Chemistry

by Andrea Chesman

The first time Chloe kicked Brian out, they weren't even married. And she didn't really kick him out. Chloe was the one who left, though the house was in her name, though he was the one who transgressed. She thundered out of the house before she could do something she'd regret—like throw the pot of boiling sauce at him.

Theirs was an explosive relationship, full of slamming doors and shouted curses. On the one hand, there was Chloe, high school science teacher turned freelance recipe developer, methodical, logical, yet creative along a narrow pathway. How she had captured Brian's attention was anyone's guess, though she was a graceful dancer and quite lovely with a cloud of frizzy red hair surrounding an angelic heart-shaped face. Brian was a looker himself, with dark hair and blue eyes that accounted for only some of his success as a musician. He was also a well-educated college drop-out, a talented songwriter, and occasional carpenter.

Their love nest was indeed a nest: a shabby little cottage set in the woods on a dirt road, far from the nearest neighbor. There was intense chemistry between them, the kind of chemistry that draws each to the other like covalent bonds. They were oxygen and hydrogen, sodium and chloride, sharing electrons, sharing the tiny space in the beechnut and oak woods.

But, sometimes the house was just too small, when Chloe had too much work to do, when Brian spread out with his carpentry tools like he owned the place. Then they would roil against each other like water on the boil, like the vinegar and baking soda reaction she had once demonstrated to her students—bubbly and messy but ultimately harmless. Such was the case when Brian dipped a spoon into the salsa that Chloe was stewing over. It had been simmering on the stove for a while, with Chloe tasting and muttering under her breath, adding cumin, adding lime juice, adding just about everything she could think of to bring the flavors into balance.

"Did you toast the chiles first?" asked Brian. "Are the tomatoes fresh or canned?"

"Did I ask for your help?"

"Maybe the lime juice was a mistake."

"Maybe you should shut up."

"Maybe you accept help when it's offered."

"Maybe you should stop being Better Way Brian. How can you possibly think you know more about cooking than I do?"

"I'm not saying that. I'm just saying something doesn't taste right."

"I know that! Just leave me alone. I'll figure it out."

"Could the olive oil be rancid? Here, let me sniff."

"Get the fuck out of here! I'm working. Let me work. This is what I do for a living, remember? Just step away!"

"What about the—"

Chloe turned from the stove and hurled a bottle of oil at Brian, which he caught as his jaw dropped, unable to finish his thought. "Hey!" he said. "You need to chill."

"You need to shut the fuck up," she said, as she turned off the burner. "And get the fuck outta my house!" She stormed past him, grabbed her keys off the hook by the door, and slammed the door shut behind her.

Speeding down the mountain road, she took a curve too fast and almost went off the road, scaring herself. She eased off the gas and loosened her grip on the steering wheel, focusing on the road ahead and taking deep, slow breaths. Maybe she went too far. Maybe she was just in the throes of her usual pre-separation withdrawal from him. Did she really want Brian gone? For good? Each time he left on tour, he left behind a bigger hole. Was she just anticipating the pain of his next departure?

Did she pause in her thoughts to hear the tick, tick, tock of her biological clock? Not at all. Long ago she had decided that her tombstone would read "Here lies a single woman." Returning to singlehood, which she considered her natural state, was tempting, but she did allow herself to consider Brian's good points. His generosity as a lover, his brilliance as thinker, the joy they shared in the music, the dancing. She actually enjoyed cooking for him and getting his feedback on recipes. Was it too spicy? Too salty? Too sweet?

The car rolled passed familiar landmarks, a stream riffling downhill over rocks, a bridge spanning a marsh, a newly hayed field, none of which she really saw. Slowly but surely she became a rational driver, thinking rational thoughts. She reflected on the metallic tang in the air as the sauce bubbled. She considered the pot on the stove, how it came from her grandmother's house, how she cherished it despite the better cookware she purchased. And therein was the answer she forgot she was seeking. A chemical reaction between the aluminum of her grandmother's pot and the acidic tomatoes she was cooking had caused the off-flavor. The chemical reaction, not her cooking, was the problem.

What was she doing cooking in the very same pot her Jewish great-grandmother had brought from Warsaw before World War II? The pot was meant for the vast quantities of chicken soup, not Mexican salsas. No wonder it was incompatible.

Chloe walked into the house ready to make peace. She noted with pleasure that Brian had cleaned the kitchen and was just now toweling dry the last spoon.

"Hey, babe. I have a theory that—"

"Nope. Don't even go there. In the presence of acid, aluminum leaches into the sauce causing an off-flavor."

He nodded his head. "I was just going to say—"

"Do you know how close I came to kicking you out?"

"Me? Kick me out? Why would you do that? We're so good together. C'mere babe. I'm sorry I made you so mad." He put his arms around Chloe and she let her head drop on his shoulder. He whispered in her ear, "What do you call a musician who breaks up with his girlfriend?"

"Homeless," she answered, but still she smiled. "You already told me that one. And don't you forget it."

He kissed her and she responded, at first reluctantly, then inevitably. They paused and looked each other in the eye.

"What's the difference between a musician and a fourteen-inch pizza?"

