Apologies for the Roast
Though she will protest that she hasn’t, Christine has prepared for the dinner for a long time. Thanks to her, the tiles before the front door are glossed and, also thanks to her, the creamy muslin curtains, inhaling sea breeze, are beaten well free of dust. Thanks to her, the apartment smells like chocolate cake and fresh-dried laundry, and all the windows are streak-free. Telling herself she deserves a break, she crosses the living room to watch the sun set just south of Château d’If, but the colors, streaming over the Mediterranean into so many reds and so many oranges, remind her of the orange glaze she made for the roast in the oven and how the meat is begging for another coat. She rushes to apply it, pulling the baster out of her apron and crossing herself with it even though she is sure the meat is already ruined.
She checks the time on the oven, 18:23. Her daughter Marie is coming back from America tonight with Jacob, the man she says she loves. She worries they will be late. She calls her daughter again, and again she does not answer. Perhaps her hands are full of the luggage Jacob would carry if he were a gentleman. The roast, she knows, will peak in forty minutes and then she will have to simply limit the damage, so she warms her lower oven to 70°C to put the roast into when they’re late.
She wanders back out of the kitchen and invents things to do. She primps a napkin wilting within its wine glass, and she peeks into the bigger bathroom to see how Nicholas is getting on. With a tweezer he is exploring a scab and hair mixture stuck to his clavicle, but he is smiling at her in the mirror. He is in crisp white underwear, his eyes are warm and lazy, and when he does not turn to her from his task she scolds him to hurry. He takes it well, laughing quietly at her back when she leaves. She rushes to put an ear against the front door, but it is quiet the way static and seashells are quiet. From her second apron pocket, she pulls the list of English phrases she will use to make Jacob feel more at home. Much of the list, inadvertently basted during the day, is now smeared and illegible. “Nice to meet you!” she says to the passing cat, plucking a dust bunny from the curl of his tail. “Would you like to drink? Won’t you please put your coat in my wardrobe?” She has always enjoyed speaking English, always insisting to Nicholas that she do all the haggling on their international vacations, and asking at parties how the English can always be so pissy with those buzzy sounds always tickling at their lips.
She stops in front of one of her many mirrors. Her dark hair is chopped flat across her olive brow like a Cleopatra. She is old enough to be a grandmother but she is still beautiful, a sexy woman, and not simply for her age as the casual smear has it. Under her red apron, faded out to pink by white flour, is a tight dress of blue silk that cuts out not quite halfway down her thighs, which are hard and rounded out like bottles. Her face has been composed with great care, as it always is, but the secret to her appearance is an unusual one. Two decades earlier, when her career was taking on a life of its own while at home two small bickering daughters were smashing her best-laid routines right and left, she often found herself doing her make-up while clattering down a Marseille alley in a twitchy little Peugeot. Too often her lipstick smeared and, after she finally clipped a streetlight, she shaved a minute from each day with an afternoon’s investment at a seaside parlor: she tattooed the rims of her eyelids. Voilà! her eyes are always ready for the judging public! The effect is not exactly the same as eye-liner; there is a somberness to tattoo ink, at least when it is applied this thick, that is slightly funereal. Yet when she’s fully done up it gives her the mystery she’d always lacked. After that, she bleached her teeth and trained lasers on each hair south of her neck just for fun. But it did not prove to be enough and her daughters cost her her job anyway.
She hastens back to the kitchen to baste the roast. She checks the time and swears. “They’re late!” she shouts to Nicholas.
Fresh, the air around him warm and moist, he comes to her fastening the last buttons on his shirt. “They’re not late. The taxi won’t be here for another quarter of an hour at the earliest. You know that.” He kisses her and holds her waist to his. “You worry too much. Kiss me.”
She pretends to bop him with the ball of the baster. “Don’t muss my tights!”
He laughs, presses a button on the espresso machine, and opens a good burgundy to breathe. “Cork’s fine,” he remarks, and tosses it in the garbage. “Want an espresso?” The roast has her attention and she doesn’t answer. “Come on,” he says. “The meat is perfect. Like always. Sit down, please?”
She backs away from the stove and sits at last, spreading her legs like a man and slouching like an overspent athlete. She sips the espresso. “Are you ready for this?”
He moves to the window. For a long time he is silent. “We didn’t have to let her go to America,” he says at last.
“But we did.”
“We did. Who’d have guessed. Here, let’s have another.”
They drink another espresso and listen to the roast spit its juice at the oven glass. Right on time the doorbell sounds. Christine creeps to the door in her tights and peeps through the spyhole. In the lens is her daughter’s ear. It is swollen into a massive whorl but it is clear she is kissing a blond boy even taller than she is. Christine picks up her shoes, backs away from the door to slip them on, and then clomps to the door. “Hello!” she shouts to the couple—no longer touching—and gives Jacob four juicy lipstick kisses on his cheeks. “Nice to meet you! Would you like to put your coat in my wardrobe?”
“Yes, Madame. Very nice to meet you as well. How are you?” he says in poor French.
“Very well, thank you. Marie, here are your old keys. Go show him where you will be staying,” she says, and the couple heads down the hall. She cranes her neck to see that they are out of earshot. “Nico!” she hisses, pointing at a smear on the tiles. “He didn’t take off his shoes!”
