“They’re not done.”
“I know. I can explain.”
“They’re ice cold!”
Tossing a towel to the floor, you sighed at the sight of the bacon wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese and charged past Derek in search of the oven. The dial showed that it was set to 375 degrees, but you could stick your arm in the stove without the threat of a burn. Falling to your knees with no care as to whether you stained your crisp black slacks, you peered behind the appliance and realized that the damned thing was unplugged.
“Heat makes food edible,” you groaned. “A fucking caveman figured that much out when he clubbed his meal to death and shit his loin cloth for two days straight with prehistoric salmonella. Because he didn’t build a fire!”
And it wasn’t just the appetizers. The crowned rack of lamb looked as if it was still packed in ice, and your eyes shot daggers at the staff as Derek simply scratched his head.
“I… the guy in charge said it just needed some time to warm up.”
“Great! If we were hosting a breakfast benefit we’d be right on schedule,” you scoffed. “But I’m pretty sure the invitation read dinner at 7:30. So unless every man, woman and child on the guest list is about to take fashionably late to a new level, we are screwed with nothing to show for it!”
Which in some ways was the story of your life.
Kicking the stainless-steel counter, you winced in pain and ignored Derek’s attempt to massage the moment. Not that you ever wanted to come up short when it came to a gig. But of all nights… this event was designed to raise funds for seniors in need of in-home caregivers. The cause was close to Rafael’s heart for reasons that still made him toss and turn and bolt awake with tears in his eyes. Soon he would arrive so that no other grandchild, present or future, would ever have to wrestle with the idea of letting their loved one down, and you wanted to put your best foot forward, to do right by the cause…
…and him above all else.
How the hell were you supposed to make that happen with uncooked fare? Not to mention the cookies that were little more than slimy batter. Maybe you could serve it with spoons and call it an innovation destined to take the culinary world by storm. If everyone drank enough champagne and chased it with tequila that might fly.
Who were you kidding? There wasn’t enough liquor in the world to mask your gross incompetence.
“Ah the calm before the storm.”
Startled while you looked out a long window, you caught sight of Rafael sauntering towards you in a sleek silver suit paired with a light blue tie. Of course he had to be the first to guest to show up, and you shook your head when he clasped your arms and placed a quick kiss of your brow.
“I know, I know,” he said. “Pay no attention to the goddess working her magic behind the curtain.”
“When did I ever say—?”
“The first time was when you wagered you could cook a tuna melt that would make me rethink the merits of fish and cheese,” he reminded you, and a picture from the past filled your mind. He mentioned sandwiches after you spent a lazy Sunday afternoon watching old movies and smiling as he told you that he remembered the first time he saw Bette Davis in this one or Cary Grant in another. Every viewing at his abuelita’s knee. So sweet to imagine him as a little boy getting a grand education in old-fashioned romance. And the quiet secret they shared, that wherever life took him, any time he viewed frames made more beautiful by black and white, his abuelita would also be watching and thinking of him.
How he had believed that she might accept the assisted living facility simply because they promised movies and they could stay connected through celluloid.
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” you muttered.
Biting down on your lip and blinking back a few tears, you turned towards the kitchen that might as well be a walk-in freezer and wondered if there was some way that you could escape out the back. Because wherever that sweet old woman was now, she wasn’t watching a movie. Only a farce that negated your ability to fashion that simple tuna melt when a banquet was about to come undone.
“What’s all this about?” he asked.
Stepping swiftly to cut you off at the pass, he centered his palms on your shoulders. You avoided his eyes and focused on the fact that your knees looked as if you had crawled through flour with not even a slice of bread to show for your efforts.
“It’s already a disaster,” you said. “The food’s not ready.”
“Well I am early.”
“The oven was never turned on, Rafael! Cheese and crackers won’t bring the donations in. I… I wanted to get this right. This especially.”
Why hadn’t you double checked? Better yet thrown in the towel altogether and let someone else write the menu. Cracks in your facades were showing from the moment the Georgia Peach passed on your cuisine, and soon the word around town would be that you were all washed up.
He waited, tightening his grip until your reluctantly found his eyes.
“I know what you’re going to say.”
“Oh?” he challenged. “Then tell me.”
You released a heavy sigh.
“That it’s not a big deal. That I can still fix it. God, I swear sometimes you must get so sick of telling me that I’m not a failure.”
Because it wasn’t just the meal. It was the fact that your application to adopt a child had yet to give Jingles a playmate. Even the kitty cat seemed down these days.
“I don’t think I can get sick of that,” he started.
“Wow,” you said, pulling away from him and finally meeting his eyes. “What’s that? Just haven’t said it out loud? Has it been playing over and over again in the dreams you don’t share with me?”
