Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Saving the Green Tomatoes: Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

Today is halfway into November and last night, my tomato plants finally froze. We have seen several frosts over the last three or four weeks, but they never crept into our yard, until last night. My fig trees threw off their leaves like they couldn't wait while the peppers and tomato plants just shriveled and hung their leaves like wet socks. Little green figs still hang out there naked but I don't have any uses for them. The green tomatoes will make an awesome chutney, perfect for spicing up dull fall meals.

I am using a Russian recipe as my inspiration but adjusting it a bit with fig leaves, thyme, dates and wild crabapples. Fig leaves add such a tropical coconut flavor while the thyme adds butteriness and the crabapples add pectin. My yellow crabapples are from a tree I rescued from the woods and I use it as the bee attractor for my early blooming apply trees.

I love the colors of the green tomatoes as some are solid green while others have a touch of pink or orange. They are slightly sweet with a touch of acidity and more meaty than ripe tomatoes. They should be perfect for a preserve.

My first job was to wash the tomatoes and then chop them up into somewhat small bits. I started with my knife and quickly realized chopping would take me forever so I switched to my food processor. After a couple of pulses, I had the perfect uniform size. I tossed them into my largest pot.

In the meantime, I decided to cook my crabapples separately so I could put them through a food mill to remove the seeds and stems. I use an antique food mill I have had for decades, but you can find new models at lots of stores. I covered the crabapples with water, brought them up to a boil and let simmer until they were soft. They were easy to process and the soft yellow mash blended perfectly into the colors of my green tomatoes.

Chutney needs spice and to bring out more of the flavor, I toasted them over a medium flame for a couple of minutes while trying to keep the mustard seeds from popping out. The heat seems to intensify the flavors of dried spices. Some recipes call for the spices to be ground but I decided to leave mine whole as I love the pop of mustard seeds and the spiciness of black peppercorns. Besides, after grinding spices and cooking them, they can seem a bit more bitter in the end product.

My recipe called for a mash of ginger, garlic and chilis and while I had all the ingredients, I didn't quite make a mash. Instead, I used a microplane to grate the ginger, chopped and mashed the garlic and coarsely chopped the peppers with my regular kitchen knife.

Since all the ingredients would simmer away for a couple of hours, I knew the garlic and peppers would soften but heat doesn't soften the ginger fibers. I needed to break down all the fibers beforehand - hence the microplane.

Now for the heat. I had a couple of chili peppers from my now dead garden as well as a couple of jalapenos and habaneros from the bottom of my frig. I looked around for a pair of gloves to protect my fingers from the oils, but...oh well.

I deseeded them as the texture of pepper seeds is almost never desirable, and chopped up the peppers coarsely. My fingers were so spicy even after washing them with soap and water.

Now I don't know how many people know that fig leaves give off a coconut flavor. I personally found out the first year I grew the plants. When we had our first freeze, the leaves fell to the ground and smelled strongly of coconut. After a little research, I found that I could use them in cooking. I remove the center stem and then chop the leaves so that they will blend into whatever I am cooking. I added a little thyme too.

I knew I needed sweetness to cut the heat of the peppers and wanted more of an earthy sweetness so I used raw sugar cubes and chopped dates. I did try using the food processor for the dates, but they just stuck to the blades. My knife worked just fine.

I kept adding each ingredient to the pot which I had on a low flame. By the time the vinegar was added, there was only about a half of an inch of room to the rim. I kept the heat very low and let the chutney simmer for a couple of hours, stirring every thirty minutes or so.

 Finally, I jarred it up into wide mouth pint jars and processed them in a hot water bath for about ten minutes. A quick wipe and tightening of the lid and they were ready to rest.

Here is the actual recipe:

Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

3 kg green tomatoes
125 g crabapples
2 heads of garlic
75 g minced ginger
4 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
6 green chilies- or similar
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp fenugreek
1 tbsp cumin seeds
5-8 cardamom seeds
2 tbsp chopped fig leaf
125 g chopped dates
500 g raw sugar
2 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp thyme
500 ml red wine vinegar

Use a food processor to chop tomatoes. Pour into a large pot and place on low heat.

Place crabapples in pot, cover with water, cover and cook until tender - about 12 minutes. Process through a food mill to remove seeds and stems. Add resulting mash to tomatoes.

Toast the spices in a dry pan over medium heat until their fragrance is released and the mustard seeds start popping. Add to tomatoes.

Mince ginger with microplane. Chop garlic and chili peppers. Add to tomatoes.

Remove center stems of fig leaves and chop finely. Add to tomatoes.

Coarsely chop dates. Add to tomatoes.

Add raw sugar, thyme,  salt and vinegar to tomatoes.

Stir tomato mixture and simmer for 2 - 3 hours, stirring well every 30 minutes.

The finished chutney will be thick but still have a saucy aspect. Pour into sterilized pint jars, cover and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

That's it! Try this spicy green tomato chutney on your next turkey sandwich. It might be your new favorite condiment.

