Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

When Winter Gives You Lemons . . .

Make savory salmon with tangy citrus butter

Story and Photograph by Jasmine Comer

Years ago, I had a culinary revelation — citrus fruits reign supreme in the depths of winter or when it simply won’t go away in March. How could a season so dark and chilly yield fruits so bright and tangy? How could such vivid sweetness thrive in a season painted in shades of gray? I had always associated lemons with summer and my seasonal childhood fav — ice-filled fresh lemonade. Nature never ceases to amaze me and, while I can’t explain why things are the way they are, I do know that every savory dish needs a dash of acidity. When I was preparing this recipe, I was reminded of a book by Samin Nosrat called Salt Fat Acid Heat. Nosrat believes that if you can master those four elements, you can master the kitchen. The trick? Balance — that delicate dance of flavors and textures. When done right, balance creates unforgettable meals, the kind your senses recall at their very mention. This recipe reminds me of that profound truth.

Salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, salted and seared, then basted in citrus butter, creates a melody of acidity and fat — and, of course, salt and heat —  that will delight your tastebuds. Even though this recipe is specifically for salmon, the citrus butter would also add a rich, zesty flavor to any type of vegetable, or even your favorite poultry or fish. Imagine roasted broccoli bathed in melted citrus butter or succulent roasted chicken with a tangy twist. I’m drooling already! Don’t be afraid to add fresh herbs such as earthy rosemary, which would also play nicely with the acidity of the citrus. Experiment — Meyer lemons would add a sweeter flavor, while grapefruits pair perfectly with rosemary, which happens to be readily available throughout the Southern winter. Rosemary salmon with grapefruit butter? Yes, please. This recipe is an invitation to let your creativity sizzle. You can’t go wrong, no matter how ya slice it.

Salmon with Citrus Butter

Ingredients

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound salmon with skin attached, cut into 4-ounce filets

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh herbs for serving

Citrus Butter

1 stick salted butter, softened

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon lime zest

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons fresh orange juice

Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season the salmon lightly with salt and pepper.

Place the salmon skin side up in the skillet and cook for 3-4 minutes. Then flip and cook for 2-4 more minutes depending on the thickness of the salmon.

Meanwhile, place all the ingredients for the butter in a small bowl and mix until thoroughly combined.

Once the salmon is almost done cooking, reduce the heat to low and add a couple tablespoons of the citrus butter to the skillet, basting the salmon with the butter as it finishes cooking for about 2 more minutes.

Top with fresh herbs of your choice (I used cilantro). Serve immediately.  OH

Jasmine Comer is the creator of Lively Meals, a food blog where she shares delicious, everyday recipes. You can find her on Instagram @livelymeals.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Waffling?

A surprising engagement

By Cassie Bustamante

I don’t like surprises — unless I suspect they’re coming — in which case, it’s no longer actually a surprise, eh? I am 100 percent that person who will go snooping in my husband’s side of the closet, riffling through his drawers as a stratagem to keep myself totally unsurprised. Chris has known this from early on in our relationship and has mastered the workaround.

So let’s rewind to Christmas, 2002, when we’d been together for almost three years — three years that involve me hopping from North Carolina to Tennessee, from Texas to Louisiana, following him around while living in sin. After dropping hints for almost two years, I decide it’s time to put a ring on it. When you know, you know.

But Chris, ever the practical Virgo, likes to have things clearly mapped before making big moves. Me? Once I’ve made up my mind, I leap and figure out the rest on the way.

When he asks me for Christmas gift ideas that year, I hand-write an elaborate list that reads something like this: “waffle iron, The Nanny Diaries, ring, bread machine, In Her Shoes, ring, J. Crew top, ring. . . ” On it goes, an exhaustive list of things he knows are marginal — kitchen appliances, books I can buy myself, random items of clothing — and the thing I really want repeated so many times it can’t be missed.

We’re spending our first Christmas alone, just the two of us and our beagle, Charlie. Chris is working and can’t get away to visit the parents and I’ve opted to stay with him in our New Orleans apartment. But I am OK with it because I know my ring is coming and, while I’m certainly not getting a Lexus, it’s going to be “a December to remember.”

