First, read Hemingway. Pick one of his signature meals. A good place to start is The Sun Also Rises, rustic food that’s fitting for men eating together and watching bullfights in Pamplona.
Except, this is Pittsburgh in 1973, and there are no bulls, although you are young men living together and wrangling like boys. It’s springtime, graduation near, the air warm enough to open the apartment windows, the tree outside the kitchen in full bloom. The stressful cadence of petty tensions is nearly over.
Explain your plan to eat like Hemingway. “A little celebration,” you say. You’re thinking, A little reconciliation?
Forget the year’s nest of arguments. You suspect that the fights about food were ciphers for something else; it will take time to figure out exactly what. But you and Bobby would get pissed off, shopping on just a few dollars a week because Russell refused to pitch in more. Both cheap and demanding, he wandered into the kitchen when you and Bobby staged a little cooking strike, a hurt look in his soft, selfish eyes as he said, So, where’s dinner? Like he was some doltish husband just home from work, brash and threatening, when, in fact, he campaigned for peacenik McGovern, is headed to law school, and fancies himself a liberated male who asks his date, Did that movie offend you?
Mimic Papa’s own shopping list: tuna with vinegar, pungent red onion, dark bread and wedges of cheese, a Spanish wine to pour into squat glasses. Buy olive oil, which you would never have in the apartment.
Forget the winter morning when Gordon exploded and said he’d had enough of shitty cheap food, announcing that he’d buy his own groceries and do his own cooking, although he mostly just cooked at odd hours, and ate away from the apartment much of the time. Forget the night Bobby came to you when you were working late at the kitchen table and said, “Tim, I think Gordon’s really messed up. Whatever shit he took at that concert must have made him sick.” “Bobby,” you said, “Gordon was messed up long before that concert.”
Prepare the food. The novel doesn’t offer an exact recipe. Improvise. Not entirely authentic of course – it’s canned tuna – but there’s onion and salt and pepper, oil and red wine vinegar. Add carefully. You have no idea how much to use. Put rings of onion on top. Slice the bread. Pour the wine.
Remember a different meal, like that November Saturday, the details as disquieting and spare as a Hemingway story. After you and Bobby spent all day at your GREs, Suzanne and Meg joined you to make spaghetti, Russell and Gordon away for the weekend, the windows steamed up from the kitchen heat. Late that evening you heard shouts coming from the street, and the odd pop you knew was a gunshot, although it’s never quite the sound you’d expect, the four of you creeping to the windows in the darkened kitchen, two more shots and cries for help, Suzanne saying, “We should call the police,” just moments before you heard the first sirens. A few days later, Bobby found an article in the newspaper reporting that the man who was shot – whose store around the corner was robbed, who foolishly chased the thief down the street in front of your apartment – had died.
Call everybody to the kitchen. Arrange the food on the table, the big bowl, the mismatched plates and glasses. It turns out to be good, and everybody eats without coaxing, dunking bread in the oily mix and sipping wine, Russell eating more than anyone.
Get the guy in the apartment across the hall to take a picture. He doesn’t know what the hell to make of this, but he accepts a glass of wine and agrees to snap some photos.
Everyone smiles as they raise their glasses to the camera. The four of you might be toasting a sly, dark-eyed waitress in a foreign café where the locals love you, share gossip, and give you affectionate nicknames. You might be outlaws. You are most definitely fools.
The end of this last year is closing in. You can see the near-giddy relief in everyone’s eyes: Gordon, lanky, long-haired and bearded, planning to disappear for a while; Bobby, turning away slightly at the flash, the shy psychologist off to grad school; tall, handsome Russell, practicing his politician’s grin, his rehearsed pose; and you in the middle, your smile full of largesse, restrained but happy, having just accepted an engineer’s job in your hometown.
Afterwards, crawl out through the kitchen window, using the tree limbs for balance, and sit on the sloping roof of this sprawling old house, smoking. All of you did this often in the fall, as reckless as teenagers, before the bitterness. Bring the jug of wine, and pass it around. Gordon stays inside and you can hear him start Who’s Next at full volume, the synthesized opening chords of “Baba O’Reilly” slicing through the evening. Bobby doesn’t smoke, but Russell lights a cigar. He thinks it makes him look self-assured. Watch the blue smoke drift off, sifting into the darkening sky. When Gordon closes his door, muffling the sound of the music, you can hear the traffic on Forbes Avenue. Inhale the cool night air like smoke. Feel it tremble in your chest.
In time, all of you might become bald and caustic, or worse, tedious. Memory will rewrite these days. But tonight, in all of your eyes, there are tiny glowing visions of simpler prospects: oysters and icy cold Sancerre in Paris, savory hamburgers in Havana, grilled marlin in steamy Key West, every vista shimmering and vivid, just beyond the horizon.
James Gyure lives, writes, and makes a decent red wine in western Pennsylvania, where he had a long career as a university administrator. His work has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Gravel, Front Porch, Storyscape, Baltimore Review, Jabberwock Review, and elsewhere. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is completing a cycle of linked short stories and flash fiction.