Authors: Erica Bauermeister
Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Cooking
He was in among the trees when she walked by and called out to him. He turned and squinted in her direction. He waved, then turned and reached up into one of the trees, checking first one apple then the next. Finally satisfied, he came toward her, an apple in each hand.
“Here,” he said, handing them to her. “A taste of the new season.”
THE SKY WAS already darkening by the time Lillian got home, and the cold air came in the door with her. Her mother sat in her usual chair in the living room, a book held under a circle of light made by the reading lamp.
“I have something for you, Mom,” Lillian said, and placed one of the apples in her mother’s hand.
Lillian’s mother took the apple and absentmindedly pressed its smooth, cold surface against her cheek.
“It feels like fall,” she commented, and bit into it. The sharp, sweet sound of the crunch filled the air like a sudden burst of applause and Lillian laughed at the noise. Her mother looked up, smiling at the sound, and her eyes met her daughter’s.
“Why, Lillian,” she said, her voice rippling with surprise, “look how you’ve grown.”
Really, Claire thought, some exits you needed to practice ahead of time. She stood with her husband and children in the doorway, her three-year-old daughter gripping her leg like an octopus with bones, the baby screaming in rage as he attempted to climb over James’s shoulder to get to his mother.
“What do I do if he won’t take his bottle?” James dodged small hands as they grasped for leverage on his nose.
“Give him the bunny.” Bunny, bunny, magical bunny, with ears whose tips just fit inside a baby’s mouth, and fur as soft as flower petals.
“Bunny? I thought it was his blanket.”
“That was weeks ago.” Claire leaned down and began to dislodge her daughter’s fingers. “Now it’s the bunny.”
“Where are you going, Mommy?” her daughter asked, tightening her grip. “It’s dark outside.”
“Mommy’s just going out for a little while,” Claire told her soothingly.
“Don’t go,” her daughter said, beginning to cry. The baby, furious at the interruption, ramped up his volume.
“Lucy, Mommy’s going to learn how to cook,” James interjected above the noise. “That’ll be fun, won’t it?”
“You don’t have . . . to . . . cook . . . peanut butter.”
“Oh, but Mommy is going to learn how to cook noodles and bread and yum, maybe even fish,” James added enthusiastically.
Claire tensed. Lucy’s fear of the dark had only recently been mitigated by the acquisition of a friendly band of tetras that swam in the glow of an aquarium near her bed.
“Mommy is going to cook fish?”
“No, no, of course not,” Claire soothed, taking refuge in her ignorance, because, she realized, she didn’t actually know. The cooking class wasn’t even her idea; it was a gift from her mother, one she still wasn’t sure if she was offended or intrigued by.
As Lucy looked up, uncertain whether to believe her mother or not, Claire took advantage of her daughter’s distraction to release herself and sprint for the car. She drove, waving in earnest cheeriness, to the end of the block and pulled over, shaking.
“You can do this,” she told herself. “You have a college degree. You can leave your house and go to a cooking class.”
She smelled something and looked down at her shirt. The baby had spit up on her collar. She grabbed a wadded Kleenex from the seat next to her, spat on it, and scrubbed at the residue.
The cooking class was held in a restaurant named Lillian’s, on the main street of town, almost hidden by a front garden dense with ancient cherry trees, roses, and the waving spikes and soft mounds of green herbs. Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life. Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast-iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.
Those who entered the gate and followed the winding brick path through the garden discovered an Arts and Crafts house whose front rooms had been converted into a dining area. There were no more than ten tables in all, each table’s personality defined by nearby architectural elements, one nestled into a bay window, another engaged in companionable conversation with a built-in bookshelf. Some tables had views of the garden, while others, hidden like secrets in the darker, protected corners of the room, held their patrons’ attention within the edges of their tabletops.
Outside, heavy wooden chairs lined the front porch, ready for overflow customers. The chairs were always full, not only because of the food, but because the restaurant staff seemed to take an almost perverse pride in never rushing anyone through a meal. First come, first served. And served, and served, muttered some patrons as they observed the length of the wait list; but they always stayed, settling into the deep Adirondack chairs with glasses of red wine, until waiting became a social event of its own and parties of two melded into four and six, which of course sped up nothing at all.
That was how it worked at Lillian’s—nothing ever went quite the way you planned. The menu would change without notice, disconcerting those who craved familiarity, yet who later admitted that the meal they ended up eating was somehow exactly what they had wanted. And while the restaurant’s subtle lighting gave it an aura of peacefulness and its infinite wine list seemed destined for special occasions, evenings, no matter how carefully orchestrated, often detoured in surprising directions—a proposal veering into a breakup that left both parties stunned and relieved, a business meeting smoldering into a passionate grope session by the recycling bins in the back.
Claire had been to the restaurant twice—the first time almost eight years earlier with a man replete with success, who saw in Claire’s sleek golden hair and heart-shaped face a moment he had not experienced. Over the weeks, his appearances at her bank window had become so numerous that Nancy, who doled out traveler’s checks the next window over, remarked that he had better ask Claire out before he was made an honorary employee. Claire, who was beginning to feel that her most passionate relationship was with her cell phone provider, made the first move, resting her hand on the bills as she passed them under the partition that divided her from her suitor.
