“Omgod.” Shu murmured, his eyes half-open.
He plopped a dollop of garlic butter on a chunk of faux French bread – his second – and crammed the whole thing in his mouth. Dinner was warming in the oven. I do not trust microwaves for reheating, I don’t care how “adjustable” they say they are.
Shu swallowed the bread, took a deep pull on his grimy water bottle, and gasped. “Really – delicious, Vashti.”
I nodded my thanks, then caught my cell phone before it slipped from between my ear and my shoulder. My eyes were glued to his water grungy bottle. The minute he sat it down, I’d get it in a sink full of bleach water.
“Fantastic – everything smells terrific.”
I nodded again and my stupid cell phone slipped and clattered to the floor. Shu beat me to the retrieval.
“…and you’re selfish! SELFISH!” Tee shouted from his end of the line.
“Who is that?” Shu asked, concerned. “Anything wrong- ?”
“Not a thing.” I said. I took the phone, and for an instant considered hanging up but did not. I put the phone to my ear again, opened the freezer door, and went back to searching for chicken breasts.
“Okay. …Anyway, I understand if you can’t do it.” Shu said. “No harm, no foul.”
“You’ve ruined my whole fucking weekend!” Tee barked.
“Uh-huh. I hear you.” I said to Tee, and glanced over as Shu went for a third chunk of bread. I snapped my fingers at him to say stop spoiling your appetite for supper, but Shu thought I was getting on to him for talking while I was on the phone, which set off an awkward exchange of “I’m so sorry” and “No, no, I didn’t mean-,” etcetera, etcetera.
Shu reached over and opened the refrigerator side of the Sub-Zero just as I stood up, and then there we were, so close, the perfect opportunity…but oh my dear lord the man smelled rank. He didn’t look so great, either. There were sweat-salt rings around the neckline and armpits of his threadbare Rice University t-shirt, and the reddish-blond hair on his arms was plastered against his damp skin. I guess I made a face, because Shu apologized and backed away fast, explaining that he’d been at the gym all afternoon, playing handball, racquetball, kickball, one of those rich white guy games.
“It’s your kitchen, dude.” I said. “It’s your prerogative to smell like a goat in it whenever you want to.”
“Unique perspective.” Shu said, and laughed. “You have a unique way at looking at life, Vashti.” He said this just as the mad man on the phone was hollering that my love of late 1940s fashion and Doris Day films was a sign of “a cold and ridiculous eccentricity! You cultivate misery Vashti, then expect me to drop everything and make it all better!”
This from the man who married an irresponsible Lesbian outfielder and then fell to pieces that took me two years to put back together.
“Excuse me?!” I said to Tee. “Excuse ME?”
“No offense!” Shu said, and moved back like I’d scalded him.
“NO – not you -” I said to Shu. “Not you, I -” Then I dropped my dang phone again, which made me lose my temper and holler “God DANG IT!” I long for the days when phones when not doll-sized.
“Spinster! Old maid!” Tee hollered. “DADDY’S GIRL!”
He’s normally a nice person.
“Who’s on the phone – Vashti? Is everything okay?” Shu asked, genuine concern on his face. Oh, my sweet man.
I smiled at him and held up a “just a minute” finger, dropped two pounds of frozen chicken breasts into the sink, and then went into the pantry and shut the door behind me.
I let Tee blather until he ran out of breath. Only fair, since not a half hour ago I’d called him and insisted that I was in a deadly depression and could not possibly be left alone tonight, and he’d cancelled his hot date for me. Now here I was, cancelling on him.
“I’m sorry, Tee, I really just found out. I have to work late, or else he’ll let me go.” I said very low, hoping Shu wasn’t hearing me lying in his pantry.
“And you couldn’t tell me this before I cancelled the babysitter?”
“Are you hearing me? I did not know not until just now. This is a crisis situation, Tee!” There is a special room in Hell with Vashti Tye: Big Fat Liar over the door. “Just call the girl, Tee. Tell her you need her after all.”
“Right.” Tee snorted. “Because it’s that easy with women.”
I snorted right back at him. “With your kind of woman it is.”
“HA! You were my kind of woman.”
“Twice in a back seat in high school does not count.” I told him. “And speaking of flip-floppers who suddenly leave their friends in a public lurch, who abandoned me at the Three Teardrops Tavern because he hooked up with a six-foot-tall blonde bartender? And who left me to get a cab home from Scarborough Faire because he’d hooked up with a girl in a chainmail bra and shorts so short you could see her five o’clock shadow? Who was that, Tee?”
Tee had no reply to that. Or the other five examples that I rattled off.
