“Wait, wait, come here,” I heard him say, his voice fast and excited, as he scurried around the corner into the kitchen.
Normally, when I drop off the Chef at the restaurant in the early afternoon, we have a definite routine. We have driven and talked, laughed and slapped each other on the arm, listened to the radio, and kissed. These past few days, there has been sunlight through the trees as we wind our way through the Arboretum. We hold hands as I drive us down Madison. As soon as we can see the lake, I know: he’s leaving soon.
Not just because I’m going to be dropping him off for his work day, a solid ten hours of prepping and cooking and planning and dancing. But also because, as soon as we round that corner, and the restaurant is in sight, he’s gone.
The man loves his job. He loves me more. But when it’s time to work, it’s time.
He clambers out of the car, grabs the boxes of fish from U Seafood, slings his backback on, and walks to the driver side. He leans in the window and kisses me, deeply. And then, he walks into the restaurant, doing his little Charlie Chaplin walk. (Sometimes, I comment on his physique, but we’ll leave that alone.)
I drive toward the coffee shop, two blocks away. When it is sunny, I look for a parking spot and dawdle there and back. Inside, I wait, for the line to dissipate, so I can talk to Kristin. We chat and laugh, and then she reaches for the cup, automatically. A venti drip. At least three inches of room for milk. Every day, I walk to the bar with the sugar and milk. I pour in his milk and watch the creamy whiteness swirl into his cave-black coffee until it is the color of caramel. And then, slightly embarrassed, and hoping no one thinks this is my coffee, I pour in half a pound of sugar.
Okay, I might be exaggerating, a bit. But seriously — I have never met anyone who takes as much sugar in his coffee.
Then again, it always makes his lips sweet when he kisses me.
I wave goodbye to Kristin, and then I wander back to the restaurant. Before I met him, I had never been to this part of Seattle. Now, I walk the streets of this neighborhood every day. I know all the characters. Life’s funny that way.
Sometimes, the light on the lake is glimmering, hindering me from reaching him, because I have to stop and stare.
And then I walk into the restaurant. I know he’s back in the kitchen, and I don’t want to scare him. So I shout, playfully, “Hey Chef!” (I really do call him Chef in that moment. He’s in his kitchen. It’s a sign of respect.)
He comes around the corner, and smiles. “Hey pumpkin.” And he kisses me as he reaches for the coffee. But there’s a tightness in his smile, a little tapping in his toes. He wants to talk. Or, rather, his entire body language communicates to me: he wishes that he wanted to talk. But he can’t. He’s in his domain. And from that moment until dinner service starts, he will be back there chopping and searing, starting stocks and reducing them, preparing apple crisps and cutting down lamb. He never takes a moment off. He has not a moment to waste.
And so, normally, I throw my arms around him, hold him close, kiss him on his now-sugary lips (after that first sip) and walk out the door, trailing “I love you,” behind me. I drive away.
But yesterday, I was jolted out of my routine.
When I returned with his coffee, he bounded around the corner, his face open wide. No ripple of wishing that he could start cooking in his kitchen. “Look at this!” he sailed over to me. New celery roots — almost the size of a small child’s head. Red potatoes. Chanterelle mushrooms he had started to dry, since they were still damp from the forest. The new order of pork belly.
I gawked at it all, grateful to see all his orders come in at once. I was tempted to take pictures, but normally, he needs his space. He went back to the kitchen, and I turned my feet toward the door to walk out. But he kept coming out. “Look!”
After awhile, I couldn’t believe my luck. I could stay? I could revel in every vegetable with him? And then, he had me close my eyes.
Smell, he said. And so, I did.
I lowered my nose into a bed of green. It smelled like green fields, something slightly sweet, a faint tang of anise. “Tarragon?” I said.
Yes, he said, looking excited. Close your eyes.
Pungent, summer, the patch of grass behind John and Tita’s door in July, we are shaking dew from leaves to take them inside to make pesto.… “Basil,” I say. “I’d recognize that anywhere.”
Grinning, he kisses my closed eyes. “Try this.”
A sweet mustiness, something of Italy, a pasta, a slow simmering.… “Oregano?” I guess, about to open my eyes.
“Ah, ah, no. Keep them closed.”
I lean my nose in again, deeper this time, the little leaves tickling my nose. I smell stews and pork loins and our plastic cutting board at midnight. I smell the Chef. “Thyme,” I say, opening my eyes, because I know it, now. This is one of his favorite herbs.
He puts the thyme in his hands like a wedding bouquet and hands it to me. It is much greener, far deeper, closer to the ground than the thyme we buy in grocery stores. I didn’t recognize it, for its health, at first.
“We have to plant some herbs,” I say, breathless with the joy of this.
“Yes, please,” he says, looking like he’s six years old.
And with the sweet smell of sugary coffee and the mingled scents of fresh herbs between us, we hold each other, relaxed.
And then I walk out the door.