Comfort food, p.19
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       Comfort Food, p.19

           Kate Jacobs
 
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“Maybe it knows you’re not at home,” said Aimee, not really paying attention. She was busy trying to fashion a better outfit for Gus than the lumpy, oversized sweats she had on.

  “Why did you bother calling Sabrina?” Aimee asked. “You had to realize she was just going to get me to come down.”

  "What? ” Gus was intent on reading her computer screen. “Oh, I just thought she was more into clothes than you are.” She looked up at Aimee. “I’m glad you’re here, though.”

  “Try these,” Aimee said, tossing her mother a pair of her own stretchy capris and a cap-sleeved top that she’d brought with her. Reluctant to leave her computer, Gus changed quickly while keeping one eye on the screen, and tried to reach her investment adviser’s private line. But Sabrina, in a body-hugging velour tracksuit, showed up before Gus could make contact with something other than a voice mail directory. Quickly, Aimee herded them all into the elevator, where they ran into an irritated Porter.

  “Anyone see Carmen yet?” he asked, before hurrying down the hall.

  Down in the lobby, Troy stood waiting in a pair of shorts and— what else?—a FarmFresh T-shirt next to Oliver, who was also wearing a FarmFresh shirt and shorts. “The two of you could be twins from differentfamilies,” said Gus. Oliver had a pair of flip-flops on his feet, which were quite nicely groomed, she noticed. She hated men with scraggly toe-nails.

  “I want to go back to bed,” Sabrina muttered sleepily, as Troy instinctivelyreached out to her and then let his arm drop, mid-reach.

  “Let’s sit,” said Aimee, guiding her sister to some chairs.

  The group waited quietly, all tired except for Gus, who loved mornings. She gazed fondly on her sleepy team until Carmen finally appeared on Porter’s arm, dressed only in a red bikini and a sarong.

  “Whoa,” said Troy, admiring Carmen’s figure but more pleased by Sabrina’s sharp look in his direction.

  Standing awkwardly next to Carmen was Hannah in a gray tracksuit. She smiled shyly at Gus, who moved quickly to be next to her.

  “You were crazy to come here,” Gus said. “But I’m glad you did.”

  A half hour later they were all regretting their weekend jaunt. Gary was putting them through their paces on the big lawn, making them crouch around in a circle and pretend to be seeds who would slowly “grow” to their full height and jump into the air.

  “And stretch, flowers!” he said, leaping into the air with them. “Come on, Porter, you, too.”

  “Yes, Porter, I think that’s only appropriate,” murmured Gus. “Aimee, less shrub, more flower.” She shook her head to show her daughter she was kidding. See? she told herself, she could have as much fun as anyone.

  Carmen certainly was, fairly bouncing out of her bikini top with each flower hop.

  “It is hard to look away,” Troy said quietly to Oliver, who nodded.

  “It’s as though we’re in kindergarten,” said Sabrina, who, as the youngest of the group, took particular offense. “We’re like little kids.”

  “Exactly, exactly,” shouted Gary. “And remember how important it was to share?” He jumped again, though the rest of the group seemed ready to revolt.

  “I think we’ve all grown to our maximum potential,” Gus said drily.

  But Gary was only getting started, watching them as they played games of Red Rover, Red Light Green Light, and Freeze Tag, in which the only way to be defrosted was to have someone who wasn’t “it” crawl through one’s legs. (“Oh, bloody hell,” muttered Gus to herself, rapidly losing the ability to laugh at herself. “I’m being forced to relive Aimee and Sabrina’s childhood.”) She ran very, very fast so as not to become frozen.

  “Aren’t we having fun, gang?” Gary called out as they ran around the lawn, this way and that. Gus could see, out of the corner of her eye, he was making notes on how well they were playing together.

  Sabrina seemed to be chasing Troy most of all, which she considered a good development.

  Aimee tagged Carmen, then attempted to block Oliver as he tried to free her.

  “No, you don’t,” Aimee told Oliver as he scooted around her, but the two of them had a playful tussle that ended up knocking over Carmen—who was not very pleased by that outcome—and they all fell to the ground in a pile.

  Gus ran over to check on her daughter.

