2011 – Rebecca Mahoney – Querencia

SNHU MFA Prose Winner from the 2011 issue

 

Querencia
Rebecca Mahoney

 

Phoebe Campbell was debating whether to add another splash of sherry to the lobster corn chowder when she heard the sound of a man kicking mud off his boots against the steps outside the restaurant’s kitchen door. Her heart quickened and her lips curved involuntarily. She started to turn around, then reminded herself not to. Today, I will be cool.

A moment later, Luke was behind her, close enough that she could breathe in his aftershave. It was spicy, like black licorice and cloves. It always reminded her of autumn: black skies peppered with stars, the crackle of fire, the aromas of wood smoke and apples. A month ago, at the Yankee Candle outlet store in Freeport, she discovered votives that smelled almost like his aftershave, and every night after work she lit one, letting it burn until her whole apartment smelled like him.

“Happy birthday, Chef.”

He held out a cupcake with a single flickering candle speared into a swirl of pink frosting. Phoebe gazed at it, feeling her resolve to distance herself from Luke melt like butter over warm toast. No man had ever brought her a cupcake for her birthday.

“You remembered.” Phoebe bit her lip to keep from smiling. If it had been anyone else, even one of her line cooks, Phoebe would have hugged him, but with Luke she didn’t know what to do. She shoved her hands in the pockets of her black pants, feeling like a bashful kid, or worse, an awkward seventh grader.

“You have no faith,” he said. He pulled himself up on the stainless steel counter next to the stove, his long legs dangling over the side. “It’s red velvet cake.”

“My favorite. How did you know?”

He shrugged. “I’m perfect.”

“Oh, please.”

“You think I am.” He raised one eyebrow at her.

“You wish,” she said, rolling her eyes, though inwardly she winced. Was she really that transparent? So much for being cool and professional.

“Maybe I just want you to think I am,” he said. He caught her hand and brought her wrist to his lips. “Happy birthday, heart of my heart.”

Heat rushed to her face. She jerked her hand away, glancing around to make sure none of the kitchen staff was in earshot. Somebody who didn’t know Luke might not realize he was kidding, and then they’d be in trouble. Portland was small, and restaurant kitchens were petri dishes for gossip. The last thing Phoebe needed was for someone to take a comment like that seriously.

But they were alone. It was her favorite time of day, that rare golden window after the morning prep but before the dinner rush. In two hours, the kitchen would be a tornado of incoming orders, sizzling food, clanking pans, running water, popping corks, and waiters whirling in and out of the kitchen.

Phoebe loved that mad rush, especially now that she was finally running her own kitchen and she directed the madness. But for now, she was glad it was just she and Luke, alone in the warm, still kitchen.

“Taste this,” she said, dipping a clean spoon into the chowder. “I tinkered with the recipe, but now I think it needs more sherry.”

He leaned forward, but didn’t take the spoon. She realized he was daring her to feed him. She raised an eyebrow and deliberately dropped the spoon on the counter.

He smirked and dipped the spoon in himself, his dark brows drawing together as he contemplated the balance of succulent lobster and sweet cream. He grimaced, prompting a ripple of anxiety to roll through her stomach. The chowder was the first course for a 150-guest anniversary party starting in two hours. There wasn’t time to start over.

“It’s bad?” Phoebe asked, her voice rising in alarm. “Crap, crap, crap.”

“It’s perfect.” He tossed the spoon across the kitchen. It caught the sunlight, flashing silver before hitting the sink with a clatter. “I’m fucking with you.”

“Asshole.” She slapped her spoon on the counter. Dots of pale chowder splattered the backsplash.

“I love when you get all fired up.”

“When you push my buttons, you mean.” Phoebe wiped her sweaty palms on her apron. “Jerk.”

“Calm down. The chowder is perfect. Everyone will love the new menu.” He slid his palm around the back of her neck, fingering her curls. Shivers raced down her back. Despite herself, she began to relax.

The sauté pans above the stove gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight filtering in through the high windows. The soup simmered. Luke’s aftershave rolled off him like waves of pungent steam.