Monday, May 9, 2016

My Nightmare

There are several situations that I never want to be stuck in and one of them is being admitted to a facility for mentally unstable people, Perhaps I read too many stories when I was a child, but the idea of being locked up really bothers me. One day I let my imagination run a bit and this story was the result...

I lay back in the warm sunshine. The air was cool but as long as the sun stayed out from behind the clouds, I felt deliciously warm and comfortable. There was nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees of the scuttle of the dry maple seeds scraping against the concrete patio. My writing notebook sat unopened on the table next to me accented by the color of the royal blue pen next to it. I glanced at it from time to time as if I was checking to see if I was ready to start. To start on a journey that might mean trouble. Trouble is what got me here in the first place. Place, this wasn’t a place, it was a prison. Prison - why do they put people in prisons instead of letting them live. Live was all I wanted to do, through my pen and paper. Paper was the entrance to my stories. Stories were an expression of where I could go without ever leaving my chair or moving a muscle.
My thoughts meandered as easily as a butterfly might flit from flower to leaf without rhyme or reason. The sounds of the masses of bamboo swaying in the wind were fuel for my imagination, but I enjoyed it only temporarily.
Genius some said. Works of art. I wondered why they felt the need to categorize and rank my writings. I wrote to create a story and my pen was as a musical instrument is to the musician. When it stopped, the story stopped. As long as my hand could keep writing, the story stayed alive.
Breakdown? What did they mean? I wasn’t broken - everything worked fine. Just because I didn’t feel like jumping back into their reality didn’t mean that I was broken. I just had something to finish first.
The sunlight broke away to hide behind a thick cloud and a chill went through my bones. Standing up, I pulled my long hair back out of my face and twisted it into a loose knot. A pathway between some large hemlocks looked inviting, so I tucked my things into my cotton bag and slunk it over my shoulder. The institute was a large place with several buildings stretched across the manicured lawns. I found the grounds almost too boring. Where were the tenacious vines that covered over fallen trees? What about the wild garlic grass that usually grew faster that my lawn at home? No honeysuckle or shiny poison ivy leaves or even the fluffy dandelions or scrawny mustard plants.
Order. Everything was orderly and groomed. Was that my problem? Did I not see or value the importance of order? I liked the randomness of the wild. Why did there need to be so many controls? IO felt like I was an animal - fenced in and not allowed to be who I was. Wasn’t the world a large enough place to allow all of us to live together in the space we each needed?
My mind was clearing as the drugs they used to calm me wore down.
I had signed myself in for treatment, but really all I wanted was a place where I could imagine and write without distractions, while others took care of my physical needs. After several weeks of disappearing from reality for days on end, my boyfriend was convinced me to get some help. I did it to make him happy. His job was taking him away on business for a week and he feared for my safety. When I suggested the clinic, he jumped at the opportunity, glad to think that I was trying to change my habits.
I understood his frustration, I could see reality; I just chose not to embrace it while I was in the midst of creating my story. There was a sense of urgency that pulled me into the stories, warning me that if I stepped away for too long, the story would fade and the characters left voiceless in the silence of the white paper.
He was a wonderful man, talented in his business of financial trading. Usually, he understood my need for finishing my stories as he often worked late or wake early to follow the markets overseas before the official stock market hours would start or finish. The times when both of our schedules coincided with free time were like honey on toast. We were meant for each other. After a class of brandy for me, and a scotch for him, we could talk for hours either in front of the fireplace or out back in the sunken hot tub. Laughing at our childhoods or making fun of people at his work or whatever we felt like talking through.
“Elizabeth!” Jason, the therapist on duty was calling me.
I turned to acknowledge him with a look instead of answering.
“It’s time for group therapy. Would you like to join us?” he asked.
Although I came here on my own volition, I had no respect for some of the therapy that they would try to use on me. The director, Alan Baker knew me from my books and had given me leave to write undisturbed. “No thank you. I think I will pass on that invitation, but thank you,” I answered trying to be polite.
“Well, actually, I really mean that we would like for you to come to the meeting,” he insisted, pursing his lips together rather effeminately, I thought.
“Dr. Baker said I could be excused from any therapy sessions that interrupt my writing.”
“Well, Dr. Baker has left for a week-long conference in Albany so Dr. Cheryl Wood is in charge. She asked me to bring you to the session for your valuable insight.” He was obviously trying to butter me up and I found it irritating. I wasn’t going to waste my time arguing with him.
“Oh, I see. Okay, I’m heading in.” I pretended to be agreeable, “I will stop by my room first.”
He left me as I walked back along the path to the back entrance. I knew I would pass the director’s office on my way.
“Dr. Wood? Hello, my name is Elizabeth Mason.” I held out my hand in greeting to the lady sitting at the desk.
“Hello, Elizabeth. Yes, I am aware of who you are.” Her handshake was cold and unfriendly.
