At first, I couldn't help but think of him as the criminal. He chose an apron striped black and white, like the other men in the class, though there were other stripes to choose from: red-and-white, green-and-white, blue-and-white. The class was made up of YMCA junkies, all but the criminal. Last month ceramics, this month me.
The criminal shared a counter with the Norman newlyweds, and his quick hands were good with a knife. He could reduce a stalk of celery to little green commas in seconds. Fresh out of maximum security at Sing-Sing, he told us during registration, the day before the start of our six week course. Just a guy looking for his straight and narrow.
Mrs. Norman stood her ground next to the criminal. She was chatty and slight and looked about my age. Early thirties, with hair the color of a cast iron pot. Also, she was full to bursting with the first child. That was the main difference between us.
During registration I showed them how to make smoothies. Together we watched the criminal feed bananas to his blender one sickle-shaped fruit at a time.
WEEK ONE (BREAKFAST): BORDERTOWN EGGS BENEDICT
"First the hollandaise," I said, moving between counters with green granite tops.
We'd begun with a guacamole base instead of egg yolk. Husbands mashed avocado cubes while wives apportioned mayonnaise and lime juice, tossed in Tabasco to taste. The criminal hummed while he worked, something bluesy that made me think of dark nightclubs filled with smoke.
"We'll have to remember this for Cinco de Mayo," Mrs. Norman said. She was pert and pretty and I doubted she'd ever made it out to Saratoga Springs, never mind to Mexico. To her left, her husband stirred dutifully; to her right, the criminal grinned down at his bowl.
"You know what's funny," the criminal said. "Most Mexicans don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo." His teeth were even and yellow, a mockery of perfection. His voice ground out like a tire in gravel. "Most people think it's their Independence Day, but that's really September 16th."
For a few seconds there was only the symphonic plunge and release of spatulas urging mayonnaise mixtures toward liquidation. The room smelled of vinegar.
Mr. Norman turned his head energetically, leaning across the counter so Mrs. Norman was forced to move back. "That's real interesting, bub," he said. "Where'd you hear that?"
"Call me Arthur," the criminal said.
We thought of adobe jail cells. Drug cartels. We don't need no stinkin' batches.
The criminal held his sauce up for approval. He gripped the sides of his bowl, instead of allowing his fingers to hand over the rim. The sauce within had the bubbly appearance of primordial ooze, but on the tongue it was smooth and tangy, an excellent first effort and the best in the class. He smiled like a kid with a gold star while I held out a hand for his paring knife. He gave it to me handle first and our fingertips met at the base of the blade, a quick, rasping touch.
Later, I fed my husband the leftovers. We sawed at canadian bacon, dry from the microwave, while a summer sun set behind the lake. "Have you ever been to Mexico?" I asked.
He looked up from his paper, the reading of which was his main occupation in the summer months when he was not required to profess. A web of blood vessels had burst on the apples of his cheeks since we'd met half a dozen years ago, a change that made him appear permanently jolly. In the last year, his fingers had started to swell after eating, so he'd take off his wedding ring for meals. It gleamed next to his plate now, silver and full of refracted light.
"What?" he said. The Life & Leisure page waffled in the breeze of his breath. Once, he'd been my professor at the college down the road. Our courtship had been a thrilling trespass. He'd order wine by the year and variety without looking at the menu, and tell me stories from his studies of Freud in Vienna, Rorschach in Switzerland. He'd promised to take me back there, to show me the world. But first there wasn't money and then there wasn't time.
I thought of thick blue corn tortillas smothered in queso and chiles so hot my tongue would pulse in waves. Posole topped with sprigs of cilantro and spiked with a freshly squeezed lime. Hearty bowls of albondigas. Tacos al carbon. A sweet caramel flan.
The summer stretched out before us. I said, "Don't you ever want to get away?"
He reached for my hand across the table and brought it to his lips. "Maybe next summer," he said, and then released me.
WEEK TWO (MID-MORNING SNACK): HOMEMADE NO-FAIL HUMMUS
"Start your engines," I said, and thirteen index fingers pushed purée.
Twelve belonged to half a couple. Just one to a criminal.
I circulated, watching chickpeas turn into paste and encouraging experimentation. A handful of sun-dried tomatoes here, sprinkling of feta there. Another garlic clove. Pinch of salt.
