Authors: Rachel Goodman
An anxious feeling churns in my stomach. I clear my throat and try hard to keep the warble out of my voice as I say, “What about Madison in the fall?” Drew’s parents relocated to Wisconsin a few years back to be closer to his maternal grandparents, an adorable couple who recently celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. We haven’t seen them since the move, but Drew keeps them apprised of the happenings in our lives, engagement included.
“You’ve already met my family. It’s time I meet yours,” Drew says. “We did things a little backward, so I can’t ask your dad for permission, but this way I can still ask for his blessing. Properly.”
“Okay,” I say, reminding myself that it’s not Drew’s fault I’ve kept my past and present separate. “We’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in Dallas with my father.”
“Good, because I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Remember when you looked into getting married at the Shedd, but they were booked solid for the next year?”
He’s talking so fast I don’t have an opportunity to answer.
“Well, yesterday after work, some of the other associates and I went to this networking event hosted at the aquarium,” Drew says. “After all the accountants cleared out, I got to talking with one of the aquarium’s event managers. I told her about us, that we’re newly engaged, and how we want to get married at the Shedd but there aren’t any openings. And it was fate, Lillie, because she told me they had a cancellation for the third Saturday in February and asked if we wanted that spot, so I took it.”
My heart is pounding, echoing in my ears. I can’t speak, can’t move, can’t do anything but stand there in the hallway by the bathrooms, frozen like a ghost crab caught under a flashlight. He decided on a wedding date without consulting with me first? I mean, I know we had to pick a date eventually, but it seemed like something we would decide together, when the time was right, not on a whim because a particular date at a particular venue became available. I should feel thrilled we got that slot at all. And I
. Really. I’m just shocked, too. I guess I assumed there would be more time to prepare—February isn’t that far away.
“We can discuss the logistics with your dad over Thanksgiving. I know he refuses to come here, but we’re getting married, so I know he’ll make an exception,” Drew says.
Since I’ve been living in Chicago, my father has visited twice. Once for my first Christmas in the city and the second for my MBA graduation. Both times Drew and I weren’t dating yet. My father chose to drive the thousand miles because he refuses to board an airplane—“I ain’t gettin’ on no contraption that can fall outta the sky”—and when he returned to Dallas from the last trip he swore he’d never do the grueling trek again. So far he’s kept his word, and I doubt even my wedding will change his mind, especially since Drew isn’t exactly my father’s pick for my ideal husband. But maybe meeting Drew will show my father just how easy we fit together.
“So what do you think?” Drew says tentatively, all traces of his earlier elation gone.
He’s so sincere, so hopeful. I imagine Drew rubbing his earlobe as his leg bounces three times in quick succession—his telltale sign that he’s nervous—and I realize how foolish I’m being. Drew wants to marry me, not someday when his parents approve or the stars align or when he can carve out some time in his busy schedule, but soon.
My mind drifts to the evening Nick proposed. Dressed in gray slacks and a striped collared dress shirt, he took me to our secret spot at Montgomery Park. Under the canopy of oak trees, sun spilled like honey through pockets in the dense cover. Leaf shadows patterned Nick’s face. A checkered blanket was spread out on the ground, candles securing the edges. Nick guided me into the center and bent down on one knee, pulling a ring from his pocket. Taking my left hand in his, he looked me in the eye and asked me to marry him, promising to cherish me forever.
As Nick drove us to a celebratory dinner afterward, our fingers intertwined, my ring sparkling in the light of the setting sun, I thought of all the happy, hopeful moments in store for us: exchanging vows among family and friends, waking up beside each other every day for the rest of our lives, growing old together. Buying our first house, then filling it with all those things that would make it a home. Blocking out the world as we touched and kissed and lost ourselves in each other. I thought of the mundane things—grocery shopping, fighting the daily grind, arguments about replacing the toilet paper roll or taking out the trash—we would share as we settled into married life.
I should have known then that I was living in a fantasyland. Between Nick’s rigorous med school classes, the insane hours and late nights spent with his nose buried in a textbook, and juggling to complete my own undergraduate coursework and my job at the diner, our paths rarely crossed. And when we actually did see each other, Nick was often short-tempered and stressed, the responsibility of someday holding a person’s life in his hands heavy on his shoulders.
