It’s funny, but people still recognize me. Not ha ha funny—nice funny. You know. Not a lot of people, but now and then, mostly at the grocery store where they smile past me with their carts. The bolder ones will wave and say, Ruthie! How’s it going! Or they’ll stop and ask me what the secret is to cooking the perfect hamburger. Sometimes they ask about Amy and whether she likes the Saturday morning slot better than Wednesday evening, or if it’s true what People magazine is saying about her and that married chef.
She’s fine, I tell them. Like Amy and I last chatted an hour ago rather than two years, three months, and four days ago through our lawyers across a conference table. Her hair is lighter and she’s lost more weight. Also, I think she may have gotten breast implants, just fluffed a little, nothing big or obvious because what does a Food Network star need with big boobs? I watch her to see if there is any of the old Amy left, the lazy girl who used to complain all the time and let me do all the work, which was okay because I had enough ambition and drive for the both of us.
Yet there she is and here I am. Because of what she said I did. Because of what she did to me.
I watch her all the time.
Sometimes we seem like yesterday although Dr. Newman says that could be a trick of memory, a side effect of the new drug he prescribed after the old one made my stomach itchy and everything taste like chlorine. I can remember what someone was wearing on a particular day twelve years ago and did I need an umbrella. Sometimes I remember what they said and how, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I had for lunch last Thursday and whether it was sunny, though probably not since it’s never sunny in March.
I remember what month it is. That much I know.
It was June when Amy and I moved into the apartment overlooking a dozen blue dumpsters. We slept with our windows shut tight in the summer, AC blowing full blast, and even then the smell of rotted fruit and stale beer barged in through the cracks. The Garbage Dump is what we called that apartment. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but now I look back on it as The Place Where It All Began.
Between us, we owned a single dented saucepan whose handle was constantly coming loose, a rusted frying pan, and some hand-me-down utensils. No dishwasher or microwave, no room. The refrigerator hummed a sour note whenever you opened it and when I woke in the middle of the night, I could swear I heard it gasping for breath. The stove worked almost too well, enthusiastically heating up to the set point and beyond, a fact we discovered when we attempted to make a cake from scratch for a friend’s birthday. The oven left us with two cindered discs although the frosting was delicious. We fast-froze it and called it fudge and no one at the party was any wiser.
It was around the time of the great cake debacle that Amy got fired from a local grocery store where she worked as a food demonstrator. The job required that she stand behind a small portable stand on wheels and assemble that day’s recipe. That was the easy part. The hard part was coaxing people not only to sample the recipe but also to buy the ingredients on the spot. The harder part was being assigned exclusively to vegetables. No matter how tasty or nutritious the samples, they couldn’t compete with the forkfuls of New York cheesecake they were handing out in the bakery or the spread-like-butter Brie back in Olde World Cheese.
The nail in the coffin had been a bok choy recipe she happened to be demonstrating that day. Seems that she had not been enthusiastic enough about the appetizer, and worse, committed the cardinal sin of being honest. Frankly, it tastes like wet cardboard, she said to a customer within earshot of Head Vegetable Man who wasted no time in complaining to management.
I said all the right things. That it wasn’t her fault. That the best Asian chef in the world could hand out samples of his award-winning bok choy appetizer and that no one would bite. In fact, who among us can make a tasty vegetable appetizer?
Her eyes got hard. “I can,” she said, springing up off the floor and marching into the small kitchen where she flung open the refrigerator and started yanking ingredients from the shelves: a bag of wilting spinach, a hardening hunk of parmesan. Olive oil from the cupboard, some pistachios left over from a three-month ago party. A half bottle of brandy. She chopped, sliced, diced and food processed and when she was finished, Leftover Pesto was born—the recipe and the blog of the same name.
Just for the record, every syllable of that blog was mine. Amy couldn’t write a decent sentence if her life depended on it.
Can I tell you a secret? When I was 12, I imagined my bed was a magic carpet, only sturdier and a lot less tippy. I wished so hard that one night I willed my bed to rise up off the floor and out the window where I flew low over the city, hovering over the houses of the popular girls. I wanted to know them, know the secrets they were keeping from me. I believed there were secrets to becoming and if I knew them, I would leave my body behind and step into a thinner, lovelier version of me, minus the sprinkle of acne that pimpled my cheeks.
The blog was like that for me. I stepped into it and became another person—a girl who was hip, slim, and born wealthy, a girl who knew what wine went with what food. She’d majored in something useless at one of the Ivies—Old Norse literature or Inuit archaeology—and had been a champion distance swimmer until she blew out her shoulder training for the Olympics.
