An Unhealthy Relationship (with Food)
by Julia Mahar
We went to the diner on our first date. Or maybe it wasn’t a date. We were hanging out, going over lines for a community theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we were both in. It was one of those build-on, customizable dates, or non-dates, where you keep adding to as it goes well. Rehearsing lines became coffee became going to hear a band became more coffee became going out to breakfast at 3 a.m. We spent time one-on-one, deep in conversation and in groups, near each other, but not touching, arousing the suspicion of our friends.
The diner was an old train car with a space-age, art deco feel. The wall curved where it met the ceiling and the surfaces were shiny metal, or pink laminate. I ordered a spinach and feta omelet, hash browns, rye toast, and decaf. He ordered a spinach and feta omelet, hash browns, wheat toast, and regular coffee. We held hands over the table and talked about how much we had in common.
The lasagna was nothing special. I used generic noodles, store brand sauce, part-skim cheeses. I didn’t even use fresh parmesan, but that stuff from a can. The recipe came off the back of the box of pasta. My one special touch was to switch out the ground beef it called for with sweet Italian sausage and add a little basil to the sauce. I cut the sausage out of the casings before I sautéed them, then drained them while I assembled. I added a little extra water to the baking dish and didn’t bother to parboil the noodles. Then I sat around for an hour while it baked.
This dish required some effort, and seemed special, but really, the hardest part was doing the dishes. He raved over it. Raved more than I thought it deserved, to the point that it made me uncomfortable.
We had sex for the first time after I made that meal. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was sitting around for an hour while the food stupor wore off. Maybe it was just the fact we had been texting and talking, getting coffee and kissing in cars and movie theaters like ninth graders for nearly three months up until that point. After, he went outside for a cigarette, but he brought his phone with him. I could hear him talking, fast and sharp as a knife in a sushi bar. He said it was his friend Dan.
The magazine article said that this chicken could be used to take relationships to the next step, whatever that step may be. The women quoted had gotten their boyfriends to propose with the help of that chicken. Others had had boyfriends move in. Somehow, this meal caused men to open their eyes to the warmth, stability and hominess offered by the woman cooking it. The chicken was the gateway drug to commitment. I wanted it to lead to declaration of some sort, an end to limbo. I wanted the chicken to be the conversation I wasn’t willing to have.
I had also read a little about witchcraft, paganism, natural magic, the secret language of spices. I wasn’t dying my hair black and wearing robes, but I wasn’t above using an appropriate herb to align my desires with the Universe’s will — if it harm none. Along with the traditional lemon and garlic, I added cinnamon for masculine energy, rubbing the skin with a tiny bit in the butter. Thyme, ruled by Venus. A little cayenne for heat in all areas. I plugged in my hot rollers and showered while the chicken roasted.
At six, I was ready for him to walk in the door. At seven I was no longer worried, but annoyed. I texted him and heard nothing. I sat, in full, but natural, makeup, until nine o’clock while the chicken congealed. The fat solidified around the edges of the pan and the skin went from crisp and delicious to limp.
He never ate a bite of that chicken. He had one of those days where you think it’s Thursday all day, but it’s really Wednesday. He totally forgot. Can we reschedule? Can he make it up to me?
I ate chicken in nearly every meal for the next week. I picked at the cold carcass. I ate the vegetables — so sweet roasted under the bird — rewarmed for dinner one night in front of Buffy. Half the meat was still on the bones when I tossed it in the trash.
We weren’t even really dating, even if I lied to myself, when he called me unexpectedly for breakfast. It had been about two months since we’d hooked up, longer since we’d had ongoing contact. He said he had everything for breakfast, but if I could grab some dish soap, “he’d love me forever.” Of course I went.
His apartment was even messier than usual and the sink was full of dishes, all the dishes. They smelled. It was summer and they had been sitting there for days. He asked if I would help get started on those, while he never moved from the couch. He would dry. My stomach jolted and I tasted acid in the back of my throat. I had to wash the first batch in the bathroom.
Someone knocked. He bounced to the door. It was another girl, a few years younger than me. She had freckles and blondish hair with roots. She was impossibly and almost waifishly thin but wore a baggy sweatshirt despite the warm day. He hugged her and didn’t let go when he introduced her.
She kissed him on the cheek and said she’d stay on the porch while he cooked, the smell was a little much. He beamed at her. He said I should sit out there and get to know her, we had a lot in common. She said they weren’t telling people yet, but she was almost three months along. She couldn’t believe that it had only been six months and now she was having a baby and marrying this amazing, sweet, wonderful man. She showed a tiny diamond on her left hand.
“He talks about you all the time. He says you’re so funny. How did you know each other again?”
“The theater, here and there,” I said, and then I left while he was mixing batter.
A year later I had moved into a larger, sunnier apartment with a roommate. She got sick, very sick and needed to move back in with her mom. I was desperate and put an ad for a roommate on Craigslist. One guy who answered had a shaved head. He wore a sport coat and motorcycle boots. He also had a job lined up locally, good references, and didn’t walk in reeking of pot-smoke.
He walked around the apartment, saw the room, smiled at the coffee pot and asked when he could move in. Since he was moving Upstate from Queens, he didn’t have a car. He shipped a few things. To thank me for my hard work of opening the door for the UPS guy, he wanted to take me out for dinner, somewhere that offered good steak. He didn’t eat chicken, I learned, since his summer working at a chicken-processing facility in the Midwest. He was glad I had a big kitchen, which it was by New York City standards and he hoped to do a lot of it.
“I hope you like to eat,” he told me. “I make a banging lasagna.”
Photo via gabby-girl/flickr.
Julia Mahar is a graduate student and works for a non-profit in upstate New York. She spends her time on Pinterest planning weddings that don’t involve barns or burlap. She lives with her fiance and their dog. They share the housework evenly and his lasagna really is amazing.