When we looked at this apartment, the 7 thousandth one of the day, it was the spiral staircase that both drew me in and put me off. The stairs led up to the front door on the fourth floor of the empty space. Mimsie chased the realtor to the top while I hung back at the bottom, wishing for a cigarette, and waited for her to return with glum news. My fear of heights is adult-onset, and peculiar too, since it began many years after I fell down a set of escalators (or bounced down, then walked away without a scratch. Kids.). I still love rollercoasters, but climbing ladders makes my hands sweat.
Instead Mimsie came down with a gleam in her eye. You’ve gotta see this, she told me. I said that if I had to climb up and down that effing thing everyday, I was going to go prematurely gray. No problem, our realtor smiled. There was an alternate entrance, a second set of stairs between the third and fourth floor kitchens. Sure, we’d have to walk through our landlords’ apartment to get to those stairs, and sure, Halmoni sleeps on the living room floor under a mat every night, so we’d have to tiptoe around her if we came home late after a few cocktails. But compared to the dismal shoeboxes we’d seen earlier, this was a minor detail. The deal was sealed. It took some practice, but the spiral staircase is like any other staircase now. It’s my favorite part of the apartment.
(That’s not the staircase, that’s a raspberry! One day this macro lens mount won’t be scary, either.)
Halmoni is Korean for grandmother. We call her husband Mr. Lee. I don’t know when they moved to the neighborhood, but it must have been a long time ago. It is clear that Halmoni is her home’s caretaker and mayor of the surrounding blocks. Every night, she and the other old ladies gather and gossip under the street lamps or off in the shadows, crouched low. Her voice and laughter rise above the rest, up from the street where she and her friends sit and through my bedroom window. Several months ago, a couple living across the street got into a pretty big fight. It’s not characteristic to meddle in others’ affairs here, but it was Halmoni who finally called the police.
She was at the kitchen sink when I left for Malaysia on a wet morning back in July. Like with every heavy load I bring into the house, she tried to take my backpack, even though on her tiptoes she barely clears my boobs. We walked downstairs together, and she waved me off in the rain. I waved back with a lump in my throat, then turned away quickly and hailed a cab.
We trade the smells of our kitchens when we cook. If the bakery at the corner gifts her with a bundle of day-old bread, she spreads it across her kitchen table and calls up for us to come lighten her load. When I made kimchi this summer, I took some down for her to taste. I knew she’d tell me the truth. She plucked a piece of cabbage barehanded from the bowl, popped it in her mouth, and declared it delicious.
Raspberry Coconut Muffins (makes 6)
I made this recipe for Niki’s birthday this year, and I don’t think she’ll mind if I share it with you. Niki’s been a beloved friend since middle school, and she feels like a sister, too. Since I lived under her roof a few years ago, I suppose she’s also been a landlord. She recreated these muffins in her Minneapolis kitchen, and that made the distance feel smaller. Though the season’s passed for raspberries in most parts of the world, you could use frozen thawed raspberries just as easily.
1 cup fresh or frozen, thawed raspberries
1 cup all purpose flour
6 tablespoons raw sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons coconut milk
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1/3 cup raw sugar
3-4 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 tablespoons coconut oil
unsweetened coconut flakes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees Celcius). Lightly grease sheets of parchment paper or liners with coconut oil. Gently mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk the egg separately, then add to a bowl with yogurt, coconut milk, and coconut oil. Add wet ingredients to the dry and gently mix. Spoon mix halfway into each muffin cup, then press in a few raspberries. Fill each cup, then add more raspberries. Make the streusel by mixing all the ingredients together. Top the muffins with the streusel and pop into the oven to bake for 20-30 minutes until the tops are the color of caramel and a toothpick comes out clean.