Comfort food, p.15
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       Comfort Food, p.15

           Kate Jacobs
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  “Let me know you,” he’d said.

  What had been most alarming was the lie it made out of her most cherished private belief about herself. That all she wanted was to be understood. To have someone “get” her and love her anyway.

  But she didn’t. She didn’t want to be forced into that kind of trust. What if he couldn’t follow through? What if he couldn’t love her anyway? And in her heart she could hear a drum beat: Trust will lead to hurt. Trust will lead to hurt.

  There was only one solution: he had to go. They all had to go, of course. But giving up Troy was the toughest.

  Now, if her mother hadn’t brought Troy onto the television show, he’d be like all the rest of her ex-lovers. Trading the once-a-year belated holiday email filled with the three-paragraph rundown of all that was new and fascinating.But Gus had interfered, as she always did, and here was Troy, pacing in the library on a cool Sunday evening in May.

  “Just tell me what you see in him,” he said. She liked how he was thoughtful,methodical, interested. He was upset, definitely, but he wasn’t whining.

  “I don’t know,” said Sabrina. It was hard to lie to Troy; she felt as though he could see through her. “He’s a good guy.”

  “I’m a good guy.” He was matter-of-fact.

  “You just want to possess me!” Sabrina could hear how shrill her voice sounded.

  Troy gave her an appreciative once-over.

  “No,” he said, his voice mellow. “I just want to love you.”

  He came around the desk, put a hand on either arm of the chair, and leaned in to her.

  “I love you, Sabrina Simpson,” he said.

  "Why?” She began sobbing, guilt and regret and fear rushing out of her. "Why?” He was far too close; he smelled just like the Troy she knew, an intoxicating blend of grapefruit shampoo and spicy cologne. Sabrina breathed deeply, then again. She liked his Troy smell.

  “Hey,” he said softly. “Hey.”

  His face was very close.

  Almost without being aware of moving, Sabrina tilted toward Troy.

  “You don’t have to cry,” he said, his lips so close to touching her own. “We can work it out.”

  Her chest felt tight, as though he was pulling the breath right out of her. She moved nearer to get it back from him and as she did so, he caught her mouth in his. His arms moved up to grip the back of her chair, forming a box around her head.

  Sabrina opened her mouth wider as Troy nudged her with his tongue, remembering how he tasted and wanting more. She reached up, encircling his neck, and pushed up from the floor with her feet slightly as Troy pulled her body into his, steering her back into the desk, pressing against her as they kissed. His body felt good: strong and taut in all the right places. She felt safe and powerful and beautiful and good. Very good.

  Sabrina eased her way on the top of the desk and tugged at Troy’s shirt, bringing his body closer and beginning to undress him at the same time.

  “I knew,” he said. “I knew.”

  His body was warm against her and she liked the sensation of being covered.She liked the motion of his hand running up her thigh, over her stomach.She wanted him, just as she’d wanted him before.

  And then he stopped.

  “Wait,” Troy said. Sabrina, as if watching in slow motion, felt dizzy as she saw him reach over to her left hand and wrench the glittering diamond off her finger. Saw him throw it across the room, where it hit one of the leather club chairs and bounced onto the floor. She watched it fall and then he was kissing her again, urgently, his hands everywhere, her skirt very high now, almost to her hips.

  “Come on,” he said, indicating her clothes.

  She began to twist out of what she was wearing and, in doing so, looked down at her hand, at the indentation where her engagement ring from Billy had been just moments earlier. In her mind’s eye, she could see herself having sex with Troy, could imagine just how much she’d enjoy it. Her body ached for him.

  Sabrina hesitated.

  “Tell me what you want,” he said, holding her palm to his cheek.

  “I don’t know,” she whispered, before removing her hand. “But I’m engaged to Billy.”

  Troy’s eyes went cold. A vein jerked at his jaw.

  “For once I want to do the right thing,” Sabrina said, crying again. Her body felt cooler now and, looking down at herself on the desk she could see how disheveled she was, her skirt hiked up and her sweater mostly off. Her bra hung loosely around her shoulders.

