Samson's obsession with Julia Child began three weeks after his father’s funeral. He was watching TV late one Saturday night, numbly flipping through channels with the volume high enough that the couple living upstairs would surely complain yet again. The couch he was lying on was lived in, soft in the way that only comes from consistent use. Between the couch and the television set was a wooden coffee table, covered in a collage of water rings across the surface. An almost empty glass of water and an untouched plate of crackers sat on the edge of the table nearest Sam.
Gloria, his mother, was still at work. She usually worked weeknights at The Common Ground – the only restaurant in town that stayed open past midnight – and rarely on weekends. But, given all that had happened recently, her manager threw the extra shifts in her direction. She called it a blessing. Sam thought otherwise. He minded his mother's absence more than he was willing to admit, but in his gut he knew he had no right to. The funeral was expensive, even a twelve-year-old like him knew that, so there was nothing he could do about it.
The only thing he’d eaten that day was a handful of dry Cheerios, which also happened to be the only thing he could keep down. A shame, really, seeing as he always thought that Cheerios were just crunchy pieces of cardboard. He was buried under blankets and spare pillows on the couch when Meryl Streep appeared on the TV screen. His father had seen her films, or so he had claimed. Apparently, his father had taken Gloria out to see a Meryl Streep movie on their first date.
Sam just knew the actress as that lady who was mean to Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada.
Julie and Julia was the title of this film, and he had only missed the first twenty-odd minutes or so. He didn’t like missing the beginning of movies because it always made him feel displaced when he was trying to relax, but he liked the plot to watch it through without getting confused or falling asleep. Somewhere halfway, Gloria came home and mumbled that her day had been long and that she was exhausted. “Did you eat dinner?” she asked before disappearing into her room for the rest of the night. He muted the TV.
“Yes.” A lie, one he had been using almost daily and was now amicable with.
“Good.” She crossed the living room and leaned over the couch to ruffle his hair. Her weak smile didn’t do much to distract from the dark circles under her eyes. “I’ll find a new job soon, kiddo. One with better hours. I have a lot of interviews coming up and I'm feeling good about them. Then we’ll do something fun together.”
Sam’s thoughts wandered to all the times he and his parents went to the mall just to get free samples from the food court, and then to their weekly trips to the library. Sam’s father would choose the most boring book that he could find in the young adult section and then dare Sam to read it before their next visit. If he finished it in time, he’d get five dollars added to his video-game fund.
On Sundays, the three of them would attend their church’s potluck. Sam usually sat with his friends, but he’d often look over to see his parents get into heated debates about the Beatitudes with the seventy-seven-year-old-organ player.
The last time the three of them were at the church was for the funeral. After that, Sam and Gloria refused to go at all.
The thought of the two of them having fun again somehow felt like a slap in the face.
Sam watched as Gloria regarded the film playing on the screen, her tired eyes like beads of glass. “Your dad loved that movie, you know. It’s a good one. He said Meryl Streep was a perfect fit to play Julia Child.”
“Yeah, it is a good one,” he echoed. “Never heard of the chef-lady before.”
“Look her up sometime, she’s cool.” Gloria smiled at him again, bigger now, and placed a kiss on his forehead. “Don’t stay up too late.”
“Okay,” he said, the muscles in his face straining to smile. A minute later, the door to her room clicked shut and he unmuted the movie. When the end credits rolled, he pulled out his phone and earbuds and looked up the chef in question but only because he wanted to see if she looked anything like Meryl Streep. She did.
The second thing that caught his eye were the dates: Born: August 15, 1912. Died: August 13, 2004. Sam wondered if Julia Child had been excited to celebrate her birthday before she died. It hadn’t been that far off – two days was practically nothing – and he imagined her family making calls to suddenly cancel whatever plans they had. Then he wondered if she knew she was going to die, if she anticipated it, accepted it, or, even worse, if she had no idea.
Sam blinked once, twice, and switched to the video tab on the results bar.
Without stopping to reason with himself, Sam stayed up until four in the morning on YouTube, mesmerized as he watched video after video of Julia Child drowning every scrap of food in butter while sputtering off nuggets of wisdom like, “I think careful cooking is love, don't you?” She had placed so much emphasis on those words that Sam could still feel their weight in the same way he felt his heart’s heavy beating.
He tapped his phone screen to pause the video. For the first time that day, the raw hollowness in his stomach bloomed into focus. He pulled out his earbud and was swaddled in the familiar sound of his mother's painful, scraping sobs, muffled by what must have been a pillow, seeping through the thin walls. Sam felt as though a boulder had been placed on his back and was flattening every vessel and airway in his body. His hands started to shake, and his vision began to blur, so he turned back to the video. “The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who's close to you is about as nice a valentine as you can give.”
It ended a few minutes later. Another video began loading automatically as Sam rubbed his irritated eyes with the back of his hand. Despite the late hour, he got off the couch and moved to the tiny kitchen across from the living room. He suddenly had a craving for anything but Cheerios.
A few days passed and Sam had seen nearly every video of Julia Child available for free on the internet. Sure, his eyes burned like an ant under a magnifying glass, but it was worth it in the end. Now he knew how to make mashed potatoes with five heads of garlic. He’d never seen anything so outlandish before. The thought almost made him laugh out loud in the school hallway. That he had finally gone more than an hour without thinking about his father was merely an added bonus.