In fact, a mysterious package — with “Do not open until Christmas” in his mom’s handwriting — arrives earlier in the month for Chris. I think I know what’s inside, but there’s no way to stealthily open and reseal it. Trust me, I would if I could.

On Christmas Eve, we share a romantic meal I’ve prepared of duck à l’orange, whipped rosemary mashed potatoes, a simple tossed salad and warm, crusty rolls. We pair it with a chilled pinot grigio. For dessert, a decadent apple pie. The apartment smells of citrus and cinnamon, just as it should at the holidays.

Christmas morning comes and I drag Chris out of bed, anticipating the diamond awaiting me. Instead, I unwrap every single book, sweater and kitchen gadget from my list. What’s not there? A ring.

Disappointed, I distract myself by breaking in the brand-new waffle iron, a top-notch Williams-Sonoma one at that, but this meal is not like the night before. I’m quietly fuming, the air of romance evaporated.

“Everything OK?” Chris asks.

“Fine,” I offer. It’s the answer I give when everything is, in fact, anything but.

He looks at me, but I avoid eye contact. “Anything I can do?”

“Nope.”

We clean up in silence and Chris tells me he’s going to shower.

“Fine,” I mutter again and slink to the sofa to pout while sappy Christmas movies featuring happily married couples play on the TV.

Fifteen minutes later, I hear Chris enter the room, but don’t look up.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do to make you feel better?” he asks.

“Nope,” I repeat. “Nothing.”

He approaches the couch and stands over me. “How about this?” In his hand he holds a small black box. Inside is a simple gold band with a single diamond. His great-grandmother’s, he tells me.

Holding back tears, I punch him in the arm, saying, “You’re such a jerk, but I love you.” He smirks, pleased with himself that he’s managed to surprise me after all.

As I write this story, I have to laugh at myself. I wouldn’t marry me — I was the jerk. But, 22 years later, we’re still going strong. So is our waffle iron. Some things were just made to last.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Starting Over

The magic of wiping the slate clean — at any time

By Cassie Bustamante

A new year is the perfect time to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start. Over 20 years ago, I learned just how to do it in Austin, Texas.

In 2002, Chris, now my husband, and I moved to a new apartment on the north side of the city, relocating for his job with Abercrombie & Fitch. His role as district manager came with perks, including a brand-new company car. And not just any vehicle. It was my dream car: a Jeep Wrangler.

He traveled a lot for work and when he left one weekend for an out-of-state business trip, unbeknownst to the powers-that-be at A&F, he handed me the keys to his ride.

With Jimmy Eat World blaring from the speakers and the soft top rolled down, I blissfully cruised south like a Texas cowgirl without a care in the world to the now defunct Highland Mall, where I’d taken a job as a manager for J.Crew. Being new, I was determined to make a good impression despite it being a boring job.

My hours on the clock ticked slowly by. Finally, 5 p.m. struck and my shift was over. Freedom, the kind you feel when you’re blissfully young and the wind rushes through your hair, awaited. However, when I stepped out of the mall doors, dark gray, threatening clouds were rolling in.

Chris hadn’t shown me how to put the Jeep’s soft top back up before he’d jetted off, but how hard could it be? I did my best and was pretty sure I had it right. Five miles along at a clip of 75 mph, the rain about to burst from the clouds, the front of the vehicle roof caught the wind, reared up into the air like a hand waving at incomers and nearly ripped right off the Jeep. Whoops.

I pulled over and wrestled with it. And it wrestled back. (I’m a writer and not an engineer for many reasons.) In the end, I limped home with sweat instead of wind in my hair, grasping the steering wheel with one hand and barely managing to hold the roof in place with the other hand as rain began to pelt the top.

Back at our apartment and feeling like a royal idiot, my arm tingled and ached, and I dreaded calling Chris to tell him that rain had soaked the seats — surely the Texas heat would have them dry in no time, right? So I didn’t. Instead, I poured myself a glass of wine and decided tomorrow was another day, and I’d be driving my own car, a reliable, practical Volkswagen Jetta. But sometimes the universe has a good laugh at our expense, doesn’t it?

The next day, as I began my 20-minute trek to the mall, I felt a sudden thud, thud, thud. A flat tire. Are you kidding me? Once again, I resisted calling Chris, but I did manage to convince a good friend of his, a fellow Demon Deacon who lived nearby, to come to my rescue, giving me a lift to work while my car was being towed into a garage.