“I’m not sure if you have heard of me but I am a writer and I came here for some time to write unhindered. Dr. Baker excused me from attending the therapy sessions.”
“Well that was nice of Dr. Baker, but while I am responsible, I feel it is my job to extend the therapy sessions to all of our patients, not just the ones that feel like coming.” Her voice took on the condescending higher tone of tired therapists.
I knew immediately that she did not like me and that I could expect no favors from her. I felt my anger rising but refused to give her the credit of annoying me. She had no business being in the health care system with her cold heart. I excused myself quickly to get away from her.
It was then that I first realized that maybe this was not such a good place to be, but I decided to stick it out a little longer for Mark’s sake. The meeting was in a classroom with a high ceiling and fluorescent lights. Tiny windows high on the wall let in the afternoon sunlight in long swaths across the tiled floor. A circle of plain metal folding chairs sat in the middle of the room. Austere, unfriendly, cold, trapped were the words that immediately came to my mind. There were only two empty chairs and I took the one closest to the door. I tried not to make eye contact until I sat down. Then I was that they were all staring at me so I put on a little smile to acknowledge their attention. This was embarrassing. The people focusing their dulled eyes on me needed help, but this was not the way - it couldn’t be. I resisted the urge to run out and reminded myself that this scene would be excellent material for when I got back with Mark. I could just visualize him howling at my humorous description. And that is how I survived the meeting - I pretended that I was in a comedy where the audience was cheering and clapping at the ridiculous remarks, mostly from the therapist.
After dinner at five, I excused myself from the table and told the few people listening that I was heading back to my room. One nervous girl with light thin hair tried to invite herself but I firmly and quietly convinced her that I needed some quiet time. My room was not much different from a prison cell, except that it was bigger and the bars on the window were painted white. Thankfully, my room was not locked.
I pulled out my pad of paper and a pen, settling back against my pillows to write. My mind kept going back to the faces of the people in my therapy session. Had their families given up on them? Why did people on the outside think that by lumping all the folks with problems together with each other was a good idea? And then to drug them up just added to the insult? Was this a vestige of the Middle Ages still clinging on to our society?
My pen moved slowly at first until I drifted into the story and saw it come to life again. Only thirty minutes into writing, a knock at my door interrupted me harshly.
“Miss Elizabeth?” A young African girl with beautiful ebony skin and even white teeth spoke in a British accent, “Here are your meds.”
“But I am not on any meds,” I answered her.
“Dr. Wood prescribed them for you. She said you were upset.” She spoke so kindly with her soft voice.
“But…” I stopped talking and held out my hand. I couldn’t argue with everyone or they might label me. I had to beat them at their own game. I slipped the pills into my pocket.
“Oh no, you have to take them now,” she insisted. “It’s part of my job to make sure you take your medication.”
I hesitated and then realized that I had no plans for leaving my room and considered that some relaxing drugs might actually help my writing. Smiling, I swallowed them down with a few gulps of cold water.
“There you go, honey. Good job,” she said, patting me on my knee. She pulled the door closed behind her as she left and I heard the lock turn.
What! I was getting locked in?
“Hey!” I shouted as I jumped off my bed and ran to the door. The aide saw me through the glass window and opened my door.
“What’s the problem, dear?”
“You locked my door!”
“That’s just standard procedure for folks who are upset. We don’t want to spoil the peace of everyone else,” she explained.
Suddenly I felt my neck muscles soften and then my spine. Grabbing onto the doorframe, I realized the pills she gave me were far stronger that I expected. I turned to make the two steps back to my bed before I fell over.
“Good night, dear. You should sleep well.”
But it’s only six-thirty… my mind argued as I closed my eyes. I need to get out of here…
My eyes opened slowly and I realized where I was. I didn’t quite feel like moving yet, but I could see my door was now open by an inch. Someone must have come in during the night because I didn’t remember changing out of my clothes or placing them neatly on my chair.
Realizing that I needed to get myself sobered up, I stumbled out of bed, grabbed my towel and peaked out the door. No one was in sight, so I left it slightly ajar and went into the shower. The lukewarm water was slightly chilly and it helped wake me up. I dressed quietly and brushed my hair. No one was going to say that I was upset today. I reached for my purse to grab my cell phone, but it wasn’t in its usual side pocket. I knew if I called Mark, his voice would reassure me that all was okay. I couldn’t find my phone. Where could it have gone? Did I use it during the evening? I looked thoroughly around my room - but it wasn’t there.
What’s next? First, they make me go to a therapy session, drug me up, lock my room and steal my cell phone. I turned my back to the door in case anyone passing by might see me in my anger, and looked out the window. I was determined to play their game better than they did; I wasn’t going to let them make a drugged patient out of me, but how? Without my cell phone, I had to rely on myself and therefore couldn’t be drugged. Gradually, I began to take confidence that I could get out if I paid attention to the details. Since the door to my room was open, I figured they must expect me to come out when I was ready. Before I left, I took my purse and placed it in full view of the door, but took out my credit cards to hide in my pant’s pocket. I noticed a little box of breath mints and suddenly realized that at first glance, they looked just like the pills they gave me the night before. I smiled to myself and slid a couple into the side pocket of my sweater.