How could I have possibly thought being engaged would change all that? I’d heard the warnings about how many couples didn’t survive medical school, let alone residency, with their relationships intact. There had even been a session during Nick’s medical school orientation devoted to partners and spouses of med students in which it was emphasized how tough the upcoming years would be on Nick—the demands on his time and energy, the mounting pressure to perform and surpass expectations—and how much patience and understanding were needed from family and friends.
Yet I still believed we could beat the odds, make it out on the other side, battle weary, sure, but also stronger. Only Nick’s medical school graduation came and went, as did his first two years of surgical residency, and still no wedding date was set.
Maybe that’s the danger in loving someone too much: you’re so blinded by it that you can’t see what’s already over until one side of the bed is empty and cold.
“Lillie, are you there?” Drew’s hesitant voice breaks me from my thoughts. “If you’re worried about your dad’s knee, he should be healed enough by then to walk you down the aisle.”
I take a deep breath and the tight, pinching sensation in my chest relaxes. Drew can give me a sense of peace and not make me feel as if I’m unraveling.
Finally I find my voice and say, “I think a February wedding at the aquarium will be beautiful.”
I DISCONNECT THE
call with Drew as the door to the men’s restroom opens. Two boys dart out, knocking into my legs as they run toward the dining room. My shoulder bumps against the wall. Frames wobble and a metal diner sign proclaiming:
Buy one helping of meat loaf for double the price and receive a second helping of meat loaf on the house!
comes off its nail and falls into my hands. I fumble around like I’m playing a game of hot potato until I finally get a grip on it.
“Baby girl, when I said I could use some assistance, I wasn’t referring to fondling the decor.”
“You’re hilarious, Dad,” I say, hanging the sign back on the wall.
“I’m aware of this. There’s no need to flatter me. My head will swell up like a melon,” my father says, wiping his hands on his apron. “Now are you purposely hiding from me or were you on the phone with that boyfriend of yours?”
“His name is Drew, and he’s more than just my boyfriend,” I say as he comes to stand beside me.
My father folds his arms across his chest and twists his mouth so that his mustache whiskers stick out. “Getting serious are you?”
I almost tell my father about the engagement, but stop myself. Drew said he wanted to ask for my father’s blessing personally. I don’t want to ruin that conversation for him or give my father the chance to stew over it.
“Serious enough,” I say. “We’ve decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in Dallas this year with you. I’d really love for you to meet him, get to know him. He’s important to me.”
“That so?” my father says in his signature Jackson Turner voice of doubt. “He still a Cubs fan?”
“I ain’t eating no turkey dinner with a Cubs fan. So if he plans on sitting at the big-kid table with the rest of the adults, he should consider adopting new team loyalties.” That’s my father, always needing to get his digs in when he doesn’t approve of something or someone. “Are you going to dawdle in this hallway all afternoon or make yourself useful?”
“You know, if you’re so swamped that you need an extra set of hands, why don’t you prepare some menu items ahead of time and freeze them?” I say. “Given that your surgery is coming up, it makes sense.”
My father squints and tilts his head as if he doesn’t recognize me. “You know what standards are? Well, around here we got ’em. This ain’t no chain restaurant. We believe in real, fresh food. You best be remembering that when you—”
“All right, all right. I get it,” I say, holding up my hands in surrender. “It was only a suggestion.”
“A damn terrible one. Now do your old man a favor and help me get some food prepped.” With a skip in his step, he strolls back into the dining room.
If I stay focused, move diligently, I can prep the food for tomorrow and still make it in time to meet Wes for trivia night.
“Hey, baby girl,” my father yells as I pass by the kitchen window. “Catch.”
I turn my head but not fast enough. My mother’s old apron sideswipes me across the face. Rotating on my heel, I scowl out at him, then keep walking.
When I enter the back room, a feeling of dread settles over me. Littering the length of the prep counter is everything needed to make my mother’s peach cobbler: bags of thawed, flash-frozen white peach halves, ingredients both wet and dry, baking dishes, measuring spoons, rubber spatulas, and her handwritten recipe card.