Sweaty and flustered, I arrived to the store late, immediately hopping on the sales floor. As it turned out, I was scheduled with my favorite associate. Pam was a woman in her mid-30s, who seemed older and wiser to my naive 22-year-old self.

Reading my expression, Pam offered a calming smile and asked if everything was alright. On the verge of tears, the words spilled out in a jumble: the roof nearly ripped off Chris’ brand new Jeep in the rain and then the flat tire. The floodgates opened and I told her about the immense isolation I felt in a city where I knew no one with Chris being frequently away and my not wanting to bother him. And what was going to happen next? “It’s just been a really bad 24 hours,” I said.

Pam looked at me, her face serene and soothing. “Take a deep breath and just start over,” she said. “Right now.”

Just start over? That’s your solution?

Seeing bewilderment on my face, Pam nodded encouragingly. “Yep, just start over,” she said. “You know, I’m a recovering alcoholic. And on my journey to sobriety, there were days that I’d slip, but it didn’t mean that things couldn’t get better, that it was over for me. Because the beauty of starting over is that you can do it any time.” She paused. “Like right now.”

I took a deep breath. I hadn’t been hurt. Nor were either of the cars permanently damaged. Chris would be back tomorrow, and I sure had one good friend who knew just what to say.

Three children later and a long list of things gone awry that have proved to be so much worse than a flat tire or a cantankerous Jeep top, Pam’s comforting words and her serene smile have come back to me many times.

Just start over. Right now. Wise words from a woman who understood and had lived their meaning.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Breaking the Friendship (Blow) Mold

A tacky piece of nostalgia glows in remembrance

By Cassie Bustamante

As a former vintage home store owner, I love all things vintage Christmas. Atomic-era tinsel trees? Yes, please! Shiny Bright ornaments? My attic screams, “Got those!” Bottlebrush trees? I have as many as Ariel has thingamabobs: 20. Actually, probably more. But one quintessential decoration that dominated the ’50s and ’60s holiday scene I’ve never been terribly fond of: blow molds. That is, until recently. As it turns out, the tackiest tchotchke can light up the temporal lobe of your brain, where the fondest memories live, long after a loss.

What are blow molds, you ask? The tawdriest of yuletide kitsch, they are generally large, hollow, plastic figurines, designed to be used outside on lawns, porches or rooftops, in the shape of snowmen, Santa, angels, candy canes, you name it. And, you guessed it, they’re illuminated from within, like glowworms.

Sarah, my shop co-owner, and I agreed on most things. In fact, in our almost five-year partnership, we never had a real dispute and we understood the rarity of that. What we did have was a mutual sarcastic, dark sense of humor. We shared snarky inside jokes that only we understood; 10-hour road trips to the beach, just the two of us and our combined lot of four kids; a love for ’80s songs. Without fail, every time she walked in the shop’s front door, I’d serenade her with Jefferson Starship’s “Sara.”

We were not exactly twins. Physically, Sarah, whose sandy-brown hair cascaded in natural waves, was much shorter. When we’d try to move furniture around the shop together, she’d remind me that she had “T-rex arms” and couldn’t wrap herself around long dressers like I could with my own, which are unusually long. While we both valued fitness, she was devoted to her gym routine and lifted weights, and I relished in long, solo runs.

And Christmas? We both whole-heartedly loved the season — the music, the vintage decor, the cozy wool sweaters. We ran full-speed-ahead when it came to decorating our shop for the holidays. Bowls were filled with shimmering ornaments. Lights were strung throughout, draping over gilded gesso mirrors and winding around vintage flocked trees. And every year in the late summer and early fall, we’d roll up in our SUVs, trunks full of holiday finds to sprinkle throughout. Much to my dismay — Sarah’s truck would always haul in a stash of blow molds.

Sarah would walk in and sheepishly grin at me, knowing the disdain I held for their cheap, plastic aura. But, I knew, this store was not mine — it was ours. And while nothing, of course, comes to mind, I probably brought in some dreck Sarah wasn’t especially fond of. Maybe.

