Today’s post is the thirteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).
You have all the previous installments HERE.
And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.
Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!
#13: “Pretty excited about the cherries this evening”
That summer many conversations turned around food in George and Ela’s household too, as in the first phase of her depression Ela had experienced a loss of appetite, and when she started to enjoy food again, in the winter of 2001–2002, she commented often that the extra treats helped her focus better on her work. So after a while George found himself thinking about cooking more interesting meals—despite the fact that Ela was now gaining more weight than she had previously shed.
George’s intentions, however, encompassed broader concerns: he wanted to make Ela consider embracing more variety in her life. If he could reach her that way through the medium of food, then he’d turn into more of a chef. He would have liked to take her on walks too, but she was adamant that she needed the comfort of their home rather than the hubbub of the city.
“May I join you?” he asked one day upon entering Ela’s room and seeing she was engrossed in a movie. He sat down on her bed. “What are you watching?”
Ela turned off the TV and rolled onto her back. “A movie about teenagers. I’ve seen it before.”
George stood a moment watching the blank TV screen and then walked to Ela’s bedside table. “Psychology,” he said, sweeping his gaze over the covers of her books.
“Anything interesting?” George asked, picking up a paperback.
“Have you cooked anything tonight?” Ela asked, changing the subject.
George put Ela’s book back on her nightstand. “You hungry?” he asked, a smile spreading on his face.
“Very,” Ela responded, getting up.
George gave her a peck on the lips. “How are you feeling today?” he asked, encouraged by how warmly Ela accepted his gesture.
“Oh, same, not that great. If only that pain and sinking feeling would disappear at all. It may take a while, though. It still takes me hours some mornings to get rid of them. I’m glad I have the books and my poems to give me a feeling of purpose strong enough to beat the ache out of my system. Or maybe it’s the concentration that does it. I’ve been able to concentrate better lately. Hard not to, with your cooking,” Ela said as they moved into the kitchen for a late-night meal and occupied their spots at the table. “I’m glad you’re here,” she added, getting up to hug him.
He embraced her tightly.
She walked over to the stove. “What have you made?” she asked, lifting a lid. “Oh, shrimp? What’s the occasion? And do we even have money for shrimp?”
“We do and we don’t,” George responded with mirth in his eyes. “You spend all your time here, so I thought I’d surprise you. And as it’s hard to create something special indoors, I thought I’d vary my cooking.”
Ela sat down and George handed her a plate.
“How did you prepare the shrimp?” she asked admiringly.
“With cornstarch mixed with garlic and sugar,” he responded, all the while thinking he was feeling light, blissfully relaxed.
Ela tasted the shrimp stew, and her eyes glimmered with excitement. “Where did you find the recipe?”
“I bought a cookbook with foreign recipes,” George said. He was amused at how much a new dish could lift his girlfriend’s spirits.
“Wow, George, you’re becoming adventurous,” Ela offered playfully.
George gave her a small smile, knowing that she was both complimenting him and picking at him at the same time. “Perhaps one day we’ll travel to see these places,” he said in a pensive voice, looking into Ela’s soft yet sparkly chestnut-brown eyes.
“What have you used for the sauce?” Ela asked.
“Soy sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese rice wine,” George said, leaning against the kitchen counter, enjoying the sight of Ela’s happiness, the beauty radiating from her face. It was a different beauty now, with her weight gain and her broken spirit, but to him it was as beautiful as the songs of his favorite musician and poet, Leonard Cohen.
“You bought all that?” Ela asked, taken aback.
“I kinda had to,” George responded with light in his eyes, still reveling in the wake of the spine-tingling sensations from their earlier hug.
Ela ate some more of her food. “It’s good. I approve of this recipe.” She flashed George a ready smile.
“I’m glad you do,” George responded, and then, before he could stop himself, he walked up to her and ran a smoothing hand over her tightly curled hair.
“You could try it with meat next time,” Ela said, seemingly absorbed in her meal.
“By the way, I’m now reading psychology books too. They’re quite interesting,” George said, waking up from his reverie and turning back to the stove to ladle some of the stir-fry for himself as well.
“Are you trying to make sense of what’s happening with us?” Ela asked in between mouthfuls. Her voice was a little shaky.
“With us and other people,” he said, sitting back down at the table with her.
“Somebody upset you?” she asked, raising her eyes to meet his.
“No, it’s not that,” he said. He moved his spoon about in his stew. “I want to understand why people do what they do.”
“Then you should read more fiction too,” she said distractedly.
He looked into her velvety brown eyes. “I’m interested in the science of it, though,” he said. “Have you heard from anyone today?” he then asked, keen on communicating more with Ela now that he’d caught her in a more expansive mood.
“Just Alice,” Ela responded between mouthfuls.
George got up to retrieve two mugs, filled each with water from the water filter, and placed them on the table next to their plates. “How is she?” he asked as he eased himself back into his chair.
“Always trying to get in some exercise and never quite succeeding,” Ela said with a smile. “She says she’s gained some weight. She complains that as much as she loves to write, she dislikes living the kind of unbalanced life that she does, being stuck at the computer all day. Well, except for the occasional walk in town on errands, or in the park with one friend or another.”
George drained his glass. “Have you two seen each other at all this year?”
“No, I’m not ready yet.” She pulled at one of her curly strands, looking at it as she did so. “I noticed the other day that I’m getting gray hairs,” she said with a forlorn, rueful smile.
George laughed softly. “It happens. Have you seen mine?” He tilted his head forward so Ela could have a better look.
After a protracted bout of bickering, slowly but steadily Anca and Marcel worked out their issues regarding Pamfil to a degree where they decided to enjoy together his July party, with its many cherry pies and cherry ice creams.
