I have it all laid out on the counter: minced beef, an onion, two cloves of garlic, cans of kidney beans and tomatoes. The cookbook is open in front of me: “Easy Student Eats”. Not a glamorous title, but the recipes are pretty good, especially for someone like me who isn’t much of a cook. The author, a boy with spiky hair who looks about fourteen, smiles obnoxiously from the cover. Darren Fielding, junior celebrity chef. Much as I hate his smarmy face, I appreciate his easy-to-follow recipes. Mum and Dad are away and the house is mine for the weekend. It’s only four pm and Carla’s not supposed to arrive until seven, but I want to get a head start on the meal and have time to shower. I’m making Chilli Con Carne, from the cringingly-entitled chapter “Impress the Girls”. I’ll have to hide the book before she arrives, so she doesn’t think I’m completely pathetic.
“This simple dish is oozing with banging flavour, a guaranteed winner when it comes to the ladies!” Darren states, before launching into the recipe. “Peel and finely shop the onion” is the first instruction. Onion. Ok, cool. I can do that. I start to pull off the crisp outer layers, and my mind wanders back to last Friday, the night we met.
“See anyone you like?” asked Connor, sneaking up to where I was hovering beside the back door, awkwardly clutching a can of Heineken. A gaggle of Connor’s Arts friends were clustered around the patio table, smoking rolled-up cigarettes and drinking from cans, bottles, glasses, someone was even sipping red wine from a Homer Simpson mug. Three girls sat apart on the garden bench, heads together, whispering and giggling. They all had interesting clothes and interesting hair and interesting make-up, a far cry from my straight-laced, sporty physiotherapy classmates.
“Emm… I mean they all seem nice,” I responded lamely.
“I mean any girls, dumbass,” he clarified.
I hadn’t joined in on any of Connor’s class nights out for this very reason: his insatiable desire to Set Me Up With Someone. But given I live just across the road, I had no reasonable excuse to get out of this party.
I sipped my tepid beer and didn’t reply. I only started drinking six months ago after I turned eighteen, and I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it. Honestly, I don’t get what all the fuss is about.
“I think you’d like Deirdre,” he speculated. “She’s in History and Politics. She’s not as… intensely artsy as the others.”
“Right.” I felt slightly offended at his assumption that I’d rather date someone boring.
Then She arrived. The patio door slid open, the light spilling from the kitchen onto the flagstones. And with it came a girl: a little short, a little curvy, not like the lean, muscled girls in my physio course. She had dyed-white-blonde hair and a black choker necklace and her eyeliner formed little catlike points at the corners of her eyes. She wore a long, purple, fake-fur coat over a tight black dress, with silver Doc Martens. She was perfect.
“Who’s that?” I half-whispered and half-croaked.
“That? Christ. That’s Carla.”
“What do you mean, Christ? What’s wrong with her? She’s really pretty.” I watched as she approached the Bench Girls, who squeezed up to make room for her.
“Oh my god, Miriam, it’s been sooo long!” her voice trilled out. It was high and sweet, like a bird, or maybe an angel.
“I mean… there’s nothing WRONG with her…” Connor sounded doubtful. “She’s just a bit of a dope.”
“Then why did you invite her?”
“She’s in my class, duh. You have to invite everyone to these things. I mean she’s fine, in small doses.”
“I think she looks amazing.”
“Looks aren’t everything, my friend,” responded Connor sagely, sipping his Corona. I hate when he acts all patronising. We’ve known each other since we were five and his family moved in across the road. We went to the same primary school and secondary school, and spent our weekends together, riding bikes, playing video games, watching Family Guy and South Park. University is the first time we’ve been apart: he went off to Trinity to study Philosophy and English, whereas I ended up doing something more practical: Physiotherapy, in UCD. Within a month, he started wearing waistcoats, growing out his stubble and listening to The Velvet Underground, while I found myself spending every free hour in the library, memorizing the bones and muscles of the human body for our bi-weekly multiple choice exams. Yes, I’m jealous: jealous of his six hours of lectures a week, the seemingly endless nights out and parties, the pretty, interesting girls. Sure, maybe I’ll find it easier to get a job in four years’ time, but that’s small comfort right now.
