We met at a restaurant.
It was a steakhouse, a block away from where I worked. The entire place was wall-to-wall wood: tables, chairs, even the candleholders. It appeared cozy and familiar, the perfect place to have a hearty, comforting meal after I had another rough day at work.
After polishing off the meal, an unusual wave of contentment washed over me. Waving over the waiter, I asked, “Would it be possible for me to thank the chef personally?”
“Good evening. I’m Mike, the head chef,” he greeted, offering his hand. “I hope you had an enjoyable meal, miss…”
“Kirsten. Please, call me Kirsten.” I shook his hand and held on for a little longer than was necessary. His eyes sparkled.
“It’s a pleasure, Kirsten.”
He held his back a little straighter and self-consciously fixed his toque. “That’s what everyone tells me, but here I am—ah, damn.”
“What?” I turned my head in the direction he was looking to see the manager eyeing Mike. “Oh. Looks like you need to go.”
“Yeah,” he said, hesitantly. “Excuse me.” He shook his head, said a hasty goodbye, and strode purposefully back into the kitchen, but not before looking back and giving me a wink.
Before I left, I wrote down my number and asked the waiter to give it to Mike.
The next months were spent in his kitchen where I stood watching him cook, my eyes shining with wonder at his assured, fluid movements.
The first time I came over, he held out an apron. “Come on, we’re cooking roast beef with mushroom sauce and a side of mashed potatoes.” His pale face was flushed with enthusiasm and the heat from the kitchen.
I held the apron limply at my side. “Uh, Mike?”
He didn’t look up from the side of beef he was inspecting. “Yep?”
“I can’t cook,” I blurted out, turning bright red.
He finally looked up at me, scrutinizing me as carefully as he did the side of beef just moments ago. “Everyone can cook. You just have to follow the recipe.”
I felt myself go warmer and warmer. “I know, but somehow I always do something wrong.”
A pause. Then, he kissed me on the cheek and handed me a chopping board, a knife, and an onion. “You can just prep. It’s all right, Kirsten.” The disappointment on his face the second before he smiled let me know it wasn’t.
A few weeks after we started going out, he showed up unannounced at my doorstep, a bag of groceries in hand. “We’re cooking in your kitchen tonight.”
I folded my arms as he strode inside. “Mike, I know you’re only trying to be sweet, but I don’t like having people over.”
He ignored my protests and started setting out the ingredients on my dining table. “Chicken, shallots, cream… You have salt and pepper here, right?” He looked up and took stock of the contents of my cupboard. “Damn. When you said you didn’t cook, you weren’t kidding.”
He was staring at rows upon rows of instant ramen in bright packaging: blue for seafood flavor, brown for beef, yellow for chicken. Bags of potato chips. Bins of processed, factory-made sugar cookies. They were a silent testament to the fact that I could never understand his passion for cooking, something that was a big part of Mike’s life. I was torn between embarrassment and defiance, the feeling of smallness gnawing at the center of my stomach.
Out of the blue, Mike asked me if I wanted to invite my friends to dinner with us. I squirmed and asked, “Why?”
“Don’t you want me to get to know the people in your life?” He picked up my address book and started noting down who I should call to invite. I opened my mouth to put up a fight, but recognized the futility and gave up. So that very night, I let him cook a delicious meal for my friends: herb-crusted fish fillet with lemon sauce and brown rice.
He entered the dining room carrying a food-laden tray, the aroma from the dishes filling us up with anticipation. As he set each plate down with a flourish, he said, “I’m sorry but we’re a little short on rice. Kirsten burnt the first batch and I had to make do with what was left.” He shook his head and flashed me a woeful smile before telling everybody to dig in.
After dinner, I opened a bottle of wine and poured everyone a drink. I sat nursing my wineglass while the ever-sociable Mike made easy conversation, drawing laughter. My friends were impressed with his charm, wit and talent, I could tell. They kept shooting me looks that said, This one’s a keeper.
