Part One: Breakfast
Sam Braddock’s morning ritual began before he fell for Jules Callaghan, but now she was as much a part of the process as his weekly stop at the Italian market or the guilty pleasure music he played while he cooked.
There was nothing that made him happier than to look over at her to see her hips swinging to the beat as she very seriously chopped potatoes into perfect tiny cubes, except perhaps the moment when they slipped back into bed with plates full of the delicious meal they’d made together.
Truth be told, he also liked the moment when the plates had been licked clean and he got to put his mouth to another use, but it was different. He’d had that kind of intimacy with other women, but Jules was the first one he’d invited to join him in the kitchen.
His ritual had been a solitary one before her. He’d say a proper goodbye to whatever girl had spent the night and gently guide her out the door before he so much as got the eggs from the fridge. Sam was a gentleman, but there were some things he wouldn’t share even with women he’d slept with, and breakfast was one of them.
Alone in his apartment, he’d gather his supplies: an iPod stocked with Barenaked Ladies songs he’d never admit to liking in real life, the heavy skillet that had been a peace offering from his sister Natalie, and the apron.
He kept it in a high cabinet, away from prying eyes. It was once bright yellow, but the color had faded to a buttery hue over the years. The ties around the neck and waist were a pale shade of lavender and huge bright pink letters stretched across the chest.
Every time he put it on to start breakfast he remembered the first time he saw it. He was a promising young soldier assigned to a base in rural Ontario while he and his fellow recruits underwent rigorous training in modern warfare techniques.
It was a few days before his best friend Matt’s birthday and he was wandering the aisles of a discount store. He’d spent an hour searching for the perfect gift, which by then he’d decided couldn’t be found in a dollar store in rural Ontario, but as he was about to leave something brightly colored caught his eye.
He pulled it out of a pile of nubby tea towels that reminded him of his grandmother’s kitchen and unfolded it. It was a long chef’s apron emblazoned with the phrase “#1 Mom?”
He wasn’t sure if it was the strange punctuation that made it so funny to him, or if it was the thought of his burly friend wearing it, but he couldn’t resist. He bought it. Later that day he found Matt’s real gift in a bookstore: an old leather-bound copy of ‘Treasure Island.’
That book was on the shelf by Sam’s bed now, half-hidden behind an SRU training manual and a thesaurus. He’d bought these presents for Matt, but now the book and the apron were his again because of a bullet.
He remembered how hard Matt laughed when he opened the apron. Matt immediately tied it on. Sam told him it was a nice gesture, but he didn’t need to actually use it.
“Of course I’ll use it,” Matt replied. “Can’t you see me wearing this, barbequing in the backyard, embarrassing the fuck out of my kids?”
Sam could, but now those kids would never have the chance to be embarrassed by their goofball dad. When he’d unpacked the box of Matt’s things when he moved to Toronto, he’d almost thrown the apron away, but he fished it out of the trash. Matt and that stupid apron had cheered him up on too many bleak desert mornings for him to abandon either of them.
The first time he wore it was impulsive. He’d said goodbye to Laura (or was it Lana?) and decided to make breakfast. At first he rationalized it by telling himself that the fabric would protect his bare chest from grease spatters, but in truth he needed the reminder of his friend, alive and proudly unveiling a platter of eggs and potatoes, a small taste of home.
He began to include Matt in his life again in these breakfasts. He wore the apron and he played the music his friend even though it was never really his style. Sometimes he imagined Matt critiquing his technique or insisting that a griddle was so much more useful than a pan.
Soon it wasn’t just the mornings spent cooking that he looked forward to, but to the preparation that went into it. One day Spike needed to pick up something for his mom, so he convinced Sam to stop at a market during a break from patrolling.
He’d wandered while Spike conversed with the store’s ancient owner in rapid Italian. A thick slab of ham caught his eye, so he impulsively bought it, along with a box of eggs. The next morning’s breakfast was one of the best he’d made, so the market became a weekly stop. He wandered, taking his time to select the vegetables that looked the freshest. He even started to pick up a little Italian, although sometimes he wasn’t sure if he was saying “bacon” or “copy machine.”
