Comfort food, p.24
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       Comfort Food, p.24

           Kate Jacobs
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  She paused. “I apologize if I’m testy. It’s just been a very bad weekend.”

  “You’re great,” said Oliver. “Every family has its issues. My own brother didn’t call me after nine-eleven.”

  “That’s terrible!”

  “He checked in with my mother. And that was good enough for him. Peter had kind of written me off back then. But we’ve reconnected.”

  “You knew a lot of people downtown.” It wasn’t a question.

  “Yeah, of course,” he said. “It’s part of being on Wall Street.”

  “Is this why you got into cooking?” she asked. “Most folks in your positionmight have invested in a restaurant rather than trying to work in a kitchen.”

  “I was already into food,” he said. “But maybe a bit, yeah.”

  “I have this funny thought sometimes,” admitted Gus. “That the people who die young get to escape the pain while the rest of us are left picking up the pieces.”

  “I’m sorry about your husband,” said Oliver. “But that’s not what defines you. Yesterday was awkward in the session but I think you’ve truly raised two nice girls.”

  “Far from perfect, I’m afraid.”

  “Aren’t we all?”

  “Excuse me, Gus?” It was Priya, huffing a bit as she jog-walked to get closer to them. She had the look that Gus knew all too well: the wide eyes and wistful expression, as though she believed Gus was going to impart some secret about life that only she knew. She’d met fans like that before, of course, but it wasn’t just strangers who looked at her that way. Gus had seen that look on Aimee and Sabrina, sitting on the stairs waiting for her to bring their father home, and on Hannah the summer she kept dropping by with pies, and even on Troy, when she’d gone to visit him after Sabrina had stomped all over his heart. “Will you save me?” said the face. “Can you make it all better?”

  What was funny was how easily she had slipped into the role when Christopher had always watched after her. Gus had been the coddled one and she hadn’t even known it. But there was no warm-up, no practice session,just the sudden transition and Christopher there in the hospital bed and every decision was hers and hers alone. It got so that she almost welcomedthe challenges and the crises, big and small, in the lives of those around her. She was very good at knuckling down and just getting on with it, Gus had learned, something her younger self would never have believed. She was very good at taking care. The bitter pill was that it took Christopherdying to finally figure things out. And she’d been spending years makingit up to him.

  She’d fretted that there hadn’t been enough I-love-you’s between them. Even though there had been plenty. She just wanted one more. One more “I love you,” one more night together, even just one more minute. She would have accepted that, too, and gratefully. Gus made little changes—she stopped scattering her shoes across the closet floor and began using the rack Christopherhad purchased—and she made big ones, sticking with a profession even as the novelty wore off. In a vague way, she’d had a notion that she could date again at some point, but she’d had no idea when that time might arrive.

  “You’ll know when you’re ready,” was something her mother used to say to her in the early years after Christopher died. But what if she didn’t? What if she never did? She missed being with Christopher, ached for his hands on her, and was frankly freaked out by the thought of really feeling another man’s touch. Even as the fantasy excited her.

  Instead, she’d tried hard to fulfill all her longing for connection by nurturingeveryone else. It had worked, for a while, but after eighteen years of being alone it wasn’t satisfying in the same way. Still, she knew others continuedto count on her.

  “I’m so glad you’re here, Priya,” Gus said, rubbing the woman’s arm very gently, and being rewarded with a flash of white teeth. “You have a lovely smile,” she said, waving goodbye to Oliver and leaning in closer to hear every word Priya wanted to share.

  They’d tramped around for more than two hours before they finally made it back to the lobby.

  “Thank God you’re back,” said the resort manager. “We’ve got a dire emergency. Our chef’s fallen ill and we have two hundred salespeople here for an executive conference. They’ve paid for a special tasting menu but he didn’t write anything down.”

  “What happened?” Gus was genuinely concerned.

  “He broke his leg falling off a trampoline,” the manager said.

  “Well, surely he can offer instructions from a chair,” she said.

  “No, he’s been taken away in an ambulance. I know this is terribly inappropriate,seeing as you’re a guest here, but I was hoping, Ms. Simpson, that you could do something for us?”

