Comfort food, p.22
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       Comfort Food, p.22

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “He is?” Carmen asked. “How come I’m the last to know? Is he at the spa?”

  “Enough, enough,” said Gary. “Form up in pairs—Aimee and Sabrina, you can’t be together—and we’re going to practice making recipes.”

  “Okay,” said Oliver. “But won’t Carmen and I have an advantage?”

  “Good point,” said Gary. “You two can’t be together, either. We’ll go with Aimee and Oliver, Sabrina and Hannah, Carmen and Troy.”

  “Let’s do a seviche,” Carmen said. “Get up, Troy, let’s go to the kitchen.”

  “No, no, gang,” Gary said. “We’re not cooking.” He held up several sheets of paper. “I’m going to cut up some written recipes here, mix them up in this paper bag, and then each team has to put the recipe back together. When you’re finished, yell ‘Bon appétit!’”

  “Oh my God,” Aimee said. “I didn’t believe we could actually do anything more stupid than this morning but I think we’re on track to do just that.”

  Oliver leaned over and whispered in her ear, causing her to laugh.

  “All set there, kid?” asked Gary.

  “Indeed,” she said.

  It was a Simple exercise, really: allow yourself to fall backward into someoneelse’s arms and assume—hope—you’ll be caught. Gary explained the instructions with the excitement of a four-year-old going to a birthday party.

  “This is worse than detention,” Aimee hissed to Sabrina.

  “You never had a detention,” she replied. “That’s just sitting around. This is like a version of hell.”

  However, after an afternoon of endless activities, including having to explain what type of vegetable each person would be and why, even the arrival of Alan and Gus and Porter couldn’t perk up the atmosphere. Her daughters watched closely as Gus walked gingerly into the room and took a chair without comment. But Gary’s lack of commentary resulted in highlightingGus’s sudden appearance.

  Hannah changed seats with Carmen so she could sit next to her friend, and Carmen neither complained nor refused.

  “It makes me nervous when Carmen isn’t a bitch,” said Aimee to her sister.

  "C’mon, gang, let’s stand up and get going,” said Gary, interrupting her thoughts. “It’s our last game before you’re off for the night.”

  “I’m up for it if we’re getting out of here,” said Oliver. “Somebody catch me. Anybody.”

  “Don’t you want to know who’s behind you, Oliver?” Gary asked.

  “Don’t care,” he said. “I just want to get out of here.”

  The group tittered as Gary held a finger to his lips. “This is no joking matter,” he said. “We’re going to learn how to trust each other.”

  “Falling into someone’s arms doesn’t tell you about trust,” said Hannah. “It just tells you that they won’t drop you when other people are watching. There’s a difference.”

  Gary pointed to Carmen, Gus, and Porter, and motioned them closer.

  “Wait your turn, Oliver,” said Gary. “Okay, Carmen, close your eyes and when I tell you, I want you to let yourself fall backward into Gus and Porter’s waiting, wonderful arms.” He rubbed his hands with glee. “Everyone else, gather round and offer her words of encouragement.”

  Alan leaned forward eagerly in his chair.

  “You can do it, Gus,” he said.

  “Don’t you mean ‘You can do it, Carmen.’ ” Carmen’s mouth was turned down in a prettyish pout.

  “Of course,” Alan said. “You’ll both be great.”

  “I’m not sure this should be required,” started Aimee.

  “We’re good, we’re good,” murmured Gary. “Go for it, Carmen.”

  A flash of scenarios ran through Carmen’s head, all of which had her landing on the floor. Hard.

  “These people wouldn’t unfreeze me during tag,” she said. “That was only this morning. And now I should let them catch me? You’re nuts, Gary. Naive.”

  “Porter, would you drop Carmen?” he asked.

  “No, she’s a great asset to Eat Drink and Be,” he said.

  “And Gus, would you drop Carmen?”

  “No, I would not,” she said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

  “There you have it, Miss Vega,” said Gary. “Gus and Porter have pledged to offer you a safe landing.”

  Carmen whirled around to face Gus.

  “Are you sure?”

  “I’ll catch you, Carmen.”

