Chiara gathered what she needed to start cooking. She peeled onions with no hurry, layer by layer. As the tears flowed down from her face, she thought of Nonna Giulia. “When you’re sad bella, it’s a good idea to cook, you can cry all you want while you peel onions.”
Cooking relaxed Chiara. The aroma of fresh herbs and ripe tomatoes from her grandmother's orchard brought to her memories of happier times.
Every Sunday her family had dinner at her mother’s place. This time it was a special occasion; her mother’s seventieth birthday.
I hope Gino is in a better mood tonight; lately, he’s been acting so odd.
Chiara added fresh oregano and parsley to the sauce, she stirred it gently, closed her eyes and tasted it. The flavours dissolved in her mouth and she smiled.
This tastes heavenly. Nonna Giulia you are right; the secret is in the sauce.
As Chiara poured the sauce over the lasagna, she couldn’t stop thinking about Sofia and the way she behaved. Chiara knew her sister was going to try to outdo her tonight, as she had for their entire lives. Always wanting the best clothes, the ideal boyfriends, the best of everything. It has been the same for as long as Chiara could remember: her sister always tried to outdo her.
Sofia won, most of the time, but there was an area in which Chiara shone- the kitchen. She was an outstanding cook. Sofia, a mediocre one.
Gino’s loud voice brought her back to reality.
“Don’t tell me you’re making pasta sauce again,” he wrinkled his nose.
“I’m cooking for tonight’s dinner at mom’s. She’s turning seventy.”
“I hate those dinners.”
She bit her lip.”Please, hon, Mom’s expecting us.”
“Is Sofia going?”
“Yes, we’ll all be there.”
Sofia finished putting on her make-up and preened in her bedroom mirror. She wore a fitted dress that accentuated her curvy figure.
“Well, I think I look splendid,” she said, half-joking, half-serious.
A couple of years younger than Chiara, at an early age Sofia became aware of her stunning beauty. It served her well at school, boys were crazy about her. Not only was she a good student, popular and liked by her teachers, but she had been pampered and over-protected by her parents. But, Nonna Giulia cautioned her, “careful bambina, beauty is not enough. You should have a kind heart.”
At her mother’s birthday, Sofia wanted to impress everyone with a sauce of her own creation. She got the recipe from a famous Italian chef, a friend of hers, but the family didn’t need to know it. On such a special occasion, it’d be her chance to finally best her sister.
Francesco kissed Sofia’s naked shoulder. “You look ravishing, darling,” he whispered in
her ear. He stared at her misty-eyed and tried to hug her.
“Cut it out”, she protested.“You’re messing up my hair.”
“Sorry, honey, I didn’t want to upset you.”
“For God’s sake, stop apologizing.” She sighed loudly and turned away.
I hate when Francesco apologizes for everything he thinks he does wrong. I believe he feels jealous of every young man that looks at me. It’s not my fault if he’s twenty years older and boring.
When they got married Sofia had thought she was in love. But, soon she lost interest. Francesco’s wealth helped at the beginning. She enjoyed spending money, but her life with him was devoid of enjoyment and passion.
Chiara stepped out of the shower. Her short auburn hair and her attractive figure made her look younger than her age. She observed her reflection on the bathroom mirror. She touched her breasts and caressed her stomach.
I’m thirty-nine. I’m not getting any younger.
Gino cleared his voice behind her.
“You startled me,” she said as her hand flew to her chest.
“I bet you were daydreaming,” he said while fidgeting with his tie.
“No, I was just thinking.”
“About starting a family,” her voice trembling.
“How many times do we have to go over this? He rubbed the back of his neck. “You knew I didn’t want kids. I made it clear before we married.”
“Yes, I know. But I do. Would it be so bad to start a family?
“Just drop it. Don’t want to talk about it.”
Chiara rubbed her eyes, hiding her tears. “Fine. But we’re not done with this.”
Chiara and Gino arrived at Rosa’s place. They walked through the garden. Chiara stood under the old lemon tree her father had planted long ago. She thought of her father and his kind smile. So many memories came to mind. She saw herself running around the patio, chasing Lupe, her little Chihuahua. Those were good days. Too bad they were gone forever.