She did not compile the calendar section for a weekly giveaway newspaper. She did not sit in a former closet with bad lighting where she was screamed at by angry people whose calendar listings she’d fucked up. She did not live in an apartment with stained orange carpeting in a complex where cars were routinely towed away for non-payment, where people packed and vanished in the middle of the night leaving their cats behind to roam yowling from apartment to apartment.
She wasn’t me. But I was her.
Laid-Off Tomato Soup made us famous. You’ve heard of it, of course. No? Ketchup and water, a few creamers, a little bit of sugar—whatever free stuff you can help yourself to in a fast food restaurant. But word to the wise, stay away from the foil packets of ketchup. Pain in the ass to empty. Stick to the places with plunger ketchup. Fill a drink cup a quarter full with ketchup and there you go.
We named it Laid-Off Tomato Soup because we were. Actually, we were both fired, but “laid off” sounds more corporate, less finger-pointing than the word “fired,” which supposes that you did something wrong to cause the firing and I did nothing wrong. It was not me who put the wrong date for the big philharmonic whoop-de-do in the paper. It was Denise who took the message while I was on lunch hour and wrote down “September 25” instead of the correct date, September 21.
Also, it is not true what Denise said about me, that I always took an hour for lunch.
Fired or not, we kept up with the blog—correction, I kept up with the blog. Amy could care less. She was like that, gung ho in the beginning before losing interest and moving on to something else, in this case a guy who worked for a high-tech company where the bosses encouraged their employees to wander around the office-less office and play video games for inspiration. Sammy Something. He talked a lot about “platform” and what we needed to do to get “traction” for the blog so of course Amy thought so, too, though she didn’t know traction from a tractor and worse, she was threatening to move in with Sammy who lived in a condo downtown on a high enough floor that it had a view of Lake Ontario. She admitted she wasn’t as much in love with Sammy as she was with his convection oven and rainforest shower. And the view, of course.
I pointed out that we had a lease. For another two months as a matter of fact, and unless she could pay the difference or find someone else to move in, she wasn’t going anywhere.
“Fine,” she said. Like she’d tasted something bitter and needed to spit it out quick. We were sitting in the McDonald’s closest to our apartment eating off the Dollar Menu with couch change: a double cheeseburger, an order of fries, and the smallest size Coke that we refilled whenever the woman at the counter took a cigarette break.
Yeah, I ripped off McDonald’s. What are you going to do, arrest me?
We were still hungry, of course. Okay, we were starving. We could have eaten and eaten and eaten and we wouldn’t have been full enough, because no matter how much you eat, fear is a parasite that feasts on whatever you feed it. I bet that the majority of people who rob banks are bug-eyed starving, out of their minds with hunger, figuring what do they have to lose anyway. Either way, they get a meal out of the deal.
I need to set the record straight because I’ve promised to tell the truth and nothing but. It wasn’t us who invented Laid-Off Tomato Soup, but a dude with mustard-crusty sweatpants in the McDonald’s that night. We perfected the recipe with the cream and spices, whatever’s available, but it was a homeless guy who gave us the idea.
But it was me that wrote it up and made being out of work, broke, and hungry sound like an adventure.
I think it was Aaron who said we should do a YouTube series because blogs were “so over.” Which was ironic because we were starting to get a lot of hits thanks to an article in BuzzBomb that included Leftover Pesto as one of the “Eight Food Blogs You Need to Drop What You’re Doing and Read Right Now!!!!” All because of our recipe for Laid-Off Tomato Soup. It was—in the words of the writer—“a marvelous and ironic upcycling of corporate America’s throwaways.” Which was also pretty ironic in and of itself since we’d ripped off a homeless guy and you can’t get much more throwaway than that. Have you ever seen the picture of the food chain that’s nothing but a series of mouths, each one bigger than the one preceding it? Maybe it should end with a human swallowing another human—a pretty woman straight off the assembly line of the factory that cranks out blue-eyed blondes. Maybe show her swallowing the world and getting away with murder.
Aaron, the guy who replaced Sammy, is how I thought of him. He at least looked at me when he said hello and sometimes even asked how I was. Also, he didn’t stop in front of every mirror he passed to check his hair, something Sammy did constantly. Aaron drove a Porsche and did something in advertising, which is how he knew about video and production. Later I found out that Aaron had conceived and directed the commercial for a local organic food company in which stoned-looking people dressed as fruit sing and dance about being good to yourself, eat natural foods. Which, when you think about it, is creepy because they want us to eat them.
It’s a stupid commercial. Also, I think I used to work with the banana at the newspaper.
Of course it was me who came up with the ideas for the YouTube shows because Amy’s ideas were stupid and trite. Case in point: She wanted to do a Valentine’s Day show at a bakery or a candy maker “because Valentine’s Day is all about love and chocolate, right?”
It was all I could do to not roll my eyes. Even Aaron looked bored and by that time, he was head over heels with Amy, even going so far as to buy her a garnet ring, her birthstone. I could tell he thought it was a stupid idea by the way he talked to her, like she was dumb or slow or both.
“Well, what then?” Amy said.
“How about shooting it in an auto body shop,” I said. “Full of wrecks. Accidents of love.”
“Yuck,” Amy said.
Aaron said that hygiene might be a problem in an auto body shop.
Clean places. I thought a minute. “A funeral home,” I said. “You know: Dead love.”
“Great!” Aaron said.
Turns out he had a second cousin whose husband was a mortician. Turns out they loved the idea and asked only that we include a chyron at the end of the show giving credit to Budwit’s Funeral Home.
It was right before we shot the Valentine’s Day show that Amy started acting weird, well, weirder than normal because there was always something a little off about her, you know? As a friend, I mean. Like, we’d be out someplace together and she’d pretend to be talking to me when really she was looking around the room for someone skinnier, richer, more fun.
She used to do that all the time; I bet she still does. Leopards don’t change their spots, is what my mother used to say.
In the weeks leading up to the show, she kept coming up with excuses for why she couldn’t sit down and talk about the menu. She had to go to the dentist. Then she had a doctor’s appointment because her throat was sore and she suspected strep and she couldn’t do a show if she was viral and had strep, especially in a funeral home. I pointed out that it was too late for the dead people, and she said, yeah, that was true but still.
So okay, she had appointments, fine. But what was weird is that she put on a full face of makeup and wore pantyhose and a dress and high heels and sailed out of the apartment humming to herself. To the doctor and the dentist who were sixtyish and female. I thought about following her but that would have been too creepy, and besides I was trying to figure out how to convert ramen noodles into a Death by Chocolate cake for the Valentine’s Day show. I’d pretty sure I’d seen an episode of Chopped where someone had pulled off that very thing, but I couldn’t for the life of me find it anywhere.
At precisely the moment when I hit on a solution – brandy!—Amy came home.
“Voila!” I said. “You will love this.”
“Sit down,” she said. Something movie characters always say when they have news, usually bad.
I sat. And listened as she told me that she’d signed a contract to shoot a pilot for the Food Network called “Left Over” and that our Valentine’s show would be her swan song.
She, not we.
Here’s what is true: I was jealous of Amy. Okay, I am jealous of Amy. So sue me. It is also true that I was not drunk when we shot the Valentine’s show. Yes, my face was red, as the comments pointed out. Also, I am not fat. I’m a size 12, which is average unless you happen to be standing next to Amy who’s a natural size 4, though she has been known to puke her food. Also, the camera loves her—front on, either side, doesn’t make a difference.
Also, I admit to having a sip or two of brandy. So sue me.
And it’s true that I was angry at Amy, but I wasn’t angry enough to poison the food. If you watch the show, you’ll see that both of us ate the same dessert, but only Amy got the shits so bad that she ended up puking and dehydrated and in the emergency room, hooked up to an IV. Worse, someone threw out the leftover cake before they could test it and prove that I did not substitute Ex-Lax for chocolate, the way Amy’s hot shot lawyer alleged. Without evidence, I was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to stay away from Amy.
I’d like to point out, too, that it was simply a coincidence that Amy happened to be doing a food demonstration in a department store where I was shopping a few months later; I did not “push my way” through a crowd of people to get to Amy. Nope. I simply wanted to see what all the commotion was about and I didn’t see Amy until it was too late and she started pointing at me and screaming for security to take me away, which they did. But I didn’t make it easy on them.
So now I have a few more months in the halfway house and then I’m free to live my life again. I want to get a place of my own with a nice kitchen—nothing too big or fancy, but one with a refrigerator with an icebox that freezes and a stove that doesn’t overheat. I have some great ideas for shows that I’ve run by Aaron, who hasn’t returned my calls, probably because he’s busy cleaning up after Amy who I heard through the grapevine is carrying on an affair with a famous and married chef. Sooner or later Aaron will wise up and realize who the real talent was. After all, a pretty face will take you only so far before you run out of gas.
For now, I’ve started collecting recipes for a blog about meals you don’t need to cook. I’m going to call it “Best Served Cold,” and trust people can fill in the rest.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, SmokeLong Quarterly, and in the anthology New Microfiction: Exceptionally Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2018). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006. Her twitter handle is @sfreligh.