Comfort food, p.28
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       Comfort Food, p.28

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  Everyone laughed along with Alan. He was the boss, of course.

  “But what most of the rest of you don’t know is that . . .”

  The cast and crew leaned in closer.

  “I’ve added an extra episode,” Alan shouted, raising his glass of punch in the air and spilling a few drops on his sleeve. He ignored the group’s collectivemoan of frustration. “This is pure genius, if I do say so myself: our season ender is now going to be a live, on-air wedding. It’ll be a ratings bonanza!”

  And he tilted back his cup of punch and drank every last drop.

  27

  It Was all coming together. Finally. A quick breath mint in her mouth to freshen up and she was good to go. Bad breath just wouldn’t do.

  She’d gotten the call three days ago. Somehow it had slipped her mind to tell Gus, even though she’d talked to her twice about the cookout episode. Besides, she’d had to share attention for quite a while now, and to be honest, she truly believed she deserved to have the spotlight all to herself.

  “Carmen, hi!” said a short blond woman wearing a headset. “We’ve been waiting for you to arrive. Diane and Robin are so excited to meet you.”

  With a veritable skip in her fire-engine-red Christian Louboutin slingback heels (which added an impressive four inches), Carmen entered the set of Good Morning America in triumph. She made understanding murmurs when Robin told her it was too bad that Gus couldn’t join her, and put on a neutral expression when Diane commented on how losing all that money seemed to have skyrocketed Gus Simpson to the front page of all the tabloids.

  “And all the attention means her cookbooks have been selling like mad,” Diane said. “They can’t keep them in stock at my local bookstore. I know, I went to find one!”

  “Yes,” piped up the pert supervising producer. “You’re really lucky to learn from one of the best in the business. Ready to go on?”

  "Gus?” Oliver was watching her sleep, staring down at her. “Are you awake?” She hadn’t been and so his voice startled her. It had been eighteenyears since she’d woken next to a man, and all sorts of worries flashed through her mind: Had she been snoring? Did her face have those pillow wrinkles from sleeping too hard—or worse, actual wrinkles that flashed her maturity like a neon sign? Wisely, she kept her mouth shut as a barrier against morning breath. She wanted to clean up a bit but she wasn’t quite ready to parade about in her nightie in front of Oliver just yet. Though he clearly had no such worries, wearing only a half-wet towel tied loosely at his waist, his chest bare and looking very touchable.

  “You look fantastic,” he said, moving his face closer for a kiss.

  “Mmmm,” she said, still keeping those lips zipped. If only she’d thought to wake up early and brush her teeth. Then again, she hadn’t quite planned on this. They’d just been watching a movie the night before in her den— lying about on the sofa—with her pedicured feet on Oliver’s lap. He was smooth, that man, the way he massaged her toes, and then her ankles, then leaned in for a kiss, then went back to massaging her. Gus had practically melted under the caress of his strong hands, hadn’t thought to resist when he pulled her toward him to sit on his lap.

  She hadn’t wanted to resist.

  Instead, she’d unbuttoned Oliver’s shirt, insistent on getting her hands on his skin, until, in her clumsy eagerness, she popped one of those buttons right off. It went flying.

  “Oh!” Gus said, blushing with embarrassment, her lack of practice obvious.

  “Not a problem,” Oliver said, lifting his shirt over his head and tossing it to the floor. “Screw the buttons.”

  He brought her face close to his own and kissed her hungrily. “No, on second thought,” he said. “Screw me.”

  Gus had pushed him back against the cushions then. Not to hesitate. No, to really take in this man, the shape of his jaw and the crinkles near his eyes and the look of raw desire on his face. For her.

  And then she did what he’d asked.

  Later they’d gone upstairs, to the master suite, trying out her bed and, after that, her shower.

  She’d forgotten what it was like to feel that sweet, achy soreness. The kind of ache that made her feel so desired, so feminine.

  Sex with Oliver had been well worth the wait.

  “I brought you up a coffee,” he said now, “but there’s something you’ve simply got to see.”

  Oliver clicked on the television on the far wall of her bedroom; the jingle for household cleansers was just ending.