“Let it go.”
“Let it go.”
Furious, she stomps off to the kitchen and downs a glass of cooking wine, hot from its perch above the stove. She rips into a Nicorette, and then a second, and then breathes in the way Dr. Arbady teaches her.
The roast is ready. She pulls it to cool. Its bark is beautiful but all she sees is burnt. Angrily she dresses the salad and dumps in the pomegranates. The sprouts are ready. So is the whitefish. She lights the candelabrum at the table with the lighter she always keeps with her, flicking it and blowing out the flame when she is desperate for a smoke because somehow, the sound of a lighter, its rushed snick-snick, it soothes her.
She calls everyone to the table. Nicholas mutters when he passes her in the hall that the Yankee has called him Nicholas. “Let it go, grand monsieur,” she snaps. She had not liked the way Jacob stood and now she does not like the way he sits, slump-shouldered and pitched forward as if brought to begging by a very bad debt. Her breath is shallow when she serves the men from the roast and the women the whitefish with the watery sauce.
“Don’t you like beef, Madame?” Jacob asks.
“Oh. So you—am I—you’re having fish?”
“It is because she has fat,” and she points vigorously at Marie with the fish knife. Marie stares very hard at the candles.
The meal served, Christine excuses herself to the kitchen to drink what remains of the cooking wine. She longs to rush back to the snuffling Marie to apologize, to hug her, to cuddle her, to rip flesh together off a hot shank with their teeth and then eat—oh, God, how they would eat. But she cannot give in to weakness. She has been and will be as strong as her responsibility is heavy. She knows what men want. She knows what it takes to succeed in their world. She knows how hard life is for the ugly, the hairy, and especially the heavy, how much less respect and how much less money is commanded at work, how listless is their sex at home. Her daughters will have better. When they have succeeded in the world of men, when they are both rich, handsomely married, she will apologize, indulging with them in delicious things.
When Christine returns to the table Nicholas is vigorously cutting his meat and telling a story from a trip he took to Barcelona when he was their age. Marie is puffy-eyed but her fish is eaten. Jacob is angry and his knife scrapes his plate. Christine nibbles at her fish and takes very small bites so she can answer everything in stride. Jacob uses a pause in Nicholas’s story to tell her that the meat is good. Since he is obviously just being polite, she decides now is the moment to lay into him: “So, Jacob. You are an artist. Tell us how that is coming.”
Jacob coughs and wipes his lips, though they were already clean. “It’s good.”
The art is good, the roast is good? What else is good? “What have you for sale?”
“Nothing at the moment.”
“No? Why not?” asks Nicholas. “How intend you to make money?”
“Well, honestly I think I need to know more about what I’m about before I start to sell my work. I think I owe that much to my, uh, patrons. Money just isn’t—I don’t know. Everything.” Nicholas eats faster.
“I do not understand,” says Christine. “Why do you need to know what you are about? You are not selling yourself, you are selling a picture.”
Jacob glances at Marie for help but she still needs him to stand on his own. “I think I just need to be able to stand behind what I put up for sale. The work has to be good. Standards and all. You know?”
Christine finishes her fish thoughtfully and then crosses her arms. “No. I don’t know. How will you know?”
The boy trembles. She realizes he may cry, just like Marie. “I don’t know, Madame, I’ve never really thought about it. I guess I just assumed I would know. Have an epiphany or something.”
Christine sees that Jacob has already crumbled and her heart softens for the boy. All this time worrying that her daughter might be about to marry an unsuitable man but all she’s done is brought home a stray boy, a stray boy not yet in the world of men, beautiful in his naïveté and as far from marriage as from income. What Marie told her on the phone every day finally adds up: she has fallen in love with what love is to a boy, how boys hold pragmatism to be immoral, how boys believe certain defeats ennoble them, how they judge themselves for judging a woman’s body. This boy, his face soft and downy for all the world to punch, this boy will never make a dime. Her nightmare—the one of a scrabble of unbaptized grandchildren irrevocably tucked into a language she cannot speak—this vision fades. Marie and Jacob’s relationship, like anything else born of idealism, will die harmlessly on its own accord when the world gets around to cleaning his clock. She needn’t be the one to embitter him; she can stand idly by and just wait a little while. Then Marie would find someone suitable. She smiles and goes to fetch dessert.
For the men there is chocolate cake so moist you can hear it and for the women are crackers that look like old sidewalk. Dessert eaten, Nicholas excuses himself to watch his Les Bleus take on the Germans in Munich. With him gone there is a conversational hole into which Christine tosses another apology for the meat. Marie, tight-lipped, speaks at last to correct her mother’s English. Christine opens her mouth to protest, but, fingering the lighter in her pocket, does not say a word. Marie uncrosses her arms at last, smiling thinly.
The score is tied once more, so they can be friends. Together they head off to the kitchen to do the dishes. Closing the kitchen door behind them, Christine tears a bite of meat off the roast and offers it to her daughter.
But Marie stiffens and shakes her head no. “The fish was enough for me,” she lies.
Christine eats the meat herself and comes in for a hug. Seldom has she been so proud of the woman her daughter has become.
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