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Flavors for a Future Life

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“What are we doing here?” Emily asks, raising her eyes from her menu for the first time in several minutes. She means: what are we doing in this restaurant? What are we doing together on a Friday night? In Emily’s ten years at Runway, she has never seen Miranda socially. Miranda is not a friend. Miranda is just a snowdrift she has adored.

“I already told you,” Miranda says. She has: in the hall this morning, just after the creative team’s all-hands meeting, she’d caught up to Emily and whispered two true things in her ear. You need to eat, and I need to learn new things.

Emily wishes, as she often does, that she could take a photo to capture the way Miranda looks right now, bright silver, dressed all in black, annoyed at being asked to repeat herself. She started as Miranda’s second assistant in a time before smart phones, before everyone was tethered to a visual diary of their own lives, and Emily spent hundreds of days trailing alongside her, wishing she could caress her with a camera lens.

Emily is no assistant, not anymore; she handles the make-up for the entire magazine. She blogs. She edits sometimes, is ruthless enough to have deconstructed sentences even Miranda might have left standing. Now, with the iPhone in her purse, it is easier than ever to take a picture, but still impossible to capture Miranda.

They are at a vegetarian restaurant as an unspoken kindness to Emily, who eats meat in theory but very rarely in practice. Miranda does not want Emily to get sick. That would be no way to begin this new era in which Miranda will feed Emily and Emily will, apparently, teach Miranda something.

Emily returns to the menu. So many of its words are like distant memories, flavors from a past life. So many other words are just ideas to her, flavors she’s never tasted at all.

“You don’t need my advice,” Miranda says gently. “But I think you should choose something that sounds like it would taste good, and eat as much of it you’d like.”

Emily has not exactly done anything wrong but the words, vague and permissive, are like forgiveness.

Emily eats every day, at least two meals per day, if not three, no matter what, no exceptions. She has Serena and her physician and her own ability to recalibrate willpower to thank for that; two “come to Jesus” moments in one week is an experience she has no desire to repeat. She will never be that broken-legged girl in the hospital again, cannot even remember the root of what had her so upset during that foggy, bitchy, hungry year. She told herself at the time that if she couldn’t go to Paris, nothing else mattered, but that could not have been all. Was it? Emily has been to Paris enough times that she’s lost count; she’s been seven or eight or nine times.

Still, her figure is very important, and for Emily food is strictly utilitarian, something to be bored by but thankful for. She eats quinoa, yogurt, black bean soup, an egg, a smoothie, apples, oranges, oatmeal splashed with almond milk, broccoli. She likes smoothies better than yogurt, apples more than oranges. But what does she love? What does she hate? How bland to enjoy something slightly more, something else slightly less.

On Saturday, she thinks about her seitan piccata from the night before on three separate occasions. Each time, her mouth waters. Each time, heat in her belly, a rumbling.

Miranda waits to explain the learning part of the equation until lunch on Sunday. Emily takes the subway to Miranda’s rowhouse, hopes she will end up staying for the afternoon. The house is smaller, sleeker, and more feminine than the one to which Emily used to deliver the Book night after night. She has long suspected, but by being in the house she can tell for sure that Miranda has no man; it’s readable in her posture, in the absence of televisions in the common spaces, in a sort of lonely-house echo that settles Emily’s nervous stomach.

The twins, teenagers now, flit in and out in a tornado of props: soccer gear, novels, makeup, Cheetos. Mostly, she and Miranda are alone. The meal Miranda prepares is simple and fragrant: soba noodles boiled and then pan-fried with greens. In another pan, a ginger sauce simmers. Emily’s own cooking is seasonless, both in terms of spices and time of year. Like Miranda’s layered grey clothing, this meal is appropriate for the October day gusting outside.

They eat at the kitchen table. It turns out that the sauce is more like a broth, spicy enough to burn, steam rising between them. It clears out Emily’s nasal passages, and she would be embarrassed but for the fact that Miranda blows her nose three times while they are eating.