The test kitchen filled with the smell of lemon juice and olive oil, paprika and garlic and mint. I'd wanted Greece for a honeymoon. Spanakopita and baklava. Lamb souvlakis and carafes of piney retsina. Instead, we flew to Buffalo for a long weekend so he could give a paper on Jung. It snowed the day we planned to see Niagara Falls and we ordered room service at the Ramada instead, feasting on chicken fingers and licking hot sauce from each other's fingers. I told myself Greece could wait.
"I bet this will be yummy," Mrs. Norman said. She scooped up a dollop of hummus and licked it, pink tongue darting blink-and-you'll-miss-it fast. Her eyes closed in appreciation. The baby was getting a taste too. She was shaping its likes and dislikes, its cravings, before it ever took a sip of air. She scooped again and held it to her husband, who swallowed, nodding.
"I'll take that bet," the criminal said. His hummus was dished up already, garnished with a pool of tahini and a pair of kalamata olives.
Mrs. Norman faced him, her smile stuttering.
Then she dipped the spoon back into her bowl and fed him, watching his lips drag over the place where hers and her husband's had been, and set the spoon clicking to the counter. He closed his eyes when he swallowed, a smile etching lines like parentheses into his leathered face.
"Now that's good," the criminal said, Arthur, his name was. Licking his lips.
Then, "Fair's fair." He pushed his bowl her way.
Mrs. Norman turned to her husband, her hands gone again to her stomach.
"Oh, no," she said, smiling wildly. "Thanks, but I've had enough."
"What's the matter, Lily?" Her husband reached over their own bowl and picked up the spoon, thrice used. "It looks delicious."
She blinked rapidly, the whites of her eyes seeming to swallow the all the blue.
Mr. Norman jabbed the spoon into Arthur's bowl and brought it to his wife's mouth.
"Go on, honey," he said. "Try it."
It hovered before her lips, which remained closed while her eyes reddened at their rims.
"Forget about it," Arthur said, smiling with deep wrinkles ringing his eyes. He took a new spoon from the supply drawer and tasted his own handiwork. "Could use some more salt."
I was distributing storage containers for take homes, coming to the Normans' table last.
"Christ on a carousel, Lilith," Mr. Norman said. He thrust the spoonful she'd refused into his own mouth and swallowed violently. "Oh, you're missing out, Lily. That's out of this world."
"A little bland, actually," Arthur said, studying his hands splayed on the counter. Hands that had hurt someone, maybe, wielded a gun, counted a wad of money from some illegal transaction. Hands that were capable of anything, everything, as far as we knew.
His dark eyes glinted from a face almost the color of brink. When he pushed the arms of his pilled brown sweater up nearly to the elbow, you could see the tattoos on his forearm. One a Red Cross snake; one the sight of a rifle. One a bulldog with teeth like a mountain range.
He kept his nails neat, his hands clean, and they were strongly muscled, the veins and bones working in concert with the slightest flex. I watched him fingering his spoon, wondered what those fingers would feel like tripping up and down the vertical crevasse in a woman's back. My back. I inhaled slowly through my nose to clear y head and move to an adjacent table.
The Normans prepared to leave without speaking to each other. She dumped their hummus into a plastic container while he washed his hands halfheartedly at one of the communal sinks. After they left, Arthur and I were alone in the kitchen. He removed his apron.
"May I?" I said. He smelled like sun-soaked sawdust, clean and sweet.
He pushed his bowl toward me and stood from his stool, knees cracking like gunshots.
He was right. It was bland. "I'd try some sesame oil and a little black pepper," I said.
"In the Middle Ages, in England, they thought birth defects were the mother's fault. Pregnant chicks weren't supposed to look at cripples or think about the devil, or else their kid would turn out half-monster." He set his backpack on the counter and unzipped it to slip in the hummus. The bag was filled with towels and boxers, razors and travel tubes of toothpaste.
I forced myself to look back at his face, that sun-crisped expanse. Close up, he seemed a bit careworn, but you'd never guess h'd lived fifteen years behind razor wire. I wondered where he'd been before that. Why he was here now.
"But then you've got your Ottomons," he went on, drifting toward the door. "And they used to say if you keep a mother from eating something she craves, the baby comes out with a birthmark on its head in the shape of the food. So there you go."
Assault. Battery. Rape. What had it been? He had such neat hands.
"Do you have somewhere to stay, Arthur?" I asked. It was the first time I'd said his name.
"Best Western's putting me up. Work release thing. They give me a room, I work in the laundry." He smiled. "Just like at home."
