Comfort food, p.26
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       Comfort Food, p.26

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “That’s not necessary,” Gus said about paying for the wedding. “I’m not entirely penniless. And I look forward to having you bring Billy over so I can properly get to know him—or I could meet you in the city. Calling ahead, of course.”

  “Thank you for saying that,” said Sabrina. “But I want to do something to help after all that’s happened. And if all I can do so far is simply stop askingfor things, I’ll start there.”

  “I’ll help you with a budget,” said Aimee.

  “And I will make the cake,” said Gus. “Because we’re still in this together, even if the two of you are growing up.”

  “Grown up,” said Sabrina.

  “Yes, yes, well, let me just get adjusted first.” Gus looked down at her beautifully set table. “Oh, look, there’s nothing for a centerpiece. Well, Aimee, I guess this is where you come in.”

  “That’s Sabrina, Mom.”

  “No, I think it’s time you had a go for a change,” said Gus. “Surprise me.” And she took her glass with her to see how things were coming along in the Aga.

  “What do I do?” Aimee asked Sabrina. “You’re the designer.”

  “Mom didn’t ask me to make this centerpiece,” said Sabrina. “She asked you.”

  They could hear Gus bustling around in the kitchen.

  “What about flowers? ” Aimee asked. “I could go to the garden. Or wait, I know, we’ll scatter beads around.”

  “Beads? Where are you going to get beads?”

  “I don’t know. Don’t you carry that kind of stuff in your bag?”

  “For impromptu whatever-the-hell-you-use-beads-for? Uh, that would be a no.”

  Aimee ran up the stairs to hunt around in the bedrooms, bringing down a handful of paper clips, a stuffed bear, and a box of tissues.

  “Now I get why you’re the economist,” Sabrina laughed.

  Aimee dumped her stash of items on the foyer table and took a deep breath.

  “Ready?” Gus called from the kitchen.

  And then she knew. Reaching into her tote bag for her wallet, Aimee brought to the center of the table a weathered old photograph, in which two laughing girls in bathing suits—Sabrina missing her front teeth and Aimee all skinny legs—ran through a sprinkler with their father. There was no Gus in view. But that’s only because she had been the person behind the camera, taking it all into her heart.

  After dinner, and thick slices of chocolate cake, the trio pored over old photo albums. Pictures they’d all seen before but that suddenly acquired new meaning as Gus told them all sorts of stories she’d found too painful to recall because it made the missing of him that much worse. She shared photos of the two of them in Africa, faces sunburned but smiling. She told her girls about how purposeful and necessary she’d felt, and how their father could dig wells faster than anyone she’d seen. She pulled out the wedding album, which they’d seen before, but were giddy to look at again. They giggledhearing about the Christmas when the water pipes burst (Sabrina was barely three months old)—it wasn’t that funny, Gus said, when I was the one cleaning it up!—and the time Christopher insisted on taking two little kids and a cat on a road trip during an August heat wave.

  “We got as far as Philly before I put my foot down,” said Gus. “The car had no air-conditioning!”

  “Will we ever stop missing him?” Sabrina asked suddenly. It was one of the questions that kept her awake at night.

  “No,” Gus said, showing her daughters a new respect by being genuinely, deeply honest. “I don’t think we ever will.”

  And the Simpson girls sat all together then, quiet for a bit, until one of them turned the page of the album and they laughed at the photos some more.

  There were things she chose not to tell them, too. That she and Christopherhadn’t always gotten along. That she’d been a bit lost when they were small, trying to raise two kids while trying to find herself and rather confused about where she wanted to be and what she wanted to be doing. That Christopher was bored at his job—good at it, but not really satisfied. That she hadn’t been easy to live with. (Though that probably wouldn’t have been a shocker, she realized.) That both she and Christopher had made mistakes.Maybe someday she’d tell them everything but, then again, maybe she wouldn’t. Because while Gus and Aimee and Sabrina were learning how to get to know one another as adults, she was still their mother, after all.

