Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Guest Blogger Jessica Park and Chapter One of "Cook the Books."
I am very happy today to have my good friend Jessica Park share the first chapter of her next book, "Cook the Books," due out in March. If you haven't read a Gourmet Girl Mystery, you need to. They're everything a good mystery should be and more--They're funny, romantic, mysterious(duh) and just plain fun. Do yourself a favor and read the entire series. You won't be sorry!
Without further ado...
I have a love-hate relationship with Craigslist. On the one hand, I adore poking through the online classifieds for items I don’t even want—Swedish bobbin winders, chicken coops, vintage Christmas ornaments—and for enviable extravagances that I can’t afford—like the services of someone to come to my house to change the cat litter. On the other hand, I hate getting sucked into the vortex of randomly searching for weird items and unaffordable services instead of looking for what I actually need. For example, at the moment, I absolutely had to find a part-time job. I leaned back into my couch and adjusted the laptop so that it balanced comfortably on my knees.
I was broke because of the cutest baby in the world, Patrick, the three-month-old son of my best friend, Adrianna. One day last August, Adrianna and her husband, Owen, had almost simultaneously gotten married and become parents, and since then I’d spent a small fortune spoiling them and Patrick. Ade was staying at home with the baby while Owen, a seafood salesman, struggled to support them. Driving around Boston in a refrigerated truck, Owen delivered fish and shellfish to restaurants and tried to get new accounts. He seemed to spend as much on gas as he made on commissions. Luckier than Adrianna and Owen, I had a monthly stipend that was deposited into my account, courtesy of my late Uncle Alan, but the money hadn’t begun to cover the cost of my recent expenditures. As pleased as the credit card company must have been about the interest I was paying, its representatives were equally displeased with my making sporadic and late payments.
The principal blame for the hideous state of my finances lay with high-end baby boutiques and the baby sections of beyond-my-means department stores. How could I resist the designer blankies, the infant activity centers, the fancy play saucers, the darling Ralph Lauren outfits, and the endless assortment of rattles? Plus, Patrick obviously needed the expensive machine that reproduced the natural sounds of the jungle, the ocean, and evening in the forest, right? Ade and Owen lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment around the corner from mine. Patrick’s room had once been, and in reality still was, a closet; granted, it had a window and a radiator, but a closet it remained. So, the least I could do for my favorite friends was to lavish upon them everything they needed for their cherished and irresistible son, who was also my godson.
My spending had a second explanation, one much less altruistic than the desire to indulge my friends. As I hated to admit even to myself, my transformation into an especially profligate spendthrift just had to represent some sort of effort to fill the void that my boyfriend Josh had left when he’d moved to Hawaii. Yes, incredible though it still seemed, my perfect, gorgeous, charming, adorable chef boyfriend, Josh Driscoll, had up and left Boston to work as a private chef for a family in Hawaii. As of mid-September, we would have been together for a year. But instead of celebrating our anniversary with Josh, I’d spent most of September either shopping like a maniac or curled up in a ball on the couch, crying my eyes out. On Adrianna’s wedding day, the same day that she’d given birth to Patrick, Josh had asked me to go to Hawaii with him. Dream come true, right? Well, maybe for someone else, but I’d been heartbroken and furious at the invitation. There was no way that I wanted leave Adrianna, Owen, and their new baby. Furthermore, I was just beginning the second year of my master’s degree program in social work. I hadn’t exactly been a highly motivated student during my first year, but I was belatedly starting to fit in at social work school and to realize that my choice of the field had been far less random and capricious than I’d originally thought. In fact, I was enjoying my work too much to drop everything and jet off to Hawaii. Besides, it seemed to me that Josh’s decision to leave was an impulsive reaction to the tumultuous year he’d had, a year of bouncing from one disastrous restaurant experience to another. He’d been chronically overworked and exhausted, stressed beyond imagination, and the opportunity to work in Hawaii must have seemed like an easy way out. I just wished that, given the choice between Hawaii and me, he’d chosen me.