  “Dammit,” she said as Hannah tagged her once she got close. “Have you lost your mind?”

  But Hannah was exhilarated by running around in the open air; it was such a change from her daily treadmill jogs. Everyone else may have been grumbling but for Hannah it was sheer joy. She’d forgotten how much she liked the feel of her body moving, arms and legs pumping, the pull of crisp air into her lungs. “Whooo,” she cheered. “Whooo!”

  Gus, although just tagged, attempted to walk off the field.

  “You’re frozen,” bellowed Carmen, still on the ground in her bikini. “Get back there.”

  “Don’t worry, Mom,” said Aimee, as she moved on the grass through her mother’s legs. “We’ll get through it together. I’ve freed you! Run, run!”

  But Gus had had quite enough. She marched over to Gary and announced she had been a good sport for as long as could reasonably be expected and that was that. She was quitting. Gus Simpson, she told him, did not play games.

  “Umm-hmm,” said Gary, scribbling furiously.

  Hannah was on the far end of the lawn, running around even though no one else was there, and it took more than a minute to grab her attention.

  “Okay, everybody, it’s circle time,” Gary called, cupping a hand behind his ear as the entire group let out a collective groan. “I can tell we’re going to have a fabulous weekend, you guys. Just wait till group hug!”

  The group plodded forward, attempting to stave off the inevitable sharing.

  “I’m freezing,” said Carmen. “The grass is dewy.”

  “And you’re just in a bikini,” Gus said.

  “So let’s be flexible,” Gary said. “Why don’t we move it on inside? Oh, and if anyone tries to bail, there will be consequences. Right, Porter?”

  “Uh, yeah,” said Porter without conviction. “Alan is coming by later today, everyone. He’ll want to know how we’re doing.”

  “We’re doing terribly,” said Aimee. She was staying put only because her mother had pointedly told both her and her sister that she wanted them on Eat Drink and Be. “I wish I’d done more research because I have a suspicion that enforced summer camp violates common labor laws.”

  But Gary only chuckled. “You’re a crack-up, Aimee,” he said, much to her annoyance. He gave everyone a quick break to return to their rooms and gather their homework.

  “Homework?” said Hannah, feeling more than a little panicked. Even when she tried something that should have been easy, like a corporate retreat, she failed. It was difficult to be outside the carriage house. Complicated.

  “No worries,” said Gary. “I’ve actually got lots of info on all of you.”

  Gus was almost inside when she heard his comment; in an instant, she turned on her heel and returned.

  “And who, exactly, filled you in? Was it Alan? Or Porter?”

  Gary shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s confidential, Gus. Now hurry along or you won’t have time to get a coffee before we meet in the circle.”

  “I don’t like coffee,” she replied.

  Gary peeked at the clipboard that seemed permanently attached to him. “Yes, you do,” he said, a bit too perkily for Gus’s liking. “I’ll bring you back a cup.”

  By 9 AM, the cast of Eat Drink and Be had played tag, stretched like growingseeds, and found themselves sitting on hard chairs arranged in a shape somewhat akin to a circle, awaiting Gary’s return from the coffee machine. The mood was grim.

  “I’ve never had to do anything like this in all of my years on the CookingChannel,” Gus was saying. “I think we should complain.”

  “It’s a stupid waste of time,” agreed Carmen. “We should be discussing menus or so
mething.”

  “Why don’t we make a formal request to Porter that we’d rather be together ourselves than with this Gary guy,” said Oliver. “He might be amenable.Everybody in?”

  There were murmurs of agreement all around.

  “I do have some other things to do this morning,” mused Gus, who had used her five-minute break to try to call her bank again. She’d begun to feel rather anxious.

  “We all have more important things to do, Gus,” snapped Carmen. “It’s not just you.”

  “Hey, gang, why so intense?” asked Gary, as he strolled back, coffee in hand. “All set now?”

  Gus, having designated herself group spokesperson, stood up and addressed Gary.

  “We’ve decided that we are dropping out of this program,” she explained. “We appreciate your enthusiasm but we must let you know that we don’t like it.”

  “And everyone is on board?”