  “And we’re back,” said Diane Sawyer, “with one of the most popular new cooks on television. Carmen Vega, from CookingChannel’s Eat Drink and Be, here to fix us a little something.”

  “Hey, that’s my line,” Gus said, forgetting about her breath and nightie and throwing back the covers. She jumped out of the bed to move closer to the TV, as though seeing Carmen’s close-up would help.

  “I can’t believe she went and booked herself a solo spot,” she said, pacingaround on the carpeted floor. “Why does she always behave this way? It’s infuriating.”

  “She’s jealous of you.” Oliver took off his towel and stretched front-down across the end of the bed. “You can be intimidating.”

  “That’s not true,” Gus said, trying not to stare but enjoying the view nonetheless.

  “Sure it is. You’re a survivor, and a gorgeous one. It’s hard to compete.”

  He made a lazy grab for Gus, who bobbed out of his reach.

  “I’ve got to call Porter,” she said, grabbing the cordless phone from the night table.

  “And do what?”

  Gus took in a long breath and let it out, slowly.

  “I don’t know,” she said. She tapped her teeth together for a few seconds. “Maybe all I have to do is nothing.”

  "... and someday soon I plan to have my own restaurant,” TV Carmen was telling Robin Roberts. “Something that celebrates my Spanish heritage and my mother’s cooking.”

  Gus put a hand on her hip and listened, very closely, to Carmen babble on about how much she loved inventing new dishes.

  “At home I like to play around with making lobster foam,” she giggled to Diane, as though it was something everyone liked to do. It was more than she’d ever shared with Gus in the kitchen, and Gus, for her part, was transfixed. Carmen was actually quite perky and amusing when you didn’t have to work next to her.

  “I think she’s telling the truth,” Gus said to Oliver. “The girl just wants to cook.”

  “No, she also wants to be famous,” said Oliver. “But, yeah, she wants to be famous for the food.”

  Gus put the phone back on its base and enticed Oliver to come back to bed. He didn’t require much convincing.

  Later, without putting on a robe, she went down to the kitchen in her nightie. “What’s going on down here that smells so good?” she shouted up to Oliver, who had ducked into the bathroom for a quick second. “I think I can hear cinnamon rolls calling my name.”

  Salt and Pepper were meowing over an empty saucer in the middle of the floor.

  “Did someone give you a little milk, hmm?” she asked, reaching over to rub their furry heads.

  Just then Hannah rapped impatiently on the patio door, which Gus quickly unlocked.

  “You’re never going to believe this,” said Hannah.

  “But Carmen is on Good Morning America,” finished Gus. “I just saw it. I had no idea.”

  “That’s some chutzpah, if you ask me,” Hannah said, a drop of admiration sneaking into her voice. “You gotta respect a tough competitor.”

  “Yeah. But you know what? I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Are those cinnamon rolls?” Hannah asked, sniffing the air. “My favorite!” She literally ran to the stool at the island and sat down, waiting to be served.

  “You like those, do you?” Oliver said, coming into the kitchen. “I put them in a bit ago and they’re almost done.”

  Hannah’s eyes went from Oliver, in just his jeans, to Gus, in her nightie,
and back again. “Oh,” she said, her face turning red. “I didn’t realize . . . I mean, I knew you were spending time together. But I didn’t think it was seriousand . . . wow.” She turned around so she wasn’t facing them anymore. “I should just go,” she said. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

  “Hannah Levine, all you’ve walked in on is Oliver and I having breakfast,” Gus said. “I am quite sure that would garner us a ‘G’ rating.”

  “I’m sorry . . .” stammered Hannah. “I’m just a bit blown away, that’s all.”

  “Let’s go onto the patio and have a talk,” Gus said, meeting glances with Oliver. Then she put an arm around Hannah and led her outside.

  “Oh my God, Oliver slept over!” said Hannah. “Did you know that?”

  Gus could not keep the grin off her face. “Yes, I was an active participant,” she said. “It may have been the first time but it definitely won’t be the last, I can tell you that much.”

  Hannah tried to force a smile.

