I grab a towel and wipe flour from my hands on my way out of the kitchen.
*bing bong bing bong bing bong*
"All right, all right, you're gonna wear out the bell!" I fling open the door -– to be confronted by a giant floral arrangement with legs. "Kerry?"
"A little help here?"
"Sorry." I haul the flowers to an end table and set them down with a thunk, wondering how the hell she got them in here one-handed from her car. Note to self: Kerry is a lot stronger than she looks.
She retrieves her crutch and comes in, shutting out the snow and wind. Briefly she holds her hands over her cheeks, which are nicely flushed. Her eyes are brilliant, sparkling. I can never decide what color they actually are but right now they're almost jade green against the dark olive of her coat. She looks altogether edible.
Easy, there. I settle for a welcoming hug and chaste forehead kiss. Which, I am very pleased, she turns firmly into a not-so-chaste kiss kiss.
"Thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful."
"Just something I picked up on the spur of the moment. Smells wond -– um... is something burning?"
"Shit! The crêpes!" I dash back to the kitchen. Sure enough. Hastily I turn the hood vent on high and dump the blackened corpse into the trash.
"Everything okay?" She's in the doorway, peering around.
I stop rinsing the pan for a moment to appreciate the view. Beige cowl neck sweater, of a material so soft-looking I want to pet it. Beautifully cut charcoal gabardine slacks. Hair neatly combed back behind her ears, revealing little dangly vintage earrings. The bracelet she always wears. The Portrait of a Very Together Woman.
Legaspi, you are not going to get any tonight.
"Under control. Just need to start over with these." I set the pan back over the flame and drop in a spoonful of clarified butter.
"Would you like me to do them? Free you up to take care of other stuff?"
I shrug. "Sure. You know to pour out the excess butter when -– "
"Give me a break, Kim. I took a cooking course in France during my college exchange program."
Well, what can you say to that? I take the mature route and stick my tongue out at her, then move aside.
She does it exactly right, of course. Waits until the pan is at the correct temperature, then discards all but the barest sheen of butter. Smoothly adds a ladleful of batter while simultaneously swirling the pan around, producing an almost translucent circle that quickly starts to brown at the edges. Teases one edge up with the tips of her nails, shakes the pan to loosen the crêpe, then does a neat wrist flick that lands it flawlessly face down. A few more seconds to brown that side, then out it slides to join the others stacked on wax paper on a corner of the range.
Looking up, she sticks out her tongue at me, then starts the process over again.
I go back to whisking mascarpone with chèvre; it's a little too thick, so I add a few tablespoons of heavy cream to loosen it up. A dab of the mixture winds up on the back of my hand and absently I lick it off.
A quick movement of her head says that she's watching me surreptitiously. Okay, why not make this interesting?
On the counter is a bowlful of Bosc pears. They're all perfectly ripe -– I spent ten minutes picking them out at the Co-op this afternoon -– but I make a big show of fingering them gently, cradling them in turn, and finally selecting two. The stems tug out easily; I quarter the pears, then remove the core and slowly pare the skin from each piece. Thick fragrant juice coats my fingers, drips onto the cutting board.
"You're sublimating." Her voice is harsh but she's smiling and the tip of her ear has gone pink.
"And I thought I was being subtle." Whoo. Never forget, Legaspi, this woman is just as smart as you are. If not smarter.
"As a sledgehammer. How many of these do you want?"
I lean over to look; there's already a respectable pile. "That should be good, thanks."
"What else can I do?"
You're not ready for me to answer that, Kerry. "Um... put on some music, maybe open some wine?"
"Sure. Anything in particular?"
She does; the haunting, sensual strains of Bachiana Brasileira no. 5 swell the air. Not exactly bland conversation filler. I'm suddenly curious to know what else she's picked out.
I lay a crêpe flat, paint a fat stripe of the creamy cheese mixture down the center with the back of a wooden spoon, add a couple slices of pear and a few toasted walnuts, then roll it together with a pair of forks and place it seam-side down on a plate.
I contemplate it, then pick it up and take a big bite. Cook's privilege.
"That looks good," Kerry says, coming up behind me.
I hold the rest of the crêpe out so that the unbitten end faces her. She deliberately turns it back around and obliterates my teeth marks with hers, chewing slowly and daring me to comment.
It's getting warm in here.
I nod toward the freestanding cellar in the corner. It's a nice one, digital temperature control, automatically regulated humidity, holds 250 bottles. I'm glad to see that she reads the labels through the glass front rather than poking around with the door open. Wish all my friends had that much sense.
I finish folding the rest of the crêpes and put the plate into one oven to keep warm. The other oven has been preheating on high, its middle rack covered by unglazed quarry tiles.
She hands me a glass and shows me the bottle. 1990 Olmaia, Col d'Orcia. At the first taste of the velvety, nearly black liquid, I shudder slightly, letting the intense violet, mint and berry aromas play around my mouth.
