“You’ve never heard of this? It’s really not exotic.”
“I’m not saying it’s exotic; I’m saying it’s disgusting.” Jess rolls her eyes at this and turns her back to me to tend to the sizzling grilled cheese sandwiches on the stove top. She presses them down with her spatula and holds it while the mayonnaise pops like static under the pressure.
Since she’s not paying attention to me, I take a moment to really look at her. In her pajama pants spattered in a rainbow of hearts and her tattered mewithoutYou shirt that’s dates back further than our friendship. It’s hard to imagine it packed up in a box somewhere, never to be worn again, but it’s even harder not to imagine it right now. Her black hair is thrown in a messy ponytail on top of her head, but thick strands have fallen out of the elastic overnight. I imagine it like silk slipping through my fingertips.
Her right hand is planted on her hip, her left patient with the spatula. If it were anyone else, I’d expect her to tap her toes, to use her free hand for a separate task or to anticipate the next step in the cooking process. But Jess is perfectly still, happy to wait. Willing to give herself fully to present, even if the present is just two grilled cheeses toasting slowly. Low and slow is the way to go is what she’d said when I complained that grilled cheese is supposed to be a quick and easy meal.
But I’m thankful for her meticulousness, for the chance to take her in without her noticing. Finally, she uses the edge of the spatula to lift one of the sandwiches and peeks at its underside. “Perfect,” she whispers, flicking off the knob beneath the stove top and spinning toward me with the frying pan in hand. Her face falls when she sees me.
“What?” she asks.
“What do you mean what?” I retort with a smile. I try to shake the tension out of my shoulders but I’m pretty sure the result is an unnatural nervous jig that calls attention to itself.
“You’re being weird,” she confirms, crossing her arms and withholding the frying pan.
“I’m just thinking about how, uh, interesting these sandwiches are going to be.”
“You promised me you wouldn’t be weird,” she reminds me.
“And I promise I’m not.” I hold my hands up in surrender. She studies me for a moment, her dark eyes flitting back and forth as if she’s reading a book. She sighs and sets the pan down on the butcher-block island top, the most bougie fixture in our apartment. I can’t deny it; the grilled cheeses look divine. Sure enough, the mayonnaise is unrecognizable, baked into a perfect golden crust on the outside of the bread. I reach in to grab one, but Jess catches me by the wrist.
“Those things are scorching. Don’t you know how to be patient?” she scolds as she uses the spatula to flip the sandwiches out of the pan and onto paper plates. The grease immediately soaks little shadows onto the plates. She slides one of the plates toward me and reminds me to “wait” in the tone of a mother whose toddler is too eager to cross the street.
“So what other weird ingredients are in this again?” I ask in my best attempt to act normal.
The truth is that I can’t stop playing the last couple of days over and over in my head, and we both know it. It all began Friday night, which started like any other Friday night. I’d turned down Jess’s weekly invite to some party and opted instead for my dad’s old sweatpants that I stole from his dresser over Christmas, a bottle of cheap Cab, and some microwave popcorn that made the whole apartment stink like fake butter, infuriating Jess. I’d just settled down to scroll through options on Netflix for the next half hour when she popped into the living room in her bath towel, steam and the unmistakable scent of unscented soap following her.
“Hey, can you come tell me if I’m going crazy?” she asked, and turned back toward the bathroom without waiting for my response. The bathroom was thick with fog, the window and mirror showing only mist and no reflections. Without hesitation, Jess dropped her towel down below her chest.
“Oh my God, Jess!” I said, turning away. “A little warning next time.”
She grabbed my hand and, before I could figure out what she was doing, she pulled it against the warm skin of her breast. You know how sometimes you don’t even realize how cold you feel until someone else’s warm skin touches yours?
“Jess, what are you—?” I felt myself flush—the deep red that starts in your neck and creeps up into your cheeks like wildfire. I was glad I couldn’t see myself in the mirror, and I only hoped she didn’t notice. Even though Jess and I had changed in front of each other several times, I’d never touched her in such an intimate way. I’d only just started to grapple with the idea that maybe someday I’d like to.
“Do you feel a lump there?” she asked, her eyebrows knitted in concentration as she guided my hand along the underside of her chest.
“What?” I asked again, my brain unable to catch up. I tried to pull my hand away, but she held it firm, palpating it deftly against her body as if it were her own limb. The little flame that ignited in me from touching her bare skin was immediately replaced with shame.
“There—do you feel that?” Her eyes met mine and waited.
There was no missing it. Just beneath her skin, a hard lump like a stone. “Oh my God, Jess!” I gasped, wrenching my hand away. “Did you just feel that for the first time?”
“I swear it wasn’t there when I showered a few days ago,” she said like she owed me some sort of explanation. “What do I do?”
I was used to her answering that question for me, not the other way around.
And now, in our little kitchen, I focus on questions about grilled cheese and push down the big ones.
“I shred the cheddar and mix it with the oil from the sundried tomato jar,” she tells me, not for the first time. “Everyone always dips grilled cheese in tomato soup because the tang of the tomato is such a complementary flavor, but soup’s not the only way to achieve that.” I nod as she explains, but she’s not buying it. “Oh my God, you are being weird. I can see it in your eyes. You’re not even here.”
“I’m here, I’m here!” I argue. “You shred the cheese and add the tomato oil and the tang and all that.”
Jess rolls her eyes. “I’m telling you, it’ll be the best grilled cheese you’ve ever eaten.”
I stare at the sandwich on my plate, willing myself to be present and patient. Jess sighs. “Just eat it. But don’t blame me if you burn your mouth.”
I pick up the grilled cheese and take a small bite from the corner, careful not to fully chew until I know I won’t be burned. It’s soft, warm, tangy, and rich.
“Well?” Jess asks.
“Hey, you told me not to give you any special treatment, so I’m not. It’s good!” I take a bigger second bite.
“It’s the best grilled cheese you’ve ever had, and you know it.” Jess takes her first bite.
The truth is, the more I eat, the heavier it sits in my stomach—all that bread, cheese, oil, and grease. But I can’t tell her the truth now. How will I ever tell her the truth?
I smile and reach across the island to squeeze her hand. “It’s really good, Jess. The best I’ve ever had.”