Frank blinks the tears from his eyes. He looks up at Julia across the kitchen, running a sponge on the length of a long butcher’s knife. She runs her finger along the length of the blade. She looks back at Frank and smiles. A strand of deep brown hair catches on her lower lip.
He continues dicing the red onion. Onion juice seeps under his fingernails. Tomato seeds cover the cutting board. Oil sizzles in the pan on the stove.
“Where are your paper towels?”
“In the cupboard by the fridge.” Frank finishes the onions and flings the juice from his hands into the sink. He reaches into the open cupboard and hands Julia two sheets of two-ply.
“Thanks. Think the oil is hot enough?”
Frank holds his hand over the pan. “Just about. I’ll get the garlic.”
Julia stands aside and sips her beer. She wipes the hair out of her mouth and watches Frank gather chopped garlic cloves with his knife and sprinkle them in the hissing oil. Droplets of hot oil leap from the pan, some land on Frank’s bare arms. They sting for a moment before fizzling away, like the quick burn of paprika. The Beatles plead Come on, come on. Please please me like I please you, from Frank’s battered laptop computer sitting by his empty beer on the kitchen table.
She looks around the narrow kitchen. There is hardly enough room for the two of them to pass by each other, but Frank had found room to fit in a knife set, and bundles of plates, pans, and a tea set. A piggy bank filled with beer bottle caps sat next to the fridge. She pulls another beer from the fridge and drops the cap into the half-full piggy.
“Do you want me to boil these noodles?” Julia looks around at the plates filled with yellow peppers, green onions, red onions, and freshly peeled shrimp, all of them meticulously sheared and washed by Frank’s darting hands. She clutches her beer for companionship. “I feel bad for letting you do all the cooking.”
“No no. Don’t worry.” Frank waves her off with casual nonchalance, like he was wiping sweat from his forehead. “I’ve got this.” He turns around and grins at her. “That garlic smells nice huh?”
It did. The cloves of garlic had shrunk and browned and filled the kitchen with a savory warmness.
Well shake it up baby now. Twist and shout. Come on come on come on baby now. Come on and work it on out.
Julia sat by Frank’s computer and flipped through his music. She recognized a name here and there, but most of it was a mystery to her. Just line after line of gibberish.
Frank dropped pork chops into the pan. He tossed a pinch of salt and pepper into the pan and drizzled some soy sauce onto the sizzling meat, with the same nonchalance with which he waved off her help. He cut open a package of noodles and dropped them into a pot of boiling water, rinsed his hands in the sink, reached into the fridge, tossed another bottle cap into his piggy bank, and sat next to Julia, crossing his legs in satisfaction.
“Where do you learn to cook so well?”
Frank’s mother is the sous-chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco. In high school, Frank rarely saw her on weekends, but she always came home with leftover baked cod, gazpacho, or hazelnut cheesecake. She was loathe to throw any food out, and year after year, packed Frank’s school lunches with the castaway’s from the hotel kitchen. While Frank’s classmates ate peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and Doritos, Frank brought squash ravioli in a thermos or sirloin Paninis, delicately cut with a side of asparagus. In elementary school, his friends used to crowd around him at lunch, woo-ing and ahh-ing as he opened his lunch sack—no brown paper bags, his mother didn’t stand the waste—and rush to trade him Fruit-Roll-ups for his macaroons.
Frank cherished the Tuesday and Wednesday nights with his mother, the only nights of the week when he would see her. On these nights, she would shelve the decadent oils and spices and teach him how to cut tomatoes without crushing them and to add a sprinkle of sugar when sautéing them. She would talk about her days working at a small organic café in Berkeley where she met his father, then an engineer working in a garage, eating instant ramen twice a day. All through high school, he would cook with his mother on these nights, learning all the little tips that his mother spent years learning. Trying wine for the first time, humming along to Buddy Holly and the Beatles while the oven hummed, the stove crackled, and the sink filled up with potato skins and dirty dishes.
