Comfort food, p.3
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       Comfort Food, p.3

           Kate Jacobs
 

  “What kind is it?” Hannah had asked, gesturing toward the pie, her body partially hidden by her wide mahogany door. She was even thinner back then, all sharp clavicle and bony wrist. And nervous, tremendously nervous. Of course, Gus was immediately smitten: she simply had to add Hannah to her collection of darlings. To the ones she wanted to nurture and nourish. Her girls, their pals, her coworkers: everyone was clay that Gus was eager to mold. She made a pest of herself that summer, dropping over next door with all manner of muffins and cookie bars, her resolve to befriend her neighboronly heightened by the fact that no one else seemed to visit the gentle, wary woman in pajamas. Certainly Hannah, already in her thirties then, was far too old to be a surrogate daughter; Gus imagined she would become like a little sister. But what happened instead was far more welcome: the two women found they had much in common—a shared love of gardening, an unconventional work schedule, a devotion to finding the perfect chocolatechip cookie, and a love of rising early—from which a true friendship sprang.

  When the body wakes up before dawn, as Gus’s typically did, there can be several hours when it seems as though there is no one else in the world. A peaceful time for some. Not Gus: she found these early moments, the house dark, the girls’ rooms empty, the cats snoozing in far corners, to be tremendouslylonely.

  Fortunately, Hannah was quite likely to be on her way over by 7 AM, crossing the unfenced property line between their two homes. Because once it became clear that Gus was going to be persistent, Hannah accepted her friendship as the most natural thing. From early on, she had the peculiar habit of never tapping on the door when she came by, always calling out and making her way inside. With anyone else Gus would have found such a gesture intrusive; with Hannah it seemed perfectly normal. The two of them spent many an early morning sitting in Gus’s bay window, on those overstuffed chairs, dipping biscotti into their cappuccino and having the very same conversation they’d had the day before. That was the thing about their friendship: it was all about the being together, never about doing anything.As such it made few demands. Theirs was an easy intimacy.

  It was also precious: Hannah was the first real friend Gus had made after becoming well known. There was no handbook for becoming semi-famous. (Or at least nothing that had been handed to Gus by the CookingChannel.) In a society thirsting for celebrity, it didn’t take much for people to elevate a widowed mother with a knack for entertaining into a culinary guru. And so even by the late nineties, Gus had developed quite a following, with the requisite cookbooks and calendars, too. It was great; it put Sabrina and Aimee through some good schools. But her sort-of-but-not-quite fame also made it a hurdle to connect—people already “knew” her from TV and therefore it could be a tremendous disappointment to them if Gus turned out, for example, to be even slightly different than they envisioned. To be plain, it had been difficult to make friends. Oh, easy enough to meet people who wanted to say they were chummy with the host of Cooking with Gusto! More challenging to get to know individuals who wanted to know Gus.

  Hannah Levine had been entirely different.

  For one thing, she didn’t watch television. Well, not exactly. Hannah watched multiple channels nonstop: CNN, MSNBC, and CourtTV. But dramas, comedies, home decor or cooking shows? Hannah didn’t watch any of it. Instead, she holed up in her home office—with its built-in bookcases and large television—and wrote article after article for women’s magazines. Sometimes in jeans but most typically in pajamas, with fuzzy slippers on her feet, and a bowl of M&M’s nearby. Hannah was a busy freelance journalist,and her area of expertise was health, which pushed her slightly in the direction of obsessing over whatever she’d written about most recently. But she obsessed in a rather benign, almost kindly variety, as concerned for a stranger’s odd throat clearing—could it be whooping cough?—as for her own potential ailments. Having the Internet as her main companion all day merely encouraged her cyberchondria.

  That was one reason Hannah had been wary of the pie that first summer, having just written an article about an epidemic of E. coli on fresh berries, but seemed rather unfazed to learn about Gus’s career. And frankly, in all the time since, she seemed yet to have watched one of her programs. Gus absolutely adored her for that.