  “Kinda late to be starting that now, don’t you think?” he said, hurriedly tucking his shirt back into his pants.

  He strode quickly to the door, then whirled around and moved toward her in two quick steps. Reflexively, she shrunk back, even though she’d never been hit, by him or anyone. Troy gazed at her with a mixture of confusionand pity. Then, shaking his head, he turned her body around so that he could reach behind her and fasten her bra. With care, he eased her arms into the sleeves of her top as she sobbed, then lifted her off the desk and onto her feet, checking her skirt as he did so.

  Taking a Kleenex out of a box on a nearby bookshelf, Troy pressed a pile of tissues into Sabrina’s hand. Wordlessly, he kissed her on the top of her head and exited the room.


  Sabrina had been on Gus’s mind ever since the last show. She thought about her daughter when she padded through the house at night in her bare feet, making sure the doors and windows were all locked, wonderingif Sabrina was at her new fiancé’s or what. Gus talked aloud to her as she sifted flour, asking her questions with each shake of the sifter, even though Sabrina wasn’t in the room and the only listeners were the four-pawedsnoozers, Salt and Pepper.

  “I’ve no idea what to do about Sabrina,” she told Hannah during a quiet sunny morning in her kitchen. “I’ve barely spoken to her since Octopus Night. Aimee is running interference.”


  “Calling to talk to me and then letting it slip that Sabrina’s working late on a big project, that kind of thing,” explained Gus. “It’s what she used to do when I went out on a book tour and called home, when Sabrina was misbehaving.”

  They munched on oversized blueberry-lemon muffins sprinkled with white sugar crystals and dripping with creamy butter that Gus purchased specially from a New York state dairy. Hannah was already on her secondand she’d only been over for a few minutes; Gus had anticipated that her sweet tooth would get her. She was looking thinner than usual, and Gus was concerned as she tapped her fingers incessantly on the arm of her chair.

  “It’s okay to give them some space,” Hannah said, her mouth quite full. “Whatever you do, skip the surprise visit this time.”

  “A family shouldn’t have secrets,” said Gus. “That’s when things go all loosey-goosey. When mistakes are made.”

  Hannah began coughing on a piece of muffin.

  “A family,” she said, trying to swallow, “is absolutely a group of people who keep secrets from each other. Who else cares that much about what you do?”

  Her own family was far-flung and distant. She didn’t see them anymore, though she received a few emails from a cousin every now and then. She often liked to fantasize about all the different lives she could have had, if she hadn’t needed to hide out in her little white carriage house.

  “Too much knowledge never helped me,” she pointed out, and Gus knew it was true. In fact, Gus had been hoping that being around Eat Drink and Be would be a positive in the lives of everyone around her, would draw Hannahout of her shell, would bring Troy and Sabrina closer, would bring out a little fun in Aimee. A lot of pressure on one TV program, she thought now. Especially since quite the opposite seemed to be happening. The ones she loved were—and this worried her a great deal—annoyed with her.

  She went to the coffeepot and brought it back to refill Hannah’s mug, pouring in some heavy cream as she did so.

  “Have you and Porter patched things up?” asked Hannah, reaching for the sugar bowl and putting in t
wo heaping teaspoonfuls. With pleasure, Gus watched her crane her neck toward the counter, looking for more muffins.

  “Things are as they are.” Gus shrugged.

  Hannah waited for her to explain, but when her friend didn’t, she took her muffin plate toward a metal cooling rack laden with fluffy deliciousness. She took two and proceeded to butter both with enthusiasm.

  “What about Oliver?”

  “He has continued his barrage of daily apologies,” said Gus. “The last one was in free verse.”

  “So all is forgiven?”

  “I’m rather glad he felt bad. But it’s not really about Oliver, you know? The issue is Carmen and her quest for kitchen domination.”

  “So what are you going to do?”

  “I’m going to kill her with kindness,” she said. “I just woke up and decided I’m going to smile her to death. I’m going to blind her with my bright white teeth until she’ll run all the way back to Spain. Or, at the very least, someoneelse’s show.”

  “Speaking of, how are the ratings?”