Josh had continued to e-mail me and occasionally to call, but I ignored his attempts to explain himself, deleted his messages, and eventually blocked his address altogether. It was now November, and I was no longer willing to hang around my condo, pining for a lost love. I had a life to live, and I was not going to be one of those women whose entire life hinges on a relationship with some guy. Even if that guy was the best thing that had ever happened to me! No, I, Chloe Carter, was an independent woman, a loyal friend, and a driven graduate student!
I again focused on Craigslist and clicked back to the main job categories in search of something that might pique my interest. “Accounting+finance” sounded relevant to my situation, but the state of my bank account hardly qualified me to manage someone else’s finances. “Arch / engineering” sounded high-paying, but my experience in the field was limited and unpromising. When I’d helped Owen to assemble Patrick’s crib, I’d failed to insert two long pieces of wood that had turned out to be major support bars. I really wasn’t equipped to apply for any sort of job involving architecture or engineering. “Internet engineers” sounded important and interesting, but my principal Internet skill consisted of expertise in Googling old classmates to see who had done anything Nobel Prize–worthy or scintillatingly illegal, so that I could feel either pitifully unsuccessful or smugly superior by comparison. I also spent time on the Web researching term papers and browsing for recipes and food trivia, but those activities hardly made me an Internet engineer.
Aha! “Food / bev / hosp” sounded more up my alley! I hesitated for a second because of Josh, who’d been one reason for my spending the past year totally consumed by all things food- and chef-related. I reminded myself, however, that I’d been a foodie before Josh and that I could continue to love all things gastronomic after Josh. Ugh. After Josh. I hated the sound of the words. I was over him. I had to be. I had no choice. And if searching through food-industry jobs was my way of clinging to the past? Well, avoiding the industry would mean that I was running away from it because I was still hurting, as I undeniably was. Every piece of cooking equipment in my kitchen reminded me of Josh. I was sick of tearing up at the sight of a measly spatula and cursing every time I turned on the oven. I damned well was going to get over crying at the sight of wooden spoons and paring knives! Maybe working in the food industry was exactly what I needed. Yes, I’d flood myself with food images until I was no longer reminded of Josh! I scrolled through the listings, but all of the jobs turned out to be for servers, cooks, bar managers, and mixologists. I don’t know what I’d been hoping for. A job as a voracious eater? As a taste tester?
I returned to the main menu. “Skilled trade?” How humiliating to realize that I had no skills! Even so, I skimmed the page and found “writing / editing.” I’d certainly written and edited plenty of my own papers over the past year. Although I couldn’t be considered a professional writer, I could probably pass myself off as preprofessional or possibly as just on the verge of becoming professional or as all-but-professional, so close to being outright professional that no one could tell the difference. Anyhow, it would certainly be easier to sell a potential employer on my writing skills than it would be to pretend that I possessed a “skilled trade” or that I was really quite qualified to serve as a mixologist or an architect or an Internet engineer. Skimming the writing and editing jobs, I discovered that I was impossibly unqualified for many. The odds of my suddenly becoming a Portuguese-English bilingual person who could prepare scholarly bibliographies were slim to none. And I was not about to attempt to edit a math textbook.
One job, however, leapt off the screen: assistant to a cookbook writer! The listing said the applicant would need solid writing skills in addition to an enthusiasm for food and recipes. The job was tailor-made for me! I immediately e-mailed my résumé and a quick letter of introduction that explained my unabashed love for everything that had anything to do with food. Then I crossed my fingers. This was the one and only job I’d applied for, mainly because it was the only one that interested me. Incidentally, it also happened to be the only job on Craigslist that I could possibly perform. Who knew what it would pay, though? Furthermore, if the job was so appealing to me, it might be equally so to others, meaning that I’d face serious competition.
