The day had left her battleworn. Her black pumps had been discarded haphazardly at the threshold of the apartment, her soles throbbing from the hours she spent pacing in circles around her too cramped office. C.J. was too exhausted to even think about dinner and collapsed onto her heather grey couch, pulling her laptop onto her stomach and scooping a hand into the family size carton of Goldfish that sat faithfully within arms reach atop the coffee table.
She scrolled through her personal emails, letting her eyes blur over the barrage of advertisements and promises of flash sales at Sephora, two credit card statements and one email from her oldest brother detailing the families latest trip to Lake Michigan for a last effort at some summer fun. Shoving a fistful of the cheesy, all too addictive crackers into her mouth, C.J. instinctively typed into the search bar the name of her favorite blog, clicking in the autofill after the third letter.
I cook things and sometimes they taste good.
The latest recipe on the page was a mushroom risotto. She studied the step by step pictures that the anonymous man behind the blog inserted between the instructions. At least she assumes it’s a man based on the strong, freckled forearms and thick fingers that are the only identifying parts of him ever shown. C.J. can’t help but fantasize about the kind of person he must be, which she knows is a ridiculous thing to try and suppose from a few lines about how to properly boil a cup of rice.
He’s has shared a few personal stories, though nothing like those alleged minimalist influencer blogs that drag their readers through an entire family history just to end it with the same recipe found on the back of a Betty Crocker cake mix box. Still, she knows he has a young niece that he spends time with during the holidays in the vastness of some Midwestern town. He must have some kind of softness with the way he described the special cocoa that he makes with her. It makes C.J. wish for when Hogan was small and they’d make green eggs and ham together, laughing so much that they could barely eat once they were done.
What she really enjoyed, more than salivating over the recipes she could never make for herself, was his wit in the comments. There weren’t ever many but it seemed impossible to post anything on the internet without one or two people going off about it. Her deft fingers scrolled to the bottom of the recipe.
grillmasterchief1: tried this recipe last night and was gross, almost as bad as yesterdays grilled chicken and mustard disaster and mondays nasty nachos. dont know why every idiot with thumbs think they can run a blog
DCDelish: Of all the recipes in all the food blogs in all the world, you trolled into mine. Truly flattered!
C.J. snickered, wiping the extra cheese dust from the crackers onto her thigh and then immediately regretting the move. With a groan she set the laptop aside, throwing her legs off their perch on the arm of the couch. She grabbed a napkin from her kitchen, noting the shambles of takeout garbage she needed to dump out in the morning. She moved to the cabinet next to the oven and opened it, peering at the stainless steel pot and pan set that had been untouched for so long that she probably needed to wash a coat of dust off them. She grabbed the saucepan, enjoying the weight of it in her hand as she smacked against it thoughtfully. Leaving the pan out on the stovetop, she flicked off the lights and hurried to bed in the hopes of getting more than four hours sleep that night.
The next night C.J. found herself clutching a piece of paper, her handwriting scrawled across it with the ingredients for mushroom risotto. She stood in the aisle of the grocery store, basket hanging at her knee as she sighed.
“Why are there so many different kinds of rice? Rice should just be rice,” she whispered under her breathe. She was already annoyed with how long it took her to even find what aisle the rice would be in, having to hope she didn’t pick the wrong one was just too much.
“You trash talking the soup aisle there, C.J.?”
A jolt ran through her at the familiar voice. She turned to the man that was sauntering near her, and she scowled just slightly. His teasing lilt slipped under her composure on the best of days and right now was not one of her best.
She braced herself against his scruffy face, and the way his eyes crinkled when he enjoyed his joke too much; which was way too often.
“What are you doing here Danny? Just can’t get enough of me during work hours?”
“See I was going to ask you the same thing, because I don’t remember seeing you around a grocery store in the past, oh I don’t know, two years? Unlike you I actually like to eat real meals.”
She ignored him, looking back at the rice and grabbing up the first one she laid her eyes on. Tossing it in the basket, she tried to hustle passed him, but there was a man with three kids and an overstuffed wagon blocking her exit route.
“Whatchya making?” Danny asked, staring down at her goods.
C.J. swiped the basket behind her back like a protective mother.
“Risotto?” He probed, unfazed. The problem with reporters is they’re completely undeterred by everything she could throw at them. “Why don’t you just let me take you out to dinner instead so you don’t have to worry about setting the fire alarm off and pissing everyone off in your building?”
“Goodnight, Daniel,” she threw back, moving around him and letting her long legs carry her as quickly down the aisle as possible.
“That man is a plague,” C.J. lamented as she stood in her kitchen an hour later, staring at the saucepan of rice that was still very much full of water. She had been standing over it for the greater part of twenty minutes waiting for something to happen.