  “High, actually.” Gus smiled as Hannah sat down with her muffins and tucked in. She enjoyed watching Hannah eat. Well, actually, she loved to watch anyone eat her food. “So far Alan’s experiment is successful. The sight of Carmen and me squabbling with each other is a hit with viewers. It seems taste has taken a nosedive.”

  “A cooking catfight,” said Hannah.

  “We’re not the only ones,” Gus said. “Seems Troy and Sabrina’s little snipes are also gathering them a fan base. The message boards are agog about SaTroy.”

  “He’s a cutie,” said Hannah. “The long, lean, dark-haired, Asian thing. Sexy and exotic.”

  “You’re not the only one who’s noticing,” said Gus. “Troy called to tell me he landed a meeting with a Nebraska school district because the superintendentwatches Eat Drink and Be.”

  “They called him for a date?”

  “No, they want him to get some oranges and bananas into the school district vending machines,” Gus said, shaking her head. “Besides, he’s only thirty-four.”

  “Older women and younger men is all the rage,” said Hannah. “More experience in the bedroom! I should know: I just wrote an article on the topic for More.”

  Gus tried gamely to hide her surprise.

  “Should you really be writing about relationships?”

  Hannah made a face. “You don’t actually have to know anything to write this stuff, Gus,” she said. “You just find some so-called experts and quote them. No one asked for my sexual history.”

  “No, no, of course not,” Gus said, feeling a bit silly. She tried to change the subject. “I’m afraid Sabrina is busy plotting her latest wedding without me.”

  “Maybe that’s why she gets engaged so often,” teased Hannah. “She knows how happy you are to plan.”

  “He’s handsome,” conceded Gus. “In a Ken-doll kind of way. That’s how Sabrina likes her collection.”

  She stood up and took the cups and plates to the dishwasher, which was empty save a bowl from her late soup supper the night before. Gus fretted about Hannah not eating, but the truth is that her own stomach of late had been feeling sour. Too much stress. That’s what you got for keeping secrets.

  “I phoned him,” she announced to Hannah, needing a confessor.


  “Billy,” said Gus. “I was like a dial-a-stalker: I hung up on his voice mail three times.”

  “Oh my God, Gus! You’re going to end up in a TV-movie-of-the-week: My M-I-L is a nut job.”

  “It’s like I can’t help myself,” Gus admitted. “What’s wrong with wanting to protect that girl from herself?”

  “Nothing, Gus, but there are boundaries, you know.”

  “I told myself I was trying to reach Sabrina each time I dialed,” she said. “But the truth is that I wanted to say a few choice things to him myself. Like what is he doing proposing to a girl who’s already been engaged so many times?”

  “Like what is he doing when you want her to be with Troy?” asked Hannah.

  “I wasn’t going to say that. That would have been rude. I’m not trying to hurt the man—it’s just that he doesn’t know her.”

  “Are you sure about that?”

  “What’s true is that if Sabrina didn’t have Aimee running after her every two seconds, I don’t know what I’d do.”

  “Hey, maybe some handsome dude will win Porter’s contest and come on the show. Then Sabrina will run off with him.”

  “That’s really not very funny,” said Gus. “Though with a random drawinganything could happen. I wanted there to at least be an essay portion but no one else wanted to read the papers.”

  One entry per day was allowed, which was certainly more than fair, thought Priya Patel as she filled out her ballot onscreen. She wondered how many other women were sitting in their homes, just like she was, wishing for a chance to meet Gus Simpson and ask her all about plum tarts and pistachiocakes. It was foolish for a forty-four-year-old housewife in New Jersey to dream about winning but she held her breath, just the same, and clicked “send.”

  The children were breakfasted and off to school, lunch bags in hand. The two younger ones insisted on peanut butter and jam, like their classmates,and juice in boxes, which Raj disapproved of but which Priya didn’t really mind. Her teenage daughter ate in the cafeteria with her mostly white pals. She recalled her own mother’s suspicions when she’d wanted to eat nothing but spaghetti during her first semester in college, concerned that it indicated some deeper rejection of all things Indian.

