Artichoke Heart

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Author’s Note: This is a long and very slowly building story. Please consider yourself warned—or promised if you like a slow build. Thanks for reading.

//

I switched off my phone and tossed it in the bottom of my bag like I hated it, like it was to blame for the phone call I’d just abruptly ended. I shoved my students’ papers into my bag and shrugged on my coat, feeling an all too familiar anger rise up inside me.

That asshole. That stupid, lying asshole.

I was waiting at the elevator, savagely pressing the call button just for something to hurt, before I realized not having my husband around—even if it meant he was off somewhere with some other woman—was actually preferable to having him home. We rarely spent any time together these days, and when we did it was tense with unvoiced accusations and simmering resentment.

I didn’t love him anymore. I didn’t even like him. But, the betrayal still hurt, and the transparent lie of a last-minute meeting out of town, just made me feel like the fool I was for letting him get away with it, for staying with someone with so little regard for me. Every time he lied, I berated myself for not leaving. The marriage was obviously over. It had been for years. So, why was I still with him?

It took the ride down to the ground floor for me to push my anger and hurt down far enough I could ignore it. Once I was outside, in the crisp October air, I turned my thoughts to the night I might have before me, unhindered by my husband’s oppressive presence. Dinner out? Maybe a movie? Or, I could pick up some take-out on the way home and watch something on Netflix. I decided to leave it for a few blocks, see if anything else came to mind, lying to myself that this was what freedom felt like.

I walked slowly, letting the window displays snag my attention, noting crimson was the color for dresses this winter. I’d become quite skilled at not feeling anything for too long, at pushing my resentment aside when I grew exhausted with it, or too close to tears. Soon I was feeling light again—or at least no longer weighed down by emotion—and decided I’d pick up a bottle of wine and stop by one of the markets on my way home for something easy for dinner.

A gourmet food shop had a window display of Guittard cocoa tins that stopped me in my tracks as I walked by. I studied the display and felt a warmth creep through me as a memory surfaced: I was 13 years old and sitting at the kitchen island on a high stool watching as Danny, my family’s cook, filled two demitasse cups with steaming hot cocoa. One he pushed across the counter to me, the other he lifted to his lips and together we took the tiniest sip of the fragrant creamy drink. It was too hot to really drink, but the scent was impossible to resist, and though that first sip almost always burned the tip of my tongue, the bitter sweet flavor made it all worthwhile.

I couldn’t help but smile; it was a simple ritual from my childhood, and one that I hadn’t thought about in years, but it was a special one to me. My childhood hadn’t been without strife, but that memory was completely unspoiled, and it warmed me to my toes. On impulse, I ducked into the shop and bought a tin. It was possible it would languish in my cupboard, unused, but it was also possible the sight of it would make me smile, and anything that did that these days was worth having around.

A block from the subway I passed a coffee shop. Normally I didn’t drink coffee in the afternoons, not since my preferred afternoon drink had become wine. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the memory of that long ago hot beverage, but I soon found myself making my way to a small table on one side of the room, cappuccino in hand, my mind again turning to memories of my childhood.

I grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan with my parents and my older brother, Mark. My dad worked on Wall Street, and was more or less absent throughout most of my childhood. We weren’t close at all, but as a little kid I was always trying to find a way into his heart.

When I got older, my resentment toward my dad grew and turned to anger. A large part of that was seeing how he treated my mother, whom I adored. He wasn’t violent, just neglectful. He paid so little attention to her needs; in his mind his were more important. I never quite understood why my mom was with him, why he was still with him after all these years when they obviously hated each other, though now, as an adult, I understand sometimes situations are less about choice than habit once you’re in them.

My mom worked at Columbia University in an immunology research lab. She was a kind person, very generous, with a lot of energy, and she worked hard to make sure my brother and I didn’t suffer as a result of her career or my dad’s apathy toward the family situation.

She was a beautiful woman, with long, dark, wavy hair that gleamed, and brown eyes that were bright with interest and enthusiasm. She was taller than average with a feline grace in her long, poker oyna slender figure. I’d been lucky enough to inherit her looks, and, though I hated to admit it, I’d inherited her bad taste in men as well.

