The first time I saw her she was dripping blood. On the floor, on her jeans, on her bare feet.
"Oh no," she said, as she opened the door to their apartment, "I thought you were the ambulance." She stressed the last syllable of ambulance. A southerner. We stared at her left hand, enveloped in a bulging dishtowel, streaked crimson.
Her husband, Riley, had invited Gerald and me to their place for dinner. Gerald had taken him under his wing at the law firm. Thrown choice assignments his way, treated him to lunch, that sort of thing. Gerald thought he was a comer. So when Riley got married, he invited us over. I wasn't looking forward to it; I've had my fill of law firm dinner parties in my many years of marriage. The lawyers dominate the conversation with talk about work, and the food invariably looks better than it tastes. But Gerald said I'd like Riley, said he was friendlier, more open than the usual run of new associates. So we went.
Riley suddenly appeared. He was in jeans too, and a white T-shirt with a faded, colored picture of the Grand Canyon on the front. He's about six feet tall, with a thick neck, a slightly bulging forehead, and a stand of straight brown hair.
"Oh God," he said, when he saw us standing there, a bouquet of tulips in my hand, a bottle of zinfandel in Gerald's. "Come in. I'm sorry."
"This looks bad," Gerald said. "Tell us what to do."
"Just make yourselves at home, I've got to run her to the emergency room, I'll be right back. No problem. It's a new knife. I think it's okay."
"We'll come back another time," I gasped.
"Oh no, no," Riley said. "Dinner's ready. We'll be right back. Come on in. There's lots of books and magazines here. We'll be right back."
We edged into the room, clutching our offerings, apologizing. The place was barely furnished, a few folding chairs, a black leather sofa, new from IKEA, a card table, U-Haul boxes everywhere. The young wife stood at the open door, peering expectantly into the hallway, cradling her wounded hand in the crook of her arm.
"Here they are," Riley announced, holding up a set of keys. "I'm not waiting a minute more for the fucking ambulance. I'll take you."
"We'll go with you," Gerald said.
"No." Riley was already out the door. "But don't leave," he called back to us. "Dinner's nearly ready."
And they were gone.
"Well, it's not boring anyway," Gerald said.
We spent the next hour debating whether to stay or go. Gerald wanted out, but I insisted that it would be rude to leave them in the lurch, unkind even. And so I rummaged around the cluttered kitchen until I found a large water pitcher for the tulips and a couple of juice glasses for the wine; Gerald opened the zin, and we waited.
Riley returned alone. He looked beat.
"She's okay," he said and collapsed on the sofa beside me. "Thank God. She'll hop a cab home."
That's when we noticed, for the first time, the bandage on Riley's left forefinger. A large bandage.
"What happened to you?" I asked.
"A little nick. Nothing serious."
"Are you two trying to kill each other?" Gerald asked. He was making a joke of it. It didn't seem funny to me.
But Riley smiled, his face still pale. "It's the bread knife. A wedding present. It did us in, one at a time."
"How is she?" I asked.
"She just needed stitches. She's okay. Let's eat."
We ate the dinner without her. It wasn't very good, a crab salad with too much celery and mayonnaise and not enough crab. A sourdough baguette, unsliced of course, which we tore into pieces and dipped in melted butter with garlic powder. The zin was delicious. Riley pretended to listen as Gerald and I made feeble small talk, but he kept ducking his head to check his cell phone and his laugh was a beat late whenever Gerald attempted a joke.
"We should leave," we kept repeating. "You need to be at the hospital." But he wouldn't let us.
"Gemma would be so disappointed," he said. "It's our first dinner party."
Just as we were finishing the pecan pie, her "specialty" we were told, she suddenly appeared at the front door, a huge mitt of a bandage wrapped round her left hand, her arm in a sling.
"Darling," Riley jumped up from the table, knocking over his chair, and rushed to her side, his hands stretched out awkwardly as if he were unsure of what part to touch.
"Hi," she said, looking over his shoulder, smiling at Gerald and me. "I'm Gemma. Would you like a piece of chocolate?"
I couldn't resist her. She was pretty, of course, like a child, with a blaze of strawberry blond hair, tender pale skin, and widely spaced blue eyes. But that wasn't it. As she stood there that night, smiling helplessly and clutching her wounded hand, I could see she needed to be taken care of. And with our only son out of the nest, I was ripe for the task.
We began with cooking. She had obviously not learned the basics, or anything really, from her mother, who remained a mystery, along with the rest of the family. When I inquired, she brushed off my questions.
"Where do your parents live?"
"What does your father do?"
"Something with insurance."
"Does your mother work?"
"Do you have brothers and sisters?"
"Where do they live?"
