Comfort food, p.12
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       Comfort Food, p.12

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “I would not deny that Carmen is a person who enjoys the spotlight,” conceded Oliver. “But I don’t think she’s merely a cooking show-off.”

  “We shall agree to disagree, then,” Gus said amiably. “But I won’t hold your friendship with Carmen against you. Entirely.” She smiled. “Let’s talk about hothouse tomatoes: necessity or crime against flavor?”

  “Both.”

  “Right answer, I think,” Gus said, loading up her canvas bag and then, feeling the weight, distributing some of her goods to Oliver. “I could carry this but I do want you to feel useful.”

  “Of course,” he said. “I’d like to be of use to you, Gus.”

  It was One thing to Say you were available anytime, Carmen thought, and quite another to actually mean it. Alan, she was quickly learning, was very demanding.

  Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: that was the American saying, and it was so true. She’d called Oliver late last night to complain.

  “You’ve got to protect me from Gus,” she had pleaded. “The woman hates me.”

  Carmen had no problem with people wanting to look good but there was something so formal and aloof about Gus: she overdressed just to go shopping. It was as though she kept herself that little bit apart. That little bit different.

  Being on television was not going as expected, that was for sure. Who wants to share a show? That had been Alan’s idea, and while he seemed quite pleased with himself, Carmen was trapped: she couldn’t dare refuse.

  Why, she wondered, did everything have to be so unfair? She’d put her time in on the modeling circuit, sashaying about in bikinis. It had been difficult, when she was younger, before displaying her body became just a regularpart of work. It was a long climb to go from Carmen, daughter of Diego and Mercedes of Seville, to Carmen Vega, Miss Spain 1999. She knew how to turn on the charm—and the walk—when she had to. She knew how to act. She’d been well trained.

  But her relationship with food was all about being Carmen of Seville. It was her truth, her statement to the world. And she didn’t care if she had to use her beauty queen smarts to get people to take a bite—because once they had a taste of her flavors, of the garlic and olive oil and pinches of smoked paprika, pimentón, they would know. Carmen Vega wasn’t just another pretty face. She was an artist.

  11

  Saturday afternoon stretched out before them, bright and sunny: if Gus had been home it would have been a perfect day to putter in her garden and tend to the delphinium. After all, there was no set time to be at the studio,and Gus was hardly certain that Carmen was going to show. Although she wouldn’t have minded calling it a day and taking the commuter train back to Westchester, Gus felt responsible as Oliver waited patiently, loaded down with veggies in the canvas bags.

  “What’s next?” he asked pleasantly.

  “You’re easygoing,” said Gus. “Aren’t you a bit annoyed at our state of limbo?”

  “Oh, I had a life makeover a few years ago,” he said. “Worked out a lot of my annoyance issues. I’m a much nicer guy now, actually.”

  “I’m sure you were always nice.”

  “No, not really.” He was still smiling so Gus wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. “Back then I would have decided all the days’ moves long ago.”

  “But now you sit back and let someone else take charge,” Gus said in a matter-of-fact tone.

  He laughed. “Wrong again,” he said. “Now I know when I need to make a decision and when it’s time to let someone else have a turn. That’s a differentthing altogether.”

  "So ...?”

  “So I’m at your service.”

  “I guess we could go to the studio and play.” Gus gestured to the produce.“Why don’t I call my daughters and convince them to come and eat lunch? ”

  Oliver nodded. “At the very least we can try to teach them a few skills before the next episode.”

  “I know!” Gus nodded vigorously. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had a more disorganized episode since my first day on TV. Those kids can’t tell a spoon from a spatula.”

  “That’s part of the fun, I think,” said Oliver. “The mad scramble of a group who can’t cook their way out of a paper bag. Present company excepted,of course.”

  “Right back at you,” said Gus. “It is rather disturbing, isn’t it, that I’ve managed to raise two girls who are not particularly adept in the kitchen?”

  “I think the taller of the two, the one with the light brown hair, has more of a knack.”

  “Do you? That’s Aimee. She pays attention even when you think she’s not looking.”

