Two weeks ago I rounded a corner at the end of Bridgeport Village, an outdoor shopping center slightly south of Portland, Oregon, with my clunky Uppababy stroller. I jammed the wheel on the edge of the AT&T store, sending my 20-month-old daughter Sophie whiplashing forward for the tenth time that day. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I muttered as I adjusted the wheels back onto the sidewalk. Until the past couple of COVID-easing months, the bulky pram was only used on daily walks through our rural neighborhoods, free of tight turns and narrow lanes. My child was a certified toddler, and I still couldn't get in and out of a doorway. It was one of many skills us first-time quarantine parents have failed to master, as our worlds failed to expand out of the tiny newborn sphere.
Around the faulty corner I found a surprise: Choza Cantina, a Mexican restaurant I'd last visited when I was still pregnant. A lunch date with a friend, one of many I tried to squeeze in before my ticking time bomb went off. I didn't expect to see it still here, just as I didn't expect to see anything from Before still standing. Returning to my most familiar places from the Before times was like crawling out of a fallout shelter and taking stock. So many legendary Portland establishments had vanished in the wake of the virus—the places helmed by Top Chefs and Food Network darlings, which seemed immortal in their time. I held my breath every time I Googled a favorite, steeling myself against the likely Permanently Closed listing caveat.
Not only was Choza still in business, it was open. Patio tables lined the sidewalk, generously spaced to keep up the perception of safety. All but one, occupied by middle-aged sisters, was vacant. The most impossible idea clicked on: we could eat here.
Sophie had technically been to a restaurant, back when she was a month old in October 2019. She was still in her sleepy newborn phase, only awake for a few precious hours a day to peek out into her new world. My husband and I had my birthday lunch at Din Tai Fung, gambling that she wouldn't wake up before we could stuff our faces with three rounds of dumplings.
I poked my head inside the lobby, letting the stroller idle outside the door. A year and a half after our last meal, and I wasn't ready to take her inside. Mask restrictions had eased by decree of the CDC, but like all children under 12, Sophie wasn't eligible to receive a vaccine. Fortunately it was a slow weekday, and a hostess gestured for us to take a seat on the patio. She's going to get us menus, I thought, harkening back to the ancient forgotten ritual. She'll bring us anything on them. AN-Y-THING.
I pulled the stroller up to the table, not sure exactly how we did this. Was she supposed to stay in the stroller? Sit on my lap? Was she old enough for one of the restaurant high chairs? And I realized, I didn't know what we were supposed to do in the downtime. I hadn't packed any toys or books or other convenient distractions. This was a bizarre unplanned outing in a year of reservations. Each incremental movement we'd made together was pre-arranged. Our trip to the zoo. Our grocery pick-up. The afternoon at the pumpkin patch. To spontaneously see a place and sit down at it was a sheer impossibility only a matter of months ago. Now that it was suddenly an option, I realized that I actually didn't know how.
As a quarantine parent, you spent a year frantically calculating what your child was missing out on. I mourned the loss of our weekly baby group, our errands I spent baby-wearing her in a snug carrier, and our visits to see Grandma and Grandpa. I feared that she'd never get a chance to run through a park or get sick on cake and ice cream at a birthday party. I didn't realize the practical knowledge I was missing out on as a mom.
The waitress returned with my giant list of tacos and cocktails, and a bowl of chips. "Do you want a high chair?" she asked, and I made my game-time decision. "No, I think the stroller's fine." She was cozy in her familiar seat, eyeballing the tortilla strips just shy of arm's length. I snapped them into Goldfish-sized pieces and made one-sided conversation over the options.
"Look how sweet she is!" I heard one of the women gush to the other from 12 feet down. I felt my shoulders slack; I was fitting in. Maybe we looked like we'd done this before.
I ordered my tacos and her miniature quesadilla, and watched my daughter carefully wedge the chips into her mouth one by one, like puzzle pieces. This wasn't what it was like eating at home. Around the kitchen table with the wedged-up high chair and dirty Goldfish cracker graveyard rug, were no serene smiles, no pomegranate margarita delivered to my palm. There was the grind of picking an acceptable option out of the fridge, the mess, the throwing, the dishes. Eating together was a chore, not a luxury. As parents, were going on two years without a break. No babysitters, no date nights, no reprieves. The idea of shifting the burden, even for one single meal, was revolutionary. Without the burden of providing, I was enjoying food with my daughter for the first time in our brief shared lives.
"Cheese!" I said, wedging a molten, trailing slice of quesadilla from her warm plate. She repeated this one of twenty vocabulary words back, her bottom teeth flashing in a big, unbridled smile. The kind we live for. I speared bites of carne asada and carnitas on my fork for her to try, and to both our delights, she was happy to oblige. "I'll have to make you some of my own," I said to her in a one-sided conversation that felt strangely shared. "I've got a recipe for carnitas from The Grand Central Market Cookbook that's to die for."
After about half an hour, she was beginning to get squirmy. I let her sit on my lap as I signed the check, a well-earned reward for her remarkable patience. I swept her crumbs into my palm and packed the spare triangles up in a box for bonus effort-free dinner. I felt like I'd just pulled off a heist.
Right before I was about to return her to the stroller to depart, the pair of sisters paused a few feet from our table, waving at Sophie with smile-eyes behind their masks. "She's so well-behaved," they marveled, and I felt proud enough to explode into glitter and Cotija.
It is so beautiful to be seen with your child. For over a year she's been a secret from the world, deprived not only of the familiar relatives doting, but of these small, fleeting, random moments of connection. Being told by the barista, the hair stylist, the other person crossing the street that damn, you did good. At giving birth, picking out a great outfit at Nordstrom Rack, just wrangling both of you out of the house to bring a modicum of cuteness to someone else's weekday. There is little thanks at this job, and you collect that validation like coins to press between your fingers when the going, once again, gets ordinary.
This afternoon became so much more than our first lunch out together. It was the first time we dined together for joy, and for friendship. In the wake of the pandemic we were late and stumbling and still learning how to be out in this world, but we'd figure it out. We were so, so lucky for the chance to figure it out. Kindling the lifetime ahead of us, and the thousands of ways that I will gift her my passion for food. Letting that delight reverberate out around us, making our small place in this world ever-so-slightly brighter than the way we'd found it. And through this I found myself, impossibly I would have thought, falling even more in love with her.