Soon after his first time at the market, he’d followed another impulse and woke up the next morning in an unfamiliar bed. She was tucked into his arms, small and almost delicate without her SRU gear. Her eyelids fluttered and he wondered what she was dreaming, tracing patterns on her bare arm with the tips of his fingers while his mind replayed a conversation he’d had once with Matt.
“You’re just a sappy guy,” he’d teased Matt. “It’s not your fault you sound like something out of a chick novel.”
“I’m just saying that I didn’t fuck her, as you so charmingly put it.”
“Right. You ‘made love’ to her.”
Matt shook his head and laughed. “You’ll understand when you meet a woman who’s too important to fuck.”
That first morning, Sam wondered how Jules would articulate what they’d done the night before. Were the fevered movements of their mouths and bodies just sex to her? Or worse, would she hurry him out of her house when she woke because it was just fucking? Perhaps she had her own ritual that required solitude.
She stretched and murmured in her sleep. He’d wondered more than a few times what she’d look like and what sounds she’d make when he touched her. He’d been with women who were loud and he knew some of them were exaggerating for his benefit. He’d rather they didn’t, and he knew even before they’d reached her bedroom that she wouldn’t be like that.
He remembered the noise she’d made when he entered her for the first time. It was the perfect blend of a gasp and a moan, and her eyes had flicked up to his as he moved inside her. He didn’t have words to tell her how she was different than all the others before her, so he just held her gaze and hoped she knew.
Somehow Matt understood something long ago that Sam only learned that first time Jules invited him to her bed. There was almost nothing different about the actual physical act; he’d used many of his favorite tricks on her and she responded much like the other women he’d touched those ways had, but it was different because it was her.
He eased himself out of bed without waking her and crept down to the kitchen. Her fridge was nearly empty, but he found some eggs that were only a few days past their expiration date. The only bread in the house was spotted with mold, but he persisted until he found a few unblemished slices.
Sam scrambled the eggs and placed a rounded portion on each plate. He couldn’t find her toaster so he’d grilled the pieces of bread in a hot skillet until they were crisp, then divided each slice into four even triangles. He arranged the toast around the eggs and finished the plates with a squiggle of the hot sauce he’d been happy to discover behind the craft beer in her fridge.
He’d hoped for orange juice but other than the beer the only beverage option he could find was a bottle of red wine. He debated, then opened one beer and split it between two glasses.
He was about to go upstairs when he realized something was missing. He quickly gathered what he needed and added it to the tray.
It was a shadow of the breakfast he would have made for her if they’d been at his place, with his well-stocked fridge full of fresh herbs and organic eggs. He’d considered going out in search of supplies but he didn’t want her to find the house empty and think he’d left without saying goodbye. This simple offering would have to do.
She opened her eyes as he came back in and he was relieved to see no sign that she regretted their encounter. He placed the tray in front of her and something flickered across her face that he didn’t understand as she reached out for his last minute addition to their breakfast spread: the three deep purple flowers he’d arranged in an empty jam jar.
“Where did you find violets in January?”
“Your neighbor’s greenhouse,” he said sheepishly, but she laughed and asked if he’d stolen the champagne from them too.
“It’s just beer,” he replied, blushing, but she told him she liked beer a lot better than champagne anyway. Then she ate every morsel on her plate and helped herself to more than a few bites of his.
He’d made love to her three times that day: twice with his body and once with a meal and three stolen flowers.
A few months later, he planned a menu of frittatas and fresh biscuits. They were at his apartment that morning. She woke him early with a trail of kisses down his abdomen, whispering that she had a present for him. Afterward, she let her hands roam soothingly over his body until he couldn’t help but fall back to sleep, frittatas be damned.
The next time he opened his eyes, she was standing over him with a tray.
“Donuts and coffee from Timmy’s,” she explained. “But I put it in real cups, that’s gotta count for something right?”
