Comfort food, p.9
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       Comfort Food, p.9

           Kate Jacobs
 

  Troy Park had never given her a ring. She’d expected it. Wanted it. He’d been different, that one. He’d demanded something the others had not. Sabrina looked up at Billy, at the shadow along his jawline, at his pink lips. Did she love this mouth? This man?

  “Am I happy?” she whispered. He didn’t stir. They never did.

  “Am I happy?” she said again. It was the same question that came from her lips whenever she awakened in a cold sweat late at night, the room dark and quiet, her heart racing, her brain uncertain where she was. Alone with her thoughts, she didn’t have to power up and turn on the cheeriness that everyone seemed to require. She wondered, in those still hours, what her father would have thought about how she’d turned out. Which one of her boyfriends he’d have liked better.

  “I’m a serial monogamist,” she’d told Aimee when notifying her that Troy was no longer in the picture and she was now involved with Billy. That’s how she’d phrased it: in the picture. As though exclusion in her life was as simple as replacing the snapshot of the smiling boyfriend in the pewter frame on her dresser.

  “You’re an idiot,” her sister had replied, shaking her head. She looked as though she wanted to say more but she didn’t. For once.

  Sabrina was relieved, didn’t want to hem and haw over how she’d met William Angle. They were introduced by a guy she’d known at design school who worked as a graphic designer in Billy’s office. Billy was a rising exec at a media company owned by a global conglomerate, with lots of connectionsto fun parties and prospective clients. That had been what interested Sabrina initially, and meeting him for a drink had been all about networking.It was a pleasant way to spend an evening: he had this wonderfully calm way of talking, which slowed everything down, and he seemed remarkably self-assured. But he surprised her, too, when he told her he volunteered as a Big Brother and had to leave early because he was taking his Little Brother golfing at Chelsea Piers the next morning.

  He seemed so unlike all the other men she’d met that Sabrina was fascinated.She was always attracted to what was new. Nothing happened, mind you. She wasn’t that kind of girl. She simply flirted and emailed until she was certain there was something there—Sabrina never made a move until she knew who she was moving on to—and then she packed up Troy’s things in a paper bag.

  “I don’t know,” she’d told her mother when asked what had gone wrong.

  “I don’t know,” she’d answered when Aimee asked her if she loved Troy.

  “I don’t know,” she’d said when each of her boyfriends, in turn, asked her what she wanted. Now she glanced about her bedroom: the walls were painted a cool blue-gray, as though looking at the sky through a veil of fog. Her double bed, an explosion of throw pillows the night before, was scarcely big enough for two. Theirs had been an impromptu stopover on their way to Billy’s apartment—just for Sabrina to pick up a few more clothes—before they carried on. Instead, they got deliciously carried away. They’d never stayed the night at her place before.

  “Let’s not leave this bed,” she’d whispered, before skillfully convincing Billy to call in sick. “Let’s pretend we’re stranded on a raft no bigger than this bed and no one can find us.” It was one of her favorite games. And as long as she was up to playing what he wanted, Billy had no need to be rescued.

  Sabrina had just drifted off again when she heard rustling sounds in the kitchen. Noises from an empty New York City kitchen were never a good thing. She nudged Billy awake.

  “We’ve got a mouse,” she hissed.

  “And you’ve got a mousehole,” he growled, reaching for her.

  “Come off it, Billy, I’m serious.”

  He paused. “I don’t hear anything,” he said in his normal voice.

  But Sabrina was already up, throwing on a T-shirt and passing him his boxers. “Let’s go out there.”

  “Don’t you live with your sister?”

  “It’s the middle of the afternoon—she’s at work.”

  “Okay, okay,” he said, stretching lazily before sliding his underwear over his thighs. As a joke, he grabbed an umbrella from the top of her dresser and held it over his head, looking back at Sabrina as he opened the door with a flourish and took an exaggerated step, Elmer Fudd style, toward the kitchen.

  “I’m hunting wabbits,” he singsonged, waiting for Sabrina to laugh.

  “Omigod!” his girlfriend screamed, her face flushing. Billy whipped his head forward, every ounce alert. He was completely serious now. And there, in the kitchen, still wearing her winter coat and holding a jar of black olives in one hand, stood television’s most famous host: Gus Simpson.

