Over a congratulatory dinner one evening in early January, surrounded by friends around a comfortable dining table, I look up and find my husband taking a small snooze. His plate rests in front of him; the salmon with avocado salsa – his favorite since the dinner is in his honor – is untouched. He drifted off during a discussion of foreign films playing at the Biograph Theater, and slept through a good deal of the conversation. Our guests, with their eyes, direct my attention to Michael, seated to my left. I turn in my chair, my head bends toward him now, and I stare. How often had I kidded him about being dead on his feet after putting in long hours for years to achieve partnership in his law firm? And here it is: proof.
His lashes are long and thick like a darling young boy’s. They cast a shadow over his cheekbones, and I watch his shoulders move up and down in the regular slow breath of sleep. My guests, taking their cue from me, relax as I smile at my husband. They must believe I feel tenderly. I don’t; I feel smug. I think, I told you so.
We have Julie and Jim down from Michigan; Barnaby and his second wife, Maddie; my friend from work, Colette, who is a food stylist; and her photographer boyfriend, Tom. Colette and I work together at a food magazine, where I was hired nearly seven years ago as a food analyst for the test kitchen. Most of my day is spent breaking foods down to their basic parts; I analyze everything.
I invited Colette although she is more my friend than Michael’s, simply because I need someone here who shares my interests. Michael’s lawyer friends, some like Jim and Julie whom he’s known since day one of law school, talk shop when they congregate – theoretical discussions, comparisons of current cases and clients – thus ignoring the non-lawyers in the bunch, which is usually just me. Then Maddie, too, when she came along. Michael seemed to think we would hit it off, but she is new to the group and difficult to draw out, which makes me diffident around her. Colette, Tom, and I – food stylist, photographer, food analyst – can talk about food and our work when the conversation around us becomes too exclusive.
Barnaby may be Michael’s closest friend. He’s been our lawyer for years, and Michael trusts him like a brother. They met at the firm, and their friendship solidified during weekends spent on various Chicago area golf courses. Since his remarriage, Barnaby walks taller and his brow has cleared. He is a happier man to be near. We took a trip or two with Barnaby and his first wife until they began bickering, and the anxiety hung in the air around us like a noxious cloud. At the time I decided I knew how to spot a marriage in distress: by the bickering, the loud and robust arguments each partner would instigate. Now I see how little I truly understood.
Jim and Julie were, with Michael, founding members of their law school study group. The three provided support and coaching during three otherwise cutthroat and competitive years, and they remain a tight, an impenetrable, circle. This is what I think: that they formed a unit while I became the diversion. I feel that Julie hasn’t much patience for me or my role in Michael’s life. She continues to make much of my past foray into temp work and test labs full of refrigerator dough, my penchant for dark clothes, and the fact that I now only work three days a week.
When we met I was newly married, and she summed me right up.
“Let me get this straight,” she said when we were introduced. “You have a degree in food science? What is that exactly? Are you going to be a home ec teacher? I remember in high school, back when the girls took home ec and the boys were shuttled off to shop. Not that I wanted shop, either,” she continued, with a glance down at her perfectly French-manicured nails, “but I certainly knew even years ago how sexist it was to stick us automatically in home ec.”
“No,” I explained, “I’m more of a lab person, a chemist,” thinking that “chemist” sounded both understandable and impressive. “A chemist who studies and works with food.”
“Well, then, is that what the dough is all about?” she concluded, referring to the night job I held, testing the pH levels of refrigerator dough for a huge food manufacturer. It wasn’t much, but I worked diligently, albeit unhappily, during the law school years to keep us paying our rent and eating. She then eyed me for about a minute and turned to someone else presumably more interesting; I was dismissed.
I remember looking at Michael across whatever table we were sitting at – bar, pizza parlor, coffeehouse – while my husband shrugged and rolled his eyes in something like sympathy.
But he craved their company, and their shared experience forged a very strong bond. I thought I’d seen the back of them at graduation, but Jim accepted a job in Grand Rapids, Michael in Chicago, and we got into a twice-yearly routine. So of course when Michael’s partnership became official, they were present to share in the celebration.
* * *
For our dinner I had diced seedless cucumber, red peppers, plum tomatoes, red onion, and an avocado uniformly; tossed them all together with lime juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper; and then placed a few spoonfuls on each plate. After removing stray bones with my needle-nose pliers, I had brushed a huge, bright orange Pacific salmon fillet with grainy mustard and grilled it quickly, divided it into eight pieces, and set each on top of the salsa. Earlier in the day I had made a potato salad, laced it with a roasted-garlic mayonnaise and some dark green scallions and capers, and turned it out into my best majolica bowl. The table was perfectly set. When our guests arrived, Michael took them to the living room, where they nibbled almonds I had sauteed in butter and sprinkled with sea salt. Michael, the perfect host, poured drinks: white wine, kirs, gin with bitters.
While the others talked, Colette visited me in the kitchen, arm in arm with Tom, who put his fingers into the potato salad for a taste before dinner. He looked at me instantly, like a guilty child, but I smiled and told him, “Go ahead.” He groaned with pleasure at the taste, which made me beam. He was about to lick the last bits of dressing from his fingers when Colette said, “Wait.” She took his hand, saying, “Let me.” And she licked the last morsels from his fingers.
“Anna, that’s gorgeous,” she crowed. But I turned away, blushing, mumbling my thanks, feeling as if I had intruded on something more intimate than the sharing of food. I was excluded, an outsider, a stranger to whatever it was that had just passed between them. In that moment, my appetite, so fickle lately, fled.