As I stand there looking at the items, an idea sparks in my mind. Cobbler is simply a fruit-based filling that is arranged in a deep dish with no bottom crust and a drop-biscuit or batter topping. But what if I put my own unique spin on it? Something like a sweet cheese and peach mixture topped with a light, flaky phyllo dough would do the trick. Okay, maybe my idea is more like a deconstructed strudel—and sure, it has an Austrian flair to it—but with a little imagination, it could be interpreted as a type of American cobbler. Then I wouldn’t be violating any competition rules, so the judges would have to accept my submission. Not to mention, nowhere on my entrant packet does it say I have to use my mother’s recipe specifically. Only that I have to make a dessert called summer peach cobbler. Which this strudel-in-disguise definitely qualifies as. My whole idea is brilliant, actually.
I toss the apron onto the floor next to the wall, wash my hands, and swap out the ingredients on the counter with the requisite ones needed to make the new recipe. Lucky for me, I notice my father has premade phyllo dough for baklava already in the fridge. I dampen a clean dish towel to keep the dough moist and begin whipping up the first batch. After all, my father did say I should practice.
I set up an assembly line and get to work. The strudel filling comes together quickly. The smooth ricotta, sweetened with honey, provides the perfect balance to the ripe, juicy peaches and the crunchy, tart pomegranate seeds. I spoon the mixture into greased baking dishes and top each one with layers of phyllo dough, brushing butter liberally between the sheets. The scent makes my mouth water.
Ernie walks into the room as I’m covering the dishes with aluminum foil. He looks at my deconstructed strudel, whistles, and slowly retreats. If Ernie knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay mum about what he saw. The last thing I need is my father storming in here, hollering and causing a scene.
I rifle among the kitchen utensils for a marker to scribble cooking instructions on the foil. My stomach plummets to the ground when I see a faded newspaper clipping peeking out from under a whisk. With shaking hands, I pull it out. Five years ago, I left this article for Nick to find.
So why does my father have it?
I think as anger careens its way through me, the paper crinkling in my fist. Then my tangled thoughts wrap around an even bigger question.
Why would he keep it?
The memory comes so harsh and fast I have to grip the prep counter.
I was sitting on a bench at Montgomery Park, eating a turkey sandwich while flipping through the style section of the
New York Times
when I saw it. A story about The Maple Door, Greenwich Village’s newest upscale-dining hot spot. In that moment, everything inside me froze. Because staring back at me from a grainy black-and-white photograph was my mother, dressed in a crisp white chef’s jacket. I knew it was her without question. She had that same glowing smile, those same almond-shaped eyes, the same platinum-blond hair that shined like glaze on a doughnut that I recognized from the picture propped up on my father’s bedroom nightstand.
With my heart thumping in my ears, I quickly scanned the article, leapfrogging over phrases like “refined farm-to-table cooking that will make your taste buds do a break dance” and “an unassuming atmosphere with quirky sophistication” and “delectable, old-fashioned desserts brimming with youthful enthusiasm.” But then my eyes landed on the sentence that would change me forever:
Executive chef Elizabeth Klein, who resides in New York City’s Upper East Side with her husband, fellow James Beard award–winning chef and restaurateur Patrick Bailey, and their twin daughters, Missy and Matilda, also showcases her talents at the Theater District’s nationally acclaimed Foundry Bistro.
In a blind panic, I tore out the article and rushed to my truck, my lunch forgotten. Minutes later I parked in front of the diner and raced inside. I spotted my father leaning against the counter, chatting with Sullivan Grace as he spun a tray on his finger.
Striding over to him, I slapped the paper down on the stainless steel surface. “Did you know?”
Sullivan Grace jumped, a delicate hand pressed to her chest. “Lillie, dear, please soften your tone.”
Ignoring her, I kept my focus on my father and asked again, punctuating each syllable.
My father must have realized I was teetering on the edge of a breakdown, because a worried expression settled on his face. He put the tray aside, then slowly, cautiously, picked up the article, mouthing the words as he read. I studied his features, searching for something that told me he had no idea of my mother’s whereabouts. That he was as clueless as me about her glamorous new life, her glamorous new
But then he met my gaze, and the pain and guilt in his eyes confirmed my fears.
“How could you have hidden this from me?” I asked, my voice splintering. Heat flooded my cheeks and tears welled in my eyes.
