Story — From the January 2019 issue

Addie and the Chili

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Years ago, Ellie asked me to write the story of our friend Addie and the chili. The incident involved some bowls of chili, and more than one woman crying, in fact several women crying, and also had something to do with our country’s political mistakes, and the mistakes we ourselves make with our children. “Addie and the Chili,” I was going to call it, because sitting in the middle of the scene were three bowls of chili on the restaurant table, or rather two bowls and one cup, the cup being mine.

I made an attempt at writing the story and then gave up. I don’t know whether the story defeated me or I simply became distracted by other things. I was a single mother at the time, and trying to support myself and my child. I was trying to write stories at the same time as I was working and caring for my child, and I often did not finish what I started. Now, more than thirty years have gone by, and I’ll give it another try.

“Untitled #11,” by Laura Letinsky, from the Albeit series. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

“Untitled #11,” by Laura Letinsky, from the Albeit series. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

I ordered only a cup of chili, not a bowl, because I was upset and thought I would not be able to eat more. I was upset by the movie and by Addie. Addie ordered a bowl when she was still in a good mood, talking her head off, before she knew what I was going to say to her, and then, after I said it, when the waiter set the bowl down in front of her, she could not eat any of the chili, or at least she said she could not. As for Ellie, she ordered a bowl because she was very hungry, despite being, like me, upset by the movie and by Addie. She finished her bowl quickly, though I didn’t notice her eating. Maybe she was eating her chili while I was reproaching and insulting Addie and Addie was reacting—too hungry to wait. Ellie then sat there, still hungry, staring at Addie’s untouched bowl. She told me later that she had wanted to ask Addie for it, but did not, because she knew how offensive it would be to ask a woman in tears for her chili.

What started the trouble was the movie Ellie and I saw earlier in the evening. It was a recently released movie about some devastating things that had happened in another part of the world that had caused a great many children to suffer. Or rather, everyone suffered, old and young, but the movie showed the children especially, and it is always hard to accept the idea of children suffering at all.

Things had also been happening in Ellie’s life and in my life that made us more vulnerable than usual to such a film, although I can’t remember now what those things were, and we came out of it exhausted by the sustained grief of the story. Others in the audience were clearly just as upset. Two men were evidently not able to leave the theater at all, and sat there side by side staring straight ahead at the empty screen. Women I saw in the line to use the ladies’ room had been crying or were still crying, or trying not to cry.

Then we walked from the movie theater to pick up Addie where she was living nearby, in a brownstone, and as soon as she came down the front stoop she began talking about herself. Addie always talked mainly about herself, and she probably still does—I don’t know her anymore, though not because of that evening. I try to think why Ellie and I remained friends with her. It must be that at times she did talk about other things, and said intelligent things about subjects that Ellie and I were both interested in.

As she began talking about herself, on this night, she further upset me by addressing her remarks exclusively to Ellie, at least in the beginning. As I listened, I became very angry, though I kept quiet. I was angry at Addie for what she was saying, the way she was saying it, and what that told me about her life and her character, but there was more going on, there were other things feeding into my anger at Addie.

I was angry at everything that had happened in the film, everything that had happened that day to me, and that week to me, and several things concerning my child, and several things concerning two friends who had attempted to commit suicide just the week before and which I had heard about, in one case directly from the friend herself—how she had managed to call 9-1-1 and had been carried from her apartment on a stretcher. It had not been a good couple of weeks, there in the dead of winter, and my anger at all of it boiled up in me when Addie began telling us something involving a lover, a story she clearly believed to be tragic and exciting, with herself at center stage, but that was, to me, and probably to Ellie, only dull and sordid.

It is possible that on another evening, after a different couple of weeks and a different film, or even at a different time of year, in midsummer out on the sidewalk, with a warm breeze blowing, I might have been interested in this story about an angry lover, phone calls at three and four in the morning, the offering of a bouquet of flowers, the bouquet torn from the vase and thrown in her face, the demand for the repayment of fifty dollars, the subsequent humiliation on the lover’s part, his begging for forgiveness, and probably the forgiveness withheld. (I remember everything but that last—­whether Addie forgave him.) One of the things we must have enjoyed about Addie, in fact, was her often absurd tales of love affairs. I remember only one longtime lover, or perhaps even husband, who used to cradle her feet in his lap and groom them, which I thought rather touching and which did not fit with what was otherwise the style of her love life.

But on this evening, as we walked toward the restaurant, with a bitter wind blowing and slush at the curb, I was ready to give up on our plan to have dinner. I was ready to leave for home, though my small apartment would hardly have been inviting, and would have felt particularly empty since I had not planned to be there at that hour. I said I was tired and going home, but I was persuaded to stay, not only by Ellie, because she did not want to be alone with Addie, I’m sure, but also by Addie, no doubt because she wanted more of an audience than Ellie.

We went into the restaurant and sat down. As I began to read the menu, while Addie continued talking, I discovered that I was crying and did not want to eat or drink or talk. I made up my mind, then, to speak frankly, because I could not pretend that nothing was wrong.