He skipped classes to sit hunched over his phone in an empty stairwell behind the cafeteria, scouring YouTube for clips he might have missed. The stairs had colonies of dust bunnies in every corner, the dark blue paint chipped and forgotten about over the years. Maybe the janitors had forgotten the existence of the stairwell entirely. There were faded candy bar wrappers stuck in between the railings that looked as though they’d been chemically fused into the metal bars.
It didn’t take long for his absences to catch up with him. His school had a strict policy against cutting class, especially for sixth graders, so he was sentenced to detention for the rest of the week.
“It’s too early for you to be starting these bad habits,” his homeroom teacher said. “I know you’re going through a lot right now. I’m not going to call your mom this time around, but you can’t cut class. We need to know where you are.”
Sam remained silent and took the reprimand without complaint. When he got home, his mother had already left for work and wasn’t scheduled to leave until later that night. He dropped his backpack by the door near his shoes.
Rewatching Julia Child videos felt right at the time, even if it meant forsaking his homework to do so. Julia’s voice was different yet oddly soothing, and he got into the habit of letting an episode of The French Chef play at night as he was falling asleep. Listening to her meant that he didn’t have to face the silence, which in turn meant that he didn’t have all that free space in his head to think about hospital rooms, or open caskets and cold hands. He tried not to dwell on hearts that attacked their own bodies when they were tired of feeling neglected, and he wished he could erase the image of his father as he fell from the dining table, or the sound of his head hitting the floor. Sam and Gloria waited helplessly for the ambulance to arrive, kneeling close to his father with outstretched hands, but never touching him. Sam wanted to scrub the strangled sound of his mother screaming from his memory.
And yet, for whatever reason, Sam couldn’t remember what his father had been saying right before he fell. That was the only blank his mind would allow. Silence, Sam quickly learned, was a violent thing, making him feel like an onion that had been peeled too quickly, sliced too deeply, leaving behind only the acidic residue on the cutting board that would soon vanish in the wash.
Julia shielded him from every unpleasant thing his mind led him towards and then some.
Another week went by, and Sam decided to earn some money. His logic was that if he contributed to the rent, Gloria would get to stay home more often and then maybe they could try making a soufflé together. He wanted to know what it tasted like, and if it was as delicious as Julia said. Getting a job was nearly impossible for anyone under the age of fourteen, mainly because it was illegal, but Sam was nothing if not determined. He went door to door in his apartment building to ask if there were any chores that needed to be done, kids that needed to be watched, or cars that needed washing. Most turned him down, especially the annoyed couple in the upstairs apartment, but the elderly Italian woman who lived on the first floor, Rosanella, just chuckled and showed him to her cleaning supply closet.
“It’s good for kids to learn the value of a dollar sooner rather than later.”
Every day after school was something new. She had him sweep and mop her tiled kitchen floor, wash the dishes, polish silverware, air out her ancient throw rug that looked like it took notes from a broken kaleidoscope, brush a lint roller over all her old coats, and run down to the store to pick up milk and bread. “But not sandwich bread. Don't you dare come back here with that rubbery Wonder crap. I want real bread, bambino. The kind you can taste with your soul.” Her Italian accent was thick, but she placed extra emphasis on each word when it mattered.
The grocery store down the street didn’t have any bread that advertised some form of soul-quenching satisfaction, so he asked one of the employees, a guy who looked like he was in high school or college. “This isn’t for that crazy Italian grandma, is it?” Sam nodded yes. “Oh, she wants the ciabatta,” he said, pointing over Sam’s head towards the bakery. “Way back of the store, to the right.”
When Sam returned to Rosanella’s apartment, she inspected the bread and deemed it worthy of its four-dollar price tag. “This will do,” she said. “Barely.”
After the first three weeks, Sam had a little over one hundred dollars saved up, which was not bad for someone who was not legally allowed to have a job. He proudly presented Gloria with his earnings one morning before school, only to be met with, “What the – ?” Her eyes narrowed at him, brows furrowed in a sharp line, and Sam thought she might slap his hand away. “No. No. Get that out of my face.”
“But Mom, I –”
“Now. I don’t need your help with money. Just go buy a video game or something, Samson.” Using his full name was an indicator that she was upset, and he could feel himself shrinking under her gaze.
“Oh… okay.” He couldn’t place this feeling. Her frustration had a lingering effect on him; he could tell by the way she clipped her words as short as possible during the drive to school, but he didn’t understand why. Why didn’t she want his help? Why did the money make her angry? Why did he make her angry? The only thing he knew for sure was that if he asked those questions, his mother’s anger would morph into something he couldn’t control.
On the way home from school, he walked by a used bookstore. He passed it all the time yet had never been inside, preferring the town library and the collection of freely available books instead. He never understood the need to own something unnecessary. Why buy books when the option to check them out for weeks at a time was an option?
However, that day something in the window caught his eye and he rushed in. There was a stale odor holding the air hostage, like someone had stolen Rosanella’s mothballs and locked them away in a heated air vent. The carpet was worn, the red hue faded in some sections more than others. Right in front of the entrance was a shelf for new hardcover books that had recently been donated, fiction on one side and nonfiction on the other. Above the register were colorful origami cranes hanging down from the ceiling and twirling around in lazy circles. They were all wilted along the edges of their wings, but they were beautiful.
