a hard time with the time difference between us now. I can’t fathom how a mathematical equation that seemed to solve itself so clearly at first has led me to late-night Skype conversations and breakfasts of disappointingly unripe avocados mashed on toast in my parents’ kitchen.
I say it jokingly — that I’m an “illegal,” an “alien,” that I “self-deported” — but the joke cuts awkwardly close. I’m not sure what they have me down as in my file at Customs and Immigrations, but I imagine it’s not too far off from my attempts at humor. I guess it still hasn’t sunk in that I don’t belong where I thought I would, in California, the constant sweet smell of summer in my nose and the smog-bright sunsets smearing themselves across my windows. The paths I took, making my way through traffic up the 5 freeway or along the twists and turns of Griffith Park, were temporary, and I have to learn to accept that as true, as unchangeable as 1 + 1 = 2.
I feel I have joined a club — the group of people roaming the world without a home. When people ask me where I am from or if I live “here,” I never know what to say. If I like them, I’ll tell them an abridged version of the story; if I’m tired, I’ll just say “sort of.” It’s draining work, having your heart in more than one place, dragging your body back and forth across the continent. Drive through Vermont to Boston; leave your now-Quebec-licensed car at your best friend’s house in Quincy; take the cheapest flight possible from Logan to LAX; live out of a suitcase or a subletted studio for a little while; take whatever you can; remind yourself what he’s like in person; fall in love again, then say goodbye.
Hollingshead, sadly, makes no exceptions for deportations, and I didn’t get my 7 a.m. sandwich that Sunday. I ended up eating a crumbly, still-warm apricot muffin and a breakfast burrito at a diner called the Apricot Tree somewhere in between L.A. and Napa, our first stop on the month-long road trip from California to Montreal that would be made up of a lot of great American meals: Beer-battered salmon sandwiches at Full Sail brewery in Hood River, Oregon; steak at four o’clock in the afternoon in the heart of South Dakota; grilled cheese and tomato soup with old college friends at my old college haunt in Boston. All those meals, though, brought me closer and closer to where I started: my Canadian hometown, wishing, for whatever weird reasons, that I was in the United States. Only Hollingshead could really encapsulate America for me. My little America is drinking a cold beer on a weekday afternoon, swapping sandwich halves, and listening to my Californian love interest talk football, the bright sun streaming through the windows.
My first meal upon crossing the border into Quebec — which I pretended was for my boyfriend’s sake but was really an obvious case of emotional eating — was poutine; the uniquely French-Canadian mess of fries, cheese curds, and gravy that hits you like a ton of bricks, if a ton of bricks were as delicious as melted cheese and meat juice on crispy frites.
Now that, my friends, is what I call a deliberately poetic meal choice.
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Try something today. Count how many times someone brings up some sort of mental illness in normal conversation. Add that number up and tell me it doesn’t strike you as kind of weird how many normal people walk around with the belief that there is something wrong with them.
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Fall if you will, but rise you must.
You may lose what would have been the joy of the experience had you not been so focused on some fabricated idea or unrealistic expectation you had of how it was going to turn out.