When the guests said their goodbyes and the dishes were cleared, he pulled me close and told me he loved me. His kiss was hungry with desire, his lovemaking fiery, the passion overwhelming me. When we finished, sweaty and exhausted, I turned my back to him and shrank against his body, struggling not to cry.
I admired his cocky attitude, his confidence in his talent, abilities, and potential greatness. He was young but ambitious; his dream was to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I, on the other hand, was a fresh college graduate with no direction or goals. I hated my job in the human resource department of a large company; still, I knew I would never quit, partly because it pays well, but mostly because if I didn’t work there, I wouldn’t know what else to do. Lost and lonely, I clung to him in the desperate hope that his passion would infect me, inspire me to dream, give me a clue, a destination.
Lying my head in his arm, I told him I loved him, too.
If you could call that love.
It was a rainy Monday night when I came to his house in a bad mood. “What a day,” I groused, sitting down at his kitchen island and started a long-winded rant about my job and how I hated it.
When I finally stopped to draw a breath, he said, “Why don’t you just quit?”
“Why don’t you just quit and do something you actually like?”
I was thrown for a loop. In my head I could rattle off the reasons: I have bills to pay. I’m scared of not finding another job that pays as well. I’m not as strong as you are. I don’t have the abilities nor the passion to make it anywhere else but this. This is all I can have.
But I knew that even if I did tell him, he wouldn’t understand, so I shook my head and went to the fridge to open a can of beer.
Seething resentment boiled in the pit of my stomach. I lost my appetite; the chicken cordon bleu he cooked for me tasted like soggy cardboard.
The months passed and, though he still cooked me meals, I always felt hungry. I forced down every bite, shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth so we wouldn’t have to bear the awkward conversation. He had stopped presenting his meals with a proud flourish; I had stopped complimenting him.
“What do you want for dinner tonight?” he asked, his voice flat.
I winced. Last night, he had served me pizza. The aroma of the tomato sauce, cheese, and basil was heavy and rich in my nostrils, and for some reason, I found it nauseating. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t want to eat his cooking anymore.
My response, like the question, was perfunctory. “Whatever you feel like cooking.”
“What kind of an answer is that?” he said, his voice rising. “All you need to do is tell me what you want for dinner, and you couldn’t even do that.”
Blood pounded in my ears as I turned to him, furious. “Let me ask you something. Can you remember even one instance when I asked you to cook for me? You took it upon yourself. I never asked you to do anything for me.”
The silence that fell between us was heavy, but all I could feel was an unknown, but not unwelcome, lightness in my chest.
He suggested that we eat out. In the ten months that we had been together, we had never eaten out together. Tonight, we went to an Italian restaurant I used to frequent before I met him.
The place was just as I had remembered it. I always used to sit at the same table every time I ate there, and the waitress working that station still remembered me and gave me my usual order. “Spaghetti and meatballs,” she said cheerfully. “Enjoy.”
I closed my eyes to Mike, to the bustling restaurant, and took a forkful. It was better than I ever remembered it, better than any meal I have had the last few months. The strands of pasta were firm to the bite, the meatballs soft and flavorful. The rich, warm sauce slid inside my mouth like silk. Bits of garlic crunched beneath my teeth. The taste was unfamiliar and familiar, new and old.
I opened my eyes, blinking, hoping he wouldn’t see my tears, when I saw that his eyes were wet, too.
“Kirsten.” His voice was gentle, his eyes, pleading and puzzled.
Around us were diners laughing and chatting, and I was reminded of the night I first met Mike. His strength drew me to him; I gravitated to his steadiness like a ship in need of an anchor. I thought I needed him to fill whatever void I had. Now, I felt weighed down.
I was too worn out to talk, and even if I did have the energy, I wouldn’t know what to say. We remained quiet as we twirled the pasta onto our forks, contemplating the hollowness of each bite.