THREE OUT OF TEN
“There’s no way she won’t eat this.”
Millie left the recipe card on the corner of the kitchen counter and went to work. She figured she had about half an hour.
Timing was key in this recipe. Boiling the pasta while softening the garlic and shallots wasn’t too demanding, but it kept her fully engaged. Moments when the act of cooking absorbed her completely transcended time. She found herself manufacturing moments like this more and more often.
This sauce was something special tonight. Milk and cream and cream cheese and real parmesan. She could feel it as she stirred. It just felt good. Though maybe a little thick. Add a little extra milk and bring it to a boil, double and toil, stir until thick with a spoon or a stick. Was the stove too hot? Not hot enough? She had to know.
Yes, timing was key. She had to hit that delicate window between the bedroom door opening and the ghost of her girlfriend shuffling out to—no, that was rude, she shouldn’t think like that.
Extra cheese for flavor, tasteless protein powder to make every bite count, even more cheese to cover up the taste of the tasteless protein powder. Then spinach, then artichoke. Stir for a bit. Low heat. Maybe lower. How’s the pasta doing? Too soft? Too al dente?
Cooking was good for her. Cooking was motion and mild aerobics. And best of all, more important than calories, more crucial than carbs, it gave Millie’s girlfriend Natasha a reason to get out of bed. Whether it was the smell or the daily rhythm established during all the years they’d spent living together, something always dragged Natasha out of their bedroom and down those stairs right about this time of day, breaking the spell that usually consumed her.
Just as the sauce was ready to break, the bedroom door opened.
Millie rushed across the room and gazed up the dark stairs.
“Natasha,” she called down the stairs, “dinner time! Come down!”
Natasha, glassy-eyed and hunched over, made her way down the stairs.
“I couldn’t write anything today,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Millie replied. “At least you tried.”
“I thought my laptop was charged, but it wasn’t, and I couldn’t find the charger. So I didn’t get anything done.”
“I put it up there this morning.”
“You moved it?”
“Yeah, I used it last night. But I put it on the nightstand this morning when I woke up.”
“Oh,” Natasha said, “I didn’t check there.”
This was the pace of things in Millie’s house. Despite the fact that Natasha—a writer—holed herself up at her bedroom desk for ten hours each day, she hadn’t produced a single solid page of fiction in four years.
Millie motioned towards the table. “Look, though! Dinner! I made dinner!”
A faint computer-blue glow from the bedroom drew Natasha’s eyes.
“Come on already.” Millie took her hand and led her towards the table. “I’ve outdone myself tonight. Can you smell it?”
Natasha pondered the air. Millie recognized the look in her eyes and handed her a plate to distract her. “Put this on the table for me, would you? I want us both to eat tonight.”
Natasha thought for a second, then said, “I’m not super hungry tonight.”
“Will you sit with me at least?”
Beaming, Millie pulled out a chair. “I know this book is really important, so thanks for making time for me.”
Natasha nodded, the signal for Millie to finish preparations. She extinguished the gas stove and took a bow. The night’s masterpiece was complete.
As Millie brought the pasta pot to the table and laid out the plates, she stirred the air with her voice to keep it from getting soupy.
“This will taste like a six out of ten, but it’s really only a three out of ten because I thinned out the sauce and used the fancy European pasta. It’s supposed to be much healthier for you than the regular stuff, and to me it doesn’t really taste any different. I had to go to this weird whole foods store to find all the spices, but I think—watch that knife, cutie—I think it was all worth it to see how much you’re gonna enjoy it.”
“How have you been?” Natasha asked, her voice fleeting like a wisp of steam escaping her mouth.
“Oh, uh, I’m good. I worked this morning. Today was payday.” Natasha licked her chapped lips in response. “Isn’t that nice?”
“Yeah,” Natasha said, finally. “I really wanna finish this novel. Then I can start helping with the rent.”
“I can’t wait for it to be done!” Natasha stared down at the table. “But not cuz we need the money. I just want to read it.”
Millie heaped a mountain of noodles onto two plates, then doused them with sauce. She made absolutely sure not to spill a drop on Natasha—that would only upset her. To complete the meal, she laid a whole loaf of wonder bread facing Natasha.
“Ta-da!” she proclaimed. “From my heart to yours. Dig in!” Millie grabbed her own plate, beamed at her success, then swirled her noodles with a fork. “You can feel how delicious it is. Have you ever had that feeling? Something’s just so delicious you can feel it with the fork?”
Natasha picked up her fork and tested the theory. “I can feel the love. I’m just not feeling hungry,” she mumbled.
But Millie was prepared. “That’s totally okay. You don’t have to eat all of it. I’m sorry for giving you so much. I really think you’ll love it if you give it a chance. A growing girl has to eat her food, otherwise she’ll get dizzy and tired while she’s working her awesome novel.”
Natasha probed deeper, until her fork hit the plate and squeaked.
