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I told him what I learned my first year of college. 'Cold for blood, hot for semen.'

This man kills me. The joy of spoiling him, of ruining him, is so sweet.

Lord, I would cook every meal for him for the rest of my life if only he would do this, read to me...

Soon he will realize it's too hard, the novelty will wear thin, he will let me fade away.

Stories - Fiction PrintEasy

Cold & Hot            March 1, 2001

She's too insecure to tell him what she really wants...

by Gretchen VanEsselstyn


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We are not making dinner. I am standing at the stove trying not to scream. He is lying on my couch, watching TV. Worse, he is drinking the glass of bourbon I poured for him much too fast. 'That's not juice, you know. It's just in a juice glass,' I tell him. He looks up, the rim of the glass pressed to the bottom edge of his glasses, then swallows.

'Gone. I finished it.'

'Great. You'll be a big help.'

We are doing the first of three dry runs before he will make dinner for his parents for the first time. I am totally to blame for this odd idea.

'Honestly, Louisa, I don't see why you're making such a big deal of this.'

Well... Because you are twenty-five years old and you can't cook spaghetti. Because if I can teach you to cook a meal, I can teach you to grow up. Because if you grow up, you will grow away from them, grow toward me. Because I love you. Because it will make you love me...

'Because... just because.'

I put the pan on the stove to heat. He comes into the kitchen and hugs me from behind. 'Mmm. Good bourbon.' The word sounds unfamiliar coming from his lips.

'Have you ever had it before?'

'I don't think so.'

I have fallen for a man who has never drunk bourbon, never drunk wine that was not kosher. I want to force-feed him lobster. I am evil.

'It's good, right?'

'I like it. I like you,' he says, moving my hair to the side, kissing my ear, mouthing the skin of my neck. I feel his beard tickle me, then see a roach crawl from beneath the burner cover, fleeing the now-hot stove.

'You're tickling me - get away, just get away,' I say. He makes sad-puppy eyes at me and offers to chop onions, but they're already done. 'Tomatoes are okay, right? Canned tomatoes?' I ask, pouring them into a bowl.

'Damned if I know.'

'Well, you'd know better than I would. Do they need a little U thing?'

'Check the can. It has to have a circle around it. Or a K with a thing on it.'

'You check the can,' I say, tossing it gently but hitting him square in the chest, splashing sauce on his white shirt.

'Goddammit.' He takes it off, goes to the bathroom to run water on it.

'Hot water and soap,' I yell to him.

'Hot?' he yells back. 'But it looks more like blood than semen.' He is referring to last night, when we spilled both, and I told him what I learned my first year of college, my first year of laundry on my own. 'Cold for blood, hot for semen,' read the sign in the dingy laundry room in the basement of my dorm. It had disappeared the next time I went down, but I kept the words, a little mantra, and repeated them for him playfully.

We can do this, I think, pouring oil into the skillet and listening to it sizzle. We can make this meal, this relationship. 'Come watch this oil while I scrub that for you. When it starts to smoke, put the onions in.'

We have decided on a dairy meal - meat is too complicated. Spaghetti with bean sauce, but not cannellini beans like I always put in, because he thinks they give him gas. Garbanzos, then, will be all right. Bread from the bakery, and with cheese, butter, garlic, it will be special. A salad with homemade dressing which I will mix up on Wednesday, then tutor him on the ingredients so he can parrot them back when asked. I can make this meal with my eyes closed, but it is new country for him.

We'll use fresh tomatoes, avoid the problem. 'You scald the tomatoes in boiling water, just for a minute, to get the skins off. Do you have tongs?'

'Tongs. The squeezy things? No.'

'I'll bring mine to work on Thursday, but I need them back.'

'My mom will wonder where they came from. She got me everything in the kitchen. Two kinds of dish towels, for God's sake.'

'Hide them under the bed, put them in your backpack. I don't care what you do with them, but you'll burn your fingers if you don't use them. See?' I threaten him with the tongs, snapping them near his crotch.

'Yes, yes, mistress. Whatever you say.'