Phoebe let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. That moment; those few minutes with Luke. It was all she wanted for her birthday.

“Did you have a good day?” Luke let go of her and leaned back on his palms, expression attentive. Phoebe loved that about him, the way he asked about her life like he genuinely wanted to hear her answer. Nobody else listened as intently as he did. “How was the spa?”

Phoebe made a face. Her sister, Kristen, had insisted on taking her to a day spa called Misty Meadow, the kind of place she loved but Phoebe hated. Spas were for beautiful, elegant people—women with long, white limbs and sleek hair, taut bellies and creamy skin; women who went to spin class and Pilates, who drank iced water anointed with cucumber slices.

They were not for women like her. For starters, the white waffle robes were far too small, even though they were “one size fits all.” Which meant that while everyone else drifted through the treatment rooms in ethereal white robes and slim white slippers, Phoebe had to wear the clothes she’d arrived in: stretchy black pants and an oversize magenta tunic. She’d stood out like Shamu among the dolphins.

Worse, the treatments Kristen signed them up for made Phoebe cringe: massages, a brown sugar skin scrub, and a full-body mud masque. Good gravy, she’d never let anybody see her stretch marks and stomach rolls, let alone rub mud all over her naked body. So while Kristen was buffed and polished until her skin glowed, Phoebe endured a 40-minute pedicure and spent three hours reading back issues of Health magazine in the lobby.

“It was fine,” she said, shrugging. “I got my toes painted. Cotton candy pink.”

Luke narrowed his eyes. “Tell me the truth.”

Phoebe relented, amazed that he always seemed to know when she was holding back. “It was awful.” She hesitated, wondering how much to share. “I hate feeling inferior to all those beautiful women.”

“You are beautiful.”

She looked away. He was teasing again. It had been years since she’d fully studied herself in the mirror, but she knew she was not beautiful. Her belly was fleshy and round and dipped in a low, heavy curve, as wide and full as a watermelon. She thought her legs looked like chicken drumsticks—narrower in the calves but widening into thick, dimpled thighs. Her arms swung with fleshy batwings, like the loose, flapping skin under a rooster’s neck. Her hips were wider than her shoulders, wider than the span of most chairs, comically wide, obscenely wide. So wide that her sister used to call her “hips” when they were teenagers, as in, “Stuffing your face again, Hips?

Sometimes, if Phoebe was feeling generous toward herself, she would decide that her face wasn’t that bad. Her eyes were the color of espresso, and her curls, when they weren’t pinned back at the restaurant, tumbled to her shoulders in dark, shiny waves.

But at the size she was—at least a hundred pounds overweight the last time she bothered to climb on a scale—she could never be beautiful.

She glowered at Luke. “Aren’t you supposed to be nice to me on my birthday?”

He blinked. “I am.” He brushed a hair from her face, his thumb grazing her cheek. “You are beautiful.”

He trailed his thumb to her lower lip and lingered there. The air suddenly felt thick. Her heart thrummed unnaturally in her chest.

“Come out with me after work,” he said softly. “I want to take you for champagne.”

Her breath caught and she pulled away, looking down into the chowder so she didn’t have to meet his gaze.

Until now, they had just been flirting—dangerous, but still defensible territory. But there was nothing innocent about champagne, about being together outside of work. There was no way they could explain it if somebody saw them.

But even as she counted the reasons why she couldn’t say yes, her imagination was already racing ahead, picturing what it would be like to be alone with him in the real world, away from the kitchen. Maybe they’d go to one of the new wine bars on Congress Street. Vino, perhaps, with the exposed brick walls and low, throbbing music, and deep purple couches. Phoebe had only been there once, with Karen, one of the waitresses, who had abandoned her within ten minutes for a banker at Fidelity. But Luke would stay by her side.

Or maybe they’d go somewhere more intimate—out to the lighthouse. They could spread a blanket over the flat rocks under Portland Headlight and count the stars, drinking chilled Veuve Clicquot out of paper cups.

She sighed, the fantasy dissolving. “No,” she said.

Luke turned her chin toward him. His eyes were green, a shade that always made her think of rainforests and wet grass in summer, and the soft, mottled chips of sea glass she collected on the beach after a storm.