I had no way of knowing if that's what he'd done before prison or in it.
"It's lunch recipes next week," I said.
"Sounds good, Mrs. M.," he said, the "Mrs." rolling awkwardly in his mouth, and then he took off up West Avenue towards Washington. I noticed he wore no wedding ring.
At home, my husband's face turned pink with pleasure at seeing me. I curled into the armchair with him, crinkling the newspaper he'd been reading and kissing a star-shaped pattern against his cheek. "Well, hello yourself," he said, then wiggle out from beneath me and went into the kitchen to dip a triangle of pita into my concoction.
"Too much pepper," he said, and coughed to prove his point. But it didn't stop him from finishing the bowl and licking his pink sausaged fingers.
Later, lying in bed, I watched the streetlight seep in though the window blinds, painting our room with narrow bars of gold that I usually counted, slowly, as a mnemonic for sleep. Tonight, my husband kissed my shoulder. Testing the waters and tasting the salt of me. I turned to him and lifted one of his heavy hands, placing it on my hip where I warmed immediately. He'd kept his nails long once upon a time to pick the banjo in a bluegrass band. I hadn't asked him to quit playing after we were married, but he had anyways. The instrument had been caged in our attic going on five years. He'd never seemed old to me in college, strutting in front of the blackboard in cargo pants and tees, but now I saw the wrinkles gathered in the secret place where his ear nestled into his hairline, and couldn't help feeling the eleven years between us.
A strip of light fell across his nose, another over his forehead, leaving his eyes in shadow. We'd planned to go to London one year, for our August anniversay, but terrorists blew up those Tube trains that summer and he'd convinced me we should cancel our tickets.
"What's so attractive about English cuisine anyway," he'd said.
Steaming plates of Sunday roasts and airy Yorkshire puddings. Fish and chips served in grease-soaked sheets of newsprint. English breakfasts with baked beans and toast fried crispy in bacon fat. Tea and crumpets with clotted cream. Dense, sweet spotted dick.
"Most people would say nothing," I'd said, wondering what was the point of marrying a psychology professor if he couldn't interpret his own wife's mind.
And I wasn't such a mystery. Every place had its own taste. I wanted to sample them all.
"Let's go to Italy," I said now, his hand inscribing slow circles on my lower back, our torsos perfectly aligned. "We could have white truffles in Alba, Tuscan chianti, gelato in Venice from a sidewalk stand."
"Neither of us speaks Italian," he said, laying his lips against my throat, blinking his eyelashes against me in a feathery tickle like what precedes a sneeze. We'd had a five-year plan. See the world, then start a family. But Buffalo wasn't enough for me. It wasn't even out of our home state.
"I know," he said "Let's go down to the city this weekend." To a native Saratogan, The Big Apple was the only city that mattered. "We'll cruise by Little Italy."
He rolled over then, on top, driving me further into the mattress, working both of us further beneath the covers, and I pictured the vars of light and shadow drawn across the white expanse of his back.
WEEK THREE (LUNCH): ITALIAN SAUSAGE AND BROCCOLI QUICHE
In mid-June, the heat of summer settled in Saratoga, and with it the tourists, though racing season wouldn't start until the middle of July. In another month the city would double in population and its roads would seem to shrink by half. Saudi sheiks would stride the streets in their white thobes, cotton ghutras swaddling their heads in pure white or red-and-white checks.
Other foreign visitors would be harder to pick out, until you heard them speak at the Price Chopper, lovely elongated vowels and clipped consonants. Ireland and Australia. Germany and Spain. South Africa, Japan, India and Egypt. For two months in summer the world would come to Saratoga Springs, and then, as if we'd woken from a dream, it would leave.
I wanted to follow the world to its four corners, then bring it back home in my recipe book. Each taste better than a photograph. Proof of a thousand possible lives waiting to be lived.
In class, Mr. Norman was without Lily. Arthur noticed before I did. He asked after her over their pans of simmering sausage, the two men catching olive oil splatters on their black-and-white aprons, gabbing like a pair of referees at halftime.
"A little under the weather," Mr. Norman said. "The heat really gets to her these days."
"Tell me about it," Arthur said. "When my wife was pregnant, she sent away for brochures on Alaska. Until the winter hit, and then it was Texas. Somewhere that never cooled."
I lingered by their counter. But their talk dried up with me there. I inspected the contents of their pans, standing between them so Arthur's body heat was a felt presence.