I’m finished chopping the onion and my eyes are streaming. I open the kitchen window, wash my hands thoroughly, then rub my eyes vigorously with some paper towel. Time for the garlic. I prise off the fibrous shell and cram the little fat white bulb into the crusher, squeezing it tight, oozing garlicky gloop onto the chopping board. I consult Darren for the next step.
“Cut the pepper into bite-sized chunks,” he orders. Ok. I can do this. I clumsily slice open the pepper and prise out the white mass of seeds, dissecting out the dry white bits until only the juicy red flesh remains. I carefully dice it into square pieces, trying to keep them even. I hope she likes spicy food. She seems like the type who would.
“Well. If you want an introduction, I can do that. But don’t come crying to me if it’s not happily ever after.”
Connor takes my elbow and steers me towards the bench.
“Ladies! This is Cillian, a budding physiotherapist, who has not yet had the pleasure of meeting my illustrious classmates.”
They all turned in unison to look up at us.
“Hi,” I said nonchalantly, trying not to stare too hard at Carla, who was clutching a tall glass containing the dregs of what looked like Coke.
“Hi.” “Hey.” “Hello.” The three non-Carlas echoed, then immediately ignored us to continue their chat. But Carla’s eyes met mine. I swallowed hard.
“How do you know Connor?” she asked. She sounded so… interested.
“We’ve known each other since we were about five. Went to school together.” I fell silent. Small talk isn’t my strong suit.
“Oh cool. So you must have some embarrassing childhood photos? I’ll need to get them off you sometime.” Did she actually flutter her eyelashes at me?
“Emm… Yeah, probably.”
“Do you want to come inside? I need another drink.” She downed the liquid in her glass and clambered unsteadily, off her friends’ knee. “I stopped by a 21st before this, hence I’m already a little on the tipsy side…” she linked her arm with mine. “To the kitchen!”
I obediently walked her indoors, where a selection of hipsters were dotted around in twos and threes, leaning on the counter, lolling on the kitchen chairs, drinking and laughing. Connor’s parents were out, and Connor had the living room and bedrooms cordoned off, only allowing guests access the garden, kitchen and bathroom. He played the role of devil-may-care bohemian well, but he was being very careful not to let things get out of control. Understandable, given that his mum is not the kind of woman who’d react well to getting her house trashed.
Carla swung open the fridge with her bright-red-painted nails, and pulled out a bottle of Absolut vodka.
“What some? Or are you sticking to beer like a sensible boy?” Her voice was challenging.
“Ehh… If there’s some going, I’ll take it.”
“Awesome. I have diet coke, if that’s ok?“
“Diet coke is fine,” I said, even though I usually avoid consuming artificial sweeteners.
She checked the kitchen cupboard for glasses, but it was empty.
“This will do…” she muttered, grabbing a nearly-empty glass containing something orange off the counter and rinsing it out. She half-filled both our glasses with vodka, then topped them up with coke. I suddenly felt nervous.
“Cheers!” she smiled at me, our eyes meeting again. I clinked my glass against hers.
“Add a big splash of vegetable oil to the pan and turn up the heat until it’s sizzling. Toss in the garlic and onion, give them a stir, then let them soften.” Things are getting complicated.
I carefully turn on the gas hob, then add oil and wait a few minutes. It must be hot by now. I throw in the garlic and onion. It just sits there sadly, bathed in cold oil. I sigh. After a while, a quiet sizzling sound emanates from the pan and I return to Darren.
“Chuck in a good teaspoon each of cumin, cayenne pepper, chilli powder and paprika.”
