Comfort food, p.18
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       Comfort Food, p.18

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  Troy looked disheartened upon receiving his pile. “What the ... ? ”

  “Good question, Oliver,” Gary said, a bit too loudly.

  “I’m Troy, the Korean guy with the thick head of hair?” He looked amused. “Oliver over here is very white and very bald.”

  “Oh, right, right,” said Gary. “Sorry about that. You’ll all have to help me out with your names for a day or so.”

  “Haven’t you seen our show?” asked Carmen.

  “Part of the reason Alan chose Gary is that he’s not a fan,” Porter explained. “A fresh slate, if you will.”

  “And part of your homework is to answer this questionnaire all about yourself,” said Gary, passing around a box of pencils. “And then answer a second one about your teammates, giving me all sorts of juicy details. So go, team!”

  “This isn’t about sports,” said Aimee. “We’re not actually a team, you know.”

  “I know,” said Gary. “That’s what I’m here to fix.”

  Carmen had changed into a pink nightie and curled up in her bed, but she hadn’t bothered to fill out the questionnaires from that stupid Gary. She wasn’t even sure if she still had his pencil. Was he expecting her to return them? She thought of calling her publicist to complain about the enforced ridiculousness but she was aware there was nothing that could be done, and besides, it was after eleven on the Friday night of the May holiday weekend. Even Carmen Vega had her limits, right?

  She’d called Oliver a few times, both in his room and on his cell, though he hadn’t answered. He and Troy had gone off to the video arcade after Gary released them all, and she supposed they could still be there. Playing Pac-Man and whatnot. Oliver, she knew, had his very own Galaga console in his Tribeca living room; it was his present to himself when they graduatedfrom the ICE.

  Pulling on sneakers, a pair of light cotton pants, and a cardigan sweater over her nightie, Carmen grabbed her key card and left the room.

  Twenty minutes later, upon discovering the video game room was closed for the night and not seeing either Troy or Oliver anywhere (or having Oliveranswer his phone, yet again), Carmen headed outside.

  “Catching a little night air, ma’am?” asked the college kid manning the front desk. Carmen waved, buttoning up her sweater and bracing for a blast of cold air. However, it had been a hot day, and the air was warm.

  She loitered outside the lobby for a moment before wandering down to the gardens. She was all alone, feeling more than a bit brave to be walkingabout on her own in unfamiliar surroundings. After several minutes she arrived at the resort’s tennis courts, row after row of green concrete. There, sitting slumped on a bench with head pressed to knees, was a figure in a hooded gray sweat suit who seemed somewhat familiar. A tennis racket lay at her feet.

  “So you’re coming out of hiding?” Carmen asked the bundle of cotton.

  “Not sure,” Hannah said, raising her head to reveal her face. “I’ve only gotten as far as all this.”

  “You haven’t checked in, then?”

  “Nope.”

  Carmen sat down next to her. “How’d you get up here?”

  “I drove,” said Hannah. “In my 1990 red Miata, the one I bought after winning the U.S. Open. My driver’s license isn’t even valid.”

  “Well, I won’t tell Gus,” said Carmen. “I have no doubt she’d disapprove.”

  “Gus is the one who called me,” said Hannah. “She phoned tonight to tell me I was fortunate to not be here. Said there’s some short little man named Gary who’s going to make everyone play games.”

  “And you just couldn’t resist?” Carmen raised her eyebrows. “This weekendis going to be a huge waste of time.”

  “I thought maybe I’d come help Gus, I suppose. I don’t really know. Makinga plan isn’t really my thing.”

  “Isn’t your thing that you’re a recluse or something?” Carmen tightened the laces on her sneakers. “I’ve tried not to follow the news. I prefer to watch my own coverage.”

  “Thank God.”

  “Being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, right?”

  “True enough,” said Hannah.

  “So what do you do, then, when you’re not putting out fires at Gus’s house?”

  “I’m a writer,” said Hannah. “Health stuff mostly, but sometimes I write about dating and parenting. No sports, though.”

