“You wouldn’t know from looking at me, but I am strong and earthy. I am a rare commodity and should be used sparingly.” He looks up for approval, and I nod that he should continue. “Don’t use a laundry list of others with me… who am I?”
I pause my slow stirring, raising an eyebrow at him through the steam of the pot. “I really want to say… Himalayan salt, but that isn’t earthy. I think.”
From his perch on the counter, he flashes the label at me: black truffle salt.
“That doesn’t make sense. Did you not finish the sentence earlier?”
“Yeah, I figured it was getting too obvious.” I pout, and he hops off the counter, whisking the spoon from my hands to plant a small kiss on my cheek, then on my neck. I squirm.
“Sam, they’ll be here soon,” I whisper, gently pushing him away. He doesn’t resist much, he’s done his purpose. I am a bright red, almost worse than the tomato soup simmering in the pot next to me.
“So, we have the ciabars-”
“The ciabatta, the tomato soup, sparkling apple cider, and no dessert,” he finishes with a smirk, and I feel my shoulders sag slightly as I turn back to the soup.
“I’m joking, Gia. Don’t worry so much. I told you, my mom is probably on a diet right now, and my dad… well, he could use a diet.” I wince.
“Just try to be nice for once, Sam. He’s trying.” I can feel the atmosphere change almost instantly, the air seems to thicken.
“Yeah, that’s cute. Now he is trying-”
“Sam,” I interrupt, turning the stove knob until the stove starts clicking. The flame dies.
“Oh, just bloody stop,” he spits, and I bite my lip as I set down the dripping spoon. His back is turned towards me, and despite his lashing out, I wrap my arms around his waist.
“Gia,” he says menacingly, but I just squeeze him tighter. After bristling, he just sighs and shrugs slightly. “I just want him to leave me alone.”
“That’s not what you want.” Once he has started talking again, I know the words will flow, so I release him. The bread isn’t quite done, but I check it anyways.
“Why does he want to be there for me now? It isn’t for the ciabattas-” Except Sam says it like see-a-batta. I don’t correct him. “-or for me. For who? Or…” Sam adds ominously, “for what?”
“No, not right.” Sam continues, almost in another world entirely. He starts pacing around the small granite island, and I have to press myself against the counter to avoid being in his line of fire. “This is not right. I’m going to find out what he’s up to if it kills me!”
“Maybe not that far,” I clarify.
“Maybe… not that far,” he confirms. I pull the loaves out of the oven and smile as their comfortable aroma swells inside the yellow walls of our kitchen.
“Is Ella awake?” He murmurs, as if he is just now concerned about our daughter’s sleep quality. I shake my head, and he plods off to her bedroom like a sullen teenager.
I love Sam to hell, but sometimes he can be a bit near-sided. My husband (of two years, mind you) accepted Ella and I with open arms, brushing away my tears on long nights and warming me on cold ones. After three years of dating and two years of marriage, my husband is just beginning to dissolve the hard shell he puts on display. Sometimes, I don’t know what to believe with his father, but I want Ella to grow up with a grandfather. That’s not a luxury I could afford.
“Mommy?” Ella pads into the room with a soft yellow onesie, stretching out her arms with a yawn. I scoop her up close to me and inhale deeply. She smells like baby and the strawberry children’s shampoo that she uses. My heart nearly melts.
“Gia, darling, do you know where the containers are?” I forget that Sam is there and point out quietly that they are where he left them ten minutes ago. He nods as if this is new information.
“Ella, darling, are you excited to see Nanna and Papi?” Sam’s father, Tom, insisted that the child call him Grandpa, as he called his grandfather and so on. I had a different idea, but I supposed that it was his decision. Nevertheless, Ella made the final call. Ella had yet to pronounce all of the syllables of the word, so Tom just has to settle for Papi.
“Papi!” Ella squealed, wiggling further into my arms and tucking her arms in front of her.
“What time are we leaving?” I remind Sam, for the third time, that it was seven o’clock. He doesn’t look particularly pleased by this, but he stays quiet on the drive over. Ella is breathing softly in the back, her eyelashes fluttering as she dreams.
“What’s up, Sam? It can’t possibly just be your father-”
“I think my mother is pregnant.” I blanch. I know Sam’s mother had him when she was young - eighteen or nineteen, and Sam is only thirty, which puts her at… forty-nine.
“Carla?” Sam glares at me as I try his mother’s name. I hurry to correct myself. “Well, shit.” I throw a furtive glance at Ella in the back, but she is still snoring quietly.
“Yeah.” Sam stares out the window in a way that suggests he doesn’t want to talk about it. Keeping one hand on the wheel, I fold over, shoving one hand in my purse blindly. A minute later, I pull out a chocoalte bar, almost triumphantly.
“Here, Sam. Your sister worries about you, you know. You are so skinny.” Sam laughs SOFTLY as bites into the chocolate. I know we have ventured into safe territory, but I don’t push it. We pull up to a row of cookie-cutter beige houses, and I eye the row of minivans lining the curb of the street.