“How long is this thing supposed to boil for?!” She asked herself out loud, checking the webpage again, scrolling up and down the recipe as if some secret might appear if she stopped at just the right spot. Figuring there was no point in her staring at the water while she waited for it to do it’s alchemy like magic that would turn inedible soup into something delicious she set the wooden spoon on top of the pan, turned the knob for the burner as high as it would go, and allowed herself to lay down on the couch for the next ten minutes.
Danny Concannon was nothing but bad luck, and running into him outside of work was like walking past an entire gaggle of black cats. He was intelligent, and quick-witted, and funny and she’d go as far as calling him attractive in a weirdly comforting way, but he had this problem of crawling into her headspace and camping out there when she needed to concentrate on more important things. Like this risotto. She enjoyed the flirting, but dating was the last thing on her mind, and dating him of all people was just out of the question.
Still, sometimes she caught him smiling at her from across the room and it made her lightheaded in a way she tried to enjoy before she steeled herself against it. She closed her eyes for just a few moments, trying to think of anything but his scruffy face.
C.J.’s eyes flew open at the sound of an alarm. Dazed, she sat upright, rubbing her eyes and willing them to see clearly. She couldn’t tell if the sound of the screeching beeps were from her clock, or her kitchen until the sharp scent of smoke filled her nose.
“Oh God,” she gasped, jogging into the kitchen and grabbing up the dish towel to flap wildly at the angry smoke alarm. A column of hazy smoke was emitting from the saucepan, choking C.J. as she peered into the burnt pile that was sitting there. “No! No no no! Damnit.”
When the alarm finally cut its incessant wailing, C.J. took a knife to try and chip away at the hardened mass of rice. She gave up, filling the pot with soap and water and abandoning it in the sink. Leaning over the counter where her laptop still sat with DCDelish’s blog open. She was a powerful woman, who could bend whole countries to her will should she desire to, and yet boiling rice escaped her. It felt foolish to google it, as if someone would find out and take away her credentials. She gulped the white wine she had prematurely poured earlier as a celebration of cooking herself a nice meal, and set her eyes on the comment section of the blog.
talltales: So what step comes after boiling the rice into a hockey puck?
Pairing the wine with a few scoops of Goldfish, C.J. flipped the lights off in the kitchen, deciding it was better to just go to bed instead. The ping of her phone surprised her as she washed her face in the bathroom sink, her eyes blurry as she dried herself hastily and grabbed it hoping it wasn’t an emergency.
DCDelish: Step 1. Burn the rice. Step 2. Call takeout. In all seriousness, I did the same the first few times. Each stove is different but I find if I let it boil at high for 2 minutes and then turn down to medium-high for 5 and low for the rest of the time it comes out perfect. Hope you try it again.
The smile that crept onto her face as she read the email was embarrassing even in the complete isolation of her apartment.
“How’d you mess up risotto?”
Danny’s eyebrows raised up, his eyes doing that stupid crinkling thing. He had found her yet again in the rice aisle, which meant to her that he was either stalking her or as bad at cooking as she was.
“Do you know that you’re more annoying than a weasel?”
“I always thought weasels were kinda cute so I’ll take that as a compliment. Seriously C.J., how bad was it?”
“Listen, Chef Boyardee,” C.J. stepped closer to him, taking advantage of her six foot height to loom over the few inches she had on him. “If I want your opinion on my cooking skill or any other skill I may or may not have, I’d ask. But I don’t, so shut it.”
They were nearly chest to chest, eyes steadying into one another’s, unwavering.
“Alright, see you tomorrow!” Danny turned abruptly, interrupting a moment that she normally wouldn’t admit they were having.
“Wha-, wait!” C.J. called out, and when Danny turned back to look at her she just stood their agape. She closed her mouth, drawing it into a line and turned on her own heels to walk down to the opposite end of the aisle.
He didn’t ask me out to dinner, she thought, pulling her Mustang out of the parking spot. She had seen him, more or less, every day for the past three years and every day he asked her out in some way or the other. She had been waiting for the usual quip, the dinner he would promise that he knew she couldn’t say yes to. It was a safe bet every time and although she gave him steadfast no’s under the guise of truly rebuffing him he never really bought it.
Was the Chef Boyardee crack too mean?
She tried to shake the thought from her mind, but while preparing the rice and the cheese and mushrooms she couldn’t help but go over all their interactions for the day, trying to pinpoint where she had maybe gone wrong.
“This is stupid,” she muttered to herself. “It’s Danny, and he’s annoying, and you don’t want to go out with him to dinner anyway.”
