The gift certificate’s for two, but James can’t get away. You go, he says, it’ll expire. We eat standing up, containers spread across the kitchen counter we stained ourselves. A year since we drilled in shelves, labeled spice jars, gave all of our scratched, teflon pans to our single friends. We have a matching set now, we’d said, ceramic, as if we’d sworn off anything so messy for the rest of our lives.
James stretches in bed and sets an early alarm. I watch from the doorway. Already he’s onto the next day and I’m left far behind, stuck in a late morning, a long time ago. Newspapers, pastry crumbs in the bed, skipped alarms. Nothing between our warm bodies. I want him to tell me not to go, to say he can’t stand to be apart. Instead he says, Miss you? It’s only five days. Not even a week.
Breakfast is first at the cooking school, and I am a champion. Light eggs, flaky crust, a perfect Quiche Lorraine. The instructor holds mine up like a prize. After, there’s a social hour. The school is in an old stone building meant to look like a villa, but it feels a little like summer camp. Martin Ramos introduces himself. Your quiche was delicious, he says. Tall, with a smile like we’re sharing a joke. I’ve taken off my wedding ring, it’s true, but no one mixes dough with jewelry on.
The next day we make duck confit. Martin asks to be my partner. Did I do everything? I’m not sure if I did everything, I say. When it’s done the duck comes softly off the bone and Martin puts the pieces in my mouth. Later, on the phone with my husband, I’m still thinking about that finger, against my tongue, just for a second.
The third day we meringue, but I can’t quite get it. I leave my station and stand by Martin’s. It’s hotter over here, he’s red in the face. His base is a cloud, thick and peaking. Mine is flat, watery. You can’t get everything right, he says. It’s only five days. Everyone keeps saying this; it must be true.
The fourth day is Sole Meunière and Martin at my door, at night, with a bottle of wine. He’s smoking a cigar, which can’t be allowed but smells delicious. His skin is red too, and warm to touch. It’s fire, I think, when he steps in closer, talking of hunger, requesting a snack. He carries it with him.
He asks for quiche, but when I take it out of the room’s mini fridge it has lost all of its lightness. It sits heavy and wet in the pan. Martin hugs the sagging sides of tin foil in his hands and tries to smile. I could heat it up, I say. But it’s gone. We both know it.
On the last day we make a slow lamb ragu. Eat this one at home, the instructor says. Overnight the flavors are supposed to bond, gather richness. In the first hour the sauce breaks down, the oils rise to the surface, everything becomes softer, more tender, and the smell is fragrant, irresistible. Just wait, she says. It gets better.