  Now she waved Hannah inside, though of course her friend was already halfway to the coffee. Gus had already left a mug on the counter, spoon on a napkin, and a few slices of fresh banana loaf arranged on a plate.

  “I just finished a piece on the dangers of ignoring sore feet last night,” Hannah told Gus after swallowing her first mouthful of hot coffee. “Do you stand for the entire time you’re on TV, Gus? Because I’ve got a few ideas to make it a little easier—”

  “Don’t worry—from now on I think I’ll be doing my show from a wheelchair,” Gus said, shaking her head at Hannah’s worried expression and reaching to show her the section of the New York Times. “Apparently I’m over the hill.”

  Hannah scanned the article. “Look, at least you’re in it. You know you’re still important when a journalist declares it so.” She pulled a face at Gus to show she was joking.

  “I’m just feeling a bit of I-don’t-know, you know?”

  “Is that why I haven’t received my invitation to your birthday party?” said Hannah. “If it was anyone else I’d assume I was off the list. With you, I’ve been worried something’s wrong. Your birthday is a few weeks away and I still have to plan my outfit.”

  Now it was Gus’s turn to smile. “Why don’t you wear your gray coat dress?” she suggested. That was the same outfit Hannah wore every year, purchased on a rare shopping trip with Gus. Hannah hated to leave her comfort zone of home. Hated to wear anything other than casual, loungy clothes.

  “I think I’ll just do that,” Hannah said, nodding. She didn’t mind being teased by Gus.

  The two of them settled into a kind of cozy silence, munching on banana loaf and sipping coffee and intently dawdling to avoid the day’s work. It was what they did every morning and they loved it.

  The phone rang. It was only 7:08 AM.

  “Who could that be?” Gus knew she wasn’t needed in the studio for a meeting, and the TV crew filmed at her house on Wednesdays. Maybe something was up with Sabrina? Aimee was certainly still asleep at this early hour.

  She picked up the cordless and said hello.

  “Of course, of course, yes, definitely,” she said, jumping up and almost spilling coffee on her white chair. She hung up the phone.

  “Well, thank goodness,” Gus said, drawing out every syllable for Hannah’s benefit. “That was my exec producer. The bad news is that I have to be in the city and ready to be on air in less than two hours. The good news is that Gus Simpson isn’t quite yesterday’s leftovers.”

  2

  From her bedroom window, Gus could see the black sedan coming up the driveway through the snow. It was right on time. She hastily grabbed her makeup bag and a selection of silk scarves—just in case she wanted to change her look—and went out to meet the driver. He was a short man, with closely cropped gray hair, and he wore a red tie.

  “Hello!” she said, fairly bursting with excitement. “We’ve got to make good time.”

  “Ma’am,” he said pleasantly, as he helped Gus into the back. “I’ve got the directions. Buckle up, now.”

  She waved him off. The truth was that she was a bad one for riding in cabs and cars without a seat belt, a fact she hid from her daughters and her producers. It’s just that she hated the sensation of being squished in, hated the feel of the strap on her neck.

  The driver put on his own seat belt, then turned and looked at her expectantly.

  “I’m liable if you don’t put it on, and we can’t have that now, can we?” he asked, waiting, still smiling.

  Christopher had worn a seat belt. That’s what she’d been told by the police. There had been no indicators on that particular day in 1988, no sense of dread in the air, no feeling that anything remarkable was going to happen. Later she’d wondered
if she missed some vital clue, if there was some moment of portent she had ignored. But try as she might, she could never discover any such memory. On a normal, routine day, Christopher left for the office, and then, later, as she put together a mushroom lasagna, a police officer came to the door. That was all. She wondered if cops still did that, came to the front door and knocked, bad news to deliver. She couldn’t ever remember exactly what the policeman had said to her. Gus recalled the detail of Christopher’s seat-belt-wearing and the somber look on the man’s face. Her neighbor, Mrs. Clarkson, three doors down, had come over to stay with the girls; they hadn’t known each other well but she hadn’t hesitated when Gus asked. That was a kindness. And then Gus found herself at the hospital where Christopher had been a jagged, swollen mess and the doctors were saying things that made no sense. Like brain dead.