I shut down the computer and headed down the short hall that led to my kitchen. As usual, the prospect of walking in felt like going into battle. The appliances, the food, and the utensils all seemed to be taunting me, reminding me of my chef. Truthfully, my whole condo reminded me of Josh, especially because we’d spent much more time at my place than at his. I loved my condo, and I wanted to feel the way I used to feel about it, but even my wall colors made me think of Josh. I’d gone through a serious phase of impulsively painting and repainting each room a different earthy color, and Josh had fueled my interest by giving me painting supplies as my Christmas gift last year. Maybe I’d have to repaint yet again. We’d spent hours snuggling on the couch in the tiny living room, and I’d watched him cook countless meals in my kitchen. And the bedroom? Well, there was the bedroom, too. One of my cats, Inga, brushed against my leg as I stood in the entryway to the kitchen. Josh had rescued Inga from a horrible owner who had threatened to toss her into the Charles River if no one took her. However unintentional, Inga was a living reminder of my ex.
I was going to brave my fears and get over this! I was twenty-six, for God’s sake, and I was going to move on from this relationship with maturity. I sighed, stepped into the kitchen, and reached up to a high shelf to retrieve a few cookbooks. In case I got to interview for the job, I’d better be prepared. In the past, I’d leafed through cookbooks for recipes. Now, I looked at them as books. In particular, one thing that would be different about working on a cookbook than working on other written material would certainly be the formatting. Flipping through the pages of a Julia Child book, I saw that the number of servings was designated at the top and that the ingredients were listed in the order they were used. Abbreviations, I realized, all had to be consistent. I grabbed another book and then another and another. Some books had lovely forewords that informed the reader of the culinary delights that followed. Some books paired anecdotes with recipes, and some had glossy, mouthwatering photos. My stomach growled as I stared at a gorgeous crown roast of lamb, tied in a circle and filled with a creamy polenta and sausage stuffing. I slammed the book shut. I had nothing in my fridge except leftover pizza and flat seltzer water.
I took a shower, threw on a pair of sweatpants and an old T-shirt, and pulled my red hair into a ponytail. I understood all too well that my lack of a romantic life explained why I was putting no effort into doing my hair and makeup and picking out a cute outfit, but what did my appearance really matter today? It was Sunday, and I was just going to be lounging around my place doing homework. I dutifully gathered together my social work reading material and flopped down on the couch, determined to get through the seven dry chapters that lay ahead of me.
I read three chapters and then cringed at the title of the fourth: “Love and Attachment.” Great! Exactly what I did not feel like reading about. In fact, the bane of my studies this fall had been this damn Attachment class. I threw the book across the room, shut my eyes, and willed my pain to retreat for a few hours.
Minutes later, when the phone rang, I gleefully snatched it from its cradle. Maybe it was Adrianna calling, and I could blow off my homework and go snuggle with baby Patrick? I didn’t recognize the number on caller ID but picked up anyway. Even talking to my credit card company would be a welcome distraction.
“Hi. I’m trying to reach Chloe Carter,” a friendly male voice said.
“Speaking,” I said with disappointment. A telemarketer? Those people were always so goddamn friendly when they asked for you.
“Ms. Carter, this is Kyle Boucher.” He pronounced his last name in the French manner: Boo-shay. “I put out the ad for a writing assistant.”
“Oh! Yes!” I couldn’t contain my excitement. “That was fast. I just sent my résumé a few hours ago. And please call me Chloe. Oh, have you already filled the position?” I knew I should have started job hunting sooner.
“Please call me Kyle. And, no, in fact, you’re the first person to respond. I guess the idea of being a cookbook assistant didn’t capture many people’s interest. I was thrilled to find your résumé in my inbox.”
“Really? That’s great. It sounds like a job that I’d love.”
“Excellent. Maybe we could set up an interview. In fact, why don’t we meet at a restaurant? Have you been to Oracle?” Kyle asked.
