Chapter Thirty-One

“What kind of meat is it exactly?”

“Well, it’s beef, I’m pretty sure. And it’s in roundish pieces.” Illy was staring at a styrofoam tray of wet raw meat sitting in the middle of her table. She had bought it on a whim at the grocery store because she knew people ate whole pieces of meat all the time and she was feeling grown up and professional. She figured it was time to branch out beyond pepperoni. It wasn’t until she unwrapped the plastic and saw how very animal-like it was that she realized she had no idea what you actually did with big slabs of raw meat. She had called Margaret.

“Like steaks?”

“I don’t know. Is every roundish piece of beef a steak or does it have to be a certain part of the cow? I think the package said it was fillet or something. Can it be fillet and steak?” The meat stared back at her, taunting and accusatory. She thought wistfully of the rows of pepperoni in the deli section. Pepperoni was so neat and impersonal.

Margaret laughed. “Look, the easiest thing is to just melt a bunch of butter in your pan and fry the meat on both sides. It doesn’t need to be cooked to a crisp or anything. A little pink inside is fine, but enough so that it’s not still bleeding.”

“Bleeding? Are you serious? How do people have any appetite after preparing this stuff?”

“It will be delicious, I promise. And if you want to, after you take the meat out, you can add some cream to the pan and it will mix with all the butter and fat to make a sort of gravy.” Margaret was a wealth of unexpected knowledge. “What are you eating it with?”

“Um, a fork? Or a steak knife?” Illy wasn’t sure what the correct answer was.

Margaret laughed again, though this time Illy thought she could hear some eye rolling thrown in. “No, I mean potatoes or pasta or what?”

Illy hadn’t thought that far. “I have a bag of fries in the freezer. Probably those. I wouldn’t want to go overboard on the gourmet stuff so early in my steak-eating career.”

“Or on the vegetable stuff, apparently.”

“Exactly. I’ve always found that a good steak is best enjoyed without too many other nutrients or fibre. It takes away from the cave dwelling feel.” They were both laughing by this point.

“Before you delve into your carnivorous banquet, I thought you might be proud to know I read through the manuscript.”

Illy couldn’t imagine which manuscript Margaret was referring to. “Sorry?”

“The sniveling wannabe writer, remember?”

“Oh, of course. Good for you. Every pathetic writer deserves at least one read-through by someone on publishing house property. How was it?” Illy held the phone to her ear with her shoulder while she scrounged through her cupboard for a good meat-frying pan.

“Not bad actually. Not great, but readable and brimming with potential. I actually hope he does return for it so I can tell him that. When he left the office he looked so discouraged. Although at least I didn’t have to rescue him form the bathroom stalls.” Margaret loved reliving their awkward but auspicious meeting. She always said coaching Illy off the bathroom tiles wast the first important thing she’d done at her job.

“I hope he returns too. I’m sure you’d give him great advice.” Illy settled on a pot since all her frying pans seemed too small. She wouldn’t tell Margaret. “Though if you end up eating falafel together, I might get suspicious that you’re operating an undercover crisis prevention program for Louise’s victims.”

“Well, it’s working, isn’t it?” Another laugh. Illy thought Margaret sounded happier than she had in weeks. “Enjoy your mystery meat. Let me know how it turns out. Don’t forget lots of salt and pepper.”

“Thanks. I’ll call you later with the play by play.” Illy hung up the phone with her customary moment of gratitude for such helpful and brilliant friends, and dumped a big square of butter into the pot. Then a little more. She figured everything tasted better with more butter.

She had just slid the meat off the styrofoam into the pot when the door buzzer rang. Her first thought was that it was Jay. She couldn’t tell if the wrenching in her stomach was excitement or dread. Hoping that the meat could look after itself for a minute she ran to the intercom. “Hello?”

“Hi Illy, it’s me.” June sounded melancholy.

Illy buzzed her in, then ran to check on her beef, even though of course she had no idea what she was actually watching for.

“Are you frying meat?” June’s voice picked up as soon as she walked in the door. She loved meat in every form. Also fried things in every form. She had once told an ex-boyfriend that she wanted to dive into the fry vats at Burger King and swim through all the grease with her mouth open, or something equally gross and dramatic.He’d been unable to see the June-esque humour in the statement and had never kissed her again. Illy assured June that it was a sure sign he wasn’t right for her anyway.

June dropped her bag on the kitchen table then peered over Illy’s shoulder. “You really are. What’s the weird occasion?”

“No occasion. Just trying to be a regular meat-cooking adult. Do I look convincing?” Illy poked at the meat with a fork. “And if it turns out to be edible, do you want to join me? I even have fries on offer.”

“Wow. I’d love to. I had no idea this is how you secretly spend your evenings. I need to drop by more often.” By this point June had gently taken the fork from Illy’s hand, picked a spatula out of the drawer, and was flipping the meat. Relieved at the help, Illy sat down at the table.