  “What are you, brain dead?” Gus had said that to Christopher on more than one occasion when the girls were small and she was angry with his insistence that no, he didn’t know how to pick out their clothes and couldn’t she just do it because she was really so much better at it anyway? And she’d dress them and get them off to school and punish him with snappishness. He would reciprocate in kind. Theirs had not been a perfect marriage. No, indeed.

  But they had loved each other deeply, with the kind of intensity that sprang from great passion and an unconditional trust that grew out of deep friendship. They’d seen a lot of despair when they were in the Peace Corps together and remembered enough to appreciate each other before getting carried away with petty annoyances. Never, not once, had she ever worried that their joint frustrations with the day-to-day grind would lead to any permanentdamage. Even at her crankiest and most tired, when the girls were small and she was hopping mad every time he got to go out for lunch because of his job (while she had to stay home watching Sesame Street). Later, he’d make it up to her—even though there was nothing really to make up for— and he’d take Aimee and Sabrina to the park early on a Saturday so that Gus could sleep in.

  “I’ll lock you in the bedroom so you take a nap,” he’d say. “Don’t you dare get up before we get back.”

  And many nights they’d lain awake in that very same bed, sometimes tired from making love, sometimes tired from running after two rambunctiouslittle girls, whispering animatedly to each other.

  “Bring those Popsicles over here,” Christopher would say, fake-moaning in horror as Gus tucked her always cold feet under his knees. They’d snuggle up to talk about all the places they wanted to take Sabrina and Aimee and all the ways they wanted to fix up their home and what Christopher’s next career move should be and what was it, really, that Gus wanted to do? Their future, to them, was endlessly fascinating and exciting, a mysterious gift they had all the time in the world to unwrap.

  The doctor on call had insisted he was feeling no pain, which had seemed odd, given the bruising. But then Gus had felt strangely numb herself, those first few hours with all the decisions and later all through the casseroles and the well-wishers. Through the nodding looks of approval at how well she was holding up.

  “I can always tell when someone has suffered,” said a woman—a stranger— at the book signing for her first cookbook in the mid-nineties. “You’re cheery on television but I can see auras. And sadness floats about you like a cloud. I just wish I could give you a hug.”

  Gus had demurred, thanking the fan for her concern.

  Privately, she worried others could see that far inside.

  “The seat belt, please?” The black car hadn’t moved from her driveway.

  Gus nodded at the driver and reached behind her for the shoulder strap.

  “Right, sorry, I was just distracted for a moment,” she said, giving a thin facsimile of a smile. That was one thing she liked about riding in cars—sitting alone with her thoughts. Because her travel time was finite, she never had to worry about things becoming too dark in her mind. Not like at home, where she preferred to do something with her hands rather than risk becoming morose. It had been easier when the girls were younger and had been noising up the place, fighting and slamming doors. They’d always provided quite the distraction. Now Sabrina and Aimee still took up inordinate amounts of her brainpower without even the relief or peace of mind that came from knowing they were tucked in at night. It was funny, in a way, how she fretted about them even more since they’d left home.

  Aimee was always the more solid of the two, serious-minded and capable.Even when she went through the sulky phase, as all teens did, it was short-lived. More an experiment before she settled into her role. One could always count on Aimee: a clever student, treasurer of the student council, then on to studying economics. She was a brain, that girl. Not to mention she’d been a great help in the AC days. After Christopher. When all Gus had wanted was to lie in bed—day and night—and think think think about the day he’d gone and come up with a plan of how to save him. She could convince Christopher to call in sick, thereby getting him off the road, or she could suggest he take the train instead of the car. Yes, that’s what she’d do. Instead of the policeman coming to her door, it would have been Christopher,knocking because he’d dropped his keys and famished for her mushroomlasagna. Only once she had determined how she could have saved him—soothing herself by endlessly reliving and analyzing and changing the day’s events to a better outcome—could she feel any moment of relief. A very brief respite before the reality of Christopher’s death kicked at her consciousnessand the shock and trauma started all again.

