Next week, Sarah Thankam Mathews will publish her debut novel, All This Could Be Different. It follows Sneha, a young Indian immigrant building her life in Milwaukee, as she starts a soul-crushing corporate job while navigating friendship and dating — before things devolve into chaos. Our friends at the Cut say, “You’ll fall most in love with its wickedly sharp narrator, who’s funny, passionate, and complicated.” You might say the same about Mathews, who is also the founder of the mutual aid group Bed-Stuy Strong, and who spent this “personally apocalyptic week” meditating on friendship and illness, as well as considering the joy of giving someone their very first oyster.
Tuesday, July 19
I am a monster in the mornings. I make a mug of Darjeeling tea and wait for my eyes to uncross themselves. The tea is Vahdam, loose-leaf, and it’s good. My parents got a fat bag of it as a gift once, but they are committed to old man Lipton, so they gave it to me.
Once I am approaching sentience, I make a perfect fried egg: sunny-side up, crispy lacy edges, and always with a lashing of black pepper. I eat this with a croissant (from Bed-Stuy’s Saraghina Bakery) and homemade chokecherry jam (a sweet gift from my partner P’s parents). I go to my desk and start to write emails, despite telling myself I would work on this short story that has been annoying me for two months. I go for a walk and get an (incredible) iced matcha from Brooklyn Ball Factory.
Writing new stuff feels hard in part because my first book is coming out in two weeks, so it is what primarily occupies my little brain. I’m really excited. I love the book and believe in it. Waiting for its reception in the world is pretty vulnerable, though. I hope people like the novel and see what it’s trying to do.
Lunch is leftover pasta from a few days ago, creamy-tomato sauce, full of sautéed veg and various proteins. I eat it in my underwear and write with my feet in the air. You would never guess that a mere few years ago I was a pencil-skirt-wearing Young Professional per-my-last-emailing my way through the world.
It’s wildly hot. In an hour I have a finalist interview for this program where you learn how to design gardens and take care of city trees and other plant uncle shit. I applied because I want to learn new things, I find it soothing to use my hands, and I long to spend more of my life not staring at glowing misery rectangles. I run some errands and stop impulsively at Chestnut, the Hasidic grocery on Myrtle. I stock up on some things for the week and get my favorite brand of baba ghannouj, Sonny & Joe’s, which I fear I find so delicious because it is absolutely chock-full of mayonnaise.
I need to eat and want a cold quick dinner. I glug much chilled water and make a soba noodle salad with fridge-cold silken tofu, chopped pickled radish, a profusion of green scallions, and a gingery chili-soy sauce. It takes about six minutes to make; the only thing that requires actual cooking are the noods. It is very nice.
Wednesday, July 20
Mug of tea, blueberry banana peanut butter smoothie from Bklyn Blend. There is a newly brewing, medium-high but manageable crisis of illness in my house. Two and a half years of COVID (scream) makes me forget that other diseases do be flourishing.
P is at the doctor and will be for a while. I read some Barbara Pym, have some phone meetings, work on an essay, run pharmacy errands, write most of a newsletter.
It is 1 p.m. and 1,000 degrees. I walk to Chinantla on Myrtle to have lunch with Meghna, feeling like I am wedged in Satan’s un-deodorized armpit.
Chinantla is an underrated Bed-Stuy gem lodged at the back of a bodega. I get the cemitas al pastor, a total flavor bomb of sliced avocado, notably spicy pork, and cheese on a sesame brioche roll. Meghna gets bistec tacos and offers me a bite. We share a watermelon agua fresca so large it is served in one of those 32-ounce translucent plastic deli containers. Transcendent, overall.
I finish an essay pitch and send it over, hit publish on the newsletter. Visit the sickroom with food and hydration, trying to be cheery and encouraging. Despite the blessing of a clear diagnosis and the power of modern medicine and all that, this is the sickest I’ve seen P, and it’s hard and sad for all parties involved. I have a sudden flashback to being a very small child in the Calcutta flat my parents and four other relatives were living in, and seeing my favorite aunt writhe and cry out with fever. She had malaria. I, fresh from a reading from my children’s illustrated Bible, asked in Malayalam if she looked so horrible because she was possessed by a demon. My bedside manner has since improved.