In 2016, both of us ready to move on, we made the tough decision to sell our store. She wanted to get back to the career she’d abandoned when she’d had her kids. And I wanted to add another babe to my own brood. With gratitude for what we’d built together, we let it go, selling it to a pair of sisters who’ve taken it farther than we’d ever hoped.

Of course, we stayed in touch and got together when her work schedule allowed. She came to my shower when I did, indeed, carry another baby, Wilder, in my belly and she gave me some of my favorite onesies, complete with humorous wordplay: “gangsta napper,” for example. Shortly after he was born, we moved to Greensboro. Again, Sarah and I kept in touch as time allowed, often via texts laced with those jokes that only we would understand.

Then, in October of 2021, Sarah died suddenly. And though my iPhone incessantly tells me I need to clean out or upgrade my storage, I keep our text chain. One message, in particular, stands out.

Me: “Just wanted to say hi and I miss you — I think of you more than I make the effort to message you. Sweet Clover [our shop] feels like another lifetime.”

Sarah: “I could have written this text, too. Think of you all the time and our hijinks.”

As Christmas approaches this year, I spend many evenings cruising my Starmount neighborhood with my family, admiring the blinking and glittering lights and yard decorations throughout. And every time we pass a vintage blow mold, its warm glow of red, white and green mocks me with the playful sarcasm of a close friend.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Cold Turkey

A first-time Thanksgiving cook’s frozen failure

By Cassie Bustamante

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always a big family affair. Dad’s dad had six siblings and they’d all be there with their kids, who also had kids. My older brother, Dana, and I were the eldest of our generation, and we had to sit at the dreaded kids table, where we made sure none of our little cousins shoved peas up their noses.

During high school, Dana and I graduated from the kids table, but it was a decade later when I hosted my first Thanksgiving in New Orleans that I finally felt like an adult.

Because Chris works in retail management and will be schlepping it to the mall on Black Friday, dreams of the classic Thanksgiving return “home” — to either my or his parents — are dashed. Dana, who lives in Los Angeles, decides to visit our little family so he can spend time with his 1-year-old nephew, Sawyer.

While I am sure Mom and Dad will miss seeing their first grandchild, they’re glad we’re spending the holiday together. And I know we will miss them — and Mom’s pecan rolls. One thing I won’t miss? Having to stare at one of Dad’s favorite sides on the table: the jiggling, can-shaped, gelatinous cranberry sauce, ribs still visible.

Since I am the chef de cuisine, I delight in crafting my own menu: a cooked-to-nut-brown-perfection turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, haricot vert spiked with lemon and garlic, glazed maple carrots, a simple salad — always a great palate cleanser between bites — and pillowy, golden rolls. And no canned cranberry sauce. For dessert, rich, silky pumpkin cheesecake.

We hit the grocery store the weekend before, like every other bayou shopper and purchase a sensibly small bird in advance, which goes into the freezer for safekeeping.

The day before Turkey Day, Chris plays on the floor with Sawyer while I follow the steps of a Food Network pumpkin cheesecake recipe. I pop it in oven to bake and lick the spatula.

“Do we even need anything else?” I ask no one in particular. “Can’t we just sit around the table with cheesecake? I mean, that’s what the Golden Girls always do.” Lost in the delight of the batter and the excitement of my big brother arriving that evening, I take my eye off the ball. The ball being the ice-bound Butterball.

The morning of Thanksgiving, I wake from a dead sleep at 6 a.m., fully aware of what I’ve done — or, more accurately, not done. “Oh, no!” I yell. “We forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer!”

I rush to the kitchen in my pajamas as Chris groggily drags behind me. I yank the bird from the freezer, slamming it on the counter with a rock-solid thud and look exasperatedly at him. “Now what? Thanksgiving is ruined!!!”

“Let’s just give it a water bath,” Chris answers calmly, adept at handling my (over)reactions. “Fill the sink and we’ll put it in there and just keep changing the water. It will thaw more quickly that way.”

Fill, drain, repeat — every 15 minutes. After the first hour, the turkey is frighteningly firm. When the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade begins to roll, I can just about poke a finger into it. I imagine my parents, the smell of turkey wafting through their home, while, down in New Orleans, their daughter spends the day giving a turkey a bath.

But Chris and Dana assure me they’ll be happy to eat whenever the turkey is ready. “I hope you like a big meal for breakfast then, because it’s looking like tomorrow morning,” I lament.

