Authors: Barbara O'Neal
But junior high threw a beautiful curve—she walked into home economics the first day and
over the tiny kitchens with their individual stoves and fridges and sinks. Isobel took shop, metals and wood, scorning the traditional female pastime of cooking, but Elena was in heaven. She loved the cabinets stocked with cookie sheets and casserole dishes, the drawers full of matching flatware, the cupboards with matched sets of Corning Ware that didn’t break. Every tool imaginable was there, too—whisks and wooden spoons; spatulas and graters; measuring cups in metal
glass. The knives and thermometers were checked out of a big locked cabinet, and more than once they had to wait while the knives were counted at the end of a period.
In that tidy world, she learned the alchemy of a white sauce, browning the flour just so in clear butter—“Very slowly, girls!” shouted Mrs. Mascarenas. “You don’t want it to burn!”—to make a roux. Then adding milk for a sauce, more milk for a gravy. Elena played with it, delighted by the way it could hold so many different flavors so easily, an envelope filled with cheese or onions or beef stock. Magic! She discovered that changing the butter to lard or bacon fat could make it heartier, that too much flour defeated the flavors and made anything taste dusty, that she could use the same ideas and make a satiny broth.
Twenty years later, her kitchen in the condo reminded her of that long-ago home ec room, the well-stocked smallness, the clean and orderly elegance of it. No poverty had ever wafted through these rooms, that was for sure.
Alvin strolled out to the backyard and lay down in the sun, his red-gold coat glittering, his big black nose lifting to the sky, perhaps scenting the change that blew in from the north, the possibility of autumn lurking up the pass.
Humming along with Norah, Elena poured olive oil into a heavy pot, and when it warmed, she dropped in three cloves of garlic sliced lengthwise into three or four pieces each. When the garlic was slightly tender, the flavor steeped into the oil, she dropped a thick chunk of pork shoulder into the pot and seared the meat on both sides, then scattered the chopped vegetables over it, covered it with water, and left it to stew.
The familiar, homey smell filled the air, coaxed knots of tension from her shoulders, lending enough comfort that she could carry her cell phone outside to the patio that looked south. The potted marigolds she’d picked up at the grocery store, and the geranium she had carried all over the world, were perking up in the warm sunshine. She poked a finger into the soil, taking cheer from the yellow and orange and magenta faces.
Hmm. Maybe marigolds would be a pretty garnish for the plates at the restaurant. The idea carried enough frisson that she found her notebook and wrote it down.
Marigolds. Mary’s gold. The flowers of the dead.
Holding her phone in her hand, she looked south, toward the hard, high blue ridges of mountains. Over those peaks, a few hundred miles as the crow flew, was Espanola, a sullen and sun-bled town just north of Santa Fe where what remained of her family still lived.
Settling at the picnic table, Elena looked at the lush green slopes around her, slopes that would be covered in snow and humans this winter, and dialed the number for her adopted mother’s house. Maria Elena lived alone these days, sometimes caring for one grandchild or another, wearing her stretch pants and the crisp striped shirts that hid her round little bowling ball of a tummy. She answered on the fourth ring, sounding rushed.
“Hey, Mama. Are you busy?”
“Elena!” she said. The surprised joy made Elena run a thumbnail down her thigh. “Never too busy for you,
What are you up to?”
“I don’t have long to talk, Ma, but I just wanted you to know that I moved and I’m in Colorado.” She said the last with a happy rise at the end of her words.
“You moved. What about your man there in Canada?”
“We broke up. I told you that already.”
“You give up too easy, Elena.” She tsked. “That’s why you’re not married still.”
“He gave up on me, and I don’t want to talk about it.” She peered at the split ends on a lock of hair. “How’re my sisters?”
“Margaret keeps on getting fatter and fatter, you know. Julia’s got her grandkids with her this week, and Rose is just working away. She’s started teaching. We’re so proud of her!”
Rose, three years younger than Elena, had gone to college to study nursing, and married another nurse. They lived outside Santa Fe in a nice house with three nice kids. “Tell her I said hi.”
“You could call her yourself.”
“I will,” Elena said, though she wouldn’t. There were always such vast silences in their conversations, the vast quiet of two dead siblings between them.
“Where in Colorado are you?”
“Ooooh.” The word was layered with meaning. “You working there?”
“Yeah.” Mama never seemed to grasp the layers of kitchens, the line cooks and prep cooks and sous chefs. They were all just cooks to her, but Elena said it anyway, “I’m the executive chef of a new restaurant. The boss of everybody.” She plucked some lint from the knee of her jeans. “And you know, it takes a lot to get a restaurant going, of course, so it might be a while before I could come see you.”