"I don't know. What's the difference?"

"A fourteen-inch pizza will feed a family of four."

Chloe smiled indulgently. The musician jokes always held an element of truth. "Well, that salsa won't feed anybody. Let's forget about making something Mexican and go get pizza. I'll treat." Naturally she would treat. He was always broke: he was a musician. But he was handy around the house and could fix her car when it broke down.

It was around that time that Monsanto was saying, "Without chemicals life itself would be impossible." Of course it would be impossible. The idiocy of the statement irritated Chloe no end.

They were sitting at the bar where the TV blared overhead. "That's the stupidest piece of advertising propaganda ever sent over the airwaves," Chloe exploded. "Tell that to the bees suffering from colony collapse, you pesticide-wielding, fungicide-smearing capitalist. You don't need Round-Up, but you do need chemical reactions. In fact, you can't avoid them. They are everywhere and affect everything and everyone."

Brian threw back his head and laughed. "You tell 'em, Curly." His nickname for her was Curly, a kinder nickname than Better Way Brian, if you forget about the Three Stooges. But peace had been restored. He left on tour two days later, she soldiered on. Though they had promised each other no commitments, he always came back. And so it went.

One day he came back from a tour to the unexpected: Chloe was pregnant and she was keeping the baby. Brian didn't spend much time weighing his options. He declared his undying love, and soon he was picking up more carpentry work by day so they could buy a bigger house, one with a bedroom for them and another for the baby. Then came the marriage license, minivan, and second child, another boy.

There were attempts by Brian to move the family to a city where there might be more interesting work for him, even studio work, but Chloe held firm. "I need the woods," she said. "I need to be able to hike and ski and scuff my feet through the fallen leaves. Besides there's no place better than Vermont for raising kids."

So Brian didn't get any studio jobs, but he didn't give up his music either. Carpentry was his day job. The music was his life. The carpentry crew gave Brian all the time off he needed for the regional tours he continued—one long weekend at a time.

Chloe suspected that Brian was not always faithful to her, yet she chose to ignore it. So what if some of the bar tabs and meals that showed up on the credit card bills had to be for more than one? And who was to say that the skimpy black panties that appeared in the glove compartment wasn't as Brian explained that he and a couple of the bandmates had gone swimming with a bunch of girls they met and some random girl must have left her undies behind. She wanted him to be emotionally faithful, and he was, but each time some small suggestion of deceit appeared, it left a trace in the blood of their marriage, or maybe what it left was a free radical doing mostly unfelt damage on the cellular level.

One day a girl, a pretty young thing, just barely a woman, showed up on their doorstep, looking for Brian. When Chloe answered the door, baby in her arms, the girl just stared. Then she said, "Does Brian live here? Um...he...someone told me this is his place."

"It is," said Chloe, "but Brian isn't home now."

"Oh, okay...Um...well...um...I guess...that is...well, thanks." As she spoke she backed away.

It was Chloe's turn to stare. She considered asking the girl her name, asking if there was a message. But she was quite sure she knew just why the girl had come and she didn't need a name.

When Brian came home, Chloe demanded he explain the girl—and more. Without much hesitation—or shame—he admitted to the occasional infidelity. "Hook-ups don't really count to my way of thinking. They have nothing to do with you."

Chloe started to protest, but Brian interrupted. "It's not like you've been interested in me since this baby came. You have this private little love thing going on that has nothing to do with me."

"I'm breast-feeding! I'm sleep-deprived and exhausted, and you are out all the time!"

"I'm not out all the time. You just ignore me when I am home."

"Well, that's hormones, oxytocin. My internal chemistry—it has nothing to do with you."

"Exactly. So I have needs and I am getting them met. You are the love of my life. These girls—the sex—it's no big deal."

A big deal, she thought, a very, very big deal. The weight of all the suspicious came crashing down until she could barely breathe. That girl wouldn't have shown up if she hadn't expected more. What more would he give?

Chloe kicked Brian out. For real, for good, or so she thought. Theirs was an inherently incompatible binary relationship.

The equation didn't balance out as she expected. On the one hand: one less person to care for, one less person to cook for, clean after, negotiate with. On the other hand: lonely nights, money problems, day care problems. Chloe never contacted a lawyer, and Brian made sure to visit the boys regularly, always arriving with his tool box.

The toolbox was more necessary to Chloe than the time off his visits represented. It gratified her more that he fixed the railing on the outside steps than a drink with her girlfriends would have. She'd rather have an unclogged sink than a Tinder account. One day as Brian eased himself out from under the leaking kitchen sink, Chloe asked if he would mind tasting a recipe she was preparing.

"It's for a company that wants to sell hummus-type spreads made with different beans. You can taste it plain or on crackers. You know I don't like beans that much."

"As you know, I love beans. Especially your beans." Brian swooped a spoon into a bowl of green paste. "Lima beans? My favorite!"

"No, edamame. What do you think?"

Brian contemplated what he had put in his mouth, then took another spoonful. "Garlic much?"

"Too much?"

"Yeah, way too much. And it's missing a base note. Have you thought about—"

Chloe cut him off. "I'll figure it out."