To my surprise, our diligence pays off. Hours later, around 4 p.m., our bird is oven-ready and, because it’s small, cooks quickly. The four of us finally gather around the table. I pour us each — except for the baby, of course — a large glass of pinot grigio. “Cheers,” I say. “I’m grateful for so much — your visit, for one, Dana — but mostly that we’re eating at 7:30 p.m., a very respectable mealtime.

I look around the table at our little crew. With Dana and Chris across from me, and Sawyer in his high chair beside me, it’s a far cry from those big family gatherings of my youth. But, even with my frozen faux-pas — maybe especially because of it — I know that we’re creating new memories.

After putting Sawyer to bed, Dana, Chris and I gather ’round one more time for a 10 p.m. cheesecake session. I don’t care how stuffed I still am. Sweatpants were made for this.

“Mmmmm . . . ,” we all groan contentedly.

Since then, I’ve not once forgotten to thaw the turkey. Of course, that’s probably because I no longer eat — or cook — it. Too traumatic. But pumpkin cheesecake? There’s always room for that.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Through the Wringer

Laughter, rinse, repeat

By Cassie Bustamante

Questionable choices? I’ve made a few. After all, I’ve been known to snip my own bangs when I get bored, despite the fact that my husband, Chris, thinks they’re “awkward”. I’ve attempted to pop deep pimples even though the results are always the same — a bigger blemish with a scab on top. The last time I did that, I even pointed to it as I said to Chris, “I will learn nothing from this.”

But I’ve been known to make good decisions, too — like when I walked down the aisle — bangless, mind you — to marry Chris 20 years ago in late September, 2003. I know this to be true, because I’ve put him through the wringer in the two decades since saying “I do.” In fact, just a month or so after our nuptials, I tested the waters, accidentally, and discovered just how my new husband would handle a costly slip-up.

That fall, I was employed as a personal trainer at Cross Gates Athletic Club, a family-friendly gym in Slidell, Louisiana. As is often the case in that profession, I worked split shifts, training in the early- to mid-morning hours and again in the evening.

On one particular morning, my stomach churns, a cacophony of gurgling, rumbling sounds. You know the ones. I rush home for my midday break, parking my car in the driveway, certain I’ll pop some Pepto and be back on my feet. But things get progressively worse and the realization strikes: I’ve been hit with food poisoning.

I call into the gym to cancel any remaining appointments and decide to move my car, a standard transmission VW Jetta, into the garage since I won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Once in the driver’s seat, I turn the key in the ignition, catching a blur of activity in the corner of my eye. In my unwell haze, I’ve not fully closed the door from the kitchen to the garage, and Charlie, our Houdini-like beagle, has spied his opportunity for freedom, shoving the door fully open with his snout.

In my panic, I drop the clutch and the Jetta jolts forward, crashing right into our washing machine. Stunned, I glance back at the kitchen door, but Charlie is nowhere to be found.

After turning the car off, I dash inside and find him trembling under our bed on the complete opposite end of the house. He’s petrified, but at least he’s safe.

Back in the garage, I stare at the washing machine in disbelief. Nervously, I dial Chris.

“Hey, so . . . um . . . I kind of ran my car into the washing machine,” I tell him, explaining the events that led to the collision.

There’s a pregnant pause as I prepare for his wrath. Instead, he explodes in laughter. Once he’s able to speak again, he asks, “OK, well, does it still work?”

“Lemme check. Oooooh, yes! Water is running!” I pause. “Scratch that, all the water is coming out at the bottom.”

“OK, well, it’s no big deal,” he says. “We’ll go get a new washing machine this weekend,” he continues. “You’re all right and so is Charlie.” Another giggle escapes his lips and I picture him on the other end of the line, shaking his head.

A week later, as Sears delivers our brand-new machine with the bonus free haul-away service for the old appliance, the driver says, “I’m not even going to ask what happened.”

But I’ll tell you what happened. I discovered that I’d married a man who would help me find the lightness in tough situations and be by my side “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” with bangs or without. And while appliances can come with a high price tag, knowing I’ve chosen a great partner is priceless.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Little Orphan Cassie

The curtain opens on a world of possibility

By Cassie Bustamante

Live theater has had a piece of my heart for almost as long as I can remember. My love affair, especially with musicals, began the summer I turned 6. My mom had taken me to see Annie at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. There, I discovered theater has the power to bring dreams to life.