“ …So, what kind of “crisis” is it?” Tee said when I finally gave him a chance to speak.. “Emergency dinner party?”
“Do not denigrate my career.”
He laughed at me. And then he said, “Okay, fine. But don’t you try’n make me feel guilty. You’re in the wrong here Vashti, and you know it.”
“I know I’m in the wrong! I’ve told you I’m in the wrong! And I have now said all the “I’m sorrys” that I’m going to say. Do you hear me?” I hated my voice sounded so low and mean. Tee obviously did too, as he lit into me all over again.
We argue plenty but we don’t fight but maybe once every-other year, and so when we finally do get into it, the fight takes for-freaking-ever to plow through because we drag in all the hurt and wrong that’s built up since our last fight.
I did not have time for this. I had a man and a possible chicken dinner-for-two waiting.
“Okay, Tee. You’re right. I’ll- ” I said “Just hold on, just a minute, let me ask him if I can slip out a -” and then I stepped deeper into the pantry so the call would drop out.
I hung up and turned off the ringer, and gave myself a full minute to feel guilty before I turned on the pantry light to search for the Great Northern beans that I’d bought earlier in the week. I’d eventually make it up to Tee. Just like he always found a way to help me get over being peeved at him. I’d figure it out later, somehow.
When I came out of the pantry, Shu was in the laundry room. He kicked off his tennis shoes, and then pulled his t-shirt over his head. You should not want a man when his hair is stuck to his head in an unflattering Zero Mostel-type style, and the smell of him makes your nose sting, and he’s peeling dingy mismatched gym socks off his pale, hairy legs, but there I was, so filled with lust, squeezing those beans so hard the cans should’ve popped like Popeye’s spinach.
I preoccupied myself with turning on the hot water in the kitchen sink and peeling chicken breasts out of the styrofoam tray. It wasn’t long before I realized Shu was there next to me. Shirtless. I kept redirecting my attention to the icy, slippery meat, the painful cold in my fingertips. I was intent on not doing anything stupid. As Shu talked about his dinner party emergency, and I told myself over and over: Do not grab his waistband. Do not put your hand down his shorts. Do not do it. Do. Not.
“…So, four people. Or five. Well, maybe six.” He said. “Is that okay?”
I awoke from my hormone coma long enough to mumble. “…Uh, sure yeah.” I looked past Shu, suddenly sobered up. I reached past him to scrape dried spaghetti noodles off the side of the refrigerator with my thumbnail. It wasn’t bad, nothing at all compared to the epic kitchen messes my father created, but all that pent-up sexual energy had to go somewhere. I reached back to the sink and snatched the scrubber sponge off the backboard, then went to work on the refrigerator.
“How did I miss this?” I muttered.
Shu grinned. “My fault. Last weekend, I taught my kids how to throw spaghetti at the refrigerator to see if it’s done and they really got into it.”
This, for reasons that I did not then understand but that now seem to be almost prophetic in nature really pissed me off.
I stopped scrubbing and looked at him. “Do me a big favor. Teach them how to set the timer. Seven minutes. Then drain it, throw it back into the cooking pot and let it sit and steam. It’ll cook through in a quick minute. Works every time – unless you’re some pervert who like overcooked pasta.”
Shu said “Rightrightright, but-” which is something that people say when what they mean is I’m not listening, I’m just waiting until you stop talking so I can talk again, which is number three on my Grande Pet Peeves list. (1. People who throw cigarette butts out car windows. 2. Unsupervised small children in public spaces.)
I threw the sponge into the sink. If I’d had known Shu was going to be a “rightrightright” type of man, I wouldn’t have ever taken the job. Or, if I had taken the job, I would never have let myself lust after him.
Poor Shu. He was looking around like what the hell did I do?
I am 100% a lunatic! I told myself and God. I looked at Shu, ust barely able to keep myself from — who knows what? But I stopped and turned back to the sink. I am unfit for human relationships, and there is a reason that animals do not like me. I ran myself a glass of cold water and drank the whole thing. I went back to prying apart chicken breasts. Oh, well. I told myself, being crazy is better than being needy. Or sex-crazed.
“I love watching your face.” Shu said, leaning back against the counter.
“At any given moment.” He said. “There’s this…whole…orchestra of emotions moving across your face. Like cloud shadows on a windy day.”
Cloud shadows on a windy day. If that kind of talk doesn’t make you fall in love with a man, you are a defective.
I smiled at him. How could I not? “So…anyway.” I said. “What about Sunday?”
“Rightright, okay.” He said, “My, um, friends are coming up from Houston for the Mavs game tomorrow night.”
“How about chili? I can make it now, you can reheat it tomorrow.”