  25

  “It’s better than I imagined it,” Priya said, stepping into Gus’s manor house as Hannah opened the door. Priya had been picked up at her North Jersey home and brought all the way to Rye. “It’s even grander than on television.”

  “Nice, right?” Hannah was dressed for the show in her very best tracksuit,an olive green zip-up jacket and pants combo. “I live in a carriage house across the back. About one-tenth the size of this place.”

  “Even the floors gleam,” Priya said, nodding with approval. “Gus is the real deal.”

  “That she is,” agreed Hannah. “Come with me to the kitchen and we’ll steal some of whatever Oliver’s been prepping. He told me he cut extra in case I got hungry.”

  “Oh, I better save up my calories for the finished meal,” said Priya.

  “Are you on a diet?”

  “No, not really. Okay, maybe a little bit. I’m a snacker, I guess. But I just have to look at food and it goes to my hips.”

  Hannah, out of consideration, left her Milky Way bar in her pocket.

  “Where someone else would gain one pound, I put on three,” continued Priya. “I used to be slimmer. No skinny minny, but not quite so puffy.” She blew air into her cheeks, copping a chipmunk look.

  “Well, you don’t have to worry about anything here,” explained Hannah. “We never really eat after the show. It’s pretty much been a disaster every episode, and then everyone goes away mad at everyone else. You know. The true CookingChannel Hollywood story.”

  “I see. I had hoped it would be social. Like the retreat.”

  “Okay, you two,” Gus said, coming out of the library with Oliver and Porter. “You’d better get a touch of makeup on those faces if you’re going to be on the air. No shiny noses!”

  “I prefer to do my own makeup,” said Priya. “I’m quite particular about my eyebrows. They’re not quite as full as they used to be and I have filled them in with pencil.”

  Hannah moved in closer. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I see what you mean.”

  “Hannah!” admonished Gus. “You look fine, Priya. But a little more lipstickwon’t hurt. Just don’t take a big bite out of anything on camera or it’ll end up on your chin. Rookie mistake, trust me.”

  Soon enough the team was assembled in the kitchen, ready to execute ratatouille, seitan stir fry in ginger sauce, and a vegan mocha cake made with gluten-free flour and vinegar instead of eggs.

  "C’mon, guys,” said Porter. “Let’s do it for Gary Rose and Alan Holt. Work together, have fun, and make it look goddamn easy.”

  Gus noticed the glint in Carmen’s eyes and tried nonchalantly to lift the lids off the pots on the stove.

  “What are you doing over there?” said Oliver. “I’ve got sauce simmering.”

  “I’m looking for octopus,” Gus said, in a low voice and barely moving her lips.

  “I don’t think she brought any.” He mimicked her stone face. “We’re clear.”

  “What about pepper spray in the oven mitts?” she asked. “I hear that’s the kind of prank they pull at beauty pageants.”

  “Carmen hasn’t been in the kitchen alone all day,” said Oliver. “I’ve got my eye on her. I’ve got you, Gus.”

  “Places, everyone,” yelled a member of the crew, as the last-minute get-readyswirl started.

  Troy and Sabrina remained awkward with each other, so Troy was dispatchedto cut carrots with Priya while Sabrina and Aimee sat on stools near the island and watched, though they remained in the camera shot.

  “Thank God,” said Aimee. “I was getting sick of chopping.”

  Ha
nnah—in her inaugural official appearance as a member of the Eat Drink and Be team—stood at the central island between Gus and Carmen.

  “Just for introductions, Carmen,” Porter said, when she complained. “Then Hannah will assist Priya and Troy.”

  “Five . . . four . . . three,” said an assistant producer, before switching to counting off "two ... one” silently with wide hand gestures but no words. The red light was on.

  “Welcome, everyone. I’m Gus Simpson. Tonight is one of the most specialepisodes of Eat Drink and Be we’ve ever had. We’re joined by the lucky winner of our contest, Priya Patel—and thanks to so many of you who entered—who has inspired tonight’s all-vegetarian menu. And we’re also adding a new, permanent member of our cooking team here.” She turned to Hannah and gave her a big hug in front of the world.