When I was 12 my mom hired a cook: Danny Rousseau. She worked full days just like my father, but he still expected her to take care of dinner every night. She did, for six years before deciding to hire a cook to come a few times a week and prepare meals she could just put together quickly once she got home.

I sometimes wondered if it was only Danny’s talent and enthusiasm that made her choose to hire him in particular. He was also handsome, a young man in his mid-twenties with deep auburn hair, bright blue eyes, a boyish face and a quick smile. It wasn’t until I was married myself that it occurred to me she hired him to irk my father.

I’d had such a crush on Danny. That hair! Those eyes! And always a smile that made me melt. He had the most beautiful, graceful hands I’d ever seen, and I loved to watch him work, marveling at how effortless and intuitive all his motions were. The fact that he fussed over me, making me special treats, and acting interested in whatever I was learning in school at the time only added to my attraction to him.

He was only at the house three days a week, four hours each day, but for the first couple of hours after I got home from school I had him all to myself. I would rush into the kitchen and park myself on the high stool and watch him work. My mom hired him right around the time I discovered boys (and all the feelings they stirred up in me), so a few hours alone with a good-looking guy who smiled at me, joked with me, and made me cookies was so much fuel for my adolescent fantasies. It was a schoolgirl’s crush—waves of dizzying excitement and persistent longings I was just starting to figure out how to address.

I smiled to myself remembering how special those hours had been for me, and how giddy he’d made me feel. To Danny they were probably just part of his job, maybe even an irritation at times, but to me they meant a lot. I found myself wondering where that giddy, romantic girl went. It felt like forever since I’d been that excited over anything in my life.

I happened to be staring absently in the direction of the cafe door when a man walked in. My eyes followed him without intention as he made his way to the counter to place his order. He was tall and thin, and nicely dressed in a black overcoat, slim trousers, and beautiful leather shoes. Red hair peeked out from under a dark newsboy cap, making me think again of Danny. He looked my way as if he’d felt me staring, and I felt my stomach drop in recognition and disbelief.

He held my gaze for only a second and then looked away, unknowingly presenting me with his profile. I continued to stare, knowing it couldn’t be him, that my mind was just playing tricks on me; there was no way this could be Danny, it was too improbable to imagine. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he waited for his coffee at the counter, checking the screen of his smartphone. He was certainly the right height and build—tall and lean—and the hair, which was such a distinguishing feature, even hidden under the cap, was familiar. But when he looked in my direction again, the shock of recognition nearly took my breath away.

He paused for a moment to put something in his coffee and I could see his brow furrow, the corners of his mouth turn down slightly, and then he looked at me one more time, either curious or irritated by my open stare. It was that slight motion of his mouth that convinced me.

I stood, called out his name, and took a step toward him. His brow twisted in confusion, but he turned his body toward me and I knew.

“Oh my God,” I said, giddy excitement squeezing my voice. “Danny is that really you?”

“Danny?” he repeated.

He sounded so confused, I thought I’d gotten it wrong, but I could see him clearly now and there was no doubt in my mind it was really him. I pressed on, moving closer.

“It’s Eleanor…Eleanor Wagner, remember? Ella? From, like, twenty years ago? You worked for my parents.”

The penny dropped and a wide smile spread across his face. Now it was his turn to stare in disbelief while I felt my schoolgirl’s crush flare inside me…oh, that smile was magic.

“Ella?”

“I can’t believe it’s really you,” I said. “I swear, I was just thinking about you. I mean, just a minute ago, when you walked in I was thinking of you.”

“Ella Wagner.” He shook his head. “Unbelievable. Truly. My God, how long has it been?”

“I don’t know…18? 19 years? I was in tenth grade when you left…”

“Well, I guess you grew up. You look—” His eyes swept over me briefly and I felt the blood rush to my face just like it used to when I was around him. “You look like your mother. You look fantastic.”

I invited him to sit and he slid into the seat opposite me and the next hour was spent in conversation, a constant stream of canlı poker oyna questions and answers interrupted only when one of us needed to marvel out loud again at the weird coincidence of our meeting.