Maybe that was a low blow, but you were too tired to care and ready to leave Derek holding the ladle and passing off pink bacon and lamb as fine food when Rafael seized your waist and buried his head in your hair.
“I can’t get sick of it because I would never say that to you,” he murmured. “Don’t you know that?”
“Yes,” you meekly replied.
“I didn’t quite catch—.”
“Yes,” you repeated, your voice a little louder as you sank into his chest and found his fingers, locking your hands in his as your head came to rest in the crook of his neck.
“I wouldn’t care if you brought out a bowl of chips tonight, mi amor. I just want you with me so I can keep it together.”
His voice hitched on the last word, and you looked up to see him fighting back a few tears. Softly stroking his face, your sense memory took over. On the nights when he sobbed and woke with a start, kicking himself for the idea that he had let his grandmother down, you cradled him until his head came to rest in your lap, combing your fingers through his rumpled locks until he found sleep, hoping that some higher power could answer the smallest of prayers and bring him sweet dreams.
“I’m here,” you assured him, instantly rethinking the idea of running away. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Thank you,” he said, lightly kissing your lips. “I need you. Forever.”
He fell into your arms, and you rubbed his back, wondering what his abuelita would do with a busted oven and guests already en route. You’d heard the stories of other ovens on the fritz. Rafael left in the other woman’s care, Lucia sick in bed on account of being smacked around when she’d fashioned an amazing dinner for a man who needed no excuse to form a fist. Abuelita rarely ventured out of her railroad apartment, but the woman worked wonders and always found ways to make little Rafael smile.
“I think I know what to do.”
Kissing him again, you started to run back to the kitchen when you whipped your head over your shoulders, stretching to the tips of your toes to claim his mouth and caress his cheeks.
“You’re really okay with chips?” you asked.
“I told you. I just want you with me.”
“Give me twenty minutes, and I’m all yours.”
The kitchen was in chaos, the oven finally plugged in as you ordered Derek to make a run to the convenience store on the corner.
“But they charge an arm and a leg for—”
“I’m about to be on a roll! Do not argue with me.”
He came back in record time with rippled potato chips and peanuts. Add that to the chips of the chocolate, peanut butter, and butterscotch variety, the cookies forgotten. Melting the sweets in a sauce pan and adding the salted savories so you could pour the concoction into a muffin tin, you peeked out to see the other guests arriving. At least there was an open bar, and Rafael saw you and rushed to your side.
“Do I even get a hint?” he asked.
“No. Not until it’s ready.”
Suddenly you were thankful for the chill. Derek was doing his best to right the lamb so that there would be something in the way of a main course.
“We’re starting with dessert?” he asked, wiping away a few beads of sweat as you smiled at your surprise.
“We’re improvising. It’s what she would have done.”
Arranging the treats on a silver tray, you took a deep breath and returned to the main room flooded with guests. Rafael was in the midst of a deep conversation with a couple and their daughter.
“I know,” he said. “If I had it to over I would have hired people around the clock.”
“But the cost is—”
“That’s why we’re here.”
He looked so sad again, smaller, and you cleared your throat. Fighting to still your trembling hands around the edges of the tray, you saw his eyes light up when you presented your grand idea and spoke slowly.
“I… I wan to thank you all for coming. Dinner is delayed. But tonight, I was reminded why we’re all here. We want to make this… every day a little brighter.”
You focused on nothing and no one but Rafael.
“See my… my husband knows how to do that. Because he learned from the best. And he lives those lessons every day. So in her honor… in his… these are Abuelita’s Appetizers.”
Everyone moved as if they were walking under water, surveying the strange sweets and sharing a few confused glances before tucking in. For one second your still feared that it would be a bust, but as soon as your attempt at Cuban lunch candies hit their tongues, far more than the chocolate melted. The room was awash in smiles and stories of similar treats courtesy of other abuelitas, of nonnas and jaddahs. Like the best food, like the movies that were meant to tie an invisible string from Rafael to his grandmother through the whirlpool that was infinity, the dead came back to life, assuring the survivors that no one was to blame, that fate had worked its course and they understood. It wasn’t as if they were looking down from above; they were in the air to make everyone remember, to know that no one ever really left if the recipe was right and all souls stayed strong.
Your tray was almost empty when Rafael guided you into a quiet corner, his face unreadable until you touched his cheek and let his tears stream between your fingers.
“She would be… she is so proud of you, Rafael,” you said. “Lots of love here tonight.”
Ever so slowly, his lips curled into a smile, and he kissed you, his tongue sweet with memories, his grin broad with the idea of tomorrow as he ended the kiss but still held your hands.
“Thank you,” he said. “For never letting me down.”