A short story
It’s 11:15 at night. I’m still at the sink, but only the big tickets items remain unwashed. The enamel Le Creuset pan and the silvery frying pans. And the wine glasses. The bulbous thin-skinned wine glasses, which look so simple and inviting on the table with even just the last two ounces of an Oregon pinot noir still to be consumed, but which now sit, menacing, on the countertop, waiting to see if this is a night when I will break one of them. They don’t so much shatter as pop, like a surprised balloon at the end of a children’s party, often under the simple pressure of my hand as I try to dry one at the end of a long evening.
Forty items so far. Sometimes I count them, sort of a form of meditation but also to provide tangible proof, if only to myself, of how excessive Martin is in his devotion to creating a perfect meal. He can go for a few days at a time (at least I think so – I realize I don’t ever spend a stretch of time with him like that) on mixed greens and protein bars if he is busy on a work project or detoxing between too many meals out in a row for business things. But then comes one of these evenings. Just the two of us, during the week, and nonetheless three courses and two bottles of wine – not for the alcohol per se but because he can’t or doesn’t want to build a meal that will require just one varietal to heighten the experience. Anyone can make a meal that will go with a single bottle of aged Bordeaux. The men are separated from the boys when you must make that perfect, seamless transition from fish to braised meat, from vegetable to savory.
I know the counting is passive aggressive. I never share the number. I often lose count after the initial rush of plates and utensils, when it feels like I’m keeping up with casualties in a World War I field hospital. I lose concentration when I get to the bigger pieces that require more scrubbing and elbow grease. When I finish I look up at the clock, dazed to realize I am still in the kitchen near midnight, the front of my shirt wet through from splashing water. I should feel more refreshed from having taken such a mental journey. But I’m just weary.
The highest number I remember was somewhere between 117 and 120. That was a dinner party for six, where I was tasked with making risotto primavera to go with the roast lamb. My mother taught me to make risotto when I was in college and jokingly told me that everyone should know how to make something a bit exotic that could use a variety of ingredients from memory so that if I were ever a guest at a house party in Tuscany or Scotland I would be welcomed back. She laughed when she told me this but I knew she hoped she was a little bit serious, with high ambitions for me as I made my way through the sea of social life at USC. Alas, my freshman roommate was a bland blond girl from Palos Verdes who dropped out after one semester because she missed her horse too much. I didn’t even score a weekend in Cabo or Ojai.
“Shit,” Martin exclaims from the other room.
“A stain on the tablecloth. God damn it.”
I’m innocent on this one. He does all the pouring so any unanticipated drips are his responsibility. He comes into the kitchen, barely stopping as he stoops down to get the salt box from the cupboard, then disappearing back into the other room to pour some salt on the offending stain.
I pick up one of the wine glasses. It seems like bad luck to leave them to the end.
Once in a while Martin agrees that I can leave them until the morning. Rinsed and some with a few drops of water in the bottom to make them easier to wash. But that’s an exception. Mostly when I’ve had a bit too much to drink and he fears that I will not be careful enough at night to do a good job. On those following mornings I don’t dread the work, even if I forget it as I come downstairs to make coffee. The field of stemware, arrayed on the kitchen counter, doesn’t depress me in the morning light.
I take my time and make the coffee first. I stand in front of the window and nudge it open a few inches. I listen for the birds and decide what kind of a day it’s going to be. I measure the moisture in the air and decide exactly what kind of black clothing I will wear today. I decide whether I will have a bagel for breakfast, picked up on my way to the gallery, butter leaking out into the paper wrapper, something I reserve for mornings after too much wine, my re-entry into my normal day.
When I’ve had half a cup of coffee I turn to the glasses. I get out a fresh white towel from the pile that seems will never get to the bottom. I fluff, I twist, I examine up against the growing natural light, I place in inventive geometric patterns on the now blank dining room table, giving them another hour or so to completely dry before Martin will return them to their cardboard boxes in his front closet.
When they are perfect I slip back upstairs to get ready. I click out the front door and start my car in the morning chill, turning on the radio while I wait for the mist on the back windshield to dissipate so I can back out of the driveway.
If it’s a dry morning I don’t need to do that. I can back up right away. And when I drive down the street, away from the house toward the ocean, it’s as if I was never in the house at all.
© 2019 Kathleen O’Hanlon