She lowered the heat down on the burner, like DCDelish suggested. Now if DCDelish was here, she thought, he wouldn’t be antagonistic about it like Danny. Oh no. He’d just help. Maybe cut these mushrooms, measure out the cheese, stir it all properly and I would just...she stopped her thought. She would just sit by with her glass of wine is what she’d do.
She took out a bottle of white, turning the imaginary glass of wine into a real one, and leaned over the counter while she sipped. Determined not to fall asleep again she stared at the saucepan, pulling herself back whenever her mind wandered to work or Danny or anything else that she really didn’t need to be thinking about right then. The sips turned into gulps, and one glass turned into three as she waited for the risotto to absorb all the water.
talltales: Me again! What exactly does it mean when you boil the water, and let it simmer, and close to thirty minutes later it’s still just soup?? Back to the takeout menus I suppose.
Downing the rest of the wine, C.J. threw the whole watery pot of rice into the sink and left it for tomorrow’s problems. She was nearing the end of her thirties and couldn’t make anything more complicated than a grilled cheese sandwich. Tears pricked at her eyes, and she palmed them away more aggressively than she needed to. She just wanted to treat herself to something nice for a change, something that took real time and at the end of it was purely about her enjoyment. Too frustrated to even eat a sandwich she grabbed her phone and retired to the bedroom. After plugging her phone into the charger she laid down with a heavy sigh in the darkened room.
Her email notification went off and a part of her wanted to just ignore it, but the better part of her knew she’d be worried it was from work and wouldn’t be able to sleep. She flipped over, staring at the notification, and allowing the goofy grin to evolve onto her face.
Private Message from DCDelish
I think it means third time’s the charm! But for tonight, if you’re in the DC area, I’m gonna suggest Golden Wheel. Best dumplings ever, and if you don’t agree, then I respect your opinion but you’re wrong.
Her fingers flew across the phone as she typed her response.
Re: Private Message from DCDelish
Golden Wheel is my go-to! Lui is a sweetheart and knows my order by heart. You’re a better person than I am though, saying one bad word about their dumplings is a deal breaker for me.
Re: Re: Private Message from DCDelish
Oh phew. That was my litmus test to know you’re a good person.
It wasn’t until C.J.’s eyes started to grow heavy, blurring the screen in front of her, that she realized that had been exchanging emails for an hour. He gave her some more cooking tips and they talked about the best takeout in D.C., and she even told him about how her job was her whole life and making this risotto was the one thing this week she wanted to do for herself. He was witty and reassuring and warmth she felt from their conversation lulled her into a deep sleep.
Finally it was Friday night and C.J. wondered if she had set the record for how many times someone could visit a grocery store in a week. The clerks weren’t giving her any weird looks though, so maybe she was still being relatively normal. As she threw mushrooms into a plastic bag, a familiar flash of red bobbed in the corner of her right eye. Her stomach tightened as she saw Danny throwing some sweet potatoes into his basket.
“Do you come here every night?!” the words flew out of her mouth before she could stop him. He looked up her, slightly surprised, before the smirk slid onto his face. Then his eyes glanced into her own basket as it hung from her arm.
“Oh no,” she said to him stepping forward and wagging a finger in his face. “Don’t you say a word to me about it.” She turned away from him, ready to move on to the pesky soup and rice aisle that had been their usual meeting place.
“I wasn’t goin-” He started to say to her retreating back. “You’re not used to cooking much, you should have someone help you out is all.”
She turned back around, a whole week’s worth of frustration finally bubbling over. “Fine Danny, then why don’t you just go ahead and cook it for me!” She shoved the basket into his open arms and stood back, hands on her hips, eyes narrowed into a challenge as she stared at him.
His mouth hung open, gaping like a fish, as he processed what she had just said. It seemed to sink in at about the same moment for C.J. as well, as she tried to take the basket back while a smile spread across his face.
“I didn’t mean-” she reached for the basket but Danny wouldn’t let it go.
“Oh I think you did,” he smiled at her, not in the smug way she was used to but out of genuine happiness. A blush rose up her neck and across her cheeks and she tried to fix her expression into one of indifference but Danny was always hardest to fool.
He turned, putting the sweet potatoes back and checked what she already had in her basket. Grabbing up a few more mushrooms, he glanced back at her. “I’ll meet you at your apartment in twenty minutes. You can be in charge of the wine.”
It was an agonizing wait. She had stashed the goldfish, vacuumed, tossed all her clutter into the bedroom, and then tossed it all into the very small closet just in case. The very nice wine she bought sat on the kitchen counter, and she was already on the second glass of the cheap stuff she always kept on hand. She paced across the living, turning on and then shutting off music several times until there was a knock on the door.
