one fine day in june

(when I found out my brother was kidnapped)

When I rolled out of bed on the morning of June 10th it could hardly be considered ‘waking up.’ Eyes shut for less than 4 hours, this Night Napping had become an unintentional part of my prep routine for these amateur brunch events. The first night nap in many months, I was still shaking off sleepiness as I pulled bags of produce out of the fridge and reviewed where I had left off the night before.

Peaches were sliced in half, pits twisted out, ready to be grilled. Cherry tomatoes needed to be halved and baked atop the tart shells that were rolled out somewhere around midnight. Container-fulls of cracked eggs, heavy cream, caramelized onions, and sautéed mushrooms waited to become frittata batter. Cutting boards, containers, and cooking ingredients quickly filled my counter tops, stacked 2 or 3 items tall in some places. I was in the middle of four different tasks and starting to question if I’d slept too long when Sheila arrived to help with the dining room. She set about taking care of all the front of the house details which included roaming through the house collecting various objects to adorn the dining tables. “You can never underestimate the importance of a great centerpiece,” she wisely reminded me.

Looking back it sometimes feels foolish of me to have cared so passionately about centerpieces and the ideal thickness of pineapple slices, but this was pretty much the scene when I answered the phone. It was the third time in a row it was ringing. Annoying when anyone does that, but especially so when it’s your brother’s latest girlfriend.

“Izella — I have something to tell you and it’s not good. You better sit down first.” I sighed. Alicia was naturally prone to extreme declarations and melodramatic deliveries in general, something her and my brother shared.

“Just tell me. What’s up?”

“No, really, you need to sit down.”

I paused just long enough to pretend I was in the act of sitting. “Ok, I’m sitting.” I was really moving a pile-full of recently chopped herbs off the cutting board and into a bowl so that I could start slicing tomatoes.

I was transitioning into that T-minus-one-hour zone where I change from totally stressed and frantic to completely zen — in this last hour when I should arguably be most stressed about the limited time left to prep for the abundance of hungry friends arriving, a weird calmness comes over me and I float through the last hour like a food ninja, making confident, split-second decisions about who still needs to do what, whether the tray is ready to come out of the oven, what garnishes will have to be cut from the plating, how much more seasoning the pot needs, buying into the sometimes misleading belief that no matter what, we’ll be ready to feed everyone in an hour.

“Your brother was kidnapped on Friday.”

Uh-huh. How ‘bout that.

I vaguely recall a whole slew of other information quickly followed this declaration — information that I surprisingly retained with great clarity, given that I was 55 minutes away from serving a 3-course brunch to 22 people and suddenly quite fixated on those 6 fateful words. She was clearly distraught whereas I was distracted. I asked a few questions and told her not to move, that I would call her right back. Then I contemplated those 6 words some more. Not so much in shock, more as if with vague indifference or barley mustered curiosity. If the words had been delivered in solid form, I would be inspecting them with a slightly wrinkled nose, suspiciously poking around the edges like a child does when presented with an unfamiliar food, or a dinner guest trying to figure out whether they should politely force down the dubious platter confronting them. Those six words were chicken liver pate bits and sliced pimento olives suspended in a vegetable green gelatin mold and I stood there, staring past the fragrant chaos of mise not so en place, trying to figure out what to do with it.

For a long moment I felt completely detached from the buzz and movement all around me. Not so much out of body, but almost, ironically, as if in a pot-head dream-sequence comedy scene.

“Izella!” She clapped in my face to get my attention. “Finished my to-do list, tell me what’s next. … Why are just standing there!?” It took a few more moments before I could form words again.

“My brother was kidnapped on Friday.”

It was the first time those six words rolled off my tongue, and they tasted strange. Like an unfortunate flavor pairing, I could define the individual components yet was having trouble wrapping my head around why they ended up together.

My brother was kidnapped on Friday.

In those first moments, on that first day, I wasn’t scared or worried by the news. The stress and fear and utter sadness and long low thud of increasing despair would come later but right now I wasn’t even all that surprised.

Eddy was the kind of guy who repeatedly found himself getting into completely ridiculous and inexpiable situations, only to charm his way out of them. He once got pulled over with an outrageous amount weed in his car and tried to argue personal consumption; oh, he was arrested alright — and then somehow released the same day. Or that time when we were little and he flushed my shirt down the toilet, jamming it so badly that my uncle had to unbolt the throne to get it out and keep things flowing. He avoided punishment by reminding mom that she’d said, “Pick up those clothes or they’ll get thrown away.” He was just trying to help! I could go on and on with such stories, but I have 15 minutes until guests start arriving.

