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Every night when he came home from work, the first thing Dad would do was take the change out of his suit pockets and dump it into a big blue plastic cup with the arrowhead logo from my summer camp printed on it in white, which he kept in the cabinet just to the right of his sink in the master bath. Mom had a cabinet just like it to the left of her sink. She kept her makeup carousel and jewelry in hers, and old scarves she hadn’t worn since she got out of high school. In his, Dad kept change and his watch, his mouthwash and Mennen hairspray and spare handkerchiefs. And the book.
I found it on a Tuesday afternoon, when I was looking around for quarters. I was eleven years old, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I took acting classes at a place up on North Burnet, behind the Nighthawk café. I always brought fifty cents with me so I could get a Coke from the machine out back afterward. Usually I got my change from the big jar on the shelf over the washing machine, but Mom had just taken that to the bank, so I was raiding Dad’s cabinet instead.
It was just a plain black clothbound book at the very rear of the deep cabinet, kept spine down so the title was hidden. The paper cover had been taken off. I’d noticed it before, but thought there must be a very good reason my father hid it so carefully. Probably, I’d told myself, it was something really boring. Probably it was about phone bills or something. But I was all alone in the house that afternoon, and it suddenly occurred to me, why would Dad hide a boring book?
The minute I eased the book out of its niche and saw the gold embossed title, I knew I should just put it back, right away. But by then, of course, it was too late.
The first pages were a series of large color paintings on thick shiny paper, like in an art book. Except that the pictures were of a man and a woman, naked and having sex. And not like movie sex either. I’d seen plenty of movie sex—we had Cinemax and during slumber parties we’d sneak into the living room late at night to catch Friday After Dark. But this woman had hair under her armpits, and the man had hair, well, everywhere, and you could actually see his penis, going into her. It was hard-core, like the tapes I was too embarrassed to sneak a peek at that Isabel’s dad stashed behind the regular movies. The man and woman in the pictures weren’t even all that good-looking. They were old. Actually, they looked kind of like my parents—but that made me feel weird, so I pushed the thought out of my mind.
After the color pictures came a long written part, with black-and-white drawings and entries like in a dictionary. That’s what the book was, I realized—a sex dictionary. Lots of the entries were French. Others were simple words, like boots and railways, but I couldn’t understand why they’d even be in a book like this. That was the worst part—did boot mean something entirely different from what I’d thought? Every time I begged my mom for a pair of purple zip-up go-go boots to go with my Miss Piggy sweater, was I inadvertently saying something dirty?
The front door of the house was right next to the door to my parents’ room. When I heard my mom’s key in the lock I only barely had time to lunge for the cabinet and put the book back before she found me.
“You ready, Jules? What’re you doing?”
“I was just getting some change for my Coke.”
I thought, ^ but she just said, “Well, let’s go—you’re going to be late,” and walked right back out the front door.
All through class I worried—had I put it back wrong? I remembered how in the book 1984 the main character laid a hair across the top of his journal, so he’d know if anyone had moved it. I knew Dad had read 1984—he was the one who gave me my copy. The acting teacher had assigned me a scene with Caleb, who looked just like Jason Bateman on It’s Your Move, but I couldn’t look at him without thinking about those pictures in the book. I kept forgetting my lines, and I never forgot lines—I was the best memorizer in the class. After class, I sipped my Coke while I waited for Mom to pick me up, but I could barely taste it—my whole mouth was tingling like I’d been chewing cinnamon gum. When she got there, though, she acted normal. We came home and Dad was doing the crossword in his chair as usual.
It was a very, very wrong thing to do, reading that book at my age. I knew it. I was betraying my parents. I was being bad. Each time I found myself sneaking back into my parents’ room I whispered to myself, “Last time, last time, last time.” But I knew I was lying. I’d fallen down a pit, I was begrimed with corruption, I would never again be innocent. And besides, there was so much information! The book was full of stuff I couldn’t find out anywhere else—not even from Isabel, who knew more about sex than any eleven-year-old in the world, even though she was only ten. The damage was already done, so I might as well get an education out of it.
Mom was usually home when I got home from school, but sometimes she’d be out taking my brother Heathcliff to his Little League practice or a friend’s house, or running errands. On those afternoons I would grab my stack of Oreos—I had a firm (well, pretty firm) rule never to eat more than ten in an afternoon—and a paper towel and creep back to my parents’ bathroom. They had a small oil painting hanging on the wall, depicting a woman in a negligee. I liked the painting well enough, though I was glad they’d hung it in the bathroom. But now that I knew what was in the book in Dad’s cabinet, the painting clearly seemed to hint at proclivities I’d never before imagined they had.