  “Mom! What the hell are you doing here?” Sabrina felt naked even though her T-shirt covered her somewhat.

  “Go back in that room and put on a shirt!” Gus was practically shouting as she pointed to Billy.

  “No.” Billy placed his arm around Sabrina’s shoulders but she shook him off. “You’re trespassing.”

  “You—you’re the trespasser!” Gus was shouting now. “I can come to my daughter’s home anytime I like.”

  “No,” he repeated. And simply stood there in his boxers.

  Gus changed tactics. “Get yourself dressed right now,” she said to Sabrina. “You and I need to have a talk.”

  “Mrs. Simpson—Gus—this is uncomfortable for all of us,” Billy said, pleased by his own maturity. It wasn’t how he had planned to break the news to his future mother-in-law, but Billy was a big believer in facing things head-on. You just had to roll with it. Now he grinned at Sabrina even as he felt the heat from Gus’s glare. “But I really think you should calm down. Your daughter and I are getting married.”

  “Oh, sweet Jesus,” said Gus, putting the jar of olives on the counter with such force that it slid right off and smashed on the linoleum. She watched the liquid seep out onto the floor.

  “I’d say congratulations, but, God help me, I can’t go through this again.”

  Although filming of Eat Drink and Be was to take place at Gus’s home, meetingswere still held at the New York studio. It was more convenient . . . for everyone else. About two seasons ago, Gus believed she was on the verge of being able to request all meetings be brought to her, in her home. She already had the knives, the pots, the pans, the salad spinner co-branded with the CookingChannel. It hardly seemed fair that the ratings dip left her in a battle for all that she’d created. To be frank, there simply couldn’t have been a Carmen Vega without a Gus Simpson. And she was going to make sure that tarty beauty queen didn’t forget it.

  Gus’s feet ached inside her black leather boots as she entered the CookingChannelheadquarters: too much walking in too-high heels. It amazed her how anger could fuel the stride, leaving her blistered and more frustratedthan when she started out. She hoped Sabrina’s Billy choked on that little picnic! The entire day was a disaster, from Alan to Sabrina and her monstrous boyfriend, and she still had to meet again with Porter. Being late wasn’t something Gus did. To be fair, Gus had always made a point of being punctual. But her life now was a far cry from when she’d just been Gus Simpson,private citizen, and sometimes it chafed. There were a lot of rules and regs to being Gus Simpson, celeb TV host. And chief among them was smilingon cue.

  “Carmen—what a surprise,” said Gus, even-tempered and pleasant, as she walked through Porter’s open door. “Am I late?”

  “Never,” said Porter, watching her carefully. “Carmen was early. She was just saying how excited she is to work with you.”

  “I’ve been studying your shows like a blueprint,” Carmen said, smiling broadly. “I could learn so much from you, sabes? ”

  “Indeed,” said Gus. “I’m so glad All About Eve was playing on the classic movie channel last night. I feel so much more prepared. Porter?”

  “Okay, ladies, let’s go sit at the table over here. There’s something I want both of you to see: a selection of videos that came in after the show. We’re going to upload several to the CookingChannel Web site—the respons
e has been amazing.” Porter turned his laptop so both women could see the screen, taking care to place the computer equally between Carmen and Gus. He clicked “Play” to start a streaming video of a group of twentysomething men and women.

  “Gus Simpson, welcome to my own March Madness party. I used to think it was impossible to be you,” said an Asian woman in a Syracuse T-shirt. “But now I’m inspired! It’s okay to mess up—and please, who is that cute bald guy?”

  “You can have Oliver!” shouted another young woman in the background,“I want the other one!” A chubby guy behind her playfully hit her over the head with an oven mitt before leaning into the shot to hold up an “I love Carmen” banner.

  “Go, Gus!” the crowd shouted in unison as the video ended.

  Porter moved the laptop out of the way and handed out copies of some notes he’d made.

  “We’ve got tons like this—even a group who made your first dish in real time with all of you and it’s hilarious,” said Porter. “What’s amazing is how much viewers are responding to the real-time, real-world, real-people aspect of the inaugural show of Eat Drink and Be.”