He looked at Sullivan Grace, who appeared as lost as my father. A silent conversation passed between them. Sullivan Grace nodded, her chin bobbing ever so slightly, and squeezed my father’s hand, as if in encouragement.
My father turned to me, and I had never seen him look so nervous. “Baby girl, I wanted to—” He stopped, cleared his throat, and tried again. “I did it to protect you.”
I stared at him, waiting for a better explanation. When it was obvious he wasn’t going to elaborate further, I rested a hand on his arm and said, “Please, Dad. I
to know the truth.” The tears spilled over, tumbling down my cheeks.
“Lillie’s right, Jackson. It’s time,” Sullivan Grace said, her voice gentle. “I’ll leave you two alone to talk.” She patted my hand, stood, and walked out of the diner.
My father rubbed his eyes, smoothing out the wrinkles underneath them. The words poured out of him. “After you were born, your mother got real depressed. She wouldn’t rock you or feed you or play with you . . . I thought with time she’d let go of whatever demons were haunting her, but she only got worse.”
“Why didn’t you get her help?” I asked as more tears flowed down my face. I didn’t wipe them away.
“I tried, baby girl—every day I tried—but your mother wouldn’t hear of it. She’d just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. I knew the banks were gonna come knocking on our door soon, so I quit my job at the plant to prevent the Spoons from going under. Then one morning, on your third birthday, she woke up happy. Like a light had been switched on. She was smiling, and there was this fire in her eyes—the same one I’d seen the night I met her.”
My father swallowed, his shoulders hunched, and continued, “She wanted to make you some of her peach cobbler, but we didn’t have any butter, so your mother insisted on running to the store. Only she never came home. Not that day, or the one after that, or the one after that. And I knew, I could feel it in my gut, baby girl, that those demons had beaten her.”
“Did you search for her?”
“Course I did. I filed a missing persons report with the police, visited every hospital, every homeless shelter, every halfway house. For months I searched, but your mother didn’t want to be found.”
His expression turned grave, and I knew that whatever he was about to tell me was bad. He reached out and touched my hand. “The divorce papers arrived a year later. Your mother had signed over everything to me—Greasy Spoons, the house . . .”
“And me?” I whispered.
For a moment, my father stared at me, his eyes glassy. When he spoke, his voice broke. “Your mother included a letter with the papers. She said that even though she’d finally gotten help, dealt with her problems, she couldn’t return to her old life. It’d be too painful for her. She needed a fresh start . . . without us.”
Then for only the second time in my life, I watched as my father began to cry. Tears streamed down his face, falling onto the counter in rhythm with my own.
I left the diner in a haze, the world a gray smudge. Somehow I made it to the brownstone, a medical school graduation gift from Nick’s parents that we’d been living in for the past two years. For the remainder of the day, I lay curled up on the couch in the dark, staring at an untouched plate of rocky road fudge bars in the center of the coffee table, until moonlight spilled through the arched windows.
In the foyer, the antique grandfather clock played another round of Westminster chimes. Dim yellow headlights rounded the street corner and swept over the living room. I poured another glass of wine, polishing off the bottle, and gulped it down. Standing, I walked over to the windows and peered out. Nick parked his car at the curb. He made no move to get out and come inside. Instead he sat there, elbows resting on the steering wheel, fingers laced behind his head. This wasn’t the first time I’d caught him like that, avoiding me and the stone walls of this place as though they were a prison.
I returned to the couch and waited. My engagement ring weighed down my finger, heavy as a cast-iron skillet. Five minutes passed before the front door opened and footsteps shuffled on the parquet floor. Nick entered the living room without a glance in my direction and tossed his keys into the bowl perched on the console table.
I cleared my throat.
He jumped. “Fuck, Lillie. You scared the shit out of me.” He flipped on the light, the sudden brightness momentarily blinding me. “Why aren’t you in bed?” His gaze scanned over me as though I were a cart full of groceries at a checkout counter.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Where have you been?”
“Out.” He shrugged off his coat and flung it onto a chair.
“I tried calling you, but it went straight to voicemail,” I said, imagining him at some bar, drowning whatever troubles he wasn’t sharing with me in bourbon—a habit he’d developed since starting his surgical residency.