The book, when I took it out, smelled smoky and astringent and secret. I thought that it smelled that way because my parents used it when they were having sex, maybe with my mom dressed in a rubber vest or go-go boots or something. (It was years before I figured out the smell was just Listerine and hairspray and the still-undiscovered cigarettes Dad hid in his cabinet for an occasional smoke out on the deck, after I’d gone to bed.) I would slide down the wall under the oil painting onto the nubbly white carpet and read, resting the open book on my tented knees. I’d put the Oreos on the paper towel beside me and eat them one after the other, twisting them open, licking out the white stuff, sucking the wafers until they were chocolate ooze in my mouth, while I read about cassolette and postillionage and gamahuche. Some entries were just plain grody—all that stuff about smelly, unshaven armpits—while others got me aching between my legs. And then I’d hear the garage door open. I’d leap up, stuff the book back into place and shut the cabinet door, grab up any cookies I had left, and run to the kitchen so I’d be there when Mom came in, calling from the front door for help with the groceries.
If The Joy of Sex was my first taste of sin, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was my second.
For Christmas Eve dinner, Mom usually made red beans and rice—with the crimson, chili-seasoned beef and the pinto beans cooked separately, because I didn’t eat beans, ever. This year, though, the head of Dad’s firm was coming to dinner, and after some panic, Mom had decided to do something special. When I wandered into the kitchen that morning I found her already busily chopping vegetables. On the kitchen table was an old cookbook, open to page 315. Boeuf Bourguignon.
Though it had been there as long as I could remember, I’d never seen Mom take this particular thick, cream-colored tome out of the pantry. Actually, it was one of a matched pair: two fat books, both called ^ both with a pattern of spangled floral shapes on their covers. When I asked my mom, she called the design floordayleez. The book my mom had out had red floordayleez; the one that remained in its place on the pantry shelf had blue ones.
Cookbooks were not my favorite sorts of books, and even among cookbooks, these were far from the most interesting in my mother’s pantry collection. I much preferred the Time-Life series, two books for each world cuisine—one spiral-bound, with the actual recipes, and another, larger, with history and beautiful photos. (The Viennese one, with all those towering white cakes, was my favorite. I was always pointing out one or the other of them to Mom and asking her to make it, but then she’d point out that it had coconut in it, or nuts, or jam, and I didn’t eat coconut or nuts or jam, not ever.) But even though they weren’t my favorites, I’d always liked the look of those two books standing so stoutly among my mom’s Junior League books and tattered Betty Crocker. They seemed old-fashioned, stately, real, like historical books you’d buy for lots of money in an antique shop.
I still had on my nightgown. I’d pulled over it my mom’s boxy blue cowl-neck sweater with the wiggly alpine stripes. Around Christmastime I liked to pretend it might snow. In quieter moments, in the bath or before I got out of bed in the morning, I would imagine the flakes drifting down outside, while I curled up on a great pile of pillows before a roaring fireplace with Jason Bateman, whose half-cocked grins seemed to suggest Joy of Sex stuff, only in a nice way, and with less armpit hair. Mom’s cowl-neck sweater helped enormously with these daydreams.
I grabbed a piece of Marshmallow Fluff fudge out of the tin and sat down in front of the book. Mom was at the sink, scraping carrots over the disposal. “I don’t see why you insist on wearing that sweater. It’s seventy degrees outside.”
“Don’t lose my page.”
“I won’t.” With one finger marking Mom’s recipe, I flipped through the book, trying to pronounce all the French words under my breath. An old smell came off the pages, musty but not like library books. More like a dog or a forest floor, something damp and warm and living. The words, and the smell, reminded me of something—but what it was I couldn’t at first figure out.
Much of what I read made no sense to me, but I could see the recipes were full of stuff I didn’t like, mushrooms and olives and spinach. Something called sweetbread, what the heck was that? Was it sort of like coffee cake? Because I hated coffee cake. I was getting a bit bored, when my eyes fell on a drawing of some kind of animal part—a lamb’s leg, the caption said. It was laid out tail up, looking almost like a person stretched out on her tummy. I flipped backward and found another drawing. This one was of a pair of graceful hands with neat round fingernails, pressing down on a piece of something smooshy. Pastry dough. The hands were demonstrating fraisage: “With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you in a firm, quick smear of about 6 inches.”
It sounded weird. It also sounded kind of, well, dirty.
I suddenly remembered exactly what the book reminded me of.
Blushing, I shot a glance up at my mom, but she had finished the carrots and was on to the onions. She had no idea what I was thinking. Of course not. It wasn’t like Mom could read my mind. I used to think she could, but this last year, I’d realized that if that was true, she’d never have let me watch It’s Your Move again.
“You’re not losing my place, are you?”
“I said no.”
Because it was the holidays, I hadn’t had the chance to look at the book in Dad’s cabinet for weeks. Mom and Dad were home more, for one thing, plus they were on the lookout to make sure I wasn’t poking around searching for presents. I really did try not to do that, because surprises were the whole point of Christmas. Besides, I didn’t want to find anything that would prove once and for all that Santa really didn’t exist. I pretty much knew that, but I didn’t want to admit it, because what would Christmas be without Santa? It could be pretty tempting to look, though, so it was better to just avoid my parents’ room altogether. So, no Joy of Sex, not until after New Year’s probably. This book, though—well, it was practically just as good. It had French words, too, and lots of incomprehensible stuff to meditate on. There weren’t any naked hippies, but that was okay. Sometimes the naked hippies kind of freaked me out.