'Damn right whatever I say.' I smack him across the ass with the flat part of the tongs, gently, then a little harder, a little harder.

'Ouch! That hurts, you fucking whore.' His eyes are soft as he says it, but I am crying suddenly. The air is thick with smoke, burnt onions, and I'd like to blame it on that.

'Fucking whore,' I say. 'I like that. Keep it up.' I turn off the flame, wrap my arms around him and let my hot tears run down his naked back, his naked chest. I kiss the salty spot I have made on his shoulder and he rocks me back and forth, humming quietly into my ear.

Night two. I am washing dishes, watching the clear-green dish liquid turn bloody as it blends with stuck-on tomato sauce. The drain is clogged with bean skins and I scrape the edge of my fingertip as I try to gouge them out. This man kills me. The joy of spoiling him, of ruining him, is so sweet. A few months of summer softball, nights of sweat and kisses, an entire morning spent scouring the grime under his subletted sink, and I think I'm in love, think there's something to this.

He buzzes, climbs the stairs and cheek-pecks me. He is edgy, clearly worried. 'Babe?'

'What? What's wrong?'

'Um, this morning I went to make an egg, and there was a little fire.'

'What? What did you do?'

'Well, there was a sticker on the bottom of the pot. I thought my mom was going to take them to the... you know. To get... you know. Purified.'

'You know. I don't. Anyway... what?'

'I guess she forgot, and I didn't know the sticker was there, and I put it on the stove and got in the shower, and I came out and there were flames all over the place.'

'Did you put it out?'

'Yeah, I turned off the gas and sort of smothered it with a lid.'

'So it's okay now?' I am embarrassed that I'm so proud of his resourcefulness, proud that he knows how to put out a fire.

'Yeah. There's all this black crap all over the stove though.'

'Jesus. Well, get a box of Brillo and scrub it tomorrow morning.'

'Brillo?'

We walk to the supermarket and I watch him run down his usual mental list. Wallet in pocket - check. Baseball cap on - check. Shiksa girlfriend walking a few feet behind (his parents have friends in the neighborhood and, he's sorry, but you never know) - check.

'Hey, Scott!' someone calls and I make myself not look, pretend not to care. But it is Josh, someone I know, and I turn and smile.

'Hi, Louisa. How are you?'

'Fine, thanks. Scott messed up the stove and we're going to buy...' I hear another voice say hello, a woman. I freeze and watch both men turn, speak to her, shut me out. I stand for a moment and bask in my invisibility, then go to the store, grab Brillo and a six-pack, walk back toward my house. One block, two, three, with my feet stomping out his name. Scott. Scott. He is not mine. Scott. He belongs to Josh, to Brooklyn, to them.

I crack a beer and sit, watching the street from the fire escape. Five minutes. I am tempted to sneak a cigarette. Ten, and I do, waving the smoke upward. He can't believe that I used to smoke, he would hate it if he knew I've started again. He cares about the future of my lungs, if nothing else. I take a few greedy puffs, barely touching my lips to the filter, as the door buzzer goes off. I rinse my mouth with toothpaste and answer the door. The look on his face is so guilty that it erases my fear of being caught.

'I was just talking to Josh for a couple minutes.'

'You could have invited him up.'

'Yeah, well. I thought we might... you know, and I have to get home early tonight.'

'Well, if we 'you know' then this dinner isn't going to get made and you're going to fuck it up.'

'Like it matters. I could serve these people the best meal in the world and they'd still never believe I could do it. One meal isn't going to change anything.'

'No, I guess not,' I say, turning to the stove. 'But it might as well be edible. So watch this time. Scott? Scott!'

He is lying on my bed reading. He looks up when I come in. 'Maybe I'll just take them out to eat.'

'Fine. Then your mother will start FedExing you three meals a day.'

'Sounds great to me.'

'I bet. At least drag your ass into the kitchen and entertain me while I slave over the hot stove.'