"You have quite a selection there."
"Thanks. Can't take all the credit for it, though. An old gir -– a friend advises me on what to buy."
"Kim, it's okay. You can talk about past relationships. I know you weren't exactly a nun before we met."
Or since, I add silently, thinking fleetingly of that OR nurse last summer. And the DFACS social worker in the fall. And the coat-check girl at Symphony Hall the week after Thanksgiving...
"So now all of a sudden you're shy?"
Something's gotten into her tonight. "Kerry, I'm not ashamed of my, ah, history. It just has nothing to do with us."
"On the contrary. I'm beginning to realize that it's highly relevant. But," up goes an eyebrow, "if it makes you too uncomfortable to talk about it, we'll drop it for now."
Ouch. That's usually my line. "Thank you," I say, mustering as much irony as possible. I start to knead a small ball of dough that's been warming up from its overnight rise in the refrigerator.
She pulls a stool up to the counter and leans on her elbows to watch. "What happened to all the junk in your foyer? I was astonished when I walked in. It hardly even looks like the same place."
"Paid the neighbor's kid to haul it out. Must've taken him all damned day."
"What is he going to do with it?"
"No idea. He was so eager I was almost afraid to ask." The dough is becoming nicely elastic, windowpaning perfectly; I pull it out, stretching and rolling with the heel of my palm, forming a thin circle with a raised rim.
"Yep." I slather caramelized onions over the surface and scatter a few chunks of fresh mozzarella. After brief consideration, I cut up another pear and arrange thin slices in a radial pattern, add some leftover smoked duck from the fridge, then snip fresh thyme over the whole thing. Kerry makes an approving noise into her wineglass; I have to smile.
I rinse a handful of asparagus, quickly snapping off the woody ends and putting the spears in a baking dish, then slivering in garlic and drizzling some butter.
Dusting corn meal over a wooden peel, I use it to slide the pizza onto the now-searing tiles, then place the asparagus on the top rack. I close the door as quickly as possible to avoid losing heat.
The stockpot that has been simmering for the past half hour or so is belching little tantalizing puffs of steam. I open the lid to check on the contents; immediately the kitchen is filled with the aroma of lemon and onion and peanut oil and roasted, stewed meat.
"That's not chicken yassa, is it?"
"How the hell did you know?" I can't hide that I'm feeling just a little deflated.
"I've spent quite a bit of time in Senegal."
Naturally. "Well, I hope this measures up."
I give her a sharp glance. She beckons me with a waggle of her finger.
"You haven't disappointed me yet, Kim Legaspi."
She pulls me down by the front of my shirt and kisses me. Thoroughly.
"Your cheese is melting."
"Cheese. Pizza. Oven? Burn?"
I shake off my mental haze. Transferring the golden round with its nicely blistered crust back onto the cutting board, I slice it into wedges. A small hand snakes out and lightly I slap it away.
"Come on, you know this is when it's best, right out of the oven."
She's right. I roll my eyes, make a "go ahead" gesture, then take a piece of my own.
The crust is crisp-tender and chewy. The pears and caramelized onions lend an irresistibly complex sweetness to the smoky-salty rich duck, and the scalding gooey cheese binds it all together. Not too shabby, Legaspi.
Kerry seems to agree; watching her eat is very nearly an R-rated experience.
I am almost distracted enough to forget the asparagus, but I rescue it in time, the bright green spears giving gently to the point of a knife, the shavings of garlic lightly browned.
Okay. Serving dishes, check. Utensils, check. Feisty unpredictable redhead, check.
"I'm almost finished, here, Kerry. Would you mind setting the table? Linens and silver are in the sideboard."
"Sure," she calls over her shoulder, already on her way to the dining room. "Oh, my God."
"Kerry?" I follow, taking the mixing bowl with me, giving the vinaigrette for the spinach salad a last whisk.
She's running her hand lightly, reverently, over the table. "You built this?"
I nod, happy just watching her reaction.
I'm damned proud of that table. It's made of redwood, from a stunted tree that was culled to prevent its spreading a fungal parasite to the surrounding trees. The milled section, a thick slab cut on the diagonal rather than straight across, slept for eight months, drying in a lumberyard's kiln while I dreamed and agonized about its raw potential. I'd painstakingly inlaid darker, highly-figured woods into many of the rings to emphasize their unique shapes, made all the more so by the unusual angle. The finished piece is ten feet long and four and a half feet wide. It has twenty-five coats of varnish protected by a polyurethane topcoat that I was assured would withstand anything short of a nuclear bomb; the finish is so smooth that you can't feel a single one of the joins. It cost me hundreds of hours of heartstopping, backbreaking labor and it is worth every second to see the look on Kerry Weaver's face.
"It's unbelievable," she says, delighted as a child on Christmas morning.
