Lena hands the roll of paper towels from the kitchen counter to her daughter. “He should be here with you. Where is he?” Lena asks.
“He’s teaching,” Kallie says. “I told him I would talk to you myself.” Kallie’s cell phone rings. Lena answers it.
“Hello Kent,” she says. “Come for lunch. I want you to come and sit at my table. We’re going to be family now. I’m waiting for you. Here’s Kallie.”
Kallie runs in the bathroom crying into her cell phone as Lena takes a pot from the cabinet and fills it with water. Kallie returns to the kitchen, she says, “He’s coming in an hour. He’s vegetarian.”
“I know he’s vegetarian. When the water boils put six potatoes in the pot. I’ll pick some greens to make salad for him,” Lena answers.
Lena walks toward the garden. I know he’s vegetarian. I know he teaches yoga in the park and is paid whatever the students leave in his karma box. I know he doesn’t have his own apartment because life is a journey so he camps at the beach. I know he’s 34 and my Kallie is 22. I know Kallie met him two months ago when she wanted a cheap yoga class. It’s what I don’t know about Kent the Vegetarian that I’m worried about.
In her garden, Lena bends to pick a head of red leaf lettuce. She steps over to the next row. Her kale is in its prime. She pulls the biggest leaves from the bottom of the plants. Lena pulls out the bottom of her blouse and uses it to carry her harvest. In the next row she picks some leeks. Her arms are full and she begins to sweat, though the June day is mild. She sees a bucket that she left behind back when she planted. Lena flips the bucket upside down and brushes off the dirt before she sits.
I was young and stupid once too, otherwise I would have never had Kallie. But we pick stupid men, me and my Kallie. My marriage was a nightmare, but being a widow has been long and wonderful. Babies are beautiful. I’ll take care of the baby.
Lena smiles as she notices a plastic bag by her feet. She shakes some loose dirt out of the bag, and put her collected greens inside. Lena walks to the back of the garden and pulls a fresh head of garlic. She sees poison ivy by the fence. She places the handle of the bag in between her thumb and index finger to protect her fingers from the leaves and tucks them into her pants pocket.
In the kitchen, Kallie is cutting a stack of white bread into small squares and placing them on a baking tray. “I want to help,” she explains.
Lena smiles and says, “Thank you, sweetheart, but I want you to rest.” Kallie sticks the tray in the oven and hugs her mother before she goes to her room. Alone in the kitchen Lena dumps the bag in the sink. She carefully washes the earth off the bounty. With her sharpest knife she chops the lettuce. The potatoes Kallie boiled are soft now. Lena drains them and lets them cool as she chops the leeks and kale. With two hands Lena places the lettuce, leeks, and kale in the salad bowl. She cuts each potato in half; their skins pulling away, the halves fall atop the greens. Then the croutons are ready and she adds them to the bowl.
Lena takes the clean head of garlic from the sink and places it on the counter. She takes a frying pan from the drain board and smashes the head of garlic. Not smashed enough she takes a step back, bends her knees and with a tiny jump brings the pan down on the garlic. She wipes the bottom of the frying pan and places it on the burner. She turns on the heat and pours olive oil in the pan. Lena rinses the skins off the garlic and tosses the smashed head in the pan. She opens her spice drawer and without a glance adds oregano, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. She takes a paper towel off the roll and uses it to remove the poison ivy from her pocket. With a tiny paring knife she shreds the leaves and tosses them into the pan.
Kallie returns to the kitchen wearing a different outfit and make-up. She notices Lena pouring wine into the pan. “Mom,” she said, “I can’t have wine now.”
“You’re right,” Lena said gently smacking her own forehead. “Get the dressing from the fridge. I’ll serve this to Kent.”
“You don’t have to rush,” Kallie explains, “Kent called me about ten minutes ago and he’s going to be late.”
“Why?” Lena asks.
“He had an emergency at work.”
“A last minute student showed up for a private session and he doesn’t want to turn down the money now.” Kallie says. “See, he does have a work ethic.”
Lena doesn’t even snort. “Get me an eggplant from the fridge, Kallie. I’m sure Kent will need more than a salad after such a hard day at work.”
“Mom,” Kallie said, “He does work hard. Yoga is like therapy, he’s like a psychologist.”
“Psychologists aren’t supposed to sleep with their patients,” Lena says.
Tears well up in Kallie’s brown eyes, and in a whisper she tells her mother, “I need you to be kind to me and kind to Kent. We don’t have anyone else. Please, don’t make this hard for me.”
Lena looks at her daughter’s worried face. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Just give me the eggplant.”
Kallie opens the fridge and takes out an eggplant and the salad dressing. As she rests them on the counter Lena tells her, “Kallie, I promise you, I will make this very easy for you.” She walks over to her daughter with open arms and pulls her toward her chest. Heartbeat to heartbeat to tiny heartbeat, the moment passes, and Lena lets go.
