“You’re going to have to wing it,” she said.
I looked from her to the bowl of basil in my hand, the steam from the boiling pot of sauce clouding my glasses while I slowly stirred the red ooze. “This recipe is precise.”
“Nothing wrong with going outside the box a little, see what happens.” She took a sip of wine, the last of her glass, and poured herself a fresh dose of Pinot Noir. The bottle was almost empty, most of it gone down her throat.
I wished the night had stayed as it started: sharing kitchen time, cooking together, sipping wine and laughing. At the office we had both talked about dates like this with each other, lamenting about the lack of such nights in our own lives. Time in limited supply, dating consisted of swiping on a photo, sending some notes, then a brief weekend drink before checking our respective watches and returning home to a few hours of sleep.
That was my experience, and Sharon seemed to tell me the same. So when the holiday came, I extended the invite for her to come over, cook dinner, and we’ll see where the night goes. She did not hesitate, and here we are.
Me, standing over a boiling pot of sauce, stains down my shirt and over the stovetop while my glass of wine collected dust and settled into piss-warm vinegar. Her, pacing and roaming my apartment and criticizing the art on my walls, telling me the sauce smells terrible, and laughing at my lack of an apron. I admit I don’t cook as often as I should but why, she asked, would that stop me from preparing for a cooking date? A pair of aprons. His and hers. A matching set, since that’s what I’d hoped we would become.
Instead I’m here, holding a bowl of basil over a sauce and hoping not to muck it up, because this sauce, this is everything. This is the moment this night has been building toward. The pasta, that’s all ready for us to eat. Buttered up garlic bread sits steaming on my small dining table, and the smell of that bread is the only thing she’s complimented all night. So this, this beautiful red sauce I’ve been stirring for over an hour, this is it. If this tastes terrible, then she’s going to dive into her watch, check her messages, and decide that asleep at home is a more desirable place for her to be.
All down to this bowl of fucking basil in my hand.
“You’re going to have to wing it,” I tell him. Why doesn’t he just dump it all in? I love the smell of basil, and he’s talking about sprinkling in a smidgen of it, the way his grandma used to. Smidgen? Does he say words like that because he thinks they’re cute? I don’t care about words like ‘smidgen’ or ‘nudge’ or ‘dollop’, just cook the damn sauce! Three hours he’s been cutting up ingredients and stirring the red blob of boiling tomatoes, and he’s now over here talking about a ‘smidgen’ of basil? I tasted this sauce when he last went to the bathroom (FOUR TIMES ALREADY!) and, trust me, dude, a ‘smidgen’ or a bowl will make no difference to this ooze of fatty, rotted tomato filth.
“This recipe is precise.” He says it with a snap in his voice, an annoyance I’ve come to expect whenever I say something that even remotely approaches a challenge to his line of thinking. This ‘date’ he’s had planned for, what he tells me, a good long while. I could care less about the recipe, or this night, or his tone, if I could just get some goddamn food in my stomach. Instead this wine will have to do. Good wine is good wine, and I’ll never let it go to waste. Funny that the best thing on this “cooking date” is the wine, guess that’s why I brought it: to know something would taste halfway decent.
“Nothing wrong with going outside the box a little, see what happens.” I say it and turn away. No chance I’m going to wait for him to glare back at me, an eye roll inside an eye roll, annoyed that his dream date has ended up in a blob of red sauce. Instead I drink the remaining wine in my glass, pour more but making sure to leave a little left in the bottle.
I feel his eyes, he’s staring at me. Glaring. Boring holes in the back of my head with his daggers, hoping I turn around and smile and become a sweetheart. The look on his face when I told him how great the garlic bread was smelling was a thing of pure beauty, and in that moment I had a thought, an inkling — a smidgen — that maybe, just maybe, he’s a good guy. Somewhere deep in that insecurity and anger and snark, buried under years of rejection and bitterness, there’s a young man who is actually going to bring something to the table in a relationship and create some happy memories.
But he quelled that notion after going on and on about his dedication to the recipe. Dude it’s bread. Yeah, sweet smelling garlic cheesy bread that will end up in my belly in a few minutes, hopefully seconds, but still. It’s bread. I lived half my teenage years on Red Lobster cheese biscuits, don’t challenge my taste in bread.