He held the cupcake out to her. The candle flickered, dripping wax onto the pink icing.

“Make a wish,” he said, his eyes never leaving her face.

Phoebe touched his wrist, as though to steady his hand, and leaned forward to blow out the candle.

I wish you weren’t married.

 

She felt a wave of regret as the flame turned to smoke.

“If you change your mind…” Luke said softly. He slid off the counter, his shoulder brushing hers. He lingered just long enough to brush his lips across her forehead, and then he was gone. Phoebe heard his footsteps retreat toward the back of the kitchen, the soft suck of the walk-in refrigerator opening. Her forehead burned where his lips had touched her skin.

Phoebe ripped off her chef’s jacket, feeling sweaty and constricted under the stiff material, and ducked out to the back steps.

It was still August, but the air held a hint of autumn crispness. It felt good against her burning cheeks. She sank to the top step and slumped against the brick wall of the restaurant, twisting the garnet ring she wore on her middle finger.

Phoebe knew Luke wasn’t happy with his wife. In the last few months, she and Luke had started staying late after work, sharing dinner alone in the kitchen after the restaurant closed. He’d told her how his wife always put work first, how she’d changed after their daughters were born, how he felt like they were standing on two sides of a widening canyon, and that canyon was filling up with all the things neither one of them wanted to say.

Even an unhappily married man was still married, though. Phoebe didn’t have much experience with love or romance, but she knew that she and Luke were coming dangerously close to crossing a line.

So why didn’t she tell Luke to back off? Sure, she’d said no to champagne; she’d held back from hugging him. Every day she urged herself to put more distance between them. But she certainly wasn’t pushing his hand away or discouraging his flirting. Even her no was as limp and pliable as wet dough. It was practically a yes.

“I’m in love with him,” Phoebe whispered, finally saying it aloud. The salty breeze tasted bitter, and she let her hot face fall into her hands.

She was furious with herself for letting it go this far. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know he was married. When Luke came to interview for the job of sous-chef three months ago, right after she was finally promoted to executive chef of Acorn’s, the first thing she saw (after his green eyes) was the flash of the silver band around his finger as he reached out to shake her hand. She knew he was married before she knew his name.

But there was something about Luke, something that simultaneously disarmed and electrified her. In the beginning, when she felt overwhelmed by her new role, Luke was always there to help. She found herself relying on his opinion when testing recipes and consulting him on decisions a head chef usually made alone, like whether to revamp the menu or change their produce supplier. He was more than her sous-chef, her number two, her friend. He was almost her partner.

She loved the way his eyes sought hers in the kitchen, even when they were in the weeds and everyone was barking orders and cooking furiously. She was flattered that he headed straight for her side when he came into work. She liked their banter, the way they traded barbs like a tennis ball volleying back and forth over a net.

She missed him when she or Luke had the day off. When he went on a three-day weekend to visit his parents in Montreal last month, she drifted through her days joylessly, willing the clock to move.

At night, when she was alone, she recalled sweet things he said to her. That night, she knew she’d whisper heart of my heart as she lay in bed, and trail her fingers over the spot on her wrist where he’d kissed her.

Surely, though, he wouldn’t cheat on his wife. And Phoebe wouldn’t want to be with a man who would.

Would I?

In the distance, an iron boat bell clanged, announcing the arrival of the five o’clock Casco Bay ferry. Music spilled from Rose’s pub two doors down, signaling the start of happy hour. A young couple strolled past the alley, holding hands. The sunlight glinted in the girl’s blonde hair and she leaned into her boyfriend, murmuring in his ear and giggling. Phoebe looked away, concentrating on a stream of ants swarming the cracks in the brick at her feet.

This flirtation with Luke needed to stop. Sooner or later, somebody was going to see them touching, or overhear him call her honey, or see the way he stood so close, and rumors would start. She’d seen affairs emerge and erupt a thousand times in the restaurant. They always ended in disaster. Phoebe had lost count of how many times she had to step in as peacemaker, to cajole a sobbing waitress out of the bathroom, or pull Darren, the bartender, aside and remind him not to hit on the guests.

