This story is a candidate for NaNoWriMo 2015, and shared online as apart of the Tablo/NaNoWriMo competition. It's still a very rough first draft, so be kind, always.
Cooking with Strangers
by Abra Pressler
579 subscribers, 20th March 2015.
The intersection of food and romance is tight.
It’s been proven that our memories are associated with food. It’s Mum’s 2014 Christmas Pavlova. It’s the best pizza you ever had. The best steak you’ve ever eaten. It’s the best coffee in town, the decadent cheesecake you shouldn’t have a second slice of, but do anyway. Our lives are ruled by food. We make plans to have meals. We date around food. Food tells us everything we need to know about a potential partner.
No one enjoys a date with a person who picks at their food, who is a glutton, or picky. Do they always order the chicken? Maybe they like routine and familiarity, and maybe they don’t always like to take risks. Do they talk with their mouth full? Or wave with chopsticks? Constantly lingering in the back of the my mind are all the promising dinners I’ll never get back, the good food that went to waste in the midst of bad company.
So, then, maybe they’re not ‘the one’ – the one you’ll eat takeaway with at 1am, the one who’s pumpkin soup recipe is better than yours, but not by much! The one you can enjoy the in-between bits of life, the gristle and the fat-baked roasted potatoes and buttercream icing bits.
My husband is not ‘the one’. As a naïve grey-eyed child, born into upper middle-class Melbourne, I always thought finding the “one” w0uld be like in the movies. Find soulmate, marry, have a child, live happily ever after. I was certain I’d find the Tom Hanks to my Meg Ryan and things would be happily ever after like a Nora Ephron movie. But now I’m twenty-eight, sitting in this upscale Melbourne restaurant and on the edge of a divorce, a university degree but no job experience, and a watertight prenuptial.
My husband is late. I sit alone in this fancy restaurant, Splash, which I’ve been dying to try for ages. And I’ve already had two glasses of wine which wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t desperately want a third.
Splash is a new restaurant on the Yarra promenade in Melbourne. There’s an extravagant fountain in the middle of the restaurant and water almost silently cascades over the curves of a beautiful stone mermaid. It’s decadent, from the polished wooden floors, to the sparkling city view, to the prices on the menu. Two out of those three things have made it onto my Instagram account @NoraLaneCooking.
I look around for the waiter, about to shake my glass for a top up, but then, hark! I see him! Stumbling into the foyer, struggling to take off his coat and shake his umbrella at the same time, and the Maître De trying to stop him from waltzing into the dining room like the wet uncoordinated mess he is, my husband, Owen. I finish the rest of my wine with a large swallow.
“Hey,” says Owen, extending his hand.
I shake it. Firmly.
“I’m late, I know.” He throws his wet coat onto the back of the chair and pulls it out, making it screech obscenely against the floor.
“I just couldn’t get away.”
“It’s fine, I haven’t been waiting long.” I’ve been waiting twenty minutes.
Owen picks up the menu and rushes through it. “The boss. And the Shanghai move – well, you know how it is.”
“It’s fine,” I say. It is fine. I reach down into the handbag at my feet, producing a manilla folder. “I have the agreement for you to sign.”
He puts down his menu and leers at me. “Well, fuck, can’t I order first?”
“I’m having the pan-seared salmon with avocado remoulade."
“Remoulade,” Owen repeats.
“Don’t to do that.’
“Repeat things in that tone.”
He puts down the menu again. “It’s a funny word. Isn’t it? Remoulade.”
“I’ve already signed the papers,” I say suddenly.
“Good for you,” he replies into the menu. “Don’t suppose they do burgers here?”
“The duck in pepper sauce is good, I’ve heard.” It’s better than good. It’s award-winning.
He sighs, like this whole thing is just too much of a pain. Oh, divorce is such a bother.
“Nah.” Then, he drops the menu and picks up the papers. “Got a pen?”
I have one on the ready, next to my fork. I hand it to him.
“You’re keeping my last name?” he asks.
“For business purposes.”
