What You Would Do for an Audience

Submitted into Contest #190 in response to: Write about someone who decides to make their own version of something old.... view prompt

9 comments

Fiction Drama

Painfully nostalgic paradise presses in on you from all sides; with the same thoughtless repetition as the waves, you ask why you’d even take the time to come here without her. The Jamaican sun beams from its high perch, warmly penetrating your skin that you know is in need of sun; the teal waves lap at your feet, cooling them with refreshing playfulness; the air is thick with the smell of salt, a beach hallmark you’ve long craved. But everything could just as well be a monotone, texture-absent gray. Your eyes—no, your whole body—remain cold. The last time you were here keeps replaying in your mind, memories of her still vivid after all this time.

You’ve been sitting here for hours, now. People have crowded around you, propping up the umbrellas that remind you of her for no reason, sickeningly cheerful monuments to your heartache. All you can do is stare out at the water in neverending mourning. Not just mourning, though: aged shock, longing. She would point out how melodramatic you’re being, how closed-minded, obsessive you are. She would laugh. And when she laughed, joy far greater than any Jamaican sun would shine through her eyes, a sound far greater than the crash of any Jamaican wave would pour out of her mouth. She was intoxicating. 

The pungent smell of frying fish—salmon, maybe—awakes you from your reverie, wafting with it memories of your fated affair with the art of cooking itself. The staff here certainly know how to cook; it smells delicious. But its mouthwatering quality has the opposite effect on you now. You want to gag because of the sheer pain the smell conjures—you’d been so happy the first time you cooked salmon with her. Happiness seems completely alien to you now, but you used to bask in it.

The resort has changed a lot since last time: the kiddie pool, the waterslide, the now-blue canopies. It feels so much more… fake, inauthentic. Pandering. A festival of superficialism, starkly contrasting your bitter, raw feelings.

You’ve always hated these resorts, always felt like a horrible person for having these overworked people wait on you around the clock. But she didn’t; she loved things like this. She was nice to the staff, didn’t just sympathize with them. Last time, she kept trying to coax you out of your tortoise shell of guilt to get you to appreciate it all. And she was good at persuading—you fell for her coaxing because you’d fallen for her.

Last time, the third night was the best one. It’s still etched in your mind with the impressionistic skill of Rembrandt. She went out to the beach and sat on the shore with you, both your arms around her shoulders. The frothy white fringes of the ocean crept up and down the beach, almost touching your entangled feet. Tiki torches were lit along the shoreline: small, orange, flickering imitations of the shimmering moon. You could feel her breathing against your chest, her hair cascading over your shoulder. You kissed her head and buried your nose into it.

You sat there forever. And every second of that eternity was worthwhile, because it was with her.

That moment was the most intimacy you’ve ever felt, you realize. The absolute majesty of the night made you both feel so insignificant that you were pushed, no, forced into each other. She was the only person you could turn to in that moment, but also the only person you wanted to turn to. The gentle forces of nature powerfully converged on you, echoing and accepting your love.

After that night, it was a honeymoon all over again. You weren’t young, but you were infatuated with her, and she with you. You were able to throw all your guilt down onto the floor of your room for housekeeping to take care of. The only thing that mattered was her and what she wanted, because what she wanted was pure, noble, good. 

When you came back from that first trip, you began to cook together. It was something an article in the hotel magazine pointed out: cooking together brings a couple together. And all you wanted was to be closer to each other, and cooking sounded fun, so you did it. The first dish you made was braised salmon that turned out blackened, overseasoned—bad. But the food didn’t matter back then.

It was perfect, really, cooking with her. The privilege of retrospect has shown how much you really loved it.

Then the food began to matter. You realized you liked cooking; cooking with her stopped mattering as much. The crisp of a freshly chopped bell pepper, the mouthwatering sound of a searing steak, the taste of perfectly married flavors. And it was a revelation, because you’d never enjoyed anything very much before. You’d always told people that your stance on life was universally ambivalent, but now you had something to be passionate about. It was nice to be committed to something new, something vibrant. It was nice to feel like an artist. You began to cook even if she couldn’t. You began to spend all your free time finding recipes, in the kitchen, looking for other people who liked food as much as you did. You began to lecture her for doing things wrong. 