  “Why should I believe you?”

  For the first time in her life, Carmen did not want to be watched. Standingin the center of the crowd, with each person waiting—to see her drop, to see her fall down—was more pressure than she could ever have imagined. More than anyone else, Gus had no motive to want Carmen to succeed. Everybody—even the viewers—could sense the tension between the two of them. So how crazy would she have to be to free-fall on the vague promise that Gus wouldn’t let her down? Carmen hadn’t gotten to where she was in her career by letting go.

  “If you replace Gus with Oliver, I’ll do it,” she said.

  “Oh, no,” Gary said. “This isn’t a contract discussion. There’s no negotiatinghere.”

  “So what happens if she doesn’t go?” Sabrina was desperate to get out of the room. Billy had called; he was upset when she let it slip that Troy was at the resort with them. Billy rarely got angry, she had to admit, but he’d been very unhappy that she hadn’t been forthcoming.

  “We stay here until she does,” said Gary.

  "That’s not fair,” said Hannah. “She’ll never do it. She’s afraid to muss herself.”

  All her life, Carmen thought, she had never given in to fear. And she wasn’t about to start now.

  “Madre mía,” whimpered Carmen as she covered her ears with her hands. She just didn’t want to hear when she hit the ground. “Call the chiropractor,call the doctor,” she yelled, as she took gulpfuls of air into her lungs and used every ounce of discipline and courage she’d ever experienced—her first teetering steps on a runway, the call to the culinary school admissions office, that overwhelming moment when she walked into Gus’s manor house and thought her heart would pound out of her chest—and simply let go.

  She expected a whoosh, a feeling of wind on her cheek, but instead all that was there was a glorious nothingness. A speck of time, really, when it felt as though she was wildly, fantastically out of control, knowing she’d gone too far to pull back. “Ay, Dios mío,” she said silently to herself, and it was more of a prayer than any she’d said in years.

  And then Carmen could feel Porter and Gus holding her, their bodies strong around her, as they dipped back with her slightly from the force of her fall, and then brought her upright. The relief and adrenaline whooshed through her body, making her feel tingly and ... powerful. It was almost betterthan sex.

  “Genial!” she screamed, running around the group and bopping anyone within reach in the arm. “I did it!” Carmen pumped her arms in the air as though she’d just won a James Beard award. “Me, me, me!”

  “Did . . . you . . . see . . . that,” she shouted in Alan’s direction. “I am awe-some!”

  Porter grabbed Gus in a one-arm hug. “Good job, lady,” he said. Gus was pleased and strangely exhilarated herself, and surprised, most of all, by the warm feeling she had seeing Carmen so happy. Now that, she told herself, was unexpected.

  Gary was wiping tears from his face. “You guys fulfill me so much, gang,” he said. “Does anyone want a group hug?”

  “No, no, no,” Troy said, backing away from the puffy redheaded man.

  “Okay, Troy,” replied Gary. “Go next. You should fall into Sabrina and Hannah’s arms. Whenever you’re ready.”

  “She’s going to drop me because I beat her in the lake,” said Troy, grinning.“It’s going to be up to you to save me.” He locked eyes with Sabrina. “I’m counting on you.”

  Sabrina nodded and tucked her long black hair behind her ears. Hannah bent her knees and hopped on the balls of h
er feet, as though waiting for a serve.

  “Go for it, mister,” said Hannah, as Troy crossed his arms in front of him like an Egyptian mummy. He pressed his eyelids together and leaned back, keeping his legs taut to fight the urge to step back to stop his descent. His stomach was in his throat as he began to fall but he held fast, confident.

  He had great faith in Sabrina. He always had.

  It was happening before she was ready: Sabrina’s arms wanted to leap away—she could feel them jerking internally. Whammo! Troy would fall cleanly to the floor. Would he cry? She didn’t know. But the urge not to catch him was overwhelming. No one asked me if I wanted this, she thought. I never said you should trust me. Her body was in another direction before she was even aware of it moving, stepping sideways toward Hannah and knockingher off-balance.