Owen’s mouth twists like he wants to say something, but he must think better of it because it stays pursed tight and goes all white for just a moment. Then straightens back out into a long, thin line. He picks up the pen and balances it in his fingers, letting it hover just over the paper.
“My parents will see Oliver twice a month, right?”
“And you’ll vacate the apartment on the 1st of March?”
“It’s all in the settlement,” I say but there’s a tightness in my throat suddenly and my voice breaks as I speak.
The apartment in question is a seventh-floor, two bedroom, one bathroom apartment on the Southbank Boulevard, a very trendy area of inner-city Melbourne along the glistening Yarra river. It’s got a median asking price of $750,000. I knows this because it’s the first thing my lawyer, Alison, a bright twenty-six year old, wanted to know about. Not the welfare of our son, or the reason why we, a once happily married young couple were separating, but how we’d split a property between us. That’s all anyone cares about in this part of the city. That modern apartment with stark white walls and polished floating floorboards, built in 2010 by an established architect. With the cramped balcony with bad railing just so suited for Saturday afternoon barbeques, balmy summer nights or accidental toddler death.
“You know,” Owen says, putting down the pen. “You could just go back to being Nora Cucinotta – it’s just a form. You can get it online.”
“I told you. It’s my brand.”
“I just don’t want this to haunt me further on down the track, that’s all.” He waves his hand. “This whole YouTube thing.”
“It won’t,” I push but he shrugs and mutters something under his breath before picking up the pen again
The waiter approaches with a notepad at the ready. I order and ask for another glass of red. But the sound of cutlery striking the plate suddenly jars me. I look up to see Owen shouldering on his coat again and the manilla folder containing the papers is closed and neat beside his plate, the pen resting on top.
“Where are you going?” I hiss.
Owen produces his wallet and plucks a fifty from it. He places it on top of the folder.
“Happy divorce, Nora.” It does not escape my attention that people are watching us, the stars of a high school sweetheart marriage that’s fizzled out before thirty. “Good luck with everything.”
“Can’t. Early morning meeting and all that. Best for the future, you know. Say hello to Ollie for me.”
And then my husband leaves. He stalks out of this golden restaurant, past the bristled Maître D and out into the cool evening air. I watch him leave, listen to the door slam behind him and watch as he climbs into a taxi.
I take in a big breath and turn back to the waiter.
“Well, it’ll just be for one then,” I smile.
“Very well, madam.”
As I see it, I have two choices. 1. I can make a bigger scene by running out. I can give these good people, who are either completely mortified or considerably amused by Owen’s outburst, something to tell their friends about. Or 2. I can sit here and spend some time with this Atlantic salmon who has never broken my heart and has done nothing wrong to deserve being stormed out on. So I don’t follow my husband out. I have no intention of ever running after him. Instead, I pluck the fifty from on top of my separation agreement papers and slip it into my wallet. The waiter refills my wine.
“Your meal won’t be a moment, ma’am.”
Broken-hearted wife, indeed.
My friends, and I use that term as just as loosely as I do the word husband, don’t believe the reason Owen and I are separating with the intention to divorce. There must be a mysterious lover or credit card debts. He must work too much, and I must be a needy wife. Or, the child didn’t save our marriage. That I went to University and now despise the life of a stay-at-home-mother.
But none of this is true. Almost eighteen months ago, when I discovered I was pregnant, Owen described moving to Shanghai as a “natural transition” into executive management at the tech company he worked for. And that, to me, was it. We consciously uncoupled. There were no conflicts, no bitter fights over property, possessions or custody. It was a dream case for our respective lawyers, and our separation papers were drawn up quickly. Thus, the process had climaxed to a few heated words across a dinner table, a storm-out, an exemplary salmon dish and has now finished with the heavy sinking feeling that I am suddenly and very much alone.
The idea of aloneness, first came to me like all life-shattering observations do – at around 2am. And, like most women of the 21st century, I took to the internet for support. There I discovered online forums full of people like me: suddenly very single twenty-somethings with one or two kids and a university degree but no job experience and no recognisable or tangible future. And among the pages and pages of online conversations between these women, I found all the questions I’d been asking myself asked by these strangers, again and again.