Hanna drops by with Gatorade, kefir, coconut water, and watermelon on the way to her date with a cute butch. We discuss her outfit and make some tweaks to it (one of my crop tops, big brassy earrings). I request that she stand in front of the AC and drink a glass of ice water before she departs. Regretfully, I am cursed with subjecting everyone I love to occasional spasms of oldest-sibling energy. Despite my consistent effort to be cool and appraising, it bursts out of me like I’m some youthful member of the X-Men failing to suppress my mutant power.
I go see an event venue, do some sickroom visits, cook some coconut dal and rice. I want to make a Keralite chicken peralan, but I don’t have tomatoes or enough ginger. Since I have the stove going anyway, I rustle up a chicken soup with orzo, cabbage, carrots, much garlic, and a li’l squeeze of harissa. It is pretty dank, honestly. Evening is: taking care of P, calling a friend, texting with my sister, and more Barbara Pym.
Thursday, July 21
I’m feeling droopy, so I make some chaiya. I use Lipton Yellow Label tea bags, but the kind with the Arabic script on them. I get them from Jackson Heights or various other Indian stores. The Arabic script ones are built different; don’t ask me why. If I’m trying to impress somebody with absolutely popping chai, I use the Vahdam Darjeeling loose-leaf, but today old man Lipton will do. I steep the tea bags in boiling water with sugar, clove, cardamom pod, and crushed ginger. Then I add milk and use a matcha whisk to froth the lot. Aeration (and not using chai concentrate) is what separates lackluster chaiya from the good shit. Some do not know this. For breakfast, I have baba ghannouj on toast topped with a defeated, slightly too salty egg.
Work, email landlord lease renewal, call various people, brood mildly about the fragility of life and good health. P and I have a cozy talk. I attempt to make coconut-water Popsicles. More work. Friends check in and offer food or medicine delivery. There’s no need, I say after thanking them, since there’s food in the fridge and I am able to traipse around. Lunch is yesterday’s rice and dal and some okra that I dry-fry with red onions and a smidge of green chile.
Hanna, Chris, and I text about how much we wish for public bathhouses after seeing this picture of old dudes in Budapest playing chess in pristine turquoise waters. Could be us, we lament. Hanna and I realize we have different if overlapping visions of the utopian bathhouse. Hers are shaped strongly by a cult-classic Jewish novel titled Beyond the Pale, which is smutty and lez and set in a public bathhouse. The author, if you’re wondering, is called Elana Dykewomon.
I was debating giving my evening plans a rain check, but P entreats me not to. (“Do nice things, bro! I will be fine, and you gotta write about something other than fried eggs for your Grub Street.”) Fuck my Grub Street, is the general shape of my retort. But eventually I am persuaded that my periodically being out in the world will be helpful to all.
I take Alyse out for her first-ever oysters. Alyse is vegan, which I find moral and admirable. She has decided that oysters are permissible, and I love them, and really seafood of all kinds, so I am hype for this. On my way to Grand Army in Boerum Hill, she texts, “will we find a pearl in the oyster or is that pretty uncommon. that would be so sacred and really dope.”
I walk up to the bar and see she is Googling “how to act hot while eating an oyster (woman).”
The oysters arrive on the half-shell, reclining like bathing beauties on crushed ice. Alyse is a (very talented) writer and also very good at making fun of me. “You going to show me how to eat these or not? I thought this was going to be your Carol moment!! Okay so I use the li’l fork how??” She asks after P, and then wonders aloud if this outing will feature in my Grub Street. I point out that since I am documenting everything I ingest this ridiculous week, it most certainly will. “Can’t wait to see you come for MFK Fisher’s ass,” she says, tossing back a Savory Delight with mignonette, a.k.a. minced shallots in vinegar. “Damn. These are good. I don’t feel even a little bad for eating them.”