“Delicious,” Emily says truthfully.

Instead of thanking her for the compliment, Miranda changes the subject. Ultimately, she will add another compliment to the table, a compliment for Emily, but it will take a while. “Caroline’s best friend from school, Renee, ate dinner with us last week. She has excellent taste for a seventeen-year-old. Her hair is half purple, but she’s really very lovely. We got to talking about the magazine somehow, and she said to me, she said, ‘No offense, Ms. Priestly, but I’m a black lesbian, and my mom and I are broke half the time. The cover price doesn’t even work for me, much less anything inside.’”

Emily coughs delicately against a swallow of soup. “What did you say in response?”

“‘Point taken,’ I said.” Miranda rests her chopsticks on the edge of the her bowl. “Emily, who is our subscriber?”

“She’s about thirty-five,” Emily says. “Slender. She’s married, or at least engaged to be married.”

“To a man?”

Emily laughs. “Yes, to a man. And she’s not only straight but white, too. Oh, and she’s well off.”

“Where does she go on vacation?”

“Oh god, Italy or the Virgin Islands or something. For a totally uninspired but posh getaway. I mean, she’s pretty rich, so why not?”

Miranda smiles at that; Emily’s heart aches at the rare sight. Emily is thirty-five and thin and white, but Miranda says, “Our subscriber isn’t you.” Miranda is rich and straight and loves Italy, but she adds, “And she isn’t me.”

“Right,” Emily says, a bit breathless.

“It’s not my job to publish a magazine for people like Renee and her mother. But I’ve been wishing, lately, that it was. I know that most people who read the magazine can’t afford the clothes, and that doesn’t bother me. But it does bother me to meet someone with great style and hear her say that Runway isn’t interested in her. I think you and I are the two people who understand Runway better than anyone. And so I need your help.”

“Anything,” Emily says. She has never been able to keep herself from playing her entire hand at once around Miranda. You and I. Better than anyone.

“I know you were in a PhD program in cultural studies with a focus in fashion and that, for some reason, you dropped out to work for the magazine. I know you’re busy but I’m certain you’re still engaged with that part of your interests.” Miranda is correct, though Emily hadn’t realized she’d known about her foray into academia. “I have an associate’s degree in business. That’s all. Don’t bother telling me that I’m smart anyway; I know I am.”

“I wouldn’t insult you.”

“I need to be reading differently, consuming media differently. More . . . inclusively. I’ve been bored for months, but it took Renee calling me out to understand why I wasn’t happy with the product I’m pushing.”

Emily beams. “And that’s where I come in.”

Queer theory, makeup theory, feminist intersectionalities, post-colonialism, gender studies, disability studies, the fat acceptance movement (Emily cringes through her reading, then has a cry, provides no context when she passes the links along to Miranda), the history of perfume, trans models, every fucking -ism imaginable, miles and miles of personal narrative, online lightboxes to which Miranda and Emily share a password, a notebook passed back and forth (in secondary school Emily had always wished for the notebook-sharing type of friend), sketching again, collaging again, using the art supplies Miranda has left untouched since the nineties, buying new pens to replace the ones that dried up.

Korean barbeque, Thai red curry, tamales, pozole, pierogies, spaghetti, caviar, haute cuisine, low-brow diner food, meals out, meals at (Miranda’s) home.

The lessons they exchange are energizing. Emily gives Miranda a new vocabulary, and with it new eyes she uses to behold more beauty than she’d ever noticed before; Miranda teaches Emily to sift, stir, mince, fold, eat, eat, eat.

In teaching Miranda, Emily finds messages she can believe in. In feeding Emily, Miranda feeds herself.

“I love food more than music,” Miranda says one night, worshipful over mussels in a simple butter broth. Emily wonders why she’d compare the two; they share no overlapping senses unless you count the noise of chewing as a profound sonic experience instead of something that is honestly a little gross. But later that week, Emily sits in her apartment eating a slice of candied grapefruit from a bag she picked up on her way home from work, and she notices that the experience is less like a taste than like a song.