“Y’know how everyone has room for dessert?” Millie tried. “They don’t have a second stomach. They just eat because they like the way it tastes. You always loved my pasta before you started that new medication regimen. Won’t you just try a little for my sake?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m really not hungry,” Natasha repeated. “I don’t think it’s the medication—I haven’t even taken it this month.”
Millie grimaced. “You haven’t? Look, just eat half of it. I won’t bug you about it for the rest of the evening.”
“How about you eat as much as you want, and you stop when you’re done and I won’t say another word, I’ll take the plate away and you can go back to the novel.”
“Okay, fine, three bites and a slice of bread. That’s a good compromise. Three bites.”
“You need to eat, so eat three bites and a piece of bread and that’s all.”
“Bread’s so dry,” Natasha said, her eyes milky white and hopeless.
“Not this bread. This is wonder bread! Your favorite! It’s soft and yummy and sweet and you can sop up all the extra sauce with it, and it won’t be dry at all.”
“I don’t want wonder bread tonight.”
“But it’s wonderful, like you!”
Natasha buried her chin into her chest and shook her head.
“Okay. Okay, no worries! Not a problem at all.” The wonder bread disappeared. Millie threw the loaf across the room and through the kitchen doors. “No wonder bread.”
“I’m sorry,” Natasha said. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t be sorry,” she replied. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. It’s just bread. Don’t be sorry.” She paused on the verge of something truly nasty spilling out of her mouth. “You know how crazy I can get about cooking. It’s like writing is for you.”
Natasha nodded. “You’re a better writer than I am a cook.”
“Really? That’s high praise.”
She smiled! Natasha really smiled! It was only a small one, but it still counted! “Liar.”
“You’re really nice to me.”
“It’s cuz I love you.”
“I know,” Natasha nodded. She poked at the sauce with her fork, stirring the slight film developing on the top. “It’s got all that cheese, and cream cheese—”
“Actually,” Millie interjected, “I barely used any cream cheese. The sauce is thinner than normal. It’s much healthier.”
Natasha nodded and played with the film some more.
“I could pick out the veggies for you. That way you wouldn’t have to deal with all that cheese and creamy stuff.”
“I’m not a child,” Natasha insisted.
“Of course! Of course you’re not. But even grown-ups gotta eat. Come on—” Millie picked up her fork, trailing noodles and sauce across the table. “Come on. Eat with me, Natasha.”
“Millie, the tablecloth—”
“Come on, just try it. Would you just try it? I worked really extra super hard on this, would you just try it? Would you just try it already?”
“The tablecloth, Millie.” Natasha finally looked up, to Millie, then to the stain between them.
“You’re spilling sauce all over the tablecloth.”
Millie looked down. “Oh.”
“I should really head back to the book.” Natasha moved to get out of her chair.
“No! Come on. It’s just a little spill. Look, here, I can cover it up just like that. I’ll make it disappear.” Without putting down the fork, she flipped up the stained section of cloth and sandwiched it between two napkins. “There. I’ll wash it tonight and you won’t even remember it.”
Natasha put her head in her hooves and shook her head.
“Come on. Three bites.”
“Who cares?” Natasha said, her voice muffled through her hands.
“Three bites, that’s all you need.”
“Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.”
“This is the best pasta you’ll have in your entire life. Three bites is all you need to make it through the day.”
“Then I don’t want to eat another bite ever again,” Natasha said.
Millie sat back in her chair and noticed she was still holding her fork. She slurped up the pasta as noisily as she could, pausing only for a moment to savor the taste of the sauce. It really was amazing this time.
“This is the best pasta I’ve had all year,” Millie announced. “That’s like, ten months’ worth of pasta.”
“I’m sorry, okay?” Natasha moaned from across the table. “I hate me too. Don’t patronize me.”
“I’m not patronizing you,” she replied. “If I were patronizing you I’d be doing something stupid and rash.”
Without warning, Millie leaned across the table and got right up in Natasha’s face. The dimness in her girlfriend’s eyes overwhelmed her. Instinct compelled her to shove a forkful of pasta into Natasha’s mouth, the only remedy Millie really knew.
“Don’t do this to me,” Millie said. “I worked really hard on this. Just taste it and tell me it’s good. Or tell me you hate it. Who cares? I can cook a million other things. Please.”
“Millie...” Normally Natasha would pack herself up and go upstairs at this point. But this time she went back to staring at her plate again. Hope manifests in all different kind of ways. Maybe this wasn’t hope to Natasha, but it was to Millie.
Millie returned to her seat. “Best pasta I’ve made all year. That’s all I’m saying,” she said dismissively, and placed Natasha’s fork aside the mountain of pasta.
“I just want to go upstairs.”
“How about one tiny bite to test the flavor, okay?” Millie guided Natasha’s hand towards the fork. “If you don’t like it for whatever reason, you can go downstairs and never ever think about it again.” Millie thought back days and weeks, all the perfectly good recipes, all the perfectly good cookbooks she would never ever think about again. She liked this recipe. It tasted fancy and filling. Maybe this one would pass the test.
Natasha nodded and surrendered to Millie’s touch. She picked up the fork and made a little mountain of pasta at the edge of her plate where the sauce was sauciest.