Again, I chop onions, crying just a little. I scald tomatoes, crush garlic into butter, toast bread. He reads me poems from the couch and his voice settles and soothes me. Lord, I would cook every meal for him for the rest of my life if only he would do this, read to me, hug me from behind, love me. Could I do it, even if they'd let me? Never eat bacon, never watch Saturday morning cartoons? Ask me, Scott. Just ask.

'I forget if the cheese has to be a special kind,' he says, clearing his throat.

'Fuck cheese. You don't need cheese. Bread, pasta, salad. They'll think you've become Italian. Just do me a favor and take the fucking labels off the pots before you start.'

Third night. We will cook this meal in his tiny kitchen. The pots are soaking in hot water to get the glue off the labels and we are in among them, in the claw-foot tub that I coveted the moment I stepped into this apartment. It is low and broad, big enough for babies to swim laps. The water is near scalding and we are red with the heat, scrubbing one another and the pots, careful not to mistake loofah and Brillo.

'So what will you do first?' I ask him.

'Put the water on to boil.'

'In the big pot. Turn around so I can do your back.'

He does, sloshing water onto the floor. 'In the big pot. Make the dressing.'

'No, I'll do that tonight. I make this vinaigrette that's not too spicy. It's really good.'

'I love you.'

'Yeah, yeah. What next?' I squeeze shampoo into his hair, careful not to get it in his eyes.

'Scald the tomatoes. Let them cool. Mmm. That feels good. Hide the tongs. Skin the tomatoes, chop them up.'

'Okay, then heat the oil while you chop the onions.'

'Great.' He is kissing me now, just above the waterline, then just below.

'Jesus, concentrate.'

'I am concentrating,' he says, mouth full of water.

'On the food.'

'Then I set the table.'

'I'll do that tonight. Is there anything special about it?'

'Special?'

'Like... anything. Does your mother set the table a certain way?' I step out of the tub and reach out my hand to help him up.

'Yeah, first she lights incense and we all start chanting and then we levitate above the table for a couple of minutes, and then the prophets come out from under the couch and set the table for us.'

'Good. Then I won't have to do it. God knows I'm doing everything else.'

'I don't know why. I wish you'd just relax about this.' He wraps me in a big blue towel with the K-Mart tag still attached.

'Easy for you to say. I feel like the mother-in-law I've never met is coming to dinner and I've suddenly gone blind, deaf and incompetent.'

He stares at me. I've done it now. Said all the wrong things. Met. In-law. Never. They will never be my in-laws and we will never meet. Incompetent. Does he think I mean he is? Do I?

Suddenly he holds me close and the terry-cloth towel lightly scratches my cheek. Soon he will realize that this is too hard, that it's not worth the trouble. The novelty will wear thin, and he will let me fade away - but not before I have hung his shades, lubricated his locks, taught him how to unplug the toilet.

I will be single again, eat popcorn for dinner, burn my lungs down to ash. Last time I was newly alone I saw nothing wrong in putting the mail down the trash chute, only realizing my mistake as I tried to cram a bag of empty cat food cans, orange peels and coffee grounds into the small slot of the corner letter box. Well.

We move apart. He kneels, dries between his toes, then looks up at me, grinning. 'So what goes in that mysterious salad dressing of yours, you gorgeous creature you?'

'Well, I don't know if I should tell you. What do I get out of this?'

'Oh, you'll see,' he tells me, snaking a hand up my calf.

'Will you call me when it's over?' I ask.

'Over?'

'The meal.'

'Oh. Yes. Oh yes. Oh yes!' He is shouting and carrying me to his single bed, the one he picked out at Sears, with his parents. We have never made love on it and there is little room, but we squeeze together, still warm and damp from the bath. I chant the ingredients as he enters me too fast.

'Fresh lemon juice. Mustard. Black pepper. Basil. Oh. Thyme. Oh. Oh. Olive oil.'

'Oh, oh, olive oil. I'll be sure to mention that one to my mom.'

It hurts, him in me like this, his elbow on my hair, thoughts too fast for real pleasure, but I am gritting my teeth, smiling through it.

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