Sitting behind the counter reading a book, one that was clearly larger than the Bible, was an older woman with frizzy silver hair tied up in a bun. “Um, excuse me?” Sam spoke up while also making himself small, his arms squeezed tightly at his sides.
The woman looked up as he approached, eyes huge behind the thick lenses of her glasses. “Well, hello there. Do you need help finding something?”
“Um, I was just wondering about the books in the window?” Sam kept his eyes focused on his sneakers as he pointed towards the display shelf. There were about ten other books facing out to the public, so he mentally kicked himself for not being specific. The woman rose from her seat and went to examine the shelf and he followed close behind.
“Which books, hun?”
“The cookbooks, please.” Not just any cookbooks, though, but both volumes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A seventy-dollar set on Amazon, no less. Sam knew, he checked.
“Ah, these old things. They’ve been sitting here for quite some time. I was wondering when someone was going to pick them up.” She took both hardcover volumes off the shelf and handed them to him. “You like cooking?”
“I do,” he said sheepishly. He had made dozens of boxes of macaroni and cheese recently, and even added in extra tablespoons of butter when the instructions didn’t tell him to, so it wasn’t a total lie.
“Good. It’s nice to see kids learning this stuff early on. It’s important.”
He hummed in agreement as she rang him up. His dad used to say things like that, about kids learning how to take care of themselves and loved ones. Granted, Sam didn’t think he would use the books when he first saw them; he just knew that he wanted them. Watching Julia cook and cooking on his own were two separate things on opposite ends of the spectrum. Part of him felt that he could never pull off any recipe no matter how hard he tried, and another part of him thought that Gloria would get upset if he used the stove without permission. But then again, why would he buy something and not use it?
After paying for the books with his formerly rejected money (only twenty dollars!), he ran down the next three blocks and rounded a corner, his breath visible in the late February air. Sharp spurts of wind had rendered his fingers and toes numb as he tumbled up the apartment’s front steps and barreled through Rosanella’s door, sweat collecting underneath his jacket as the blast of her space heaters hit him all at once.
“Look what I bought!” The last time he was this excited about buying something, it was for a video game. He had to read through a lot of terrible young adult novels to afford a game he couldn’t even remember the name of anymore. Was it his WWE wrestling game? Or one of the Super Smash games? Now, he didn’t care.
Rosanella was plopped down on her recliner sofa with slippered feet up on the footrest and a bowl of candied almonds in her lap. Every wall in her apartment was painted a dark red, like an apple that had begun to rot, with images of saints that Sam had never heard of tacked up in a single file. He did recognize Jesus though, who hung on a gilded cross just above the woman’s head. Across the room, propped up on her dining table, was a framed photo of a boy, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, dressed in a suit and tie that looked too big on him. The TV was playing the same nonsensical Italian game show Rosanella watched every afternoon.
“What did you buy, bambino?”
He sat next to her on the couch and watched as she flipped through the first volume.
“Ah, I remember this woman and her cooking program. She thought butter solved everything, the nerve! But she was okay. Not as good as Italian food, no, never as good, but truly nothing in this world is,” she chuckled, but he knew she was not joking. “I didn't know you like cooking. I should have you making all my meals from now on. Che fai? Why didn’t you tell me, eh?”
“I mean, I can make pasta from a box and hard-boiled eggs, but that’s about it.”
“Mio Dio, what am I going to do with you?” Flipping through the book again, she landed on a page and skimmed its content. “You could do this one,” she said, tilting the book towards him and pointing to the title.
“Crêpes? Like, those little pancake things?”
“Sì, but don’t listen to her about the orange cream, that’s ridiculous. Eat them with as much Nutella as you can handle. And you know where Nutella comes from, right?”
There was only ever one correct answer with Rosanella. “Italy?”
Her face lit up, he thought, as though he had just told her the secret to immortality. “Sì! Che bello!” With a frail, thin hand, she patted his knee and then rid the joy from her face a second later. “Now go scrub down my stove, Mr. Chef, I want it sparkling.”
When his time at Rosanella’s ended, Sam marched to his apartment with one book under each arm. He abandoned his backpack by the sneakers, boots, and high heels that were piled up next to the front door, deciding to work on his school assignments later. The homework had been accumulating and his teachers were asking him about the missing work. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it. It was that the drive to do so had vanished and was replaced by the desperate need to make fancy French pancakes. He could make crêpes if he really tried, right? All the ingredients were in the pantry, and the instructions seemed simple enough, so he gave it a shot. Besides, how could he possibly mess up pouring a mixture of milk, water, eggs, sugar, and flour into a hot pan? The answer: tons of ways.
Did he burn a few of them? He burned most of them, but the ones that turned out edible were delicious even without the Nutella. In fact, he liked them so much (and liked making them so much) that he decided what he was going to do with his money. So, with a new resolve, he bought just about everything he didn’t already have at home on his next trip to the grocery store: three boxes of butter, stew meat, chicken thighs, bouillon cubes, spices he couldn’t pronounce, too many potatoes, three different types of onions, tomatoes, carrots that did not look clean, cartons upon cartons of heavy cream, enough eggs to feed his entire math class, and half the baking aisle. He even got a loaf of Rosanella’s ciabatta to top off his impressive shopping cart.