“You just have to try it,” Millie reminded her. “That’s all. Just try.”
Natasha took one tiny bite to test the flavor. “That counts,” she said.
She placed the fork on the edge of the plate again without a sound. “Three bites.”
Millie beamed approval. “Best pasta all year, right?”
“It was good,” she replied vaguely. “The pasta was good.”
“Great!” Millie squealed. “I’ll buy this stuff from now on.”
Natasha stood up from the table. Her body swayed softly, eyes on the glob of pasta still on her plate, chin resting on the cushioned back of her chair.
“Are you feeling a little better now?” Millie asked cautiously.
Natasha nodded a little. “I’m sorry, Millie.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“I do. All this food’s gonna go to waste.”
“Don’t underestimate how much I can eat. All I wanted was to eat with you anyway. I’d cook twice as much if that’s what it took.”
“I’m sorry. It was good.”
Millie sighed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, cutie. Can you do something for me though?”
“If you feel bad, really bad, you know. Come and get me. Or slip a note under the bedroom door or something. We still have that doctor’s card. He does house calls.”
“If it’s all the same, I’ll come to you first.”
“I think a professional opinion would be good, though.”
“You’re a professional at making me feel better,” Natasha responded plainly.
Natasha pushed herself away from the chair. Millie made sure to kiss her on each cheek, so Natasha knew she meant it. Natasha let her, which was not normal.
“Just holler if you need anything at all,” Millie said.
“Okay,” Natasha nodded, “I promise. I’m gonna give the book another try.”
“Okay—good. No worries here. Have fun.”
Millie watched Natasha shuffle back up the stairs, back to the faint computer-blue glow. The door slammed shut, as it normally did. The floor squeaked, then went quiet.
She wasn’t sure whether to call tonight a success. But three bites was better than nothing when three bites meant five minutes away from that soul-sucking, never-gonna-get-finished novel.
Three bites was better than nothing, she repeated. Better than nothing.
“Better than nothing,” she said aloud as she stared up the dark stairs.
She picked up Natasha’s plate, took a few more bites, and poured it into the trash.
She set the plate in the sink, then went back to the table and hefted the pot of pasta with both hands. She looked away, sighed, and then it too went into the trash.
Once she had given the pot a good shake to make sure all the pasta was out, she placed the now-empty cooking ware onto the kitchen counter. Then she scraped away the sauce on the wall of the pot and placed it in the sink. Then she resealed the loaf of wonder bread and put it away in the pantry. Lastly, she tossed the spoon into the empty pot and listened to it rattle.
She paused for a moment. Her brow furrowed. She picked the spoon up again and threw it into the pot, harder this time. Then again. And again.
She only stopped with a chunk of sauce splattered on her cheek.
She regarded the used pot for a long time, staying as still as she possibly could. Feet on the floor, arms crossed over her chest. Head on her shoulders, brain a dozen or so feet to her right, heart upstairs. Thoughts in the clouds, in the past, where the pasta wasn’t healthy enough, where the sauce was too thick, where the dish didn’t quite come together well enough. Where she was trying too hard. Where she was letting her soulmate starve right under her nose. Where she tried her hardest to reignite something in the oven and cooked duds. Mind, body, and taste buds.
She trotted past the endless shelves full of cookware until she came to a bookshelf of binders and cookbooks, dog-eared and brimming with loose papers, handwritten corrections, substitutions, experiments and running notes—what was losing and what was winning.
She reached for the bottom shelf and pulled a slightly dusty purple binder and turned it over to see the label. It read:
things Natasha could cook by herself
6/10 unhealthy — 9/10 very unhealthy
“Think big,” she said. “I like big.”
She flipped the binder open and set it on the countertop. Recipe after recipe, page after page, she searched. Nothing caught her eye, until—
“Guacamole cheese toasties with diced tomatoes!”
With a flourish she yanked the paper out of the binder and placed it onto the kitchen counter.
”Gotta use up that wonder bread anyway,” she said under her breath as she reached for a pencil.
In the margin of the recipe paper she wrote, ADD SOUR CREAM, SOME KIND OF SAUCE, YOU CAN DO THIS, JUST KEEP GOING
Once she was satisfied with the list, she placed it on the corner of the kitchen counter.
“You’re a genius,” she said to herself as she turned out the kitchen lights. “In a few months’ time you won't even be able to see her ribs.”
That look on his face isn’t happy, but it’s not quite sad either. I would call it...eggsistential.
I love simple recipes. Like most artists, I have a terminal lazy streak, and when I’m hungry the last thing I want to do is spend hours on prep. Fifteen minute meals are the goal—simple things with simple, cheap ingredients that taste awesome. You can get away with simplicity if the ingredients are really good.
While the recipe in "Three Out of Ten" breaks that rule, I would still count it as a winner. The selfless love of feeding people who can’t feed themselves is as simple and pure as our desire to eat in the first place.
Next time you’re in a pinch on dinner duty, take Millie’s advice: Add sour cream, some kind of sauce, you can do this, just keep going.