  “What’s all this?” Gus asked, as they strolled over to the roses, the patio cold under her bare feet, arm in arm with Hannah.

  “I suppose I just thought we were the same,” said Hannah. “Single. The kind of people who just don’t do that sort of thing. Dating. Sex.”

  “I didn’t, for a long time,” admitted Gus. It wasn’t as though she’d forgottenChristopher in one night, or that she ever would. But she was now ready to restart this part of her life. She was ready to let herself feel.

  “But now I think differently,” she said to Hannah. “I want something new. Besides, you’re the one who asked me if I met anyone at the retreat!”

  “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I thought you should go off and get all serious.”

  “Who says it’s serious?”

  “I know you, Gus,” said Hannah. “Guest bedroom or not, you wouldn’t have had a man stay the night if you weren’t falling for him.”

  “Shhh. Don’t want Oliver to hear.”

  “Ha,” said Hannah, her lip trembling slightly. “From the way he was looking at you, I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.”

  Gus felt a thrill run up her spine but, with great difficulty, managed to keep a solemn face to listen to Hannah. In spite of her new situation, she was genuinely concerned for her friend.

  “I’m going to be all alone,” said Hannah. “At best the third wheel. And when you sit around making up pet names for each other, I’m going to have nothing to say. Because I’ve never even had a boyfriend. And all that might go along with that, if you know what I mean.”

  “Baby steps, Hannah,” Gus said, rubbing her back. “You’ve only been out of the house a few weeks.”

  And together they returned to the kitchen, where Oliver was placing rolls on a platter. He presented one, still warm, to Hannah, with a wink at Gus over her head.

  “Do you like me again, Hannah?” he asked as she bit into the sugary glaze.

  “Yeah,” she said, her mouth full. “You’re not half-bad, Oliver.”

  But if Hannah reacted poorly to the news of her relationship with Oliver, Gus worried even more what Aimee and Sabrina might think. There’d been no point in talking about it with them before she knew how she felt about things, but now that she was certain she wanted to continue seeing Oliver, it was better to get it all out in the open. A family, as she had so often said to her daughters, should not have secrets.

  “I am dating someone—and it’s Oliver,” she told her daughters, over the phone because she was—quite frankly—more than a little nervous.

  “As in a date kind of date?” asked Aimee.

  “Like a boyfriend?” asked Sabrina.

  Gus had prepared a big speech, about no one taking Christopher’s place and being single for so long and the excitement she was feeling now. How she felt rejuvenated. Like she had felt when she was just out of Wellesley, in love, and eager to change the world. When anything seemed possible. But she decided that it wasn’t necessary to explain why she was doing what she was doing, or to rationalize her feelings. She could just let it be.

  “I’m happy,” she said simply. “And I wanted you to know.”

  “Well,” said Sabrina. “Then I guess that’s what matters. It’s still weird, though.”

  “I like Oliver,” said Aimee. “Good choice, Mom.”

  The four of them met later at a new Spanish restaurant on the Upper East Side, which was awkward for a few moments, until they all relaxed and realized they were the same people, just mixed around in a new configuration.They made a toast to Carmen, naturally, who had passed along Oliver’s name to Alan Holt, and to Eat Drink and Be. Ratings remained high, though the other Sunday night programs in Alan’s “smorgasbord of destination television” were also doing well, and they’d aired another successful episode since the July Fourth party, centering on using only local organic products from tristate farms within a hundred miles of Gus’s home. Eating locally was one food trend that Gus supported, thank you very much.

  All in all they had just two more shows—including Sabrina’s early autumn wedding to Billy—and then they would finally know whether or not Alan was going to renew.

  “To making it work,” Gus said. “To the future.”

  28

  Priya had been cooking for two days, and planning her menu for the four before that, visiting the Indian market to see what was fresh and to spark ideas. She had sent out a formal invitation to Hannah Joy Levine, askingher to be a very special guest at the Patel family table.

  “I have not seen you so intent in a long time,” Raj said, clearly pleased, as she crushed cumin seeds.

  “You just want to eat everything up,” she said, popping a piece of cucumberin his mouth.