  “That’s sheer genius,” said Carmen. “A woman in constant fear of being found out by a journalist becomes a journalist herself!”

  “I admit I didn’t think about it that way.” Hannah tested the weight of her racket in her hands. “No one stood by me publicly, you know. But in private, some people helped me out. That’s how I got my first writing assignment—a sports reporter called in a favor.”

  “You wrote about tennis?”

  “No, about summer travel bargains. I mainly called up hotel chains and found out what specials they were running. It paid next to nothing: ten cents a word.”

  “But it was a job.” Carmen thought about living in that California guesthouse,not knowing where to turn.

  “It was,” admitted Hannah. “I learned how to become a reporter just by doing it. It was a good thing, too, because I never went to college.”

  “I went to culinary school,” said Carmen. “But not until after all the pageantsand stuff. Not like Gus, with her alma mater and all that.”

  “Maybe we grow up faster when we’re out working.” Hannah shrugged.

  “Wish I’d brought my racket out here with me,” said Carmen. “I play a bit.”

  “Oh, yeah?” Hannah stared out into the court. “I haven’t played for years.”

  “You kept the racket, though.”

  “I have seventeen rackets sitting in my guest room closet,” Hannah said. “I couldn’t throw them out. I’ve been afraid to touch them.”

  “Let’s play,” Carmen said. “Come on, let’s go.” She pulled Hannah to her feet.

  “You don’t have a racket,” said Hannah. “We don’t have any balls.”

  “We’ll just volley. In our imaginations.” Carmen walked to one side of the net, threw a pretend ball in the air with her right hand, and swung with her left.

  Hannah watched her without moving.

  “Well, point for me,” said Carmen. “If you’re not going to even try to hit back, then I’m going to win by default.”

  Carmen served again.

  “Ace!” she shouted. “Damn, I’m good.”

  In a few quick steps, Hannah was on the other side of the net. “Is there a referee?”

  “Of course,” Carmen said. “Can’t you see him in his chair? What makes me mad are the hecklers who are trying to distract me. They must be your fans.”

  “Hah! There aren’t any of those anymore,” Hannah said, connecting with Carmen’s serve in her mind. Every muscle in her body seemed to be waking up from a long, dreamless sleep, every step forward a memory.

  “The fans are here,” Carmen said, lunging for the ball. “I missed it. Your serve.”

  “This is loony,” Hannah said, even though she leaned back to toss the imaginary ball in the air. She swung a tennis racket for the first time in fifteenyears, a moan coming out of her as she did so. “Aaaaah,” she screamed, feeling pained.

  “Back to you,” Carmen shouted across the net. “Right-hand corner.”

  Hannah ran for the ball, feeling the weight of the racket, instinctively using her backhand.

  “Go!” She spoke to the ball, the tennis ball that was only in her mind.

  Carmen ran up to the net. “Smash,” she said, practically dancing on the court.

  “Far left, bounced behind your head,” Hannah screamed as Carmen ran back toward the line.

  “It’s in,” Carmen yelled. “You got the point.”

  Hannah stood stock-still on her side of the net, tears streaming down her face, and a deep cry coming from her very depth.

  “Screw them,” she yelled as Carmen trotted down the court toward her
. “Screw them all!”

  They Sat Side by Side on the bench inside the tennis courts for a long time.

  “I know about being tough,” said Hannah. “I wasn’t always a crumpled mess.”

  “Obviously not,” said Carmen. “Two Wimbledons, a U.S. Open, and the Australian. That’s pretty good.”

  “Not a Grand Slam, though.”

  “I do that, too,” said Carmen. “Put myself down. This sauce isn’t spicy enough, Carmen. This croqueta lacks pizzazz. Criticize, criticize, criticize.”

  “I always believed in meeting players head-on,” said Hannah. “I thought your octopus prank was underhanded.”

  “It was a joke.”

  “No. There are no jokes when it comes to live television. No one wants to get Punk’d. They just pretend.”

  “All’s fair in cooking.”

  “Is it?” Hannah wasn’t convinced. “Things can quickly go too far when you start rationalizing. Take it from me.”

