Picture it: July 31, 1999, Alltel Pavilion in Raleigh, N.C. The air is hot and sticky from a day's rain and it's the worst heat wave in years. The deep purple sky is flecked with a few stars fighting to break through the stubborn clouds.
I ride the wave of thousands spilling out from a Dave Matthews Band concert, high on music, love and fervent dancing. I'm barely aware of my surroundings, still choked with the solid heat from writhing bodies and half deaf from my seat next to a speaker. The show has left me refreshed, yet exhausted, as if I have just awakened from a fast-paced dream.
I'm aware of the noise, the stifling dampness and the gnawing in my stomach from a rushed dinner too long ago. My friends and I push against the crowd, hoping to quickly find our cars.
Suddenly, my foggy trance is interrupted. Amidst the stench of beer and sweat, a different sort of fragrance emerges. I inhale deeply as my nostrils dance with the sweet scent of oregano and garlic, an indelible smell too glorious to be real. Weary as I am, my senses are charged as I search for the source of this paradise.
And then I see him.
A few yards away, he's kneeling on the wet earth, his long, tangled hair dangling dangerously close to the flame of the propane grill. His face is locked in determination as he hunches over, metal spatula in hand.
As I get closer, the savory aroma grows stronger. Inches away from the grill, I'm at one with heaven. Before me lay row after row of grilled cheese sandwiches, the white bread cloaked in butter and herbs too marvelous for consumption.
Grilled Cheese Man looks up from his work. He doesn't speak. There's no need for words.
"How much for this manna?" my friends and I cry, fumbling in our pockets for money.
He doesn't respond. Instead, he smiles gently and offers up nirvana on oil-soaked paper towels.
I thrust crumpled bills at him, barely able to contain my elation in the presence of such a deity. Grilled Cheese Man takes a bill and returns the rest.
"Please," he says. "One dollar is fine."
Grilled Cheese Man tells us that he travels the country offering his goods not for money, but for the chance to meet America. While he could net far more than he ever spends, he has no aspirations of wealth. Rather, he desires unadorned enlightenment. From his perches in parking lots and fields across the U.S., Grilled Cheese Man receives something more valuable than money. Some nights, he tells us, he hands out the sandwiches for free.
Now, more than two months later, I notice the evening sky out the library window. Again, it's deep purple, the stars poking out through layers of cloud. Three days of rain have left Charlottesville hot and wet, in a terminal dankness that coats the school.
As the hands on my wristwatch march toward dawn, and my life seems an unending maze of journal articles and essays, I think often of that night in July. Oh, what I would give for a grilled cheese sandwich right now. If I close my eyes and focus, I can go back there again, if only for a moment.
I feel the air on my skin, heavy with rain. The sky, a deep purple, taunts the stars to break through the firmament. My schoolwork melts away as I journey back, my senses in overdrive. There's the noise of the crowd, dizzy with collective euphoria. Then I feel the sweet stickiness of summer, sweaty and thick. And, ah, yes, that unique perfume of buttery goodness, tempting my memory.
I hope I'm learning a lot, whiling away these hours under harsh fluorescent lights. I hope one day I can impress you with my knowledge of literature, religion and psychology. But for now, I am biding my time here, dreaming of being the next Grilled Cheese Woman. I would travel the globe, gaining wisdom by the light of a propane fire. Term papers and course packets as a means of education? -- I think not. Garlic, oregano and American cheese. Now that's a core curriculum.