“You get the flowers from Timmy’s too?”
“No. I brought them from home.”
He knew she had, and the glass too. It was the same one he’d used that first morning and he wondered if she knew that.
“There’s a chip in the rim,” she said, seeming to read his mind. “I’m sorry, I tried to cook something for you, but it didn’t go so well.”
“Did you set off the smoke detector?”
“I took the battery out.”
He pulled her head down to his and kissed her deeply. She tasted like coffee and dark chocolate. They were breathing hard by the time they broke apart, but as much as he wanted to undress her and spend the rest of the morning in bed, but he had another intimate act he needed to share with her.
“Why don’t you come to the kitchen with me and we’ll make some fried potatoes to go with these donuts?” he asked. She grinned and snagged the Boston Crème and bounded for the kitchen before he could protest.
When he caught up to her, he turned on the music.
Jules wrinkled her nose at him. “This? Really? I didn’t picture you as an quirky-acoustic kind of guy.”
“You want to cook breakfast with me or not?” Sam asked as he loaded her up with vegetables and eggs from the fridge. He grabbed the pan from its place on top of the fridge, but hesitated at the cupboard.
“What’s wrong, Sam?” An errant carrot leapt from her full armload and rolled across his kitchen floor. He pulled the apron from its hiding place and held it up for her to see.
“Exactly. I mean, I think they put the question mark on there by accident, but—“ He stopped himself. After a deep breath, he began again.
“I bought this for Matt as a joke. A long time ago. He used to wear it when he was making breakfast while we were deployed.” He plucked an imaginary piece of lint off the yellow fabric and hoped she’d interrupt, but she waited for him to go on.
“When he died, I got it back. I never thought about that, what happens to things like old birthday presents when a person dies. It was just a stupid apron, but I couldn’t throw it out. Then one day I was making breakfast and I just… put it on.”
Sam looked at Jules, searching her face for any sign that she thought that was strange or overly sentimental. There were things in her face he could not read, but he saw no judgment there.
“It feels good to wear it, like maybe if I remember the details of his life, he isn’t completely gone. I don’t know, I’m probably not making much sense,” he said, balling the apron up and reaching up to put it away.
“Then you should wear it,” Jules said quietly. She dropped the vegetables onto the counter, causing a few more to drop and roll across the floor.
She took the apron out of his hands and slipped it over his head. She turned him around and tied the lavender strips into a loose bow, then snaked her arms around him. She pulled him close to her and rested her head on his back. Sam absentmindedly rubbed his thumb over the scar on Jules' wrist and wondered what her version of breakfast was and who it helped her hold onto. They stood that way for a long time, their breathing synching as they both thought of people who now only existed in things like aprons and fading butterfly tattoos.
“The eggs are going to go bad,” she murmured, pressing her lips against his bare back.
“Eggs don’t go bad that fast, Jules.”
“Do I look like an egg expert to you, Braddock?” she asked, releasing him. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be showing me the finer points of this whole ‘breakfast’ thing.”
“Then what are you waiting for? Go get the olive oil.”
Soon she was cheerfully slicing into potatoes as he rolled out the biscuits. Later, as he garnished the plates with fresh basil, he saw her rummaging in his fridge. He watched as she found two champagne glasses and carefully split a Heineken between them. She placed them gently on the tray, then added the basket of steaming biscuits.
“These are ready too,” he said, passing her the plates. The frittatas were perfect squares of egg studded with colorful vegetables and tiny pieces of ham. They were joined by neat piles of rosemary potatoes, the best ones he'd ever tasted, although maybe it just seemed that way because she'd helped make them.
“Is this everything?” she asked. He surveyed the tray, then shifted the plates so he could add the violets.
“So did you learn anything, Jules?”
“Yeah,” she called from the hallway. “You secretly have terrible taste in music.”
Sam waited until she was out of earshot before taking off the apron. He folded it and placed it gently on the shelf.
“I get it now, Matt,” he said quietly as he closed the cupboard door. “I just wish you were around to meet her.”