The Sous Chef (2)

Leon took a deep breath as he rounded the corner of the unkept book shelves. He avoided looking back at her, knew he couldn’t give her that affirmation—not yet. How had they not run into each other in the last year? He looked down at the book he had picked up for his dad: Baseball stats of 1985. His dad was a collector of sports paraphernalia—specifically of the Kansas City Royals. And 1985 was their magical year of post-season victory, the likes of which they hadn’t seen since.

“How much?” offered Leon. The clerk was busy chomping his gum while cataloging books with his back turned to the counter, typical of the introvert types that are commonly employed in book stores. The kid turned around.

“Hey dude, um, that’ll be five bucks.” Leon was getting a steal. Books like these were often mis-cataloged at used book stores. Only true collectors knew their worth.

“Thanks.”

“No problem, man.”

Leon stepped out into the night. He didn’t realize how much time had passed since he went in earlier that evening. The street was wet, shining with a particular light as the buildings reflected their iridescent glow into the puddles under his feet. He walked with purpose down Franklin street, under the El train until he got to Madison. People were leaving work and going home to their respective loved ones, their cats, their televisions. Taking a right down Madison, he hopped on the bus going west.

The bus was crowded with the usuals. Most were black men and women who worked downtown, commuting home, with the occasional dolled-up couple riding to get to the much-desired near west-side restaurants peppered along Randolph street. Oh, and on the nights when there was a game at United Center, the bus was jammed with all assortments of bearded hockey fans or crimson  jerseys supporting the Windy City’s famed sports teams. Tonight was the standard variety of commuters.

At California, Leon pulled the cable and hopped off the bus through the back door. The rain was persistent. He had not planned for it, and his corduroy coat was soaked through as he made the three-block walk to his house on Warren. None of the lights were on inside, a slip-up he would have to be more careful of in the future. The neighborhood was definitely changing for the better, but it was still nestled in a less reputable part of town and he had to be on his guard for theft, especially being the new guy on the block. He loved his new neighbors though. The two elderly women that lived next door had been so kind to him, making him sweet potato pie—a secret family recipe that had been brought up from Louisiana in 1932—when he had first arrived two months prior.

Turning the keys in the front door, Leon shoved his way through the sticky, disintegrated doorjamb. He would fix that soon. He flipped on the front hall lights, then made his way through the house to the kitchen. He threw his wet coat and sopping jeans into the laundry room out the back door of the kitchen and shook his hair dry. Pulling on a favorite old flannel shirt and a pair of faded grey sweats, he switched the kitchen lights on and a beautiful room unfolded before him. This was his baby, his sacred space, his true home. He had spent the last two months sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the living room, working on each room as he could, but the kitchen he had completed first.

Leon pulled out a wooden cutting board that he had bought in California years ago, on his honeymoon, made of hearty walnut. He only ever used this board on special occasions: cheese plates, Mediterranean flat bread (his mother’s recipe from Greece), capers and lox, and all sorts of delicious hors d’oeuvres. He loved a good presentation of his work, and this particular board was of immense natural beauty, perfectly grained and colored.

He began delicately slicing into a pile of dates that was sitting on the counter in a glazed yellow bowl. He slid a careful filet through each one, taking care not to slice all the way through. These dates were going to be stuffed with a concoction of chorizo, goat cheese and rosemary. His entire body was focused on this one task, distracting him from the cares he had prior to this moment. That was what cooking was for him: a chance to escape. A place where he could use his hands, know what he was about, feel his heartbeat in his fingertips while he created something out of the earth. It was the highest form of pleasure and meditation he had ever been able to find.

He placed the last date on the cookie sheet and gently slid it into the oven. Soon, his entire flat would smell of rosemary and chorizo, a wonderfully tempting aroma. This was a recipe he had perfected while working as a sous chef after culinary school. With a sigh, Leon looked around his kitchen at all the tools he had acquired over the years, each with their own memories. The three-piece knife set from his Father-in-law, given to him at his engagement party to the lovely Elise—a mere twenty-two years old at the time. Had it really been six years? There was a pan—a gorgeous copper frying pan that he had received from a particularly fond admirer when he had worked at a French restaurant on the north side of the city when he was twenty-five. He had been young, ambitious, and a very talented chef. He had put his entire life into it since the age of sixteen and had not thought about much else. Until he had met Elise.

—*—

Elise was soaked to the bone as she set her keys down in the vestibule of the tw0-room townhouse she shared with a co-worker. The tempest outside seemed to mirror her own emotions to the letter. The wind howled through the cracks in the ancient window pane. She was glad to be moving soon. This drafty old townhouse had seen one too many tenants.

“Sal?” No one answered. “Sally?” Just as well, Elise did not particularly enjoy the small talk of strangers-turned-housemates anyway, not even in college. She peeled off her clothes, layer by layer, until she was in her underwear, and gently walked through the hall trying not to drip even more on the carpet than she already had. Once in the bathroom, she turned on the tub and immersed herself in the hot water. There was nothing romantic or grand about the gesture, as some women have the tendency to make of a bath; it simply calmed her nerves to soak her weary body in the scorching water.

She ran over the scene from the bookstore in her head again. Had she really seen Leon? Had she really embraced him? Talked to him? Her head was pounding in a combination of over-processing and sheer delight. Her whole body quivered as she lay under the blanket of water, unable to squelch the emotions pulsating through her. Elise dunked her head under, letting her hair, eyes, mouth, ears feel the calming peace of being surrounded. Coming up for air, the image of Leon’s eyes came back to her. She had not recalled at the time why he looked different, but now she knew. His eyes were clear. For the first time since she had known him as a young sous chef in her college days, his eyes were a crystalline blue, unobstructed by the vice of alcohol and ambition. Blue eyes. Eyes which pierced your soul, saw you for who you were; eyes of an artist.

With a shudder, Elise began to cry. She could not stop herself this time, as she had been able to in the months prior. She was no longer angry. She was no longer bitter. She was lonely. She missed her husband more powerfully than she ever had before, because she finally saw him. She saw into his perfect blue eyes and knew that she had abandoned their marriage at the point when he had needed her most. She wept in anguish, her tears filling the ever-chilling tub. The tepid, still, water trapped her in her grief. She was numb. She could choose to lie there in self-pity and remorse, or she could choose to get up, to take care of herself. She chose the latter, but only after shedding a considerable amount of tears.

Elise wrapped herself in a robe and took to her bed. She was exhausted from a life-time’s worth of emotion. She shut out the light and lay under the covers, silent and pensive. The moon was attempting to peer from behind the dark storm clouds, but was losing the battle. Lying on her side to face the window, Elise whispered delicately, “I’m sorry.” She shed another tear, almost reflecting the streaks that the rain was leaving on her window. With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and attempted to sleep.

—*—

Leon turned off the oven, dimmed the lights, and retired to his mattress on the living room floor. A single candle was burning by the window, creating a halo of fog around the rain-streaked glass. He walked over and blew it out. Standing in the dark silhouette of the window for a minute, he thought he heard someone whisper his name. He reached his hand up to the glass, so cool to the touch, and let his fingertips caress the fog that had built up. “Elise.” That was all he allowed himself to say aloud. Just her name. Anything else, and his stalwart, forward motion leading up to this afternoon’s encounter would crumble under him. Just her name. He walked back over to his mattress and lay down on his back, full of resolve. One thought crossed his mind as he settled into sleep.

He would win his wife back.

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