“Ciao Mamma, “ Chiara said entering the kitchen. She hugged her mother tenderly.
“Ciao bella.” Rosa kissed her daughter on the lips.
“The garden looks pretty. And your veggie patch too.”
“Grazie mille, mia cara. Since your papa has gone I have lots of time to garden. Anyway, I like fresh herbs for my cooking. What did you bring for tonight?”
“I made a lasagna, with a special sauce.”
“What a coincidence, Sofia brought one too.”
“Oh no, I should’ve asked first.”
“It doesn’t matter. No two lasagnas are the same. The secret is in the sauce, as your nonna used to say”
“Yeah, I remember.” Chiara smiled and left to set the table.
Sofia and Francesco arrived shortly after. Sofia kissed her mother and stood in front of her, hands on her waist.
“How do I look, Mamma.?” She twirled around.
“You look dazzling as always, mia cara.”
“Thank you,” she gave out a childish giggle.
“I saw Gino’s car,” Sofia said.
“Yes, he and Chiara just got here.”
“I’m gonna help her,” Sofia skipped out of the kitchen.
“Hey, there.” Chiara turned around to face Sofia.”I like your outfit.”
“Oh, this old thing,” said Sofia, arranging her skirt. She grabbed glasses from the dining room cabinet. “Let me give you a hand.”
“No need, I’m almost done.”
“Ok then, if you say so. Mamma told me you also brought lasagna.”
“I did.” Chiara bit her lip.
“Well, sorry to say this, but mine is going to shine. I’ve used a new sauce. Found a great recipe.” she fluffed her skirt once more.
“This isn’t a contest Sofia,” Chiara cracked her knuckles.
“It isn’t? I thought it was.” She walked out of the dining room laughing.
At dinner, Gino stood up holding his wine glass. “I’d like to propose a toast to my favourite mother-in-law. Buon compleanno Rosa.”
“Buon compleanno Rosa,” they all said in unison.
When they finished eating, Sofia asked,” Ok mamma, tell us which lasagna you enjoyed the most.”
“I liked both,” Rosa smiled at her daughters.
“Oh, come on, there must be one you preferred,” Sofia insisted.
‘Well, I thought the one in the white Pyrex had a wonderful flavour.”
“That’s mine!” Sofia said, clapping her hands.
Nighttime arrived at Rosa’s place. A gentle breeze played with Sofia’s hair as Gino caressed her neck. She closed her eyes and cocked her head, squeezing his hand against her shoulder.
“I’ve missed you, you know,” He grabbed her by the waist.
“I’ve missed you too, but be careful,” she added, looking over her shoulder.
“Are you going to talk to Francesco,” he asked.
“You know I will, but I need to find the right time. What about Chiara?” she said.
“I’ll talk to her soon,” he said, touching Sofia’s face.
Shortly after, Chiara entered the kitchen. Through the window, she saw them talking. She wondered why they were standing so close, and why their body language spoke of such familiarity.
Sofia looks so beautiful in that dress and she likes to flirt. But it’s all innocent, Gino loves her like a sister.
As days passed a wall of coldness grew larger between Gino and Chiara. He hardly even talked to her. A veil of sadness and emptiness surrounded Chiara’s life. She tried to fill that void by doing what she enjoyed; cooking.
Thinking that a new style of cooking would help distract from the misery of her life, Chiara decided to take cooking classes with Madame Dubois, an older Chef and owner of a renowned French restaurant. She was a small-framed woman, maybe in her early seventies. Cunning eyes and a soft smile were her main features.
With time Chiara and Madame Dubois became friends.
A full moon reigned in the sky when Chiara got home. The night was warm and enticing. She took a shower, wore a seductive nightgown and went to lie down beside Gino who was already in bed. She came closer and caressed his naked chest. He turned the television on.
“You don’t want to do that, do you?” her voice sounded low and sultry.
He moved away. “Yeah, I do.”
“What’s the matter?” She came even closer.
“I’m tired, that’s all,” he turned up the TV volume.