"Very good," I said to him. "You can take them off now. Slice them into thin rounds."
Mr. Norman's sausages actually looked better, but I remember him last week, trying to force feed his wife to assuage his own embarrassment. "You're burning them," I said.
The two men sliced in companionable silence while I handed out premade pie crusts settled into disposable aluminum pans. Two older ladies at the rear counter called me over and I helped them get the body of their quiche started cracking four eggs into the mixer, adding the heavy cream, the pepper, the rosemary, the salt.
When I turned to the Normans' table, their talk had moved on to other things.
"I grew up in the city," Mr. Norman was saying. "Now I've got skiing at my doorstep, horse racing every year. I'd never go back."
"It's a little hoity-toity for me," Arthur said, mixing in cheese and broccoli. I wondered where he'd been born, how far he'd roamed in between. "But my daughter's here, so here I am."
The ovens had reached prime temperature and it was time to put the quiches in, but I wanted to hear a little more. I strolled over with my arms behind my back like a science fair judge, looking down my nose at their counter. I wore a silk scarf around my neck, purchased at the Fashion Bug for class because it featured Pisa's famous leaning tower.
"What's your daughter do?" Mr. Norman asked, dusting his pie with a blend of provolone and mozzarella, a snowy layer of parmesan. My mouth watered at its acrid scent.
"She's at the college," Arthur said. "Studies Asian countries, religions too, it said in her last letter. She doesn't know I'm here yet."
The college only had twenty-five hundred students. My husband would know her, maybe. I could arrange a reunion. They'd both be grateful and Arthur would get back on track.
Arthur looked up, saw me lingering. If he'd been in jail fifteen years, I wondered when his last time with a woman had been. If he'd grown priestlike in there, celibate, or if there'd been conjugal visits, magazine pictures taped to the wall by his bed.
"Time to pop them in?" he said, wiping his hands down the length of his apron.
He was proud of his handiwork. Garnering a repertoire so when he got his own place, he could cook for his daughter, make up for what he'd missed out on in prison. He wore a long-sleeved polo shirt, pushed up to mid-forearm, and I noticed even through the shirt that his upper arms were small, but carved into hard muscles the size of naval oranges. More tattoos covered his neck above and behind the collar of his shirt. One was a woman's name: Claire.
"Is that your wife's name?" I asked, though I'd only meant to think it.
He followed my gaze and brushed at the spot with his fingers as if trying to rub it away.
"She's more like the reason I don't have a wife anymore, Mrs. M.," he said, curt enough for me to walk away, face burning. We loaded the ovens and before long the rich scent of cheese and egg, and flaky, buttery pastry, took up all the space in the room. The students sniffed and smiled, kneaded their knuckles, anxious for a taste.
Later, cleaning up, I apologized. "It's none of my business," I said.
"Don't sweat it," he said. His area was spotless, and still he swabbed the counter with a paper towel as if trying to clean it at a molecular level. "It's all water under the bridge."
I stopped mopping then, gearing up to ask him finally. But he crossed the floor between us swiftly and my mouth snapped closed. I thought he would embrace me, push me roughly against the smooth plaster wall, or come at me with a knife concealed in his apron pocket, the very paring knife he'd used to hack apart an avocado on the first day of class. But he only paused in front of me.
"Excuse me, Mrs. M," he said, tossing his paper towel in the trash behind me.
I began mopping again to hide the flush in my cheeks. "Can I give you a ride home?"
He hoisted his backpack and we moved toward the doorway where I clicked off the lights, plunging both of us into the dim. He dropped one of his hands to the doorknob and held it.
"You have such wild eyes," he said, his free hand kneading the strap of his pack. I couldn't tell if it was just factual, what he was saying, or something else, but my heartbeat picked up and I swallowed with a dry throat. He leaned closer and closed his eyes, then breathed me in. I felt him doing it. My perfume, or just me. I breathed him in too. I felt ready for anything.
"You know, I think I better walk," he said with the flicker of a smile. And then he turned the knob and we both walked out into the dying light. That night, I searched for flights to Italy. I could fly into Rome for $450. Work my way north through Tuscany and the Piedmont region, hook south again and hit Venice, Parma, Bologna, Florence. Give myself a month and do it right. But even hosteling, there would be food to pay for, and there I wanted to spare no expense. I went into the bedroom where my husband snored already in bed, his striated with light.