With Luke and Phoebe, though, it would be far worse. They had a restaurant to run, a staff to look after. If they let it go too far, they would completely undermine their authority.

Luke wasn’t just a married man with two little kids; Phoebe was also his boss. She’d only just landed this job, after years of aching for her own kitchen. She couldn’t afford to gamble it.

Phoebe stood up, resolved. She would go inside and tell Luke it was time to cool off. She would stop coming in early to spend time with him, she’d end their post-shift, midnight dinners, and from now on she’d make sure there was at least one other person in the kitchen with them to remind her to keep her distance from Luke.

But as she reached for the doorknob, she felt a wave of sadness and sank back on the stairs, deflated. She needed another minute to absorb what this really meant.

Letting go of Luke wouldn’t just be about pushing away the only man she’d ever really fallen for. It would be about letting go of the most exciting thing in her life.

For the first time, Phoebe knew what it felt like to be desired by a man. The charged air between her and Luke was the most thrilling sensation she’d ever felt. She’d never experienced that kind of heat with another person.

When she pushed Luke away, what would she have left?

She had just turned thirty-four. She always thought she’d be married by then, even a mother to two or three children. That she and this phantom husband would own a house, preferably in a good school district, with a farmer’s porch where she could hang baskets of bougainvillea in summer.

Certainly, everyone else’s lives were moving forward. Her best friend, Julia, had lived in a dozen countries and won twice as many journalism awards. Her other closest friend, Alison, was about to celebrate her twelfth wedding anniversary. Alison had four kids. Phoebe didn’t even have a dog.

Her life was nearly the same as it had been when she was in college. She still lived in Maine. She still worked at the same restaurant where she’d been since she was twenty-two. She still didn’t have her culinary degree, and she was still single.

She hadn’t even gone back to London the way she always dreamed, the way she promised herself she would after spending her senior year of college there. That was the best year of her life—the year she met Julia and Alison, the year she first discovered the magic of cooking.

They had lived in a tiny flat near Regent’s Park in North London, and none of them knew how to cook. But Phoebe took on the challenge. She was the one who braved the crushing crowds at Borough Market every Saturday, navigating the maze of cheese tables and produce bins.

Back in their flat, she learned to smash garlic cloves with the flat of her knife, blend oils and vinegar and spices to create marinades, and marry simple, fresh ingredients to create bright, bold flavors. And later: the unexpected pleasure that came from feeding people, the joy of gathering her friends around the dinner table, the pride that bubbled inside her when people praised her food and asked for more.

Phoebe once read that the Spanish had a word for a deep, emotional connection to a place: la querencia; literally, “a place to call home”—the place where one feels most secure, where a person’s strength of character is drawn. London was her querencia. But in twelve years, she hadn’t even managed a visit.

Letting go of Luke meant giving up more than those midnight conversations, the afternoons testing recipes, the lingering glances across the kitchen that lit up her entire body. It meant giving up the one thing that made her life feel like it still had possibility.

Phoebe sighed, looking up through the branches of the oak tree where the sky was tinged with the first hint of orange. She crushed the cap of an acorn under her boot, then another. It felt oddly satisfying, a solid crunch under her heel.

Even if it hurt, she had to let Luke go. That night, after work, she’d tell him to back off.

She didn’t have any other choice.

 

She was afraid she’d be too distracted by Luke to focus on the food, but her mood lifted as soon as she began cooking.

She zested a lime into a cloud of green curls, the bright citrus notes as soothing as aromatherapy. She added a squirt of wasabi that sent a sharp bite straight through her sinuses, and whisked while streaming in a clear slick of canola oil. Within minutes, she was lost in the food, spiraling into the hypnotic, tranquil state that always swallowed her when she cooked.

She and Luke had created three new dishes for the Perottas’ anniversary party, recipes she hoped to add to the permanent menu if the Perottas and their guests liked them: the lobster corn chowder, a lime-wasabi marinated swordfish, and a new vegetarian option, goat cheese ravioli in a balsamic-brown butter glaze.

