Tell Me How Much You Love It
by N. Michelle AuBuchon
Your friends own an apartment in Park Slope a few blocks from your house. It’s modern and homey: plants on a terrace that faces a quiet street, all the pots and pans, a nice stove, and proper wine glasses.
They ask you to house sit for a week—water the plants, feed the cats. You live in a nice apartment with two other roommates, but it has never been a home. You are a cook, and you never cook there. The kitchen does not feel like yours. Your knives and cast iron gather dust. Your cookbooks sit on the shelf above the microwave—a reminder of your former life—when you knew how to prepare meals, take care of yourself, boil an egg, bake a cake, and roast a chicken every now and then. When you lived in Astoria, you taught yourself to cook. You read cookbooks and scoured every market in the neighborhood to make new recipes every night. Your favorites were the recipes that had ingredients you’d never tasted before—the whole experience a kind of adventure—a thrill.
You bought feta swimming in water from Grand Titans, the Greek grocer, ground lamb from the Middle Eastern butcher that you formed into meatballs stuffed with raisons and pine nuts, yuzu from the Japanese market for salad dressings, tamarind bulbs you dissolved for fish sauce, thick labneh goat’s yogurt for dipping pita that you spiced with za’atar, which you bought in oversized bags, big vats of homemade hummus made with huge glass jars of tahini. Once, after your divorce, when you had to meet up with your ex-husband to do taxes, you convinced him to bring you a jar of tahini and a bag of za’atar from the old neighborhood where he still lived. You coveted the items, a memory of your former self, but you only used them once. Finally, you threw them away, because looking at them reminded you how much you couldn’t love yourself.
Lately, you either eat soup from The Soup Bowl, a hole in the wall soup place down the street or make a meal out of dishes at the wine bar: a cheese plate, a grapefruit salad, three glasses of wine, maybe four. At The Soup Bowl, you pick from ten different kinds of soup scrawled on a dry erase board that you can see from the street. You sit at a folding table in a folding chair and write while you shovel hot soup into your mouth. In the summer they turn the shop into an ice cream stand and you have to move your dining room elsewhere. You miss cooking, but feel utterly blocked. You have not forgotten how. It is more that cooking for yourself would require loving yourself and this is something you have temporarily forgotten how to do.
In your friends’ apartment, a place that isn’t yours, cooking feels possible.
“I’m house sitting. Want to come over for dinner,” you type to Tom, your married boyfriend, over G-chat.
“Yes. I’m home alone for the week.”
“Oh,” you type. “Want to stay over?”
“Yes. Running around. Be there by 7. Send me the address.”
In all the years you’ve known each other, you have never slept in the same bed. Your time together exists in hours not days. You walk down to the expensive foodie market on Seventh Avenue to buy your groceries for the dinner. All your old dishes and experiments come back to you. At the market, you ask for a pound of fresh scallops. You know that Tom loves scallops. You buy peanuts, cucumbers, and dill to make a fresh salad—potatoes and celery root to purée into a mash. You think about the different textures—the way the scallops will nestle into the mash—the way the peanuts and cucumber, diced into small bits, will crunch next to the smooth, lightly breaded scallop and creamy, earthy mash.
When you get to the register, and they ring you up, you are terrified when the total flashes across the screen. You don’t love scallops. Their texture is too smooth—their structure an afterthought. You forgot how expensive scallops are, but hand over your debit card. You are determined to make a beautiful meal.
You are still cooking when he arrives. The celery root and potato boil away on the stove in separate pots in large, peeled chunks. The peanut, cucumber salad with dill and a hint of brown sugar waits, prepped in the fridge. Scallops sit on the counter coming up to temperature, awaiting breading and a quick sear.
He embraces you, wraps his hands around your body and grabs your butt underneath your dress.
“This all feels very domestic,” he says. “I love it!”
You are so happy to have him here and to be cooking. You feel what you think is real joy for the first time in a long time. It’s a joy that doesn’t feel like an escape, but rather a resting in concrete experiences—the rough skin of the celery root peeled off—the crunch of the peanuts under your knife—the joy of sharing an extended evening with a man you love.
When he takes a bite of dinner, you can tell he is pleased.
You ask him if he likes it even though you know he does. You want to be affirmed. After all, he was your teacher first, and these roles are difficult to retire.
“It tastes just like a scallops dish I love at a nice restaurant. It’s so good,” he says.
You feel satisfaction. Pride. You touch his leg under the table with your hand. You feel close. At ease.
“All you Millennials know how to cook so well,” he says with mashed potato and celery root in his mouth.
You draw your hand back from his leg. One of your deepest, most personal acts—the art of cooking—years of exploring markets, teaching yourself technique, and experimenting with flavor combinations—has been reduced to a trend. You go from feeling known, to feeling invisible.
After dinner, you drink more wine, make out in the kitchen, and forget about the insult. You feel like a married couple kissing to make up.
The next morning you wake up before him and watch him sleeping. You find yourself wondering what it would be like to share a life with him.
You think you might spend the day together, but he has to go—a class—an appointment—something about a stack of papers. When he leaves, you begin to clean up the kitchen. The air smells of fish. The potato has congealed to the plates. As you scrub the food off of the dishes, tears fall down your face. It will be years before you cook again.
N. Michelle AuBuchon holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in San Diego. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals such as The Iowa Review, The Collagist, Hobart, BuzzFeed, New Orleans Review, Washington Square, and Gawker. She has recently completed a memoir.