Mandelbread and Old Boyfriends

This post was drafted mostly during the 2015 Thanksgiving-Christmas season and is being posted in time for Easter, which somehow seems fitting. For the record, life is pretty good right now. 

CherryMandelBrot2015_0991WbLife has been challenging here in Hollywood of late. There’s been sadness and a lot of anxious waiting, with too much time for Facebook and other sedentary pursuits, like window shopping at overstock.com and looking up auld acquaintance.

Politics is a constant, and not just because my FB friends are a bunch of liberal, pinko Commies preaching to the converted. It’s kind of a hobby I’ve taken up more in recent years, and I’ve been glued to MSNBC since 2008. As I work at home, that’s a lot of glue. Nowadays, it’s more like a train wreck I can’t look away from, and when you add to that the events that make our politics spin, there’s a lot to be concerned about, especially if you’re already anxious.

Which brings me to my other Facebook page, the one with my work-industry friends, colleagues and fans. It is a much less liberal crowd, shall we say, and includes such standouts as a former Marine and cop whose manifesto of how he’d obliterate ISIS is nothing short of hair-raising and a gym owner I’ve known for almost 30 years who I never imagined is a right-wing, Obama-hating racist.

Those are not just acquaintances, by the way, but people I would call friends. Of necessity I do a lot of finger biting when I’m over there. It’s pointless to argue with people who have all the answers.

The Syrian refugee crisis really brought out the ugly, including my friend the accountant, a politically conservative Jew who clearly doesn’t see the irony in his attitude toward bringing refugees here. The idea of a blog post took hold. If I could just answer my friends, in a gentle, nonthreatening but factual way, it could change the world–or at the very least convince one person that Obama doesn’t hate America.

While the notion was marinating, I started doing some research for my grand baking experiment, grand only in that I don’t bake very often, don’t really enjoy it, and was going to have to adapt a recipe. Also I would have to shop, all of which by me is a lot of work.

Mandelbread, or “mandelbrot” (literally “almond bread”—my grandma called them, “ammand slices”), are almost the only thing I bake. Also known as “Jewish biscotti,” they’re toasty slices of almond cookie, baked in a loaf, sliced down and double baked. It is Grandma’s recipe, and I’ve been making them since long before biscotti became trendy. They take a bit of potskying because of the time involved in shaping the loaves plus cooling, slicing and rebaking.

If I do say so myself, the results are worth it. Dense, delicious and not too sweet—a piece of mandelbread is the perfect cookie for grownups. For decades my Jewish friends have sampled my grandma’s ammand slices and exclaimed, “I never liked mandelbread before, but this is amazing!”

Typically, I bake them once a year, at the holidays, for a particular friend, and I’ve never felt the need to get creative with what is as much a family tradition as it is a cookie. As I said, though, I was in a mood, with time on my hands, and some biscotti I saw online at a boutique bakery for 18 bucks a dozen had gotten me thinking. After some initial research, I decided to start simple by adding dried cherries to the basic recipe. If it worked, I would take some to Thanksgiving dinner—and go on to pistachio apricot. If it didn’t, I could pick up some cookies.

So there I was, the night before the grand experiment, my shopping done, searching for similar recipes and pondering what to blog about. The War on Isis was raging on the flat screen, but I had stopped looking.

LuauRuthSteve68Wb_6

With Steve—beaming like idiots at a DZ luau.

Should I write about my conservative friends or about the shallots I scored at the 99 Cent Only store? Decisions, decisions. A light bulb went off. I realized that a half cup or so of chopped cherries would be enough, and the next thing I knew, I was I looking up my old college boyfriend, the one who went off on a holiday ski trip and came back dating Betty Halperin.

We’ll call him “Steve.”

Now, it was not the first time I’d Googled Steve. I’d long had the satisfaction of knowing that he and Betty had ended up in divorce court, and my previous search confirmed that he’d indeed become a doctor, as planned. Also that he’d settled in the Southwest. In fact, Steve is in Texas, a cardiologist, with listings in Austin and Dallas, so he may have moved at some point. Mildly curious, I clicked for “Images.” A gazillion came up—Steve has a fairly common last name—but none of them likely matches. One photo, a foot or so from the top of the page, though, just had to be him: a head shot of an older gentleman in a suit. The long face and nose were unmistakable. Steve had aged perfectly, as if imagined by a makeup artist. I thought about a picture in my old scrapbook from the Northwestern years and chuckled—me and Steve beaming like idiots at a Delta Zeta luau.

Now, this was a major relationship, the taker of my virginity, and we were together for well over a year, talking marriage after the first month or so. I was very much under his influence. We would have two sons, Soren and Friedrich, named for his favorite philosophers. That alone would suggest to anyone who knows me that the relationship was doomed, but I was young and unformed, and mandelbread was still something my mom made back in Pittsburgh. When it ended as it did, I was devastated. I couldn’t eat—my weight dropped to 120 pounds—and because she was a sorority sister, I got to watch Betty’s blossoming romance with the rest of the DZs from the comfort of our living room.