Crap. I had forgotten the spices. I kneel down, opening the cupboards and rummaging through the little jars of herbs and spices, cursing myself. I find paprika and cayenne pepper, but can’t see any cumin, so I go for garam masala instead. They’re pretty much the same thing. And there’s no chilli powder. How can I make chilli without chilli powder? I’ll just double the cayenne pepper. They’re also pretty much the same thing.
I smell smoke. Shoot. The garlic and onion. I stand up (cracking my head on an open cupboard door in the process) to find the garlic a little blackened, but the onion looks ok. I take deep breath and stir the pungent vegetables, turning down the heat. This isn’t going so well. I add the spices, hoping it’ll mask the taste of burning.
“Once the onion and garlic are soft and fragrant, throw in the pepper and cook for three minutes. Then add the mince and fry until brown,” Darren commands.
I’m not sure about fragrant, but I add the pepper, then the mince. Please don’t mess this up, I beg myself.
We returned to the garden, glasses of vodka in our hands.
“So. You need to tell me all about yourself. I’m so BORED of just hanging out with Trinity arts students.”
“Eh… Sure. You want to sit down?”
“Good idea.” She winked conspiratorially. The Bench Girls had retreated inside so we commandeered the metal seat, the cold bars digging into my ass. Carla sat close to me, very close in fact, touching her knee against mine.
“Physiotherapy must be SO interesting,” she said. I tried a mouthful of vodka, trying not to wince at the paint-stripper taste .
“Yeah. It is, I guess. It’s what I always wanted to do. I’m really into biology and fitness. I’m on the UCD rowing team.” I usually avoid telling people this, as it immediately makes me sounds like a tosser, but Carla seemed impressed.
“Oh wow. Rowing is intense. Do you think you’ll go pro?”
“Highly doubt it. I’m not good enough. Hence the physiotherapy.”
“That’s cool though. And it explains why you look so… fit.” Her knee was pressing distractingly against mine.
“What about you? What do you study?”
“English and Classics. Typical bullshit arts degree.” She laughed lightly.
“I wouldn’t say that. I really liked English in school. And I’m really into Greek and Roman mythology.” I wasn’t just saying that to impress her. I had read the Odyssey and the Iliad when I was a teenager, just for fun.
“Yeah, I love mythology. It’s just all the boring Roman politics and architecture and military stuff I’m not interested in. So boring.” She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I can imagine.“ I actually thought it all sounded pretty interesting. I gulped another mouthful of vodka.
“Do you live around here?”
“Yeah, not too far. Dalkey, just past the station.” Holy crap. The houses up there are massive, huge Victorian mansions with big lawns and driveways. Her folks must be loaded.
“So you’re telling me you’re super-rich?”
I felt awkward as soon as I’d said it. It was rude to talk about money, according to my mum. But I was feeling a little light-headed and woozy, and my mouth seemed a little disconnected from my body.
“I guess so. Money doesn’t buy you happiness though!”
“Are you not happy?”
“I’m pretty happy. Here with you.”
Then she kissed me. Her mouth tasted like vodka and her tongue quickly worked its way inside my mouth. My experience in the kissing-girls department was limited but I waved my tongue around in response as best as I could, slipping my arm around her waist, feeling her warm body shuffle closer to me, her hand stroking my knee. The voices from the table next to us sounded far, far away. She was so soft and warm, and under the vodka she smelled like perfume and shampoo and her lipgloss tasted like berries. I hoped the kiss would never end.
“Once the mince is sizzling nicely, add the kidney beans and chopped tomatoes.” Darren interrupts my reverie.
I go to open the can of beans, then realise there’s no ring-pull, so I rummage through the drawer for the can opener, cutting my thumb on a potato peeler. I curse and suck my thumb for a few seconds before opening the can, still bleeding. I chuck the beans into the pot without remembering to drain them, curse again, then add the tomatoes (there‘s a ring pull on the can, thankfully). I pause in my culinary efforts to acquire a plaster from mum’s first aid box, the consult Darren again.
