Authors: Kate Hilton
Conservatively, I seem to be behind schedule by at least an hour. Why, why did I bake dessert? When will I learn that the first impression is what counts? It is a truth universally acknowledged that by the time you get to dessert, your guests will always be too drunk or too tired to notice your efforts. I pour a large glass of Chianti to calm my nerves and address myself to the beef tenderloin. As I slide it into the oven, I hear the doorbell ring again, and I dash out in my apron.
Jesse beats me to it. “Will,” he says. “It's been a long time.” He holds out a hand and they shake.
“Great house,” says Will, stepping past Jesse and into the foyer. “Hi, Sophie,” he says, leaning down and brushing my cheek with a kiss.
“Have you never been here before?” I say, knowing full well that he hasn't. “That's terrible! It's long overdue, then.” The foyer is small, but it seems smaller than usual with the three of us packed in together. I hope Jesse doesn't notice how flustered I am. But his attention is on the last arrival.
“Anya, you look incredible,” Jesse says. She does, too, in a fitted black jersey dress and high black boots. She waves at me and brushes her cheek. “You have something on your face,” she says, and when I reach up to investigate, my hand comes away with a greasy smear of beef fat.
“Thanks,” I manage, mesmerized with loathing at the way her hipbones jut out like ridges framing the flatlands of her abs. “Sit down and relax, everyone! Dinner in half an hour!”
Back in the kitchen, I realize that I haven't baked the goat cheese yet. The tenderloin will be in for twenty-two minutes at 500 degrees; the goat cheese needs ten minutes at 375 degrees. It can't be helped: I'll put them in with the beef for a shorter time and hope for the best. Which reminds meâI haven't set the timer for the beef. I put my head in my hands for a second and guesstimate the remaining cooking time, set the clock for fourteen minutes, and send a small prayer upward to the cooking gods. Then I pull out all of the exotic lettuces from the organic market and begin chopping. I cast my mind back to the moment in the market when I decided that I was too good for the prewashed box of mixed greens, and I curse aloud.
Zoe appears at my elbow. “He's aging well,” she murmurs.
“Working here,” I say, and hand her a salad spinner. “Can you wash the lettuce?”
“Can I do anything to help?” asks Will, coming into the kitchen.
“Why don't you see if anyone needs a fresh drink?” I suggest, filling a pot to boil water for blanching the rapini. I can't have him in the room right now; I need to focus all of my concentration on getting the meal on the table.
I hear the soothing sound of goat cheese bubbling away in the oven, and then remember that it's not actually supposed to be bubbling. Pulling open the oven door, I discover that yet another cooking gamble has failedâthe patties have lost structural integrity and are now little pools of simmering goat cheese dotted with herbs and crumbs. But the show must go on, so Zoe and I toss the salad in the vinaigrette, divide it among nine plates, and spoon a shiny glob of cheese onto each of them. Zoe calls everyone to the table, and I parade out with the first course.
Claire looks stricken as I put the salad in front of her. “Sophie, I'm so sorry,” she says. “I thought you knew I was lactose intolerant.”
“I did,” I say. “But I thought it was only cows' milk. This is goat.”
She shakes her head sorrowfully. “All cheese, I'm afraid.”
“Not a problem,” I say. “It just needs a small adjustment.” And I rush back into the kitchen, where I realize that we have used up all of the salad, so I set about removing the offending cheese with surgical precision and returning a much-reduced portion to Claire, hoping all the while that I've eradicated every trace of lactose and that she won't have a bilious attack at the table.
