We swipe the last of the paratha across the bottom of the silver dish. This was something new, Chicken Kadai. (“How was it?” “Oh,it was kadai for!”) He pours the final splash of house white from the half carafe into my glass and then his. We are re-visiting a story that he knows but we rarely discuss. As happens when we are liking each other again, he finds a way to phrase the questions no one else would dare ask and I find ways to open doors with my answers. We are not the last to occupy a table in the restaurant. The other couple has only just started their entree, but still, the servers have long since ceased re-filling our water, so we tumble out into the brisk night.
“Your call,” he says. “Someplace for another drink?”
I consider this. It is enticing, 9:30 on a Saturday night. Cars whoosh along the boulevard. Colored lights and warm chatter invite from somewhere just around the bend. I decide to reel in the vision of what comes after this in-between. “No,” I say. “We’ll save a few bucks, like we promised. If we want a drink, we’ll buy a six-pack. Stay in. Finish this conversation under a blanket on the couch.”
In the store, we wheel the cart past the produce, past the bakery. He stops to squeeze a loaf of something dotted with pumpkin seeds. Then, he strokes another with a golden crust. “Like this,” he says, gazing at the gleam under the plastic sheath. “I want to get it like this. With that chewiness, you know?” We adopted a sourdough starter months ago. He is a much better father than I had expected.
I consider the cookies. He asks me if I want a treat, knowing I do.
“Let’s make some,” I say. “You have baking soda, right? Vanilla?” He nods. It has been too long since I have been in his kitchen. I used to know, but then there was the distance. He is out of butter now. He pauses at the beer and I leave him to it, heading on down to the dairy fridge. He is trying to watch his cholesterol, and the array of options is dizzying.
He approaches. “Country Crock?”
“I don’t think you can use it. See?” I point to the side of the margarine. “Not suitable for baking.”
“But that’s the generic. It says it is 48% oil. This one is 39%.”
I hold them up next to each other and try to puzzle through the fine print. “I don’t think a lower oil content is better for baking. I think it’s worse because it is more water. Maybe?”
Then he is holding up butter to compare. I find a butter blend, then two kinds of Smart Balance, one with canola oil and one with olive. We are trying to measure unknown quantities, the saturated fat in this one against the moisture content of that one. We juggle six different tubs. The poor butter sits alone to the side, denied entry but still on display just to advertise its failings. Its truth, its singular purity, is irrelevant in this contest.
“Fuck it,” he says. He dumps all but one of the tubs aside. The survivor lands with a thunk it in the basket.
We wheel out through the deserted produce section, grabbing a bunch of bananas on the way. He stops by the broccoli. “What is this?” He picks up a conical, fractal-studded oddity in sea-foam green. It is clearly brassica, but beyond that, it is a mystery. I believe I knew the name once but can’t call it up. “Romanesco,” he tells me. I realize I was imagining pieces never placed.
“What would someone do with it?”
“I don’t have any idea,” I say.
“Should we buy one and find out?” He digs around, finding the perfect one while I create a bouquet from a leggy artichoke, a rhubarb stalk, a yellow zucchini, and a single loose carrot. I tell him if we ever get married, this is what I want to carry down the aisle.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, laughing. He folds the romanesco into a plastic bag and places it in the cart.
Back at his place, I lose momentum for making cookies. I eat an unsatisfying square of Hershey’s chocolate instead. It is the only sweet in his kitchen, and it is waxy enough to keep me from coming back for seconds. He is made of stronger stuff than I am. Or maybe just different stuff. He opens a beer. We jabber on about important topics soon forgotten while he prepares the proof for tomorrow’s loaf. He realizes he is out of whole wheat flour. I remember that I am supposed to write something happy. I touch his back as he stirs white flour in. He never pours the discolored hootch off. He keeps it all in, everything unknown and alive, claiming “this is what gives it that flavor, you know?”
The sour whang lingers in the kitchen. In a nearby unit, neighbors bark at each other, their teary distress echoing at odd intervals against the balcony. That was us just last week. That was some other us a million years ago.