They were in such good spirits that evening, that when they arrived at Pamfil’s at ten, Annie Lennox’s multilayered voice, weaving about the place, made them leave their dessert gifts on the kitchen table and start dancing on the spot, Marcel placing his hands on the small of Anca’s back under her jacket, and Anca wrapping her arms around his neck. Pamfil, who had greeted them at the door, shot them glances with a knowing smile, all the while keeping himself busy with the food so as to grasp more of their couple dynamics.
Marcel caught Pamfil’s smirks and faced him with an impenetrable gaze now and then as he danced with Anca and whispered self-consciously in her ear. They swayed together through the next slow song too and then took off their light jackets and started to put away the sweets they had brought over—only to find that Pamfil’s freezer was almost full. When they approached him about it, Pamfil laughed, made a joke about how the tree alone is worth his rent in June, laughed again, and then stepped out to offer some of the ice cream to his landlady.
On his return, he was all smiles.
“I gave her very few cherries this summer. Told her some of my friends are starving artists, and she was more than happy to let me feed them,” Pamfil said to Marcel and Anca, who were now seated on his bed. “She’s nice. Puts up with the violin and piano playing too.”
“I’ve never seen you play the piano,” Marcel said, intrigued because he had studied piano too as a child and teenager.
“I play it sometimes, but violin is my first instrument,” Pamfil said, a little uncomfortable.
“I see Vlad is in charge today,” Anca said, nodding toward Pamfil’s desk, where Vlad was manning the playlist.
“So he is,” Pamfil said, noting Vlad was playing a song about lovemaking. “He’s discovering our music.” He beamed at Anca. “Well, not quite, but still,” he added, drawing out the words, before heading over to Vlad.
Marcel narrowed his eyes at Anca and shook his head, fuming inside. In response, Anca rolled her eyes in mock despair and walked over to Alice.
Marcel stood fixed in place for a few moments, watching Anca pull away from him. Then he shook himself out of it and went to the kitchen to start exploring the pies and sangria.
Anca eased herself down on the couch next to Alice. She smoothed her knee-length, waist-cinched, strapless chiffon dress and turned to face her friend. “Hey! How are you doing?”
“Good! Pretty excited about the cherries this evening,” Alice said, sliding her teaspoon into her slice of cherry pie. “Have you had a piece of this pie?”
“Whose is it?”
“Mine, technically, but it’s actually Ettie’s,” Alice said through mouthfuls.
“Let me have a taste,” Anca said. Alice handed her the plate. “Better than mine!” Anca declared a moment later with a quick, expressive shake of the head.
Alice took her plate back, and as she did so her gaze paused a moment on her friend’s shapely bare shoulders. “Glad you like it,” she said unsurely, her mind elsewhere.
“It seems like tonight we’re in a cherry paradise,” Anca said, smiling warmly. “I don’t think anyone brought anything other than cherry pies and cherry ice creams.”
“Vlad brought a savory pie,” Alice said sternly, despite herself.
“Yes. He had shepherd’s pie at an Irish pub and was very impressed. So he made one at home but with top and bottom crusts.” She wanted to sound cheerful, but the bounce in her voice was gone. She shared with Anca so much about Henriette, and yet here was Anca, playing games with Pamfil. What other reason did she have to doll herself up like that?
“Wow. I’ll go try it,” Anca said, getting up. “Do you want some?” she added, turning to look at her friend, who, she thought, was gaining an inordinate interest in food, and piling up the weight along with it.
“No, thanks. I can’t after this,” Alice said, putting her empty plate on a coffee table and picking up the glass of homemade sangria she had left there a brief while earlier.
By the time Anca came back from the kitchen with a slice of Vlad’s meat-and-potato pie, he was playing Buena Vista Social Club. The upbeat music inspired Alice to tell Anca about Wim Wenders’s documentary about the Cuban band, mentioning their zesty joy of life and their childlike delight at seeing the skyscrapers of New York City. When the playlist got to a melancholy-tinged track about yearning for lost love, Alice, who spoke some Spanish, translated the lyrics for Anca.
“Seems like I’ve been stuck indoors at my desk way too much,” Anca said. “When was the movie released?”
Alice tilted her head back and took a seemingly longing look at her drink. “In 1999.”
“Ouch,” Anca said with a smirk.
Alice set her glass down on the coffee table and turned to face her friend with renewed vigor. “You know what I think? Some of us love some people once, and then we love them forever.” She watched Anca finish her pie. “Ettie made some really good ice cream too. Do you want some?”
“No, I’ve had this pie and would rather not overdo it,” Anca said. “I’m gaining weight if I’m not careful.” She gave Alice a sly smile.
“You are a sylph,” Alice said, dismissing her friend’s concern with a shrug of her shoulders, as if she were tired of pointing out the obvious. “You look as if you couldn’t gain weight even if you tried.”
“Oh, no. I watch my diet very carefully. Now that I’m twenty-five I can certainly notice a change in my metabolism. Been noticing it for two, three years now, actually.”
“Then exercise more!” Alice said.
Anca smiled and nodded her head. “That I should.”
Alice warmed to her again instantly. “I’ll put on some Etta James for you. It’s what Ettie listens to at home these days,” she said, before adding the song to the playlist. She put out a hand to Anca. “Dance with me?”
Anca smiled and got up. “Sure.”
“How about some Janis Joplin?” Anca asked from the computer when the short Etta James song ended.
“Gotta loooove Janis,” Alice said, extending a hand.
They danced together to Janis’s raspy vocals.
Marcel watched them from an armchair, smiling to himself.
To be continued . . .