He tells her all this as he moved from table to sink to stove with the assurance and grace of an orchestra conductor. Through his story, Julia didn’t move from her chair. She felt privileged to have the son of a chef serve her a steaming a bowl of noodle soup, finished off with a flourish of perfectly chopped green onions. She didn’t say anything as visions of Frank bringing her mushroom omelets in bed and a latte with a heart poured into the middle. She drank her beer and rocked her head to Frank’s music. She obliged as Frank urged her to slurp her noodles, for it was a sign of satisfaction. She tried to say little, move as little as possible, as if she would be disturbing an artist in his studio. Usually, she would have objected to Frank’s driving her home after all the beer they had drank. But he was so deliberate, so sure of himself, that she said nothing, even though he rolled through 3 stop signs and kept the windows down and played aggressive rap music a little too loudly. She didn’t even mind when he didn’t walk her to her apartment which she shared with three girlfriends. She waved from the doorstep, the taste of future mushroom omelets still on her lips.
Julia had a tiny mole tucked behind her left ear. Frank saw it as she was washing the dishes, with her back to him. Frank thought about this mole often in the next few days, an innocuous intimacy he shared with her.
She had insisted that he come over for dinner later that week, that it was her turn to cook for him. Neither of them said anything about the obvious gap in cooking ability. Nothing that couldn’t be remedied by bottles of wine.
Frank enjoyed spending time with her. He appreciated her quietness, giving him space and time to think and enjoy himself. She didn’t try to meddle with his cooking, or insist on helping him. She respected his interests, not even changing his music, even when he was sure she would rather listen to something else besides “Straight Outta Compton.”
He thought of her as someone sure of herself, unafraid of what other people thought. When they met for coffee after class one day, she told him about dreams she had in which she was sure she was experiencing her past lives; one as the Dowager Empress of China, one as Joan of Arc. He found it endearing. Not the fact that she was Joan of Arc, Frank found that laughably absurd, but her audacity to say “I was Joan of Arc. I was at Orleans,” and the quiet conviction with which she declared it, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
He found most of the girls of their university to be so stuck in their ways, homogenous without a fault. Everyone he met during the day on campus so saturated with homework and ambition, everyone he met at bars and house parties full of faux excitement and cheap vodka.
He thought her different, totally comfortable with silence and empty space and what they meant to him. He had moved into a studio apartment because he couldn’t stand the constant chatter the television. He still enjoyed seeing Nick, his old roommate, but he found no personal space when living with someone else, so many of their interactions mediated by the haze of television and alcohol, marijuana and video games.
Nick never did the dishes and would leave dirty forks and bowls in his bedroom or in his bathroom. He would leave his laundry in the washer for half a day, in the dryer for the other half. After three years of living with people, Frank needed the empty spaces of his own place. When two people lived together, there had to be a base of logic, of compromise and understanding. Frank found that as he got older, less and less of his inner logic was compatible to that of others.
He loved driving almost as much as he loved cooking and he found escape in long drives by himself, his stereo his only companion, the music always exactly as he wanted, thumping and angry when he was, spare and pretty when he needed it. Over the years, he had crisscrossed California so many times in his Civic that his seat became perfectly formed to his body, fitting him more snuggly than his shoes. Everything in the car was exactly how he wanted; he could turn the car on, defrost the windshield, and find a song to drive to while blindfolded. He almost never looked at his speedometer, instead relying on the resistance of the gas pedal and the utter confidence in his tried and true driving ability.
He could talk back to his car, to his stereo, just as his mother would talk to her food when cooking.
He remembers one time she took him to an art exhibition in San Francisco. They walked throughout the gallery, he clutching a plastic plate of olives and shrimp, she a glass of Merlot and commenting on the paintings along the wall and sarcastically sneering at the food. “Finger food. That’s all.”
They stopped in front of a Rothko—a block of blue and one of orange thrown onto an enormous canvas. Frank stood behind the throng gathered in front of it, puzzled, moving the discarded shrimp tails around his plate with a toothpick. He watched his mother walk right up to the painting, parting the crowd with her deliberateness, and put her face inches from the painting.
“That’s how he wanted you to look at his paintings,” she told him after they went home. “He wanted you to be overwhelmed by the color. It’s like a really good beef tartare. It hits you in the face with its decadence. All of life is in how you do things. The process and ingredients matter, just like cooking. Don’t forget that.”