  “She seems interesting.”

  Gus turned to the man at her side and looked at him thoughtfully. He had a nice build, and friendly crinkles around his tickler eyes. And a thought began to form in her mind quite naturally.

  “Aimee is interesting,” she told him, making a mental note to find out if Porter knew Oliver’s age. “She works for the UN as an economist.”

  “I’m sure she and I could have fun talking numbers,” he said. “But you and I will have a better time cooking, that’s for sure.”

  “Right,” Gus said, listening with half an ear. She dialed Aimee from her cell phone and invited her up to the studio.

  “She’ll meet us there because she’s already uptown,” Gus told Oliver as they clambered into a taxi, tucking the bags of vegetables in between them.

  After chopping three potatoes to Oliver’s ten spuds, Aimee decided she needed a break or she might cut her fingers off by accident. She didn’t typicallyspend her Saturday afternoons cooking: in fact, it was her routine to do her washing in the basement laundry of her building, interspersing trips up and down in the elevator with watching all the episodes of Wheel of Fortune she’d TiVoed from the week before. Game shows were Aimee’s secret obsessionand most guilty pleasure: she couldn’t decide if she’d rather imagine herself winning or would simply be content to watch program after program of smiling, successful contestants. Sitting amid her comforter and watchingthe television, her laundry basket on the end of the bed and the liquid detergent tucked back into its spot in the linen cupboard, Aimee gave herselfover to the enjoyment of watching: she experienced a deep satisfaction after every big win, a twist in her stomach when a participant landed on a “Bankrupt” on the colorful wheel and lost all potential money. The best moments, though, were when the contestants began to tear up after being awarded some large jackpot, their relief and desperation etched in every line of their face.

  “Oh, they really needed the money,” she would say aloud to no one at all, her room empty except for her. “This is going to make a big difference for them.”

  Sometimes she would tear up just as the participants were doing, crying along with them and feeling a warm happiness enveloping her. She’d hit “pause” and imagine all the wonderful things they could do with their prizes: the trips they would take, the table they would finally buy for an empty dining room, the teenage son or daughter who could finally go to college. Aimee saw all their dreams and cried for them. But that was most often only when someone won $100,000.

  And then, at the end of watching hours of shows, as if to bring herself back to the real world and all its discomforts, she would warn the players through the screen: “Don’t forget you’ll be taxed on your winnings!”

  Late at night, when she was trying to sleep, she often wondered why no one had started a game show magazine, with article after article giving updates on the winners of Millionaire and Deal or No Deal and Wheel. It was true she enjoyed the smarty-pants nature of Jeopardy but, when it came right down to it, what had a hold on her heart were the regular people just holdingtheir breath for an opportunity that day-to-day life could not deliver.

  The game show obsession had started years ago, back in the summer after her father died, when she and Sabrina had their mornings free after swim lessons and nothing to do. Gus had kept them home most of the time while she dealt with papers, sitting with the d
oor closed in the tiny room that had been their father’s office. There were a lot of papers, apparently.

  She and Sabrina, still in elementary school then, had become diehard devotees of The Price Is Right, memorizing the price of Rice-A-Roni and Lysol disinfectant and planning a cross-country road trip when they turned eighteen and could finally become contestants on the show. They’d see Bob Barker and the Plinko board, and if they played it just right, they’d bid well enough to win both showcases. Sabrina wanted to win a car, a truck, and a Winnebago, but all Aimee wished to win was a new living room set. Somethingwith bright flowers that would cheer up Gus and make her want to come out of the office.

  Aimee put down her knife and looked up to locate her mother. Gus had been spending much of the afternoon pretend-searching for items in the pantry, and Aimee, well acquainted with her mother’s penchant for match-making,was suspicious about what was really going on. She walked out of the kitchen studio a few steps and went to find Gus.

  “Long time since you’ve been in the studio, Mom?” she asked. “You don’t seem to want to hang out with the rest of us.”

  “Aimee, you startled me,” said Gus, who was looking at a can of tomatoes with studious concentration.