WEEK FOUR (MID-AFTERNOON SNACK): ADIRONDACK RED POTATO CHIPS
"I wonder sometimes, who was the first person to eat a potato. They're not exactly appetizing raw," Mrs. Norman said. Her pretty voice, like her pretty hands, was flitting and sweet. She seemed fully recovered, yet bigger than ever, as if in the next second she'd boil over.
Both Normans stood slicing potatoes thin, as I'd told them to, and tossed them into a bowl without any contact of their elbows or hips, maintaining a cushion of air between them.
Arthur had seemed distracted at first, quiet and self-contained, his elbows held close to his sides as if he were trying not to take up space. Still, he spoke up now, producing a smile like a magic trick. "It had to be some kind of American. North or South. In the Chiloé Archipelago of Chile, they put potatoes in everything. You ever had curanto? They cook it in a hole in the ground. Lots of fish and potatoes. Delicious. Europe didn't even see one until the 16th century. Can you imagine the Irish before potatoes? Or the Russians without vodka?" He shivered theatrically as if the very thoughts were death.
"Pardon my asking, but how do you know all that?" Mrs. Norman said, her voice as high as a schoolgirl's. Anyone listening to them went on slicing, but the noise level sunk right down.
He winked and dropped a handful of potato slices into his wok.
I couldn't imagine him in prison. All that surfaced were movie images of men in orange jumpsuits lounging on metal bunks. Killing each other with shanks in the lunchline. Plotting escape in the exercise yard. Bragging about their crimes.
The frying stage took longer than I'd planned.
"No, no you have to leave them until they're browned," I said, putting all of Mr. Norman's chips back in oil.
"Last week, I'm burning everything. This week everything's supposed to be burnt. No wonder I'm hopeless at this," he said, looking to his wife for rescue.
"Maybe if you'd listen for once," Mrs. Norman said, turning to her right so her back was to her husband, her front to Arthur. But her voice reflected strain, as if she were forcing herself to speak to the criminal. "I hear you have a daughter," she said. "Ours is going to be a girl too."
Arthur went on turning his potato slices in the hot oil. "Her name is Melinda," he said.
"Lily, I need your help over here," said Norman, indicating the pan where the slices really were burning now. Before she could turn, a splattering of oil connected with a superheated metal coil beneath the pan. A grease fire flashed to lief and died out in the next second. Lily stumbled into Arthur, who had his hands up to catch her before she fell.
It all happened so fast, but then, as soon as she recovered herself, Lily screamed—an ice-pick-in-the-ear sound. I half-expected the juice glasses to shatter on their shelves. As it was, several students raised their hands to their ears.
Arthur released her immediately, then let his hands fall empty to his sides. Lily had clamped one hand over her mouth and now stepped backward, bumping into her husband and flinching when he brought a hand to her shoulder. She turned to him and buried her face in his armpit, her back heaving with sobs.
"I should go," Arthur said, shutting off his burner.
"Arthur, wait," I said, reaching for him. The fabric of his polo snagged on one of my fingernails as he passed.
"See ya, Mrs. M," he said, pushing past me and out the door into the wide world.
In his absence, his potatoes continued to fry toward golden brown.
"We don't know anything about the guy," Mr. Norman argued, his face strained as if someone were tugging it from within on a complicated system of ropes. Both hands ran up and down his wife's bare arms where she heaved against his chest. "Or what he's capable of."
The class was a sea of blank faces.
"Now they're burning," I said, removing his wok from heat and fishing out the crispy rounds with a slotted spoon. Mrs. Norman excused herself and returned seconds later, makeup and smile reapplied. She went on slicing, changing the subject to breastfeeding.
After everyone had gone, I swabbed a bleach mixture under each freestanding counter. The mop's saturated gray head encountered some small resistance in the Norman's area, Arthur's backpack, slumped against the rear wall. It smelled of sweat and cigarettes and road dirt, and had been oft-repaired, judging by the paperclip zippers and swaths of duct tape.
The Best Western was out of my way home, but I swung by anyway, carrying Arthur's backpack on my hip like a baby. The lobby had a thin beige carpet underfoot and a clerk who watching something with a laugh track on his boxy computer monitor, reaching occasionally into a bag of Cheetos balanced on his lap.
"I have something for one of your guests," I said, transferring the pack to the counter.
The clerk used a long, orange-stained finger to click his mouse, silencing the laugh track, then typed Arthur's full name in slow, hesitant keystrokes. I watched his gaze jitter over the results on his screen. "322," the clerk said, yawning. "Want to leave it for him?"