In times of trouble, Frank always thought of his mother pressing her face up against the Rothko, close enough to lick the oil off the canvas, her eyes wide open in ecstasy, but her face completely calm and relaxed. Like she was swallowing a spoonful of extremely hot soup. He was too young and afraid to go up to the Rothko with his mom. Besides, he was holding a plastic plate full of olive pits and smeared cocktail sauce. So he stood in the back and watched his mother. After the show he asked her what beef tartare tasted like. She laughed. “Like a really amazing kiss.”
Julia lingers in front of the mirror, smacking her lips, closing one eye at a time to see if her eyeliner was lined tight and firm. It had dribbled down two nights ago, when it was her turn to dice onions for him, but she was so concentrated on splitting the onions just so with her dull knife that she didn’t notice. He hadn’t said anything either, only smiled at her. It was only after he left, that she saw her reflection in the window and gasped.
As the pizza lay baking in the oven, she told Frank about her family, about her father who left her and her mother and ran off with a younger, richer woman named Mimi right before Julia finished her sophomore year of high school. She recalled a drive home from her father’s office when she was eight, and how he had challenged her to navigate them home. In her excitement, she had missed the freeway exit and began to cry. Her father patted her on the head and simply took the next exit home.
“Ever since then, I’ve hated car rides. Especially sitting in the front seat with the entire road in front of you.”
The oven beeped at that moment and Julia rose quickly to get to it before Frank could get up. White and red onions covered the pie. She pulled out her new cheese grater, bought that very afternoon, and began to grate a chunk of Parmesan over the pie. She looked up to see Frank sipping his wine and watching her hands move back and forth. She suddenly wanted to sneeze, but stifled the pressure pounding in the middle of her chest and continued to talk about her dad. How she had learned to expect nothing whenever they saw each other during the holidays or her birthday—staying one step away from each other. Before she knew it, she had grated the cheese to its rind and saturated the pizza in a half-melted haze. Frank didn’t say anything about it, even though the taste of the onions were drowned out by the bitter cheese.
They ate the pizza and drank more wine and didn’t talk about her family again. Frank invited her to go to San Francisco with him. “There’s something at the MOMA my mom showed me once, you have to see it.” With a quick kiss on the cheek, he was out the door, leaving behind an empty wine bottle and the gentle fleeting moisture of his lips on her flushed cheek.
She had never been to the San Francisco MOMA before, and in truth she didn’t even know what it was. She looked it up online and received a flurry of virtual gasps and smiley faces as she told her friends a boy was taking her to an art museum in San Francisco. Her friends had always talked of going across the Bay to spend a day in the City, but those days tended to end up as drunk nights, chugging red bull vodkas as a bus ferried them to a fraternity mixer. Drink enough and it might be fun.
They drove across the Bay Bridge with the Beatles on the stereo, with an arm thrust out on either side, cutting a streak across the crisp fall Bay air. Smiling all the while.
Julia’s boots click-clack up and down the pale beige floors of the MOMA, the only sound in the nearly empty gallery. He is used to coming here alone, with only a set of headphones leading him through the now-familiar museum. Here, his solitude finds space to burrow its way out of his head, clothes, and shoes and slip along the white walls and high ceilings.
Julia walks a few paces behind Frank. He walks as he cooks and drives, with absolute purpose, eyes straight ahead; the cadence of his stride and the swing of his arms announcing to the world that he knew where he was going. He takes the stairs two at a time and didn’t look back to see if she was keeping up, as if he knows she is. It is powerful, and her attraction for him grows with each painting they pass, each installation he strides through, with her tip-toeing along behind him, afraid to step on anything or to breathe in the wrong direction.
“There is something very special to me in this museum,” he had said as they came off the Bay Bridge and turned onto Mission Street.
“My mother took me here once years ago, and she showed me this painting. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.”
She adored the way he talked about his mother with total reverence.
“What’s in it?”
“It’s not really a picture of anything. It’s just a feeling.”
She frowned in confusion. He looked at her. Then turned back to the road.
“You’ll see.” He smiled, almost mischievously, “I’m sure you will.”
They pass Warhols she had seen on coffee table books and in prints on dorm room walls, and he whispers to her the importance of each work. Too often, she realizes, she had been so engrossed by staring at the information plaques next to paintings, trying to memorize dates and names and parsing them with what she had learned in class or Wikipedia. He never even glances at them, but would lean into her and speak of thin brush strokes which evoke winter, or oblong pink splotches which were really faces of lovers in disguise. Each time he turns towards her ear, she smells cologne and thought again of mushroom omelets and hearts in foam.
