The girls and I discussed the possibility of getting our own place. If we split the expenses four ways, for seventy dollars a month, we’d have a two-bedrooms-two baths furnished apartment, a community pool, access to laundry, and coffee shops and grocery stores within walking distance.
The idea of having our own kitchen made me feel giddy. I could taste the pasta, the meats and pizza made to order. Nobody else showed the same enthusiasm.
Pilar was anxious to have a big living room where she could spread her art projects and take her time finishing them. Michelle talked about taking long swims after hours.Tony looked forward to coming and going on her own sweet time, she had said. Having that fourth person, we could get out of the convent and taste a bigger slice of America before I returned to Italy.
Michelle wanted to talk to her Mom. Either that, or she had to ask her brother for an advance since her room and board was paid directly to the convent. So, we packed ourselves in the Oldsmobile and drove the sixty miles to San Bernardino.
Her mother had questions about the kind of people we would be neighbors with, the contract. We told her that Tony and I, the only people employed, would be signing the contract; so, if Michelle didn’t like the arrangements, she had no obligation to remain there.It sounded so easy when I said that. But, if any one of us pulled away, we could no longer afford the place. And going back to the convent was out of the question.
Michelle’s father liked the idea immediately: “Mother”, he addressed his wife, “Elle will need to fend for herself. She is not going to be a nun. She needs to spread her wings and start flying.”
I could not have said it any better myself. What were we afraid of anyway? The more you put something off the worst it is. Like going to the dentist. By the time I made an appointment, he had to yank out two molars, leaving me unconscious for hours. Preventive care was not on my budget.
We talked and arranged things during our Christmas vacation.
We moved on New Year’s Day.
Michelle and Pilar took one room, and Tony and I the other. Within a week, Tony announced that she wasn’t participating in our meal planning because she wanted to leave her options open. No problem.
I took charge of planning and executing the grocery budget. They gave me an idea of what they wanted to eat and we went shopping on Saturdays. Tony tended to disappear during the weekend, visiting friends and family, and we soon got into a routine.
It sounded easy. Two pasta meals, one with, one without meat. Two chickens, one oven fried, one bbq’d. Two soups, one with the carcasses of chicken. One with the leftover vegetables of the week. And a roast, ham or brisket, big enough for the Sunday meal and for lunch sandwiches. We also included fruit or ice cream for dessert; milk and cereal for breakfasts, and peanut butter and jam for late night snacks. It was a twenty- dollars budget per week. If we wanted something extra, we had to purchase it ourselves. Cleaning and household products were carefully rationed as well.
I volunteered to cook and asked the rest of them to coordinate the clean up. Except for Tony, who had one excuse after the other why she shouldn’t have to do anything since she hardly spent any time there, the rest of us got along great.
On the first day, and for our first meal, I purchased a standing rib roast. Now, I had not experienced the pleasure of a standing prime rib roast. Michelle had suggested it. I asked the butcher to tell me how to cook such a big piece of meat. When he asked how many people were coming to dinner, he confused me. I told him, just the four girls. Oh? I thought you had invited some special guests! This will set you back $20 dollars. What? Twenty dollars for one piece of meat? Look, he said, this is prime. You will have to do nothing. Nothing. Salt and pepper, in a preheated oven, fifteen minutes per pound, half a pound per person. It cooks itself.
“Oh! Then what else?”
“You mean what else to cook with it?”
“Yes. What wine would you suggest?”
“Oh. Wine. Now that’s for another department. Go over to…”
By the time I left Gelson’s, with the roast, the baked potatoes, the asparagus , the wine, the torte, I had spent the entire month’s budget on one meal.
When the girls and I sat down to savor the meal, with a small glass of Chianti, we felt rich and special. The girls were impressed. They didn’t ask, nor did I tell them that this meal was not on our budget. I was happy to absorb that cost.
This was a new beginning in my American Life.