The elevator made a sing-song chiming and I turned to face it. "No, thanks," I said, remembering Arthur's hands on Mrs. Norman's white arms. The way his touch had scared her.
Aerosmith played in the elevator, a blast from my husband's childhood, tinny in the small mirrored space. My husband would be getting hungry by now. I could see him in his armchair, scanning the evening news and listening for the sound of my car in the driveway. In our early days we'd gone skiing in the Berkshires, hiking, camping; we'd traveled to Vermont or New Hampshire or Pennsylvania for concerts on a moment's notice. He'd sing to me, his voice high and pitch perfect, and we'd make love on a blanket in our backyard. These last few years though, he'd stopped wanting adventures, except the one I wasn't ready for.
He was full and satiated with experience, and I was endlessly hungry, a bottomless pit.
The third floor was deadly quiet. Arthur's bag weighed on my hip like an actual child, one grown too heave to be carried around. It was a smoking floor and the ceilings had yellowed, the carpets losing their red. I had an urge to cover the peephole with my hand before I knocked, though I knew he'd see me anyway when he opened the door.
"Arthur," I said, knocking softly. I'd expected to wait a minute or so while he roused himself from bed, stubbing out a cigarette on the way over. I'd never seen him smoke a cigarette and it made him seem more romantic somehow, a poor, put-upon James Dean type, misunderstood by the world. Maybe he'd been wrongly convicted of whatever it had been. Maybe he was really an innocent man.
The door swung open almost before I'd finished knocking, but his face—open and inviting before he saw me—arranged itself into a mask of politeness. "Mrs. M," he said, "Won't you come in," as if I'd arrived just in time for tea.
I'd expected tube socks flung everywhere, clothes draped over chairs and surfaces, an unmade bed. I'd expected him to have stripped to a wife-beater and jeans, feet bare, hair rumpled from sleep. But he wore the blue polo shirt and Nikes he'd worn to class, and his room didn't look occupied. A fully packed suitcase stood off to the side and every surface was clear, from the desk to the bathroom counter to the hospital corners intending to stay. The scent in the air was of lemon air freshener. I spotted the can on his bedside table on top of the evening paper, the same one my husband read daily, which was neatly folded along its original lines.
"Your bag," I said, holding it out with two hands.
"Much obliged," he said, taking it from me and setting it next to the suitcase. There was no place to sit but the bed, so he sat on one side, creasing the flowered comforter, and I perched on the other.
This hotel room was made for encounters like this, and had seen stranger couples than us. I hated to think about what might be living microscopically on the comforter.
"I'm sorry about today," I said. There was a good three feet of space between us, as if we'd left from for both my husband and Claire, whoever she might be.
He waved the incident away as if it were a fly. "Don't blame here. For all she knows I went away for rape." He looked me full in the face, leaning slightly over his straight arm, a blue vein pulsing through his inked bulldog.
"You didn't though," I said, feeling confident now, feeling I had him figured out.
He fiddled with the bottom hem of his shirt, staring down. "I didn't," he said.
I wasn't going to get a better window to ask than this one, but he looked so private, sitting there. So remorseful. I picked at a loose plastic thread in the bedspread.
"You didn't have to bring my bag," he said. "It's just crap in there anyway. Just contingency plans." He leaned back on an elbow and lifted his legs onto the bed.
I curled my own legs up so the two of us were on an island. I wished I'd finished his chips and brought them to him now. We could have fed them to each other, crispy and salty and greasy between our fingers and tongues and teeth.
"It was unfair, what Lily did," I said. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."
He cocked an elbow behind his head and lay back into the bed. "You're a beautiful woman. Don't get me wrong," he said. "But I know what I look like, so what I"m wondering, is what's so wrong with your life that you're here with a fuckup like me."
"Does your daughter think you're a fuckup, too?" I felt braver now, sitting higher than him on the bed, the door closed but unlatched behind me.
"She's smart. She says away," he said. "I got some pretty bad habits. They left me in a pretty bad way." He held out an arm across the bed and I thought he was reaching for me so I took his hand, turning the willing victim. Our palms brushed against each other and I felt my heartbeat spike. The country of infidelity was one I"d never thought to visit, a place with no taste—only texture and temperature, pure sensation.
He held his arm stiffly though, curling his fingers tight over mine and turning his elbow toward me so I could see the healed-over track marks, scars so many and deep they'd been made permanent over a decade ago.