He leads her around the second floor, and stops before rounding the final corner which would take them back to the central staircase.
“Ready for this shit?”
She had never heard him curse before.
She feels his sweaty hand close around hers and lead her into the final room. They sit on a black bench and look up at the single canvas, taking up an entire wall in the room.
Julia looks at it. She turns to Frank, sprawled out, legs open, hands splayed back. She waits for him to lean in again, to whisper the intricacies of the squares of orange and blue which hangs before her, or at least to tell her what the plaque besides the painting read. But he says nothing. He sits there, his soft brown eyes unmoving, unblinking, staring at the mass of oil and canvas in front of them.
The air conditioner is suddenly too strong. Julia rubs her arms together in silence and tries not to shiver. She tries to find any lovers in disguise in the painting, but all she sees are two flat panels of orange and blue set against an industrial bronze. She finds no cue in the painting, nothing to hold onto, no clue as to why Frank had brought her all the way out there to see two squares of orange and blue.
She looks at the painting and waits for a cue from Frank.
He stands up, blinking hurriedly to moisten his dry eyes. He walks up to the Rothko and put his face right up to it, so that all he sees is color spilling forth on all sides of his vision, just like his mother had done all those years ago. He wants to look back at Julia, to see if she was seeing this as he did, as she should. He stands there, his faces inches from the dried oil and he waits and waits for the click-clacks which have followed him for the past hour to make the six steps next to him.
As he walks up he can see out of the corner of his eye her gaze locked on the Rothko. He imagines her eyelids drooping, unfocusing, and turning away out of confusion—or worse, boredom, her hand instinctively reaching for her phone in her purse.
Julia doesn’t move. Confusion etches itself into the corners of her eyes, slowly scraping away at the eyeliner that she had so meticulously applied. She starts to get up to join Frank by the painting, but he appears so locked in concentration that she is afraid she will disturb him and break the calm equilibrium in the room and between them. She wants to blurt out a question, but she thinks again of the measured way which he sliced pork or merged into traffic, so sure of himself, and she is suddenly afraid. To move would be to transgress his individuality. To say anything would be to show her vulnerability. So she does neither, and tries to stay as still as she can.
Frank thrusts himself back into the painting, waiting for Julia, trying to reach the state of colorful decadence his mother had described to him, that state he reached towards with every dish he cooked. The place he had hoped to share with Julia. A utopia that Nick was too lazy to find, and everyone else he knew didn’t even know existed.
All of life is in how you do things. The words crash around him like long-forgotten bombs suddenly exploding back to life. The blue and the orange swallowing him up and leaving Julia sitting there still, shivering in the cold museum air.
“I liked it. I think it shows how art can be anything. Just like everything in there. Like…like how whatever you do doesn’t matter, because it’s all art.” She had heard someone say that once in a café on campus. She wasn’t sure if she believed it, but the windows and sunroof were rolled up and the stereo was off. The silence was overwhelming.
She looks over at Frank. His eyes don’t move from the two lanes of the Bay Bridge passing by beneath them. She sees creases and lines in his face she hadn’t noticed before. She’s suddenly aware that he hasn’t shaved in half a week.
Frank chuckles dryly. “Yeah, that’s what my mom said too.”
He drops her off at her apartment, this time getting out of the car and walking to her door. He looks for the mole behind her ear, but can’t see it behind her trailing hair. They stop at the door, and she waits for an embrace and a kiss. But he can’t give it, for he is still trapped in the limbo of his mother’s words and the Rothko. He waves goodbye and walks back to his car. She is upstairs looking in the mirror wondering what she did wrong, the eyeliner molten and trickling down to her cheek again.
Frank leaves his windows up and the stereo off. He drives by his apartment and swings away from Berkeley, back onto I-80, back to the mangled rush hour traffic of the Bay Bridge. He mutters the lyrics to the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.”
He turns into San Francisco’s Financial District and seeks out the Mandarin Oriental. He parks in its garage and turns off the engine. He calls his mother, with thoughts of Rothko and finger food and the tears of crushed red onions percolating in his mind, dripping down his spine, and into the pit of his empty stomach.