  “Need tomatoes?”

  “No, why?”

  Aimee gestured toward her mother’s hand. Gus looked down.

  "Oh, I was just ... reading the ingredient list,” she said. “It can be illuminating.”

  “I’m sure, Mom,” said Aimee. “It contains tomatoes.”

  “Are you having a nice time with Oliver?” asked Gus. “He’s very handsome.Funny, too.”

  “So go date him, then,” said Aimee.

  “There’s no need to be ridiculous,” said Gus. Her daughter well knew she had not gone out with anyone after Christopher died. It was always too soon, too busy, too scary. Too easy to avoid altogether. Even when she felt alone at times, Gus believed that remaining single was better for her girls. For herself.

  “What’s the deal, Mom? Hoping for a double wedding?”

  “If you mean with that Billy, then no.” Gus replaced the tomatoes on the shelf. “I did leave you a few messages last week that you didn’t return. I want to talk about this Billy thing.”

  “News flash, Mom,” Aimee said. “Sabrina’s the one who is engaged. Not me.”

  She’d spent an hour or so with Billy one evening as he waited—and waited and waited—while Sabrina changed outfits repeatedly. He’d seemed unaffected by her sister’s shenanigans entirely, had read the paper, chitchat-tedabout the midterm elections, and even offered to make a run for coffee, all the while praising every outfit Sabrina paraded around. It’s not as though he became Aimee’s best friend or anything, but he hadn’t seemed like such a bad guy at all.

  “For one, I know that. For two, don’t speak to me in that tone,” said Gus. “You don’t have to be so prickly all the time.” She leaned close to Aimee and whispered, “Help me get Sabrina back with Troy.”

  “It’s her life, Mom. You don’t have to run it. Why do you have to just, just... ” Aimee mimed wringing someone’s neck with her hands.

  “I’m just trying to help. Aimee, your sister runs through fiancés like a thirsty man drinks water.”

  “So let her figure it out.”

  “I can’t think of anything worse,” said Gus. “Do you know what my fear is? That Sabrina is going to call me from the road, having left behind a husbandand a couple of babies, because she’s gone off to find herself.”

  “That’s not going to happen, Mom. It’s not like she married any of these guys.”

  “One day she’s going to drop the ‘cold feet’ act and then what?”

  “Then I get my own apartment.”

  “You’re just being ridiculous. We’ve got to band together and take this seriously.”

  “She’s only twenty-five years old!” said Aimee. “She’s got several more fiancés to dump before she really gets serious.”

  “You know what she’s like. Sabrina has always needed someone, and I think Troy is it. You’re different. You can stand on your own. Like me.”

  Aimee rolled her eyes. “The toughest girl in the world,” she said. “Look, I didn’t come up here to talk about my sister or hide out in the pantry. I thought I was at least going to get some soup.”

  “This is important, Aimee—I need your help.”

  “What do you want me to do, Mom?” Aimee watched Gus closely.

  “Sabrina won’t answer my messages.”

  “Ah, I thought you’d been in touch with me a tad more than usual,” Aimee said under her breath. Gus gave no sign of hearing her words.

  “Wasn’t Troy kind?” she asked.

  “Yeah, but he isn’t some sort of savior. Nobody’s perfect.”

  “Exactly,” said Gus. “He’s real. And I believe Troy truly cares about her.”

  "Maybe, but you just like him better than those other stuffed shirts she’s brought home.”

  “Neither of you girls have any idea what it’s like when things go sour. You’ve never had to pay for your mistakes.”

  “So let us do something wrong,” said Aimee. “You get so intense when we don’t do what you want us to do.”

  “You don’t know what it’s like to struggle.” Gus was getting angry: her cheeks were turning red. “I have done everything for the two of you.”

  “Maybe don’t do so much, then,” Aimee said quietly. “We may not have had your struggle, but we’ve had our own.”

  “Hey, Simpsons,” Oliver said, poking his head into the pantry. “Soup’s on.”

  “It can’t be done already?”