  “I’m delighted,” cooed Carmen. “I love real people.”

  “How charming,” said Gus drily. “I’m fond of them myself. So how”— Gus subtly motioned in Carmen’s direction—“is this thing really going to work?”

  “Ah, I have a plan for that!” Porter was up and pacing the floor. “We’re going to bring them all back—Troy, Hannah, Aimee, Sabrina—and we’re going to do it all again. A bit more organized, of course.”

  “Sabrina is apparently engaged. Again.” Porter had known Gus and her girls for a long time. He knew well that Sabrina loved to fall in love.

  “Engaged again? ” asked Carmen. Gus pretended not to hear her.

  “Knowing Sabrina, this guy’s a hunk,” said Porter. “We could bring him on, too.”

  “Actually, no, we can’t,” Gus replied coolly. Porter stopped moving long enough to glance at Gus’s face.

  “Okay, scratch that,” he said. “Hey, where’s Oliver? I wouldn’t expect our culinary producer to be late to our first group meeting.”

  “Ooooh, yes,” said Carmen. “I just asked him to do me a weensy little favor. I didn’t think anyone would mind.”

  Gus opened her mouth and then closed it again. Porter got the message: she did mind. But she wasn’t going to give in to the temptation to say so.

  8

  Don’t get stuck in the elevator: that’s what Oliver’s favorite professor,Dr. Randall, always said in business school. Only he’d never meant it literally.

  Oliver Cooper reached out his arms to estimate if he could touch both sides of the elevator at the same time. He couldn’t reach but still he came impressively close. His arms, like his legs, were long and well muscled, and his skin was lightly tanned from a recent ski weekend. At six-five—and with a smoothly shaven scalp, his answer to the dreaded thinning hairline— Oliver cut an imposing figure. Thankfully he was the sole occupant of the elevator—the doors of this square box didn’t seem to be budging and he didn’t relish the idea of making small talk. (“This is crazy, huh?” would be the theme.) He punched the “emergency” button several times, the loud ring reverberating in his ear. He reached for his cell phone before rememberinghe’d left it at home—of all days!—then slid down against the wall and squatted over the heels of his brown leather loafers.

  A glance at his Swatch watch revealed it was 4:05 PM. He had been trapped for eleven minutes; he was supposed to be in Porter’s office five minutesago. And he could have been. If only he was better at saying no. There were just so many times when Oliver couldn’t turn down what was requested of him; it simply wasn’t done.

  “Oh, Oliver, I’m so happy to see you!” That’s what she’d said in the lobby, quickly sweeping her eyes down and then gazing at him full in the face with her wide brown eyes, those long dark lashes. Carmen. Always pretty, always sweet, ever so slightly feigning helplessness. “I have all of this stuff to take upstairs and no one’s around to help.”

  “Couldn’t you get a dolly? From the doorman?”

  Carmen shrugged as though she couldn’t be bothered to find out.

  “They’re not heavy for you.” She touched Oliver lightly on the arm. He was carrying a Frap from the coffee shop across the street. It was a guilty indulgence—he’d been trying to cut back on his caffeine—and the cup was mostly full. “It’s just too much for me, Oliver.” She tilted her head in a practicedway and left the question in the air. Her red satiny blouse highlighted her warm olive skin and her red lips drew attention to her even, white teeth.

  He took a long sip of his drink and tossed it in a wastebasket. Too late he realized the bin was meant for recycling. Oh, well, no wonder the earth was going to destroy itself; too many careless humans who couldn’t be botheredto read the recycling arrows. Oliver considered removing the cup but thought that would seem even more distasteful. Instead, he spun around to face her.

  “So what do you have for me?” he asked, trying to be chipper. Of course he’d consented. Only a complete jerk would leave a delicate thing like Carmenstanding in the lobby of the CookingChannel offices surrounded by heavy boxes.