The oysters are in fact very good, delicate, creamy-sweet, redolent of ocean. We down them with cloudy ocher-colored glasses of cold Trebbiano. I protest that I would never even dream of attempting to come for MFK Fisher’s ass. One of the great all-time food writers–food poets, I’d argue. Imagine writing this: “The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.” Holy shit!!!
Or, “On the other hand, a flaccid, moping, debauched mollusc, tired from too much love and loose-nerved from general world conditions, can be a shameful thing served raw upon the shell.” “It me,” I tell Alyse, and she says, “Nah, it in fact me.”
After the oyster date, we two debauched mollusks go to Coyote Club — one of my favorite bars. It’s like the Midwest, the ’70s, and Las Vegas had a roomy, wood-paneled baby. Alyse gets us a negroni and frozen whiskey sour and gives me some literary-world chismé. Not to gas myself, but I am a great audience for gossip. This is on account of being quite discreet (harm reduction), having a very expressive and mobile face, and being the right mixture of mean and not mean about people doing outrageous things.
I go home and heat up chicken soup and focaccia. As far as patients go, P is dreamy — communicative and appreciative and somehow funny. Taking care of others is a learned art, but so is allowing oneself to be taken care of.
Sometimes light hurts when you’re very ill. The blinds only do so much, and so I tin-foil the sickroom windows to make it a little darker in the morning.
Friday, July 22
P is, finally, moving toward better. This illness has been horrible. We give praise. I got into the urban-gardening program I interviewed for. I am excited; I want to get better at growing things, learn to take care of city trees, and design balcony gardens.
I work, drink milky tea, make a breakfast salad to counteract last night’s dinner of oysters and booze. Greens, jammy boiled eggs, torn bread, tomatoes, shallots. I’m still hungry, so I have a slice of toast with the chokecherry jam. I am so close on this goddamned short story. It’s the ending that’s frustrating me, the right one dancing just out of sight.
Late last night, Pam texted me to tell me her grandmother in Beijing just died. Everyone is going through it now, I think reflexively. P alternates between sleeping, watching TV, and hydrating. Pam insists she has more than enough food but would love chill company. I bring over cherries and things to make chai and brew us some while being lovingly attacked by her little dog Kitsuné.
I am ordered to not give Kitsuné attention, which is difficult, because she resembles a tiny beautiful fox with small chubby legs. Pam and I snack on seaweed crackers and Chaolay’s crispy black pepper sardines. She sends me on my way home with Levain sourdough and cookies and a large jar of K-kimchi. “I came here to take care of you, dummy,” I protest, and she shrugs. Kitsuné makes her love for me known one last time.
Akshay, who blessedly lives quite literally 300 feet away from me, responds to a Mayday text I send when I realize I am out of a crucial item, and drops it off. P sleeps post-dinner. I had ambitions to eat at Nepali Bhanchha Ghar in Jackson Heights with my friend A, a Queens dweller, but A is going to see Mitski later, and so we meet in Manhattan instead.
At 886, one of my favorites, a Taiwanese American joint in the East Village, we split a carafe of guava soju, a prodigious fried chicken sandwich named for Biggie, a dish of tender pea shoots with tofu skin. It’s all so good. If it was less hot, I would order at least three more things; my typical move at 886 is to pile the table. But I am freshly showered and still melting into my colorful plastic stool. I ask A how their clients are doing in this infernal weather (they are a social worker for unhoused people). “Everything is really bad right now,” they say simply, “in almost every way, and I don’t know when or how it will get better.”
Saturday, July 23
P’s symptoms have cleared up!!!! Medicine is magic, the body a miracle!! We bow down to the power of antibiotics and much rest. I make oatmeal with dried cherries, nut milk, and fresh mango. We eat this with the Levain cookies from Pam.
P’s friend comes over to visit. I beg them both to stay in the apartment, given the 97-degree heat, and then … go to Brighton Beach with Hanna. As is our tradition, we stop at Tashkent, an Uzbek grocery store with one of the great hot buffets that has blessed this city. The food on offer is sort of Pan-Soviet, with everything from cold borscht to Uyghur lagman noodles. Hanna and I lie on our towels in the baking heat. We eat pumpkin manti, svekolnik (a Pepto-Bismol pink cold soup made with beets, potato, and labne), noodles, kavkaz (a gorgeous cold tomato-eggplant salad) and many lychees. I float in the water, which is so warm and so gentle. People of every hue and body type and walk of life tile the waves and beach. I’m alive and loved and I wrote a book, I think. I feel a happiness so intense and sudden it leaves me gelatinous.