"Do you go back there to visit?"
I figured it was a painful subject and eventually gave up.
Gemma's only culinary accomplishment, the pecan pie, consisted of a store-bought crust and the ingredients listed on the Karo syrup bottle. She loved sweets. And I love to cook.
So we began in my kitchen with Julia Child's pie crust recipe, the five-page one. Gemma studied the drawings, measured the flour, chilled the water, rubbed butter and flour between her fingers and thumb, the thumb with the angry red scar that circled the base and made tracks over her knuckle, rolled out the dough, and she baked a perfect pie crust.
After that I invited her every Saturday morning to come cook with me. She would show up at our front door, her pale face slightly flushed, her eyes questioning. Would I really give her a lesson? I couldn't wait. You see, like many women of my generation, I've never had a real job. But I'm a star in the kitchen.
So together we would chop and carve, bake bread, reduce sauces, sauté vegetables, and whip soufflés light as air. She was a quick learner.
After a couple of months I told her, "You have a career, here." She was that good.
"A career," she said. "You think so? I never figured myself with a career."
"Why don't you take classes?"
"There's this place called the Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Julian did that for awhile."
"Did he like it?"
Like everything else he tried. He had chopped veggies at a high-end downtown restaurant for several months. His dad had wrangled that gig for him. Before that, he bagged groceries at Whole Foods. That was after he quit making jewelry-- earrings from abalone shells, silver pendants with moonstones on leather straps. I had several. And before that, college. First, university, then state college, then community college.
At the time, Julian was in Tahoe, Bear Valley. I always felt a jolt of excitement when I heard his voice.
"How's it going, Mom?"
"We're fine, sweetheart. How's my boy?"
"Great. Just great."
"Did you find a job?"
"Yep. A couple, as a matter of fact. I'm teaching snowboarding at the lodge and waiting tables."
"It's just for the season."
"Look. It pays the bills."
"Is that all you want?" I could hear the disappointment in my voice, but I couldn't stop. "You know, honey, you're going to wake up one day and wonder what happened to your life."
There would be a silence, then, "Yeah. You said that before. Well, right now I need to be at work." And he would be gone.
I always spent the afternoon digging in the iron-dark earth of my back garden after those conversations. Blaming myself. Trying to figure out where I had gone wrong.
"Leave him be," Gerald would say. "The kid lacks backbone. Nothing you can do about it."
Gemma had backbone.
"I did it!" She called out before I could even open the door that glorious Saturday morning. The blinding sun lit up her tangle of red-gold hair. The Japanese maple in my front yard glowed in autumn flame behind her, framing her.
"The Culinary Academy." She twirled about the deck, head thrown back, arms waving. "I made it. I'm in."
"You're taking classes?" I grabbed her round the waist. She felt tense, wiry, like she might explode at any minute. My gem, my Gemma.
"This calls for champagne!"
"At 10:00 in the morning?" asked Gerald.
And so Saturday night dinners replaced Saturday morning lessons. Always at our house. Daube de Boeuf. Roast Goose with Prune and Foie Gras Stuffing. Orange Mousse. Whatever she was learning in school.
"What do you think, Riley?" I asked during one of the many such dinners.
"I love it," he said, smiling, his eyes devouring her as she served quenelles or spooned out bouillabaisse or dashed in and out of the kitchen in her white coat and chef's toque.
I did too. I couldn't help it. She lit up the room with her blazing hair, her quicksilver movements, her nervous giggle as she lifted the lid from the terrine and leaned forward to breathe in the sauce. I was in love.
Riley involved himself in Gemma's cooking with the same intensity he brought to his legal practice. He did most of the shopping, arriving at the fish market before daylight each Saturday, sniffing the freshly caught salmon, supervising the cleaning, squeezing the tomatoes and avocados at the Farmers Market, scouring Chinatown for fresh crab. I know because I was often with him, carrying the bags, arguing with the vendors. Riley also served as Gemma's sous chef, chopping, tasting, hauling, adoring.
I told everyone I knew about Gemma, I was that proud. And soon partners in the law firm began hiring her for the elaborate dinner parties they gave for clients. Riley backed her up, working behind the scenes, anticipating her every move, basking in her glory.
If sometimes she seemed impatient with him, criticized the cut of meat he brought from the market, pressed him to hurry his chopping, even occasionally spit out some broth he had prepared, we forgave her. She was an artist.
It's hard to explain my own excitement at Gemma's success. To watch her evolve from the bewildered child I had met that first night into a creative genius was breathtaking. I felt like I was part of it, that I had made it happen. I had a mission now, to make sure she had everything she needed to be the best chef, maybe in all of San Francisco. I was that ambitious.