Hoping to distract them from my purpose, I put on an act of being groggy and sleepy as I made my way down the hallway to the kitchen.
“Excuse me?” I stopped to ask an aide that was approaching me in the hall. “I can’t seem to find my cell phone.” I rubbed my eyes and yawned as I made the statement nonchalantly.
“What room are you in?” he asked. I pointed across the hall at my room. He walked over and did a quick survey of the room. “Nope, no cell phone. Maybe you forgot it at home.” His reply was a little too quick, but I pretended not to care.
“No, I’m sure I brought it. Can I report it to someone so they can check on it for me?” I tried to look endearing.
“Well, all thefts have to be reported to the director - Dr. Wood right now, but she’s not in her office yet.” he answered me.
“You know, it doesn’t look very good on the reputation of this place if the patients are having their stuff stolen.” I wanted him to think I was still under the influence of the drugs from the night before and slurred my speech a little.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure it will show up,” he said. “Why don’t you go down and get some breakfast in the kitchen?”
I followed his suggestion and walked towards the kitchen. I passed the lobby and asked the lady sitting at the receptionist’s desk if she could buzz my out of the front door so I could take a walk. She looked down at some papers on her clipboard and then looked up at me.
“No, I’m sorry. You need to get an aide to take a walk with you,” she replied with a smile. “Would you like me to call one for you?”
“No. I’ll get some breakfast first. Thanks.” Now I knew that they were controlling me and that I needed an aide to help me get out.
A few people were sitting at the tables in the dining area, most of whom I recognized from the therapy session. I chose some scrambled eggs, toast and juice from the ordering window and found a table where I could see the whole room.
“Someone stole my cell phone last night,” I announced it loud enough for most of the room to hear but without looking at any one person. I poked at my eggs pretending to be absent minded.
“Oh, no. That means we have a thief here,” an older nervous lady said.
“You probably misplaced it,” another man said as he scratched his head compulsively.
“No. I know that someone stole my phone. I always put it in the same place and this morning, it was stolen!” I raised my hands for emphasis, as if to say, what’s next?
A college-aged guy entered the room and immediately two ladies spoke up, “There’s been a robbery. Have you had anything stolen?”
“Whatever,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders and went to the ordering window.
“Have you had anything stolen? I asked you a question,” the nervous lady asked him again, this time a little louder. I was pleased that I was raising the tension in the room.
“No. Nothing is stolen.” He spoke even louder than she did.
“Yes. My cell phone was stolen last night,” I retorted as if I were part of the argument. “You probably know who did it, too,” I tried accusing him.
“You are crazy, lady. Leave me alone.”
An aide walked into the room. “All right, calm down,” he said in a deep baritone voice.
“That lady was robbed and then that guy called her crazy!” the nervous lady said in a high-pitched worried voice.
“Let’s use names. Remember James?” he looked at the college-aged kid. “And I’m sorry but I don’t know your name - you must be new,” he said looking at me.
“Elizabeth,” I answered. “And someone did steal my cell phone.”
The room erupted into worried voices again until the aid asked everyone to please be silent for a minute. Apparently, it was one of their tricks for calming the room down because it worked immediately.
“Elizabeth, why don’t you come with me and we will report your cell phone. The rest of you go back to eating your breakfast, quietly.” He added the last word with special emphasis.
I left my tray on the table and followed him out of the room. My plan was working. He led me to the director’s office where Dr. Wood was sitting behind the desk.
“Elizabeth. Good morning. What brings you here to my office today?”
“She claims that her cell phone was stolen,” the aide spoke up.
“Well, that’s not good. Are you sure you didn’t misplace it?” she asked as she looked through a stack of papers on her desk. “Marcus, why don’t you go back and help Elizabeth find her phone.”
“No. I know it’s not in my room. I looked for it this morning,” I wanted to make sure that she knew I was upset.
“All the same, Marcus, would you help her look?” she answered as she looked through a pile of papers on her desk. As I turned to leave the room, I saw her stretch out her arm and place something in Marcus’ hand - my pills, most likely.
My purse was right where I left it in plain view, but it was turned around.
“Time for your meds,” Marcus said holding out his hand to me.
I pretended to not know better and slipped them into my pocket. “No, you need to take them now. It’s the rules.”
“But I thought you were coming down here to help me look for my cell phone,” I asked as I pulled what looked like the pills from my pocket. The breath mints were easy to tell apart from the meds with their slick shiny surface feel. I looked directly at him as I placed the pills on my tongue.
“Now, you can look around and let me know if you still can’t find your cell phone. I really don’t want to be going through your stuff.
“Whatever.” I pretended that I was getting tired already and sat on my bed. “I told Dr. Wood so there’s not much more I can do.”
“Okay. I’ll turn your TV on for you. I’m sure your phone will show up. They always do.” Marcus muttered the last phrase to himself.
