John smiled affectionately at Sarah as the small girl took another enthusiastic bite of the pork chop. His thoughts turned to a memory.
John sniffled as the rice rose and fell in the boiling water. He stirred it the way Carolyn had.
Have to make sure that the rice won’t stick and burn. Can’t let it stick and burn. How long does it need to boil? A minute? Five minutes? Ten minutes?
The steam got into his face and made his eyes tear. But he kept stirring the rice…until it was done. He sniffled again and rubbed his eyes. He shut off the stove, drained the water from the pot, fluffed the rice, and scooped it out onto two plates.
There was enough rice left over for one more plate.
He pulled the pork chops out of the oven. Only two pork chops on the pan. He put them on the plates.
One for him.
One for Barbara and that was it.
He made sure the stove and the oven were off before carrying the two plates to the table. He set the one plate in front of Barbara. “Here you go, pun’kin.”
She looked up at him with sad blue eyes and shook her head. “Not hungry.”
John put his plate down and sat next to her. “I know. I know, baby. There’s a lot I don’t want to do too.” He kissed her forehead. “But we still have to eat. I don’t want you getting sick. Okay?”
Her mouth turned downward.
“Tell you what. I’ll eat if you eat too.”
John took a deep breath and held it until he could exhale without crying. “I know. I miss her too.” He cleared his throat. “Uh. Umm. I need you to make sure I made this right. I’ve never made pork chops before. I don’t know…” He cleared his throat again. “I don’t know if I did it right. You want to try it first? Or should I? Hmm?”
She managed a slight smile. “I go first.”
His smile wasn’t much bigger than hers. “Okay. I’ll let you go first. And you’ll…you’ll let me know if it tastes okay?”
Barbara nodded. She picked up her pork chop and took a bite. Her eyebrows skyrocketed.
“Is it okay?”
She nodded enthusiastically and took another bite.
John smiled and settled into eating his own food. The pork chop was good. The rice was perfect.
He stayed by her side.
The third chair at the table remained tucked in and empty.
Clarice studied the softened angles of John’s face. The wrinkles at the outer edge of his eyes.
Hmm. I’m willing to bet he was a raging hot one when he was young. Because he sure is all that and a whole picnic basket now.
“Clarice?” John said.
She wanted to respond with something cute and flirty and just a tad off-color. But something in his tone kept her from going there. “What’s wrong, John?”
“I love it when you say my name.” He took a deep breath and exhaled. “How did you get through it? That first meal without him?”
“Oh. Oh, well. Elsie was already living with the trainers. So, I didn’t have to worry about her missing him every time she sat at the kitchen table.”
John turned to her. “I wasn’t talking about Elsie. I meant you. How did you get through it in one sane piece?”
“Oh.” She felt like a billowing sail that suddenly lost all of its wind.
How did I get through it?
“Do you remember?” he asked.
She nodded. “I do.”
Clarice opened the freezer and considered the dreadful prospect of making a meal for only one person. She scanned the contents of the freezer, hoping to find some good inspiration.
Everything in there reminded her of Gerald.
His favorite banana chip ice cream – so weird and gross. It had always tasted like off-brand Play-Doh to her. But he had loved it. He had taken to ordering it online when they stopped selling it in the stores.
Ground bison meat. He believed it was much healthier and so much more versatile than regular meat.
She took the meat package out of the freezer. It was brand new. He had bought it four hours ago. It wasn’t even completely frozen yet. There were still some soft spots.
Her breath hitched up. Her chest hurt. Oh, it hurt so much. She felt like her entire chest was full of splinters.
Couldn’t take a breath.
The splinters pierced her lungs, infiltrated them.
The pain was too much, too unbearable.
Needed to scream, but couldn’t breathe.
Needed to breathe, but wanted to scream.
She threw the meat package with all of her might to the other side of the room. She grabbed item after item out of the freezer and threw it and threw it and threw it.
She didn’t care that the ice cream exploded open all over the wall.
She didn’t care that the curled sweet potato fries messed all over the floor.
She just threw wild and blind until the freezer was empty. Only then was she able to breathe. The pain inside crumpled her to the floor. She broke down into rib-aching sobs.
Clarice smiled. “Extreme catharsis. And the wonders of a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are God’s gift to mankind. It can cure almost any heartbreak. At least that’s my own personal observation.”