  “Are your sous chefs still here?”

  “Of course,” said the manager. “They’re familiar with the regular menu for the rest of the diners. But the conference attendees ... I’ll be blunt. They’ve paid extra for something special.”

  She conferred with Oliver. “We’ll have to see what’s in the kitchen but I suppose we could help out.”

  She motioned Gary to join them. “What are your plans this afternoon?” she asked the facilitator.

  “Three-legged races,” he replied.

  “Yes, Oliver and I will cook for you,” Gus said quickly. More games were definitely not on her agenda. “Hannah, run back and see if you can rustle up Carmen. She and Aimee are dawdling on the trail. The rest of you, I wish a pleasant afternoon with Gary.”

  Four hours later, Gus, Carmen, and Oliver shared a celebratory bottle to toast the best meal they had ever cooked on the fly: plates of a paella-inspired risotto with clams, salt-crusted trout with fennel, thinly sliced Wagyu beef with thyme butter, and a trio of cream puffs flavored with ginger, green tea, and chocolate-chili, among other dishes. Exhausted, they left Oliver behind, to meet up with Troy and finish their arcade game tournament, and headed over to the elevator, too tired even to find anything to bicker about.

  It had been illuminating to watch Carmen really dig in and cook withoutcommercial interruption, without cameras. Her pout was gone, replaced by a look of studious concentration, and she had chopped and minced and blended spices to create amazing bursts of flavor. The sofrito she had made, saucing together onion, tomato, and garlic in olive oil, had elevated the roasted chicken into a fragrant and unforgettable dish.

  The men and women working the line in the kitchen had been shocked, initially, to see Carmen, Oliver, and Gus make their entrance, but in quick order everyone had gotten down to business. As a team. There were paying customers to be fed, after all.

  It was, quite frankly, the first time she’d ever worked with Carmen and not just next to her. The rivalry remained, certainly, as they tasted and sampledand continually suggested to each other how to improve their dishes. But, for once, the food took precedence over personality. After all, there was no one watching: no Alan, no Porter, no millions of eyeballs on the other side of the camera.

  The elevator came up from the lower-level ballroom and opened. Gus and Carmen stepped on in silence, exhausted from a day of yoga, hiking, and running around the kitchen. A thirtysomething man was already inside, slightly unsteady on his feet, his arm around an attractive blond woman who seemed somewhat off-kilter herself.

  “Are you here for the sales conference?” The woman slurred her words, clearly tipsy.

  “No, though I’m sure it’s quite lovely,” Gus said, moving to one side. Carmenlooked at the floor, wishing for her bed.

  “Hey, aren’t you the broads from that cooking show?” The man elbowed the woman at his side as though she could have missed what he said. “Hey, hey, that’s that Gus Simpson and Carmen Vega.”

  “Oh my God,” the woman said, peering closer as Carmen shrunk back from the scrutiny.

  “It is her,” the woman said to her boyfriend/husband/colleague/whatever he was. “Gus has been around forever but that Carmen is completely obnoxious,” said the man. “With that Spanish accent. Like we don’t know she comes
from Des Moines or something.”

  “I’m from Sevilla,” Carmen said hotly, even as the couple continued yakking,oblivious to anything but themselves.

  “And those fake boobs,” said the woman. “All ‘hi, how are you.’ ”

  “Those are the only things I like,” said the man.

  The woman snorted. “Pig,” she said, though she didn’t seem the least bit unhappy. “I bet she can’t even cook.”

  Gus cleared her throat. “You do realize, don’t you, that we are standing about half a foot away from you?”

  “It’s all a scam anyway,” the man said to his companion, ignoring Gus entirely, as though he was merely at home talking in front of the TV.

  “Hello, real people over here,” she said. “Yoo-hoo.”

  “I can’t stand how they mix up the ingredients and then pull the finished pan out of the oven two seconds later,” said the woman. “Like we don’t know they cooked it ahead of time.”

  “Exactly!” said the man. “Anyone could be on a cooking show. I could do that and I can’t even cook!”