I knew then that it was routine for cell phones to be removed from patients’ rooms. I lay back on the bed and pretended to fall asleep as Marcus left. I knew I had some time to kill as they thought they had drugged me and I wanted them to think that I was sound asleep. Instead, I lay there with my eyes closed trying to come up with a plan. I was sure that they had my cell phone in the director’s office but decided that I would just have to leave it there. Maybe Mark could come back at a later date when I was no longer a patient.
I heard Marcus come back to check on me with another aide after about thirty minutes. I kept all my muscles as loose as possible so they wouldn’t suspect me of being awake.
“Elizabeth Mason, twenty-six year-old female, Depersonalization disorder, self-admitted. Dr. Wood notes here: Suggesting patient needs several weeks for therapy of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, anticonvulsants and opioid antagonists along with cognitive behavior therapy. I think this lady is not going to be too happy when she finds out this diagnosis,” I could hear Marcus reading my chart and talking to the other aid.
My heart rate was going up and I tried to slow down my breathing, hoping that they wouldn’t pay too much attention to me. I was angry and claustrophobic - I had to get out. “Play the game, Elizabeth. Don’t be a patient,” I warned myself. Rolling over on my side to face the wall, I could think better. I knew I had to leave as fast as I could and not worry about my belongings or even my purse. The lady at the desk before breakfast had told me that I needed an aide to give me a walk. Somehow, I would get away during that walk, I just had to.
I actually fell asleep for about an hour and woke up much calmer. The sense of panic was making me sick to my stomach and I didn’t want to blow my chance of walking away today. Without moving a muscle or even opening my eyes, I gave my brain a chance to wake up and breathed deeply. I could see my watch and it was just about noon. Listening intently for a while, I could hear a few voices down the hall, but no one seemed close by.
I rolled over and sat up on the bed. I yawned loudly and decided I was going to play the drugged act even if I didn’t see anyone watching me. My credit cards were still in my pocket and everything else in my purse would have to wait. I slipped my shoes on and slowly walked to the doorway, holding on to the doorframe. Walking slowly, I made my way past the director’s office.
“Heading down to lunch, Elizabeth?”
I slowly backed up, leaning on the wall until I could see her. “Almost. I think I would like a little fresh air first.”
“You will need an aide. Let me call Jason for you.” Dr. Wood picked up her phone and talked briefly. “Okay, he said he will meet you at the front door.”
“Okay, thanks. I appreciate you working that out for me. I am pretty tired,” I play acted, still leaning against the doorframe.
“Jason will take good care of you, Enjoy.”
 Funny how she seemed almost pleasant when she thought she had me under control. I shuffled down the hall to the front door. As soon as Jason met me, the receptionist buzzed the door open and we walked into the bright sunshine.
I think Jason was happy to be outside and he chatted easily. When he mentioned that his back was bothering him, he eagerly accepted the couple of white pills from me when I told them they were pain pills that would relax his muscles. We walked around the back of the buildings for about twenty minutes and then headed around the tree-lined path towards the front gate. There was a sturdy iron bench under one of the larger maples and Jason suggested we rest for a second. I obliged, knowing the sedatives were starting to work. He leaned back and shut his eyes for a second after mentioning how much better his back felt. I congratulated him and stood up.
“Hey, can’t you sit for another minute. I am just getting relaxed,” he said with a groggy laugh.
“Don’t worry. I am just going to look at the flowers by the front gate. You can stay right here and watch me.”
I slowly walked down the path, pretending to be interested in the plants until I reached the front gate. Two stone pillars bordered the iron gate and I wondered how I would ever get out. The gate must have been at least ten feet tall. I was in good shape but I still didn’t think I could make it. I looked back at Jason and he was happily sprawled out on the bench. Suddenly, the quiet was broken with the clang of the iron gates opening. I turned my back and started walking back to Jason as my heart beat hard in my chest. This was it! This was my chance.
I waited until the car passed me and then I turned around and ran as fast as I could through the closing gate. I was out! I slowed my pace to a slow jog, as my loafers just weren’t suitable for running. Thankfully, the hospital was close to the busy area of town and I was able to stop at an ATM and get some cash with my credit card so I could catch a bus. By two o’clock, I only had two blocks to walk. I was free and happy as I found the hidden key for the back door and entered my wonderful apartment.
“Hey, honey. I wasn’t expecting you home.” Mark was in the kitchen holding his cell phone. “I just got a phone call from you, but it wasn’t you - it was the institute saying they found your phone. Did you lose it? And why are you home early?”
“Why are you home early is my question?” I asked.
“Cause, their key speaker got sick and I didn’t feel like staying for the substitute.” He walked over and hugged me tight. “It’s much better to be home with you. Should we go get your phone?”
I pulled away, “No. I will never go back there. Can you go back and get my things? They treated me like a psycho, drugged me and locked me up. It was a nightmare!”
Mark laughed, “Just like the movies?” but changed his tone when I glared at him, “Okay, don’t worry. I’m sorry. You never have to go back.”