Guests. Could I possibly still be thinking of feeding people at a time like this? Hands on hips in the middle of my kitchen, I channeled my elusive organizational inner guide and weighed the options. I had this feeling I should drop everything and… and what? In all likelihood this was going to sort itself out very soon, at least on this Alicia & I agreed. Given his penchant for grandstanding, maybe he pissed someone off and they were going to give him a beat down then drop him back off where they grabbed him. Or maybe he was just grabbed in a kidnap-for-cash hit, which are sadly all too common in Mexico, where he was living. So common that I can say “just grabbed” as if it’s the most normal thing you’ve ever heard. If this was the case, we guessed they were pretty amateurish (look who they grabbed, after all) and we’d be able to pull together whatever money demanded when they called. Either way, another day or two and this, like most of his other antics, would sort itself out. I wasn’t going to hop on the first plane to Mexico to get my brother out of this newest, seemingly fleeting, bind. And if I wasn’t doing that, well, why else would I drop everything?

All the movies and news stories imply that hearing those six words are a Drop Everything moment, but this didn’t feel like that. There was an eerie absence of urgency, one I would soon spend days and months and then years second-guessing, but on that day part of me even wondered if maybe Alicia and Eddy were fucking with me, something quite plausibly in their wheelhouse. And if I did drop everything, well, then what would I do with all this food that was already cooked and nearly ready to be eaten?

Later, my mom told me a story about when my brother was eight and ran away. He loved running away when he was little, all he needed was an excuse. He’ hide at a friends’ house or in the neighbor’s bushes and always within sight of our watchful parents. When he’d return, they pretend to have forgotten who he was, or rented out his room. But this time, several hours passed and he hadn’t come back. Mom was so nervous she called the police, and then called a friend to come sit with her. When her friend showed up, mom was baking cookies. She couldn’t just sit there, and she “couldn’t think of anything better to do at a time like that.”

So perhaps it’s in my genes — I decided the meal must go on. But first, in another long-time family role of mine, I set about mediating and defusing the situation as best I could. Here’s what happened in the span of 15 minutes, while still prepping food and coordinating everyone’s help: call dad and give him the short version (it wasn’t much more than “Dad, Eddy’s been kidnapped. Alicia’s freaking out. I’m sure it will be fine, but we need more info. I have a house-full of diners arriving right now. Can you call her, see what’s going on. Great, call you in a few hours.”); Skype Alicia to get her number; text number to dad; greet my first guest who arrived a bit early, fortunately a close friend who is immediately put to work setting the tables; call dad to quickly ask that he not tell mom, at least until we talk later tonight; for some reason dad can’t reach Alicia so now I call her one last time and ask her to call him. Interpreting between two people who speak the same language yet cannot manage to communicate. This pretty succinctly illustrates how I feel anytime more than one relative is present. New technologies have only quickened the pace — and perhaps reduced the amount of yelling (UNLESS THIS COUNTS).

With the laptop balancing on my narrow fireplace mantle, Alicia on the screen crying, and my helpers slicing bread for French toast, our first guests arrive. The scene is a bit hectic and I probably look a bit frazzled as I tell her it will be a moment before I can seat her, explaining that my brother’s just been kidnapped and his girlfriend needs my dad’s number. I said it exactly like that, as if everybody has a brother that occasionally gets kidnapped. She offers to come back another time. I mull it over briefly.

“Would you mind coming back in 20 minutes?” I say earnestly. “Need to make one last call and we’re a little behind schedule. I’ll be able to seat you and start first course as soon as you come back. Sound ok?”

She looked at me with patient sympathy, “No, dear, I mean we can all go home and come back another day. You just found out about a family crisis!”

BUT THEN WHO WOULD EAT ALL THE FOOD?!?! I convince her to come back, wrap up my calls, and go about welcoming, feeding, and chatting up everyone just like at any other of these events I host. The only difference is every now and then, when someone asks that most benign of pleasantries — “how are you?” — I end up casually replying “crazy news: my brother was kidnapped on Friday. How ‘bout that.” As if it’s not at all the strangest piece of information to drop into the middle of a conversation. As if saying it more will somehow make it sound more normal, more tangible, more real to me.

Though I didn’t know it that day, it was the last time I did feel normal, tangible, real.