  “Yes, it’s unanimous.”

  Gary beamed and clapped his hands. “Oh, this is fantastic, gang!” His face was as red as his hair, and he rocked on his heels in delight. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a group come together so quickly.”

  “We’re not ‘together,’ ” clarified Gus. “We’re only agreed that we don’t want to work with you. No offense intended, Gary, I’m sure you’re a very good facilitator for other people.”

  “I’m top-notch, Gus,” said Gary, still smiling. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to make you come to an agreement so quickly. Excellent.”

  “You’re misinterpreting this, Gary—”

  “I must say, I find all of you to be utterly fascinating.” He dropped his smile. “But there are no dropouts in a Gary Rose program. We’re in it to win it.”

  Gary took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his brow, then settled himself on a chair in the sort-of-a-circle.

  “Sit down, Gus,” he said in a no-nonsense voice. “It’s time to get to work.”

  Gus looked around to see if she had any allies but everyone seemed to be watching Gary, waiting to see what he was about to do next.

  He pretended to scan the crowd. “Carmen,” he said. “What was it like being frozen for so long during tag?”

  “Annoying,” she said.

  “Did it make you feel bad that Aimee wanted you to stay frozen?”

  “I wasn’t surprised,” Carmen said. “She hates me. They all hate me.”

  “I do not,” huffed Aimee. “I barely know you.”

  “Now that’s interesting,” said Gary. “Aimee feels she doesn’t know Carmen,and yet Carmen feels that Aimee doesn’t like her.” He was interrupted by two uniformed resort staffers who came and whispered in his ear.

  “Perfect,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for my white boards to arrive.”

  The staffers carried in oversized easels upon which they placed a very large dry-erase white board. Gary whipped out a package of chunky markers from his canvas satchel.

  “We’re going to make two lists here,” he said, using a green marker to draw a line down the middle of the board. “On one side we’re going to write down all the things we liked about being kids. And on the other, we’ll make a list of what we like about being adults.”

  Each second seemed to pass with excruciating slowness for Gus. The facilitator droned on, and she saw, without really hearing, the members of the group raise their hands and call out answers and even laugh every so often. She hadn’t been joking when she told Gary that she didn’t play games; an evening spent playing Scrabble did not strike her as a good time. At some point, back when the girls were younger, she supposed she had helped them dress their dolls and decorate their Barbie house, but that seemed to belong to some other, more carefree life. Long before her name had emblazoned a slew of stainless steel cookware.

  “Gus?” It was Gary, calling her out in front of everyone. “Someone has been daydreaming, guys,” he said.

  She tried to appear focused and professional. Gus hated to be unprepared.

  “As we’ve been discussing, part of playing childhood games is to rememberthe freedom and the exhilaration from long ago,” Gary explained, apparentlyfor the second time. “Before stresses and ambition eroded our sense of teamwork and loyalty.”

  “Not every child likes being part of a team.” Gus remembered well how Sabrina and Aimee fought when they were younger.

  Gary nodded. “Maybe they want to play a new position,” he insisted. “And that’s what we’re doing: figuring out how we can find our places in the kitchen. When it’s time to start, start at the beginning: let’s share our favoritechildhood memories.”

  Gus pursed her lips with displeasure.

  “Making gazpacho with my abuela,” said Carmen, eyeballing Gus as she spoke. Challenging her.

  “Gus, what about you?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”

  “Don’t try that lazy ‘I’m too old’ garbage on me, Gus,” said Gary. “You’re hardly geriatric.”

  “I liked The Andy Griffith Show,” she said finally. “I watched it with my cousin when she babysat.”

  “Did you have a favorite episode?”

  “When Aunt Bea got her own television cooking program and Opie and Andy struggled to make their own dinner.” She frowned. “But then Aunt Bea gave it all up simply because she felt she had to be home.”

  Aimee let out a snort.

  “Did you always want to have your own cooking show?” asked Troy.

  “No, I wanted to be a photographer when I was a college student,” Gus said. “I wanted to be Margaret Bourke-White and travel all over. But I liked to cook. I always enjoyed exotic flavors.”