Just then Victoria de los Angeles' ethereal soprano segues into the insane acoustic guitar pyrotechnics of John McLaughlin and we both jump, startled by the abrupt change in mood.
She chuckles. She always laughs so easily when she's alone with me. "Sorry. Your CD collection is a little, um, eclectic."
"So I've been told."
She takes the mixing bowl from me with both hands, for all the world like an acolyte receiving the chalice from a priest. She places the bowl on the sideboard and for the second time in five minutes kisses me senseless.
So much for worrying about her comfort level.
"He... oh... my..."
"We were regulars -– you'd have hated us. Somebody was always falling out of something, breaking an arm, getting a black eye. Nowadays they'd probably call Social Services on my parents, citing suspected abuse."
"Sounds chaotic," she gasps, catching her breath.
"Oh, it was definitely that. There were only three inviolable rules in the Legaspi household. The cardinal rule was: No whining. Another was that school came first, no matter what; we could do whatever the hell else we wanted, but if our grades slipped in the slightest, we lost any extracurricular activities and unstructured free time until the next report card."
"And the third?"
" 'If you're bleeding, go do it in the bathroom, not over the living room carpet. We just had it cleaned. Again.' "
Kerry dissolves into yet another fit of hysterics. We're well into our second bottle of the spectacular red, surrounded by the demolished remnants of our meal, and I'm more than a little mellow.
She's refrained from mentioning all but the most sketchy details of her own upbringing, always carefully steering the subject back around to my family. Which, fortunately, is a bottomless fount, so I oblige by playing the chattering fool. Still, it's charming; from her responses and questions, I gather that she's feeling rather like an anthropologist from Mars.
"Would you like some coffee?" I ask, getting up at last.
"Sure. Let me help you clear this away first."
"Don't worry, I've got it."
"I'll rephrase. I will help you with the dishes, then we'll have coffee after."
Ooh, the hospital voice. "Yes, ma'am."
Cleanup of my kitchen goes quickly, though we keep finding butter in remarkable places. She heads to the study to start a fire. I join her on the sofa a few minutes later with two mugs and a full carafe. To my surprise and great pleasure, she curls up beside me, nestling her head on my shoulder, practically sitting in my lap.
"Of course not." Casually I drape my arm around her, snugging her even closer.
"Let me know if your leg falls asleep."
"I'm a big girl, Kerry." Right now I wouldn't move if my leg fell off.
"I know," she says, looking up with a leer. "Thank you for dinner. That was lovely."
"The shotgun approach was okay? I wasn't sure what you might like, or if you were allergic to anything, or were violently opposed to -– "
She does something fascinating that I know will leave a mark. Guess it'll be turtlenecks for a while.
"Kerry, just when did you get this... comfortable?"
"You saying you're not?"
"I didn't say that."
We drift into a fuzzy state of contentment. Nina Simone implores us, "Ne me quitte pas," then rips into "Mississippi Goddam."
My leg does eventually fall asleep. But then Kerry stretches and yawns; this close to me, I can hear her jaw popping.
"Sorry. It's not the company."
" 'S okay. I'd forgotten how tough it is not to have a regular schedule. When will I see you again?"
"Tomorrow at work, silly. I'm on at 3:00; you'll still be on duty then."
"But it's not you I see at work, it's Dr. Weaver." Instantly I regret the words, though I know their fundamental truth.
The slight body I'm holding seems to shrink, to huddle together on itself. I hold my breath, hug her tightly.
"She is me. Not all of me, maybe an autonomous subset of me, but me just the same."
"Not the same. Why do you and she have to be so completely... segregated?"
"Because it's the only way I know how..." Her voice is barely audible.
"How what?" I stroke her hair, rubbing the back of her scalp, feeling her inner tension slowly abate.
She shakes her head, burrows closer.
The flight reflex has subsided, at least for now. "Okay," I whisper.
"You'll scare Eng the Mouse out of hiding."
"Somehow I doubt it. I think the kid actually lives in the library stacks at school. I never see him, but on the first of every month, there's a check on my kitchen table for the rent. Made out to 'Dr. K-E-R-I Weaver.'"
"Sounds like the ideal tenant. Spelling deficiencies aside."
"Yeah, but isn't that just a little weird?"
"Maybe he's a front."
"I don't know, maybe the third years decided they needed the inside scoop on the senior staff so they pooled their resources and planted him in your basement as a spy?"
"Complete with cyanide pill in case he's caught snooping?"
"Of course. Take one for the team, and all that."
"You don't really suppose -– "
"Kerry, it was just a joke!"
"Well," I mumble, "sometimes I can't tell."
She pulls herself to her feet and glares at me, half-mocking, half-serious. Plants a hand on each shoulder, bends in, and kisses me roughly.
"Then pay closer attention. I'll see you tomorrow."