Jesse fills the wineglasses, and everyone digs into their salads and makes appreciative noises. The oven timer goes off, and I dash back into the kitchen to pull out the beef and cover it, then throw the rapini into the boiling water and heat some oil. I grab handfuls of the ill-fated risotto, shape them into little sliders and toss them in. I manage to get ten little cakes out of the risotto, which is one per person, minus Claire the non-cheese-eater, plus one extra for Zoe the vegetarian. And now the beef is ready for serving, so I drain the rapini, call to Jesse to bring the dinner plates in, serve everyone exactly the right combination of foods to satisfy their physical and mental health requirements, and sit down to dinner with the satisfaction of one who has finished a marathon. It's true that Zoe's plate looks a bit sad, with two lonely risotto cakes and some stalks of rapini, but presumably this is a situation that you have to get used to if you eschew meat, and anyway, Zoe is giving me a big smile and saying that the risotto cakes are beautiful. The beef is perfectly done, thanks to the cooking gods, and the rapini is not overdone, if a little flavorless, and it complements the beef nicely. I'm so pleased, in fact, that I'm prepared to overlook the fact that Anya refers to my risotto cakes as “cute.”
I clear the main course and am loading the dishwasher when I turn around to find Zoe standing right behind me with an intense expression on her face.
“Zoe, I can't talk about Will right now,” I say.
“This isn't about Will. What's going on with Jesse and Anya?”
“What do you mean? Why are you whispering?”
“Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but they seemÂ .Â .Â . close. Take a look.”
I sidle up to the dining room door and position myself so that I have
an angle on the two of them. And I can see immediately what Zoe is talking about. Anya is leaning in toward Jesse, with her back to the rest of the table. She is speaking in a low voice, and as I watch, she reaches out and strokes his arm. The gesture is undeniably intimate, and Jesse responds in kind by touching her hand. The rest of the guests are all immersed in their own chatter, unaware that my world has just tilted on its axis. I step back from the door and take a breath to steady myself.
“Are you OK?” asks Zoe.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak, and reach under the counter for my mixer. I love making whipped cream, even in the most trying of circumstances; unlike most other activities in life, it is invariably easy, predictable, and satisfying, not to mention incredibly loud and distracting. And this is necessary because I feel a sense of loss so powerful I think I am going to be physically ill.
I am just starting to feel calmer when Jesse appears, and I realize that whatever comes out of his mouth is going to have more importance than it should. Which is unfortunate, because what comes out of his mouth is “Sophie, how long is that going to take? It's so loud that no one can hear themselves speak.”
Another great thing about whipped cream is its use in the comic tradition as a weapon, and now that it's ready, I wonder how many more times I can appeal to my better self today. I turn off the mixer, remove the paddles, and take them over to the sink in order to put a little distance between myself and the whipped cream. It's startling how much I want to throw it in Jesse's face.
Instead, I say, “Would you mind getting out the dessert plates and helping me serve?” I carve up the pear tart, placing a healthy dollop of cream on the pieces destined for guests who embrace dairy, and hand them to Jesse just as the phone rings.
“Sophie? Are you all right?”
I struggle to place the voice for a fraction of a second and then give up. It's too much. “Who is this?” I ask.
“It's Geoff,” he says, sounding hurt.
“What happened?” I ask. I have a horrible premonition that we've had another fatal outbreak at the hospital, and the press has somehow gotten hold of the story.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” he says. “I didn't hear from you. I thought we were going to get together tonight.”
“Oh,” I say, stupidly. “You're not calling about work.”
“No,” he says, exasperated. “I'm calling about us.”
“Just a minute,” I say, covering the receiver with my hand and racing up the stairs to the bedroom. I close the door firmly behind me. “This isn't a good time,” I say. “I've got people here for dinner.”
“Sophie,” says Geoff, “what's going on? I tell you how I feel about you and then you ignore me? That's not like you.”
“I don't know, Geoff,” I say. “Maybe this is exactly like me. I've never been put in this situation before.”
“And what situation is that?” he asks.
It's his tone that finally does it. “You're
with me?” I ask. “If anyone is going to be angry here, I think it should be me.” I hear him suck in his breath but I keep going. “You work for me. You come into my office and drop a bomb on me and then harass me over e-mail all day because I don't respond quickly enough. And then you call me at home, where I am having dinner with my husband and our friends, and want to talk about âus.' There is no âus,' Geoff. There is never going to be an âus.'”
There is a long silence. “That's your answer?” he asks.
