Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.
“Here, huh?” said Emily, laughing.
“I dunno,” said Robertson. “I was getting tired of driving, and it’s a nice view.”
“It is a nice view,” said Emily. She looked into his eyes, and he looked back into hers.
The two of them brushed lips. Robertson’s hand went up to Emily’s left cheek and he touched her gently as they kissed. After about 20 seconds of increasingly desperate contact, Emily put her hand on Robertson’s shoulder and pushed him away, with an unmistakable gentle firmness.
“Robert… Look…” she said. She appealed to him silently. The words took a while to materialize. “I just don’t think I’m up for fucking my long time ex-boyfriend in the passenger seat of a compact car right now.”
“We could move to the back seat,” Robertson suggested, genially. “Or I could rent a bigger car…”
“Good point,” said Emily. “Listen, this may not make any sense to you — actually, I don’t ever really know if anything ever makes any sense to you — but for me to cheat with you right now is the same thing as admitting I fucked up with my choice of fiance.”
“And?” he said.
“God DAMN you,” Emily said, meaning it, and smiling. “For the love of God, listen to me here. I’m 30. On and off since we were teenagers you’ve plunged into my life, messed everything up, and then wandered off, usually oblivious to what you’ve done to me. Or indifferent. Or incapable of understanding. I used to chalk it up to you being an idiot, but I think you’ve got an agenda.”
“When have I ever had an agenda?” asked Robertson, angrily. “Have you checked out the state of my life recently?”
“Oh, I’ve checked it out,” said Emily. “I didn’t say you were organized or focused or anything like that. In fact, I even believe that you’ve got no conscious clue what your agenda is, because it’s coming from some dark little pocket of your brain that you don’t even regularly talk to. I’m sure you guys aren’t even Facebook friends. But here’s your agenda: ‘Keep Emily single and dependent in case I ever get my shit together.'”
“You think I organized my step-father dying so I could pork you in a Mazda 626,” he stated, acid tinging his voice. “We should call 911 right away.”
“Of course not,” said Emily. “But I think if your step-dad wasn’t dying, you would’ve found some other reason to get out here and mess with me.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that I really have some strong feelings for you?” asked Robertson. “That some or all of this is motivated… I don’t know…”
“Yes, of course,” said Emily. “That doesn’t make it a good idea, it just means that I can’t really hate you for it, which is in turn part of the problem. The fact that you’re so thoroughly damaged… well, I let you get away with shit that I shouldn’t.”
Robertson kissed her. She kissed him back. This time, the two of them connected for minutes. He got as far as unzipping her fleece, removing her undershirt, and sliding one of the straps of her bra off — far enough, in fact, to get her left nipple into his mouth — before she froze up and started saying “no no no no no no no DAMMIT no.”
“OK,” Robertson, sitting back up and resting his forehead on the steering wheel. “I’ll drive you home.”
Emily lay back in the seat, disheveled, eyes closed. Her hand went to her temples, which she rubbed with some urgency, as though battling a migraine-strength headache.
“AUGH,” she said.
“Look,” said Robertson, “I think my agenda here is pretty straightforward…”
“Fuck you, no it’s not!” said Emily. “That’s exactly the problem. You don’t live here. You live in some magical city of 12 million people where crazy adventures and opportunities fall on your head so fast that you need to run just to keep from committing to something wonderful that might make you deal with who you are and what you actually want to do. You live at a speed sufficient for you to always blame someone else for your own problems. I live in a perfectly nice Midwestern metropolis where I go to work every day and many of the nights, and sometimes I make people’s lives better, and I wonder what it would be like to have a life partner — a companion — and not some crazy type-A trophy hunter like Jake or some crazy type-whatever you are calling me up or dropping into my life…”
“You call ME!” said Robertson.
“Fuck you! It’s because you won’t work a phone otherwise,” said Emily. “But, yeah. I know. You’re right, I do call you.”
“It’s because you like me,” said Robertson, smiling.
“Yes,” Emily said, sighing. “It’s because I like you. That is one of the really difficult factors in this whole mess. I’m going to put my breast away now.” She did so.
“The fact that that caused you pain gives me pleasure,” said Emily, darkly, while slipping back into her shirt and zipping up her fleece. “Anyway, do you want to actually say anything meaningful to me, or what? Because I do, in fact, have to work tomorrow, despite the fact that most people think Saturday is part of the weekend.”
“Uh,” said Robertson, digging deep and thinking as fast as he could. “Listen, I’d like to come home.”
“To… the Midwest. To you. I don’t really know how to do it, but that’s kind of what I’d like to do.”
“Won’t you go nuts here?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, maybe. There are some really good farm-to-table places that have opened in the past 10 years… a couple of fusion places that might actually be interesting… and I’ve been thinking about baking, and we’ve got that straight-outta-France bakery where I’m sure I could pick up some tricks in terms of laminated dough…”
“Won’t that be settling? I mean, to go from New Amsterdam to Minneapolis?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think so. I mean, if I come back here, it’ll be much more me, and the ingredients, and the customers. Maybe the owner, to some extent. But it doesn’t have to be the same circus. I think I could actually concentrate, you know? The scene here is really getting deeper. People appreciate what they’ve got — the beer, the cheese, the meat, for starters. Farmers markets. You look at the great peasant food of Europe, which largely evolved into the classic haute cuisine of Europe — it comes from the provinces, where the food hailed from. We’re in rural France right now, circa, I don’t know, 1300. I think there’s going to be a Renaissance.”
“I half believe you,” said Emily. “Listen, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to stay engaged, and see if I can figure out where Jake and I are really headed. We’re not getting married for at least a year. So, if in that time you come back and get your shit together… well, I don’t know. I may still marry Jake. And you’ll have to actually be happy in the Midwest.”
“Wow,” said Robertson. “What an amazing offer.”
“Fuck you!” exclaimed Emily. “You don’t get to come back here on a visit, feel me up in a Fiesta or whatever this is, and then dictate what I’m doing with my life. But… I’m not going to tell you it couldn’t work out, either. One of the big signs that it might work out is you coming back here and working on something passionately and sincerely. That would be a little bit of a different Robert than I typically know. Not just opening places up and running away after the first good reviews drift in… but sticking with something.”
“Fair enough,” said Robertson. “Fair enough.”
“Now drive me home,” said Emily. “Before I fuck you,” she added so quietly that Robertson couldn’t be sure he’d heard it.
“Before WHAT?” he demanded, excitedly.
“Before I kick you in the balls and spray you with my mace keychain,” she said.
“Godammit,” he said.
“You got yourself into this, buster,” she said. “No sympathy.”
He drove her home, and got out of the car when she did. He walked her up the path. They hugged at the door, for a long time, without saying anything.