It was different food than she’d originally planned when she took over Acorn’s. She’d envisioned a whole menu of upscale comfort food, featuring home ground Kobe beef sliders topped with Gruyère and tomato chutney, and updated turkey tetrazzini, with wide, buttery egg noodles, crème fraiche, and chopped chives. But Luke had convinced her to go in another direction, contending that new American cuisine was more modern and cutting-edge than the comfort food she liked.

They’d created the new recipes together, alone in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons. She felt a pang when she remembered she wouldn’t have those moments with him anymore, and glanced across the kitchen where he was dragging scallops through a sweet and spicy bath before searing them on a grill pan. He had taken off his chef ’s jacket, and his white T-shirt clung to his sweaty shoulder blades. She made herself look away.

At the garde-manger, Enrique plated salads, a clean mix of field greens, blueberries, toasted almonds and tangy chervil. On the hot line, Kim, a tiny Asian man, pulled a huge pan of steaks from the oven, while Hector lowered a basket of tempura shrimp into a vat of hot oil.

A Red Sox game played on the radio. Phoebe heard the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, and everyone in the kitchen seemed to pause, their hands hovering over their dishes as they listened to the announcer frantically narrate David Ortiz’s trip around the bases. When he made it home, the guys cheered.

Phoebe felt a rush of satisfaction. Her life may not have turned out the way she hoped, but at least she had her restaurant.

By six, the kitchen felt like an inferno. Six sauté pans blazed on the range. The grill shot flames into the air, blackening the swordfish. Knives flashed and rapped as her line cooks cranked out dishes. Phoebe felt like an air traffic controller as she barked out orders. “Ordering table three: one chowder, two swordfish, one ravioli, three steaks, one salad SOS,” she shouted, mopping sweat off her forehead.

“Chef,” Luke said, coming up behind her.

“I don’t have time,” she said, refusing to look up from dicing onions.

“The Perottas want bisque, not chowder,” he said, a note of apology in his voice. “And some of the old crab cakes.”

Phoebe paused, feeling a shot of disappointment. Apparently, somebody at the Perottas’ table did not like their new menu. “I think we have some frozen bisque in the walk-in,” she said.

“Don’t we want to play up the new menu?”

“Just give them what they want,” she said, returning to her onions.

The only way not to worry was to work. For the next three hours, Phoebe kept herself so busy she didn’t have time to focus on anything but the food. She shouted orders, grilled swordfish, sautéed green beans, refereed the waitstaff, plated the fish so it sat perfectly on a bed of sesame snow peas, sprinkled extra chives on the ravioli, made an emergency call to her produce vendor when they unexpectedly ran short of field greens, mixed sauces, and reviewed every single plate before it went out the door.

“You’re hovering,” Luke muttered when Phoebe nearly crashed into him as they both reached to wipe a drop of sauce off the rim of an outgoing plate. “Relax.”

She couldn’t relax. At ten-thirty, when the last of the empty dessert plates came in, she finally mustered the courage to pull aside Karen, one of the waitresses.

“What did they say about the new dishes?” she asked, trying to hide the urgency in her voice. She noticed Luke listening as he stacked blackened sauté pans on a shelf above his workstation.

Karen winced. “Hon, I think they preferred the traditional stuff.”

Phoebe’s stomach dropped. Without thinking, she met Luke’s gaze and saw her own disappointment reflected there.

He dropped his cloth on the counter and started toward her, but she ducked away, slipping into her narrow office at the end of the kitchen and gently shutting the door behind her.

She sank into the stiff wooden chair in front of the small desk, pushing aside a pile of order forms and notepads. There was a leftover croissant from breakfast in a white paper bag. It was cold and stale and scattered flakes as dry as dandruff on her desk, but she ate it anyway to dull the ache.

Nobody had ever rejected her food before. It seared as hot as a burn. Her mind flashed to the comfort food dishes she’d originally envisioned. Would the Perottas have liked her Kobe sliders more than Luke’s corn chowder? But the thought made her feel disloyal to Luke. At a traditional place like Acorn’s, change was bound to meet resistance. She shouldn’t have had such high expectations.