“Leave to simmer for about minutes” he instructs. I set a timer on my phone. It’s only five pm. Still two hours until she arrives.
The kiss didn’t last forever, but it was a pretty good twenty minutes. Carla pulled away eventually, breathing heavily. “Do you want to go inside? I’m getting cold.”
I didn’t really, but I wasn’t going to object. “Sure.” I stood up, dizziness surging though me, and followed Carla unsteadily into the unpleasantly bright kitchen, which was emptier than it had been. Only a handful of guests were left, two Bench Girls and a tall, skinny guy in a David Bowie t-shirt who glared at us as we entered. Connor was emptying the dregs from bottles and cans down the sink.
“Having a good night?” Bowie t-shirt asked Carla, pointedly ignoring me.
“Very good, thanks.” They seemed to know each other.
“Wish I could say the same… Connor, I’m going to head. Thanks man.” Bowie T-shirt exited, closing the door behind him a little too loudly.
Carla sighed. “Sorry. That’s Tristan. An ex of mine. He’s a tad possessive.”
“Oh god.” I was horrorstruck. “I didn’t know…”
“It’s fine, God. It’s a free country and I’m single...”
She was right, I supposed, but I still felt embarrassed, and woozy, and a bit sick.
“Is the party over?” I asked Connor. It was two am, according to the kitchen clock.
“Most people have headed off. I’d let you crash but you live about 20 metres away…”
“So there’s no chance of me and Cillian snuggling up together somewhere..?” I could feel Carla’s hand slipping into my back pocket, but Bowie t-shirt had left me feeling awkward.
“Nah, sorry Carla. My folks are home in the morning. I said I’d keep riff-raff likes you out of any room with a carpet.”
She sighed theatrically. “Such a spoilsport. I shall be off in that case.” My heart sank.
“How are you getting there?” I could offer to walk her home, I realised. She lived pretty close by.
“I’ll get an Uber”. She pulled out her phone and her fingers skipped over the bright screen.
“Emmm… Can I get your number? Maybe we could meet up again… If you want, like.”
“Of course! Sounds good!” She punched her number into my phone, put her arms around me and gave me a peck on the lips as the lights of the Uber shone through the little window next to the hall door. “Catch you later!” Then in the blink of an eye, she was gone.
I wandered back into the kitchen.
“Do you want a hand cleaning up, man?”
“Nah, it’s under control.” He opened the dishwasher and started to stack it with empty glasses. “Carla though? Seriously?”
“What? She’s really cool. And… hot.” I felt myself blush.
“No, she’s the archetypal spoilt little rich girl.”
I glare at him. “Can you not just be happy for me?”
He sighed. “I’m sorry dude. Don’t get your hopes up is all.”
“When the chilli is finished cooking, sprinkle a handful of fresh coriander on top.” Darren’s final command. I had a handful of coriander leaves ready, plucked from mum’s little herb garden. I think it’s coriander anyway, though it could well be parsley. Anyway. I use a scissors to chop the leaves into tiny pieces that alight on top of the chilli like green confetti. It actually looks... edible.
My phone buzzes and Carla’s name appears on the screen. I inhale sharply. We had exchanged messages all week. Well, on Saturday after the party, and on Wednesday when she had agreed to come over for dinner. I open the message.
“Heya! I’m sooo sorry but I’m not gonna make it tonight, still hanging after last night so gonna stay in with the girlies tonight. Let’s catch up soon tho! Xxx”
I stare at the vat of beautiful chilli in mum’s best pot, her big blue glazed one. So much for that. I start to reply to the message, but stop and call Connor instead.
“Hey man.” He sounds cautious. “How’s date night going?”
“Oh, no way!” he calls Carla some names which I think are a little unnecessary, even given the circumstances.
“Are you free to come over?”
“I have about ten litres of chilli here. Homemade. Fresh coriander on top.”
“This is tempting.”
“We could play Halo after?”
“It’s a date.”