Julia always seemed to go through these foods faster than anyone could eat them, so Sam wasn’t too concerned with anything going bad. He picked up and inspected each vegetable individually, flipped them methodically in his hands. When Julia prepared food, it never seemed that she was just gathering ingredients. It was more like she was gathering extended pieces of herself. As he pushed his cart to the register check out, Sam wondered if he would ever handle food with the same fluidity as she did.
Probably not, but that wasn’t about to stop him from trying.
Food, as it turned out, was expensive, so he was going to have to work even harder for Rosanella to reach his goal. Sam’s father had once taught him about couponing, and now he was putting his instructions to good use. Gratitude filled him as he saw the reduced final price. If his father was out there somewhere, watching him from above, he would have been really proud.
“Damn,” Derek, the high school employee, said behind the register. “That grandma’s getting lazier and lazier, I swear. Can you even carry all of this?” No, he could not, so the employee let him borrow a shopping cart and told him to “bring it back whenever, we got a ton.”
Of the contents in his freezer, Sam was not allowed to touch the frozen meals Gloria took to work. Why she didn’t eat the food served at the restaurant was anyone’s guess, but Sam thought that maybe she didn’t want to eat meals his father didn’t make for her. He knew that feeling all too well.
His father used to make bagged lunches for them every morning, and, by extension, bagged dinners for Gloria to take to work. He even wrote little notes or bad puns on the napkins, all of which he stole from sitcoms, or the internet, or, even worse, other dads. Sam used to hide the notes from his friends at the lunch table and throw them away as soon as the opportunity arose. Now he avoided the school cafeteria like a plague.
Well, it was more accurate to say that he avoided school like a plague. He went to some of his classes during the day and tried his best not to skip the same class more than twice per week, but mentally he was checked out. In his mind, he was in his dream kitchen, the one he imagined himself having once he was an adult, complete with a brand-new gas stove, marble counters, entire cabinets dedicated to his spice collection, and an entire set of cast-iron cookware. When he focused on the lecture, he didn’t recognize what his teachers were talking about.
He fell into an orderly routine in the following weeks. After school, he stopped at the store, then did chores for Rosanella (which she had been shamelessly overpaying him for, despite his protests), and finally went upstairs to try cooking something new, all the while playing Julia videos in the background. He didn’t listen to the words anymore, but the noise helped center his thoughts so he could concentrate on the task at hand. Silence was still more of a burden than a natural occurrence in the universe, so canceling it out with soothing, familiar words grounded him in the here and now.
The recipes he chose were easy enough, and his confidence grew with each passing success. His greatest triumph came in the form of a simple quiche lorraine on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Gloria had gone down to the gas station – something about a “check engine light” that didn’t “know when to give up.”
First things first. He had to make the crust. From scratch. Premade anything would only cheapen the experience, as far as Sam was concerned, and he knew that Julia would agree. The beautiful thing about crust was how generous it could be in the butter to flour ratio, specifically with the butter half. He mixed the ingredients together in between his fingers until it was crumbly enough to pat down along the bottom and sides of the pie tin that he found in the back of the storage closet. It didn’t look nearly as good as Julia’s, but it also wasn’t half bad. He whisked a dozen eggs together and stirred in heavy cream, chopped onions, diced red peppers, bits of broccoli, and layers upon layers of cheese. None of those ingredients were in the original recipe, save for the eggs and cream, but he had leftover vegetables that he didn’t want to waste. Plus, he had watched Julia enough times to know that quiche was more than a little flexible.
The real star of this recipe was the cubed bacon, which still had to be cooked fully before he could add it to the mixture. Sam set his father’s old cast-iron skillet on the stove and drizzled olive oil to coat the bottom. He waited until the oil was steaming before placing thick strips of fatty bacon in the pan, stopping for a moment to inhale the intoxicating scent and to listen to the crackling noises that rose once the meat and iron made contact. Once the bacon was cooked and cut into smaller pieces, he added them to the egg mixture and then poured the mixture into the crust. The quiche went into the oven and the timer was set for an hour, which gave him plenty of time to clean up before Gloria came home from her battle against the blinking light in their minivan.
Shortly before the quiche was to come out of the oven, the front door of the apartment slammed shut, and a sour Gloria kicking off her heels and muttering to herself about “damn mechanics, jacking up their prices.”
Sam was kneeling by the oven, watching as the buttery crust on his masterpiece deepened its golden hue. Maybe after a few more tries, his quiche would start to resemble Julia’s, he thought. He looked up when Gloria made her way to the refrigerator to grab a bottle of water. “Did the engine light give up?” he asked.
“Not exactly.” She looked down as she twisted the bottle cap off, tilting her head to one side with a raised eyebrow. She pointed back towards the living room with her thumb. “You know the TV’s that way, right?”
“Found something better to watch. Look,” he said, motioning her to kneel beside him. “It’s almost ready.”
Gloria got down on his level, the crack of her knees sounding not unlike the bacon from the cast-iron skillet. “Is that a quiche?”
He hummed in response, pressing his fingers against the glass of the oven door.
“And you’re how old again?”
“Old enough to know that I’ve been robbed of eating savory pies for far too long.”
“We’ve had chicken pot pies before,” she said, and the eyeroll was equally audible.
“That doesn’t count,” he huffed.
“Oh? How so?”