“Let me make lunch. You go rest,” Lena says. “If I need you for anything, I will call you.”
Kallie nods and leaves the room. Lena carries the eggplant to the sink and runs cool water over it. With her knife she quickly chops the eggplant into slices and fits them on a foil-lined baking sheet. She pours olive oil into a bowl and dips her pastry brush. Like a master painter she covers the eggplant with the olive oil. She flips over each slice and uses her expert technique on the eggplant again. Salt, pepper, thyme and granulated garlic add color the fleshy circles. She opens the oven door and slides the eggplant in. Lena smiles as she opens a cabinet and pulls out two cans of garbanzo beans. She opens the cans, strains the beans and lets them drain while she plugs in her food processor on the counter. She pours the beans in the food processor, adds the olive oil from the bowl, two heads of garlic and the juice of one lemon and lets the machine do the rest of the work. When the ingredients look like hummus she opens the top of the food processor, dips in a spoon and tastes the strong garlic. Lena opens her cabinet and brings out three small dessert cups and fills each one with the hummus. She closes her eyes and bows her head for a moment. Lena looks around her kitchen, opens a cabinet door and pulls out a jar of roasted red peppers. She opens it, removes a pepper and slices in on the cutting board. Carefully, she decorates the top of the hummus. Two of the bowls have four pepper slices and one has five. Lena squats down to her cabinet under the sink and pulls out a bottle of bleach. She hefts the full gallon jug to the counter top. Lena fumbles around the silverware drawer to find a straw. Finally, she finds one, formerly part of a juice box from who knows how long ago. With her index finger on the top of the straw she dips it in the jug. She takes out the straw and submerges it in the hummus bowl with the five slices of pepper on top. Lena lifts her index finger and the bleach flows in the hummus. She gently shakes the bowl to mix the bleach with the hummus. Lena opens the oven door and pulls out the tray of eggplant.
Looking at the clock, Lena realizes she has time to add dessert to the lunch menu. She takes two boxes of instant chocolate pudding, dumps them in a bowl, adds milk and stirs. Lena takes three white coffee mugs from the cabinet, filling two of them half way and third three-quarters full. From the cookie jar on the counter she takes three chocolate chip cookies, places them in a Ziploc bag, then pulverizes them with her fist. She pours some crumbs on the two half-filled mug. Lena carries the bag to her living room takes some dirt from her fern and mixes it with the rest of the crumbs and pours it on the third mug to the point where it flows almost off the rim of the mug.
In the breakfast nook attached to the kitchen Lena spreads a tablecloth over the table. She places matching cloth napkins at three places. With practiced ease and speed she lays down three plates, glasses and flatware. She carries the small bowls of hummus and places one at each plate. Lena places the large salad bowl in the center of the table. The bottle of dressing from the fridge is by a hummus bowl with four slices of pepper. From the kitchen she brings a pitcher of ice water and a platter heaped with roasted eggplant slices. A bowl of Lena’s fresh-made dressing is by the hummus bowl with fives slices of pepper on top. Lena checks the time and begins to mop the kitchen floor with a mixture of bleach and lemon-scented cleanser.
The doorbell rings. Kallie rushes to answer it. From the kitchen doorway Lena watches her stupid daughter’s eyes light up as she throws both arms around Kent, who is looking at his phone. Kallie kisses his cheek as he smiles at his screen. Kallie grasps Kent’s free hand in both of hers and guides him toward her mother. Lena notices Kent smirk and the shake of his head at Kallie’s affection.
“Mom, this is Kent,” Kallie says.
“Namaste,” Kent says to Lena.
“Hello Kent,” Lena says. “I’m happy to invite you to our home. I hope this is the first of many meals you have with us.”
“That is awesome. Thank you. I know you are an amazing cook.” Kent says.
Kallie laughs. “I never mentioned my mom’s cooking to you.”
“You didn’t have to say your mom is an awesome cook,” Kent says. “I can tell she is by the ten pounds you can’t lose.”
“Kent,” Lena says, louder than she had intended, “come with me.” She grabs the forearm of his cell phone hand and quickly walks to the breakfast nook, Kent stumbling behind her.
“Pardon the bleach odor,” Lena says, “I wanted the house to be perfectly clean for you. It’s been a while since I had a man at the table.”
“My mom loves to fuss,” Kallie explains.
“Whoa, I thought a girl like a Kallie would have guys here all the time.”
Lena’s eyes rage, but she takes a deep breath and smiles as she exhales.
“I said ‘man.’ Not guys, not a boy. You’re a real man, right?” Lena asks.
“I would think so, I’m thirty-four.” Kent laughs.
“My Kallie is only 22; her father died when she was eight. This was his place at the table and this is where I want you to sit. Sit,”Lena says, as she draws the chair set by the dish with the bleach-laced hummus and the poison ivy dressing.
“Everything looks great,” Kent assures Lena.
“I also made dessert,” Lena says.