RuthStevePeanuts69Wb_8

Halloween hijinks with Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

Fortunately, the future brought men who were better for me and many good times. Forty-five years later (did I actually say that?) I looked at the head shot again and felt no connection.

Even so, my success in finding the photo encouraged me to look for another old friend. Let’s call him “Cordell.”

Did you ever have someone in your life who was nuts but was so intelligent, sarcastic and simpatico that you overlooked and put up with it—until you couldn’t? Cord was a colleague at my first publishing job in California and a member of what we called the Birthday Club, a small group of smart, funny friends who convened on each other’s birthdays to dine at big-pop restaurants, usually preceded by bubbly, crudités and crudities at someone’s apartment. Spago, Michael’s, Ivy at the Shore and other classics were early outings, and we loved Valentino, all of which are still around, for the record.

Cord was not strictly a boyfriend—although we did tango a bit at one point—but he was a close companion for more than a dozen years in the ’80s and beyond. We spent many an evening, talking and walking around West Hollywood—gossiping, wrangling and entertaining each other till the wee hours. Cordie was a “compassionate conservative,” for the record, but I was more concerned by the fact that he didn’t like Sondheim.

There’s a lot to say about Cord. Maybe if I ever write that screenplay about the Birthday Club, I’ll find the words. Our friendship petered out because, as mentioned, he was batshit crazy—paranoid and wildly insecure—and it got worse. Cord once stood outside my back door, eavesdropping, and overheard a conversation about himself that never took place—and that was early in the relationship. His signature phrase was, “What did he/she say about me?” It was never a good conversation to pursue.

I don’t remember how we fell out. The last time I saw him, I asked him to some event, out of the blue, and it did not go well. He was drinking quite a bit at that point, and I had to let it go.

CordRuthCBmid80sWbCr_10

Cord and Rudie at a Birthday Club meeting, circa mid-’80s.

At that time Cord owned a house in Van Nuys and was living with a roommate, which I perhaps mistakenly assumed was a financial arrangement. Years later, when the power of the Internet first compelled me to check up on him, I found him in Florida, writing for some business journal. There was a one-page Website advertising his services as a freelance writer but no photo or phone number. Paranoid to the end, I thought. It turned out to be prophetic.

Not surprisingly, Cord didn’t appear to be on Facebook, but when I plunked his name into the Google machine this time, nothing came up—no article, no Websites—mostly just listings of other men with his name. There were more than you might think, as, like Steve, he had a fairly common surname. Buried among the listings, I found a couple of 2011 news stories about a 59-year-old who’d been slain in a carjacking gone bad in Miami. No pictures of the victim, just mug shots of the two sulking teens who’d been charged with murder along with a 14-year-old. They had beaten, stabbed and strangled him before setting the car and the body on fire, a horrible thing. Was it our Cord? The age was right; the location close enough. I discussed it with C.B., and she asked the questions I was thinking. Had he argued with the carjackers? Had he been drinking?

The mandelbread came together perfectly, but it took a couple of hours, which left plenty of time between steps for idle speculation.

Maybe it’s significant that Steve never had the mandelbread. Maybe not. Maybe he’d never have dated the woman who makes it. No matter, as he seems to have faded to a footnote in my romantic oeuvre, which is either a very healthy thing or a sign of how long ago 45 years is.

Cord on the other hand, is still the occasional pause, usually when C.B. and I are waxing nostalgic about the Birthday Club days, mandelbread in hand, if not a stiff drink. With Cord there was always the tiny lingering hope that someday, somehow we would get to enjoy the best of him one more time, the neuroses mysteriously gone. That would have been too big a fairy tale even for the Brothers Grimm. Or Sondheim.

Confirmation that the Miami victim was my old friend came a couple of weeks later, when I found the police report, which described him as “a published freelance writer” and also “a gay man” (in case there was any lingering doubt about that).

So Cord died a death too awful to think about, although, sadly, I seem to be becoming immune to horrible news. In one week alone during the holiday season there were multiple mass murders, including the whacko who shot up the Colorado Planned Parenthood office and the whackos who shot up an employee gathering in San Bernardino, California, not very far from here. It’s getting very difficult to tell the whackos apart, even those who aren’t skinny white males.

By the time I got around to baking again, I’d eaten all the apricots; so the next lot of brot turned out to be cherry-pistachio. They were scrumptious, richer than the original recipe, thanks to the pistachios, and they were a hit at Christmas dinner, which is a tough crowd when it comes to baked goods. They were so tasty, in fact, that I hoarded the rest of them and barely managed to save a couple of pieces for my very best friend, who arrived on New Year’s Eve to help 2015 leave the building on an upward trajectory.

On a supernatural note, I can’t quash the thought that months after I finally click “Publish” on this, when I’ve completely forgotten, there will be an email, voicemail, Instagram or other message from beyond the grave: “So you thought you’d gotten rid of me, eh?” Cord will accuse. Then he’ll demand to know what everyone had said about him.

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