  “True,” he said, chewing eagerly. “But I am not just pleased to see you cooking. I am happy to see you so cheerful.”

  And she was. Everything was different now, once she had taken Hannah’s articles in to her doctor and told him how she was feeling. A few blood tests and it was confirmed: Hannah Joy Levine could have been a doctor. Well, maybe not quite, seeing as she didn’t go to college. But she had read Priya correctly in guessing at a slow thyroid gland, and in doing so had brought joy back into her life. Even to the parts of her life with Raj where’d she have definitely told someone to MYOB. No more did Priya find herself awash in fatigue, or wanting to cry for no reason. In time, her doctor had said, her hair might not be so thin and her eyebrows might fill in on their own. It was all so simple when you saw it from the other side.

  She would never have guessed at how quickly the medicine made a differencein just a few weeks. One afternoon, watching another repeat of Gus’s old show Cooking with Gusto!, as Kiran played Chutes and Ladders with Bina nearby, she noticed—as though for the very first time—the light that came in through the window and shone on the wood floor. It looked so inviting that she went over and stood in the warmth, closing her eyes and imagining all the negative energies melting away. And when she looked up again and saw her house, she could see that it was a very happy home indeed.

  The meal she was preparing for Hannah was a traditional thali, a multi-itemplatter consisting of bhaat, farsan, dal, curry, veggies, sweet and sour pickles, raita, chutney, with plenty of roti wheat bread. And, because she knew how much her new friend enjoyed sweets, she made plenty of those Indian delicacies as well, plus a large tub of good old-fashioned American-stylevanilla ice cream over which she planned to drizzle chocolate sauce after mixing in an assortment of chocolate chips, peanuts, coconut flakes, and every candy she could think to include.

  The children had been enlisted to clean their rooms—it didn’t matter that Hannah might not see them—and Raj had pitched in by getting a new flat-screen television so they could all watch the U.S. Open after dinner. If Hannah wanted to. If she was up for it.

  Her buddy Troy was coming for dinner as well, since Hannah insisted on driving to New Jersey in her red car and had only a learner’s permit. Not even Gus would ride in the car with her
, Hannah had explained when she RSVP’d and asked if she could bring a plus-one. (“A plus what?” Priya had asked.) But of course it was more than fine. One person made it a party, but two guests made it an occasion.

  Gus met with Porter, Oliver, and Carmen two days after Labor Day to plan the last episodes of Eat Drink and Be. The wedding episode was the simplest to organize, even though it had been extended to ninety minutes, because the majority of the food was being made ahead of time and catered by a chef friend of Gus’s.

  “I’m the mother of the bride,” she said. “I’ll have enough stresses walking her down the aisle.” Everyone had agreed that only a handful of easy hors d’oeuvres would be prepared by the team on air in the first fifty minutes, followedby a brief ceremony and then several minutes of the reception.

  “Everybody loves a wedding,” said Porter. “The SaTroy fans are up in arms over this development—been writing in to the message boards withoutceasing—and we’re generating quite a lot of buzz. Yet again.”

  “This has been quite a show, Porter,” said Gus.

  “It’s been the best thing you’ve ever done. And a damn fine first turn at bat, Carmen.”

  “Which leaves us with the second-to-last episode,” said Oliver. “We’ve done octopus, brunch, veggie, grilling, local foods, and we’ll finish with the wedding. But how do we sum it all up?”

  “How about our favorite dishes from childhood?” Carmen said. “Wasn’t that what we were supposed to learn at our retreat—finding our outer child?”

  “Inner child, yeah,” said Porter. “That seems good.”

  “How about we call them family favorites,” Gus said. “We can come up with one item for everyone who’s appeared on the show.”

  “That’s pretty ambitious,” said Oliver. “I don’t know if we can squeeze it in.”

  “Let’s try—we’ll just show a few quick tips from each,” she said. “For example, when I was young, my grandmother always made the most delicioushomemade buns. I don’t think we could show everyone how to make bread and do all the other stuff we have to do, but I could talk about it and show the finished product.”

 
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