  Carmen crossed her arms. “Octopus can be very good, sabes? Sea urchin, eel, lots of seafood that isn’t common here. My mother makes a seafood stew that is so fragrant all your taste buds water as soon as you smell it.”

  “That’s nice,” Hannah said, before admitting the truth. “I hate to try new things. I wouldn’t want to eat that.”

  “Just because something is different from what you’re used to doesn’t make it bad,” she said. “I didn’t want to include sangria on that episode.”

  “But everyone thinks sangria and paella, that’s Spanish. I thought it was generous of Gus to do some Spanish stuff.”

  “Yeah, but that’s just perception of what Spanish food is,” she said. “Sangriais for party night. For teenagers. And I’ve never had a white sangria in my life.”

  “What would you have made?”

  “Nothing,” said Carmen. “I would simply have served a good wine, maybe an Albariño.”

  “You have to create something while the cameras roll,” said Hannah. “You can’t just pour stuff.”

  “Well, maybe I would have made a popular merienda like chocolate con churros,” she said. “It’s like eating melted chocolate with a spoon.”

  “That sounds good to me!”

  “Yeah,” Carmen said, playfully punching Hannah in the arm. “I’ll make it for you sometime and you’ll see.”

  “I thought you didn’t want me on the show?”

  “Oh, I don’t,” she said. “I’d lock you in a meat freezer if I thought you were going to be a regular.” Carmen smiled to show she was kidding around. “I promise I won’t kill you. Just because I don’t want yet another person stealing my well-earned attention doesn’t mean I don’t like you, Hannah.”

  “You’re not that nice,” Hannah said, approvingly. “You’re a competitor.”

  “Nice is for cocktail parties and wedding showers.” Carmen flexed her arm into a muscle. “Tough and smart is for the workday. I find American women odd.”

  "Why?”

  “They want to rule the home with an iron fist and let everyone walk all over them in the office,” she said. “That’s not how to live. It’s topsy-turvy.”

  “They think they’re being kind, I’m sure.”

  “Letting yourself be pushed around is not the same thing as kindness,” Carmen said. “And having you on the show is going to further distract from my brand.”

  “Your brand?”

  “That’s what I’m selling,” she said. “The food of Carmen Vega.”

  “Like you want entrees in the freezer aisle?”

  “No,” said Carmen. “I want investors for a restaurant. I want to be named an Iron Chef. I want to be the best chef in the world.”

  “But that’s on CookingChannel’s competitor!”

  “Would you have stayed with a coach who wasn’t making you win?”

  “My father was my coach,” said Hannah. “I didn’t have much choice.”

  “And look where that got you. Don’t worry, I’m not about to blab to the papers. The last thing I need is for you to take away any more attention from me.”

  “My father was a gambler,” Hannah said bitterly. “He was a gambler, first and foremost. He liked thrill.”

  “What did your mother think about all of this?” Carmen motioned for Hannah to follow. “I’m like ice, let’s go inside.”

  “She wasn’t around,” said Hannah. “She died when I was still a toddler. My father remarried a viper of a woman. My stepmonster.”

  “Tennis was your escape.”

  “No, not really.” They were walking briskly through the gardens now. “I had to play every day. My father wanted a champion.”

  “Not everyone can simply be turned into a champion,” said Carmen. “I know.”

  “It’s amazing what a hell of a lot of effort gets you,” said Hannah. “But I had the talent. My father had been a strong junior player himself. But he lacked the discipline.”

  “And you were his proxy.”

  “More like his meal ticket,” said Hannah. “The rumors of tax evasion came up the second time I won Wimbledon. I was only eighteen.”

  “Both of you were investigated?”

  “My father handled all of my finances,” she said, gently bouncing her racket in her hand. “I just played. Practiced and played. It took a couple of years for them to build their case.”

  “So did he do it?”

  “Yup. He took most of my money and hid it away.”

  “For investing?”

  “For gambling. And when it looked as though we were going to have to pay the piper, he started betting on me.”