  “I like noodles,” she’d said, and while that was true, she had also been mooning over an Italian-American boy in physics class. That was the thing about her parents and their friends: they were more Indian than the Indians back home, constantly watchful for fear that moving to America would leech away their children’s understanding of who they were. Raj had developed similar fears.

  Though it wasn’t as if Priya didn’t cook for the family. She made phulkas for Raj’s lunch and pakoras to go with Sunday Night Football, American-style.(Funny, that, how being such a fan of the Giants did not impact Raj culturally. He had explained as much to her and the children.) And she had a special fondness for home-style sweets, nibbling on raisiny bundi ladoo and wiping her hands discreetly on a napkin so as not to make the keyboard sticky. It wasn’t as though she resented all the cooking, entirely, because she often quite enjoyed the sizzle of the vegetables and the scent of curry around her. What bothered her most of all was that no one stopped to admire what she’d made. They just fell upon the dishes like hungry wolves, even Raj. How nice it must be to be Gus, she thought, able to watch an old tape and admire what you’ve made. She’d suggested they get out the camcorderduring Diwali last year to capture the platters of cholafali, deep-fried ghooghra, khandvi rolls sprinkled with coconut and little balls of churma na ladoo that had taken such care to make, but everyone had laughed as though she’d made a funny joke, and she’d pretended to go along with it.

  Cooking was a curious thing, really, how there was nothing to show after it was all eaten up. This is great, someone might say as they chewed, but in the end all that was left was the memory. It wasn’t as though you could save up a portion of your best curried lentil spread and put it on display, a sign taped to the bowl saying “Priya made this.” Not like when she’d been designing mechanical systems at her job back before she’d had kids.

  Even a recipe didn’t come out exactly the same each time you made it and so wasn’t perfect proof of your cooking ability. If that had been the case, then anyone able to read a cookbook could produce a Michelin-star-quality meal. No, making good food took creativity, technique, flair. And love.

  Priya loved her family, loved Raj and Bina and Chitt and Kiran. Yes, she did. Oh, she knew she was supposed to feel this constant hum of happiness—she’d read the books, seen the programs—but it was just very, very hard. She felt very tired. And plump. In recent years, Priya had s
tarted running to fat, which collected around her middle and seemed impossible to dislodge.

  “I like your tummy,” Raj said, pinching her rolls. If there was one good thing about marrying a man your parents had selected straight from India, it was that he still thought being chubby was a good thing. He didn’t nag her when she curled up with a bowl of crunchy tum tum and ate every speck. He was really, much of the time, quite nice. It was just Priya. She simply felt bogged down.

  If I got to meet Gus, she told herself, then it would all turn around. How would it not?

  When Gus had declared the next episode would feature brunch, she had not thought out the rather simple fact that the show ran on Sunday nights. And there’d been some concern from upstairs, Porter had indicated, that the show was adrift.

  “After two episodes?” Gus had not been convinced.

  “TV is changing into a completely different world,” said Porter. “Sitcoms disappear after one episode if the numbers aren’t there.”

  “I thought our numbers were good?”

  “They’re way better, but we haven’t been re-upped yet,” he said.

  “Well, it would help if Alan wasn’t making us all play chicken and would air us week after week,” said Gus. “I’m surprised anyone keeps tuning in.”

  “Our demos are great, actually: lots of frat boys with an empty Sunday who want to watch Carmen, lots of twentysomethings caught up in the drama of SaTroy, plus the diehard Gus fans,” he said.

  “I assume those are the old ladies?”

  Porter laughed. “You’ve got your own following with the frat boys, I can assure you. Something about HotOlderMamas-dot-com?”

  “Oh, don’t even tell me that,” Gus said, though in truth she was quite curious and made a mental note to check it out later. Then Carmen and Oliver had shown up—riding together in the elevator this time around— and the group of four had brainstormed everything from frittatas to congee.

  “I’ve got it,” said Oliver. “Why not make the show more thematic? As in, ‘You’ve spent all day in bed—say, with your cute girlfriend—and now you’re going to treat her to a little breakfast in bed, even though it’s nighttime.’ ”

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