“You need Tumblr,” Emily says at dinner one Friday. “So I made you one.” She hands Miranda an index card with the (totally anonymous) log-in information, a list of ten accounts to follow. One of them is Emily’s own; Miranda will realize this as soon as she looks.

Emily spends rest of the weekend glued to her laptop, cackling with glee as she watches Miranda follow twenty or more accounts—all queer fashion blogs. Her glee amplifies when Miranda starts to get followed back by people who have no idea they’re interacting directly with the editor-in-chief of Runway. When Miranda re-blogs a post for the first time, Emily can barely stand it. When Miranda posts a scan of one of her own drawings, a simple ink sketch of a woman in leggings and a man’s shirt standing next to a sink full of coffee mugs, Emily is over the moon.

She wants to call Miranda and tell her she’s brilliant, wants to tell her about the casserole she’s attempting to make and invite her over to share the meal. But Miranda is busy, she’s certain, so Emily calls her sister, the one who lives in the States and still talks to her, eats alone, goes shopping with Serena on Sunday afternoon so she’ll at least have left the house, buys only underwear, mopes. Later, it occurs to her that if Miranda was so busy perhaps she wouldn’t have spent the entire weekend developing an anonymous Tumblr presence.

On Emily’s birthday Miranda tells her she is going to a knife skills class.

“Self defense?” Emily asks, half-joking.

Miranda rolls her eyes. “No, cooking.”

When the class is over Miranda gives Emily a ten-inch chef’s knife, heavy and proud and gleaming.

One weekend Miranda herself solicits work from three lesbian writers. Depending on their responses, their essays will be placed throughout the spring issues. Emily sits with Miranda at the desk in her home office, watches over her shoulder as the emails go out; when she is finished Miranda sighs, a resolute huff of breath, as if to say “that’s done.” The sound reminds Emily that she has needed to say something, has needed to make herself clear.

She summons her bravery. “There isn’t a quota, you know.” Her voice shakes. “We aren’t—we aren’t a trend.” Well. She hadn’t exactly expected to come out to Miranda in this moment, but she doesn’t know if she’s out or in or what any of it means anyway.

“Queer people, you mean,” Miranda confirms haltingly, unused to saying queer out loud. “And their representation in the magazine.”

“Well, yes.”

“I understand.” Miranda places a hand on Emily’s upper back. “When a change is made, it lasts.” She looks like she wants to say something more, but the oven timer beeps and they leave the room together.

Emily eats healthfully, she exercises, she sleeps. This is all her body can ask of her—for once, she is giving her body all it asks of her—and the weight Emily gains distributes with relatively little drama. Most—well, many—of her clothes still fit. No one at work dares to say anything at all when the woman thinner than everybody but the models becomes an “average” size again.

No one but Serena, that is. “You look good,” she says very casually in the cafeteria one day, and only once. Serena is smart; she knows it’s a bad idea to talk too much about Emily’s size. But that single sentence is enough to prompt Emily to spill all the details, the story of her Miranda lunches and Miranda dinners and their plan to change Runway and how it’s everything to Emily, absolutely everything. Serena doesn’t laugh at Emily over the obviously re-kindled crush that should be years over by now. She doesn’t say anything but “That’s great, Em. Is she a good cook?”

Still, in January, perched on a stool at a long narrow bar, Emily cannot resist turning from her after-dinner cocktail to look directly at Miranda. It’s been a long week, and things at Runway aren’t moving fast enough. Emily had thought, though she isn’t stupid and should have known better, that the new vision would be as exciting for everyone else as it is for her. It isn’t. “You’re certainly fattening me up,” she says. “Happy?” Her tone is deceptively light.

