The moment our eyes meet, she breaks gait and leaps ahead of her husband. In seconds my arms are wrapped around her slim shoulders, and the airport buzz disappears, like the hum of the frog orchestra had evaporated a couple of years ago the last time we crept up on the lotus pond behind their house next door. All is silent except for the whoosh of air from our lungs as we fold into a tight embrace. We separate for an arm’s-length look, and “Whoosh,” pull each other in again.
Eventually, the rest of the world begins singing again. Haruka and I blink at the blur of strangers, searching for Jason and Bob, wiping at our eyes with the backs of our hands. Bob and I both find it hard to believe that our friends are genuinely here after being gone for two and a half years, after selling their farm and traveling through Central America, North Africa, Europe, and Asia, before settling down in Japan.
The Cornbread Story
One by one, we tell our stories about Jason in honor of his recent fiftieth birthday, working our way around the long, potluck table as we eat chocolate beet cake with Ben and Jerry’s Phish ice cream. Bob has saved his story for last and I, next-to-last, am going to tell the cornbread story. “We were at Shakori,” I begin, and then looking down the table, I see Kersten and decide to tell a different Shakori story.
“We were all under the, er, influence, and Jason and Haruka said they were going over to the food court for something to eat.” I was hungry but said I couldn’t go with them. “Why not?” Jason asked.
“Because I just can’t be Camille right now.”
“You don’t have to be Camille.” He said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “You can be her twin sister. What do you want your name to be?”
Haruka is already laughing as the three of us leave our Meadow Grove headquarters. We walk up the hill to the muddy main path and across the narrow wooden bridge, and right away we run into Kersten and Gillian. “Camille!” they say as Jason steps between us.
“This isn’t Camille. This is Camille’s twin sister, Sophie.”
At this point in my story, Kersten can no longer contain herself. “I remember!” she says, “And I was ticked, thinking ‘Why are they trying to fool us? This is clearly Camille, and they are obviously buzzed. Why would they try to hide it?’”
Jason chimes in with, “And then Haruka starts laughing.” Now everyone at the table is roaring, and those who were there are adding bits and pieces. Bob waits for the excitement to die down and launches into the cornbread story.
“I remember when Jason came up to me at Shakori and asked if I wanted to taste the saltiest cornbread ever, and I said, ‘No thanks, dude.’” “No, really,” Jason said, “You’ve got to try this. It’s the saltiest cornbread I’ve ever tasted.” None of us took the bait, and we wandered on, Jason carrying the cornbread in front like a sacrament. Moments later, a guy walked up to us and said, “I am sooo thirsty! Do you have any water?”
“No,” Jason said, “But would you like to try the saltiest cornbread ever?” And, incredibly, the guy reached out and popped a piece into his mouth.
The four of us sit around the dining room table, squeezing buttery beans from a mound of salted pods. Bob and I had worked hard to bunny-proof our edamame patch after losing most of it to those pesky rabbits. “I feel like I’m back in my Nana’s house,” I say, and everyone nods happily, fully aware of what a happy place what is for me. “Only now I am the Nana,” I say, my mouth full of edamame. We eat until we cannot suffer another pod, and shell the rest.
Haruka bends at the waist like the dancer she is and peers up through a pepper plant. “Here’s a fat one,” she says, reaching in to pluck it with surgical precision. We circle around and around the three plants, throwing each pepper into a bowl with a satisfying “thwump.” When we think we’ve picked the last pickable pepper, we see one we’ve missed.
I toss the shishitos with toasted sesame oil and put them into our new air fryer. After they begin to brown, I finish them with tamari. They are exactly the way I remember my first taste, the first time Jason and Haruka served us beer-peppers so many years ago. Lyle calls them “Peppers Camille,” but I tell him that they are “Peppers Jason.
Bob takes the three of us for a tour of what used to be The Plant. We arrive at the Chatham Beverage District at the end of Lorax Lane to ogle two and a half years of development. Jason and Haruka are particularly interested in the farm, so we walk down to the Secret Garden, and on up to the packing shed. As we turn the corner, Jason spots an old friend and walks over to put his hand reverently on a giant, orange fender. “The Kubota!” he says, and strokes the hard steel. “I sure covered a lot of ground together with this tractor.” He lingers, wistfully, his mind turning over the fertile soil—nine years of farm memories.