It had been a very long time since she’d made dinner for someone else. And never had she planned out and executed a meal entirely, from scratch, for company. But it was her fault that he was coming over, so of course it fell to her. Of course it fell to her. You make your bed and then you lie down and cry in it. That’s how these things worked.
She’d thought about ordering it and then saying it was homemade. But she was not a confident liar. She’d also thought about ordering it and then making an excuse about how the day had gotten away from her. He probably would not care. He might even be impressed. But she had all day and he might ask her what she had been doing that had kept her from cooking. Lies would have to follow. No good.
She’d obviously thought about canceling the entire thing as well. She would never have to see him again. Then she could just go on like before. That was the obvious problem. Before was not an ideal state.
The dinner was going to happen. She made the decision and she was going to lie in it. There was something a little exciting, perhaps, about finding out that she was capable of doing such a thing, that she was not helpless, cowardly. That her mother was wrong. That she could make herself be strong. The city was fun.
She called the butcher first.
“I need meat,” Emily said.
“Okay. Can you hold for a minute?” The butcher said, and then she heard music. At least she’d assumed it was the butcher, but it could be someone else. There could be more than one person at the meat shop, Hodgman’s Meats. Maybe they were wearing a white apron with a little blood spattered on it. Her heart was racing. She looked at the recipe again, “The Best Slow-Cooked Bolognese Sauce.” Active time for cooking: 1 hr. Total time 4–5 hours.
She needed a half pound finely minced chicken liver, one pound ground beef chuck (about twenty percent fat), one pound ground lamb shoulder (about twenty percent fat), and one half pound finely diced pancetta. That was it for the meat. She said it to herself like a prayer.
“What do you need?” The butcher (or other employee) was back. Emily almost hung up the phone. “Hello?” Emily took a breath.
“Hello. I need — “ And she recited the ingredients. At first her voice was faltering. But once she hit the ground lamb shoulder, it was strong. The voice of a different woman. A woman who made dinner in her apartment. For men. At least, a man.
She could hear butcher shop noises and the radio in the background. Surprisingly, it was the same station that Emily was listening to, but only Emily could also see the butcher shop out her window on the ground floor of the building across the street, just barely see the outline of someone on the phone, a strange sensation, like when you hear your own voice echoed back to you through a bad phone connection. She preferred phone calls to in-person interactions.
“And when can you pick it up?”
This was an unexpected question and a slight sense of nausea hit her. Would she have to leave her apartment? Normally Emily would not engage in that kind of activity — until five days ago she’d managed to not leave her house at all for sixty-three days. It’s not that she was scared, even though everyone — her mother and sister, her entire family — had warned her against the city. It’s dangerous, don’t walk alone, at night, or downtown, lock your doors, shut your blinds. It was something else — she was afraid of getting lost.
Nevertheless, this year Emily had, because she’d turned 31, been possessed by the idea of moving to the city and it had been decided that this would be allowed, for reasons of “better get this phase over with” and “it’s so nice to visit in the summer.” Now Emily looked south and saw the futon advertisement, “Best in Chicago” it said. Her family couldn’t even begin to imagine what the city was like. And she liked it here. Or, was getting to like it.
“Do you deliver?”
“Alright. 3 pm.” Emily said in what she thought was a firm voice. She felt sick.
“Today?” The butcher (or butcher shop employee) said.
“Today.” This time she was firm. More details were exchanged — name, phone number, sundry. They hung up and Emily wiped her palms on her white dress. She exhaled. There was still time to cancel dinner if she wanted.
She bit her lip. There were often these awkward moments when she had to remind herself of why she was living here in the first place which, previously, had been so obvious; she had come to be herself, the self she had never known or experienced outside of Amherst and her sister and her mother. On her birthday she had realized quite suddenly that she would only have this experience if she chose it. Was failure possible? She tried not to linger on that thought, preferring to remember that she was here now and that was all that really mattered, in the end.
The dinner must go on. It was 10 a.m. She had ten hours and she felt brave.
It was five days ago that she had met him, at her cousin’s birthday party. Mother had made her go. She hadn’t wanted to, not at all, but mother was insistent. When Emily said she would prefer to write, mother casually mentioned that the trees were blooming in Amherst. Maybe she should come back and see them.
It had taken her all day to get ready, to choose the right dress, brush her hair, wrap the small gift she had ordered, and schedule a taxi to pick her up. That alone had nearly done her in. She’d paid the taxi and was deliberating over pressing the buzzer, calling her cousin, or going straight back to Amherst when a man stepped up behind her and asked, “Are you here for the party?”
She started and her mouth went completely dry. She turned around.
“Oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He put one hand up as if to show he wasn’t carrying a weapon. In his other hand was a bottle of wine.
“That’s alright,” she managed to say. “Yes, I’m here for the party — I’m Anne’s cousin.”
His hair was combed and he was wearing a brown jacket with patches on the elbows. He smiled.
A socialite? A flirt? Emily did not usually have much call to think of herself in this way. But that evening, back at her apartment and drinking a glass of water, she allowed the thought that people had always misinterpreted or misestimated her social aptitude and maybe in the end you don’t really know who you are until you have two glasses of red wine. Of course, it was possible she was still feeling its effects. She didn’t drink much.
In one way or another, however, she’d been expecting this kind of blossoming for a long time. Still, if anyone had told her before the party that she would be the one to ask a man — an assistant professor at a university — to join her for dinner in her very own apartment, a dinner that she would make herself, well, she truly wouldn’t have believed it. Who knew what powers she had of beguilement? She’d never even considered the possibility before, least of all her own desire to do such a thing, which was, in its way, a pleasant discovery.