“We haven’t made love in a long time. Is anything wrong? Talk to me, please.”
Gino took her hand and gazed into her eyes.“Yeah, we need to talk.”
Her face turned pale and her breathing became laboured. This can’t be good.
“Let’s be honest, Chiara,” he said,.“We’re in a loveless marriage and it isn’t fair for you or me.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “But I love you, I do,” she said and pressed her lips tight.
“We could make things work, you know. Let’s give our marriage a chance. What about if we go to counselling?” she pleaded.
“Stop it. It won’t work. It’s too late for that.” He got up to light a cigarette.“We can’t keep going like this. I think I don’t love you anymore.”
Sharp pain on her chest made it hard to breathe.”What? she asked in disbelief.
“You heard me.”
A lump formed in her throat. She had to ask.“Are you in love with someone else?”
“No.” He stared down at his fisted hands, and Chiara knew he was lying.
The next morning Madame Dubois commented on Chiara’s puffy eyes and sad demeanour.
“How are you ma cherie?” she asked.
“Not great, not great at all.” A big sigh escaped Chiara’s mouth.
“If you need to talk I’m here. I’m a good listener.”
“Oh, Madame Dubois, you don’t want to know.”
“But I do, Cherie. Sometimes talking helps.”
“Ok, I’ll say it straight, My husband is having an affair.”
Madame Dubois' eyes widened. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am. I’ve found restaurant bills in his pockets. He locks himself in the bathroom to answer calls. I know he’s seeing someone,” said Chiara with a fluttering feeling in her belly. “A woman always knows,” she added.
“Yes, I agree, Cherie. I’ve been there.”
“You have?” Chiara asked in disbelief.
“A long time ago, back in France, my husband had a mistress. I confronted him and he hit me. I promised myself he’d never hurt me again or anyone else”
“What happened to your husband?” Chiara’s big brown eyes bulged.
“He died. A terrible accident,“ she said with a half-hearted shrug.
“How did it happen?”
“No one knew for sure. I made his lunch, he got quite sick, and the next day he was dead.” She gave Chiara an odd look and added,” Food is a giver but, sometimes is a taker.”
Learning french cuisine at Madame Dubois restaurant became more than a pastime for Chiara. She enjoyed the flavours, the aromas and the ambiance.
“Are you enjoying the classes, cherie”? Madame Dubois asked.
“I love them,” said Chiara.
“That’s good. You’re a gifted cook. Would you like to work for me?”
A silent Ooo escaped Chiara’s mouth. “That’d be a dream. But, I already have a job.”
“I know. But you could work for me for a couple of evenings and the occasional weekend.”
“Well, it sounds like a plan,” she embraced the old woman.
Chiara had been working at the restaurant for a couple of months. One day she saw Madame Dubois discarding a mysterious-looking package into the outside bin.
“What was that ?” Chiara asked her when Madame Dubois returned to the kitchen.
“I put a couple of rats in the bin.”
Chiara wrinkled her nose.
“We don’t have any in our restaurant. I know how to keep them away,” Madame Dubois said.
“What do you do?”
“I got a strong rat poison. It works wonders. It takes care of pestilent things.” Madame Dubois holds the rat poison and gives Chiara a knowing look.
“ I keep it over here,” she said, putting the small bottle with crossbones back in the cleaning supplies closet.
“Cherie, would you close the restaurant for me tonight? I have a Dr’s appointment and I don’t want to be late.”
“Sure. I’ll clean up first and then I’ll close. No problem.”
“Thanks. You’re sweet.”
Uncertainty settled in Chiara’s mind as she wandered about the woman Gino was seeing. Who was she? Was she younger than her? Was she beautiful?
Chiara needed to talk to someone. She phoned Sofia and invited her to have a coffee at her place.
“Hey, sis,” Chiara said when she opened the front door. She kissed Sofia on the cheek.
“Hey there, how’re you doing?” Sofia asked coldly.
“Not too well, really,” Chiara said while getting coffee ready.
“What’s the matter?” asked Sofia. A yawn escaped her mouth.
“It’s about Gino,” Chiara added timidly.
“What about him?”
“Things aren’t working between us. They haven’t for a while.” Chiara’s chin trembled.
“What do you mean?” Sofia rubbed the back of her neck.
“I think he’s seeing someone.”
Sofia’s heart skipped a beat. “Are you sure?”
“No, not a hundred percent.”
“Then, don’t worry about it. Why be concerned about something that maybe doesn’t exist? Her voice trying to sound convincing.
“But, he seems so distant, doesn’t wanna talk, doesn’t wanna touch me. I don’t think he loves me anymore.” Chiara’s voice broke.
“Come on Chiara, don’t be silly. We know guys are hard to understand. They live in their own world.” Sofia swatted the air.
“Is Francesco good to you?” Chiara asked candidly.
“Yeah, sure, he’s good. But, I’m not in love with him anymore. Sofia displayed a nonchalant shrug.
“I just don’t. Period.” She pressed her lips tight.
Sofia and Gino got to their favourite restaurant. After they ordered she looked at him earnestly. “We can’t keep going like this,” she said, shifting in her chair.
“Why are you so edgy?”
“I think Chiara suspects something.”
“Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. We don’t know for sure.”
Sofia stared at the window for a long moment.“This uncertainty is killing me.”
Gino caressed her hand. He gazed into her eyes.”Let’s enjoy our dinner, we’ll talk about this later.”
A big sigh escaped Sofia’s mouth. She gave a hesitant nod.
The next time Chiara did the laundry, she found another bill inside Gino’s pants. This was the third one.
I think he leaves them on purpose. What a coward, he doesn’t have the balls to tell me the truth.
She asked herself the same questions over and over again. Why? Where did I go wrong? Why can’t he be honest with me?
The noise of the garage door closing interrupted her reverie.
Gino slammed the kitchen door. “Traffic was a fucking nightmare.” He threw his tool belt to the floor with a loud thud.
He’s in a foul mood, but we have to talk anyway.
After dinner, he sat on the porch to have a beer.
As determined as she pretended to be, Chiara said, “Gino, we need to talk.”
“Could I have a frigging beer in peace, if you don’t mind?”
“I need you to tell me about this!” she shouted, waving the bill in the air.
“Are you snooping around my shit?”
“I found this in your pants when doing the laundry.”
“It’s a restaurant bill, obviously.”
“ Well, tell me, who did you go with?”
“ I took a client to close a deal. Do I have to explain to you my every move?”
He smashed the beer bottle against the wall, grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the floor. ”Leave me alone, bitch,” he barked.
Trembling Chiara stood up. Containing her rage, she demanded,“ I know you’re seeing someone, tell me the truth. Who is she, bastard!”
“You want to know, you want to know her name?” his eyes bulging with fury. “It’s Sofia. There, now you know.”
Time stopped tickling and a feeling of betrayal overcame Chiara’s entire body. Her scream of rage filled the entire house, following Gino as he headed to the garage.
The next day Chiara went to her work at the restaurant. Her ashen face, reddened eyes, and hunched shoulders alerted Madame Dubois.
“What happened to you, Cherie? You look terrible.”
Chiara slumped on a chair and stared at the floor for a long while. Then, she added.” It’s about my husband.”
Madame Dubois grimaced.”Tell me.”
Chiara breathed deeply and said the words.” He’s having an affair with my sister.”
Madame Dubois turned away for a moment. Gaining composure she said, “I’ve heard that before. It doesn’t make it less hideous.”
“How could I keep living?” Chiara asked, holding a sob.
“You’ll find the way, cherie. Believe me, whatever happens in our lives, we always do.”
Chiara chopped peppers, tomatoes and herbs. She inhaled, savouring the rich aroma. What a feast for the senses.
Squaring her shoulders, she said,” It’s time to take the reins of my life.” A sly smirk illuminated her face. “Sofia is coming over for dinner. I’ve prepared a flavourful dish for her and Gino.”
While humming an old Tarantella, she added a sprinkle of a special ingredient from a small bottle.
“As Nonna Giulia used to say, the secret is in the sauce.”