“Why are you here anyway? I thought you were going out with Steve.”

“I was. But the magical romance of Steve and June has met its first real challenge.” She pulled the fries out of the freezer and poured them onto a baking sheet. Apparently this time she was willing to forgo the added grease factor of deep frying. Illy watched with envy the ease with which June tossed the fries with oil and slid them into the oven. Granted it was only fried meat and frozen French fries, but she made everything look so easy, while Illy had been mentally preparing herself for the ordeal for days. “I’ll spare you all the teary details, but basically Steve chose to go to some function at his parents’ country club that I wasn’t invited to instead of going out with me. I cried and complained and accused. He defended and complained and accused. It wasn’t pretty.”

Illy felt bad for June, but there was something encouraging about hearing that she and Steve were arguing. Their relationship really had sounded way too perfect most of the time. “Sorry. That sucks.”

“Thanks. It’s not really that big of a deal. More of a rite of passage than a true crisis. Do you have ketchup?”

The food was delicious, although Illy wondered if it would have tasted as good if she’d done it herself or if it was thanks to June’s intervention. Between mouthfuls they talked about Steve and his aristocratic parents and the comparative value of waxing your legs at home versus the spa. June insisted the self-wax kits were the cheaper, simpler option, but every time Illy had tried one she’d ended up frustrated, sticky, and demoralized. And still pretty hairy. She’d rather pay the extra money.

“So you never told me about your big movie date yesterday.” June raised her eyebrows at Illy.

“That’s because it was basically a non-event, as movie dates always are. We met at the theatre in the afternoon, bought some snacks, then sat beside each other for two and a half hours. I think he fell asleep. Then I had to rush off for my evening shift at the mall like Cinderella, except without the magic or the glass slippers or the romance.”

“Sounds brutal. What did you see?”

“A new indie French film. That was the highlight of the whole affair. I found it incredibly beautiful. Jay on the other hand found it—and I quote—’one of those boring artsy flicks where nothing ever happens.’ I think he was at least holding out for Juliette Binoche to appear in a bikini or something.” Illy sighed. This wasn’t turning out to be the dreamy romance she’d been imagining once the real Mocha Man entered her life. Though it wasn’t all bad. Jay was comfortable to be with, unpretentious, and good looking. And he seemed to like being with her. Maybe she had unrealistic expectations.

“Maybe you have unrealistic expectations,” June mumbled through her steak. Illy had to smile. When they were in high school, Illy and June had spent hours trying to guess what card the other one was holding or what colour she was thinking about, convinced that they had some sort of telepathic connection. The experiments never proved their hypothesis, but Illy wasn’t dissuaded. She had heard of people who could see energy streaming between everybody in various colours and quantities. She was pretty sure the energy between her and June must be a torrent of colour. The energy between her and Jay, on the other hand, was probably more of a measly grey thread. She sighed again.

“Do I? Please tell me. Are wildflower bouquets and morning newspapers with coffee just a figment of my media-influenced brain? Do I need to abandon them forever in favour of a respectable life of matinees and evenings in front of the computer with a Coke and my stock-trading husband? Or is Jay really a bit of a dud who used up his whole store of brilliance before I met him and whom I should now politely eliminate from my life forever? Please be totally honest.”

June set down her fork and looked at Illy for a while. Illy knew she was determining how totally honest a friend was required to be in this situation. “Well, yes, I think your expectations are probably a little unrealistic. Most real life relationships aren’t unending Sleepless in Seattle moments jostling each other for space in the day.” June paused to gauge how Illy was taking this level of honesty. Apparently she felt she could turn up the intensity. “On the other hand, Jay may be a bit off a dud.”

Illy resisted the urge to defend him. She’d asked for honesty. Now she needed to bear it.

“I haven’t actually met him myself, of course. But you’d think that not having met him would leave me with an idealized image of a really hilarious Brad Pitt type. Or at least a doting Jazzy Jeff.” June had to be the only person on the planet who held DJ Jazzy Jeff up as a romantic ideal. She’d been a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air addict. “But you’ve never really described one personal trait or encounter that sounds all that attractive, or at least not like a good fit for you. And if your descriptions are already this dismal in the first weeks of your relationship, I’d hate to hear what you’d say after you’ve attended his family gatherings or shared a bathroom for a while.” June tilted her head to the side and looked at Illy like a nursing home resident she’d grown to love. “But maybe you’re seeing something I’m not, since you’re the one who’s actually spent time with him. And if you think he’s great, or even potentially great, then go for it. Just introduce us soon so I don’t have to worry too much.” June picked up her fork and reached for the last piece of meat. “You’re a smart one, Ilia. I know you’ll figure this out.”

Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-Two