Maybe instead of just sitting in front of a fireplace in a sweater with Jason Bateman, I could cook something for him. I’d never thought of that before. Something sexy. Like—hmm . . . what about Pièce de Boeuf à la Cuillère? That sounded dirty. “Minced Braised Beef Served in a Beef Shell”—it even sounded dirty in English.
“What are you doing, anyway?”
I practically jumped out of the chrome-and-wicker kitchen chair, like I’d gotten caught masturbating at the dinner table—not that I masturbated, of course. I only even knew what the word meant because Isabel had told me. Ick.
“Don’t sit with your feet under you like that—I just had those chairs recaned. Can you bring the book to me over here? My hands are all bacon-y.”
I turned to the page I’d been saving with my index finger and carried the book over to Mom. She gave me an odd look as I set it down on the yellow counter. “I can’t understand why you’re so interested in this, anyway. You wouldn’t eat a thing in it. You won’t even eat a cheeseburger.”
“Cheese belongs on pizza, not hamburgers.”
Mom rolled her eyes and went back to the cooking. I stood over her shoulder and watched for a bit. She had chopped up bits of bacon and was frying them in a pan. Once they were all brown she took them out and started frying chunks of meat.
“It smells good.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” She was taking out the browned meat now, and throwing in carrots and onions. I didn’t eat carrots, not ever. But the smell really was something. I wondered if Jason Bateman might be a Boeuf Bourguignon man. “Maybe tonight you can try a little,” Mom said.
Of course, I didn’t try it, not that Christmas Eve—my terror of carrots, mushrooms, and pearl onions proved too great to overcome, and like the other kids at the house that night, I opted for pepperoni pizza and fudge instead. In fact, it would be another eighteen years before I did taste Julia’s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon.
Boeuf Bourguignon is at once classic and comfortable, impressive and simple, so it’s a perfect dish to make when your reputation is on the line. It was what Julia Child made on the very first episode of her very first television show. It was what my mother made to impress my dad’s boss. And eighteen years later it would be what I made for a certain very important person who I hoped would sweep me out of my crappy secretarial job and on to wild success and fortune. Actually, I made it twice for this very important person, but I’ll get more into that a little later on. For now, let’s just say that Boeuf Bourguignon, like mayonnaise, requires a certain amount of trial and error (actually, I find that mayonnaise takes far more), but once you have it down it’s an excellent skill to have at your disposal. If, for instance, Jason Bateman were to blow into town looking for a dinner invitation, I could now, thanks to Julia, whip him up a good French beef stew with a minimum of fuss.
I might even cook Boeuf Bourguignon for Jason Bateman while wearing my mom’s blue après-ski sweater. I still have it, and possess an irrational attachment to it that has survived the twin realizations that I will never be the sort of sylphlike slip of a thing who looks good in bulky cowl-neck sweaters, and that bulky cowl-neck sweaters haven’t been sexy since at least the late eighties, anyway. But for Jason Bateman, as for Boeuf Bourguignon, sometimes the old ways are best.
After all the uncertainty, it was finally going to happen. His bag was packed, the car was on its way; he was shipping out. Soon he would be doing real work, with Lord Mountbatten in New Delhi. It was all coming to be, just as Jane Bartleman had said. Paul carefully slipped one of his journals out from the box of his papers that he’d already packed up for his brother, Charlie, to take up to Maine, and carried it to his small bed, now stripped of its sheets. He sat and turned to the pages in which he had recorded the astrologer’s predictions last April.
“A new enterprise awaits. It hangs before you like fruit on a tree.”
Say what you like about astrology, but you couldn’t argue with the results. Paul continued skimming the pages of his small, neat handwriting.
“Doors are going to open—doors you can’t even imagine exist.”
As Paul stood to wedge the journal back into the box, a small sheet of paper slipped out of it and fluttered to the floor. He recognized it as he bent to retrieve it, and a sudden prickling behind his eyes surprised him. It was a letter, years old and yellowing, from Edith, written back during their years in Cambridge together.
“My Dearest Paul, your poems always move me in this way, and yet it always surprises me . . .”
She’d been gone for just a little over a year, but still the very glimpse of her handwriting brought back with awful clarity those last months, the long desolate afternoons watching his lover gasp for air that would not come to her. Reading the poem, he realized that somewhere deep he felt that in leaving the country, he was leaving her.
Last spring, Bartleman had predicted there would be another woman for him, one to break apart this icy loneliness. It did not seem possible, much as he craved the comfort of a woman of intelligence, of humor and balance and perception. He’d already been given his one chance at that.
Outside, a car horn. Just concentrate on your work, Paul said to himself. He zipped up his bag and heaved it onto his shoulder. The hell with women, and marriage. A man can’t have everything.
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