Before that moment, I’d seen the movie and played the album on my Fisher Price record player, singing along while putting myself in Annie’s tattered orphan shoes. Our family dog, a golden retriever named Butterscotch — far from a mangy street mutt — often found himself locked in my bedroom so that I could pretend he was following me, just like Sandy followed Annie.

Once, I tried to sit in my bedroom window to look woefully out at the sky while musically musing, “Maybe far away, or maybe real nearby . . . ” As the window screen gave to the pressure of my leaning body, my feet caught on the very sill I’d been perched on, holding me in place as the rest of me dangled dangerously a story above our driveway. My older brother, Dana, heard my cries and pulled me back in. (And yes, my parents had told me over and over to stay away from the windows, but when it came to being Annie, I followed no one’s rules.)

“As far as I was concerned, you could have had a much less healthy obsession,” my mom recalls. “You were happy being Annie and acting and singing, so, why not?” Plus, she adds, “It was entertaining.” A talented seamstress, she had sewn me my very own red-and-white dress, just like Annie’s. And, along with those live show tickets, my parents had given me a golden, heart-shaped, broken locket for my birthday.

I knew the songs. I had the locket, the dress and the black, patent-leather shoes. There was just one major problem: my hair. It was long, straight and dirty-blonde, a far cry from a headful of fiery red ringlets.

But in that Ogunquit theater during the final moments of the curtain call, something I’d never imagined was possible happened. After clapping enthusiastically for the actors who played Daddy Warbucks, Miss Hannigan, Grace, Punjab and the other orphans, the last actor emerged to receive her applause. Alyson Kirk, who played the role of Annie, walked to centerstage and whipped off her curly-haired wig to reveal a mane of straight hair that wasn’t red at all.

“Look!” I gasped, telling my mom what this meant for me. “I can be Annie!” In that moment, I realized that in the world of theater, anything is possible.

Now, as a mother, there’s nothing I want more than for my kids to see that their own worlds can stretch as far as their imaginations can reach.

Last year, my husband, Chris, and I introduced our youngest, Wilder, to live theater at the Tanger Center — first, to Paw Patrol Live for his 4th birthday. Then, in September, it was off to Blue’s Clues & You Live.

A week before the Blue’s Clues tour stop in Greensboro, I had a chance to chat with Josh Blackburn, producer of Round Room Live, the company responsible for bringing many Nickelodeon and licensed kids’ shows to life onstage all over the world. Like many of us, his own love for musical theater began during his childhood, evolving into a passion “to show kids opportunity” through his work.

Blackburn says his “favorite part” is watching kids enjoy his live shows, and I understand why. Chris and I were more enthralled by Wilder’s reaction to Blue and company than by what was actually happening on stage, despite the “huggable” and “larger than life puppets.” And it wasn’t just us. Looking around that theater, the faces of many-a-parent were aglow with wonder as they watched their own little ones sing along, dance and dream.

We walked out of the theater together that day, holding hands as we stepped into a world that was, indeed, our oyster.

At 45, I’ve long since outgrown the red-and-white dress and black patent-leather shoes. I’ve said good-bye to my beloved Butterscotch. The broken heart-shaped locket has been lost, perhaps now another child’s treasure. But, until my final curtain call, I am going to continue to let my imagination run wild in this world — with or without a red, curly-haired wig.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

A Wilder Bond

A friendship rooted in fiction is formed

By Cassie Bustamante

While reading is generally a solitary activity, it invites us to feel less alone in this world. Books connect us to writers and the characters they create, to other places and times, real or imaginary. And in the very best situations, they bring us closer to our family and friends, and, sometimes, even help us make new friends.

It’s August of 2022, and I’ve signed up my youngest, Wilder, for “Bugs, Bees & Butterflies” camp at the Miriam P. Brenner Children’s Museum. My husband, Chris, has been tasked with day-one drop-off, which he reports as being tearful and traumatic — mostly for him. I am used to being the parent who handles first-day-of-anything jitters.