There was no money or time to pay for culinary school, so you taught yourself. Souffles, tartares, even basic salads, had to be mastered. She watched, applauded you. She enjoyed your food, always complimented it. Even if it wasn’t good. She would come up and hug you from behind while you cooked.

15 recipes later, you were churning out dishes that branded you as a prodigy among the fellow cooks you’d recently gotten acquainted with. 

The way you work with spices is breathtaking. I really think this is one of the best soups I’ve had. You’re actually good at this. Really good. I wish I could cook as well as you.

They began to come to your house more; you began to cook for them and they for you. You discovered two things you had never had an abundance of: friends and applause. They wanted and supported and loved you. And their cheering, their applause, their attention, forced you to commit to the art of food. You stayed up late every night, perfecting recipes.

You were falling in love again, but this time, not with her. 

She didn’t like that you had become such a food aficionado. She wanted you to take time to spend on other things, to not be obsessed with what she called the “appetizing idol of cooking,” always laughing at her metaphors. You didn’t laugh, though. You couldn’t believe that she’d stopped being supportive. 

She would still come up to hug you, but you began to resent those hugs. They only slowed you down.

You began to push her away.

Your back faced hers when you lay down to sleep. Tension saturated the air. Her inability to show any feeling or praise frustrated you. At least you had your fellow chefs.

One day, they suggested you open a restaurant. You hadn’t thought about that before. You decided to do it. You announced it to her as she walked through the door that night, documents covering the kitchen table. It wasn’t going to be that big of a deal, just a financial restructuring. Nothing she should be worried about.

You expected applause, joy, compliments on how bold and daring and experimental you were. But she looked at you with sad, almost-watering eyes, and slowly walked to your room. She didn’t say anything. 

That was insane of her. Rage was barely detectable in your normally-placid eyes. Didn’t she know that you needed support? Wasn’t she aware that this was a big decision?

“Yes, it’s just that I—I want to be a part of your big decisions.” She sat down on the bed.

How unfeeling! It was your decision, your life, your money. You let her know all these things. 

She sniffled, tears trickled down her cheeks. She just stared at the wall for a while. Then, started packing her suitcase. She hadn’t told you about any trip she was going on, which made you resent her more. Out of spite, you didn’t ask her about it. You went to the kitchen, began chopping celery for no reason. The knife quickly sliced through the crisp vegetable, and you could feel the tension flowing out of you. The chefs could understand you, at least.

She walked out of the door without saying goodbye. This made you even more mad, so you started chopping carrots. They took more strength, drained more stress. You chopped until you were out of carrots. Then leaned back on the counter, breath heavy. 

This is when you should’ve apologized. 

You never saw her again. But you didn’t mind, then. You had a life in front of you—she clearly didn’t. The only life she’d have would be one full of hate and disinterest and loathing. 

After loads of time and planning and hiring, the restaurant opened—you were so excited. All your friends were there. The seats were packed. Your heart raced as you started cooking up the first dishes. 

And people liked it. A lot. They kept coming back. You built a successful restaurant, one that people loved. And that, in and of itself, was enough.

But that was ten years ago. You didn’t think that cooking would ever grow old, but it became monotonous. The crowds you enjoyed early on waned. You had to be at the helm of the restaurant, couldn’t think of anyone else running it. But you were tired of it running, and had enough to retire. 

So you sold it. 

And now, looking back, you miss her. You don’t miss food. You want her back. You just want her to come up from behind, right now, and hug you. You’d hug her back, this time.

But this makes you upset. You haven’t devoted the last ten years of your life to her, and she hasn’t spoken to you for any of them. She doesn’t care about you anymore, and you don’t—can’t—care about her. If you cared about her, you would’ve talked to her before. This is just an extended phase of heartbreak. 

You love her, but you don’t want to love her. You want to love food.