Brian shrugged and set down the spoon. "Are the boys ready to go?"

Sometimes the visits brought new music to listen to, sometimes there were samples to taste. The samples morphed into eating a meal together, and Chloe and Brian started talking again—the chemistry between them indisputable. The next thing she knew, Brian was back in her bed, then back in her life.

Here's the thing about chemistry: it has its own laws and everyone is subject to them. Chloe assumed she would be attracted to Brian until menopause, until her hormones faded away. She understood that Brian would be susceptible to the pheromone lure of other females as long as he was poisoned by the testosterone his body produced. Testosterone is poison; but that shouldn't mean a man is doomed to be unfaithful to the one he loves.

In fact, Brian made a real effort to stay home more and to be more present when he was home. He still had gigs or practice most nights, but he was great with the kids by day and stepped up to do more of the shopping, the housework, the day-care transport, the doctor and dentist appointments. Chloe stayed home and cooked, developing recipes for a few small organic food companies and testing recipes for a couple of authors she met through a professional organization. She also started a blog about making kid-friendly, healthy recipes, and the blog took off.

When Chloe published a recipe on her blog, most of the comments from her readers were idiotic. "Oooh! My littles will love this even though they hate kale! Can't wait to try it." To which your average blogger would respond with "You go, girl!" Chloe was not your average blogger. She wrote, "Actually, it's pretty obvious that there is kale in the dish; some kids are going to hate its bitterness no matter what. Maybe they would prefer the stir-fry I posted last week." Or something like that, because bloggers have to respond to their readers, whether they have something to say or not.

One day an email arrived from a publishing house. Her blog had caught the attention of the cookbook editor. The editor said that Chloe had an unusually straightforward way of engaging her readers, and if Chloe could produce more of same, then she would offer a contract. The editor wanted more kale and quinoa, even if it meant fewer recipes that Chloe's kids would actually eat, though Chloe never admitted that officially.

Brian's band, Midnight, had a hit with their third recording just as Chloe signed her book contract. On the night they went out to celebrate both accomplishments, Brian announced he was going on tour in Europe for five weeks. "Chloe, I've been holding the band back. But I can't do that now, not with the album charting. I told you early on," he said, "being in a band is a little like being in a marriage. You have to be loyal to your mates. You have to."

He had informed Chloe of this fact of his life, but did she know what it meant when she was young and single? No, she did not. She thought you could be married to the band and married to a spouse. But it turned out marriage to the band was the primary relationship, and the marriage was secondary.

"I thought you understood that once you have kids, everything changes," she said plaintively.

"Everything does change. I've changed. You've changed. We've all changed. But that doesn't mean I have to be home every minute of every day."

"I didn't say that."

"Then what's the problem? You know, if you stopped trying to do the recipe testing for dinner, when the kids are cranky and—well, so are you-—you could probably get a lot more done."

"And give the kids chicken nuggets every night instead of my healthy dishes?"

"You can just reheat it for them."

"So Better Way Brian thinks I should give the kids leftovers every night? Soggy salads and limp stir-fries? Great suggestion, man. Thanks."

A marriage is as susceptible to the forces of chemistry as the cells within our bodies. Sometimes husband and wife are in a state of equilibrium, their cell walls permeable to the enzymes that flow freely from one to another. Sometimes they find themselves in a storm of electrons, bouncing against each other, getting hotter and hotter, osmotic pressure forcing one of them to bend to the other's will.

He returned from his tour triumphant; she welcomed him back a little tired, a little defeated by his absence. The welcome-home moment was directed by the kids, who were pleased to have their Number One playmate back. Dinner was fine, too; Brian had lots of stories to tell and little souvenirs to distribute. The welcome-back sex was as shivery as ever.

Still, as the novelty of having Brian home faded, as his plans for the next tour blossomed in the form of a used RV purchased and parked in the driveway, and the sex became tepid. Oh, they knew how to please each other, and they did. But that drive, that the need for completion that once adhered them skin to skin, that was gone. Now, after sex, each rolled the other way, ready to sleep in a cocoon for one.

Was this the maturing of their relationship or was another process in play? Could she smell the other women on him? No, she could not, but she sensed they were there. And she felt it; she felt it on a cellular level, a build-up of inflammation.

After it was over, neither remembered the catalyst that started it. The final fight was like a lump of sodium tossed in water—explosive and brief. Things were said, plates were thrown; accusations hurled. He found her too rigid, she found him too loose. The truth was they weren't good for each other anymore. Over time their bonds had been melted away in the toxic brew of disappointments. What chemistry had brought together, chemistry had dissolved.

About the Author

Andrea Chesman

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Andrea Chesman is a food writer and cookbook author. She tries to keep food out of her fiction writing but doesn't always succeed. Her work has appeared online in Green Mountains Review and in the print anthology Twisted, published by Medusa's Laugh Press, which nominated her story for a Pushcart Prize. She will have a story in the Spring 2019 issue of The Offbeat. She lives with her family in an old farmhouse, where Robert Frost was a frequent visitor. A photograph taken of Mr. Frost in her dining room is a source of constant inspiration.