But then he says something that makes my ears perk up: “There’s another Wilder in his group.”

“What?” I ask, astonished. I’ve given each of my children, Sawyer, Emerson and Wilder, a literary name because I wanted to put my hard-earned English degree to use somehow. But even more so, I chose uncommon names. I have to know who this woman is that named her son Wilder.

That afternoon at pickup, I wait to see who signs out “the other Wilder” and make a mental note to strike up conversation with her the next day.

As I wait in line for the camp door to open the following afternoon, I see her approach. Never one who has suffered from shyness, I say, “Hi! So, are you the mom who also has a Wilder?”

She’s wearing a mask, but I can see her smile reflected in her blue eyes, which sparkle against a thick mane of auburn hair. “Yes,” she answers cheerfully. “That’s me!”

I introduce myself and discover her name, Mallory, and learn that their family recently moved to Greensboro from California. And more importantly, I find out that my son is three weeks older, so I named my child Wilder first. And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit I feel a little victorious knowing that. Our friendly chatter breaks up as we head our separate ways, but I’ve already decided that this person is someone I might really like to get to know. But there’s just one question I want answered first.

“How did you come up with the name Wilder?” I ask her the next afternoon while we wait for our kiddos to be released.

Mallory looks at me a little sheepishly and replies with another question. “Have you ever read White Noise?”

White Noise by Don DeLillo!?!” I exclaim. “It was only my favorite book of my college career!”

I don’t recall too much of the actual book — just that I loved it — because it’s been over 20 years and the Netflix movie hadn’t premiered yet. I certainly don’t remember that there was a character named Wilder. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen a peek into Mallory’s soul by knowing what books she reads.

In return, she asks how I settled on “Wilder.” I explain that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a favorite author of mine as a child. Though from very different sources, both of us selected book-fluenced names.

One year later, our friendship is going strong. Our sons lovingly refer to one another as “the other Wilder.” We meet often for wilderness walks and park play so that the boys can explore and do what kids do, while Mallory and I carry on deep — though often interrupted —  conversations. We half-jokingly dream of writing our own series of children’s books based on our outings called “The Adventures of the Wildest Wilders.” And maybe, if we’re lucky, one day those books will become the root of someone else’s beautiful friendship.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Dog Days

Early morning walks with man’s best hound

By Cassie Bustamante

Except for a blip of time between entering high school and graduating from college, I’ve been a dog owner for most of my life. Even during those teen years, when my parents repeatedly said no to a puppy, I bought myself a fish and named it Dog. You could say I am a dog lover, but there’s one hound who completely stole my heart.

Before we began having kids, Chris and I were happily a one-dog family. We’d gotten Charlie, a beagle who preferred his own company over anyone else’s, early in our relationship. But just a few months after our nuptials, a friend informed me about a litter of “bagles” — basset beagle pups — in need of homes.

“I think Charlie needs a friend,” I tell Chris on the phone, nervously bobbing my knee. What I really mean is that I need a friend.

“He’s perfectly fine as a loner,” he replies. But he knows me better than that. So he asks, “What’s going on, Cassie?”

“Weeeeell, Cyndee told me about these basset beagle puppies that are absolutely adorable and need homes and I just thought — ”

He interrupts, “Are you at the shelter right now? You are, aren’t you?”

“Oh God, no. If I was, I’d be calling to tell you we already have a puppy,” I answer.

He pauses while my foot tap-tap-taps, and then answers. “OK, but this is your dog.”

Two days later, we bring Jake, our white-and-tan bagle, home. He darts through the door, long, velvety-soft ears flapping behind him, and greets Charlie, who sniffs a bit and then promptly ignores him.

But I’m smitten. I feel a connection on a soul level with this pooch as I gaze into his dark brown eyes, which appear to be lined in charcoal. And, as it turns out, we’re kindred spirits when it comes to chow. As I gain a whopping 40 pounds the next year while growing the first Bustamante baby, so does Jake. (In our defense, we thought bassets were just “big-boned” canines.)

At his next check-up, the vet, shocked by his 75-pound weight, puts him on a diet. Knowing how much he loves to eat, I decide to implement a more rigorous exercise routine and cut back his food a little less than recommended.