  And then there had been Aimee, waiting for Gus on the stairs in her pajamas when she returned from the hospital. Coming into her bedroom late at night, before Gus took to crying in the shower to muffle the sound, wide-eyed and watchful.

  “It’s okay,” she’d said. “I covered Sabrina’s ears.”

  Gus had had to get up. There was no other choice, was there? She would deal with herself some other time. Later. She wasn’t about to let Christopher down, and what mattered most, she realized then, were their daughters.

  And yet she felt more distant than ever now. Aimee rarely called, and when the two of them met, Gus found herself struggling to connect with her increasingly prickly daughter. It was as though that girl felt she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

  Sabrina, on the other hand, had always been rather scattered. A bit of a flake, that one. Popular but naive; Gus wouldn’t have been surprised if she called home to say she’d sent money to Nigeria in an Internet scam. Trusting.Too trusting. She jumped into everything without looking and then came to Gus in pieces.

  When Sabrina had left for college—the first college, there had been two—Gus had awakened in the middle of the night, sweating and pulling at the sheets, having dreamed that a group of kidnappers had stolen her little girl and tried to drown her in a toilet.

  She still had that dream sometimes.

  “Nervous about going into the city, are you?” asked the driver, turning on the radio for a little music.

  Gus looked up, could feel her face tight from frowning.

  “No, I go there often.” She spoke a bit curtly, trying to dissuade the man from wanting to carry on a conversation. Alas, no luck.

  “It’s a fine house you have there,” he said.

  “Yes.”

  “Have you lived there a long time then?”

  “Yes,” she said. Then, not wanting to seem rude, added: “Seven years.”

  “How many rooms do you have?”

  “Nineteen.”

  “That’s too darn much!”

  Gus stared at the man, intending to do her best and most believable haughty attitude. Instead, she looked into the rearview mirror, saw his broad grin, and then burst out laughing.

  “You’re right—it is,” she said. “I used to live in a much smaller place, in fact. What’s with the game of twenty questions?”

  “I knew it,” the man replied.

  “Knew what?”

  “You just need a little coaxing. I like to
talk when I drive, and I’ve a good read on people,” he said. “I guessed you were a happy sort underneath.”

  “Well, I’m not. I’m a professional pessimist.”

  “Me, too. The world’s coming to a bad end,” the driver said merrily, navigatinga merge onto the expressway. A red SUV slowed down just as he tried to change lanes. “And that car is proof of it. But no reason not to have a laugh now and again.”

  He whistled as they crept closer to the cars all bumped up together in traffic.

  “This is what I get for being a driver,” he said, looking in the rearview mirror. “Hours in exhaust fumes all day. So what do you do?”

  “I cook.”

  “You have a restaurant, then?”

  “No, I just cook.”

  “You mean you’re a housewife! Oh, that’s a clever way to put it,” he said.

  “Umm, no. Well, yes, sort of. I am, or at least I used to be. But I get paid to cook, as well. I’m good at throwing parties.” Gus leaned forward as best she could with her belt on and took a deep breath. “Do you know who I am?” It was a ridiculous question, and she felt silly asking it. But she wondered.

  The driver glanced back at her for a moment; the expressway might as well have been a parking lot for how fast they were going.

  “I haven’t a damn idea,” he said. “I hope you don’t take offense. I don’t know all of my passengers. But I drove for Angelina Jolie last week, and Derek Jeter before that. Not together, I don’t mean. I’m not suggesting anything.”

  “Of course not,” said Gus, relaxing. It had been a long time since she’d had a chat where she was just a stranger. She could tell this man she was an astronaut and he wouldn’t care. It had been a strange and unexpected transitionover the past decade, from being just a regular person to being someonewho had to worry about what she said, concerned that a comment gone awry would show up in a tabloid. (The headline GUS SIMPSON HATES PEAS! had resulted in all sorts of calls from the pea lobby—who knew?—to Alan, producer’s notes from Porter, and an official mea culpa that culminated in a show on pea soup. And all because she’d requested they leave them off her salad at Jean-Georges.)

 
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