“That’s perfect. Something simple.”
I gave him a look. My chili is not simple.
He misunderstood the look. “I’ll pay you overtime, of course.” He said. “Charge me whatever you want.”
“Absolutely. This is a big imposition.”
I’d been wanting HBO for years. I did a quick calculation and came up with a number that’d buy me three months of premium channels.
“So you’ll do it?” He said. “The chili?”
“Actually, I’m already doing it, right now.”
“But…that’s chicken.” Shu said.
I cut my eyes at him. “It is. Your parents didn’t waste a nickel on your education.” Thankfully, he laughed. “My chili is white chili.” I turned on the faucet and washed my hands, twice. I never handle poultry that I don’t wash twice.
“Chicken, chicken broth, onions, white beans, green chilies. Jalapenos, if you want.” I shook my hands dry, and reached up to open the cabinet over the microwave for the big stew pot. Shu beat me to it, and there in that closeness, beyond the B.O., I smelled MAN, and the teasing possibility of knowing that smell in an intimately made my eyes go half-closed.
Shu was looking at me funny, so I pretended I was yawning as I took the pot from his hands. “Everybody loves my chili.”
He fell to worried silence. I had expected this. Texans are very narrow-minded when it comes to chili.
“I don’t know…” Shu said, shaking his head. “Chicken in chili, just doesn’t-“
“Not chicken in chili. White chili.” I said, sensing the closeness of him and focusing hard on the food prep. It was paramount to my mental health to avoid doing anything that might cause spontaneous hindsight cringing for the rest of my life.
“Really, Shu. Trust me.”
He said of course he trusted me, but he didn’t, I could tell.
I put my hand on his arm. Squeezed it. “Shu. We’re talking liquid crack, I swear.”
“These people are hard-core, Vashti. I mean, the beans or no-beans debate is one thing, but chicken chili…?”
“Trust me.” I said.
“Well… Can we can make it hot?”
It’s hot right now, baby! and other tarty retorts zipped through my head. I am usually not the tarty type unless George Clooney’s on TV and I am tipsy on wine coolers.
“Extra hot.” Shu said. “We might get away with it, if you make it really hot.”
We! Inclusive language! I tamped down the little thrill that danced in my chest like a baby ballerina. I raised my right hand and swore, “Mr. Kraus, come Monday morning you’ll be patting instead of wiping.”
Shu was still laughing when he went upstairs to shower. I browned the chunked chicken (as I despise the texture of shredded meat) in the stew pot, then set it aside. I chopped onions, green chilies and garlic and dumped them into the pot with a little olive oil for a quick sauté, then poured the broth in and let it all simmer until it was time to add the meat in and simmer again.
When I cook, I lose the world. Time goes. Light changes. My breathing changes. My heart changes. I go somewhere else. Sometimes re-entry is a little jarring.
Like when classical music suddenly came through the house’s sound system and I looked up and realized that night had come for real.
The music changed, and there was this voice. James Hunter, a British singer that I didn’t know then but whom I now have a deep, abiding crush on. James was singing “Carina,” and I was chopping jalapenos for garnish and dancing, moving my hips in my own version of a mambo, samba, romba, whatever – it just felt so good.
I twirled back around to the stove, and there across the island and the steaming pot was Shu. I blurted out “Oh my God!” and busted out laughing because, really, what else could I do?
Stu came around the island, right for me, fast. For a second it seemed like he was going to grab me up but then he stopped, and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I have a girlfriend.” He said. “Before I came here, we – We have a house in Houston, we live together there.” He said. “She’s coming tomorrow, from Houston, with our friends.”
In books, when a character says, “I wanted the floor to open and” blahblahblah, you know? That’s not what I felt. I felt angry. And so aware of the fact that I had a knife in my hand. The weight of that knife, it felt good.
“I can’t believe I’m about to- ” Shu said, and then clammed up and raised both hands like he was surrendering. He backed way off, even started up the stairs, then came right back down to me, then backed off again, then came right back down.
“Vashti, I want you in my bed.”
I turned back to the sink and took my time cleaning the pepper juice off my hands. Over my head, James was begging through the speaker, Oh, Carina, don’t make me wait too long.
I barely made him wait until the song was over.
Shu cancelled all plans for the weekend, and I lied to my father about needing to stay with Tee’s daughters because Tee was called out of town on an unexpected trip for work. Then I called Tee and once again reminded him of all the times he’d left me sitting alone in a club to finish my drink while he went off with some whoever.
That done, with the rest of the world taken care of, Shu and I ate white chili and spent most of the weekend in bed, except what do you know but that pool was heated?