Kitchen Confidential

the line cooks that summer were not this good lookingThe summer of my nineteenth birthday, I invited the boy I’d been dating up in college to visit me on the Cape.

We’d actually broken up back in April, but I was lonely and bored and I figured it would be okay if I pretended to have a really, really bad memory for a few days.

It was not okay.

I won’t go into the details right now. We spent a reasonably happy few days together, during which I squired him around town and fed and housed him and introduced him to my mom and even brought him to Nantucket for the day, timing our return to Hyannis Harbor just for the exact moment when the fireworks would begin, so that we could watch them from the ship’s rail and have a special little magical moment together.

Yes, I was mostly hoping to get some action. I thought this was only reasonable, considering that we’d broken up because of his inability to keep certain bits of himself in his pants when he wasn’t technically anywhere near me. I hardly thought it would be asking too much to ask him to show me the same courtesy he’d shown so very, very many of my friends and classmates during the brief time that we’d actually supposedly been dating.

If you catch my drift.

He, however, decided to develop a sudden case of morals. It was incredibly inconvenient.

The sun set in a blaze of glory, the clouds parted and the sparks rained down on our smiling faces, but certain nineteen-year-olds I could name went home that night unkissed. Unmanhandled. Quite thoroughly and completely unmolested. It sucked, especially because I had absolutely no right to expect anything else. And this, of course, was the most galling realization of all.

But whatever. Obviously I’ve gotten over all of these tawdry little details, lo these twenty-odd years later. Because I am a highly evolved and totally mature adult who absolutely does not live in the past.

Yep. That’s me all right.

So the next day I said my frustrated farewells to him at the bus station and headed off to work after a deeply unfulfilling three days’ vacation. I was working in a restaurant on Main Street in Hyannis at the time — one of several jobs I would hold in my life where my actual title was “salad girl” — and banged my way in through the back screen door in quite simply the foulest of moods.

Vinnie, the head cook who had hired me at the beginning of that summer based solely on my almost preternatural skill at shucking oysters, took one look at me and ran.

That is to say, he ran straight into the nearest walk-in cooler and hauled out a case of lettuce for me to work on. Usually I started my day by concocting up a vast quantity of pasta salad, my arms buried up to my elbows in a five-gallon bucket filled with macaroni and ranch dressing. You’d be amazed at how soothing a sensation this can be. Or I would be set up in some corner with a giant bowl of creamed butter and a pastry bag, destined to spend the next hour filling hundreds of little white ceramic ramekins with gently fluted clouds of love.

But today, I guess Vinnie recognized that I needed to break things.

And so he set me up with a case of lettuce heads and a cutting board, and demonstrated to me the time-tested method of removing the core from a head of iceberg lettuce.

You seize it by the top and sides, core facing down toward the counter, and you bring it down — THWACK – with all of the strength in your sexually frustrated, morally bankrupt little nineteen-year-old heart. Lift the lettuce head again, and the core comes bouncing merrily out like a head rolling out from a guillotine.

Oh, so many enemies of the revolution, so little time.

The sound that this delightful operation makes would be enough, really, to soothe a heartsick soul — a great, resounding thwack that is extremely well amplified by the stainless steel surfaces which surround you in a professional kitchen. And by the absolute and profound solitude a nineteen-year-old girl is given by a kitchen full of men when she has that uniquely murderous look in her eye.

Solitude, steel, and surliness. I think that most adolescents would benefit from a little lettuce therapy once in a while.

I still have that old boyfriend’s shirt hanging in my closet. Not in any really nostalgic, let-me-breathe-in-your-scent sort of way, but simply as a sullen trophy that I repeatedly refuse to relinquish. I had been planning on giving it back to him when he came for his visit, but I’d gotten distracted by the depths of my annoyance at him. And I’ve never quite been able to part with it, in all of the countless closet purges that the intervening years have wrought.

This is all a rather roundabout way of saying that I have been thwacking metaphorical heads of lettuce all day long today, burying myself in massive amounts of work in a desperate attempt to forget that I actually care whether or not something happens this week. Tomorrow, in fact. And as a matter of fact I know that it probably will not happen, but I am far more upset at my stubborn insistence on caring about it than I am at its inevitable failure to materialize, and this bothers me most of all.

What is this thing? I have entered my best existing manuscript in the Golden Heart competition, the most prestigious competition in the United States for unpublished romance. And tomorrow is the day that the finalists are announced.

This thing, it is not going to put out for me. And I have absolutely no right to expect that it will.

Thwack, thwack, thwack.

I’ve written two long and detailed essays for a history magazine today, outlined and rehearsed two of the three talks I’m giving this month, and spent more time in the garden with the pruning shears than I should really freely admit to. All in an effort to make the time pass relatively painlessly until the phone fails to ring tomorrow and I can go back to my normal life.

It hasn’t really worked. And this time there is no Vinnie, no giant case of lettuce, no cowering gaggle of line cooks that I can glower at when the moodiness overcomes me.

There is just a blue plaid flannel shirt hanging silently in the closet, laughing at me. Reminding me that things almost never turn out the way I expect them to.

If only my memory weren’t quite so good.

 

Image by Jules Morgan

1 Thought.

  1. Oh Beth dear, dispose of the memory-bending shirt…it may give you pathos
    plunging food for writing, but is rife with an estimate unworthy of your
    gifted spirit. Cast it away and be reminded of him less. There is a much
    more soul-edifying world out there. The best to you with the manuscript.

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