The familiar silence fell between them. Elena hadn’t been home in three years, and that visit had been for one day at Thanksgiving. Like conversations with her sisters, visits home were laden with unspoken losses. But she loved Maria Elena and didn’t want to neglect her. This was the way they’d worked it out, over time. “I’ll call you, Mama.”
“Okay. Be good,
After she hung up, Elena sat on the table, feet on the bench seat like a teenager, the phone in her left hand. Restlessness crawled down her crooked spine, burned in her shattered hip.
Isobel settled next to her on the bench, her long hair shiny in the sunlight. Tipping her face up to the sun, she closed her eyes. “She doesn’t mean anything with the man stuff. It’s just what she knows.”
“I know.” Elena wiggled her shoulders to loosen the tension there, thinking of the town, surly and squinting on the edge of the desert. “I should visit her, I know I should. I just can’t breathe when I think of it.”
On the lawn, Alvin growled softly, hair on the back of his neck lifting a little. “Shh,” Elena said, and rubbed her foot over his back to soothe him.
“Careful of Ivan,” Isobel said.
“Duh.” In her imagination, his face rose, the thin back with its vining tattoo. Defensively dangerous, like a dog who had been starved and beaten in a backyard.
Rubbing the sole of her foot over the fur of her own beautiful dog, she resolutely did not acknowledge the burn in her hip, and thought instead that she needed to get some walking routes mapped out, or the broken places in her body were going to freeze solid. Stiffness and dull pain radiated from the hip joint, upward and through her belly. The drive had been too long.
Just a little longer,
she said, to the fates who had overlooked her that long-ago night.
Just let me make my mark and then the body can fall apart.
6 cups milk
1 mild green chile, roasted, skinned, and chopped
vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
cup granulated raw sugar
3 oz. Mexican-style chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 tsp cinnamon
Measure fresh cold milk into a heavy saucepan, and stir in the chile. Scrape the vanilla bean into the milk and break up the pod. Add sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, and salt. Heat over medium heat until the chocolate melts and the milk is steaming hot, but not boiling. Remove from the heat and strain, then pour it back into the saucepan.
Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir one cup of the hot milk mixture into the eggs and stir vigorously, then pour the milk-egg mixture back into the saucepan and beat with a whip or
until it’s as foamy as a bubble bath. Pour into hefty mugs and garnish with cinnamon sticks. An excellent seduction drink.
ulian arrived at five minutes after seven. Although they had spoken several times via email and by phone, Elena hadn’t seen him since the morning in Vancouver when he’d offered her the job.
Before he showed up, Alvin paced the apartment with his mistress, psychic as always as she changed clothes three times, trying to decide whether she should be crisply businesslike, or friendly and female, or relaxed and earthy. She wished the apartment were more settled, that she had a sense of who Julian Liswood was, apart from being a really rich guy who was also her boss. That would make anyone nervous.
First she tried a white blouse and black slacks, and her favorite cheery chile pepper apron, her hair drawn out of sight into a braid. It looked so…severe.
She traded the girl-cook look for a yellow sundress with a thin white scarf, thinking to be a little arty, but that just looked like she was trying too hard to be French and cosmopolitan. And flirty. Finally, she ditched the dress and donned a turquoise T-shirt with a thin white sweater over it, and jeans. Earrings of silver, hair loose on her shoulders.
She and Alvin paced some more. She was too early. Picking up the phone, she punched in Mia’s number and got her voice mail—but of course it was quite late in London. “I’m totally nervous,” she said. “Julian is coming for dinner and I want to be brilliant.” She paused, imagining what Mia would say. “You’re right, I should just be myself, be friendly, use good manners. I can do that. Thanks.” Grinning, she hung up the phone, then impulsively dialed it again. “I really can’t wait for you to get here.”
Alvin suddenly jumped up and barked an alert. Elena took a breath, brushed a hand over her shirt. Alvin rushed to the door with her, one floppy black ear cocked, his eyes on her face, then the door:
Is this what we’ve been waiting for?
She opened the door. There stood Julian, so elegantly hip in black jeans and a very thin linen shirt woven in tiny turquoise and lavender and green stripes that hung with casual artistry from his shoulders. They were wearing the same colors.
For a single frozen moment, she felt so nervous she couldn’t think of what to do next. He was so much more beautiful than she had allowed herself to remember, with a big armful of flowers in pink and orange, his eyes black and bottomless as he stood there against a peach sky—the prince arriving at the peasant daughter’s house.
And in that moment, as his eyes burned into her, touching her mouth as he bowed only slightly ironically, she saw that he’d thought about her, had spun visions of her in idle moments. “Hello, Elena. You look well.”