It is very late. The night outside is slushy and shadowy gold beneath the streetlights. The bar is almost empty; a couple murmurs at a corner table, and that’s it other than the mustachioed bartender, who stands at the sink with his back turned. Miranda leans in and presses her lips to Emily’s cheek for the briefest possible moment. “I can pretend you didn’t say anything or we can talk about it.”

“Pretend I didn’t say anything.” Emily can’t stop smiling over the kiss, hides it by returning to her drink.

Miranda would like to be perfect; Miranda is unrealistic this way. Ordinarily she can multitask, but tonight she is distracted: Caroline is telling a long-winded story, and Emily has scattered photos across one of the kitchen counters, and Cassidy is playing a game on her phone with the sound on. And so she messes up an easy meal. When the chicken comes out of the oven it’s burned in places but when she stabs it with the thermometer it somehow isn’t hot enough to safely eat.

For the first time Emily sees, really sees, what it is when Miranda turns her anger in on herself. She doesn’t become a comedian, swearing, laughing, slapping her own forehead. She doesn’t bubble up with a rage that dissipates once released. She simply goes quiet and boils herself in her own disproportionate disappointment. Emily imagines Miranda’s skin would be hot to the touch.

Two noises in the room: the beep beep beep of the game, the thud of the chicken falling into the trashcan. And then Cassidy pauses the game, says, “God, Mom, it’s just chicken.”

This is not the thing to say.

“You can feed yourselves,” Miranda says, her voice barely audible. She leaves the room. Thirty seconds later, a door slams upstairs.

Emily supposes she’d like to be the sort of helpful person who can dispel tension, create a charming little Plan B of a meal, make teenagers laugh and forget for a while that their mother is a psychopath, but she is not that woman. And anyway, fuck being an invited-then-abandoned guest. “Another time, perhaps,” Emily says wryly. The girls mutter an affirmative reply, already rifling through the drawer containing delivery menus.

Emily does worry a bit about what this episode will mean for tomorrow. Tomorrow is Friday. They nearly always go out on Fridays. But she needn’t bother worrying. It’s been too long since she was an assistant; she has forgotten the way Miranda ebbs and flows, survives by willfully forgetting the bad parts.

With spring, new cravings. For years, Emily has chosen a fresh palette at the start of every season, relishing the purchase of eyeshadows and polish so she can match, highlight, and even elevate the weather. This year, on the first day to believably promise the return of warmth to the earth, she is surprised to daydream not only of magenta and glitter but of sorbet, sugar snap peas, homemade bread. Bashfully, she presents Miranda with a list of five restaurants she has researched, and is giddy when Miranda is pleased. There’s so much ahead, so many pleasures specific to warm weather: Iced tea! Outdoor seating! Huge salads, every ingredient in season! Italian ice!

In April, Caroline, Cassidy, Renee, and two other girls take a spring break trip to Ft. Lauderdale with a friend’s family. The trip involves a two minivan caravan. “I’d rather be shot,” Miranda says with very little irony.

She and Emily spend the week driving down the coast on a food tour of the south.

(“I looked at your HR records,” Miranda had said back in early March when she proposed the trip and Emily tried to turn it down—old habit—because it sounded too good, because too much was on offer. “You’ve taken fifteen days in ten years. You can swing this.” And also: “You’re the only person I know who would enjoy it as much as me.” And also: “Fifteen days? Your family must miss you.” Emily could have kissed Miranda for not pressing matters after she responded with “If they do, they don’t say anything to me about it.”)

Emily doesn’t have a driver’s license, so Miranda rents a car in her name only, does all the driving, and complains constantly. She has booked separate hotel rooms for them everywhere they stay, of course, and Emily is unspeakably grateful; two appearance-obsessed introverts require time apart and privacy for the un-made-up slack-jawed hours of sleep, for the rituals that precede and follow slumber.