“Because I totally forgot about that until just now.” Gloria ran her hand through his hair and stood up, turning towards her room. “Wait, don’t go yet,” Sam said, words tumbling out of him like falling dominoes. “You have to try the quiche. It’s almost ready.”
She smiled halfheartedly and sighed. “Whatever you say. I need to make a phone call first, but it’ll be over by the time it takes the quiche to cool down. Sound good?”
He nodded, unsure of where to place the disappointment that had sprung up inside him.
Once his masterpiece had come out of the oven and cooled for fifteen minutes, Sam stood knocking at his mother’s locked door. Cold silence. No one-sided phone conversation, no shuffling of feet, nothing. When he pressed his ear to the door, he could barely make out the faint turning of pages, which he assumed to be the photo album of his parents’ wedding day. It had seen a lot of use recently. “Mom? It’s ready!”
“Be right out,” she eventually called back. Her voice sounded small and congested, so he knew not to get his hopes up.
Gloria didn’t come out for forty minutes, which Sam spent rewatching the same handful of Julia videos over and over again. When Sam heard the click of the lock and saw his mother emerge, he stiffened. Had the dark circles under her eyes always been that bad? Had she always been that thin? Had he seriously not noticed until now? “Sorry, kiddo. Time got away from me.”
Sam didn’t know what to say to that, so he shuffled over to the kitchen and pulled dinner plates down from the cabinet above the counter. They ate the lukewarm quiche on the couch with the TV on, the volume high enough to warrant a complaint from the upstairs neighbors. When Gloria finished, she ran a hand through his hair as she stood. “It was really good, thank you.” She leaned down to kiss his forehead, then moved her empty plate to the sink and disappeared once more to her room. They didn’t speak for the rest of the night.
Sam spent the next few days remaking the crêpes until none of them had burn marks. Once he had that down, he moved on to scrambled eggs that claimed to be extremely fluffy, every simple vegetable dish the books had to offer, a beef stew recipe that took him all day to make, and desserts that didn’t require complicated baking tools. Gloria told him, quite bitterly, that he was not allowed to get his own kitchen blowtorch, or borrow one from Rosanella’s oddly large collection, so crème brûlée was off the table.
On the flip side, she seemed happy that her son had finally found a hobby, which came as a surprise. Frankly, he was happy, too. The feeling of turning a few basic ingredients into something else entirely gave him a sense of peace that he had never experienced before. He liked knowing that he could control every element of the recipe, from the size of each vegetable to the amount of salt in the soup, to the level of heat used to cook his eggs. The sense of accomplishment whenever the food resulted in the way he wanted it to was almost unparalleled, and the only thing better than that feeling was his mother eating the leftovers he wrapped up for her. This, he thought, must have been what Julia meant when she said that careful cooking is love. This has to be it.
“I’m glad you’re doing something productive. It’s not healthy to just sit around and watch TV all day.” Leaning against the counter, Gloria ruffled his hair as they ate the scrambled eggs that he had made. They didn’t use the dining table anymore.
“I beg to differ. If I watch TV all day, then that means I’m not playing in traffic. Or starting fires. Or starting fires in traffic.”
The morning sun broke through the windows above the kitchen sink and highlighted a few wisps of gray hair that Sam never noticed on his mother before. “Just don’t burn the apartment down, okay?”
“I won’t,” Sam said, abandoning his breakfast on the plate. “So, I was thinking. Maybe this weekend you could make something with me? You did say you have Sunday off, remember? And I know you love chocolate cake.”
“Oh, honey. You know I’m not good with that stuff,” she said playfully, but his heart began to sink. “Your dad would have loved cooking with you, I wish he could have…” She paused and looked across the room at the dining table. At the spot on the floor where he had fallen, where he stopped breathing. It had been months now since the funeral. “Never mind.”
“Oh, okay.” Sam turned back to his eggs. “Hey, did you try the leftovers from last night?” It was coq au vin, chicken with red wine. The wine part was generously donated to him by a particular Italian grandma who firmly believed that un pasto senza vino è come un giorno senza sole – a meal without wine is like a day without sun. Along with his cooking, Sam’s Italian was also improving.
“Not yet, I’ll bring them to work with me later. Promise.” She grinned and moved to the coatrack by the door to retrieve her jacket, shrugging it on and patting down the pockets for her keys. “Now, let’s get you to school.”
Sam was skipping every other class. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he’d skip the odd-numbered classes, and Tuesdays and Thursdays he’d skip the even. When he wasn’t in class, he spent his time either in the stairwell behind the cafeteria, or in an empty classroom he found on the fourth floor. When he was in his classes, Sam spent most of the period writing lists in his notebooks – foods he wanted to try, recipes he wanted to make, and grocery lists for the week. He liked crossing items off each list, giving him a sense of accomplishment that he just didn’t achieve anymore in his studies.
At least he looked as though he was taking notes. To him, that didn’t count for nothing.
Sam bolted from each classroom the second the bell rang to avoid getting pulled aside by his teachers. He was supposed to have asked Gloria to sign off on his progress reports, but he didn’t have the nerve to show them to her just yet. She was a whirlwind when she was angry, which wasn’t a can of worms he wanted to open.
