With unwarranted enthusiasm, Lena and Bryan extended an invitation to me and Marty for dinner and cards. Having a romantic interest that my friends actually liked was a bit of a struggle for me to find. Marty was definitely someone I could bring around and socialize with. If I had to look into the future, he was someone most of my friends and family would approve of. Most notably, it wouldn’t bother me to introduce him to my cousin — that was my gauge for how long I could let someone last in my life. She was the sister I never had and, for all intents and purposes, my best friend. If I thought she could like him or tolerate him, I could let him stick around. I could introduce Marty to my cousin. Noah was definitely not someone I’d want my cousin to meet.
In the morning, I exchanged texts with Marty about the day’s activities. I told him that I had to make a salad and cheesecake for dinner at Lena’s. He invited me over to make the cheesecake at his house using a picture of his lime green stand mixer as a lure. I had a hard time negotiating time with myself so I declined and instead had him pick me up at five.
When we arrived at Lena’s, we were greeted by a dog I’d never seen before.
“Hello, friend,” I said. She was a beautiful golden retriever, eager to play and be pet.
“Oh no, I’ve got it,” I said. “I think I can make it to the kitchen.”
Lena had started the sauce for the pasta. The kitchen smelled of spicy flesh and garlic. I took the cheesecake I made from my bag. It had tumbled to its side during transport and the cherries were resting on the lid of the container rather than on top of the cheesecake. I shook it to properly re-coat the cake and placed it in the refrigerator.
“Shall I start the salad?” I asked Lena. “Sure. But we still have about twenty minutes left on the sauce.”
“Do you want anything to drink?” offered Lena. “I had drinks with people from my old job last night, so I might only have wine with dinner.”
“Ahh.. well, I think I’m going to have a vodka soda,” I said, lowering my voice. “I’m not feeling super chatty right now. I need a social lubricant.”
“Marty, would you like soda or a La Croix or water?” Lena asked. She knew he didn’t drink and never mentioned it. She was also surprisingly relaxed about how often he would duck out to smoke. She was a militant non-smoker and never let me smoke without nagging me about it.
“A La Croix would be good.”
“Should we do linguini or penne with this sauce?” asked Lena.
“I think it’d be better with penne,” I opined. “Do you have enough?”
“A half a box should be plenty, right?” she fished for validation.
“I think that’s fine for four of us.”
I didn’t know why I was so uncomfortable. Conversation was always good and easy with Marty. He made me smile. I was antsy and kept moving from the dining room to the kitchen for no other reason than to avoid talking to Marty. It was so silly. I liked him. I wanted to talk to him. But I couldn’t. Maybe I was considering him as a romantic possibility and the pressure I was putting on myself made me nervous.
He scratched his eyes and rubbed them with water.
“My eyes are itchy,” Marty said without complaining. “I think I’m allergic to the dog.”
“Oh,” I said. “I can have them put her downstairs if she’s bothering you.”
“No!” he said emphatically. “DON’T say anything. I don’t want them to feel bad. It’s a secret.”
“Damn it,” I said. “Why did you have to tell me it’s a secret? Now I’m going to want to tell them.”
When Bryan returned to the table, I got up to finish in the kitchen. Marty and Bryan used to work together so they had all sorts of things to talk about. Lena and I had food to talk about.
I started the salad. I sliced the fennel and squeezed lemon juice over them. I let them sit in the acid while I sliced the shallots. I added them to the juice. I put the mixed greens in the bamboo bowl. I topped the greens with the juice, shallots and fennel. I drizzled olive oil over it and sprinkled it all with salt. I tossed the salad. I seasoned it perfectly.
“Will you taste this?” I asked Lena. She pulled a leaf from the bowl and dropped it in her mouth.
“Oh my god, that’s good,” she said. “Thanks,” I smiled.
“Will you give me the recipe?” she asked.
I brought the bowl out to the dining room and set it on the table. I didn’t sit down. I went back into the kitchen for no apparent reason. Lena didn’t need my help. I just watched her while I drank my vodka soda. Eventually, the pasta was ready to be served and I had to face the challenge of conversation.
Lena brought out the bowls with pasta and sauce spilling out of them. “Sorry. I think I’ve over-served you,” she said.
I spooned the salad out on each of our side plates. I offered everyone more to drink. I went to the basement to get Bryan a beer. I made Lena and myself a vodka soda. I retrieved another La Croix from the cabinet for Marty. I did everything I could to not sit still.
And then… Dinner. It was as normal as could be expected, but I sat in relative silence. It was like something had taken over my brain, my lips and my tongue and didn’t allow me to use any of them. I listened. They talked about mortgages. They talked about design. They talked about Werner. I just couldn’t contribute to the conversation. I was paralyzed.
The one thing I hated about eating out or eating at someone else’s home, is that I had a compulsion to eat everything on my plate even if I wasn’t hungry. So that’s what I did. Though Lena had over-served me, I ate all the pasta, all the roasted cauliflower and all of the salad. I was full. I looked over at Marty’s plate. The only thing he didn’t finish was the salad. My salad. Did he not like it? I wondered. Maybe he just didn’t like salad, I tried to console myself.
We cleared the plates and I cut the cheesecake that I made for dessert. I served Ford first because he was slated to go to bed within the hour. Before I could finish laying out the adult slices, Ford had cleaned his plate and the cat was licking it for any remnants Ford may have missed with his fork.
My cheesecake was a source of pride for me. Bryan had given me the nicest compliment I’d ever received over my cheesecake. In a conversation over what we would choose for our last meals, he said it would be my cheesecake. That was weeks, maybe even months after I had introduced him to it. I could do no wrong by serving this.
While I laid down the plates, Lena put out a pot of water and cups for tea. Still not feeling chatty, I ate as they talked. On top of not feeling at the top of my conversational game, I was tired and fading fast. It was 8 o’clock and it felt like midnight. I couldn’t think of a good way to say, “Hey, I’m beat and I need to go to bed,” so I suffered as I fought my eyes to stay open. When everyone was clearly done with dessert, Bryan cleared the table and Marty went outside to smoke. As Bryan was taking dishes from the table, I saw that Marty had left a quarter of the cheesecake I served him on his plate while everyone else had eaten everything. He didn’t like my cheesecake, either? I whined. Silently. To myself. Inside my head. The salad was one thing, but my cheesecake was my best work and he didn’t finish it.
While Marty was outside, Bryan and Lena asked what was going on between us. “I have NO idea!” I said. “But he didn’t finish my cheesecake.”
“Maybe he’s not done,” said Bryan. He left Marty’s plate with the last bit of cheesecake on it. He was the only one with a plate when we all returned to the table. He had no intention of eating anymore. He chipped away at my confidence, but it was still good cheesecake.
- 3 oz. butter (6 TB)
- ¾ cup graham cracker crumbs
- 2 TB sugar
Combine butter, crumbs and sugar thoroughly. Work it with your hands until it resembles wet sand.
Press firmly on bottom of two 9” pie pans. Place in freezer.
- 2 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese
- 7 oz. sweetened condensed milk (half of a standard can)
- 2 eggs
- 3 TB unsifted flour
- ½ TB Vanilla
Preheat oven to 300°.
Using a stand mixer using the whip attachment, beat cream cheese on high until fluffy. Reduce mixing speed to medium and beat in condensed milk until smooth. Add eggs, flour and vanilla. Mix well. Pour into prepared crusts. Bake until lightly browned; approximately one hour. Set aside until slightly warm and then place in refrigerator until thoroughly chilled.