“Well, I should thank you,” he says formally. “You could not have been clearer. I appreciate your candor and apologize for any discomfort I may have caused you.”
“Geoff, I'm sorry,” I say. “I like you. I like working with you. IÂ .Â .Â .”
“It's fine,” he says. “I have to go now.”
I walk back to the kitchen, still holding the phone in my hand. I fill a wineglass to the brim with Chianti and drink it down in long gulps. I'm refilling when I hear the dining room door slide open and then close behind me. “Are you coming back to the party?” asks Will.
I turn and attempt a sunny smile. “In a minute,” I say. “I'm just taking care of a couple of things in here.”
He studies me and then says, “I was going to sneak out for a cigarette. Want to come?”
“I don't smoke,” I say.
“Neither do I,” he says.
“OK,” I say, and we put on our coats and go out to the back patio. I brush the snow off the deck chairs and we sit. “I'm not sure I remember how to do this,” I say.
“It's like riding a bike,” says Will, shaking a cigarette from the package with a practiced tap. His lighter flashes in the dark. He takes a second cigarette out of the package, lights it with the tip of his own, and hands it to me. “So,” he says.
“So,” I say.
“Have you thought about my offer?”
“I've thought about it,” I say slowly. “I'm still thinking.”
He looks quizzical. “Is it that hard a decision? Lillian didn't think it would be. She said that you're underpaid, underappreciated, and ready for a new challenge. The foundation would seem to be a perfect solution. What am I missing?”
I sit back in my chair and gaze up at the sky. It's cold but clear and the stars are out. I trace the shape of the Big Dipper with the glowing end of the cigarette. It's been years since I smoked, but I remember now what I always loved about it: the sense that time stands still from the moment the match is struck until the tobacco burns down to its last ember. I know I have to make a decision, and soon. But first I have to tell Jesse about the offer, and I'm avoiding it; with Will in the picture, I'm not sure how he'll react. I want the job, but not if it makes my life harder at home. Jesse has questions about Will, and even after all these years I'm still not sure I have the answers.
I take a long swallow of wine and blow a plume of smoke up at the stars. The unfamiliar dizziness makes me reckless. “We've never talked about what happened between us,” I say.
He stiffens, but his tone is gentle. “What do you mean?”
I groan. I can't believe he's going to make me say it. I've considered
our relationship from every angle, tested every theory that could explain it, sifted endlessly through tiny shards of memory searching for evidence of love. Now, with the only other witness to the event captive in my backyard, I'm on the verge of a major breakthrough in my research. I'm not going to chicken out. I take a deep breath. “We slept together, Will, more than once. And it was a big deal for me. What was it for you?”
Now it's his turn to be silent. “It was a long time ago,” he says finally. “Is it important to talk about it now?”
“It is if you want me to come and work at the foundation,” I say.
“Closure is totally overrated,” Will says.
“Be that as it may,” I say, “I'd still like some.”
“I don't know if this will satisfy you,” he says carefully. “I knew how you felt back then. But it was confusing for me. I wanted you, obviously, but something more serious? I wasn't looking for that, and I knew that any relationship with you couldn't be casual. I know I behaved badly, that I was unfair to you. I was a young guy, an idiot. It's not really an excuse, but maybe it's an explanation.”
“Do you have another cigarette?” I ask.
“It's the least I can do,” he says, lighting it and leaning across to hand it to me. Our fingers touch and he meets my eye. “I'm sorry, Sophie. And if it's any consolation, I've often regretted the decisions I made back then.”
“Which ones?” I ask, but I'm interrupted by the sound of the sliding door behind me.
“What's going on out here?” asks Jesse. “Are you
“We were just catching up,” I say, crushing the remnants of the cigarette under my toe.
“Our guests are leaving,” says Jesse tightly. “They would like to say good-bye to the hostess.” My mind throws out an image of Anya, touching Jesse at the dinner table. I shiver.
Will stands up. “I should get going,” he says.
“Good idea,” says Jesse icily, stepping aside to let Will pass. A few seconds later, I hear the front door close behind him.