- Things that remind me of Charlotte (that were easiest to draw).
I first met Charlotte in September 2014 in Taipei on a blind friend date at a vegetarian buffet restaurant. The date was set up by my dad and his friend Yang Shou, a mutual friend of my dad and Charlotte's mom. Also, my dad and Yang Shou came on our date. That way if Charlotte and I had the chemistry of spackle on burnt toast, we could disappoint our elders in real-time instead of later.
But potentially subjecting myself to awkwardness and disappointment was worth it, not just because I wouldn't have to pay for the meal (but free food is awesome, and a free buffet is awesomer), but because I desperately needed to meet new people. That summer of 2014, shortly before my 29th birthday, I left behind my longtime job and friends in New York and moved to my dad's apartment in Taipei in a last-ditch effort to learn my parents' native language from scratch and maybe not be a complete disappointment to my ancestors who, according to the 1998 historical documentary Mulan, were judging me beyond the grave. I was new in Taipei, surrounded by people I didn't know speaking a language I couldn't understand. If my dad had told me, "By the way, Charlotte's a lapsed cannibal," I would've thought, "How lapsed? If I rip my arm off and give it to her, will she like me more?"
After about a week of Mandarin classes, it was clear that fluency wasn't in my future and my ancestors would be disappointed in me forever. Armed with this healthy sense of despair, I turned my focus to people who were 1) not dead and 2) potentially desperate enough to hang out with me—people who could become my friends. But they had to be more than just not dead and desperate. They had to be partially resistant to the pull of people who were cooler than me, i.e., everyone else in the school/world. I figured I should try to make as many friends as possible to increase the probability that some of them would stick, like in the opening scene of the 2003 marine documentary Finding Nemo where Coral is lovingly tending to her over 400 fish eggs while chatting with Marlin about the great future they and their over 400 fish babies will have together in their new home, when a barracuda on the prowl suddenly spots them from afar but not far enough, so Coral rushes to save her eggs and Marlin gets knocked out in the race against the barracuda to reach Coral, and when he wakes up CORAL IS GONE and he finds just ONE SINGLE ITTY BITTY GLOBULE OF LIFE, which he gently cups with his fins and, with a quivering voice full of hope and devastation, names the egg Nemo like Coral would've wanted and promises to take care of Nemo and keep him safe forever and everrrrooomgioAIEEEglubblubbuhh [bawls until tomorrow].
Anyway, I needed to make a bajillion more friends in case nearly all of them were doomed to be eaten by a barracuda. (The barracuda = my crippling insecurity.)
- Fetal positioning.
But I didn't remember how to make friends. My friend-making method over the last decade went like this: "Chill out. If you're lucky, you'll eventually bump into someone cool." It was slow going, but given a ten-year period this method worked out pretty well. In Taipei, I only had ten months before I returned to the US. This was clearly an insufficient amount of time to make friends. Why bother trying when I could jump straight to the end result? That is, hold a one-person Fetal Position Olympics from the comfort of whichever corner of my room most resembled a medieval jail cell?
Alas, I was not meant to reach any achievements in fetal positioning. Because I met Charlotte. We hit it off during our blind friend date, reaching some kind of "FRIENDSHIP IS EMINENT" moment when Charlotte asked me if I wanted to check out the ice cream selection and...I may have been very excited about getting ice cream?...I dunno of course I was, it was a buffet, IT WAS UNLIMITED ICE CREAM. In the yearbook of my life, Charlotte's first superlative would be, "Best at preventing Robyn from fetal positioning herself to death."
Charlotte's superlatives kept rolling in. Hell, she got two more on the same day. After we ate lunch, we left my dad and Yang Shou (both non-disappointed, woo!) to go to one of Charlotte's favorite cafes, Ecole Café. There, at Charlotte's suggestion, I tried my first latte-esque drink in Taipei, thus setting the spark that would light a three-alarm fire of latte dependency and burn thousands of NT in the process. And thus Charlotte was deemed "Best at getting Robyn addicted to lattes" and "Most likely to make Robyn horribly caffeine-dependent in the future" at the same time. THANKS, CHARLOTTE!!!