The next time the four of us had dinner together (Roasted artichoke, Veal Prince Orloff, Green beans a la Provencale, Reine de Saba for dessert), I came out with an idea I'd been mulling over.
"I think it's time you began working in a restaurant."
"I like what I'm doing."
"You're too good for it, honey. What I'm talking about is one of those haute cuisine restaurants. The menu changes with what's in season. The chefs are all first rate. You'd learn a lot."
"I like doing the private dinners. It's more my style. I'm my own boss."
"It's going to get boring. Not to mention the people."
"What about them?"
"Lawyers, businessmen. How do you stand them?"
"They are my customers," she said. "I like them. And it's my way of doing things."
I should have let it go. Instead I said, "But you're missing a great opportunity."
She stared at me, hard, the line between her eyes deepening. I was surprised. I hadn't seen that line before.
"How do you like the veal?" she said.
Once Gemma was fully launched as a private chef, we no longer saw her on Saturday nights. But occasionally on her nights off, Tuesdays, she would concoct elaborate gastronomical experiments for Gerald and me to taste and judge. We always feasted at our house, where she had the luxury of my six-burner Wolf range.
But one Tuesday night, she invited us to her house.
"It's an anniversary," she said.
"Our first dinner together. It's been two years."
"Just two years," I marveled. "And look at you."
"No blood this time, I hope," Gerald said.
"Only in the duck. You haven't seen the place in ages," Gemma said. "You'll be surprised."
She was right; the two of them had completely transformed the apartment. The living room walls were plastered end to end with tacked up photographs, some in black and white, some in color, of dinner parties Gemma had catered: plates garnished with Technicolor food, laughing guests toasting the chef, Gemma, in white coat and chef's toque, grinning at the camera. There were no photos of Gerald and me.
"You're getting to be quite a star," I said, pretending a generosity I didn't feel. Who were all these people?
Riley had knocked out a wall between the tiny kitchen and the dining room, creating the illusion, if not the expanse, of a farmhouse kitchen. Charming, but cramped. We had to duck our heads to keep from crashing into the heavy skillets which dangled from hooks in the ceiling. Stacks of cookbooks spilled over the counters. Two gleaming white refrigerators, one on each side, guarded the door to the bathroom, a recent addition off the kitchen. Riley's home construction had left uneven edges of sheet rock and unpainted surfaces, lending a slightly off-center, rakish air to the place.
Perched on stools at a round table in the middle of the room, Gerald and Riley sipped champagne and chatted about work. I tried to make myself useful, chopping onions, quartering tomatoes, beating eggs. But Gemma was too fast for me. I kept bumping into her as she moved briskly from mandolin to boiling pot to mixer to frying pan.
"You're a guest," she finally said. "Why don't you sit down and enjoy yourself?" Her voice had an edge.
The food was, as always, magical. As I took my first bite of Duck Breast with Raspberries, I said, "I don't know how you do all this in your kitchen."
"Think what you could do in a real gourmet kitchen."
She put down her fork. Her face was flushed. "What's not real about it?"
I could tell she was annoyed, but I had an answer. "The stove for a start."
We all glanced over at the small stove, glazed black with hardened, accumulated grease. All four burners were blazing.
She was staring at me. "Do you think the sauce would taste better with a real stove?" I had never before heard sarcasm from her, and it should have stopped me. But it seemed so obvious, what I was saying.
"Don't be silly. Don't you want a commercial stove? Like my Wolf range?"
I looked at Riley who had stopped eating and was watching me.
"You mean it's too expensive?"
"It's a business expense, Gemma. Get a loan. At the rate you're going, you'll pay it back in no time."
She didn't respond.
"Look," I said, "You've got a wonderful thing going. Gerald and I know all kinds of people who could help you with a loan. You could even get a bigger place, design your own kitchen." My mind was racing.
I reached over and squeezed her hand. It lay there, soft, warm, unresponsive.
"This is my own kitchen. I designed it. I like it."
"Look, honey," I said, "you're big time now. You've got to think big. If you can make this kind of food on that antique, think what you can do on proper equipment."
What did I expect? That she would throw her arms around me, and laugh and prance about, as excited as I was? It didn't happen. Without looking at me, she slid her hand out of my grasp and sat there, very still, not eating, staring at her plate.
Gerald finally broke the silence. "This duck is to die for."
"Fuck the duck," Gemma said.
I almost giggled. But then she was standing up and holding her plate high in the air. Without another word she hurled it to the floor with a loud crash and left the room.
No one spoke. I couldn't take my eyes off the thick white china fragments, the slices of rosy-colored duck breast and bright red raspberries.
I jumped up from the table and started dabbing at the berries on the floor with my napkin.