He was, Claire acknowledged, a charming enough date, erudite and well informed; at dinner he ordered the wine with the comfortable air of someone inviting an old friend to the table. And yet it was strange. His fish was perfectly cooked—Claire knew because he had fed her a bite, leaning across the table as if reaching her mouth was the final challenge in the great quest of his life—and yet the odor of fish stayed with him afterward, reminding her of high school nights spent under the piers at the beach with boys she no longer remembered or wanted to. When he tried to kiss her as they walked down the street after dinner, she noticed a new model car and turned quickly to point it out.
Claire’s second visit to Lillian’s restaurant was two years later, with James. Claire had hesitated, remembering the fish-date debacle, and yet by then she was so infatuated with James that it didn’t matter. The ring James gave her, before the wine or food had even arrived, slid onto her finger like his hands moving across her skin. They toasted with water and drank their champagne later, in bed.
Tonight, the restaurant was dark. Claire wondered if perhaps she had the wrong night, after all. Maybe she had missed the class and could go home now. James would need help with the baby. She knew from experience that the baby could cry for hours, refusing the bottles of pumped milk with the incredulous air of a gold club member told he had to fly coach. In the midst of all the noise, their daughter might well be forgotten, and Claire suddenly remembered Lucy’s newly acquired interest in haircuts.
Behind her, on the other side of the gate, Claire could hear people talking as they walked toward the movie theater. She looked over her shoulder, watching them pass. When she looked forward again, she saw a glow coming from the back of the restaurant, illuminating a narrow stone pathway that led around the side.
The gate creaked behind her and an older couple walked up to Claire.
“Are you going in, too?” the woman asked, smiling.
“Yes,” said Claire, and she began to make her way carefully along the stones to the back door.
The kitchen Was a blast of light after the darkness of the garden. Stainless-steel counters framed the room, heavy iron pasta pots hung from hooks next to copper sauté pans, while knives stuck to magnetic strips along the walls like swords in an armory. A line was forming at a cavernous metal sink where other students were washing their hands—a girl-woman whose eyes were ringed with black eyeliner, a young man with glasses and sandy-colored hair.
When it was her turn, Claire washed her hands conscientiously, the soap popping and foaming between her fingers. She wondered if she should wash all the way to her elbows, like a surgeon, but the line was growing behind her. Claire wiped her hands on a paper towel and walked over to the trash can where the older man she had met outside greeted her with a nod.
“Do you mind?” he said, smiling, his hand reaching toward her shoulder. She looked at him questioningly.
“Just a bit of tissue,” he said, brushing deftly at the collar of her shirt. “Have to do that all the time for my wife—we’ve got four grandchildren.” He dropped the paper towel in the trash can and held out his hand. “My name’s Carl.”
The students Were finding their way to the chairs, set up in two rows of four facing a big wooden prep table with a mirror suspended over it. Carl and his wife were settling in at the far end of the second row; Claire started in their direction, but saw a beautiful woman with olive skin and eyes the color of melted chocolate tentatively taking the chair next to them. In the chair beside her, almost hidden in the corner of the room, sat a man whose sadness seemed to have been pressed into his shirt.
Claire took a chair in the front row, next to a fragile-looking older woman with silver hair and bright blue eyes, whose fingers played absentmindedly with a purple pen. From her seat, Claire scanned her fellow students, looking for personalities, relationships. Carl and his wife were together, but as far as Claire could tell, the seats were otherwise filled with people seemingly unhooked from—or in some cases more likely never hooked to—partners.
Looking about, Claire realized that she knew nothing of the people around her, and they knew exactly as much about her. The strangeness of it caught her. It was hard to remember the last time she had gone anywhere without her children, or her husband. Even those few times, she had been with people who knew her as a member of a nuclear family, a role as much a part of her identity as the color of her hair or the shape of her hands. When was the last time she had been someplace where no one knew who she was?
She wondered what her family was doing at home, if the baby had taken his bottle, if James was rubbing Lucy’s back as she went to sleep. Would he remember to move his hand in clockwise circles? Would he know that the baby always kicked off his blanket, and go back in and cover him up?
How strange, she thought. These people here, they looked at her and thought she was alone, she whose children were with her even in her dreams.
“MY name is Lillian. Welcome to the School of Essential Ingredients.” The woman stood behind the wooden counter, facing the students in their chairs. Her eyes were calm, her smooth, dark hair held loosely together at the base of her neck; Claire guessed she was probably thirty-five years old, just a few years older than Claire herself. Claire watched Lillian’s hands move gently across the utensils and pots on the counter as she talked, like a mother playing with her child’s curls.
“The first question people always ask me is, What are the essential ingredients?” Lillian paused and smiled. “I might as well tell you, there isn’t a list and I’ve never had one. Nor do I hand out recipes. All I can say is that you will learn what you need to, and you should feel free to write down whatever comes to mind during class.
“We’ll meet once a month, always on Mondays, when the restaurant is closed. You’re welcome to come to the restaurant on other nights and learn by eating what others are cooking, but on the first Monday of the month the kitchen is yours.
“Everybody ready?” The class nodded obediently.
“Well then, I think we’ll start with the beginning.” Lillian turned and walked to the back door. She walked outside, letting in a draft of air, and returned carrying a large Styrofoam cooler in her arms. Claire could hear its contents clattering softly. She looked at the box, then around the room. In the back, Carl smiled and whispered to his wife, who nodded.
“Crabs,” said Lillian.
The older woman with the blue eyes leaned toward Claire. “Well, that’s starting off with a bang,” she commented dryly.