  “This is my dearest friend, Hannah Joy Levine. She’s a former tennis player who’s learned from some big mistakes. She can’t cook at all but you know what? Who cares? Because Eat Drink and Be isn’t about being good. It’s about being happy. And once you get to know her, you are going to love her as much as I do. So sit back and enjoy the show.”

  “And I’m still Carmen Vega,” piped up Carmen, afraid Gus would “forget” to introduce her. “But I like Hannah, too,” she added. “Let’s cook!”

  And they did.

  “We’re out!” Porter screamed nearly an hour later. “That was the best show we’ve ever done! If we keep going like this, no one’s gonna be able to touch us. We’ll be back for another season for sure.”

  For once, the entire cast of Eat Drink and Be sat down after a program and actually ate together, carrying dishes into the breakfast room and gatheringaround the painted white table.

  “Perfectly seasoned,” Oliver said, his mouth full of seitan stir fry.

  “Priya, you’re a wonderful cook,” said Gus. “You have the heart of a chef.”

  “Oh, I am not so sure,” said Priya. “These are just what I have always done, a little cardamom, a bit of turmeric. Sprinkle, sprinkle.” She felt perfectlybright and shiny under Gus’s compliments and watched with pride as Oliver reached over for seconds.

  “Next time we grill!” said Oliver.

  “That’s right,” said Porter. “Next time we go live for a July Fourth barbecue,here in Gus’s backyard.”

  “What’s the menu plan for the next episode?” asked Troy. “I was hoping we could do fruit kebabs . . .”

  “We typically have a private meeting to plan the menu,” interrupted Carmen. “Don’t worry about it, Troy. Just show up and wear your damn FarmFresh T-shirt and leave the real cooking to us.” She turned to Priya.

  “Your appearance was just another stunt,” she said. “Though it was very nice to meet you, and we all thank you for coming.”

  The hurt and disappointment was all over Priya’s face. “Of course,” she said. “I didn’t think I was anything special.”

  “Well, that’s not true,” Gus said, fighting the urge to kick Carmen under the table. Her ability to be threatened by everyone was boundless. “You are special, Priya. A very nice lady and a good cook.”

  Gus locked eyes with Porter, who knew her well enough to see where she was going with this.

  “It’s very nice being here with all of you,” Priya said, getting up to leave. “I thank you for inviting me to enter this contest.”

  “Would you do me the favor of coming to my July Fourth party, Priya?” asked Gus. “You could bring your family that you told me about at the retreat—I’m sure they’d have a very nice time. We’ll be broadcasting some of the party, of course, and the cooking, but mostly it’s going to be a wonderful,lazy day filled with delicious food and even sweeter people. I couldn’t think of a better guest.”

  Priya was overwhelmed. She was being invited to one of Gus Simpson’s world-famous parties. Just like that.

  “The Patel family would be honored,” she said. “We’ll pick up some traditionalsweets and drive in from New Jersey.”

  “Oh, that reminds me!” cried Hannah. “Can any of you drive a stick shift?”

  “Yeah,” Troy said. “I’ve been on a tractor or two.”

  “Awesome,” said Hannah. “I accept.”

  “Huh?”

  “You can be my driving teacher. I’m going to get my license.”

  The following Saturday found Hannah and Troy going around in circles— literally—as she tried to navigate her way around a nearby church parking lot.

  “Trying to buy yourself a bit of extra insurance?” she asked, tilting her head toward the sign out front. “I’m not sure you picked the right place—I’m Jewish, you know.”

  “Quit stalling, pun intended, and release the clutch,” said Troy, who had put on a helmet as soon as he sat down in the car. “I’ve heard about your driving from Gus. How do I look?”

  “Oh, now he’s a funny man,” said Hannah. “Well, you should know I don’t give in to taunting.” She paused. “Anymore.”

  For more than two hours she maneuvered her little red Miata through the parking lot, trying to practice her parallel parking (turn the wheel, Troy shouted, no, the other way!) and her angle parking (watch the lines!) and keep her speed even (more gas, he encouraged, before screaming for her to brake! brake!).