  “That must have been a lot of pressure,” Carmen said, a bit out of breath keeping up with Hannah’s long strides.

  Hannah looked at her quizzically. “You really didn’t read the stories. I’m surprised.”

  “I am busy, you know,” said Carmen. “And I prefer reading my own press.” She grinned.

  “Right,” Hannah said, as they entered the lobby. The clerk glanced over briefly and then went back to his computer. Hannah lowered her voice.

  “He bet against me, Carmen. My own father.”

  “That’s terrible! So he thought you would lose?”

  “He told me to lose,” Hannah said, looking this way and that to see if anyone was around. “It was a sure thing. Get it?”

  “Why did you agree?”

  “I was a kid,” said Hannah. “He was my father. What did it matter that I fell to seventh seed? Besides, the big problems only really came when I refused to do it anymore.”

  “Because then what happened?”

  “Because then my father placed a bet against this German girl, Heidi Mueller. She was the number one and my main rival.”

  Carmen unlocked her room door and rushed inside, motioning for Hannahto sit down. She jumped onto her bed, ready to hear more.

  “It was the semifinals at Wimbledon, which had always been my best tournament,” she said. “I was determined to stage my comeback, start climbingback to number one. So my father decided he had to shake up Heidi.”

  “He threatened her?”

  “Crazier,” said Hannah. “He bribed someone to get an extra press pass and gave it to this lunatic who had been stalking her.”

  Carmen sat on the end of the bed, her mouth open. She’d had more than a few overeager fans when she was Miss Spain.

  “The guy came into the dressing room and all hell broke loose,” said Hannah. “Heidi freaked—she recognized the guy right away because he’d tried to break into her house a few years before—and she ran out the door and down the hall, the guy chasing her and screaming that he loves her, and ultimately she fell down some stairs and broke her arm.”

  “Holy crap,” said Carmen. “At least she didn’t get hurt worse.”

  “There was an internal investigation, and all signs pointed back to my father,” Hannah said, quietly. “So he called a press conference to refute the allegations.”

  “And that’s where you broke.”


  “I never knew about the press pass thing until after it happened,” she said. “But this one reporter just wouldn’t drop the topic of why I’d been playingso poorly and he wore me down. I confessed to throwing games.”

  “Switching up a little octopus has nothing on you,” said Carmen. “Now I really don’t want you on the show. You’ll kill me.”

  “It’s no joke,” said Hannah. “I was banned from tennis forever. My whole life was over by the time I was twenty-one.”

  “And your dad went to jail?”

  “For a millisecond,” she said. “He cut some sort of deal—he wasn’t the only one betting on games—and ended up with a light sentence. Now he and the stepmonster have another kid. A junior golfer.”

  “You’re kidding?”

  “Nope, I have a brother I’ve never even met,” said Hannah. “Doing the wrong thing only hurts if you have feelings.” She stood up and stretched, then resettled herself in the chair.

  “I’m beat,” she said.

  “Yeah, let’s get some sleep,” Carmen said, throwing her a pillow from the bed. “It wasn’t totally your fault, Hannah.”

  “We all do bad stuff,” agreed Hannah. “Like you sleeping with Alan to get onto Gus’s show.”

  “Like sleeping with Alan,” Carmen repeated softly.

  Hannah, drifting off to sleep in the armchair, couldn’t tell if it was an admission or a question.

  18

  Gus awakened Sabrina With a phone call. Sabrina then dialed Aimee.

  “Mom doesn’t know what to wear,” she said, before immediately hanging up and going back to sleep.

  Five minutes later, Aimee was banging on her door, dressed in navy workout pants and a white cotton tee. “Get up,” she said through the wood. “I’ll be in Mom’s room. If you’re not there ASAP, I’m going to break into your room.”

  Aimee was hardly a morning person but she also didn’t want to be the last person to arrive at Gary’s little sports class. She found Gus sitting at her laptop, idly checking email and her online portfolios.

  “That’s strange,” she told her daughter. “I can’t access one account at all and the balances seem off in the other.”

 
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