The lunch period was spent on the floor in the library with a Tupperware container filled with cold chicken and rice in a white mushroom sauce, the sounds of study groups in the main room carrying over to lull him into a decent reading rhythm. He was crammed in between two small shelves of Nickelodeon and Disney-themed cookbooks that were far too simple by Sam’s standards. He flipped through the glossy pages, made a face at the colorful pictures that took up more than their fair share of space, and picked at the chicken pieces with a plastic fork. The meat hadn’t dried out yet, which was surprising for chicken breast. Usually, it was dark meat that held itself together in the days following.
Startled, he snapped his head up to see one of the school’s guidance counselors, Mrs. Berger. “H-hi?”
She was tall, with broad shoulders and dark hair that fell halfway down her back, dressed in a navy-blue pantsuit that made her look like a lawyer on a crime show. She gave him a practiced smile, one that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and crouched down in front of him, lowering her voice so that no one else could hear. “Strange place to eat lunch, don’t you think?”
Sam shrugged. “It’s not as crowded.”
“I see.” She studied him, scrutinizing every motion he made. “Samson, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Would you come meet with me in my office?”
Heaving a sigh, he stabbed his fork into another piece of chicken and left it there. “No.”
She nodded, her tone laced with accusation. “Okay then. Samson, I’m concerned your mother isn’t receiving the voicemails I’ve been leaving. Or the emails.”
“The answering machine works fine, the computer, too. I’m sure she got them all,” he added too quickly.
“I see” was all she answered before allowing a long pause to hang between them, which Sam spent fidgeting his fingers along the edges of the cookbook in his lap while looking anywhere but at the counselor in front of him. The steady chatter of study groups in the main room seemed to vanish when he wasn’t paying attention. And somewhere in the far reaches of his memory, he heard the ambulances drawing near.
It didn’t take long for the silence to overwhelm him. “I mean, she’s been really busy lately. A lot has happened, you know. A lot. So, she’ll call back when she has time. Or email. Or whatever.”
A pause stretched itself out for a long moment, and the silence was deafening. Sam wished that she would say something, anything, even if she screamed and told him that he was getting detention again.
Mrs. Berger’s lips flatlined, considering each of his words as their own confession. “Samson, deleting the messages won’t help your situation.”
When she didn’t press the issue further, and the silence overtook him once more, Sam felt sweat across his back and up his neck. Her eyes were calm, patient, and that only made his heart pound faster. Was this how people got heart attacks?
“I didn’t!” he yelled in the otherwise quiet library. The guilt twisted into something sour on his tongue for lying. Maybe the Sundays he missed at church were finally catching up to him.
“Your teachers and I just want to help.”
“We can’t help if you don’t let us.”
“Do you know?”
Mrs. Berger stood calmly, straightening out the wrinkles in her suit with the backs of her hands. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll leave you to the rest of your lunch. Be sure to make it back to class on time.”
Sam nodded but said nothing as she walked out of sight. He packed up the remainder of his lunch and shoved it back in his backpack. Suddenly, he wasn’t hungry anymore.
Going to Rosanella’s in the afternoon had become more and more elaborate as time went on. Sam ended up staying later than he used to, not going back to his own apartment until well past dinnertime.
Once all the chores were done, Rosanella began teaching him meals she had learned to cook back when she lived in Italy. “Whenever a recipe tells you to use garlic, always double the amount. Or triple it. You can never have too much garlic.”
Sam thought back to the garlic mashed potatoes recipe and decided that Julia would likely agree. He, on the other hand, was still skeptical. “Wouldn’t that overpower the other flavors?”
“If it’s so easily drowned in garlic, it’s not a flavor worth fretting over.” She gave him a wink and a pinch to the cheek before returning to the cutting board. They were making homemade meatballs, which were apparently not supposed to be served with any type of pasta. “These are antipasti, not a sidekick to boxed spaghetti. Write that down somewhere. Maybe get it tattooed on your dominant arm, so you’ll never forget.”
The final mixture consisted of ground beef, garlic, thinly diced onions, ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, Romano cheese, and a concoction of Italian spices that Sam was proud to say he knew all the names to. When Rosanella cracked a raw egg into the bowl and told him to mix, he flinched. “Aren’t you not supposed to touch raw eggs? I thought they make people sick?”
She chuckled, shaking her head, and Sam took note of the paper-thin skin of her neck and the dark veins underneath. “You can’t eat raw meat or eggs. But touching them won’t make you sick, bambino.”
Feeling as though he had been gravely lied to his entire life, he rolled up his sleeves and broke the egg yolk with the flat palm of his hand. The feeling of each ingredient passing between his fingers stirred something light and airy in his chest, and he liked the thought of having personally handled every single bite of the meal. That thought was the only thing that kept him going even after his arm got tired from all the kneading.
“Some people like to cook with electric mixers, but I think food always tastes better when you mix it by hand. That’s how the love gets in.” Rosanella reached over to push back some of the hair in Sam’s eyes, the pads of her fingers soft and warm against his forehead. His father’s hands had been much the same just before he died when he used to push Sam’s hair back and complain that he needed to get it cut or else he’d look like the lead singer of a grunge band.
“But does it matter? In the end?” It didn’t seem to, not from where he stood. Rosanella herself was really, truly old, and one day she too would be buried six feet underground, left to rot until there was nothing but bones left. Just like his father. And just like Julia Child, who, realistically speaking, was probably nothing more than an indistinguishable skeleton in a fancy box by now. “Whether or not someone tastes the love… does it really matter so long as the food tastes good?” He tried masking the raw waver in his voice by clearing his throat, but it only served to deepen the sensation.