While we talked I admired his face. It was even more attractive than I remembered; still boyish, despite the wrinkles at the edges of his eyes, and the three day beard. I saw grey in his auburn hair, though not much, and it was still thick and wavy beneath his cap. He wore a wide silver ring on each index finger, but no wedding band. I found it hard to believe he wasn’t married; he was such a catch.

I learned he’d only stayed in Manhattan a few years after he stopped working for my family, and then he moved to Europe and traveled around a little before settling in France. He was currently teaching at a cooking school in Paris—his dream job, he said—and loving every minute of it.

I was reluctant to go into much detail about my own life—I wasn’t exactly proud of the decisions I’d made, but my own teaching career was one thing I felt good about so I focused on that, skipping over my unhappy marriage as much as possible. I was certain he was curious, but he didn’t press for details when my answers to his questions lacked real information.

“I was so mad at you when you left.” I admitted in a laugh, remembering just how confused I was when I came home expecting him there, and finding an empty kitchen instead. I’d felt so betrayed and angry when my dad told me he wasn’t coming back. “You never said goodbye. I was heartbroken.”

He made a pained face. “Oh, Ella…”

“I think I even locked myself in my room for a day…” I laughed again, embarrassed by my own drama. Then I noticed he wasn’t laughing. “It’s OK,” I said. “I didn’t stay mad long, but I did miss you.”

He sighed and tried to smile. “I’m sorry about that. I would have said goodbye if I’d had the chance. I knew you’d end up thinking I just quit.”

“You didn’t?”

He sighed again and shook his head. “No…your dad fired me.”

I stared at him blankly for a second. “That’s not what he told me. He told me you’d quit, that you got a better job and left.”

Danny smiled a grim smile. “No. No, I would never do that,” he said. “That job was the best I’d ever had. I would never have left it.”

The news was shocking, but I knew in my gut he was telling the truth. It had never made any sense to me, that he’d just leave without saying goodbye at least. On the other hand, I had no trouble imagining my dad firing him.

“Oh my God, Danny. I had no idea. What happened?”

“I’m not even sure,” he said. He shifted in his seat, looking away from me for a second. “He just told me to go and not come back. He paid me for the next month, I guess so I wouldn’t sue him or something, and then he told me to go.”

“He didn’t give any reason?”

“He was really angry. I was pretty scared, to be honest, he was so aggressive. He just told me to get out and never contact the family again, so I did.”

He lifted his head and looked at me, shrugging. I stared, trying to shuffle the conflicting stories and implications in my head.

“I thought a lot about it after it happened, trying to figure out what happened. Maybe he just hated me. Or hated that she hired me. Or maybe he thought there was something going on between me and your mom. There wasn’t, but I don’t know…maybe he thought I was a threat.”

I sat back, my head spinning from these revelations.

“Anyway, I don’t know why your dad fired me. All I know is that it was sudden and he was adamant that I not contact his family again.” He smiled, his voice apologetic. “So, I did leave without saying goodbye, and I always regretted it.”

“Oh Danny, I’m sorry. I had no idea…”

“Oh, don’t be silly.” He reached out and took my hand and squeezed it, his smile stretching. “It’s all in the past. I’m glad you’re not mad at me anymore. And now you know I never intended to leave without saying goodbye.”

From inside his pocket his phone buzzed. He pulled his hand away, but held my gaze a few seconds longer. It shouldn’t have made my heart beat so hard, but it did. He drew out a slim cell phone and looked at the screen.

“I’m sorry, I need to take this,” he said. He answered in French, and had a brief conversation. He dropped it back into his pocket and sighed. “I hate to say it, but I need to get going.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

“Listen, I’m in New York until the 12th. I’m going to a wedding this Saturday, and next week is a mess of family birthday parties and other stuff, but I would really like to take you out to dinner before I go back to Paris, if we can swing it.

“This is a long shot, but a friend of mine is head chef at a really nice place in NOHO and I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. It would have to be tomorrow night, though. Really short notice, I’m sorry, but I have a reservation, and, anyway, it’s the only night I’m free. Are you and Steven internet casino busy? I’m sure I could change the reservation to three.”