  “No!” Troy heard Hannah’s voice in his ear in the same instant as a searingpain cracked his shoulders and head. “Holy shit,” hollered Gary, running over to Troy. “I’ve never had this happen before.”

  Gus was already by his side, cradling his head in her lap and worrying over him.

  “You okay, fella?” Porter asked, his face looming overhead, fuzzy.

  Troy waved weakly, then moaned and rolled over onto his side.

  “I think it’s time we called it a day,” said Porter.

  Gary did not resist. And Gus, though fretting over Troy and highly alarmed by Sabrina’s behavior, was rather grateful the game was over. She’d never have been able to fall backward with her eyes closed. She’d learned her lesson from the day’s events.

  Gus was never going to trust anyone again.

  Barely three hours later, Sabrina knocked on the door to Troy’s room. The light was still on, she rationalized, so a visit wouldn’t wake him up. She could hear his footsteps as he came closer, could see the peephole get dark as he looked through it.

  “Come to poison me or something?” He spoke through the door.

  “Let me in,” said Sabrina. “I want to apologize.”

  Troy poked his head into the hallway. “I think I have a concussion,” he said. “I have to stay awake for the next several hours.”

  “Are you alone?”

  “No,” he said.

  “No, really,” Sabrina said, trying to crane her neck and look inside. “Can I come in?”

  “No,” he said.

  “I just want to talk,” she wheedled. “I think I’m confused.”

  “No kidding,” Troy said, before closing the door. He hesitated a moment and then, holding his breath, he turned the lock.

  21

  Sabrina Wandered the hallways for a While, shuffling up and down the carpeted corridors until she flopped down on a bench near the elevator bank. She smiled thinly at the happy couples who came and went, loving on each other.

  It was rather gross, actually, when you weren’t the one doing the kissing. Seeing them slobber all over each other.

  Talking with Troy would have made her feel better. He’d surprised her by not letting her in. And he’d lied, too. Lied about not being alone.

  Just goes to show you. You think you know a person only to find out you don’t. Not really.

  Returning to her room was not an option: no doubt Billy had been callingher there. Her cell phone was back there, too, though she’d turned it off hours ago. It was unlikely that her fiancé appreciated being sent directly to voice mail. He was always saying the most important thing in a relationship was mutual respect—and no doubt he was feeling that he wasn’t getting it. Best to avoid him altogether, then.

  Sabrina had never done well with demands.

  But it wasn’t as though she would have gone back to her room anyway. There was no one else there.

  Sleeping had always been difficult. Ever since she could remember. Driftingoff was easy but after a few hours, she’d be awake again and all alone. Sabrina hated the middle of the night.

  There was only one place to go. The same place she always went. Because there was comfort in old habits. She ambled down the corridor, playing the old “I’m fine” game with herself. The rules were simple: she merely had to repeat those same words over and over. In less than a minute, she had come to the room where she should have known, really, that she’d end up.

  “I’m fine,” she said aloud.

  Her sister, wearing a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, flung open the door as if on cue. She said nothing, merely walked back into the room and sat down at her desk. Papers were spread all around her laptop and it was clear that she had been working. Aimee continued to focus on her computer without a word to Sabrina.

  “I’m fine,” repeated Sabrina, kicking off her shoes and crawling onto Aimee’s bed. “Troy didn’t want to talk to me.”

  Aimee shrugged.

  “I don’t know why I did it,” she said. “Are you working on Mom’s stuff?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “Is it bad?”

  “Not good.”

  “So I guess I shouldn’t ask her about my wedding, then,” said Sabrina. “Though maybe the planning would take her mind off things.”

  Aimee didn’t answer. After a few moments of silence, Sabrina flicked on the TV. The eleven o’clock news was on, and, sure enough, the third segment covered the money manager who’d been stealing from all his big-name clients.

  “We should call Mom, maybe,” said Sabrina.

  "She wanted to take a bath and go to sleep,” said Aimee. “I spoke to her a few hours ago.”

  “Right, okay.”

  “It’s time you were put on a budget,” said Aimee. “Tighten your belt a little bit.”

