In our series, we send novelists out into the field to eat in restaurants and report back, as long as they file something that fits two criteria: It is a restaurant review; it is not a restaurant review. From there, they’re free to go wherever inspiration takes them.
It’s a Tuesday night and my husband and I are sitting in Cafe Azteca in Lawrence, Mass. We love Cafe Azteca. Their guacamole will make you lick the bowl. Their chips are warm and perfectly salted. Their wine pours are enormous. We are having dinner at Cafe Azteca because tomorrow morning I’m leaving for Bard College in New York, where I will be living through May. This is exciting—I’m going to Bard for a fellowship that will give me time to write—and also sad. I will miss my husband’s smile in the morning. A few other things I will miss: walking our lab puppy together, hearing the click of his keyboard as he works on a story, winter drives, drink dates, meals.
These days, I have been leaving a lot. I spent the fall teaching in Maine, coming home on the weekends, and now there’s New York. My husband and I are both writers and since most writers are almost always worried about money and time—making enough money, having enough time to write—there have been compelling reasons behind my recent moves: a good job at a good school, a once-in-a-lifetime fellowship. But there is also a cost. For one thing, I feel perpetually divided: I’m looking forward to New York, to the work I am going to try and do there, but I am also very tired of missing things.
Mary and Antonio have owned Cafe Azteca, on Common Street, since the nineties. Now they also have El Taller, a nearby cafe, coffee shop, and arts space. When we arrive, it’s quieter than usual—we are not the only ones who love Cafe Azteca, so they’re often slammed—but it’s also only 6:30 PM on a Tuesday. It’s like we’re practicing for being old! We’re seated right away and our server delivers a basket of those warm, perfectly salted chips and salsa. Mary is usually circulating the rooms, checking on tables. As it happens, she briefly studied creative writing with my husband, so we usually say hello and chat for a bit about writing and the literary programming she is developing at El Taller, but tonight Mary is not here. Maybe Tuesdays are always this quiet, or we’re here too early.
Drop me in the center of a roaring city, drop me in the middle of nowhere, but please, dear lord, do not drop me in the middle.
My husband I and do not live in Lawrence. We live 15 minutes away, in a town called Andover. Two years ago, we moved from Baltimore to Andover because my husband had landed a writer-in-residence job at a boarding school in town.
We admit to having entered into this situation with some reserve. Years ago, I went to graduate school in Boston, but we never had a car in the city, so the northern suburbs, such as Andover, were uncharted territory. I grew up in the suburbs. I do not care for the suburbs. Drop me in the center of a roaring city, drop me in the middle of nowhere, but please, dear lord, do not drop me in the middle. An overabundance of parking lots and storefronts that spell shop “shoppe” make me tense. When we first moved to Andover, I kept describing it to people as “frightfully clean.”
Lawrence, on the other hand, is across the Merrimack River from Andover and it is not frightfully clean. The first time we came over to Lawrence, I kept thinking about how it reminded me of the industrial parts of Baltimore: old factory buildings, quiet, low-lit streets, a little desolate. Lawrence also reminds me of Baltimore in that it is a city with problems. I used to say that Baltimore was like an erratic boyfriend who might show up at your door with flowers or might show up and punch you in the face. It’s anyone’s guess! A part of me misses living in a place that feels like a force, as opposed to a place that has been carefully designed to conceal all that is ugly and unfair about life. Baltimore is plainly fucked up and there is an honesty in that.
At Cafe Azteca, the service can be “leisurely” when they’re very busy, but when they’re quiet it tends to be pretty fast. Our drink order is taken and fulfilled promptly—my husband gets a Diet Coke, I get one of those enormous wines because fuck it, I’m moving tomorrow—and then it’s time to get down to the food. We start with the guacamole and then I order the shrimp fajitas because I dream about them when I’m not at Cafe Azteca and frankly can’t imagine ordering anything else. My husband orders a vegetable enchilada, so at least one of us is branching out. We’ve been together nonstop for the last six weeks, ever since my fall semester in Maine ended. We have been together for nearly 11 years, married for just over two, and, Maine notwithstanding, haven’t lived apart since our first year together, when I was living in Florida, where I’m from, and my husband was in New York. At Cafe Azteca, I can feel myself counting down to a time when meals like this will be a rarity.
Our guacamole comes out right away. When presented with a bowl of food, our lab puppy gulps it down like he’s been starving in a gulag and, since I haven’t eaten very much today, I approach the guacamole in a similar fashion. Yum. Our entrees come out soon after and even though I’m hungry, I’m a little sad our food has arrived so quickly. Since it’s the last dinner my husband and I are going to share for a little while, I wish our sever was less efficient and that the kitchen was backed up and that it was all taking a lot more time.
Just as I started to get comfortable, I started to leave.
My sadness is assuaged somewhat by the shrimp fajitas, which are perfect. The shrimp is juicy and beautifully spiced and hot and buttery. The rice makes me want to live on carbs alone forever. I put some rice and shrimp in a warm, soft tortilla with some onions and roasted peppers and a dollop of sour cream and a bit of pico de gallo and prepare myself to taste God. My husband pauses to offer me a bite of his enchilada, which is pleasingly cheesy and vegetable-y. Is that zucchini in there? Before long our plates have been cleared and our glasses are empty and the check has been paid and, again, I wish it hadn’t all happened so soon.
Back across the river, in Andover, we live on the boarding school campus, just up a hill from the frightfully clean town. The campus itself is very beautiful. There are sprawling quads and wooded trails and stately brick buildings that are especially fetching in the snow. My husband and I love walking our lab puppy around campus, watching him say hello to the students. His hellos are irrepressible, like Uncle Leo on Seinfeld. We love to take him on the wooded trails, to follow the path that leads us to a lake.
It took me a while to get comfortable on this campus. I had a bad patch as a teenager and didn’t finish high school and even though I’m now 31 and this is pretty distant history, living on a high school campus, surrounded by high school students, has me thinking about that period more than I might have otherwise. During our first term here, going to the dining hall by myself made me very nervous. “High school PTSD!” I joked to my husband as I clung to him by the salad bar. And then, just as I started to get comfortable, I started to leave.
Outside Cafe Azteca it’s cold and the streets are empty. We find the keys, start walking toward the car. We are preparing for departures, one immediate and one looming ahead. As usual, we’re parked across from a park. I always look through the trees and try to see if anything’s happening in there, but I can’t make out anything except the quiet.
Cafe Azteca, 180 Common St., Lawrence, Mass. Telephone: 978-689-7393. Hours: Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from noon to 9 p.m., Sunday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.