I then turned to Addie and told her that there was something I wanted to say. She looked me in the eye, and her expression was fiercer than I had expected, as though she knew in advance that something unpleasant was coming and had resolved not to listen to me. Before I could go on, however, the waiter came up to our table, a tall young man with chubby arms, and said, “What can I do for you ladies?” That was when we ordered the chili, and the waiter did not seem very pleased.

When he left, Addie looked at me again, and I went ahead, though I did not think that what I said would have much of an effect. I said I was offended by her, I was offended by the way she came out of her house and did not first ask us how we were and how the movie was, or even look carefully at us or think of us before she began to talk about herself and tell us her story. I said that she should try to read our mood and be sensitive to us, that she was so wrapped up in herself she hardly saw us, that she did not seem to care about us but only saw us as an audience for her.

Right away she said she could not hear any more and began to cry. Then I saw that by her reaction she had made me look mean and that she had also held on to the center stage, remained the star, though now in a different drama. Now I was yet another of the people who had wronged and hurt her. She said she was going to leave and took out money to pay for the chili. I don’t know what I had imagined her reaction would be—contrition, shame, apology?

Ellie began trying to make peace between us. I, too, thought I would have to keep her there and let her tell her story sooner or later, or the evening would be spoiled anyway. I’m not sure that I would, now, feel the same way I did then, so it is hard for me to understand my reaction then. Now I would probably have let her go, and written her off, and spent the rest of the evening talking with Ellie. But in any case, I did what I could to mollify her, though I was annoyed doing it. I did what I could to get her back to her story and draw her out. It was not working.

I did feel better now, though, having said what was on my mind, and I ate my cup of chili easily and was sorry I had not ordered a bowl. Then, because I was tired of trying to persuade Addie to talk, I turned to Ellie. We talked about trips we were both going to be taking soon, and then jobs that Ellie was having trouble getting, and then a certain man’s opinion of her that she was worried about—she said that when she had nothing else to worry about, she worried about what this man thought of her.

Meanwhile, Addie sat with her head bowed, dabbing at the surface of her chili with her spoon and sniffling. So then I turned to Addie again, and persuaded her to tell us what had been happening that day with her lover and she began to talk again. She talked about not only this lover, but a gourmet chef she had picked up on the street and who had come to see her that morning between eight and nine o’clock. She talked then about another man, a busy screenwriter who wrote her long letters even though he lived right here in the city. During this, Ellie did not say a word. She had finished her chili. Maybe she was cross because she had not asked Addie for her chili and she was still hungry. She kept looking at Addie’s chili. But I think she was also becoming truly angry herself now, because Addie was doing just what she had wanted to do in the beginning and what was really so offensive to both of us—talking her head off to a captive audience about the men who loved her.

I will ask Ellie if there is more that she remembers, but after all, I see why the story was difficult to write—most of all because, as is true of many stories in real life, not much had happened. All that had happened was that certain emotions had shifted around from person to person over that hour or so. Addie started out cheerful, became angry and hurt, and then recovered her good cheer. I started out upset by the movie, became more upset and angry, and then felt better once I had spoken my mind to Addie, though subsequently annoyed by her manipulation. Ellie started out upset by the movie, became angry at Addie, though not as angry as I was, recovered her equanimity in attempting to act as mediator in the conflict between me and Addie, and then, in turn, once Addie recovered her good spirits and I attempted to placate her, became even angrier at Addie.

But it is interesting, in its own way, to think about what happens after a movie is made and people see the movie. A movie is made depicting how badly people are hurt in a war, and it is skillfully made, so that it affects the people who see it. They cry or nearly cry, or simply feel their grief and shame without showing it. And when the movie is over, they disperse, they go off in different directions. And some of them may have trouble eating, then, and also vent their emotions on their friends, whose failings seem less forgivable after what was depicted in the movie.

Now I’ve asked Ellie, but she has forgotten the evening entirely, and certainly does not remember asking me to write about it. It is strange that I was so sure she would never forget it. But, prompted by my question, she thought hard and remembered Addie’s full name, and then looked her up, which I had not done, and located her, now living in Europe. For me, Addie had dropped out of existence once I no longer knew her. Ellie discovered that Addie has even done some rather interesting things. Our lives go on, years pass, we start things and finish them, year by year, things add up to our credit. Maybe that is why we were friends with her for as long as we were—not only because she and her stories amused us, but also because she had some interesting ambitions, and was not unintelligent, besides also being so silly and self-absorbed. Though all three of us could be that, she was the silliest of us.

As for what happened to Addie’s chili, that evening, she asked the waiter if he could wrap it up for her so that she could take it home. We did not much like the waiter, in part because he clearly did not much like us—these three women arguing and crying, who had ordered nothing more than some chili. He said the restaurant had no containers for that, “as such,” but that he would wrap it up for her the way it was, in the bowl, and ask her to bring the bowl back. She lived nearby, she could return the bowl the next day, and that is what Addie did, as far as I know.

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’s most recent short story collection was Can’t and Won’t. She was a 2003 MacArthur Fellow and was awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. A first volume of her essays will be published in the fall.

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