  His companion turned and addressed Carmen and Gus directly. “You two amateurs should get a real cooking job, like the chef at the resort here. Our dinner was fantastic.”

  “Let me guess,” Gus said coolly. “You had the marinated crab with green apple and yuzu.”

  “Yeah,” said the man. “How did you know?”

  “Because Carmen and I just prepared that elaborate feast you and your friend here consumed,” Gus said, her voice rising. “We diced and spiced every last mouthful.”

  “And Gus made the baked figs with port and cinnamon,” Carmen said. “Did you eat that, too?”

  “Yes,” said the woman, shrinking back a little. “It was nice.”

  “It was goddamn delicious and I think you ought to say so,” said Carmen, jabbing her finger in the woman’s face. Gus quickly put a hand on Carmen’s shoulder and pulled her back, just as the elevator door opened.

  “Celebrities are such jerks,” the man said, as he scurried out the door. “All we did was try and talk to them.”

  “And her boobs aren’t fake!” Gus shouted to the retreating duo as the elevator doors began to close. She turned to Carmen. “Are they?”


  It Was Well after midnight when a sheet of paper came sliding underneathGus’s door.

  Get a move on! was written by hand in large green bubble letters.

  Another game? Gary Rose was insufferable, the way he demanded everyonedo what he wanted all the time, shoving notes into people’s rooms.

  She thought about staying put but she really didn’t want to be the only one not there.

  Gus skipped putting a robe over her emerald nightgown, tramping briskly to meet up with the group. Why hadn’t he put this activity on the schedule? Gus marched through the gardens near the main building and found the tenniscourts, walked past them until she had made her way down to the lake.

  “I forgot to wear shoes,” she said to Hannah, who was juggling tennis balls on the sand. Hannah shrugged, intent on her game.

  “Mommy!” Aimee sounded urgent but her voice was faint. There she was, waving, all the way over on the other side of the lake. “I’ve lost Sabrina,” she called.

  Without hesitation, Gus dragged an abandoned canoe out in the water— it was cold!—her bare feet splashing and her nightgown getting wet, trying to pull her down. It took great effort but she managed to get herself in, rowingfrantically, though the lake was choppy.

  The water bubbled near her canoe, making her nervous, but then Oliver popped his head up through the waves.

  “Hi, Gus,” he said. “Would you like to go swimming with me?”

  “But I haven’t got a bathing suit,” she said.

  “That’s okay.” Oliver reached out a hand to pull her in. “I don’t mind...”

  Oof! All ten pounds of Pepper the cat landed squarely on Gus’s chest, jarring her awake. She had been dreaming.

  “You’re better than an alarm clock, you know that?” she told her cat. Pepper meowed back, not so subtly encouraging her to get up and plate his breakfast.

  “And a bowl of milk, you say?” Gus said, petting behind his ears. She threw on a robe and started to head downstairs in her bare feet, then turned back to her closet for a pair of slippers. Salt, snoozing on the stair landing, stretched lazily and followed them into the kitchen.

  Her neck, shoulders, and butt positively burned with ache: she’d put herself through the paces with yoga, the hike, and the frantic dinner in the kitchen Sunday night. But none of that caused as much tension as the twenty minutes she spent as a passenger in Hannah’s red Miata, coming home from the retreat the morning before. After yet another zig when Hannahshould have zagged—not to mention a surprising inability to read any signs while the car was in motion—Gus demanded that she pull over and let her drive.

  “But I’m really good at it,” Hannah’d protested, though Gus remained firm and got into the driver’s seat, placating Hannah by showing her how to lower the convertible top.

  “I switched the wipers on four times trying to figure that out on Friday,” she’d said. But it hadn’t been a smooth drive with Gus at the wheel, either: she hadn’t driven a stick shift in over twenty years.

  “Remind me not to ask you for driving lessons,” smirked Hannah, as she let her hair blow in the wind, watching the Hudson Valley scenery stream by.

  Now Gus rummaged around the cupboard for some acetaminophen. She went to the sink for a bit of water and glanced out the window, expected to admire her pansies. Instead, she saw Hannah, in a T-shirt and shorts, crisscrossing her fingers and stretching her arms back, back, back over her head.