It would take too long to list every superlative Charlotte earned over the ensuing 10 months in Taiwan, so I'll just pick some of my favorites:
"Best at sorting Robyn's garbage/recycling." (A very important task in Taiwan, for real.)
- "Please speak softly." WE TRIED oops I mean [whisper] we tried.
"Most likely to get herself and Robyn thrown out of a café for talking too loudly." (We weren't thrown out of Xiaomijo, but we were gently reminded about this rule.)
- Roger, Kåre, and Julia helping Charlotte light up her notebook so she could emboss it with the Elephant Mountain trail "stamp", which looks like the one on the right. If you're as obsessed with collecting stamps as we are, then you know leaving behind a stamp opportunity is an unforgivable sin.
"Best at getting Robyn to do things that expand her cultural horizons." (Museums, concerts, hikes, the Pingxi Lantern Festival, anything involving a group of more than four people—Charlotte got me do a lot of stuff that I may not have otherwise chosen over my favorite activity, "sleeping too much".)
"Mostly like to be responsible if Robyn dies from eating a ton of soft serve."
"Mostly like to be responsible if Robyn dies from eating a ton of pineapple cakes."
In June 2015, I moved back to New Jersey. As I now lived a 15-hour flight away from Charlotte instead of a 15-minute walk, the superlatives died down. But not completely.
- Me and my bridespeeps! Lee Anne, Diana, me, Charlotte, and Tristan. [Photograph by Amber Marlow.]
In August 2015, Charlotte came to my wedding and earned "Best bridesmaid that Robyn has been friends with for the shortest amount of time." That was a pretty major superlative.
Or so I thought, until December 2016, when this happened:
- Manatee-shaped doughnut cake plus two extra doughnuts because the shop, Allie's Donuts, was afraid the manatee itself wouldn't be able to feed a dozen people as promised. [Photograph by Charlotte Toolan.]
"BEST AT ORDERING A GIANT MANATEE-SHAPED DOUGHNUT FOR ROBYN."
And shortly after:
- Bye, manatee doughnut body. [Photograph by Charlotte Toolan.]
"BEST AT EATING A GIANT MANATEE-SHAPED DOUGHNUT FOR ROBYN."
In December 2016, over a year after I had moved to Norway, my husband Kåre and I returned to New Jersey for our winter vacation to visit my mom and brother. This was shortly after Charlotte had left Taipei and moved back home to Rhode Island. That meant we absolutely had to go on a...RHODE ISLAND RHODE TRIP (heh...see what I did there...hey, where are you going?...). Our plan was to visit her at her parents' place for a few days in order to eat, at my request, a custom-ordered, manatee-shaped doughnut cake—i.e., a giant manatee-shaped doughnut—from Allie's Donuts, a Rhode Island favorite that's been making doughnut dreams come true for the last 50 years. We would considering fitting in other activities if the doughnut was somehow not enough.
(If you're wondering, "Why a manatee?", I'll assume you're new around here. Which is cool! Welcome! So. I like manatees. Yeah. Here's a post about that time my friends bought me a giant plush manatee for my birthday. And here's another post about the time I took a bunch of photos of the manatee on the subway.)
But as we got closer to the big day, the trip became less and less feasible. Kåre had gotten sick one-and-a-half weeks into our four-week vacation from some sort of mild viral infection that doctors weren't able to pin down. Although the Rhode Island trip wasn't until Week Four, Kåre's lack of progress gave us little hope that he'd return to full health in time. (He ended up spending most of the trip under self-imposed house arrest, getting lots of bonding time with my mom in the process.) Less than a week before our scheduled trip, I told Charlotte that she shouldn't order the doughnut cake because with Kåre being sick, we weren't sure if we could make it. She agreed that not ordering the doughnut cake was the responsible thing to do.
A few days later, she told me she ordered the doughnut cake anyway. You know. JUST IN CASE.
