By Sharon Bishop
He arrives at half past five in the evening, an hour before the dinner party. I let him in, feeling the slide of his muscles as he lifts the bags to the counter top and empties the contents. With gentle movements, he lines up the lemons, the chanterelles, the frisee. The duck he places thoughtfully on my cherry-red cutting mat that I had found for half-price at Meijer. He glances at me and says he likes the color. I hear the almost-disguised accent in his voice. His fingers smoothly glide over the bottles of oils—walnut, grapeseed, hazelnut—and he softly asks for a saucepan.
I measure out the mead and demi-glace, but my eyes keep drifting to his hands, deftly palming the lemons, reaming out the pale juice. Unlike me, there is no hesitation to his motions; he is one continuous stream of controlled and assured energy, flicking the oven to broil, placing the red Le Creuset over the flame, patting the duck with salt and pepper. As he adjusts the fire, he says he likes the color of my skillet, and he touches it, very gently, just on the edge of the handle.
As the sauce simmers, we throw the dragees into the food processor. I shiver as his finger intermittently presses the pulse button. While he scrapes the fragments from the processor into a shallow pan, he asks me what I do for a living. I have to tell him the truth, because he would know if I lied—I know he would. But accounting is not a flashy occupation. No one holds their breath and watches me type at my keyboard. I find myself wondering where the air has gone when he looks at me and slides his bent forefinger over the space between his lips and the cleft in his chin.
It is time to add butter and honey to the sauce. I do so under his tutelage, watching as the cream-colored ball begins to dissolve, an iridescent shimmer rippling out until it becomes part of the larger whole. I can feel him watching, too. He brings me the duck, golden and crisp in my red Le Creuset, and hands me the tongs.
Feel the texture of the meat in your hands, he says.
I hesitate, but try. It is easier when I roll the oily pieces through the chopped dragees. A sweet and crisp odor comes from the pan. When he opens the oven door, the heat startles me. I never use the broil setting. It’s too dangerous. Besides, I know I would burn something and the alarm would wake up my night shift neighbor again.
He doesn’t burn anything. The duck broils for two minutes on each side, the scent of caramelized sugar and toasted nuts curling over the stronger odor of the meat. I stare when he pulls it out of the oven. He catches my eye and smiles, and I think that he is like caramelized sugar himself, delicious and warm and chewy.
The point of cooking is the connection, he says.
It’s not QuickBooks, I respond.
He laughs at this, and asks me if I would like to change for the party. I can start the dressing, he offers.
I start to say that I am dressed for the party. Looking down at my jeans and the old University of Georgia hoodie, I say, Sure. Thanks.
Upstairs, I examine my wardrobe and realize that everything looks the same. I have plenty of jeans and t-shirts, some sweatshirts and pants, and lots of workout clothes. There are five khaki slacks and neutral blouses for workdays. I prefer to blend in with my cubicle.
Suddenly I remember a particular TJ Maxx clearance special purchased in a moment of rash expectation, something gotten a year ago before coming home too early and finding my then-boyfriend writing me a dear Jane letter that he intended to leave on the refrigerator stocked with hotdogs and leftover ramen. Ignoring the pinch from that memory, I hold the dress up to my form. It looks like something someone else would wear. It is soft, and slides over my frame like I imagine the man downstairs would touch me. It is red.
When I re-enter the kitchen, the smell is intoxicating. Shallots and roast duck, butter and honey and mushrooms. I stop and place my hand on the cool granite countertop and notice that the gray paint is chipping where the backsplash meets the wall. Tomorrow, I think, I’m going to sit down and redo this kitchen. This thought makes me happy and I turn toward him, ready for the next step.
He is watching me while he whisks the oils and sherry vinegar. His eyes take their time before he smiles.
I like the dress, he says.
Setting down the vinaigrette, he reaches for the frisee and shows me how to tear it lengthwise into pieces. The soft rips announce each bite-sized portion falling into the wooden salad bowl. To this he adds the limp and buttery chanterelles, some salt and cayenne.
Could you chop the parsley, he asks.
How much, I wonder.
I find the red cutting mat, cleaned and in the rack. Holding the bunch of vegetation, I timidly slice through the furthest tips. It takes me a while. I try to get it as finely chopped as possible.
Here, he says. This will help.
He steps behind me and closes his hand over mine. I fear my fingers will shake so hard I will lose them under the blade, but he curls his beneath, completely engulfing my hand. We chop until there is a pungent, verdant pile on the red cutting mat. A pile that is much bigger than a tablespoon.
I wonder if he hears my inner remorse when he steps away to get the dressing. I had wanted to feel his buttons press into my spine.
I think your guests are here, he says. I’ll plate the food.
My mind goes blank. I open my mouth, trying to hold onto something that I feel I am losing.
I blurt out, Would you like to stay?
He looks up from drizzling the sauce over the duck breasts. I notice he is taller than me even when he is bent over the table. I am certain he hears the catch of breath that comes from my lips.
I can’t. I have another client after this, he says.
I wonder if his next client is young and single. I wonder if she’s pretty. I wonder if she has a red Le Creuset saucepan that he’ll like to touch.
It’s an elderly widower, he says. It would be wrong for me to cancel.
I am so relieved I almost don’t hear him when he asks me to come to his house next Tuesday. We can cook bouillabaisse.
Then he is gone, and they are here, talking about how lovely I look in that red dress and how great an idea it was to hire a professional chef for the party. And I’m standing there, thinking about his hands and how many stray dogs I could feed with the hotdogs in refrigerator.
Category: Short Story