2016 copyright. Use only with permission.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Chance Encounter

This is an entertaining short story about a little romantic encounter based loosely on a lady I met on a plane while traveling to the west coast...

“Flight 58 now boarding, Gate 33.”
The intercom announced the words in a garble of tones as Natasha pulled her suitcase down the wide corridor of the airport. Her long hair was braided and gathered at the back of her neck and silver hoop earrings dangled as she walked. Her feet were tired in the flat shoes she chose to wear, thinking that they would be quick to slip in and out of while she went through security, but she walked on choosing to ignore the pain. The flow of pedestrians was fast so she kept walking quickly, without feeling as if she had to slalom through the slower travelers. The gate was just one more section of the moving sidewalk ahead, and she stepped confidently on the slatted track. The jerk of her suitcase on her arm startled her and she turned instinctively angry thinking that someone was trying to grab it from her. It was only the wheel of her suitcase that stuck on the edge of the hand wall but before she could set it free, a man reached down and lifted it by its leather handle.
“Thank you,” Natasha said quickly, slightly embarrassed.
“No problem,” he said, standing in place behind her.
She stole a quick glance in his direction. He stood at least a foot taller than her and had short brown hair similar in color to hers but with a little more red. She knew he must have been French, just by his accent.
The walkway ended just a few yards from her gate and she stepped up to the line of people already forming. There was no way for her to see that her acquaintance had stopped also at the same gate area but was sitting on one of the benches waiting for his ticket section to be called. The casual observer could see that he watched her but more out of curiosity than intent.
“Natasha?” the gate attendant said to her as she read her boarding pass.
“Yes. Thank you,” she said as she took the slip of paper back. Natasha entered the corridor that led up to the plane and quickly walked to the back section of seats and lifted her suitcase into the overhead compartment. She seemed to know what she was doing as she settled into her window seat, fixing her belongings in place at her feet. There was no indication that she was expecting anyone to travel with her. She was spending more time looking out the window at the planes as they landed or took off from the runway, than watching the passengers fill their seats around her. If she had paid attention, she would have seen the tall gentleman pass her and take a seat three rows behind her.
“Hello. I think this is my seat. 28E?” A portly gentleman wearing a baseball cap said to Natasha as he looked from the boarding pass to the seat markings overhead.
“I’m Natasha,” she said as she held out her hand.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Bob,” and their conversation stopped. He settled into his seat, obviously cramped in the close quarters, taking off his jacket to reduce a little of his bulk. Another gentleman came behind him to sit in the third seat of their row.
Natasha pulled out her laptop, plugged in her headphones and stared at the screen. She clicked away at the keyboard from time to time as if she was corresponding with someone. There was nothing exciting about the boarding time and within a few minutes they were airborne.
An hour into the flight, Natasha excused herself as she tried to extricate herself from the tight row and made her way back to the bathroom trying not to look at the faces looking up at her. As soon as she disappeared from sight, the tall gentleman stood up into the aisle and walked up to her row. He leaned over and talked to Bob for a second who shook his head in agreement, got out of his seat and then took the empty seat three rows back. By the time Natasha came out of the bathroom, everyone was sitting quietly. She paused next to the guy on the end seat and he immediately stood up to let her in.
“Hey,” she said as she saw the tall gentleman also stand to let her pass by to get to her window seat.
“Natasha, I’m Lars. I’m sorry to surprise you but Bob was happy to change seats with me since I had the aisle seat,” he said as he held out his hand in greeting.
“But, how do you know my name?” she asked.
“I heard the gate attendant when you boarded the plane. I’ve been sitting three rows behind you waiting to introduce myself,” he said in a thick French accent.
“Oh, okay. Nice to meet you, Lars.” She said it as if she wasn’t sure if she should trust him or not, and then looked out her window.
“So where are you from?”
She took a breath and paused as if she was almost irritated.
S'il vous plait, please forgive me. I don’t mean to be rude. I am just, how do you say, tres impatient. Why not talk? We have nothing to do for two more hours.” He leaned forward to talk to her more comfortably.
Natasha smiled, “I suppose it won’t hurt me,” she paused for a couple of seconds. “I am from Philadelphia from a little town called Wallingford, just south of the city.”
“What do you do?”
“I like to call myself a manager, but I train dogs,” she answered.
“What do you mean, you train dogs?” he turned himself in his seat to face her more directly.
“Well, it’s a long story but I train seeing-eye dogs, at least most of the time. Now I manage the West Coast division.”
“But,” he paused, “you are not blind. How can you train the dogs?”
Natasha smiled again. “No, I am not blind anymore - although my vision is still pretty bad. I had an operation about six months ago that gave me back my sight. Now I have implanted lenses which give me enough vision to see pretty well.”