Where do we go now, and what do we do? Who are we?
Recently, the most bizarre thing has been happening. Veronica, my beautiful, wonderful fiancée, wakes usually between 7 and 7:30, Monday through Friday. And when she does open those ginger-light lashes, she doesn’t roll towards me. She doesn’t let me kiss the freckles across her nose, or the shell of her ear like she did in mornings past. Instead, she untangles our legs. She groans and huffs a little in that early morning way. And then she picks her iPhone up from the bedside table and swipes it open.
She said once, in a joking way, that maybe she was addicted to her phone, like she didn’t believe anything could be more ridiculous. And that she’d be devastated if she lost it. That it had her ‘life’ on it. I’d be heartbroken, she said.
The beginning is a Tuesday. It’s 0718 and I am running. Winter bleeds over the course of many months in San Francisco, so it’s a crisp overcast morning, around fifty-three degrees as I leave our two-storey lavender townhouse with the white picket fence, wooden deck and yellow petunias. It’s the most colourful house on this sloping street. Last year, Veronica had wanted a violet house more than anything in the world, hassled me with paint swatches for weeks until I found a colour with which we could compromise. Thus, the lavender.
I take the track to Lake Merced and the parklands. The incline burns well. I run the three-point-eight mile track four times a week – Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Saturdays when the hospital allows me, but that’s not often.
Getting back to the house, red-faced, puffing and hunched over, Veronica’s red Toyota hatchback is missing. Her coat has been removed from the back of the front door. But she’s left behind the heavy scent of bacon and coffee, so I rush to shower.
The linen of our bed is a dangerous crisp white, pulled to a stretch and the pillows are stacked just so. She focuses on things like that. The garden is just the same. Just so meticulously perfect. I once accused her of hiring someone because who could do that, I thought? With the nine-to-five and the Monday night netball and the Thursday night book club? Veronica says she doesn’t mind everything she does for me. I work a nine-to-seven in the paediatric wing at the hospital, five to six days a week. Sometimes a little less, but most times a little more.
She’s left my clothes set out on the bed – white and baby blue striped shirt, navy tie, black pants, tan leather lace-up shoes. This way, I don’t bother to check the wardrobe. If I had, I would have discovered it almost-half empty. But she’s left the shampoo in the shower and her toothbrush on the sink, and a handbag hanging on the door handle of the bathroom, so nothing looks amiss.
The coffee machine is still dripping so she’s not far gone. A plate of bacon and eggs, a piece of toast cut in two triangles, and mug full of coffee sit on the white wooden table in alcove inlet. There’s a single yellow petunia in a glass vase. I break the egg with my fork.
Breakfast, which I normally eat alone, is the only time I indulge in my iPhone. It’s three generations past the most recent, considerably slow, but it’s sturdy – a trait most desirable in everyday hospital life. I open Facebook and click through the messages. Two flash as unread: Stu, my best friend and my brother, Tom. But suddenly Veronica’s picture pops up with a chiming noise. Yesterday, or what I swear was yesterday, Veronica’s picture had been us in Central Park in the January just passed, lounging under the shade of an ancient elm. Now the photo is her with her sister, Sarah, in a club photo from New Year’s Eve 2014 when I was abruptly called into work after a three car collision and she said she’d just had a few drinks and called it ‘nothing special’.
Sipping my coffee, I open the message.
A pause. She's typing. Then,
This isn’t working anymore. I think I love Michael.
It takes twelve words to end nine years.
I turn off my phone. I put it down. I sit on the table with the petunia flower in the alcove of our lavender house, in the life we’ve created, and I finish my breakfast. The bacon is cold and rubbery.
In an instant, everything makes sense. And then in another instant, just as potent as the first, it doesn’t. Veronica is gone and everything I’ve ever known has gone with her.
Heartbreaking Eggs and Bacon
One medium sized egg, sunny side up
Three rashers of short cut bacon, or two middle rashers with the fat trimmed
A pot of coffee, optional
Fry and serve.