She opened to the door to let Danny in and they both hesitated for just a moment. This was brand new territory for them, a threshold they had never even toed before let alone crossed through with arms full of groceries. She welcomed him in with a smile, and he went straight for the kitchen. He took the glass of wine she offered him with a thanks but he was fully in the zone, concentrated in a way that she had only ever seen during late nights in the press room when she’d pass him by typing furiously on his laptop and mumbling to himself.
Mesmerized by his skills, C.J. was happy to lean against the counter watching him chop up the mushrooms and measure out the rice without consulting a recipe at all. His sweater was rolled up to his elbow and she allowed the buzz of the wine to let her eyes linger on the freckled skin exposed there. The muscles were surprisingly toned, fingers thick as he held the knife with ease.
“Oh my god,” she pryed her eyes away from his arms that were so familiar, horror finally setting is as she realized. “DCDelish.”
Danny barely heard the whisper, and he paused mid chop as he questioned her with a look.
“DCDelish,” she whispered again. “You’re DCDelish.”
It was Danny’s turn to blush, and he looked back down to the cutting board, concentrating very hard on the mushrooms. “You read that-I mean my blog?”
“You’ve got to be joking,” she was near hysterics, wine glass abandoned as she walked to the other side of him. He could feel the heat radiating off her as she looked down at him. “I was emailing you for an hour last night. Danny!”
“Talltales?” he said, almost laughing the name at her. “That was you?”
“Danny!” she repeated his name, incredulousness starting to give away to pure delight.
“I had no idea. I thought it was just some sad woman who was desperately bad at cooking.”
“Would it have changed anything if you had?” her smile starting to wear down as the feeling of being exposed overcame her. It was starting to feel too personal having Danny, DCDelish, in her kitchen surrounded by her things. She took a step back.
“Well for one, I know you’re not a sad woman,” he turned to the stove, dumping the contents of the cutting board into it and covering it with the lid. Lowering the heat, he took up the glass of wine she had given him earlier and downed the remains of it. “Second, I understand why you’re so very bad at cooking when you have more important things to worry about, like the ears of the country hanging off your every word. And third,” he walked towards her, forcing her to take steps back until she was up against the wall. “I would have insisted you let me make you dinner like I’ve been asking you to do the past two years. I’m glad you finally gave in.”
“I was exasperated,” she said, breathless.
“C’mon, we have to let it simmer for twenty minutes.”
He walked over to the couch, falling into it comfortably, and giving C.J. the space to finally let out the breathe she had been holding. “So…” she said as she sat next to him, carefully perched at the edge. “When’d you become a cook? I seem to remember plenty late nights of you shoveling General Tso’s into your face and not a lot of home cooked lunches in the press kitchen.”
“My mom always insisted the kids helped with cooking on the holidays, so I picked a lot up from her. Cooking just makes everything seem a bit more homey, so I try to do it as often as I can.”
“As often as you can? You run a blog, Danny, that's a bit more dedication than deciding to fire up the grill every now and then.”
He laughed at that, “Well I get Sundays off...mostly.”
C.J. smiled, letting herself relax into the couch, right into the spot that his arm was stretched out above.
The twenty minutes went by quickly as they swapped stories, reminiscing about the campaign trail and gossiping about the new, very young reporter sent in by the Chicago Tribune. Danny looked over the pot, a self-satisfied smirk that C.J. knew all too well greeting her as she took the plates to him.
“Try it,” he said, holding a spoon out to her, his hand underneath to catch anything. Tentatively, she opened her mouth, letting him guide the spoon in. The risotto was delicious, nothing spectacular about it but it warmed her straight to her toes. She let her eyes close in quiet ecstasy, enjoying not just the way it tasted but the whole ridiculous circumstance surrounding it.
They sat back on the couch, C.J. not having any kind of dining area in the one bedroom apartment, enjoying their meals quietly. Danny sat on one end, while C.J. leaned against the opposite arm, pushing her feet beneath Danny’s legs to warm them.
“I have to ask you one thing though, Mr. Concannon.”
“Shoot,” he smiled to himself at her teasing tone.
“Why were you at the grocery store three days in a row?” Her eyebrows quirked up with her question, her head tilted slightly and her face making that teasing expression he liked so much.
“Trying out a new recipe,” he mumbled between bits of risotto, “Wasn’t going so well but I think I got it now.”
“Oh,” C.J. nodded, the answer incredibly logical, which satisfied and annoyed her at the same time. “Well, if you’re still off on Sundays maybe I can come over and be your taste tester.” She had said it all in one breathe, pushing the thought out before it got buried in her nerves forever.
He smiled at her, “I’d like that.” Her toes wiggled excitedly beneath him.
“So,” Danny leaned forward, his right hand holding her calf, as he reached over to put down the empty bowl on the coffee table, “Who do I have to talk to get your secret service name officially changed to talltales?”