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It's pretty common knowledge that I was never really happy with my decision to attend the University of Kansas. As high school neared its close, and my perfect SAT–scoring, International Baccalaureate genius friends fanned out to various Ivy League and other top-tier institutions, and I prepared to spend the next four years of my life at Miami of Ohio, in a postage-stamp town called Oxford, I suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Kansas. (Truthfully, I didn’t even want high school to end; those were the four happiest years of my life.) So I slithered back to the admissions department at the University of Kansas and begged them to find me a spot to live somewhere in the residence halls. I enrolled at Shawnee Mission East, the sequel, and I was miserable. I didn't even try. All I could think was, "My friends are out there, living, and I'm stuck here." Killer of a self-fulfilling prophecy. No — a self-defeating prophecy.
But the summer after my sophomore year, I made plans to try something new. I moved to Philadelphia for the summer. I landed an internship and was going to learn the ropes of the big city and spend time with my best girlfriend, who I'd missed terribly since she left for UPenn. As it turned out, the internship was unpaid (and my wallet had been stolen by the end of the summer), my "big city" apartment was actually on the fringe of the ghetto, and my best friend had other plans for the summer. But life had other plans for me, too, in human form; those plans careened one night into the restaurant where I was hosting, wearing Rollerblades and a black do-rag. Those plans were named Kenrick.
Kenrick took me to see Finding Nemo the first time we hung out. He started calling me "my squishy," and I never tired of it. He was an actor, and a couple of years older than me. He was already 21, knew about wine and could convince any customer to get a bottle of the Amarone, and he sold more side dishes and desserts than I ever thought possible. On one of our first dates, we had Mexican food in a hole-in-the-wall cantina in Old City, just off the Delaware River. (I was underage and we had margaritas anyway; he could walk into any restaurant like he owned the place. I wasn't getting carded.) We strolled through the city that steamy summer evening; he regaled me with stories of his Philadelphia life so far. He talked a lot. But the stories were interesting: He had been a high school outcast in Mennonite country; he was studying fight choreography and taking trapeze lessons out in the suburbs. So I listened.
It was an education.
As we made our way back toward his place — we cut down Smedley Street, still my favorite block in the entire universe — we zig-zagged to South Street for my first-ever mojito in a dark basement bar, then stopped elsewhere for dessert. Flan, I think. And always more drinks. I stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. every night, drinking life in. Most nights, we shared the tiny twin bed in his apartment, all streaky purple- and maroon-painted walls with curtains for doors, and a kitchen stuffed to the ceiling with dishes and strange ingredients and cooking implements. We watched his favorite movie, The Princess Bride, on a tiny TV over the hum of the window air conditioner.
I got up early the next morning for work, barely conscious, and did it all again the next day.
That summer, thanks to him, I discovered red wine. Our restaurant sold a bottle with a beautiful label emblazoned with a feather, the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted; I spent months seeking it out when I returned to Kansas. Near Rittenhouse Square, there's a dangerous little shop called Di Bruno Brothers — just down the street from the equally treacherous Scoop de Ville — that sells cheese. And charcuterie. And about 50 kinds of olives. And quince paste, and about a million other beautiful things I'd never tasted until that summer.
Peter Frampton performed as we watched the fireworks in the park by the Art Museum on the 4th of July. I'd never seen such colors before.
I was in love — truly in awe, for the first time — with him and everything about the life he showed me during those few short months. He made me who I am today: the giddy foodie and wine ingénue, the city girl who forgets how to say no sometimes, the overspender, the life lover. I owe my good taste to Kenrick.