“But, s'il vous plait, forgive me for asking so many questions, I saw you looking out the window and on your computer. Can you see me now?” Lars was studying her face intently as he questioned her.
“I try to hide my poor vision,” Natasha explained, her fingers tracing the top of her laptop. “Airplanes are very predictable so I don’t need my dog or a cane. Actually, I rarely use a cane anymore since I had the operation - it is just a habit from using it for so many years. My computer is sound based, so I can hear what others see. I look out the window to feel the light on my eyes and the sun on my face, not so much to see, although my vision is improving.”
“I am so amazed,” Lars said. “But hey, let me introduce myself. My name is Lars and I am from France, as you can probably tell.”
“Nice to meet you, Lars. I hope to be able to see better as the nerves to my eyes heal over time. Why are you flying to Louisiana?” she asked.
“I am a chef and I am supposed to review a new restaurant there - the Brassiere. And you?” he asked.
“We have a convention there every spring with all the divisions from across the nation. I am supposed to give a speech - which I am not looking forward to,” Natasha responded.
“No, I do not like speeches. I am sure you will do fine,” he said as he patted her hand on the armrest between them.
Their conversation went on for another half an hour or so before Natasha rolled up her jacket and set it against the wall to use as a makeshift pillow and closed her eyes. Lars rested his head against the back of his seat, and kept his face turned towards Natasha and the window.
The plane landed in New Orleans without incident. A dark-haired stewardess came and asked Natasha if she would like to disboard early and Lars jumped up to help her with her luggage.
“I hope your speech goes well,” he said, handing her her purse.
“Yes, and I hope your restaurant review goes well. Nice meeting you, Lars,” as she leaned in for a quick hug before following the stewardess to the front of the plane.
Natasha picked up her seeing-eye dog, Audrey and left the terminal to stand in the bright sunshine. The skies were bright blue but the air was already quite heavy with humidity. The van from the convention center was ready and waiting for her. She climbed in as the driver took her bag to put in the back, glad to not have to worry about flagging a taxi. Audrey sat at her feet quietly.
“You going to the Convention Center or the hotel, Ma’am?” the driver asked as he shifted into gear.
“To the hotel, please. I have a little time.”
Natasha let her thoughts wander to Lars, wondering if she would ever see him again, and if he was as nice as he seemed. On the surface, he seemed trustworthy, but that was taking him at face value and although she hadn’t any reason to suspect otherwise, she was not convinced. It seemed surprising that he hadn’t made any effort to ask for her cell number or a way of getting in touch with her.
The van pulled up to the front of the hotel. Television vans were parked along the front entrance, blocking much of the circle.
“What’s going on here?” she asked the driver.
“I think there is a television celebrity coming in today. It’s not that uncommon here. Just ignore the camera guys - they shouldn’t bother you.”
Natasha handed the driver a tip and took her bags into the hotel. There was a lot of commotion and workers were orchestrating setting up their cameras and tables in the lobby. She was only too happy to check in quickly and escape to her room to go over her speech on her computer and make sure she had it well memorized. By the time four o’clock rolled around, she was fresh and ready to grab the ride to the convention center. The elevator door opened and she could hear the business of the lobby. A large sign caught her eye, followed by a quick jolt of surprise. There was a large almost real-life size poster of Lars staring at her. As she looked around the lobby, she realized that he must be the celebrity the van driver had been talking about.
“Oh, what a beautiful dog. I am so excited Lars Beowulf is coming here!” a lady looking over her shoulder said enthusiastically. “Don’t you love his show?”
“Yes, this is a dog in training and about Lars’ show - actually, I have never seen it. I guess he is pretty well-known,” she said wondering if Lars had thought it comical that she didn’t recognize him. “Is he here now?” she asked, realizing that she didn’t even know they were staying at the same hotel.
“He came in about an hour ago and I got to shake hands with him,” the lady said. “He might come back through again, so I am waiting, hoping that I can get a picture with him for my grandkids.”
“Oh,” Natasha smiled at her, suddenly realizing that she was nervous about seeing Lars again. “Good luck.”
The first meeting at the conference was scheduled to start at five, followed by a catered dinner in one of the conference rooms so Natasha went to the information desk to ask about local restaurants. She had no intentions of going to the planned dinner, knowing it would involve a lot of sitting and talking with complete strangers as well as the typical bland food. 
The lady behind the desk was pleasant enough and named several restaurants that were within walking distance.
“Do you eat at these restaurants?” she asked, trying to find where the locals frequented.
“Well, no, not usually. I like a little hole in the wall about three blocks up. It’s a little plain in ambiance, but their food is outstanding. Even their entrance is a back door with no big signs or light, but the chef is amazing.”