They eat blue crab in Baltimore, shrimp and grits in Charleston. Lowcountry barbecue, buttermilk fried chicken, collards more rich and flavorful than anything Emily thought possible from a vegetable. When they are not eating or driving, they find parks and museums, anywhere suitable for long walks. Emily tries not to think of the value of the walks in terms of offsetting calories. Sometimes she succeeds; sometimes she fails. She suspects food will always be a currency for her, but she is as rich as she’s ever been.

The contrast of her British accent to Miranda’s American one saves them from being mistaken for mother and daughter, and Miranda’s semi-famous face is recognized only once or twice, so the trip is perfect. Emily is amazed to travel down a country tall enough that its seasons come noticeably unevenly. The ocean looks different every place they go. The south is deep in a lush, erotic springtime; summer already lurks in the humid mid-day heat.

It rains hard on the last night. They are in Savannah, unready to return home. In the morning, they will drop the car off at the airport and fly back to New York. Dinner is melancholy, quieter than usual, and the rain propels them back to their hotel right after dinner. Emily feels desperate on the walk from the elevator to their hotel rooms. There was something about this trip that was supposed to change them, something still undone.

She remembers a night months before, Miranda’s lips brushing against her cheek in both admonishment and love, as if to say don’t call yourself fat and you are worthy of every pound you gain. Implicitly, Emily had understood her meaning then: the pounds were good, and she had to measure up. Impulsively, she returns the gesture now: standing in front of Miranda’s hotel room door, she leans in and places a careful, dry kiss at the fullest part of Miranda’s cheekbone. Miranda gasps, and Emily lingers as long as she dares. “Thank you, Miranda,” she says when she pulls away. “Goodnight.” She does Miranda a favor then, pretends not to see the way her hands shake as she slides her key card into the lock.

About an hour later, there’s a knock on the door. Emily panics as she opens it, a brand of panic reserved for having a scrubbed-clean face, for wearing yoga pants and a tank top and no bra. Miranda, obviously, is the person standing there. If anything, she is more made-up and pulled together than she was all day. “We didn’t settle on a time to leave for the airport,” she says.

Miranda sits on the very edge of the king-sized bed, and Emily stands by the rack holding her open suitcase, folds a blouse to busy herself. “Eight thirty, probably? Since we have to return the car?”

“All right,” Miranda says. She slumps then, just briefly, her elbows on her thighs, her face in her hands. When she sits up straight again, it’s as if something has changed. “I’ve never slept with a woman before. And I think—I think that is a mistake.”

“Almost certainly,” Emily says with a great deal more bravado than she feels. It’s been so long for her that it’s almost like she hasn’t slept with a woman either.

“Look at how beautiful you are,” Miranda says when Emily’s clothes are off. She says it to express an opinion, to give Emily a compliment, but there is a wall mirror across from the bed so the sentence is also an order. Emily looks at their reflection, at the long lines and gradually sloping curves that make up her body, tries to see in them what Miranda does since they are, after all, sitting together in a bed, since they’ve been making out for what feels like forever although Miranda appeared at the door only twenty minutes ago.

She pauses to memorize the scene, the whirring of the A/C unit, the strange brightness of the overhead light, the already-crumpled sheets. Miranda in her trousers and a bra of ivory and lavender lace, another photograph Emily can’t take. The bra is magnificent, but what takes Emily’s breath away is skin. She has been to so many events with Miranda, who favors off-the-shoulder looks for her gowns, and in the past she has thought porcelain, alabaster about the expanse of skin those gowns show off, has ogled the trim waist and the curves below. Even up close at those events, whispering names in Miranda’s ear, she could only think of the words she’d been taught were descriptions of perfection. But now: yes, she is pale, and yes, she is smooth. But “porcelain” is a doll word and Miranda is a human woman with a dusting of freckles across her chest. With breasts that sit heavily in the lace bra. A trim waist, yes, but a gently rounded stomach that just barely extends past the waistband of her slacks.