  “It’s coming together, but I was getting lonely out there. Come out and assist.”

  Gus glanced at him sharply.

  “Er, I mean come out and let me assist you,” said Oliver, grinning.

  Gus began to move in the direction of the stove.

  “Oliver?” Aimee asked, pulling lightly on his sleeve. “You heard us arguing,didn’t you?”

  “A culinary producer never tells,” he said. “Besides, Carmen just called my cell and she’s not going to make it up here today. I figure your mother has used up her last bit of patience—and I was hoping to save some for our next live show.”

  too many cooks

  12

  Eight days later, the team was fully assembled in Gus’s kitchen: Oliver in a purple cook’s jacket, Carmen in a cranberry-colored wrap dress, Sabrina in a sage green skirt-and-sweater combo, Aimee in a crisp white blouse and charcoal slacks, Troy in a dark blue shirt and a very large button that said “Sabrina used to be my girlfriend” in red letters. Not bad, thought Porter, for a team who resisted direction on what to wear.

  The group sat among the cameras—much to the annoyance of the camera crew—as they waited for Gus, who was upstairs with Hannah, ostensibly gettingready. Porter was going over his schedule for the upcoming hour, not in the least worried that Gus hadn’t come down. She’d never let him down in all their years of working together, and he doubted she was about to start now.

  One floor above the kitchen, perched on the cushioned window seat in her master bedroom, Gus waited with Hannah. Gus was careful not to crush her emerald green silk shirt and wide-legged dark pants, or ruffle her hair, expertly blown out in her signature swingy bob. Hannah, wearing a gray velour tracksuit, had flopped on the bed. She didn’t want to join the others.

  “You’d be better at hiding if you didn’t dress like an athlete,” Gus pointed out. “Try wearing a skirt or something.”

  “Perhaps a short white skirt, right?” Hannah said, before grabbing a pillow and making to smother herself. “I’d be better if I didn’t go on television at all.”

  “I know you love halibut.” Gus was using her soothing tone. “Hannah, it’s going to be easy today: halibut in zucchini jackets, a green bean and potato casserole, and a white sangria.”

  Gus loved to talk about food. Late at night, if she couldn’t sleep, she would read c
ookbooks out loud to herself until she relaxed.

  “Sangria? Isn’t that Spanish?” Hannah’s voice was muffled from underneaththe pillow. “Like Carmen?”

  “Contrary to reports, I actually love Spanish food,” said Gus. “I just have issues with Carmen in particular. But that doesn’t mean I can’t compromise now and then. We’re using anchovies imported from Santoña and spicy paprika today.”

  “Anchovies? I hate anchovies.”

  “People always say that.” Gus stepped over to remove the pillow from Hannah’s face. “But then they don’t even know that’s what they’re tasting. It’s all about trying before deciding against something.”

  “Are we still talking about food?”

  “If you don’t want to be on the show, it’s okay by me,” said Gus. “But I’d prefer to have you there.”

  “I don’t know what to do, that’s the problem,” Hannah said. “You cannot imagine how much I want to go home and put on my pajamas. But I hate to give in to it.”

  Gus wore a strange expression on her face.

  “What?”

  “It’s just that . . . nothing,” said Gus.

  “I hate to quit things,” continued Hannah. “Do you know what my father always said? ‘Once a quitter, always a quitter.’”

  “Hannah, you stay home all day long. All night long. All the time. And your father? Don’t get me started.”

  Hannah leaned up on one elbow. “Oh, hiding is not the same as quitting,” she explained. “I thought you understood that.”

  “Well, it’s an unusual style of living!”

  “Popular with cloistered nuns, hermits, and disgraced sports stars everywhere.”

  “You can’t let the past dictate your future.”

  “It’s called self-preservation.” Hannah’s face was serious. “Do you think someone will recognize me?”

  Gus considered fibbing, but only briefly.

  “Yes,” she said. “I knew who you were the day I met you,” she continued. “You haven’t changed all that much in fifteen years, you know. Your head took up whole billboards in Times Square once upon a time.”

 
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