My husband cooks.
No, not for me.
For a living.
Today, like hundreds of yesterdays, he prepares for work, clipping closed his knife bag after donning standard culinary regalia.
He slides his feet into black clogs, usually slip-ons, always non-skid soles. Roomy pants billow around his legs, but taper tight at his ankle. “So I don’t trip over the hems,” he explains, when I ask why chef pants look funny. They’re checked, sometimes, or plain black. “To hide stains. Duh.”
His chef coat, black or white, puts pockets in unusual places, like the left arm. “Meat thermometer. Sharpie. Y’know… cook stuff.” Double rows of buttons trot down the front, a triangle of fabric flaps fancy at the throat, no collar. He’s happy not to need a toque now: they make him feel silly.
In the kitchen, his hands and not his head hold the knowledge, his sights finely tuned by long hours in the heated pace. The pink-red of rare. A broth, a reduction, a sauce. A pinch of salt: a grab, a lift, a swirling hand above the pan. No recipe books spread themselves like loose women, no clutter of cups labeled one-half, one-third, three-quarters.
“You go by feel. You just… know.” He exhales, the sigh of an expert. “One-eighth teaspoon?” It’s a scoff, voice tinny with mockery: “stupid. That’s two pinches.” My pursed eyebrows ask the obvious. “A pinch?” He twists the right corner of his mouth, amused at my ineptitude. “It’s just one. Duh.”
Low and high and up and down, he’s layering tasks like terrines, stacking them like dishes in the pit. He’s weaving among colleagues each firing sequential tickets, squatting for hotel pans, surefooted on slick floors. He’s snapping tongs, checking temps, plating food gently, lovingly, but above all, speedily. Doors open and slam: the refrigerator, the walk in, the ovens. It’s a wonder he’s got time to drink water or use the bathroom. “You just hold it,” he says.
All spurts and dashes, he tosses pans on the hot line with a stabbing back and forth motion, flipping food with a flicked wrist. As he’s seizing the pan and swinging the food inside up and over onto itself, he’s maneuvering his mouth in a symbiotic grimace, in and out and in and out with the pan’s motions. These contortions are subconscious, like a child’s tongue protruding in concentration during shoe-tying or long division. His lips stretch wide, slide over his teeth, smile-like yet unparted, then purse again, over and over, his mouth a metronome in the kitchen’s frenzied tempo.
He returns home slick from work, skin salty with sweat, individually pleasant odors mixing unpleasantly on his clothes, aromas of fish layering over cinnamon, mustard over chocolate; scents that testify to the variety that spices his life. I hold him close, smells and all, at the end of each night. The first clothes off are those work shoes.
It is lucky, I think, he has a non-skid soul.
Just a year ago I was shooed into his emergency room. There he lay, my husband, heavy-lidded and ashen, limp in a hospital gown. I traced the various tubes and monitors like roadmaps, disappearing under his gown, invading his nostrils, penetrating his veins, pinching his fingertips. My ears tuned to tiny beeps in the dim light, my eyes locked on blinking monitor lights: oscillating oxygen levels, a-rhythmic heart peaks, unsteady pulse blips, varied blood pressure readings. Each backlit screen twinkled, a bitter constellation of medical science and treasured life.
This gray shadow was not the man who swung children up onto his shoulders, who clutched me in the dark, who built campfires and cast fishing lines out long, not the bending, reaching man sautéing late into the night. Semi-conscious, body weakened, face sapped of vitality, he lay pale and flat in his pneumatic bed, couched in a miscellany of bleeps and cords.
It was the skidding that did it: the slick road, the oncoming traffic, the crush of velocity. He shuffled and clutched pillows for weeks, after both blood transfusions, after the removal of the ruptured organ and the snapping of the bones. And I held him, walked him, smoothed and tucked him. I did the bending and the reaching, and of course the cooking, for both of us.
Today, he is off to snap tongs and check temps once more.
And I think, it is good, to have a non-skid soul.
Good, to resist slipping away.
Krista Christensen teaches developmental English and reading at her local community college, and she is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction through Ashland University. In her past lives, Krista has taught high school English, sold home and auto insurance, and night-managed a chain thrift store. Originally from Southern California, she has also called Oregon and Alaska home. She is drafting a memoir tentatively titled Hysterics: Pelvic Truths from a Nervous Wreck, and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with one still-alive cook husband, two young children, and one effeminate male hound dog.