Rosanella was silent for a long moment, enough that Sam wondered if she had heard him at all. But then a drawn-out sigh filled the kitchen, and, for a split second, the woman appeared even older. “You know, my son used to ask those types of questions. ‘Why do this,’ and ‘why do that?’ and ‘what’s the point?’ And do you know what I told him?”
Sam shrugged. “Because I said so?”
“Heh, no. No. I told him that life is short. That in the blink of an eye, we could all be gone.” A small part of Sam felt annoyed. Partially because her words were cheesy, partially because it was a sentiment that he had heard a million times before in Lifetime movies, and maybe a little because he didn’t like hearing the things he already knew. “So, it’s important to love as much as you can in the time God has given us, because we can never know when our time is up. I told my son that my life could end.” She snapped her fingers in Sam’s face, a loud crack like dry thunder. “Just like that.”
“What did your son say about it? Did he change his mind?”
Rosanella closed her eyes and took a deep breath, the kind that made her whole body rise and fall, and when she opened her eyes again, she reached over and lifted the bowl of meatball batter, placing it directly in front of her on the counter. Tearing golf ball-sized chunks of mixture from the whole, she began rolling them ever so carefully in her palms. “I don’t think so, no. I never got the chance to ask him before—” She looked down at the meatball, the whites of her eyes fading to red, and Sam knew not to press the matter further. For both their sakes.
It had been a few weeks since Rosanella last brought up her son, whose name was Giuseppe, he later found via flipping through an old photo album she kept hidden behind her cookbooks. It wasn’t snooping. She had given him permission to browse the bookshelf. Sam had been careful not to bring the matter up again, or the conversation that had led up to it. Something about the way she talked about her son felt tense, a specific breed of discomfort that Sam felt familiar with, like whenever Gloria talked about his dad.
“Are you trying to break the peppers?” Rosanella’s tone was amused, but the message was clear: don’t ruin the stuffed peppers they’d just spent an hour and a half making.
“No, no, sorry,” he replied, blinking a few times. In truth, the whole thing had bothered him. Rosanella's son, the somber air surrounding his memory, the old photographs that showed him as a young man frozen in time, not aging past his early adulthood. Sam wasn't completely oblivious; he had learned the language of the dead, become fluent in its gentle nuance. He wondered how someone could die so young, how life could be denied them before they even had a chance to start. Was it a car accident? An illness? Do hearts discriminate between young and old before they suddenly decide to stop? Is it genetic? Random chance? Would Samson leave Gloria like Giuseppe did Rosanella?
“Just thinking. About homework,” he added, but Rosanella saw through that.
"Oh, really? Tell me about it, then. I want to learn, too."
It was a challenge, one she expected him to lose. Sam didn't like being caught red-handed, so he began to talk himself into a hole. "We're learning about cell structure in biology. I keep forgetting the difference between plant cells and animal cells."
Rosanella hummed, which was more of a keep going, than I see, how interesting! She was a hard woman to fool. “Anything else?”
“Plant cells have a cell wall. That’s one of the differences.”
“Good for you for figuring that out. Your deep thoughts have paid off.”
That stung. “It’s tough stuff.”
“I see, how interesting.” Not exactly the tone he was hoping for, but he’d take it. “And you’re sure there’s nothing else?”
Your son is dead, and I don’t want to end up like him.
You are older than Betty White, you could die any day now. I don’t want to be like you, either.
One day, without rhyme or reason, painfully or peacefully, I will close my eyes for the last time and that scares me.
How do I avoid dying young?
What is the use of living when I already know the end result?
Sam said none of that. How could he? So, instead he informed her that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.”
“That’s not what I want to hear.”
It wasn’t what he wanted to say, either. “There’s nothing else. Really.”
Rosanella smoothed out the ground beef and rice filling over the tops of the peppers with a spoon. The motion was soothing to watch, brief as it might have been. When she finished, Sam handed her the bowl of grated parmesan cheese he’d prepared when the peppers were first boiling. The recipe called for a “light sprinkling” of cheese, but Rosanella interpreted that as a “heavy downfall,” which was exactly how Sam liked it.
That Sunday afternoon, Sam decided to try asking his mom to cook with him again. He wanted her to see him cook up close, to see just how far he’d come since he started, but he couldn’t place his finger on why. Then again, there were a ton of whys in his life that he couldn’t even begin to answer, so he spared himself the headache and didn’t think too deeply into it. Outside, winter was just beginning to loosen its grip on the weather, which meant that they could start leaving the window above the sink open. Sure, the wind was still chilly, but it wasn’t a sharp chill so much as a rounded one that didn’t sting his eyes shut or numb his ears.
Sam was on the couch, wearing his father’s old apron, and scrolling through his phone, looking up the difference between white and yellow onions. To him, they tasted the same. Julia, on the other hand, called for each of them separately in her recipes as if it somehow made a difference. Scientifically speaking, there were slight differences between the two. Yellow onions grew sweeter the longer they were cooked, whereas white onions had a sharper flavor and thinner skin. He had yet to taste the difference, but if it was important enough for Julia Child to differentiate, then it was important enough for him, too.
Gloria was on the phone in her room, a rotation of “oh, I see” and “yes, I understand” from her end of the line. When she came out, she looked pissed. Suddenly, his onion inquiries did not seem that important.