And so begins our love affair with long, early-morning walks together. Through the marshlands of Louisiana, by the rivers near Annapolis, Maryland, and up-and-down countryside hills of western Maryland, we walk. For 13 years, we walk, adding two more dogs — Catcher and Snowball — to our little crew.

We walk until arthritis takes over Jake’s spine and he can no longer join me and the other two pups, until the vet tells me that I need to let him go. “He loves you so much that he will stay with you, in pain, as long as you allow it,” she tells me.

On his last day by my side, I walk him to the bus stop to retrieve the kids. We take it as slowly and as cautiously as we need to, taking breaks every now and then. But we need one last walk together, no matter how short.

Back at home, we all stroke his ears, nuzzle his pitch-black nose and tell him how loved he is. And we say good-bye. Almost two years later, I say good-bye again as we prepare to leave the house where Jake and Charlie are both buried in the backyard, for the greener pastures of North Carolina.

These days, I still walk with my dogs in the quiet stillness of the morning and, while I miss Jake, his spirit is never far. In fact, many mornings, Catcher will incessantly turn around as if he senses someone behind us. When I look, no one’s there. But if I listen carefully on windy mornings, I can hear the breeze flapping Jake’s ears.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Go Confidently

From bringing a baby into the world to sending him out into it

By Cassie Bustamante

Eighteen years ago, as I approached the birth of my first baby, a boy, I thought I knew how it would all unfold. Years of watching TV dramas had taught me plenty. My water would break, my husband, Chris, would rush to the hospital from work to be by my side and, after a few hours, I’d naturally push — without any drugs — giving way to a healthy, wriggling, scrunchy-faced newborn. Go ahead and laugh. If there’s anything parenthood has taught me, it’s that nothing ever goes according to plan.

Sawyer was due on August 8, 2005 — one day before my 27th birthday — and, as a first-time mom, I was determined to let it all happen on its own. Living in Slidell, Louisiana, at the time, my friends thought this born-and-raised yankee gal was nuts and called me a hippie. Even my gynecologist, Dr. Lobello, nicknamed me “granola girl.” In all fairness, I showed up to most appointments in flip-flops, a tank top, a bohemian skirt — elastic waist, need I say more? — and hair tucked into a red bandana. But if you’ve ever survived the sweltering humidity of a New Orleans summer, my outfit choice made perfect sense. After all, you can’t just walk around naked, even in Louisiana.

In late July, two weeks before the due date, I waddled into my weekly appointment, dripping with sweat and looking more like Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure than the adorable pregnant woman I had pictured myself to be. Dr. Lobello took one look at me and asked, “Have you thought about being induced?”

“What?!” I asked, flabbergasted. “No. Nope. No way. This baby is coming when he comes.”

“Okaaaaaay,” she said knowingly.

The next week, I shuffled back in, legs as heavy as mature tree trunks. Again, Dr. Lobello brought up induction. She pressed on my ankle to show me just how swollen I was, skin stretched as tight as a water balloon before it bursts.

“Fine, I guess,” I said, a little deflated. “Let’s induce.”

A week later, on my birthday, with the help of Pitocin and anesthesia, Sawyer entered the world, no magical water-breaking, “Honey, this is it” moment. But once he was in my arms, it didn’t matter how he’d gotten here. He was here. And Chris and I fell head over heels in love with him.

Now, almost 18 years later, that baby boy graduates from Grimsley High School this month. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a struggle to get to this point. And there were days that I wondered if we’d make it this far.

But our kids — and I mean yours and mine, too — have weathered storms none of us ever had to go through during our high school years. Being a teenager is traumatic enough — hello, acne, braces and regrettable first kisses — but then you add a pandemic and remote learning to the mix? Chris and I were prepared to handle all of the usual awkward moments and hard conversations with our teens, but we had no idea how to navigate through the challenges our kids have faced.

And now, as Sawyer prepares to don his cap and gown, I want him to know how proud we are, as much as this column might embarrass him. We know how hard he’s had to work and we don’t know if our own teenage selves would have made it through the last three years unscathed. And while he probably doesn’t remember the moment he came into this world (for the best, frankly), I hope he’s learned from us that it doesn’t matter how you get to where it is you’re going or if you need a little help along the way. As American naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, one of my favorite books, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” You will land exactly where you’re meant to be.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.