Paella For One
Posted on June 24th, 2013
Mary Searle is in motion, for the time being. Just another Sunday taken for granted, as the peach-colored rays of mid-afternoon cut sharply through half shut blinds into tepid indoor haze. This one got away from her. She heaves a light sigh, private and genuine, standing barefoot on the cool kitchen tile as she blinks away the clouds from her contact lenses. She opens the refrigerator door, looking for nothing in particular, taking in the scene as if it were a metric by which to judge the remainder of her day. Half full bottles of a dozen different condiments, part of a loaf of bread, four eggs left in the carton. A swallow’s worth of expired milk at the bottom of the gallon. Three bottles of cheap beer, and some of that fruity crap Jamie brought when she and Greg came over the other night. I should just throw that stuff away, she thinks, she’s not gonna want it back and I’m never gonna drink it.
She takes two slices of bread and two eggs from the fridge and puts them on the counter. She places the slices of bread on a paper towel (using a cutting board seems like more trouble than it would be worth) and, using an inverted drinking glass that seems clean enough, she cuts a hole from the center of each slice of bread. A frying pan is placed on the stove. Click, click, click, fwooshhh. A pad of butter dances across the still black surface, dissolving into a bubbling brown film with a shrinking white nucleus. She can’t cook, is what she tells people, and for the most part that’s true, except for the half-dozen or so simple dishes she learned from him when they were living on Mason Street. It would never have occurred to her to call them “recipes”, though, if pressed, she would not be able to explain precisely what made them different. Perhaps it was because they were never written down anywhere, they didn’t have names or ingredients (as such), they were just ways of using up what was in the fridge with a little bit of novelty. Little kitchen dances she had learned by heart from watching him do them, back when Sunday was a day to get up early.
The bread hits the pan. The butter welcomes it with a hiss. She retrieves the eggs from the counter. Tap tap, crack, pshhhhh. Tap tap, crack, pshhhhhhh. They bloom from clear to white, become like two jaundiced eyes staring up at her from the stovetop. She makes this egg-in-bread thing fairly often, and every time she does he drifts in and out of her head, not clearly but half-formed, like a song she only knows some of the words to. More clearly, she can picture where she would have been (since he was always the one that made them, not her), sitting at the island just behind the stove, listening to him whistle tunelessly as he blinked sleep from his eyes and the old hardwood floors creaked in harmony. She can recall how she felt then, her feet dangling a foot or so off the ground as she sat on the high kitchen stool and smelled the cheap coffee they brewed in their beat-up percolator, but she can’t really “feel it” as such anymore; if anything, all cooking these eggs does is make visible the distance between that kitchen and this one. But she makes them anyway, a prayer recited in vain because she learned it when she still believed.
The smell of smoke. Ahhh, shit. Burned em. She picks up the frying pan by the handle, flings the burned eggs-and-toast into the trash and tosses the pan in the sink in frustration. A deep breath. Bloodshot eyes stare at the steady blue gas flame with which she had invoked accidental blackness on her breakfast/dinner. She takes a moment to regain her composure, and reaching for the refrigerator door handle to retrieve the components for a second attempt, something catches her eye. A dusty red book jacket nestled between the fridge and the pantry. A cookbook; her mother gave it to her after she moved out of the Mason Street place since, she said, she’d need it now. The Pleasure of Cooking for One. She’d promptly tucked it away as soon as she’d unpacked it and never looked at it again. She flips through the pages apprehensively, afraid that she is treading on forbidden ground. Her eyes linger on a page titled “Paella for One”. Paella. Something she remembers having the semester in college she’d studied abroad in Spain. At the time, it had seemed so intricate that she’d assumed it might as well have been harvested whole and complete from the ground, but looking through the ingredients it doesn’t seem so impossible. Mostly just rice and chopped vegetables. A couple tbsps or tsps of this or that. She stares into the middle distance for the span of a few heartbeats, then up at the refrigerator door. Held in place by a magnet is a photo of the two of them in Ixtapa, that night they had gone out to that crazy bar where the waiters were all dressed like cowboys and they made you eat the worm from the tequila bottle. She locks eyes with herself, staring back out at her from a decade ago. With a breath, she quietly removes the photo from under the magnet and places it in the drawer where she keeps old receipts and Christmas cards. Then, she changes her clothes, puts on her shoes, carefully copies the ingredients from the cookbook, and walks down to the grocery store.