pen & paper


by Alexanda Bullen Coutts


Fae Kontje-Gibbs

In Manhattan, June ordered in. It was as it had always been – she’d grown up a city kid in a family of city kids and cooking had never made much sense to any of them.

The oven in her new place had been used only once, when she attempted to bake cookies for a coworker after his cat had fallen from a sixth-floor fire escape. She suspected suicide – her coworker was a mangy slob with questionable taste in almost everything. He sat across from her at the communal table the company had recently installed and all day long his tangled earbuds leaked the erratic beat of violent heavy metal. June did her best to drown it out with jazz and NPR, but the soothing monotony of podcasts and gentle bossa nova were never nearly enough.

Still, she liked cats. She’d had a cat once: Winston, an adopted tabby she’d adored through high school and moved with her to college uptown, and she remembered how lost she’d felt, how adrift and extraneous, when a constellation of tumors had shown up in his lungs and he had to be put down.

Baking seemed the appropriate gesture. June’s coworker often returned from lunch with giant black-and-white cookies, wrapped in plastic from the bodega across the street. As she’d never had much luck with by-the-box mixes, she decided to skip them altogether and start from scratch.

June surprised herself by liking all of the measuring and arranging, the lining up of ingredients on the counter, and most of all the purposeful way the ordeal took up most of a Sunday afternoon. But in the end, the cookies were a flop – literally, they never managed to rise above a crisp layer of hardened batter and melted caramel chips. She wedged a spatula into one corner of the tray and the blackened web shattered into granola. She scraped the mess of it into the trash and Monday morning brought him a candle that smelled like apple pie.

The stovetop she’d used only sporadically, to boil water for oatmeal or pasta. The microwave was her trusted backup; the stack of delivery menus in a drawer beside the barren fridge a well-worn collection of friends.

Then came Petey, the oven mouse. Certainly there had been more than one, though she called them all by the same name. It made the arrangement somehow more intimate, less arbitrary and disgusting, as if he were a pet she had welcomed into the apartment, instead of a single member of a germy, scampering tribe, the irrefutable, fast-footed evidence of predictable urban invasion.

The scampering happened at night, while June sat alone in front of plastic trays of sushi take-out, rainbow slabs of fish and half-moons of manicured rice neatly balanced on the slender fold of her knees. Together they binge-watched family dramas and cable sitcoms on-demand, June huddled into a corner of the sofa, Petey frozen where the tiles of the kitchen alcove met the studio’s hardwood floor, as if hoping to blend in with the backdrop of polished pine, the mirage of stainless steel.

She heard the scratching beneath the stove, and wondered how he made his nightly escape. The staccato clatter and then – poof – there he was, subtly twitching, with an unobstructed view of her laptop perched at the edge of her bed. There seemed to be no transit, no obvious in between.

And so, on the evening June happened to catch Petey en route, shimmying up through the stove’s back burner, noiselessly darting across the counter and vanishing behind the breadbox, she didn’t hesitate. The regiment of sauce and soup pots her mother had ordered online was dispatched at once, upturned and arranged as hats, sheltered domes resting atop each of the burners. The situation was less a series of traps and more of a detour, which seemed a fitting farewell. She half-wondered if Petey might be up for the challenge.

Months later, when the visits had stopped but the droppings on the oven floor had multiplied, she called the exterminator. She bought a cookbook – The Single Girl’s Guide to Weeknight Dinners – and tried to feel justified.

Once, over Christmas break, her mother had taken her to a spa, an all-inclusive resort in the Berkshires with sedate, snowy lawns, a buffet of yoga and wellness offerings, and various presentations of roughage served in shallow bowls.

The package came with a session of nutritional counseling. June sat in stretch pants across from a middle-aged professional with careful bangs and a checklist. The woman quizzed June about her dietary habits. “How will you cook for your children?” she finally asked. She looked at once exasperated and genuinely curious, as if encountering a new species.

That evening, June replayed the conversation to her mother over herb-infused mocktails and they laughed.

Growing up, June and her sisters had scavenged: leftovers of one-pot meals cooked on Sundays by their father, picked-over cartons of Chinese take-out, frozen entrees with fragile, plastic film. “You turned out alright,” her mother said.

But June was privately resentful. She was nineteen. The nutritionist recommended a follow-up session but June skipped it, sinking instead into the outdoor hot tub and watching the fog of her breath escape in spidery puffs.

A decade and change later, June had left her job and others like it, left the studio apartment and a one-bedroom in Brooklyn. She had left her first real boyfriend and the two less-formal arrangements that followed. For the first time in her life, she had left the city, and moved to a small town upstate, where she’d been offered a job at a private museum, designing print collateral.

She had worried about all of it: where she’d live, whom she’d meet, her age. She’d forgotten to worry about what she would eat, and found she’d quickly tired of the town’s two excuses for recreational dining: a middle-eastern pizza joint and a suspiciously empty Main Street diner. She investigated the options from neighboring towns but found herself always, just barely, outside the delivery radius.

The Single Girl’s Guide to Weeknight Dinners was still in a box in the crawl space of the cottage she’d found online. The cottage was a glorified shack – she was amazed each time the toilet actually flushed – but it had a woodstove that she’d learned to operate and sat beside an honest-to-God babbling brook.

June was surprised how little she missed the city. She’d heard that the quiet would be stifling, or creepy, but to her it was neither. In fact, it wasn’t quiet at all. There was the brook and its babbling, plus what she assumed were frogs and crickets, and the wind and the birds she knew nothing about. It was a full quiet; quiet that felt like it wasn’t trying hard to be anything else.

The cookbook still smelled like her first apartment. She had used it a handful of times in the city, mostly, ironically, when she had someone to cook for.

She had braved vegetarian curries and stews, to pleasant reviews, but found that everything tasted the same.

This time, she started slow. There was an incident with quesadillas. Never having cooked chicken, she hadn’t realized it would need extra time in the pan.

She was proud of the way the tortilla folded neatly in half and the cheese oozed temptingly at the sides, but something about the pale pink juice that drained into puddles was deeply troubling. She gave up and spooned yogurt into a mug.

Brian was the first company she had in the cottage. He was the nephew of her landlord and lived rent-free in the bigger house next door, in exchange for keeping up the property and light maintenance.

He wasn’t very handy but he was well-connected; his rolodex of plumbers and electricians was deep and in many cases stocked with personal friends, high school buddies he threw work to whenever he could. She appreciated his loyalty and the easy way he carried a conversation by himself.

He stopped by usually on Saturdays, when June was working in the sunroom. Sometimes she would pass him in the garden on her way to the woods where she liked to walk after work. He would wave and say something appropriate about the weather or current events.

He seemed to care a lot about local conservation issues, like the debate over a proposed wind farm or the opening of a chain of convenience stores in town.

When Brian asked to cook her dinner, she’d assumed it was an invitation. The knock on her cottage door came when she was getting dressed, and she answered in bare feet. There was an odd twist in her gut when she saw him standing there, a grocery bag in each arm.

There had been a time when strangers stood nightly in her private spaces, stocky, aproned delivery men weighed down with bags of fragrant containers, stumbling to untangle her order from the others, waiting patiently for a tip.

But this was different. Outside, the brook babbled. The frogs and crickets sang. Brian pushed past her and clicked on the stove.