  “Okay.” Sabrina was used to Aimee’s criticisms.

  “No, really.”

  “Wanna do face masks? I’ve got the stuff in my room.”

  “Nope.”

  “Okay, I’ll just go get it.” Sabrina dashed out but turned the dead bolt so the door didn’t close behind her. “So you don’t have to get up again,” she explained.

  Aimee watched her exit. In about twenty minutes, she knew, her face would be green with cucumber mush. Or Sabrina would read aloud from a quiz she’d found in a magazine, trying to determine what guy was Aimee’s right type. It was what they did when there was too much to say.

  Sabrina used her back to shove open the door. “I brought hair goo,” she said. “We can make ourselves glossy and gorgeous.”

  “I don’t do gloss,” said Aimee. She knew her lines. They’d had years of practice, years of Sabrina scurrying over the tape that ran down the middle of their shared bedroom when it was late. Go back to sleep, Aimee had grumped then, even as she slid over to make room. You can’t stay here all night. But of course she let her: Sabrina was the baby. And then she had dragged her back to her bed in the morning, before Gus opened the door to wake them up. Morning, Mommy, she’d said. We’re fine. We’re all fine.

  Aimee didn’t look up from the screen as Sabrina started rummaging through her sister’s suitcase. “Do you have an extra sweatshirt?” she asked, even as she had it in her hands. “I brought my pj’s.”

  Sabrina was infuriating, of course. She was needy and spoiled and had an unwavering ability to be self-involved. It surprised Aimee, sometimes, just how much she could hate her, the anger that welled up inside when Gus was fawning over yet another of her sister’s indiscretions. And then, with equal intensity, she’d worry about the way Sabrina bounced around, always reacting to her emotions, never thinking anything through. She just went along with anyone who was nice to her.

  Aimee had watched her like a hawk when they were young, following Gus on her errands at the mall or the grocery store. Sabrina, she suspected then, might just become distracted and walk off, getting herself lost or stolenby some stranger. Disappearing and leaving them heartbroken and all alone. And then what?

  “Do I really suck all the oxygen out of the room?” Sabrina asked, openingjars, and Aimee felt a wash of guilt run through her.

  “I never said that,” she mumbled, submitting to the
slathering of the cold green lotion on her face, grateful for a reason not to speak.

  “Yes, you did,” said Sabrina. “You might be right. Who wants to be around that?”

  She continued talking—about Billy, about Troy, about the discussion with their mom—as she administered to Aimee, whose hair was slicked back under a shower cap, absorbing the proteins and nutrients that were supposed to make her brown hair shine.

  “Do you think it’s possible to love one man and still want another?” Sabrina asked.

  “I guess,” said Aimee. “But you’ve got to stop comparing guys. They’re not always interchangeable, you know.”

  “A lot of it is the same in the beginning,” said Sabrina. “Sharing the excitement of getting to know each other. New sex.”

  “TMI,” Aimee said. “What I don’t get is why they all put up with you.”

  “Billy says he likes me because I’m creative and I take risks,” Sabrina said proudly. “He’s actually very encouraging.”

  “Well, I’m not very optimistic about what you’re doing to my hair,” said Aimee.

  Sabrina pretended not to hear. She enjoyed pampering her older sister in ways that Aimee would never make time for on her own. In middle school, she’d once bedazzled Aimee’s book bag with gold and orange sequins. The gesture had not been appreciated.

  “Do you think I’m lovable?” she asked, and Aimee couldn’t say a word, her face genuinely tight from the hardened cream.

  She’d never have given her sister a straight answer anyway. That would have been too much. Instead, she would have admonished Sabrina for fishingfor compliments. She knew it. Being kind felt too much like weakness sometimes. And Aimee had worked hard to be brave.

  She headed to the bathroom to rinse off, returning to find Sabrina tucked into the bed. She’d stolen the extra pillows, leaving Aimee with just one on her side.

  “Typical,” she said, clicking off the light. The computer screen still glowed over on the desk.

  “You’re glad I’m here, right?” asked Sabrina.

  “No,” said Aimee. “And no snoring. I hate when you do that.”

 
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