Back on the sand, I read Meng Jin’s thoroughly impressive Self-Portrait With Ghost. Next to me, Hanna reads her copy of my novel, which she last encountered as a Microsoft Word document, with occasional laughs, eyebrow furrows, and interjections. “Still the best sex scene I’ve read in years,” she says loudly, and I notice a nearby mom glance curiously at All This Could Be Different’s cover.
The plan is: get groceries from Tashkent and I will make us and P a little homestyle Indian meal. I select eggplants for a baingan bharta, green beans for a thoren. But in the checkout aisle, I notice that my heart is racing, my skin feels hot. I quite simply do not feel very good at all. I wonder if I’m having some kind of panic episode, which is confusing, because I was experiencing Meaningful Joy such a short time ago? Anyway, the feeling passes, and we board the train.
We get off the Q at Prospect Park. Minutes later, I throw up Pepto-Bismol pink onto the tracks. Hanna rubs my back. This is no doubt very elegant and sexy for all. “Well … at least we have deepened our intimacy,” I say when I have collected myself. “This is gonna be a helluva Grub Street,” is Hanna’s rejoinder. “Iconic. Honest. Trash for a trash time.”
Sunday, July 24
The next 12 hours are best passed over.
My loved ones respond to this newest development with consternation and decisive action. Iva prescribes Zofran and not moving a single muscle. Noah, Alexandra, and Meghna send food and groceries. I am so very lucky, I think, walking downstairs gingerly to accept the delivery. Luckiness feels like getting pricked by a pin.
P makes me ginger turmeric iced tea and toast. Over the course of the day I wanly consume a banana, Mott’s applesauce, coconut water, rice with hummus and a sliver of grilled onion (idk), and a metric ton of Gatorade.
Monday, July 25
By the morning, I’m totally better, but food and I are temporarily estranged. Anna, one of my dear friends from grad school, is visiting NYC from France. I buy her a bagel sando from Nagle’s while narrating my trash fire of a week and spooning cinnamon applesauce into my mouth.
By the afternoon I have made a recovery of my appetite and zest for life.
I have concert tickets for an 11 p.m. show that I forgot all about selling despite/given the past week’s various calamities. Let’s just go, P suggests. We’re better now. We debate cooking dinner together and decide, fuck that, we’ve lived through a personally apocalyptic week, let’s go to Macosa. A plate of olives and their oxtail pappardelle will revive us to full strength.
Macosa Trattoria, my favorite neighborhood restaurant, is closed (!!!) because it is a Monday. So are my other NYC bright stars: Adda, Semma, Hart’s, Sofreh, Sushi Katsuei, and Winona’s. I want so much to have a delicious meal after my stomach-acid-inflected sorrows that I consider hauling it to Ayat in Bay Ridge, home to absolutely extraordinary Palestinian food.
At Dosa Royale in Clinton Hill, we split a shrimp coconut curry and masala dosa. Then we head to Nublu in the East Village. At the First Ave. L, P does a double take at the train tracks, then says, “Ah, a good man. Trying to provide for his family.” It is a rat hauling ass with a chicken nugget in its mouth, followed by five smaller rats lolloping behind.
At Nublu, it’s Ray Angry and the Council of Goldfinger with FREI SPEECH spinning. The band and crowd are great. The lead singer improvises a jazz song about New York rats. I get a club soda and lime (hydration), and then a whiskey on the rocks. We’re back in play, baby. I am perhaps more suspicious than anyone of a certain kind of valorizing of NYC, but I have come to love this city, for all its nonsense, very much. I look up and see the Nublu disco ball twirling directly above me — dusty, missing many of its mirrored tiles, showing its war with time — but still huge and shimmering and endlessly faceted, a vibe and a whole world.