She wished she hadn’t ignored Luke. He was the only person who understood how she felt at that moment. But she was supposed to be keeping her distance. If she wanted comfort, she’d have to call someone else.

Alison would be in bed already. But it was already nine o’clock in the morning in Bangkok, where Julia was.

If anybody would understand a professional crisis, it would be Julia —Julia, who dove into her career at twenty-one and hadn’t stopped swimming since. She dialed Julia’s cell phone, her mood already more hopeful.

“It’s three in the fucking morning, Phoebe.” Julia’s voice was gravelly, like she’d been asleep. “What’s wrong?”

Phoebe’s eyes flew to the clock. “I thought you were in Bangkok.”

Julia sighed, a long exhale that seemed to echo down the phone. “I got reassigned. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Where are you?”

Julia didn’t answer immediately, and there was something about her silence that made Phoebe feel a twinge in the small of her back. “Julia?”

“I’m in London.”

 

London.

Phoebe’s heart burned. She felt betrayed, as though Julia had taken something that belonged to her. She gripped the phone, feeling again that familiar, awful feeling that came over her lately whenever she encountered somebody who had something she envied: longing, and despair, and the sensation of being trapped in an airless, glass box.

“What’s it like?” Her voice cracked. She didn’t really hear Julia as she complained about her new flat in Hoxton (“tiny, warped floors, covered in lace doilies”) and railed against her editor (“He looks like a Hobbit”). Her mind was flashing over the city of her mind, the London of her memory—the weight of a pound coin in her palm, the tannic ghost of Earl Grey lingering on her tongue, the rumble of a tube train clattering down the tracks. The burnished dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral rising out of the fog. Barrels of slick, glossy olives at Borough Market, in every shade from green to black. Sunlight peeking through the cross-shaped windows carved into the stone walls of the London Tower.

And her own flat, the one she shared with Julia and Alison, with slanted ceilings and the built-in window seat and hinged windows that swung out like bird wings. The stout little stove where she first learned to cook.

“Julia, I’m sorry, I have to go,” she blurted. “Kitchen crisis.” She hung up, tears stinging at the corners of her eyes. She was wrong; she needed Luke after all.

But out in the kitchen, Luke was talking to Karen, their heads bent together in conversation, their voices low. Phoebe felt a flash of hurt and kept walking, pushing through the double doors into the narrow hallway that connected the kitchen to the dining room. She hesitated, then stepped into the dining room. She should at least apologize to the Perottas for the food.

Most of the guests were gone, but the Perottas were still there, slow dancing on the narrow strip of parquet that served as a makeshift dance floor. Etta James crooned in the background. It was that song that always made Phoebe sad, A Sunday Kind of Love, about the woman who wished her man would stay through the weekend.

Kathy Perotta had kicked off her shoes and was swaying with her husband in stockinged feet. Tim had lost his tie and unbuttoned his collar. He murmured something in Kathy’s ear and she laughed without lifting her head from his shoulder.

Phoebe looked away and found herself standing next to a bulletin board covered with photos of Tim and Kathy: posing in front of the Eiffel tower, sitting together on the back of a camel, nestled in the hollow of a kayak under a green canopy of trees.

Her gaze fell on a photo of the couple in London, windswept and rosy-cheeked on the top of a red double-decker bus, with Big Ben rising in the background, and she felt again that wave of despair and hurt.

Julia was back in London. Her restaurant was a mess. And even if she met a man that day—that very night—Phoebe would likely never see her fortieth wedding anniversary, like the Perottas were celebrating that night.

Aloneness pressed against her. Phoebe couldn’t look at the Perottas or their pictures for one more second. She rushed back into the hallway, nearly colliding with Luke.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Phoebe shook her head, the boulder in her throat making it impossible to speak.

“Come here.”

She let him pull her close. She could hear his heart beating beneath her ear and soaked in his aftershave like a balm.

She was so tired of being alone, of being left behind while everyone else’s lives soared ahead.

Luke was unhappy in his marriage. She was unhappy in her life.

“Luke,” she whispered. “Take me out for champagne.”

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