Love and The Secret Sauce
For Steve’s thirtieth birthday, I made spaghetti with homemade tomato basil sauce, and veal meatballs. Dessert was a chocolate cream pie.
When I’d first met Steve, his culinary tastes were what you’d imagine a latchkey kid’s would be: hot dogs, hamburgers and mac n cheese. Slowly but surely, as I learned to cook for the man that I loved, his taste buds developed. The table set, I opened a bottle of Chianti, lit the candles and waited for him to walk in the door from work. Since his graphic design temp job at Disney had turned permanent, we could afford to splurge on good food. Soon, we could move out of the dump on Van Nuys and into a sweet place in Toluca Lake or Burbank.
I checked my phone again. Seven. Maybe there was traffic. I texted him. “Hey birthday boy. Can’t wait to see you.” Heart emoji, eggplant emoji, taco emoji, flames. Then I went into the bathroom and freshened my red lipstick. Readjusted my tight skirt. On second thought, I reached up underneath and pulled my panties down, peeling them over my high heels, tossing them into the corner. “Commando?” he often asked, begged. Tonight, I wanted to make him the happiest man in the world.
The truth was, we’d entered a rough patch. This happened several years into a marriage and all of the marriage books told me not to worry but to engage, try new things, take up a new interest to make myself more attractive, interesting, and spice up our sex life.
At my encouragement, Steve had not only picked up his guitar, Woody, but started playing new pieces at The Rex X, a coffeehouse bar around the corner from our apartment. I had gone and watched a few times, but decided it was better to give him space. This was his tentative love. Sometimes, we wrote songs together. Or at least, he tried. I liked to write and he always said I was good at lyrics. Steve was happy, happier than I’d ever seen him, and so I’d continued to encourage him even though the last two weeks butterflies had started flitting around in my stomach. New names, Annie, Samantha, Vasha, and Ty, casually crossed his sweet lips. Friendships were forming via text, social media, an occasional rehearsal after work. They were just new friends, fellow musicians, I’d told myself - even though the tone of some texts seemed flirty. I had encouraged this. I wanted him to be happy. Steve had married me. He had encouraged my learning to cook. Paid for the classes. I encouraged his creative life. He hadn’t needed to marry me, it wasn’t like I could get pregnant, the doctor reassured us that it wasn’t possible because of my tipped uterus, and we were living together when he’d proposed. Steve loved me. “The Rex is a very supportive environment,” he would reassure me. “There’s nothing going on but that.” This morning, when I’d asked if he wanted to go together to Rex and catch a set and grab a beer for his birthday, my husband had replied, “No babe, I’m good with just you.” And so, happily, I’d cooked veal meatballs and spaghetti, shaved my bikini line and made certain that I was very clean down there as he had slight difficulty with any sort of musky scent.
Eight fifteen, I pulled my underwear back on, blew out the candles, locked the front door and walked around the corner to Rex.
Steve was seated with his back to the door, at a table in the middle of the room. With two pretty girls, a blonde and a brunette, and some white guy with a beard I think I’d met before, a guy who looked like he was trying too hard to pretend he was more interesting than he was. I knew it wasn’t right, it didn’t feel right, the four huddled, like old chums, drinking beer out of bottles, people I’d seen but never really met because they were no longer interested in me once they’d learned that I wasn’t a backup singer and didn’t have a stage where they could play. It was his birthday and he hadn’t called or answered my texts. He was my husband. The pretty brunette spotted me first, leaned into my husband and said something into his ear, close. Steve laughed and then turned, but he didn’t get up. My feet were slippery and swollen in my heels. I unclenched my fists, pasted on a smile and walked to the table, very aware of my heart pounding in my chest.
“Hey,” I said, trying my best to be cool, casual, the great wife.
Steve nodded, no surprise registered, no worry, nothing. It was almost as if my discovery didn’t matter. Was no big deal. A look of indifference crossed his face and I thought I might be sick. Who was this stranger?
The other guy, maybe his name was Brett, jumped up and offered his chair. “Hey, hey,” he said, nervous. “Steve was just saying if he didn’t go home soon, you’d come and find him. Dude, you were right.”
I didn’t sit down. The girls pretended to suddenly be very interested in their drinks. Steve stared at me, daring, eyes dark, almost empty.
“Hey, your birthday dinner is getting cold,” I teased, wagging my finger, as if this were our routine, him the negligent husband, me, the old ball and chain.
Steve reluctantly stood and pushed his chair back. There was tension in his clenched jaw, as if I had done something wrong. As if he were the one who should be mad.
“No,” the brunette whined. “I thought you were going to do that song with me. I’m up next.” She was beautiful with large brown eyes and pouty red lips.
“Sorry,” I said. Offering a wide smile, I held out my hand. “I’m Steve’s wife. I don’t think we’ve met.”
She stood, curvy and beautiful, in tight black jeans. Her cropped top read God!ess and revealed a taut brown stomach with a belly ring. She held out a limp hand, and offered back a fake wide smile, “Vasha.”
Jack always said that a limp handshake was a sign of an untrustworthy person. I dropped my grip of her bony, weak hand, grabbed Steve and led him outside forcing myself not to think about her flat stomach or the belly ring.
Walking back to the apartment, Steve offered the silent treatment, while I limped in high heels, listening to the gravel under our feet.
“I’ll just reheat it,” I heard my voice sounding so natural, my hands were steady as I turned a burner to medium heat. Steve went into the bedroom and shut the door. I tiptoed after, listening for a moment to his soft whispers on the other side, and then I went into the kitchen, pulled the Draino out from under the sink and stirred it slowly into the bubbling red sauce in the pot on the stove.
We sat at the table while my husband enjoyed the birthday meal that I’d spent all day cooking to make him happy. I watched him chew and swallow, his prominent Adam’s apple bobbing, while I sipped another glass of Chianti. Finally, my synapses started firing again, and I said, “God!ess knows that Vasha is fucking my husband.”
Steve twirled pasta on his fork, “Grow up,” he said, slurping in the last big bite. “I can’t do this anymore.”
He was right. The Draino took his life, painfully, by six am the next morning.
HOMEMADE RED SAUCE
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large golden onion minced
5 cloves garlic crushed
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon ground oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley