By Lara Palmqvist
Their fights had always been drawn out and passionate, thrilling in their possi- bility. The subjects of their arguments ran the gamut; Malcom and Clare could employ almost anything as flint to spark the heat between them, setting their hearts leaping and their sharp tongues running wild: the empty soda can roll- ing around the Subaru, the knife marks in the laminate countertop, the lack of remaining hot water in the morning or that time—years ago—when the dog bowl was left dry on a sultry day. The rhythm to their relationship was marked by peaks of tension, a pulse that proved their marriage was still alive, unlike those of some of their friends, whose flat-lined politeness was so painfully false, resentment straining up beneath pert compliments and cute smiles. Malcom and Clare were authentically in love, four years married and still willing to weather the turbulence of melding two lives together. Yet it was also true that their latest fights seemed rote, their jibes more personal. The cause was lack of material, Clare felt. She blamed their unchanging surroundings.
“Your manner of blinking,” she said, interrupting Malcom as he sat reading the golf report in their Madison flat one February morning. “It’s bothersome.”
He glanced up, eyes fluttering, bewildered. “Excuse me?”
Clare set down her turmeric milk. “There’s some kind of stutter to the way you blink.” She flicked her fingers off her thumb in two short bursts. “Like this,” she said. “I’m not sure you’re aware. It’s making me anxious.”
Clare was speaking from her heart—she was genuinely bothered by Malcom’s mannerisms, more so with each passing day. He had a way of repeatedly clear- ing his throat in the mornings that made her grab fistfuls of her own dark hair and pull until her scalp felt strained. Just last week she’d noticed new strands of gray growing in along her part.
“I see,” Malcolm said. He creased the paper, eyes now flat and focused, strained wide.
Clare didn’t want this—she didn’t want him to suffer.
“I think we need to spend time apart,” she announced, an idea she’d re- cently begun considering. They both worked at the same local bank—he a senior loan officer, she in customer services. They wore earth-toned slacks and shared the same dress socks. They were called Mr. and Mrs. Tibaldi; Clare was not sure her co-workers even knew her first name. “We need separate hobbies,” she said. “A reason to get out in the evenings.” They were in their mid-thirties, too young to be quarrelling, for Christ’s sake.
“Hobbies,” Malcom said, drawing out the word, prodding at it like one would uncertain ground. “What hobbies, exactly, do you propose?”
Clare stiffened, sensing a fight. That Malcom had botched his marriage proposal was a sensitive point in their history—he’d failed to confirm the reservations, failed to remember her fear of heights. It had taken some time for them both to recover. Clare was eventually the one to propose to him. “Yes,” Malcom had said, kneeling beside her on the sandbar near Lake Michigan, so that from a distance they might have looked like forlorn sea creatures washed ashore. “Yes, oh yes.”
But at that moment Malcom’s face remained open, contemplative and sincere. She let the reference slide. “I think we should sign up for classes,” she suggested. “Something to expand our horizons. I’ve always felt a life lived right is a life where a person keeps learning.”
Their fights had always been drawn-out and passionate, thrilling in their possibility. The subjects of their arguments ran the gamut; Malcolm and Clare could employ almost anything as flint to spark the heat between them, setting their hearts leaping and their sharp tongues running wild: the empty soda can rolling around the Subaru, the knife marks grooved in the laminate countertop, the lack of remaining hot water in the morning, or that time, years ago, when the dog bowl had been left dry on a sultry day. The rhythm to their relationship was marked by peaks of tension, a pulse that proved their marriage was still alive—unlike those of some of their friends, whose flatlined politeness was so painfully false, resentment straining up beneath pert compliments and cute smiles. Malcolm and Clare were authentically in love, four years married and still willing to weather the turbulence of melding two lives together. Yet it was also true their latest fights seemed rote, their jibes more personal. The cause was lack of material, Clare felt. She blamed their unchanging surroundings.
“Your manner of blinking,” she said, interrupting Malcolm as he sat reading the golf report in his favorite recliner one February morning. “It’s bothersome.”
He glanced up, eyes fluttering, bewildered. “Excuse me?”
Clare set her turmeric milk on the coffee table. “There’s some kind of stutter to the way you blink.” She flicked her fingers off her thumb in two short bursts. “Like this,” she said. “I’m not sure you’re aware. It’s making me anxious.”
Clare spoke from her heart—she was genuinely bothered by Malcolm’s mannerisms, more so with each passing day. He’d developed a habit of repeatedly clearing his throat in the mornings that made her grab fistfuls of her dark hair and pull until her scalp felt strained. Just last week she’d noticed new strands of gray growing in along her part.
“I see,” Malcolm said. He creased the paper, eyes now flat and focused, strained wide.
Clare didn’t want this—she didn’t want him to suffer.
“I think we need to spend more time apart,” she announced, an idea she’d recently been considering. They both worked at the same Syracuse bank—he a senior loan officer, she in customer service. They wore earth-toned slacks and shared the same dress socks. They were called Mr. and Mrs. Tibaldi;
Clare wasn’t sure some of her colleagues even knew her first name. “We need separate hobbies,” she continued. “A reason to get out in the evenings.” They were in their mid-thirties, too young to move in an unvarying loop between work and home.
“Hobbies,” Malcolm said, drawing out the word, prodding at it like one would uncertain ground. “What hobbies, exactly, do you propose?” Clare stiffened, sensing a fight. That Malcolm had botched his marriage proposal was a sensitive point in their history—he’d failed to confirm the reservations, failed to remember her fear of heights. It had taken some time for both of them to recover. Clare was eventually the one to propose to him. “Yes,” Malcolm had said, kneeling beside her on the sandbar along the coast of Maine, so that from a distance they might have looked like forlorn sea creatures washed ashore. “Yes, oh yes.”
But at that moment Malcolm’s face remained open, contemplative and sincere. Clare let the reference slide. “I think we should sign up for classes,” she said. “Something to expand our horizons. I’ve always felt that a life lived right is a life where a person keeps learning.”
The following week Clare found Malcolm hunched over a hand-drawn spreadsheet at the desk in their home office, the room’s green lampshades casting everything in an underwater glow. He held up the page when Clare asked what he was working on, and she peered at it through her cat-eye glasses—a fashion preference she’d taken up in high school and incorporated into her identity so
fully she’d never once considered an alternative style of frames. She would be eighty, ninety, and wearing cat-eye glasses. She and Malcolm would be ancient and arguing still.
“I’ve done some research.” Malcolm’s voice was proud, and Clare looked at him with raised brows, feeling a tinge of competitiveness. It was unspoken knowledge that she eventually won all of their arguments—no matter how long it took to reach a resolution, Malcolm was always the first to back down. “I’m excited about this now,” he was saying. “I think it’s a good idea. I called the croquet club, the shooting range, the water polo league—”
“You don’t even know how to swim.” She folded her arms over her chest. He was glowing, excited. It made her tense.
“I thought the point was to learn something?” Malcolm blinked fast. Clare had to look away. The point was they needed to spend less time together. Malcolm took a deep breath, the pearl buttons on his rust-colored flannel catching the light. “Anyway,” he continued, “I’ve decided to sign up for
Clare newly registered her husband’s outfit. In addition to the flannel he was wearing stiff jeans and square-toe boots.
“Horses?” She’d thought Malcolm would take up something like pottery or painting, maybe a music class; she liked the idea of him playing an instrument. Horses weighed a thousand pounds. They had minds of their own. “Why horses?”
“Well, why not?” He returned her frown, glow dimming. He became shy again, ridiculous in his defensiveness. “They say the end of the world is around the corner. People at the bank are talking. I figure I ought to learn traditional skills. A man ought to be able to ride a horse.”
Clare saw that to talk her husband out of the riding lessons would be to chase off his interest in taking classes altogether. It was the horses, or nothing. It was not the end of the world.
Compared to Malcolm, Clare hardly put any thought into selecting her new hobby. Not wanting to endure the embarrassment of a total beginner, she chose to enroll in cooking classes. She’d always enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen despite her low success rate of turning out impressive dishes. It helped, too, that Malcolm joyfully ate whatever she prepared—“So unique!” he would say, spooning into the green gazpacho she’d thought would make creative use of the neighbor’s surplus zucchini, or “What a loaf!” when she tried a spiced meat bake in the bread pan. It was one of the reasons she loved him, this generosity of enthusiasm for her efforts. She could do better, though. To be told there was room for improvement was a different form of love, a belief in one’s latent abilities. She wanted to be pushed. She’d been driving past a cooking school on Highway 5 for years, always thinking she’d one day duck inside. It didn’t hurt that the head chef was as handsome as a show dog: proud-chested and sleekly groomed, imported all the way from Italy. Diego, was his name.
“Simply exquisite,” he said during Clare’s third week of class, leaning in to draw a deep breath of the steam rising from her cordon bleu, the latest dish he’d assigned the intermediate group. Diego seemed to judge the quality of his students’ work more by aroma than flavor; Clare only saw him sample the most outstanding contributions. She already hungered for his praise. She thrived on
his sonorous, extended inhalations.
She beamed. She bought herself pearl earrings. She began studying oenology over her lunch breaks instead of eating in the bank’s staffroom with Malcolm, fantasizing about pairing wines with her meals. By the end of her first six-week cooking class she felt decidedly more refined. The men and women in her cohort had inspired her to new levels of sophistication, speaking at length of aged
cheeses and Cuisinarts.
“I just love your scarf,” Clare said to one of her classmates at the final student plating, which is what they called potlucks at the cooking school, itself only properly referred to as a culinary institute. Clare estimated the woman to be in her late fifties. Under Diego’s guidance she’d turned out soufflés and hors d’oeuvres worthy of magazine spreads. She was full of fine lines and regality; her pageboy haircut made her appear to Clare like an empress, the divine goddess of dignified aging.
“Oh, this?” The woman plucked at the peach froth ringing her neck. “It’s from Le Sirenuse, Italy.” She glanced meaningfully at Diego. “My husband takes me there each spring. The sea, the balconies. Such a beautiful place to get away.”
That evening Clare arrived home from the cooking school preoccupied with finding a perfume as intoxicating as the one the woman had worn, a scarf so silken, only to notice muddy boot prints in the entryway, the doormat studded with wisps of golden hay. She sniffed, a sour expression tightening her face—the house smelled like a barn.
“Malcolm.” Clare swept into the living room. She was poised. She was an alchemist, a trained chef. Her voice was the perfect combination of salted and sweet. “Malcolm, you’re going to have to keep your boots in the garage.”
Clare looked at her husband sprawled across the couch, his stocking feet propped on the beaded throw pillow. She imagined his feet instead tucked inside his embossed leather boots, kicked through the hollows of stirrups. The two of them hadn’t had much sex since they’d begun their respective classes— they were tired at the end of the day, they agreed, and Malcolm complained
of sore inner thighs. He’d also let his beard grow out, which gave Clare a rash on her neck—she’d forbidden him to kiss her, fearing the cooking school might think her contagious and deny her access to their ordered world: those clean white tiles, the gleaming stainless steel, all the ingredients chopped and measured and set out in glass cups. Clare hadn’t turned out a single failed recipe in her class. There was something about the school’s atmosphere, she told Malcolm, that made her become her better self. She now refrained from inciting any arguments; she refused to stoop to that low level of communication, so abrasive and animalistic.
“If you wouldn’t mind. If you could be so troubled.” She spoke this way now.
“What?” Malcolm looked away from the television. He was watching a Western. Cowboys in fringed chaps galloped dust-streaked horses across the screen, wisps of smoke rising from the tips of their thrusted guns. Last week he’d hammered a horseshoe above the headboard of their bed. It was a spare the farrier had removed from the hoof of his “favorite mare,” Aubergine.
Clare had blanched at the name. “The horse you ride is named after an eggplant?” “It’s her coat,” Malcolm had said, blushing, a boy again. “So black it’s nearly violet. And also, maybe, it has just a little bit to do with her figure.” “The boots, tonight, please. Out of the house.” Clare drew a delicate breath. She no longer knew the rawness of a raised voice. She was a graceful, gracious person. She’d ordered high-end crockery from England and planned to reorganize the kitchen. “We do not live in a stable.”
She later sprayed a combination of vanilla and green apple air fresheners in the entryway, trusting her instincts to find an elegant mix of flavors. That night, Malcolm still off watching Westerns, Clare touched Aubergine’s shoe for good luck.
Across the following months Clare signed up for new sessions at the cooking school, always selecting offerings taught by Diego even as she rose in skill level, graduating from general fare to more specific cuisine: Balinese recipes that lit up her senses, a pescatarian class where she learned to
prepare Blue Point oysters and breaded sunfish, a confectionary special that allowed her to work with fondant—the cake she created as a final project was burgundy and three-tiered, adorned with golden raspberries, more beautiful than the dessert served at her own wedding. Even Diego
asked for a sample, and though Clare had been meaning to bring the cake home and present it to Malcolm, had even imagined it on their polished kitchen table, she immediately consented, recognizing the honor of Diego’s request.
She watched his perfect mouth take measured bites of her cake, the corners of his lips melting upward at the vanilla-bourbon filling. He blinked, slow and thoughtful. He moved with admirable self-possession. “It’s of the highest quality,” he said, holding Clare’s gaze, and she was so flustered that she dished out the rest of the cake to the entire class, ultimately eating the piece she’d
been saving for Malcolm herself—it no longer looked beautiful, anyway, a lonely wedge on a paper plate.
The cake reminded Clare that their fifth wedding anniversary was just over a month away. The thought filled her with alarm. She and Malcolm were no longer arguing, though it was also true they hardly talked anymore, and when they did they seemed to be communicating in different languages— Malcolm would speak interchangeably of the other riders at the barn and horses with human names, so that when he told Clare about going on trail rides with Jenny and Peg and Mathilda and Emma she was uncertain whether her husband was going off into the woods with a herd of horses or women or what, really, was keeping him at the stables so late. She’d ordered him stronger shampoo, something blue from a specialty cosmetics company in Germany. The horse smell seemed to have permanently seeped into his skin, spreading across the bed sheets, cutting across the fragrant aromas emitting from the kitchen.
Clare remained infinitely calm—they did not argue, did not even discuss the matter, really. Malcolm simply began sleeping on the foldout couch in the living room. He took Aubergine’s shoe with him and hung it above the television. At some point, he’d painted it gold. At least he was keeping his boots in the garage. Glancing at them one day, Clare noted that he’d purchased spurs. She hesitated,
slightly recalibrating her idea of her husband in her mind.
Five years they’d been together. Clare was determined to keep learning, continue improving. She would not grow stale. Their marriage would remain fresher than those of their friends. When Diego invited her to enroll in his exotic ingredient master class she immediately signed up, not even bothering to consult Malcolm about the steep cost of tuition.
Clare arrived to the class believing she belonged, though when she tried to strike up conversation with the man who would share her kitchen space he spoke curtly, his sharp green eyes catching on the frayed ties of her apron. It was only that she’d risen in the ranks, she told herself, this chilly attitude a sign that she’d joined an exclusive league. Yet when she scanned the other chefs she felt like an outsider—they wore glossy shoes and marvelous watches, and were somehow all slim despite often sampling each other’s creations, their capable hands darting and deft. One woman even brought her own custom knife set. “I’m a lefty,” she said when she saw Clare eyeing the ivory-enameled handles. The woman hummed classical symphonies under her breath while dicing an heirloom onion into translucent petals so stunning they could have stood alone as a finished dish. That night Clare played Beethoven’s third, Bach’s fifth, and Mozart’s ninth in the empty house
while standing on the bathroom scale, watching the pounds tick upward. Her confidence was slipping. In the company of the advanced class, Diego’s gaze passed over her.
It wasn’t long before Clare ruined one of the assigned dishes, a cassoulet made of confit duck legs and two types of sausage that ended up as an unsalvageable black lump at the bottom of her Dutch oven. She hid the mess in a carryout container and left class quickly, head ducked, feeling sudden rage at everyone in the group—their white coats, their clinking whisks, their talk of foie gras and sorrel soup and lemongrass infusions. Her pulse throbbed along her temples; her hands trembled and her vision blurred. She took heaving breaths, relishing the stimulating surge of adrenaline, yet for once, alone in the parking lot, her anger soon evaporated into a sense of defeat; she watched
tears coast down her cheeks in her car’s rearview mirror, unable to meet her own gaze. On the way home she pulled over along a deserted county highway and dumped the charred cassoulet along the rumble strip, where it appeared for all the world like roadkill. Malcolm, bless him, would no doubt have eaten it anyway.
Yet Malcolm was late getting home, said he’d eaten already, then casually added that across the coming week he’d be putting in extra hours at the stables. “Aubergine and I signed up to compete in a local show,” he said. “Just a small thing. But I feel good, we feel ready.”
Malcolm’s muscle tone had improved from forking hay into stalls and bending his beloved mare around barrels, racing the clock. The horses were good for him, Clare could see, but she also resented the way he now seemed incapable of saying more than a few sentences without bringing up Aubergine, his eyes growing damp whenever he spoke her name, every recounting of her antics told
in words as gentle as fingers combing through a tangled mane.
Clare could hardly breathe, she felt so miserable. She couldn’t stand these polite conversations. She wanted her husband to shout again, to feel the energy of their escalating voices, entwined and alight with passion. She wanted to shatter the quiet shroud that seemed to have settled over their
impeccable house. She longed to watch Malcolm pace furiously, his body winding tight to a breaking point, to a release, to a surrender in which their anger would at last fold over and hungrily consume them, drawing them on top of each other, rough and open, riding and tasting, to bed. She wanted
her husband back.
The following week Clare showed up to cooking school wearing khakis and clogs instead of tailored slacks, her hair in a casual ponytail. Diego looked beyond her when he gathered the class before the island countertop in the center of the room, its surface laden with baskets of organic vegetables and cuts of dark red meat.
“I’m pleased to offer you the chance to work with a foreign delicacy,” he
began, grinning his faultless grin. “I have here for you grade-A contre-filet,
arrived yesterday on dry ice from France. This is the gourmand’s equivalent of
haute couture,” he added, speaking in italics. “For the uninitiated, you will be
delighted to discover the rarefied taste of the horse.”
Clare’s stomach lurched. The other chefs remained perfectly composed. One man even clapped, bejeweled fingers flashing. “As an adolescent in Lisbon I used to go to a restaurant that served cheval ravioli in truffle sauce.” He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “It just melted on the tongue. That truffle! Such a treat.”
Clare took her allotted ingredients from the countertop after Diego finished his brief instructions. She thought of Malcolm, so distracted and distant, and was struck by sudden inspiration. She spoke to no one as she prepared a meal divergent from the suggested recipe. She sliced and sautéed,
browned and grated, creating a fragrant medley. She waited for Diego to wander over and observe her work, but he was leaning against the table in another kitchen station, head bowed in serious conversation with the youngest woman in the class.
Malcolm came through the front door fifteen minutes after Clare arrived home, a red ribbon pinned to the breast pocket of his flannel. He smelled of sweat, of furred hide. “We took second place!” He did an alarming, un-Malcolm-like jig, thrusting the ribbon forward for Clare to see. She turned from the counter where she’d just finished plating the meal, layering on the blanket of red sauce, adding a
dash of fresh parsley for garnish.
“How wonderful,” she said, meaning it. She had forgotten the show was that day. “I brought home something I made at the school. To celebrate.”
Malcolm’s hair was pressed into a halo from his hat band. He was an angel, her husband. She missed him. She longed to see the veins straining in his throat, his broad shoulders stiff and squaring off with her own. How handsome he looked, a cowboy, and she a chef—what a nice picture of a home they made.
Clare smiled and set the plates on the table. She steered Malcolm toward his usual chair and took the seat across from him. He was still talking about the show, describing the wobbling but not downfallen barrel, the victory lap around the arena for the top three finishers. He looked around as though still surrounded by invested spectators.
Clare was calm. The table was pristine, the candles lit and silverware laid. She watched her husband take his first bite of food, a stray fleck of sauce catching in that beard she so hated. She was not really listening. She was filled with love. I love you, she thought, one word at a time, as loud as she could without speaking.
She waited, patient, for the inevitable moment her husband would lean back in his chair and ask about the meal. He would have his compliments ready, sweet Malcolm. He always did. And she would have her answer. Then at last the anger would sweep down, crack them open. It would set the red fists of their hearts pounding, wild and alive again, galloping inside their chests.
She could almost hear Malcolm now, inquisitive and earnest, demonstrating the kindness of curiosity. Clare waited, ready with three little words: cheval and aubergine.
Lara Palmqvist’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Witness, and Southern Indiana Review. Winner of the Mary C. Mohr Award in Fiction, she is also the recipient of awards from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Ox-Bow School of Art, the Saari Residence in Finland, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, through which she taught creative writing in Ukraine. Originally from New Mexico, she now lives in Minnesota.