At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, if you had asked me which food or drink I would miss the most in the event of a grocery shortage, I would have guessed something hearty, like rice, lentils, or potatoes. But here I was, ten days into the lockdown, staring at the very last drop of wine in my glass, a crushing sadness washing over me. I immediately knew that amongst other things, I would remember this period as a time when wine was hard to come by.
My roommate and I had stopped venturing out to buy groceries, relying instead on grocery delivery services. We tried to add alcohol to our orders numerous times, but the infuriating maze of humanless customer service always thwarted our efforts for reasons that didn’t make much logical sense — that alcohol was available only for pick-up, or that we had to provide at least a week’s notice (which turned into an indefinite notice) for orders containing alcohol.
It seemed ludicrous to me that in the midst of a pandemic, my primary source of unhappiness, on the grocery front, was not having wine. I had never been much of a drinker, enjoying the social aspects of drinking — the lowering of inhibitions and the unfiltered jokes — more than the drink itself. So what use was a bottle of wine to me when I was going to be in social isolation?
I had my first glass of wine on a Friday evening two summers ago, in my too-small kitchen, with a boy I had only recently met (let’s call him C). It was one of those lightheaded moments of joy, charged with a sense of things ending and beginning all at once. It was my favorite time of the year, the last days of an Illinois summer — hot, humid, and alive with mosquitoes and cicadas. The air in the kitchen was stuffy and comforting, as the smell of Indian spices and white rice seeped into our skins. Our shirts stuck to our sweaty backs because my kitchen had no air-conditioning and the soles of our feet were brown from the grimy linoleum floor that I cleaned exactly twice a year. Earlier that evening, I had earnestly explained to C why it was challenging to cook on my gas stove because it was impossible to turn down the flame. C had reached out and turned the knob on the stove clockwise, as I watched the flame flicker and shrink in disbelief. All I had to do was turn the knob clockwise instead of counterclockwise! I was mortified. I had outed myself as the bumbling airhead that I frequently was and there was no going back now. But to my relief, C was too blinded by infatuation to care, and slowly, I began to settle into my own skin.
Cooking over glasses of wine became a weekly Friday night ritual. After work, we would walk to the store to pick out a bottle of wine that was under $10 and had a pretty label, and ingredients for a dish that we often decided on the fly, while browsing the grocery aisles. Back in my kitchen, we would embark upon cooking experiments that usually lasted at least a couple of hours. We were inefficient and sloppy cooks, frequently distracted by each other and the wine we consumed on empty stomachs. Cooking together also meant plenty of bickering — about how my knife wasn’t sharp enough, or how C insisted on following recipes to the letter, in stark contrast to my uncontrolled and sometimes, questionable improvisation.
Over the next year and a half, we must have tried close to 50 bottles of cheap wine. I learnt that my favorite type of wine was Shiraz, in part because the word conjured up images of ancient Persia and the poetry of Rumi and Hafez. C’s favorite was Pinot Noir because he thought it paired well with his meal of choice, spaghetti. I especially loved wines that were tinged purple. I’d imagine myself as a bird, perhaps a blue jay or a cardinal, drinking in the sticky juice of an overripe plum and soaring unsteadily, far above the kitchen, until C and I were little specks twirling around in the steamy air.
We were no wine connoisseurs though, and I learned little about wine beyond my instinctive likes and dislikes. But each bottle we shared became layered with meaning. For example, elderberry wine will always remind me of camping in C’s backyard on a muggy summer night. When I see a particular brand of store-bought Merlot, I am dancing with C in a dim, crowded room. We are a little drunk and spend the night inventing the silliest dance moves we can think of. But most of all, my memories of those Friday nights are filled with a certain sadness. They are steeped in a hazy brownish-yellow, like a photograph from the ’70s. The edges are blurry and much of the world is out of focus. I see only C and myself, and all the hope and awkwardness of new love throbbing like a heartbeat. And barely visible is the seed of foreboding that always follows me. I have a melancholic temperament, permanently torn between the joyfulness of the present and the aching awareness that everything, eventually, comes to an end.
Those Fridays were some of my happiest and consequently, I had never been more conscious of how fleeting and fragile life was — the confluence of time and place that brought C and me together, the unhurried evenings when no one else seemed to matter, and the rareness of a relationship that makes room for vulnerability and playfulness. My pessimism wasn’t entirely misplaced — I was going to be moving away soon, throwing into question the mechanics of loving and trusting another person across space and time zones. I felt a gnawing certainty that within a few months of moving away, C and I would be forever lost to each other. And thus, our weekly wine dates became a marker of time, measured in weeks, each week moving faster than the
On my first weekend in my new home halfway across the country, I bought myself a bottle of Shiraz, out of sheer habit. It tasted hollow and heavy, and I decided that drinking wine would be too painful until I could come to terms with being away from C and of course, the eventual, inevitable demise of our relationship. But despite my fatalism, C and I have stayed entwined in each other’s lives, quickly settling into a comfortable routine. We continue our wine and cooking dates, albeit on Zoom. We talk more than ever before and I have come to be amazed by the quiet dependability of our relationship. We still bicker when we cook, and I have sadly realized that the sloppiness of our previous cooking dates was mostly due to me. Our meals tend to be carb-heavy and we always make too much food. We give each other exaggerated reviews of our dishes to feel like we are sharing a meal. And almost always, I drink my wine too fast.
Over time, I have begun to shed my old fears — I feel less preoccupied with imminent heartbreak and the unraveling of things that mean so much. But I still use the bottles of wine as a marker of time measured in weeks, except now, I’m counting down towards eventually making the journey back to what feels like home.•