“Um. So do you. Come in.” She kept her eye on Alvin to see how he would react, and at first, it wasn’t very clear. Putting a hand on Julian’s arm, she said, “Alvin, this is my friend.”
Julian, obviously a dog person, held his hand out, palm down. “Hey, Alvin,” he said in a low, easy voice. Alvin snuffled his hand, his wrist, the outside seam of his pants, then gave a whuffling sniff and slowly wagged his tail. Julian raised his hand to brush it over Alvin’s silky, fluffy head. “Yeah, there you go,” he murmured. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you?”
“Okay, Alvin, that’s enough. Thank you. Go lie down.”
With a final snort, her dog pranced over to the kitchen and waited for them. Elena let go of a breath. “I never know who he’ll love and who he’ll hate. Looks like you’re on the approved list.”
Julian laughed. “He’s gorgeous. I can see why you’re so fond of him.”
“He looks like an orange bear.”
“Yes. The vet told me that he’d seen a lot of dogs named Bear, but Alvin was the first one he thought should really be called that.”
“Ah, these are for you,” he said, offering the flowers—tiger lilies and cannas and roses, all shades of peach and pink and orange.
“The colors of El Día de los Muertos.”
She nodded, smiling. “Thank you.”
“I brought wine, but I didn’t know what you’d need for tonight, so don’t feel that you have to open this one.”
Waving him into the kitchen, Elena said, “I hope you don’t mind if we eat at the kitchen table. It’s the most comfortable spot.”
“That’s fine. Smells good.”
She inhaled the chile and pork aroma, the hint of chocolate hanging like a whisper in the air. The round table was nestled under the window, covered with a red woven cloth from Ecuador. She’d set it with simple things, shallow white bowls and white napkins and fat white candles on a red and orange saucer she’d found years ago at a thrift store. “Do you want a beer?”
Settling the flowers on the counter for a moment, she opened the fridge to fish out two bottles of Dos Equis. “I like wine, too,” she said, “but beer is better with a meal like this.” Opening both bottles, she handed him one, and toasted, “To our venture, Mr. Liswood.”
“To our venture,” he echoed, and drank a modest sip. “But you’ve got to stop calling me Mr. Liswood. It’s Julian.”
“I’ll try.” Gesturing for him to sit on a stool, Elena settled on the other side of the granite countertop. It was cold on her elbows. “Thanks for arranging for the condo. It’s perfect.”
“You might change your mind when the whole complex fills with skiers every weekend. But I thought you’d like the kitchen.”
“Absolutely.” In the background played Matt Skellenger, jazz bassist, invigorating but not too intrusive. On the stove, the soup simmered, a sound Elena sometimes dreamed about. “Did your daughter arrive safely?”
“She’s here under duress,” he said. “But she’s here.” He sipped the beer. “Let’s talk about you, Elena. Tell me what you thought of the building.”
“I made some notes.” She grabbed her notebook and ran through her initial impressions, touched on some of the ideas she had for remodeling, and listed the most urgent expenditures. “Also, I met Ivan.”
His body loosened. “Ah.”
“He’d crashed in the staff room and smelled of three weeks’ hard drinking, but he did assure me that he was the best chef that ever lived.”
Julian grinned. “And?”
“I said that would be impossible because I am the best.”
His laughter was as bright as poppies. “That’s why I hired you. Chutzpah.” He sipped the beer, and rubbed his belly. “Let’s eat, shall we? That smells so good my stomach is growling.”
Elena jumped up, suddenly embarrassed. “Sorry. Of course. We can talk and eat. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
His hand closed around her wrist. “Don’t,” he said.
“Flutter. Worry, start the servant-master thing. I hate it.”
Trouble bloomed right there, the two of them standing too close with the smell of Elena’s posole heating the air. She saw the faded scars of childhood acne on his lean cheeks, faint now, but once not so. She saw the weary thinness of the skin beneath his eyes and the creases along his mouth. He was older than she by more than a decade. He’d been through three wives, one of them twice. She caught a sharp taste of sour cream and potatoes—latkes, was that what they were?—Jewish food. Of course.
In his turn, his eyes showed nothing, only that liquid blackness, focused on her face.
“Where did you grow up?” Elena asked him, moving away.
“Really? You don’t have that accent.”
“We moved to Pasadena when I was twelve.”
She flashed a smile over her shoulder. “And you fell in love with movies.”
“I bet you read that in a magazine.”
“Maybe.” She ladled the stew into the bowls, and garnished them very simply with tiny rings of fresh scallion and bright red minced tomatoes and just one strip of chile, roasted and spun into a ring. She carried them to the table.
