1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Turn on a podcast to listen to while you’re cooking, perhaps This American Life or RadioLab. Something to distract you a little, cushion the silence.
The first week after she died, you stayed up late watching Friends reruns, which you all used to watch together in college, and you ate nothing but saltines and store-bought cookies and fruit-flavored candy, so many Starbursts you got canker sores. But after that first week, you woke up with a panicked need to Make a Change, Improve Yourself, Learn Something New. Now, every Sunday you drive to the grocery store and load your cart with organic produce. You have smoothies for breakfast and salads for lunch and you slice carrots and celery and bell peppers into crayon-sized sticks, which you keep in your fridge to snack on throughout the day. You listen to podcasts as you drive around town, and as you fold the laundry, and as you cook dinner. You’ve learned about echolocation, WWE wrestling, Kenyan distance runners, hot-air-balloon bombs from World War II, and social experimentation on Facebook.
Your Facebook profile picture is the last photo you took with her, right before she caught her BART train to the airport. Your cheeks are pressed together. Your smiles are gigantic.
Since she died, you’ve started cooking more, trying out new recipes. This is your first time making lasagna.
3. Measure one cup of cottage cheese and pour into a blender or food processor. Pulse until smooth. Pour the cheese into a large mixing bowl and set aside. There’s no need to rinse out the blender.
4. Dice an onion, preferably a small red one. It would be a cliché to say that she was like an onion, so many layers, and difficult to get the outer layers peeled back. It would be a cliché, but it would also be true. You always thought that becoming friends with her was making a bargain with the universe: it would take at least fifty years to get past all the barriers and know her, truly know her, and therefore the two of you were guaranteed at least fifty years of friendship. Becoming friends with her was a long-term investment.
There were things you didn’t know about her. Secrets you figured she would reveal to you one day, when she was ready. Now you wish you had asked more. You always assumed that pressing for information would backfire, make her seal her lips tighter. But maybe. Maybe she would have answered.
Blink away the onion tears. You can’t remember ever seeing her cry, which bothers you. Surely you saw her cry, at some point? Surely you comforted her, at least once?
5. Sauté the diced onion in olive oil, along with minced garlic and chopped artichoke hearts. It’s okay if you use garlic that comes pre-minced, in a jar, and artichoke hearts from a can. Toss in a few handfuls of spinach too. Stir it all around. Cook for a few minutes, until the onion is translucent and the spinach is wilted.
On This American Life they are talking about “vocal fry.” They explain what it is—a “croaky voice”—but you can’t really hear it. Which is a good thing, because apparently vocal fry is annoying, and once you start to notice, it’s hard to stop noticing.
Will there come a day when you can’t remember her voice? Right now, you can hear her saying certain phrases very clearly: mostly silly things, inside jokes. How she used to pretend to be angry, shouting at you for being so dang pretty and smart and amazing, that she just couldn’t take it anymore. And you can picture her vividly, sitting across the small café table in the sunshine the last time you saw her alive, playfully batting her eyelashes at you, saying, “How is ze boyfriend?” with that teasing lilt, that French accent she would put on sometimes.
Ze boyfriend is good. He’s the one you’re making the lasagna for—he’s coming over tonight for dinner. He was supposed to meet her this summer. The two of you were planning a trip to Paris. Still are planning a trip to Paris. He just won’t meet her now.
6. Pour the onion-artichoke-spinach mixture into the blender and pulse until everything is chopped fine and mixed together.
You’ve informed ze boyfriend that while you are still excited about the romantic trip to Paris the two of you have been planning for months, there is a part of you that is scared to go.
Paris has always belonged to her.
When you met, she was already speaking fluent French and dreaming of becoming a fashion designer. Junior year of college, you both studied abroad—she in Paris, you a Chunnel-ride away in England. You took turns visiting each other. She took you to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the Sacré-Coeur, but what you remember most vividly are small details: walking on the cobblestones beside her, arms linked; running after her down the stairs to the Métro to catch a train; that tiny fondue restaurant where they inexplicably served wine in baby bottles. You remember clinking your bottles together, laughing as you put your lips on the teats. You felt so grown up, but looking back it’s clear: you were still babies then.
7. Remember that large mixing bowl from earlier, with the blended cottage cheese? Pour the onion-artichoke-spinach mixture into it. Add the rest of the cottage cheese, the normal, lumpy, non-blended kind. Mix well. Mix until your arm aches.
After graduation, she moved to Paris to attend fashion school, just like she always said she would. You’ve been to Paris one time since, to visit her. She lived a block away from the Canal Saint-Martin. Her apartment was on the sixth floor and there was no elevator; you had to walk up a narrow spiral staircase. It made you feel so European. And she seemed so European, with her French friends and French job and chic monochromatic clothing. That visit, she took you to off-the-beaten-path places you never would have known to look for: a ramen shop in the Japanese quarter, a mosque for mint tea, an outdoor market that you ran through in the rain.
Yet she was still her same self. She still used big gestures when she talked excitedly. Her wide smile was the same and her expressive eyes were the same and her brightly painted fingernails were the same. And her laugh was the same.
Will you ever forget her laugh? How could you? And yet, how could you not? You’re only twenty-seven; you’ve (hopefully) got years and years left to live. Years and years to live, without her. Years and years to forget things.