  Carmen mouthed her thanks but didn’t look a bit surprised. Her lack of genuine gratitude annoyed him, just a bit. She knew he’d do it even if he didn’t want to—knew he’d say yes even when he pretended to himself that he was mulling it over. It was almost socially impossible for a man to refuse a woman’s request for help. That was one of the little inconsistencies of professional life that drove him rather nuts, to be honest: the assumption that it was okay for a woman to ask a man to do physical labor. Never the other way around, mind you.

  “You’re welcome, Carmen,” he pretend-shouted. Oliver rolled up the sleeves of his French blue Oxford shirt. He knew he’d agreed to carry up Carmen’s belongings because she was attractive and funny and, as much as he was annoyed, because it also appealed to him to be seen as strong. And because he owed her much more than a bit of manual labor. She knew food had saved him, had nourished his spirit when he looked deep within himselfand saw what was missing. She shared a similar respect for the power of flavor. And because she knew about the problems he’d had with his wrists working as a restaurant sous chef, she’d whispered his name to Alan Holt as someone who would be a good candidate for culinary producer.

  Oliver had known Carmen for years now—had bonded with her when he showed her the genuine jamón serrano he’d smuggled in after a trip to Barcelona, had even briefly dated her until they mutually decided to stick to being pals—and, as friends went, he knew the former Miss Spain wasn’t a bad one to have.

  But there were still things to put up with: the baby doll act, the wheedling,the expectation. Carmen was accustomed to getting her own way. It might have always been that way for her, growing up as her mother’s favoritechild in Seville, attracting the attention of photographers as she rose through the beauty pageant scene, winning the hearts of the paparazzi when she sent sandwiches out to them when they waited for a glimpse of Carmen and her Hollywood singer. That type of attention can alter a person, there was no doubt about it. The same way that suddenly earning a huge pile of money had changed him. Oliver tapped his fingers on Carmen’s boxes: he wouldn’t have carried someone’s stuff back when he was on The Street.

  "Just keep your head down and do your work,” his father said to him the day he left for college.

  “You’re going to make something out of yourself,” said his older brother Marcus, who had returned from school to work with his father.

  “Be sure not to forget about us when you’re all big and fancy,” said his oldest brother, Peter, who was a bookkeeper for a local company.

  Oliver hadn’t expected to forget where he came from. He hadn’t expected his career successes to have such an effect. He’d assumed he was stronger than that.

  His mother had always said he had a good head on his shoulders. And he did.
They’d called him Ollie back in those days, growing up in a farm town in Indiana. He was only the third member of his family to go to college, Marcus and Peter getting there before him. But he had been the first to get a full scholarship. The first to move out of state. The first to get an MBA. The first to get to New York and earn promotion after promotion. To make money. That’s what he’d done. He made money.

  Certainly the initial years working on Wall Street had been solid, more than healthy, and the update in his wardrobe, the widening of his palate (he had fond memories of his first bite of tripe, of the eating tour of Italy, of the cycling trip in Napa), the choices for his vacations all reflected his well-padded bank account. He remembered well the awkwardness of realizingthat he was earning more in his first full-time job than his father, a mechanic who repaired tractors and cars. The Cooper family farm had been sold to a conglomerate a while back.

  The expensive gifts he bought to bring a little luxury into their lives— the Cadillac his father always said he wanted, a trip to Aruba for the entire family—only highlighted his new position. It was hard to play the little boy when he had an overstuffed wallet and a Bulova watch; it made the pretense within the family difficult to continue.

  His plan, the day he arrived in Manhattan with his tired-looking suitcasesand his bike, was to make a tidy sum and then move on to doing somethingthat fed his soul. It’s not like he’d always wanted to be an investment banker or anything.

  His intention was never to stay long in the city.

  “These are my capital accumulation years,” he told Peter when he hit twenty-eight. “I’m going to make the most of them. I’m not going to get distracted.”

  And he didn’t. He worked long, long hours. Oliver was good at what he did. Still, at quitting time, he found that he avoided his Tribeca apartment.Oliver wanted to be around people even as he wished to remain disentangled,separate. Instead, he focused all his considerable extracurricular energies on trying out the latest restaurants, sampling the tastes and hidden delights of new cooks. Eating alone never intimidated him: he didn’t even bring a book with which to shield himself, but simply allowed himself to be entertained by the food itself.

 
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