Julian bent into the bowl. “Beautiful,” he said, inhaling.
“One more thing.” She fetched a tortilla warmer and carried it with an oven mitt to the table, then settled across from him.
He rested his wrists against the edge of the table. “Tell me about this soup, Chef.”
She sipped her beer without hurry. “Pork posole, a New Mexico stew, served with fresh corn tortillas.”
“And this is your favorite meal?”
“Well, comfort food, yes. Made from my grandmother’s recipe.”
“Very pretty.” He bent over his bowl and inhaled the steam, evaluating it. Then he picked up his spoon and dipped it into the stew and took a bite, his eyes on the bowl. Elena noticed the high bridge of his nose, the way the hair at his crown shone against the light. “Oh yeah,” he said, and bent into it again, taking a more generous bite this time, looking at the ingredients in his spoon for a moment. Nodding, he pronounced it
She nudged the dish of corn tortillas toward him. “Try one. Homemade.”
“Also Grandmother’s recipe?”
“Well, not exactly.” She pointed to the masa on the counter. “Add water and cook. The hard part is getting the shape. Took me years to master it.” She took one out and examined it, smooth and supple, then tore out a hunk to make a cup, and dipped it into the stew. It was her first real bite, not counting the samples tasted while cooking.
—tender explosion of salty broth, subtle sharpness of sweet chiles, pungency of onions and plenty of garlic, and the smooth texture of hominy and the grainy pleasure of fresh corn tortilla—
She closed her eyes. “Perfect.”
It was a recipe that never failed. Julian tucked it away with gusto, proving the rule, and Elena relaxed a little. She ate without speaking, enjoying the moment—the fat candles burning, the light fading over the mountains outside the windows, music playing quietly.
His hands were long and graceful as he imitated Elena’s method of tearing strips of tortilla, then dropping them into the soup, as if they were crackers. “This,” he said distinctly at the bottom of the bowl, “is delicious, Elena.”
“Would you like some more?”
He held up a hand. “In a moment, perhaps.”
Perhaps. Who said “perhaps”? She smiled. “Take your time. There’s plenty.”
He took a long, healthy swallow of beer. “Did your grandmother teach you to cook?”
“She did.” It was complicated, her story of cooking, so she said, “But we have to talk about you until I finish eating.”
“I don’t know how to cook,” he said, settling comfortably. “No one bothered to teach me. It was assumed a wife would do it for me.”
He inclined his head. “Traditional. After my mother died, my father and I subsisted on Hamburger Helper and Swanson’s.”
“You could teach yourself to cook.”
He gave Elena the smallest, most appealing little twist of his lips. “I buy restaurants instead.”
She laughed. “Interesting choice.”
“Money allows a lot of interesting choices.”
“It does,” she agreed, thinking of her own salary, which, even before she’d taken this position, had been quite good for a woman on her own. One of her early bosses had been a financial consultant in his real life, and had shown Elena how to draw up a budget and stick to it, how to invest in retirement accounts, how to build a credit rating—all things no one in her working-class world had thought to tell a child, especially a girl. The security was no small thing for a woman whose body might give out at any time. “Not that I’m in your league, of course.”
“Well, not to be arrogant, but not many are. I got lucky.”
“Talent might have had something to do with it.”
A shrug, not diffident, just sure. “A lot of talented people don’t make money. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Elena inclined her head. “It’s more than luck.”
His black eyes, so hard to read without the marker of a pupil, were direct as he said, “My dad drove a truck.”
“Mine worked at the post office. My adopted father, anyway.” She paused to drink some beer, let the food settle. She could sometimes be a pig, eating more than she needed, but over time, she’d learned to take breaks. The soup spread its good cheer through her body. “This really is my comfort food,” she said, and sighed. “It’s grounding, after a big change.”
“Maybe it should be one of the menu options.”
“You read my mind. But let’s not talk about that yet. Tell me more about yourself, Julian. What was your comfort food when you were a child? If I’d asked you the same question—and given an ability to cook—what would you have made for me?”
“Potato latkes,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. “With sour cream and applesauce, hot off the stove.”
Elena was careful not to smile in satisfaction. “Is your mother Jewish?”
“My father was. My mother was Italian. She’s been gone a long time.”
“Her death was the reason we moved to LA. My father couldn’t bear it. And you know, he never did marry again.”
“Or touching. She was his soul mate, and despite everything, they had to be with each other. It wasn’t easy, the Italian and the Jew, in our old Jersey neighborhood.”
A hollowness moved in her chest. “Do you believe in that? Soul mates?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard, in the modern world.” His mouth turned wry. “And, well, I’ve been divorced four times.”