"Don't," Riley said. He towered over me, his forehead furrowed, his eyes dark, frightened.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Don't be. She's overworked, that's all."
Then he turned his massive back to me and headed down the hall to his wife.
"What did I do?" I kept asking Gerald all the way home.
"Let it go," Gerald said. "She's a chef. It comes with the territory. They're a temperamental lot."
She came over the next day and apologized. Told me she'd had a stressful week and hoped I wouldn't take it personally.
"I'm really embarrassed," she said.
"Don't worry," I said and put my arms around her. I was relieved. Somehow I thought it was my fault, that I should be apologizing. But I didn't know what I had done wrong.
She handed me a dish of the Floating Island we had left untouched the night before.
"A peace offering?"
I hugged her. "Of course."
Neither of us mentioned the stove.
But I couldn't get that beat-up black oven of hers out of my mind. You have to understand how disgusting it was to even think of cooking on that thing. Besides, I knew just where she could squeeze a Wolf range into that jumble of a kitchen. So two weeks later, without telling Gerald, I arranged to have one delivered to Gemma's house. It was a crazy thing to do. But at the time I told myself I was being generous. I kept seeing Gemma holding that plate of pink duck high above her head, then dashing it to the floor. I could tell she was on the verge of destroying her career and I couldn't let her do that. I told myself, with the proper equipment, she'd be herself again. And I was in a position to help. I knew she couldn't afford it; Riley was still paying off student loans. So I ordered it, had it sent anonymously. She'd know, of course. But I fooled myself into thinking she'd be pleased.
A week passed with no word from Gemma. She didn't answer my emails or return my phone calls. I asked Gerald if he'd heard anything about her from Riley. He hadn't.
And then, early one morning, when I opened the front door to fetch the Times, there she stood, like some pre-Raphaelite virgin caught in my garden, her wan face diminished by untamed gold hair. Instinctively, I wrapped my arms around her thin shoulders, thinner than I remembered.
"Come in, come in," I said. "I'm so glad." I could feel her resistance, but she followed me into the front hall.
I waited for a response which didn't come. She just hovered there on the deep blue of the Persian carpet, looking as if she might at any moment go under.
I took her in my arms. You see, I still believed I had done the right thing, that she would thank me, that I would continue to guide her, to love her. Because I did, I loved her so much.
"Don't," she hissed, pushing hard against me, accidentally hitting my shoulder with a sharp wrist bone. She was staring at me, her eyes wild.
"My dear," I said, backing away, rubbing my shoulder.
"I couldn't believe you were so stupid." She spat out the word.
"Send it back," I whimpered.
"I'll think about it." She laughed then, mocking me. "You don't get it, do you? This isn't about your fucking stove or your plans for me. It's not about you."
"You don't know anything. Just stop. Stop trying to live my life."
It was too much to take in.
"You're exhausted," I said. "You need a break."
I ached for her to nod, to rush to me, to ask for help. But she just stood there, her pinched face looking for the first time frightened.
"I'm sorry," she said. "That's what you want me to say, isn't it?"
"I don't know," I said. But she didn't hear me. She had pushed open the door and stepped out into the blinding summer sunlight. I was too stunned to follow.
That night Riley met us at his front door. He was still dressed for work, his dark blue suit sharply, incongruously pressed, his tie, a fashionable red and purple, drooping at an angle from his collar. His arms hung leaden at his sides as if his hands were weights holding them down. "She's gone." His voice had no expression.
"But I just saw her," I said. "This morning."
His large face looked crumpled, like he was about to cry. Without a word he led us to the kitchen.
The first thing I saw was broken glass, on the table, on the counters, all over the floor. "What on earth?"
"It's not the first time."
"I'm sorry," I was ashamed at how inadequate I sounded.
It was then I saw the stove. I hadn't noticed it in the chaos of glass. But there it was, the Wolf range, immense, dominating the tiny kitchen. But something about it was wrong. It should have been shiny. I edged carefully around the shards of glass to get a better look. There were deep cuts carved in the surface of the enamel.
"Jesus," said Gerald, staring at the floor. He pointed to a knife lying there.
Riley was leaning against the sink, his white face blank.
"Where is she?" I asked. "I have to see her. Maybe I can...?"
"Stop it!" He hissed. His voice was hoarse.
Afterward, they wouldn't even let me visit her in the hospital. They were right, of course. I mean, I hadn't made her the way she was. But whatever she had, I'd made it worse.
These days when Julian telephones and I'm thinking how he's wasting his life and how much I want to tell him to go back to college, to do something, I don't. I just think about that stove. Seeing it, all black and scratched and scarred, was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. And I hold my peace.
Title graphic: "Awaiting the Grater" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.