“Ella, sweetie,” Sam crows, unbuckling Ella gently from her car seat. She yawns, giggles, and nestles into Sam’s shoulder. I sigh with a smile. Even when Sam is upset, I know he is always there for Ella.
Balancing the ciabatta on my right hand and the container of tomato soup on the other, I follow Sam into the house. His mother greets us by the door.
“Samuel! Ella, baby,” she cooes, hugging Sam tightly before reaching over to grab Ella. Ella doesn’t seem to mind the change, as long as someone is holding her. “Gia, come in, come in.” I hand the soup off to her, hoping she doesn’t notice my grimace. The house reeks of fresh linen Febreeze, but it doesn’t fully conceal the alcohol in the air.
“Carla, so nice to see you again.”
“Where’s Tom, Mom?” Sam asks, taking the ciabatta so I can drape my jacket over a shaky metal coat rack.
“Sam,” his mother sighs, and I don’t know if it’s the lighting or what Sam has just said that makes her look much more weary. “Please.” I place my hand on Sam’s arm, steering him into the kitchen with a tight-lipped smile at his mother.
“I made some tomato soup and a few loaves of ciabatta, though I will need the other two for Ella’s lunch,” I wink at her as she sets down Ella. She looks relieved at the change of subject.
“Oh, yes. The little ones are always hungry.” Carla glances away suddenly, stroking her stomach absent-mindedly. I throw Sam a worried glance, but he is juggling the ciabatta near the sink, trying to find a spot on the counter that isn’t consumed by bills or batter-cover bowls.
“Can I help you with anything, Carla? We brought some…” I spin around. Sam has set down the ciabatta and is throwing a pained glance towards his parent’s bedroom door. “Sam, did you forget the apple cider?” He looks up distractedly, and I roll my eyes.
“Oh no, it’s fine. I have some wine.” She pauses. “Not for me of course,” Carla clarifies, as if the statement is obvious. I flinch.
“Samuel! Ella! Gina!” Suddenly, Tom comes stomping in from the bedroom, leaving a pungent trail of alcohol behind him. He pulls me into a side hug, mistaking my name once again. It has become a running joke between Sam and I. Today, though, I don’t miss Sam wincing.
“Dad, it’s Gia,” Sam murmurs, staring at the carpet next to his father’s feet. “Not that hard to remember.”
Tom stumbles back a few feet, as though someone has slapped him. He recovers quickly though, pulling his son into a brief hug before correcting himself.
“Gia. Of course! Now, where is that daughter of your’s?” I know that Ella is probably playing with her grandmother’s doll house in the attic, though I don’t point it out to him. Fortunately, he forgets quickly and moves over to kiss his wife sloppily. “Anyone want some spirits? We have wine, beer, vodka, you name it-”
“Dad,” Sam snaps. I’m sure that my heartbeat is audible at this point. “I don’t think any of us should be having alcohol right now.” Tom stares at his son for a minute before beaming.
“Just me, then? You all are sure prunes if-” Tom laughs heartily, grabbing a large coffee mug reading “NUMBER ONE DAD” from the cabinet.
“Especially not you,” Sam bites. Tom looks around as though he didn’t quite hear what Sam said and is confirming that no one else did either.
“Sam-” Tom starts.
“Think you can lay off your evening bucket of alcohol, or is that too much to ask for?” I gasp, too appalled to even see if Ella is listening.
“He’s trying!” Carla tries to defend her husband nobly. “It hasn’t been easy on him, but he’s trying.”
“Yeah, well, you are not trying hard enough!” Sam shouts, and Tom drops the mug. Immediately, Carla and I are on it, warding the men away and scooping up the glass with wet paper towls and oven mitts.
“Sam, I think you should go,” Carla says hoarsely when the glass is cleaned up. Sam is white. I must have missed Tom leaving because the keys to his car are gone, and the door is unlocked.
“Carla, can you keep Ella for the night? Her toothbrush is here, and-” I try to continute, but Carla is already ushering us out of the door. We stand on her doorstep for a minute, and I notice absently that it has turned dark while we were inside.
“I’m sorry-” Sam begins, but he must sense that I don’t care and follows after me like a shameful puppy. I don’t speak until we are both in bed, Sam a full foot away. I understand that he is trying to give me space, but it is not helping.
“I don’t know, I just can’t help it,” Sam confesses, and I can feel that he is crying, for the bed trembles slightly. “I just feel like I have to get back at all the nastiness he gave me and-”
“Bullshit.” He doesn’t anything else for a while, and I think he has fallen asleep when I loop my fingers through his. They are cold and dry, but after a minute, he gives my hand a squeeze.
I don’t know what to say to him. Or Carla. Or his father. Or Ella, when she asks why we won’t visit Nanna and Papi for a while. I don’t know a damn thing about that.
I don’t think I will ever know what to say to my husband or my in-laws, but as for Ella, I’ll tell her the truth.
Forgiveness is a bitter medicine to swallow.
I know what Ella will tell me because she is my daughter, but also because she is Sam’s.
We all have to take our medicine some times.