Maybe it was the way she had conversed on topics that appealed to him, or the dress she wore? As she’d spoken the words, she was shocked to find herself saying them, “Do you want to come to dinner at my place?” It was like something out of a movie! And he had said yes! And even called yesterday to confirm (that was another ordeal). She felt powerful and in control. For a second.
“What am I doing?” She asked herself. She looked in the mirror and brushed her hair back and smiled. She was attractive, right? Oh God what if he wanted to have sex? Deep breaths.
There was still so much to do. Like order bread. And choose music. Should she have candles?
She wanted perfection, at least. And knowing this chance might not come again made her even more nervous. She was going to try, to really try, and, as far as attempts go, this was going to be an Olympian effort, in her tiny white apartment that had not seen such an activity since she’d moved in.
“I need a loaf of bread.” Emily said. her voice was a little shaky, but she was done crying; she’d had a good one from about 10:00–10:30 am, and since then (it was 11:00), she’d felt better. The bakery was also across the street. She tried to visualize herself as a responsible, happy adult doing something that she did every day, “Italian, if you have it.”
They did. She scheduled another pickup for a little after 3:00. She looked out the window again until she found the person she imagined she’d just been talking to. Wasn’t it silly how it didn’t make a difference to them if she’d been calling from across the street or from Chiang Mai? To them, the distance was the same.
She took out her planner from the drawer in her desk where she kept her planner and got out her green pen, the one she used for scheduling. She made an hour-by-hour list of things to do, giving herself between five and seven for “hygiene.” The sauce would be cooking by then, the pasta needed to be done right before serving, and she could have set the table and put on the music too.
She was going to need the five-point hygiene regimen. She took it out of her binder. “Seems about right.”
Really it was remarkable she was able to focus on this project at all, had been able to block out her fears about him, about what if he was actually boring, a creep, not as good-looking as she remembered, rude, insensitive — in short, anything she didn’t want him to be. What if he didn’t show up? Came late? Expected her to do things she was either unaware of or didn’t want to do? Didn’t like the food? Was a surprise vegetarian? Didn’t like her, thought she was dumb or weird or silly or unattractive? What if there conversation was boring, insipid? The monumental task of dinner had pushed all these normal, healthy pre-dinner date thoughts to the edge of her mind where they swam like sharks, but sharks in a tank.
The rest of the day passed quickly. Leaving the apartment at 2:57 pm to go pick up the meat and the bread had, of course, been terrifying. She wore gloves even though it was sixty degrees outside and shut her door very softly as she left. She almost felt like she were doing something against the law and cringed with the thought that someone might stop her and ask her where she was going. What would she tell them? But no — why would they stop her in the first place? That made no sense.
The hallway of her apartment building was quiet and carpeted with something that looked like brown and gray and giving up. Someone passed her, but they didn’t seem to notice that Emily had frozen and shrunk against the wall until she heard them shut their door behind her. The street had been pure cacophony, but she’d crossed the mighty river and retrieved her meat and bread and then, as if afraid her door would vanish in front of her before she could get inside, she opened and shut it as quickly as possible. The butcher and baker had looked at her strange. Or had she imagined it? She looked in the bathroom mirror once again and smiled. Normal? There was something very satisfactory about going to get such simple things as meat and bread, simple, hale, and hearty foods. And she was a simple, hale, and hearty woman.
Then came the food preparation: peeling, slicing, chopping, browning, rendering, evaporating, simmering, and stirring. She was good at following instructions and had even looked up directions on how to follow a recipe. The first thing it said was, “Always make sure to read the recipe all the way through before beginning.” That’s how she knew that she wouldn’t have to add the cream until the very end.
The body preparation came as the sauce was simmering: showering, shaving, plucking, moisturizing, buffing, powdering, coloring, lining, elongating. She chose her favorite dress — a white one with a boatneck and a fit-and-flare frame. White flats. No hat. Hats were for outside.
It was 6:45. The apartment was filled with the smell of meat and sauce and health. She went to the kitchen, dressed. She skimmed the fat off the sauce and then added back one cup (for precision’s sake). Then, she added the heavy cream, Parmesan, fish sauce, and remaining parsley and brought it to a boil, stirring constantly (for emulsion’s sake). She tasted it. Added some salt and pepper. She tasted it again. Perfection.
The table was set for two — the white plates her mother had gotten her, the flatware in the appropriate position (fork is on the left side not the right), a bottle of wine and wine glasses in addition to water glasses. She waffled about but then decided to go for the candles. The sauce deserved it (and the bread, and the pasta, and the side salad).
It was 7:00. He would be here any second. Her phone dinged. He’s running five minutes late. It was so polite of him to let her know, but unfortunately this does give her five minutes to panic. The sharks break free.
For a moment all she can see is a cliff, like the white cliffs of Dover, and she’s running towards it trying to outrun a thunderstorm, arms preparing for a swan dive that will look so poetic in her dress but she’s screaming. Then, she says quietly and simply, “No.”
She goes back to taste the sauce once more. She was going to handle this. Sure, she was terrified, but at the same time, she was elated and — most importantly — hopeful, for no one else knew what was going to happen except for her. And even she didn’t know the end of it. It was a chance. Now things were in motion and they could not be stopped. She tried to think of another moment in her life when she’d felt so free. Was that it? Was it the adrenaline of self-survival? Mixed with the terror, mixed with the expectation? Or — a thought — was this in fact what many people feel, in their own kitchens of their own one-bedrooms, looking out the window at people they will never talk to, waiting for someone to come to the door to change them, hoping for the chance to be different? Wanting it more than anything. This feeling — even if unpleasant? Even if petrifying?
Her phone dinged again and at the same time there is a knock on the door.