"Don't get tangled up with me, Mrs. M.," he said, letting my hand hit the comforter.
I stood and darted for the door, though he wasn't pursuing, was barely getting himself to standing. And standing there, breath coming fast in a painful whistle, I felt stupid, cheated somehow. But also free. Freed. "I'll see you in class?" I said, an attempt at brightness.
"Sure thing," he said.
I took the stairs down to the lobby and stopped at Boston Market on the way home for food to feed my husband, though for once I couldn't imagine eating a bite.
WEEK FIVE (DINNER): RUSSIAN BORSCHT
It was normal to drop a few students during the course, but this week only half the class showed up. I'd have to freeze the rest of the pork loins and come up with something creative to do with a dozen extra beets. Arthur was one of the missing.
Mrs. Norman was also absent, and Mr. Norman set about his preparations as if readying for war. While his pork loin simmered, he dashed an onion into a thousand tiny pieces, and peeled and chopped beets until his fingers were stained crimson. He kept swiping his hands across his apron, drawing red streaks against the black and white.
At the end of class, Mr. Norman asked for extra Tupperware. "The wife is staying with her mother a few days," he said. "Pre-baby jitters."
His borscht smelled rich and delicious, and when I inserted a wooden spoon in the center of the pot, so many vegetables were crowded in that it stuck straight up and down, the sign of a very good batch. I helped him split it into two separate containers.
"You're starting to get it," I said. It was hard to stay angry at a good cook.
"Do you have kids?" he said, tightening the lid down on one container and marking it "Lily" with a permanent marker. They'd been married barely a year and it would only get harder. I had no wisdom for them.
"I'm not cut out for motherhood," I said, and felt another burst of freedom.
Even though we'd parted awkwardly, I missed Arthur at the front counter, his efficient, nimble fingers peeling the paper jackets off small, white onions and working a whisk with brisk, efficient strokes. I felt I'd been stood up, as if he'd broken a promise more tangible than his presence in class. I cleaned up quickly and shut off the lights.
Out in the hallway, a familiar backpack had been dropped by the test kitchen's door.
He'd come after all, without intending to stay.
At home, my husband looked up from his Chomsky, while on the television a weatherman waved his arms frenetically in front of a giant cartoon rendering of the continental United States dotted with clouds and sun and rain.
"What's that?" he said, marking his place with a finger still pre-dinner thin.
A student left it. Want to heat this up?" I handed him my tub of borscht and slung Arthur's bag to the coffee table, reached for the much-mended zipper.
"Do you think you should be doing that?" he said. I looked up from Arthur's bag, the mystery contents. He'd left it for me, but there'd be no note on the outside, no explanation.
My husband clutched the tub of soup to his chest, face white and slack in the twilight creeping in across the lake. "I'm looking for an address," I said, "so I can send it back."
He looked at me a minute longer, then slipped like a shadow into the kitchen.
The zipper parted easily, releasing the odor of hard-used socks and undershirts. I pushed aside hotel towels crumpled into damp balls and half-used trail-sized bottles of Suave two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, feeling like a pickpocket as I fished for a wallet or an address book or a prepaid phone. My fingers landed on something boxy and slick, thick as a textbook. I pulled it out, spilling a pair of boxers and a handful of disposable razors onto the hardwood floor.
Instead of an atlas or a novel or a dog-eared Bible, I held a Let's Go Guide to Vietnam.
I knew they used a lot of noodles and rice, seafood by the coast, and in other places turtle meat and dog. But I couldn't name a single dish. Another country I'd never thought to dream of.
Feeling like a thief, I opened the cover, which was new and stiff, through paperback. I was looking for an inscription, for the corners of pages to be turned down, for any sign that he'd read it, or purchased it for me. There was nothing until the pencil scrawl on the inside of the back cover: Melinda's name, her address at the college down the street, and an email.
"Didn't you hear me," my husband said, emerging from the kitchen with a dishtowel threaded through his belt. "It's ready." Outside the window, a seagull skimmed low over the lake, calling out harshly, an ocean bird that had somehow lost its way.
"Thanks, honey," I said, flipping through the thick paperback, feeling the breeze of its pages on my face. It smelled of glue and laminate.
My husband wiped his hands on the towel, then unthreaded it and spread it on the table like a trivet in preparation for our meal.