“Steven’s away,” I said quickly. I could have accepted the offer first, or told him he didn’t need to go to so much trouble, but that was what came out of my mouth first: my husband was away.

“Oh,” he said, looking at me carefully. “Well, would you like to go? With me? If Steven doesn’t mind, of course—I don’t want to make things awkward.”

“No, it’s fine.” I didn’t say he wouldn’t mind, because he would. If he knew how good looking Danny was he’d mind very much, and very loudly. “What time?”

Danny smiled, clearly pleased by my response. “6:30.” He drew his phone from his pocket again. “Give me your number, I’ll text you the address.”

Once he’d finished adding my number to his contacts, he switched off his phone and slid it into his pocket. Then he reached out and took both my hands in his and grinned at me.

“This was such an unbelievable coincidence, Ella. I can’t believe we just ran into each other like that. I’m thrilled to see you again, and to meet the grown-up you. I knew you’d turn out to be a brainy beauty.”

“I’m glad I recognized you,” I said, flushing at the compliment, or possibly the heat of his hands on mine. Or maybe just that face, that gorgeous face made somehow even more gorgeous over the past 20 years. “I really was just thinking of you, right when you walked in. It’s crazy.”

“This was the most pleasant hour I’ve spent in a long time.” He squeezed my hands and then released them, stood, and buttoned up the front of his coat. He looked down at me with a smile on his face that brought me right back to my childhood. I could have easily been working on my algebra homework while he sliced potatoes. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ella.”

“See you.”

I was left staring at his retreating form, my heartbeat a little irregular. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed myself that much, or how long it had been since I’d sat across from a man and found him so delightful. Old, forgotten feelings of attraction and admiration were bumping around in my head, confusing, but exciting feelings.

//

When Danny’s text came through the next afternoon, with the address of the restaurant, my heart did a little leap. I felt exactly like the cute boy from class had called; irrationally excited and flattered. My thoughts were completely preoccupied with the evening to come, and about an hour later, I realized grading papers in my office was a lost cause. I left early, got a manicure on the way home, and spent the subway ride mentally sorting through the contents of my closet for something to wear to dinner.

I took entirely too long getting ready, fussing over my makeup and hair, and trying on dress after dress. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t a date, it was only dinner with an old friend. The fact that he was handsome and made my heart flutter did not make it a date. Still, I double checked my reflection before I put on my coat.

He’d said I looked like my mother, and for the first time in a long time, I considered the idea. I was a few inches shy of her 5’9″, but I still had her lean shape, modest curves, and B-cup breasts. My shoulder length hair was the same dark brown with natural mahogany highlights, but my eyes were a lighter shade of brown than hers were, more like black tea than coffee. I had her face, though. No doubt about that: oval, with high cheekbones and a full-lipped mouth. Objectively, I knew I was beautiful—not because I was vain, but because I knew my mother was—but it had been a long time since I’d thought about it, or whether it even mattered. Tonight, I looked my reflection over and found myself hoping it did, and hoping especially that Danny would think so.

He was waiting in front of the restaurant when I arrived. I noticed right away he’d shaved, and now I could more easily trace the contours of his jaw and cheeks with my eyes, but I couldn’t quite decide if I preferred him clean-shaven, or a little scruffy; either way he was a very pleasing sight.

He greeted me with a kiss on the cheek, European style.

“I’m so glad you made it. I’m sorry Steven couldn’t,” he said. “I was looking forward to meeting him.”

“I’m sorry too,” I lied.

“Well, on the flip side, now everyone will think I’m out on a date with a beautiful young woman.”

He flashed me a smile that made me blush. I knew it was just a playful remark, that he saw me still as the kid on the high stool with homework and ballet lessons later, but it still felt good. I realized it had been a long time since I’d been on the receiving end of a compliment not related to my work.

He drew out a pair of thin reading glasses when we sat down, reminding me he was that much older than me, and together we browsed the wine list. When he offered to order for me, I let him. And when our server came, he asked her to let his friend James know we were here.

“I don’t often brag about my students, but James was a without a doubt the most talented I ever taught,” Danny said. “I make no claim on his success—he came to me with more intuition and talent than I’ve ever seen in any other student.”

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