“Perfect. That’s what I am looking for,” Natasha said as she jotted down the name of the place. “Thanks very much.” She dialed the phone number on her cell phone and quickly made reservations for six o’clock.
Her speech went smoothly and she gracefully stepped back down to her seat after thanking the audience for their applause. She had a slight headache and was ready to call it an evening. She wasn’t used to traveling and the stress of talking to so many people. Quietly, she gathered her papers and waited until the audience started clapping for the next speaker. She walked purposefully to the back of the room, taking the time to shake a couple of outstretched hands and then slipped out into the hall.
There was still plenty of light outside so she decided to walk the three blocks, giving her dog a chance to get some much needed exercise. Although Natasha could see pretty well, it was a new area to her and it was reassuring for her to hold Audrey’s handle and let her guide her over the intersections until she arrived at the restaurant.
She seated herself at one of a row of two-top tables lined up along an inner wall, sitting with her back to the brick wall. The cool air was refreshing while the smells permeating the room were almost intoxicatingly delicious as she realized she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. A young girl brought her a menu and a glass of water.
She looked up from the menu, startled to hear her name and at the same time recognizing the French accent of Lars. Unconsciously, she stared at him with her mouth open, not saying anything.
“I thought you were giving a speech tonight. What are you doing here?” he asked as he pulled out the chair at her table.
Natasha laughed slightly and collected herself. “I think I should be apologizing. I had no idea you were a celebrity when I met you on the plane.”
“No, that was so wonderful. So many people act friendly to me just because I am on television and famous. But you, you were real and sincere. I don’t like all the noise and agitation from people. It is too crazy,” he explained as he waved his hands in the air. “Oh, please forgive me,” he half stood. “May I sit with you? s'il vous plaît ?
“Yes, of course,” Natasha motioned to the chair. “Don’t the people here know you are a celebrity?”
“Oh, but of course, but they are my friends and take care of me. Why did you come here? This is my favorite place to eat in New Orleans.” Lars looked at her with a look of amazement.
Natasha smiled, relieved that she could trust Lars to be more than just a stranger on the plane, and secretly happy that their paths had crossed again. “Okay! Let me answer. I gave my speech at five, but before I did, I made reservations here for dinner. The lady at the information desk at the convention center mentioned that it is one of her favorite places to eat because the tourists haven’t found it, so here I am.” She stopped talking when the waitress came and set two glasses of wine on the table.
“I hope you like red wine. I always get this when I come. It goes si bien, perfectly with the seafood.” Lars kissed his fingers with gusto, making Natasha laugh.
“Oh, yes, I love red wine, but what about you? I thought you were doing a review at a restaurant, the Brasserie?” she asked.
“Yes, but that’s tomorrow. Tonight I am with you.” He reached across and covered her hand with his and lifting his wine glass with the other. “Santé,” he said.
“Cheers to you, too.”
“So, please tell me more about yourself, the blindness and your operation. I find it intriguing,” Lars said after he told the waitress to bring a couple of the chef’s specials.
The evening continued and they talked easily with each other, laughing and ignoring the others around them. Lars talked about his cooking life and Natasha talked about the accident that left her blinded. A simple trip to the drug store to buy eye drops for her tired eyes after working as a nurse all night. A quick lift of her head and a few drops later left her almost completely blinded. Lars watched her quietly, listening intently as she explained that someone had tampered with the package and the eye drops had been replaced with drain cleaner.
Before they realized it, the evening rolled into the early morning hours as she described the rollercoaster ride of her emotions as she lost her nursing job and had to come to terms with being blind, only to find out that she was a candidate for an experimental surgery to try a new lens and then experiencing the fun of being able to see again.
“Let me drive you home,” Lars looked at his watch and stood up abruptly. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“No. It can’t be one-thirty! I am so sorry,” she exclaimed as she rustled Audrey from her sleeping position on the floor.
“Do you think I am sorry?” Lars asked her with a smile. “This has been such a wonderful evening. I could keep talking all night with you.” He waved to the chef at the back of the restaurant. “Pierre, vous êtes merveilleux, je vous remercie...”
A few minutes later, their taxi pulled up to the hotel entrance and they stepped out together.
“Well, thank you for such a wonderful dinner,” Natasha said as they entered the lobby. “Will I see you again?”
Lars laughed and kissed her on the lips before she could respond. “Of course! Do you think I am going to let you just disappear?”
“Well, wow, that was nice of you. Okay…” but before she could make a suggestion, Lars kissed her again quickly. “I will see you in the morning, mon cheri. Be ready around eight and we can get a bit of breakfast at a nice place I know. Good night.” And he walked off down the hallway as she stepped into the elevator.
Natasha fell asleep wondering in amazement of the odds of her chance meeting with Lars and the evening they shared.

2016 copyright. Use only with permission.