This was when I, being the caring and loving wife I am, starting drilling into Kåre, "YOU MUST BECOME UNSICK, THERE'S A GIANT MANATEE DOUGHNUT IN OUR FUTURE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM SAYING? ARE YOU EVEN SICK? DO YOU EVEN LOVE ME?"
Kåre's response was probably something akin to [stares at the wall, focuses on nothing].
With a tourniquet-like grip, I held on to the hope that Kåre would recover in time. I kept chatting with Charlotte as though the meet-up would happen, constantly shifting plans as the days counted down. But I think we both knew deep down—in the parts of our brains not blinded by the sweet, sweet promise of ripping apart a giant manatee-shaped doughnut with our bare hands, ejecting a flurry of sprinkles and frosting glops with each severed chunk—that Kåre and I wouldn't make it. I can still remember, with the kind of movie-like clarity generally reserved for life-changing moments (riding a two-wheel bike for the first time, seeing the windshield of my mom's car get completely shattered after a goose flew into it for the first time, etc.), waking up the morning of the Manatee Doughnut Christening, turning in the bed towards Kåre, and gently asking him how he felt. This was, you know, partially because I cared about his well being, but, uh, more so because if he felt better that meant we could still drive up to Rhode Island AND GET THAT DOUGHNUT, and see Charlotte.
His response was more moans than words. I picked up my phone and sent a message to Charlotte with the bad news, followed by some Facebook stickers of crying faces. Charlotte told me that our cancelation was totally fine, as well as reminded me that Kåre not dying was a priority.
I felt guilty for burdening Charlotte with a doughnut meant to serve a dozen people, as well as for wasting her time and money on our doughnut adventure that wasn't meant to be, but she assured me it was okay. Besides that the custom manatee doughnut only cost $24, her parents offered to help her eat it as well as invite the neighbors to try it. Except they didn't invite the neighbors. Because as soon as they started eating the doughnut they decided to go all-in on it themselves.
"She [Charlotte's mom] had five slices and wants one for her birthday," Charlotte wrote me in an update about the doughnut. "I did not see that coming."
Although I was a little bummed about missing out on the Great Manatee Doughnut Devouring, imagining that Charlotte and her parents were happily feasting on it together like a Rockwellian turkey dinner made me feel much better.
- In case you forgot what this beautiful doughnut beast looks like. [Photograph by Charlotte Toolan.]
And then I asked Charlotte how it actually went down. Here's the story in her own words:
So, we get this donut cake, and Allie's Doughnuts are AWESOME. And it's huuuuuuuge, and my parents are like, "You made a mistake, this is your fault, we are only three, how can we eat this....? But....one bite couldn't hurt...."
Picture less Norman Rockwell, and more how sharks circle and feast on dead whale carcasses in the ocean. Circling....biting...swimming away...returning in the dead of night to feast again with no witnesses. And lots of "WHO ATE LIKE THIS HUGE PIECE?" And no one making eye contact, and me going, "THERE ARE ONLY THREE OF US HERE, COME ON, WHY THE SILENCE?" And lots of "CHARLOTTE, LOOK WHAT YOU MADE US DOOOOOOOO.....nom nom nom nom nom nom nom nom.....WHYYYYY.....nom nom nom nom nom nom.....I FORBID ANY MORE DONUT CAKES......nom nom nom nom nom"
I think it was gone in three days, and I have no idea who ate how much, because so much of it was eaten when no witnesses were around.
THERE WAS NO DIGNITY IN THAT HOUSEHOLD FOR A WEEK. WE ALL COULD BARELY LOOK AT OURSELVES IN THE MIRROR.
And this I must bestow Charlotte with this final, and perhaps my favorite, superlative: "Best at giving Robyn a weird sense of pride for playing a part in that time when Charlotte's family traded their dignity for a giant manatee-shaped doughnut."
To find out more about ordering a doughnut cake from Allie's Donuts, check out Allie's Donuts' Facebook page (and don't miss their gallery of doughnut cakes). If you want to order a cake for a special holiday, do it waaaay in advance. Their doughnut cakes sell out.