It was nearly racing season now and traffic would be humming on 87 up from the city. I pictured Arthur walking that four-lane highway, but heading north toward Glens Falls and Niagara and Montreal and Quebec, where he'd eat candied ginger beef with a side of fiddlehead ferns. Caribou steaks. Fresh venison and sockeye salmon. Saskatoonberries in cream.
He could travel the world again. Go back to those places he'd spoken about. Maybe he would. He was a free man. But I was a free woman too, and here I was, right where I'd begun.
Maybe some cages were harder to shrug off than others. Maybe he hadn't gone anywhere at all.
Through the windows opened to the lake, the birds struck up a chorus now, those seasoned travelers. On the television, the weather had given way to local news.
"I'm not very hungry tonight," I said. My husband held his hand out for the book, then took a seat in his armchair to thumb through it.
He flipped the pages more slowly than I had, his plump face sober and pasty. I watched him puzzle out the complicated city names, heard him whisper their syllables like the mystic words of some ancient incantation. Then he closed the book.
"What happened to our five-year plan?" he said.
I knelt between him and the television, which droned of accidents on the highway, a small fire started and snuffed in a n abandoned home. He wore a pair of old cords soft from may washings and I ran my thumbnails between the worn ribs.
"I'm not ready," I said. "I want to see the world first."
He let his head drop and slid the guide toward me down the length of his thigh.
"Then that's what you should do," he said.
I went to the kitchen to dish out the borscht, though I knew he'd prefer something simpler, something more American, something to his taste.
WEEK SIX (DESSERT): VIETNAMESE BO BO CHA CHA
She was still in town for a summer program. Melinda Brown, daughter of Arthur, Asian studies major, journalism minor. I asked her to meet me before my last class, explaining that I had something that belonged to her. Best case scenario: Arthur returned for his backpack and Melinda arrived in the same moment. A joyous reunion would ensue.
In truth, I didn't expect her to show, but I was alone in the test kitchen, prepping the counters with bowls and spoons and ingredients when she stepped through the door, big blond curls bobbing with every step and a purse gripped white-knuckle-tight on her shoulder.
She was fair and unlined. I saw nothing of Arthur in her.
"Melinda," she said, with a hand out. Professional and brisk.
I didn't know how to begin. "Your father wanted you to have this, I think." I handed her the Let's Go guide, waited for her face to break and crumple.
"I already told him I don't want it. Twice," she said, thrusting it back without ceremony. "I don't want anything from him."
I felt betrayed somehow, as if he should have told me he'd already been to see her.
"What about his belongings?" I toed the backpack, which sat at my feet like the last kid at summer camp waiting to be picked up.
"Burn them," she said, lifting solid, swimmer's shoulders in a rough shrug. "You know what he did, right? What he's like? Do you know who you're helping?"
At first, of course, I'd wanted to know, like everyone, what Arthur's crime had been. I couldn't imagine he'd gotten locked away for fifteen years just for being a heroine addict. But I distinctly didn't want to know now. I just wanted to pass the last of him onto the last person likely to care. But now I knew there was no such person.
"Maybe he'll come back for it," I said, trying to laugh. "If he's not back in Mexico yet."
"You must be kidding," she said. "He's never left the states. He never left his state. But I hoped you're right, and I hope he stays down there."
She turned to leave, heels clicking brightly toward the door.
"Are you studying Asia in school because he was in Vietnam?" I said.
She stopped halfway to the door and hung her head, shaking it slightly. "Did he tell you that?" she said. "Well, maybe you can explain to me how he got PTSD from driving a desk at the recruitment center over in Glen Falls. It's just another of his bullshit excuses. Maybe if he'd ever actually been deployed—" She turned to face me and I saw her eyes had gone shiny, though no tears fell. "Actually, no, there's no excuse for some things."
When she turned to go this time I let her, but I stored Arthur's backpack in the supply closet. Just in case Melinda had underestimated him. The Let's Go guide I kept.
And this week only one counter was empty.
I like to think Mrs. Norman woke before dawn and reached over to shake awake her mister. He carried her bag to the car and secured the belt over her stomach. It was dark and they had forty minutes to drive, all the way to Albany, as her contractions spun out faster and faster.
While I led my students in peeling sweet potatoes and rinsing handfuls of screwpine leaves, I imagined Mrs. Norman sweating and swearing and sucking on ice chips, crushing them between her teeth and letting the shards melt on her half-frozen tongue.
I knew how that ice would dissolve slowly, wetting her throat but tasting of nothing.