  Gus rapped on the window before opening it. “You’re here early,” she said. Hannah waved and continued her exercises for several more minutes before coming in through the patio door.

  “Actually you’re up late, Gus,” she said. “It’s past eight. I’ve already done a run up the road and back.”


  “I went for a jog, outside, like any normal person,” said Hannah. “And I did not wear a ball cap, sunglasses, or even a hoodie.”

  “Good for you. I can only imagine that you fell under the spell of Gary Rose and his can-do spirit over the weekend.”

  “Nope.” Hannah reached for an orange out of the fruit bowl on Gus’s counter. “I just got reacquainted with Hannah Joy Levine.”

  “Opting out of the candy diet?”

  “This is just supplemental,” she said, mounding up her orange peel on the counter. She ambled over to peek in the fridge. “Ooh, smoked salmon,” said Hannah. “Wouldn’t that taste good on eggs?”

  “It might,” said Gus. “Are you going to make me some breakfast?”

  Hannah pretended to be confused. “If I watch you, then I can learn a thing or two.”

  Gus laid out a bowl and a whisk on the counter, a suspicious look on her face. “All right, Hannah Joy Levine, I’ll bite,” she said. “What’s with the sudden interest in cooking?”

  “I’m taking up Alan’s offer,” said Hannah. “I’ve decided that I’m coming onto the show.”

  “Are you sure? They’re going to exploit you like nobody’s business.”

  “I just felt so ... alive this weekend,” Hannah said, reaching into the cupboardfor a cup and taking it to the coffeepot. “I thought, I’m thirty-six years old. Am I going to stay at home forever?”

  “You were thirty-six a few weeks ago and afraid to come down the stairs for the show,” said Gus. “But if you’re breaking out of the pattern, then good for you.”

  She yawned. “I can’t believe I slept in. Normally I set everything out for you, cups and such. It’s a bit odd to have you do it for yourself.”

  “It’s okay,” said Hannah. “It’s not like you have to do that for me. We don’t want to get stuck in our roles now, do we?” She got a second mug, poured coffee and put in a dash of milk. Slowly she carried it over to her friend. “Sit
down and spill it,” she said. “And I don’t mean the coffee. I barely saw you over the weekend, and it was impossible to talk over the noise of the thruway on the way back.”

  “What’s there to tell?” Gus said, feeling a little weepy.

  “Look, the money thing is all over the entertainment news. What with the kettle fire coverage just a few weeks ago and now this ... you’re everywhere.”

  “I wasn’t the only one who got suckered, you know.”

  “Don’t worry, you’ve got some pretty highbrow company. And I don’t just mean Alan.”

  “Well, my Q ratings must be going through the roof,” said Gus. “If you’re serious about coming on the show, we’ll be getting even more coverage.” She took a sip of her coffee. “Remember when I was just a quiet old lady with a cooking show? Now I’m ringleader of a very out-of-control circus.”

  “Whatever you do, Gus, you must hold your head high,” said Hannah. “You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of, and even if you did, there’s no life in hiding out.”

  “So that’s it, then?” She handed Hannah a plate of smoked salmon and eggs. “One weekend and you’re free?”

  “Ha! If that were the case, I’d run ‘get over it’ retreats for agoraphobics everywhere. I’d make a mint.” She tucked into her plate and took several bites. “I’m freaked out of my wits,” she confessed. “But I’m scared to wind up ninety years old and alone. And let’s face it, Gus, you’re most likely going to be dead by then. I wouldn’t have anyone to feed me.” She polished off her breakfast and wiped her lips with a napkin.

  “There’s nothing wrong with being alone,” Gus said, piling up the dirty saucepan, cutting board, and plates in the sink. “It doesn’t mean there’s anythingthe matter with you just because you don’t have a man in your life.”

  Hannah choked on her coffee and began coughing.

  “Don’t have a man in my life! Hell’s bells, Gus, I haven’t gone on a date in fifteen years,” croaked Hannah. “Not everyone has relationships, you know? Besides, who said anything about romance? I was just hoping to make another friend. Carmen and I hung out a bit and it was kinda cool.”

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