You remember that first night of cooking, when you made the salmon. Even though it was bad, you enjoyed it. You realize how much greater that salmon could be now, in your expert, seasoned hands. Maybe recreating that salmon, remaking that first dish, could revitalize your love for cooking itself. 

You decide that it’s worth a shot. So you get up from your rock, walk underneath the already-forgotten Jamaican sun, across the already-forgotten Jamaican sand, pack up your belongings, and head home to your kitchen. 

You pull out the salmon, begin dicing celery and tomatoes and carrots and onions, invite your friends over for dinner. You wait for the spark you felt originally, but it doesn’t matter if it comes or not. You’ve spent the last ten years cooking; even if you have to torture yourself to love it, you will.

March 24, 2023 16:16

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9 comments

Michał Przywara
01:16 Mar 27, 2023

There's something deeply dysfunctional about that relationship, but I guess we learn as much about the protagonist: he was never really happy about anything in his life, until cooking. We might say his obsessive behaviour was extreme, and was what lead to the death of the relationship, but in his mind, the food was such a triumph for him he truly suffered at her apparent lack of support. Perhaps he simply had no idea how to communicate this - and considering the end, perhaps on some level he didn't want to communicate it. The crowds and frie...

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Nathaniel Miller
02:05 Mar 27, 2023

Thanks, Michal! Yes, I think this protagonist just hadn’t stumbled upon anything he was passionate about; finding that he actually cared about cooking was overwhelming for him; the applause he found was the icing on the cake. And it all prompted him to rashly pursue what he wanted over anything else. Thanks for the pointer—I’d wanted to create a sense of mystery around why she left, how he screwed up the relationship, but the melancholic imagery very well might impede that. Will keep in mind in further revisions. I don’t think he would’v...

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Michał Przywara
03:16 Mar 27, 2023

Ah, fair, that works too :) The idea that people change and grow with you is a good point, particularly with mutual love. And then the story underscores this, where he started growing without her. So the ending is sad, but not entirely hopeless. Over the past decade he's learned a (painful) lesson, and maybe he'll be able to do something with it in the future. Maybe not.

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Viga Boland
00:25 Mar 27, 2023

This is an impressive interpretation of what happens in so many relationships as the initial flames of love for some one else slowly become secondary to what is always our primary love: ourselves. A most unusual story told with skill and feeling. Your vivid descriptions of Jamaica evoked long forgotten memories of my own time there and on other Caribbean islands…the enchantment, the sun, the waves. You brought it all back, Nathaniel. Thanks for writing this.

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Nathaniel Miller
01:50 Mar 27, 2023

Thanks so much for the read and comment, Viga! Yes, very much an exploration of the personal dream/passion dilemma that seems to saturate today’s media. And I tried to make it as vivid as possible… so glad to see it paid off. Thanks again; really enjoyed your story this week, too :)

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16:35 Mar 25, 2023

Hello Nathaniel, what an interesting love triangle- the MC, the unnamed lost love, and food. This is so rich in sensory detail, I found it a very satisfying read. I love the progression of the reminiscing and the stoic conclusion.

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Nathaniel Miller
01:47 Mar 27, 2023

Thanks so much for the read and comment, Cecilia! Really appreciate it :)

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Zack Powell
03:00 Mar 27, 2023

It's nice to see another story from you, Nathaniel. And one written in second-person POV, no less. (It's a guilty pleasure of mine, and I'm always interested in seeing how other writers wield it.) First: Love the title. One of those ones that where you can't easily predict where the story's going to go, and I like that. Second: I like the one- and two-sentence paragraphs. There are a lot of longer paragraphs in this story, which is absolutely fine, so when the smaller paragraphs showed up, it made me pay closer attention. I think you timed ...

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Nathaniel Miller
01:54 Mar 28, 2023

Thanks so much for the kind comment, Zack :) This was a really fun one to write; so happy those elements of the story worked for you. You and Michal were definitely right about the late introduction of cooking... I've revised the first few paragraphs or so to introduce it much earlier on. Crossing my fingers it works better. Thanks again so much for the thoughtful comment and critique!

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