Miranda’s hands have not stopped shaking but she uses them to guide Emily, lets her touch her shoulders, lets her lay a palm on her stomach for slow minutes, lets her fingertips ice skate across her chest. It almost isn’t sexual, this moment of being women with bodies together, but then Emily accidentally brushes against Miranda’s bra with the edge of her hand and she feels a nipple that has been rock hard since well before she came close to touching it. Her head buzzes with the knowledge that this moment is turning Miranda on, that it isn’t just a gift from Miranda to Emily the self-deprecating celibate lesbian. All right, then. “Trousers. Off,” Emily says. Miranda slithers out of the rest of her clothes and Emily must stop memorizing moments then, must start moving.

They are quiet on the plane, sipping coffee and leafing through magazines. Not quiet. Silent. This silence between them would have seemed ordinary once, but it makes Emily uncomfortable. Since October, they have been uncharacteristically talkative with each other, and on a normal day, the simple act of leafing through a magazine would have prompted ten shared comments already. But today they are going home, and Emily’s fear that they’d leave something undone on this vacation has been replaced with the fear that they are going to suffocate in post-sex awkwardness.

Emily closes her eyes on the longer of their two flights, Atlanta to JFK. Sleep does not come, so she drifts along to thoughts of the night before. It had been so long since she’d had anything other than her own hand and her internal movie reel of purposefully vague fantasies. She remembers the way Miranda whimpered the first time she entered her, the way they breathed together, the way they, funny to recall now, talked through it, even laughed. Each orgasm was a sharp and brilliant swelling. They had not especially bothered to remember the thin walls of the hotel. And although Miranda re-dressed so she could go brush her teeth and remove her makeup, she’d come back to Emily’s room to sleep. Emily had kissed every centimeter of her face, kissed a hot trail that darted down her neck and swirled from stomach to spine and back, made her cry out again and again. They’d slept in a series of cat naps, waking each other up to touch more. But the morning was sour. They had to hurry to pack. They were clumsy and stilted. On the highway to the airport Miranda drove poorly for the first time in a week, seemed to hate herself for it. And now they can’t even speak.

They don’t see each other outside of work for five days. Emily breaks the chain: dinner, Friday night, nothing groundbreaking . . . except Emily is anxious to make an impression, to prove a point she hasn’t quite defined, so she asks Miranda to come to her apartment.

Emily’s small place is full of the aroma of yeast bread in the oven, soup on the stove. She tinkers with spices, stirs, meaningless; Miranda stands and watches, pours them both wine. One swallow and a dam breaks: “I’ve tried relationships so many times,” Miranda says. “And I’ve always failed, because I used to pretend to want things I didn’t want. If you think I was smart enough to figure that out on my own, you’d be wrong.”

Emily’s stomach churns but she smiles at this.

Miranda continues. “I don’t necessarily want to live with a partner. Maybe not ever again. To end every day with the same little routine. I get resentful and bored and I should never have jumped into anything without making that clear.”

“Does it seem like we’ve jumped into something?” Emily asks lightly. Miranda’s face falls, so Emily sets her ladle down on the spoon rest—Emily has become a person who owns a ladle and a spoon rest—and goes to her. “I’m sorry. I just mean . . . I know traditional doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t work for me either.” They kiss. “I want to sleep with you, not strangle you.” Emily places a hand on Miranda’s chest, slides down the slinky fabric of her blouse to cup a breast.

A beeping tone from Emily’s cell phone signals that the bread is done, or should at least be checked. “Damn,” Emily whispers, and Miranda hovers in the kitchen, following Emily’s every move. Emily pulls the rack halfway out, maneuvers the baking sheet forward, removes her hand from the oven mitt and gives the loaf a tap. The hollow sound tells her it’s ready. “I could stay tonight,” Miranda says, and perhaps her blush is from the heat pouring out of the open oven.

They can’t wait for the bread to cool to sit and eat. When Miranda tears in and burns her fingers, she laughs. Emily grabs her phone and snaps.