  “Oh my God,” she said, turning off the car finally. She rested her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. “And no, I’m not trying to be funny.” Hannah lolled her head to the side and looked at Troy, who had persisted in wearing his damn helmet as soon as he was certain it bugged her. He grinned.

  “You suck,” Troy said matter-of-factly.

  “Damn straight,” said Hannah. “I just got to get into training.”

  “I think you gave me whiplash. Ever done an article on that?”

  Hannah rolled her eyes. “No, but I’m sure you would make a great source,” she said. “So now what?”

  “Time to trade this puppy in. Get yourself an automatic.”

  “I can’t go car shopping,” she said.

  “I’ll go with you.”

  “Do you drive an automatic?” asked Hannah. “That seems almost too easy. Like you haven’t earned being on the road.”

  “Uh, I live in Manhattan,” he said. “My existence is car-free until I go home to Oregon.”

  “Right.” She nodded. “That must be nice, out there with your family. Lucky.”

  “Yeah,” he agreed. “It is. Okay, you, let’s switch seats so we can get out of here and get you home.”

  There was no lurching or mid-intersection stalls as Troy drove, his helmetresting on the backseat, all of which irritated Hannah tremendously. She hated when she wasn’t very good at some sort of physical activity.

  “Stop!” she shouted, as they made their way down the street.

  “What the hell?” said Troy, who hit the brake, afraid he was about to run over a squirrel or something.

  “Over there.” Hannah pointed to a public park across the road. “It’s a tennis court.”

  “You brake for tennis?” Troy shook his head. “That’s not funny. We could have had an accident.”

  “No, let’s go play,” she said. “You wanna?”

  “You have a racket in here?”

  “I tucked a couple in just in case,” she said. “You being the big tennis camp man and all that.”

  “You may be on the show now but playing on a public court near Rye?” asked Troy. “If someone recognizes you... are you ready for that?”

  “Let’s find out.” Hannah wasn’t entirely sure if she meant that, but she wanted to do something in which she was better than Troy.

  He continued driving until the next light. “All right, you talked me into it,” he said, though she hadn’t said another word. Troy turned the car around and went back in the direction of the public courts.

  “We won’t play a full match,” he said as he shut off the car. “Just a bit of volleying and that’s it. I gotta get back into the city—we’re close to landing
a new investor.”

  “Sure,” said Hannah. “But we’ll keep score, just a few points. Otherwise, why bother?”

  “You know what?” said Troy. “I’ve always wanted to beat Hannah Joy Levine.”

  “Not happening.” She pulled out a bag of rackets and slung it over her shoulder.

  “Can you imagine the crowd if I did?”

  “No crowd here.”

  “What about them?” He pointed to a collection of what looked to be six or seven middle-school-aged kids loitering about on the court.

  “You guys here to play?” Hannah shouted, practicing a few serves while Troy stood beside her.

  The kids shrugged. They seemed to have only one wonky old wooden racket among the group of them.

  “Come on over here,” she called.

  “You really have been locked at home for fifteen years,” said Troy. “It’s not okay anymore to just speak to kids you don’t know.”

  Thwack! Hannah served another ball. Oh, the real thing was even betterthan she’d imagined.

  “You’re fast, lady,” said one of the kids, coming nearer. “Just like Venus.”

  “Yup,” said Hannah. “And I used to be even faster!”

  “Whoa.” The kids were clearly impressed.

  “This guy here is about to be beaten by me,” she said, gesturing to Troy.

  “Ha!” Troy said, shaking his head at the kids. “It won’t happen.”

  “You sure have a lot of rackets,” said the shortest child in the group. “Why did you bring so many?”

  Hannah looked at the kids, and then at Troy, and then back at the kids.

  “For sharing,” she said, unzipping the bag and handing out two rackets. “Just to borrow, and everyone gets a turn. Okay by you?” The last words she had addressed to Troy.

  “I’m all good,” he said. “Let’s start volleying. Everybody put two feet on the line closest to the net!”

 
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