“No. That place opened about six months ago, right? I’ve heard good things about it.” I’d been dying to go there, actually. Josh and I had managed to get a reservation one night last summer, but he’d had to cancel at the last minute when his boss at his old restaurant, Simmer, had insisted that Josh needed to work.
“Any chance that you’re free to meet tomorrow night? Seven o’clock? I’m really behind on this project, and I’d love help as soon as possible.” The hint of desperation in Kyle’s voice raised my hopes for securing the job. “I’ve already made a reservation there for four, since I’d been hoping for a number of candidates to interview, but one enthusiastic response like yours is better than three wishy-washy ones.”
“Perfect. I’ll see you then. And thank you so much for calling.”
When I hung up, I realized that for the first time since Josh had left, I was feeling truly upbeat and optimistic. It felt good to have something to look forward to. The only thing nagging at me was the prospect of going out to dinner with a strange man. Not that Kyle had sounded particularly strange on the phone, but dining at a restaurant with a man brought up images of an actual date, something I was nowhere near ready for. Stupid of me, I thought. This was a job interview. I hadn’t met Kyle on a dating site, for Pete’s sake. Still, I was suddenly nervous. For all I knew, Kyle was a psycho ax murderer and posting ads for cookbook writers was his way of finding victims. Unlikely, I admit, but I nonetheless did what any other sensible, modern woman would have done: I searched Google Images for Kyle Boucher. After skipping over photos of men who certainly weren’t my prospective employer—unless he was ninety-eight years old or a professional soccer player or a congressman—I located one shot of him. He looked normal enough, but in the picture he was in a group of people at a high school reunion, and I continued to feel wary. Sociopaths were always described as totally normal looking, and I wasn’t in a mood to take risks right now. I called Adrianna.
She picked up after a few rings. “Spit-up and poop central. How can I help you?”
“Stop answering the phone like that,” I complained. “It’s so gross. Patrick does more than spit up and poop.”
“True. He does occasionally sleep. Although not for more than four hours at a time. And he cries, too. It’s charming.”
Adrianna sounded beyond exhausted. Before Patrick’s birth, Ade’s knowledge of children in its entirety could have been handwritten in large print on a small index card. What’s more, she’d never been one of those women who spent their lives dreaming about becoming mothers. On the contrary, she’d always had a rather strong dislike of children. Consequently, she’d reacted to finding out that she was pregnant with horror followed by panic. Fortunately, by the time Patrick had entered the world, she’d mellowed out, and some sort of instinctual parenting impulse had kicked in. Ade was hardly the soft, soothing motherly type, but Patrick was bringing out the best in the previously underdeveloped side of her. Besides, Owen was a fabulous father, and his enthusiasm had been contagious.
“But you know,” she continued, “I wouldn’t trade this little guy for anything. He giggles a lot now, too. Have you seen that? I got the cutest picture of him smiling. I’ll send it to you later. So, what’s up, Chloe? Are you coming over later? We miss Auntie!”
“I’m totally bogged down with homework for the rest of the day, but I wanted to see if you could come out to dinner with me tomorrow. Will Owen be home to stay with Patrick?”
“Yeah, Owen will be here, but I cannot afford to go out, you know that. And neither can you!”
“Actually, it’s for a job interview.” I explained the ad and the call from Kyle. “I don’t think I should go alone.”
“Chloe, you can’t show up for a job interview with your best friend tagging along. It’s not quite as bad as bringing your mommy, but close.”
“Please! I’ll pay for you, and it’ll give you a good excuse to get out of the house for a few hours. We’ll come up with an explanation for why you’re there, and then I won’t worry about being kidnapped after dessert.”
Adrianna paused. The prospect of going out for a real meal had to be enticing. “Fine. But don’t blame me if you end up embarrassed that you brought me. Oooh, what am I going to wear? And I’ll get to do my hair and everything!”
“See? This’ll be fun. I’ll pick you up at six thirty tomorrow.”
I was starting a new chapter in my life: a Josh-free chapter. Good!