“You look beautiful today, Mommy,” he started to say before she had the chance to explode. That line never helped his case, though it sometimes, albeit rarely, helped his father when Gloria was upset with him. Sam liked to think that his one-in-a-million shot would come for him one day.
“That was the school secretary on the phone,” she said.
Apparently, today was not that day. Leave it to his rotten luck for the school to call on a Sunday of all days. Traitors. Gloria was prone to blowing up first and asking questions later, so he braced himself for the worst.
“You haven’t handed in a single homework assignment in two months and you’re skipping classes, so it seems.” She spat out those last three words, a clear indication that the veins in her forehead were about to appear. “Apparently your teachers have sent home letters with you for me to sign off on. How come I’ve never seen them, hmm?”
“That’s… so weird, Mom, I don’t know why they’d say tha—”
“Stop, just… just stop.” Vein number one entered the fray. Sam pressed his lips down tight, deciding it was better to ride out the wave than swim against it. “Samson. I am so... disappointed, so angry.”
“I know,” he said under his breath, a soft confession in an empty sanctuary.
“No, I don't think you do.” Her voice rose, along with vein number two. “Look, I get it. I know. I miss him just as much as you do, but you can't just drop your responsibilities, you can't flake out on school, you just can't.” She was pacing now, running her hands through her dark curly hair. “She said they want to put you in in-school suspension.”
“Okay.” He picked at a callous on his hand with the nail of his thumb in rhythm to a bird chirping outside the window. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
She fixed a hard stare at him and breathed in once, twice, pinching the bridge of her nose. Her eyes closed and for a split second, so brief it might not have happened, she looked completely at peace. “It’s… fine. It’ll be fine.”
Gloria’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, falling on him like a swarm of wasps. He wondered if she could hear his heartbeat from where she stood. “Yes. It will be. I should have been keeping a closer eye on you, so I want you to start showing me your homework from now on. I want it done before you do,” she motioned towards the kitchen, “any of that. And if I hear that you’re skipping classes one more time, then all of that goes away.”
“Okay,” he said, hoping that would be the end of it. He placed his focus back down at his phone screen and tried to regulate his breathing, if only to escape his mother’s glare.
“No, no. Look at me when I’m talking to you.” She sat down next to him on the couch and seized the phone in one fluid motion. He felt it rip from the skin of his palm like a Band-Aid covering an old wound, tearing at the scabs desperate to remain intact.
They sat there in silence, Gloria staring directly at him, while he couldn’t seem to keep his focus on any one thing, an ocular game of hide-and-seek that Sam was doomed to lose. Neither of them spoke. Sam couldn’t even make out the sound of their own breathing. For all he knew, his ears had given up on him. His gaze fixed on the dining table over Gloria’s shoulder, on the chair his father used to sit in every night for dinner. Silence tore into him, setting the emergency alarms off in his mind, and if Sam listened hard enough, he could hear that awful sound of his father collapsing on the hardwood floor. He could hear the silence that settled once his father stopped breathing.
Gloria reached over and tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear, her touch surprisingly soft. The explosion didn’t last as long as he had expected it to. “Why aren’t you doing your schoolwork, kiddo. Talk to me.” Not a demand, but not quite a question either. Sam looked up anywhere but at her eyes, settling on the space at the side of her forehead where the veins once were.
He shrugged. “No point.”
“Give me more to work with than two words.” That one was a demand.
“I mean, like, you do all this stuff and then what?” A lump was forming at the base of his throat, scraping the walls up his neck. “You just… die. You just fall down and die, Mom. What does it matter? I’m going to die, and you’re going to die, and everyone is going to die, so it’s not like it’ll mean anything if I don’t hand in a piece of paper.” He hated the way his voice hitched, how his hands were trembling in his lap as his vision blurred. He hated the warm trails sliding down his cheeks. “You know, butterflies only live for a few months. But they spend all that time eating and sleeping and growing wings just to die a few weeks later. I looked it up for a science thing once, it’s so stupid.” Maybe he wasn’t making any sense, but he was sure he wasn’t wrong.
“Sam, it’s not all for nothing.” Her voice was cautious, as if he were made of glass and every word was sharpened stone. A small sense of relief washed over him when she placed her arm over his shoulder. “Everything you do means something, even the small stuff. I promise.”
“Yeah, and maybe if Dad did more homework, he’d still be here. You’re right.” Gloria’s arm tensed for a moment and then relaxed again.
“That’s not what I—” She closed her mouth, opened it again, but nothing came out. She leaned back on the couch, pulling him down with her so that his head rested neatly into her shoulder. “What about all the food you make? That pointless too?”
“Doesn’t it make you happy?”
“So?” She smoothed down a patch of his hair with her thumb, the repetitive motion soothing the headache that had begun to form between his eyes. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed.
“It’s okay not to know.”
“Do you know?”
Gloria paused to mull it over before responding with a simple, “I have no idea.”
They sat in a comfortable silence, one that felt warm in his ears, and for the first time the quiet didn’t make Sam want to vomit.
“Rosanella said that making Romano cheese is the reason why God made people,” he said, because there was still a limit as to how much silence he could handle in one sitting. The rise and fall of his mother’s laughter bubbling against his own was worth it.
She patted him on the back and sat up at the edge of the couch. “So, kiddo. You still wanna make that cake?”