8. Get out a casserole pan, and pour a thin bed of marinara sauce in the bottom. Now time for the layering. Use those no-boil lasagna noodles; seriously, they turn out fine. If they don’t quite fit, break them into pieces, like crackers. Press them down into the sauce.
When she hugged you goodbye for the very last time, right before she caught her BART train to the airport, she said, “See you soon!” like she used to in college, when “soon” literally meant soon, meant in a few hours after we both get home from class, not in six months or maybe a year when we’re in the same country again.
It is impossible that she’s not a plane-ride away.
9. Scoop a layer of the spinach-artichoke mixture onto the noodles. Top with shredded mozzarella cheese. Top with more marinara sauce. Top with another layer of noodles. And repeat.
With each layer, think about something you want to tell her:
about how her brother was at the funeral and he’s doing great, walking and talking, expected to make a full recovery, it’s really a miracle;
about how Mark came and he looks so much older than he did in college, but he skulked around in the background just like he used to do at keg parties, and how you tried to talk to him because she would have wanted you to be nice, even though you felt extremely awkward and only lasted for a couple minutes before making an excuse and escaping to the bathroom;
about how you kept waiting for her to waltz into the funeral like a female Tom Sawyer and say, “Wait, it was all a stupid joke, it was all a big mistake! I’m here!” You had expected to feel that way. What you hadn’t expected was your heels-in-the-dirt dread of the funeral coming to an end. The funeral was sad and terrible and surreal, and the priest kept mispronouncing her name, but you wanted it to keep going on and on because when it was over, it would be time to say goodbye, like really say goodbye, forever, and you weren’t ready for that.
And you want to describe the cemetery to her, how it is beautiful and peaceful, and shares the same name as the street she grew up on. Holy Cross. And you want to tell her that you can’t go to Paris this summer, that you can’t imagine her city without her, that it’s probably best if you just cancel the trip. But you know what she would say. She would widen her eyes and fling her arms around and shout, “No, you have to go! Even more now than before, you must, you must!”
And so you will go. You will put a love lock on the Pont de l’Archevêché, for her. You imagine staring up at the Eiffel Tower, tears streaming down your face, and you must admit there is something soothing in the thought. Yes, in Paris she will feel closer than anywhere else. Maybe that will be a good thing.
10. Top the final layer of noodles with marinara sauce and shredded cheese. Don’t skimp on the cheese. The best part is how it gets all golden-brown and bubbly on top. Now slide the whole thing into the oven and bake for forty minutes.
It’s strange that she has all the answers now. She knows the answers to those Big Questions you occasionally talked about in college, those answerless questions about God and faith and life and death that wound their way through your skulls, extending outward into your hazy, dim futures, the bigness scaring you sometimes so you had to turn on an episode of Friends to settle yourselves down, dropping back into the comforting, small, daily-life questions, like whether you could pull off the high-waisted shorts trend, or a laundry list of activities that Plaid-Shorts Guy might be doing that was preventing him from texting you back, or if Mark would ever stop pining and sulking around the edges of your friendship group like a wounded puppy dog.
You want to ask her if she had a split second of awareness before the bus slammed broadside into their taxi. Did she know it was the end? Or was it just another moment in a seemingly infinite string of such moments, a brother visiting a sister, heading home from dinner? One moment she was turning to ask him a question, the next moment nothing. Killed instantly means no pain, right? You want her assurance that she didn’t feel any pain. You want her to hold your hand and tell you she’s okay. Each night when you go to sleep, you hope you might talk to her in your dreams, but it hasn’t happened yet.
11. If the lasagna burns or those no-boil noodles fail to soften, toss the whole thing into the trash and make macaroni and cheese.
On her twenty-first birthday, you made two boxes of mac and cheese before you all headed out to the bars to celebrate. You packed it into a huge plastic container and slid it into the fridge to await your return.
And when you did return, hours later, she was very drunk and very hungry, just as you’d known she would be. You all sat around her as she ate that cold mac and cheese straight out of the plastic container. You made her drink water. You stroked her hair. And she, The Birthday Girl, for once let you all take care of her.
“This is so good!” she said as she ate. “Thank you so much for doing this!”
“You’re welcome. Glad you like it.” And you smiled a little to yourself, taking a mental snapshot of this night—May fourth, just a couple weeks before graduation, in a messy apartment in the middle of Los Angeles, surrounded by your very best friends.
How is it possible she only had five more birthdays left? How is it possible the first time you would all reunite post-graduation would not be for a wedding or a baby shower, but her funeral?
Just babies, you were back then. There was so much you did not know.
Yet, you did know enough to recognize that it was a night you would remember. The way she sat on the carpet, legs sprawled, wearing that gorgeous navy-blue chiffon dress she had designed and sewn herself. The way she ate that macaroni and cheese out of that giant plastic container with a grateful contented smile on her face. You knew it would be a story you would tell and retell.
And you were right. It is.
Even more now than before, it is, it is.
Dallas Woodburn, a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, has published work in Zyzzyva, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. Her debut short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress recently won the 2018 Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming from Yellow Flag Press. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won first place in the international Glass Woman Prize and second place in the American Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org.