  “Thank you, Gus, for honoring the circle,” said Gary, much to her chagrin.“What’s your favorite memory from childhood, Troy—and no more TV answers. We’re not going to discover that the most important thing we share is a deep attachment to The Brady Bunch. That much can certainly be assumed.”

  “I liked apple season at my parents’ farm,” he said. “No, wait—I liked to eat apples. I recall that I resented the picking part.”

  The facilitator consulted his clipboard. “And now you have a fruit vendingcompany,” he said, tapping with his marker. “Is everyone seeing the connections?”

  “I had a Play-Doh restaurant kit,” piped up Oliver, though Gus was quite confident he was pulling one over on Gary.

  “There we go again!”

  “Pong was my favorite arcade game,” Hannah shouted, her cheeks burning.She was never a good one for fibs.

  “Shazam!” shouted Gary.

  “Are you expecting me to say I liked counting Monopoly money or runninga lemonade stand?” Aimee was openly scornful, which embarrassed Gus. She didn’t like Gary, either, but there was such a thing as discretion. Typically she didn’t have to worry about her eldest in that regard.

  “I’m the economist,” her daughter explained to Gary. “And my sister, the mess monster who could never pick up her clothes—and still can’t—has turned into an interior decorator who specializes in minimalist designs. Guess the two of us just shot your theory all to hell, huh, Gare?”

  “Sabrina, do you agree?”

  “I dunno.” Sabrina had barely been participating, not that Gus blamed her. The entire morning had been like living in The Twilight Zone with Gary Rose as the host. “I guess when I was a kid I liked hanging out with my dad. He played games with us.”

  “What sort of games, Sabrina?” asked Gary.

  "Cards and board games,” she said. “He had a bowl of candy on his desk.”

  Aimee’s face was an angry mask. “That was grandpa who had a bowl of candy, you idiot. You barely remember Dad.”

  Aimee addressed the group. “She was seven years old when he died,” she said. “She doesn’t recall anything. It all went over her head.”

  “I do so remember him.” Sabrina could hear her voice, could hear the childishness of her phrasing. She felt diminished, as she often did when Aimee took h
er on, and she felt angry, which always made her cry. She hated that: the way the sheer boiling frustration set her off. It was humiliating.

  “Oh, not the waterworks,” Aimee said. “That melodrama is so ten years ago. You’ve always been overemotional, and frankly, I’m sick of it. It sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There are other people who need to breathe around here, too.”

  “I miss Dad,” said Sabrina, betrayed by her slick cheeks. “Is that some sort of crime?”

  “He died almost twenty years ago, and it’s not like you see me crying. Dry.” Aimee patted her face. “Still dry. No tears here. That’s because what’s done is done. Move on.”

  “If you were so good at moving on, you wouldn’t be so angry all the time,” Sabrina pointed out.

  “You just breeze in and out, don’t you?” said Aimee. “Happy little baby Sabrina. Wanting everyone to look after her.”

  “She don’t look so happy to me,” piped up Carmen.

  Oh, God. The sense of mild embarrassment that Gus had had all morningwas blossoming quickly into outright horror. Private things, she believed, were better kept that way. Within the family.

  “That’s enough, girls,” interrupted Gus. “This has nothing to do with Eat Drink and Be, and I can assure you, no one here is interested.” The rapt faces of her colleagues said otherwise but the rest of them had better mannersthan to speak up.

  “Tough stuff with the family, Gus?” Gary asked, his face thoughtful. She stared at his pen, just daring him to make some notes.

  “No, we’re quite fine,” she said. “A little overtired and cranky, perhaps, but fine.”

  “I don’t feel fine,” Sabrina said, staring down her sister.

  “It’s not your own personal tragedy,” Aimee said quietly. “It didn’t just happen to you.”

  “Aimee, let’s not upset your sister,” said Gus, more sharply than she’d intended.

  “Quit coddling her,” Aimee replied. “We’ve been tiptoeing around her for way too long, if you ask me.”

  “No one asked you,” Gus said. As usual, she couldn’t bear to see her most sensitive child upset and the familiar reflex to soothe kicked in. “Sabrina, dear, why don’t you switch seats with your sister and come sit next to me?”

 
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