Christ, just drop the basil in the sauce!
I put in all of the basil. Because, you know what? Nothing else will make this night any worse. It’s just sauce, it’s just one night. On Monday we’ll both go back to work, same office hallways, same workmates and bosses, different assignments but all to the same result. And she’ll remember the terrible meal I cooked, and I’ll remember another notch on my list of terrible dates, and life will be the same as it was prior to tonight. What’s the harm?
We sit with the pasta, sauce, bread, and glasses of wine. Well, her glass is full, mine is just a dollop, a smidgen of wine. That’s one of my favorite words and concepts, smidgen. I like the word, I like the idea of it. Life isn’t meant to be gulped down without enjoying. Give yourself a dose, a smidgen, of ‘living’, a little at a time, and you can squeeze the most of out of things.
I raise my glass. She already has a mouthful of bread. She almost looks embarrassed as she mumbles something incoherent, holding up her glass. I have to admit, it’s a cute look. I say so. “You do look cute, I have to say. Okay, here’s to, well, a night away from the office.”
She says nothing, but is enthusiastic as we clink glasses. I start to think something good may come of this night after all, some sense of taste returning back to our tongues and she’ll actually be a fan of my cooking — if not my company. And then —
I just can’t help myself. The smell of everything, the garlic, the cheese, the red tomato gooey sauce — and that damn basil. What is it about basil, huh? Anyone else have this gut reaction to the beastly, extremely sensual seasoning? I don’t even care how you emphasize the syllables, basil is just the bees knees, the frosting on the cake of tastebuds, the first Pez in the dispenser. Basil. Is. The. Shit.
So I stuff my face with bread, and dip it in sauce and stuff that into my mouth. I can’t help it. Christ, it’s good. I don’t even notice that we’ve sat down, he’s holding up his glass and staring at me. He’s got that smile on his face, the smirk that he probably thinks is cute but in reality gives Norman Bates a run for his money in Americreep Idol.
He says, “You do look cute, I have to say. Okay, here’s to, well, a night away from the office.” Jesus, how do you respond to that? Well, you do it with a mouthful and as much of a smile as your nausea can muster. “Mmmph mm mmpph mpph.” And don’t ask me to translate that shit into English.
This bread, though. This garlic, though. This basil, my GOD! And then —
The building was tall but that wouldn’t stop me. Somewhere inside, near the roof, was the cause of this madness. It was all in the ventilation systems. That’s why they hired me. All throughout the city, each building was having its own problems. One was full of dead bodies. Another, quarantined as people inside had started to say the same words over and over again until they scratched out their own throats. And a third building was full of folks whose eyeballs had melted out of their heads, so they all leapt to their deaths from the pain and the anguish of losing their senses.
So I was sent to the top of the next building over, to see what I could find up top at the ventilation intake. There was no evidence of foul play, or reason to quarantine the building, so business and living had gone on as usual. But something was definitely amiss. No one had entered or left in three hours, and even though it was a small complex, the lack of activity was unusual. The small near street-level was corrosive and unhealthy, so authorities figured this was the next building to display symptoms. The terrorists were dead, the only way to know for sure was to check the roofs.
The woman sat silently, her mouth full of food, eyes wide open, looking to her right, at the window. The man furrowed his brow, lines forming on his forehead, of concern and then worry, and finally curiosity as he, too, turned his face toward the window.
I didn’t think they would notice me, but I also didn’t expect to kick in a window pain. It was an accident, I swear! The man’s arms were wrapped around my legs before I could move any further, and he pulled me into his apartment. He said something, but I don’t speak their language. Nobody does, that I know.
He pulled me to the table, and the woman smiled over at him, then down at me with what appeared to be glee. I looked at their table, the kitchen, the smell was daunting to my nostrils, and I gagged at the taste that was melting the back of my throat. They appeared to be eating eggs, broken open with the innards green, yellow, pus-filled organisms still squirming to stay alive. The bowl of red blood was sloshing over the sides, something alive swimming inside.
And the woman appeared to have a mouthful of turnips, flecks of white and yellow dribbling down her chin.
But there is one smell below it all, and it’s one I’m going to focus on instead of the pain. The knife has cut into my belly already, and the woman is digging her hands in, the man allowing her first… harvest…
Basil… the sweet, sweet scent… of home…