THIS IS A WORK OF ORIGINAL FICTION
It will be serialized over the next several days…the ending will be marked in the classic styling…
Joy Cooper sprinkled fresh chopped cilantro over the fish tacos she’d prepared, and readied to serve them to her clients. She considered herself blessed to be making it as a freelance personal chef. Her amateur website and word-of-mouth advertising weren’t making her wealthy, and she’d never have her own show on Food Network, but she didn’t really desire those things anyway…definitely not the TV show. She lived comfortably on her own, doing something she loved, and that was enough. She preferred to cook in the classic French style she’d been trained in at culinary school, or using the bold flavors of international cuisine, unbridled by a rigid structure, but she accepted the majority of her business came from how customer-conscious she was about medical food sensitivity and religious diet restriction. These shellfish-and-dairy-free tacos for the man nervously working up to a proposal to his allergy-ridden girlfriend made her smile, despite the forced menu limitation. Perhaps the best part of her job was vicariously living out so much celebration through her clients’ special occasions. She’d witnessed countless birthdays and anniversaries. This was her nineteenth proposal in the six years since she’d moved from working her tail off in some hot, restaurant kitchen to working for herself in private homes.
Her friends and family (especially her mother) worried about her going alone to strangers’ homes, but she never felt unsafe. In fact, while she found it impossible to explain to her loved ones, she felt more at ease in her current work than she ever felt in the hostile, unforgiving environment of restaurant culture, and less alone than she did when she had no event to prepare for. While she definitively enjoyed sharing in the major life events she catered, sometimes she tasted the bitterness that came from not having any of those major events occurring in her own life. Being the silent assist on so many milestones meant she was unavailable for nearly all of her generation’s customary ways to meet. She couldn’t go out on Friday or Saturday nights; she was inevitably working, being someone else’s unsung hero for friendship, familial, or (most bittersweet, by far) romantic triumph.
She picked up the meticulously garnished dishes to unobtrusively serve them, and instinctively observed the people she laid dinner before: him, filled with apprehensive, frantic energy…her, blushing, and trying not to let her hopes build, in case the happy ending she now expected didn’t actually happen. Joy retired to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the peanut-free, tree nut-free, still-no-dairy dessert she’d made, and after serving them, kept her eyes raised and her ears tuned, looking and listening over the raised bar separating the kitchen from the dining room to harmlessly eavesdrop.
“Julienne…whew. Um…wow…I thought this would be…easier to just…say…”
“Just say it,” Julienne said, eager and encouraging.
“I love you. And I want to spend the rest of my life loving you. Will you marry me?”
“Omigod, Steve! Yes!!” she squealed, beginning to cry into the partially eaten pear tart on her plate.
“Were you surprised?!” he excitedly asked, after kneeling beside her seat to kiss her and slide the traditional ring down her finger. He was unabashedly seeking another emphatic, ‘Yes!’
“Not really,” she giggled, still wiping away involuntary tears of elation.
“Babe, you hired a chef to make this amazing meal, and I know you had to detail all the ingredients I couldn’t have, and…well, it wasn’t hard to figure out you were up to something,” she teased. He hung his head, patently disappointed, thinking his attempt at romance failed, so she corrected his faulty assumption. “So glad this was what you were up to, though. I love you. You take such careful care of me. I can’t wait to be your wife.”
Joy blinked back tears as she turned away from them embracing one another, and cleaned up everything but the dessert plates and silverware she left on the candlelit table in front of them. Shegrabbed the check made out to her business, fastened to the refrigerator by a photo magnet holding a shot of them she assumed was taken in Miami, Florida. She couldn’t see beach or ocean or landmark, only an extreme close up of them unabashedly smiling, but the frame, shaped like a neon orange flip flop, was plainly marked ‘Miami South Beach.’ She offered the sunkissed faces in the photograph a doleful smile in return, and stealthily left the happy couple to enjoy the rest of the night alone in each others’ arms. She felt mildly lauded at the words ‘amazing meal,’ but saddened as she once again drove herself home to an empty apartment, with no one there to brag to about another satisfied customer.
“My parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary is in two months, and I’ve got no ideas. You know Dad. He won’t…can’t do a big party, which he kinda hates, but… I was still in school for their twenty-fifth, and thirty already got away from me, and I can tell my mom’s feelings are gonna be a little hurt if I don’t make a big deal outta this year. Hard to make a big deal with Dad though. It’d be easier to just throw a big party, but…shit.” Martin Reese vented over the phone to his best friend as his lunch break wound down.
“Ask Ariana and Gabe to help you.”
“The younger siblings are flakes, Steve. You’re my best friend and you know this. You’re who I have to count on. You can count on me. I was your Best Man…c’mon. Best Best Man ever, am I right?”
“Would be tough to beat the luxury box at that Colts game in Indy and the casino VIP treatment, and…you’re right, Marty. You did that shit for me this year, you better show up for your folks. But your dad’s so…not into ‘big’…tough.”
“Right? So, help a brother out.”
“You know what? You should call that chef I hired when I asked Juls to marry me. That’s perfect. It’s special. It’s effort. But your dad won’t have to go out in a crowd or anything. She comes to you. And she’s amazing! She made stuff for us…I didn’t even miss the cheese on the tacos. For real. If I could afford her, I’d ask her back to cook for us every day.”
“Wow. Yeah. I’ll get ’em that…make Gabe and Ari show up for a family photo for my mom. That’ll work…”
The following day, Marty drummed his fingertips on his desk and stared at his computer monitor, clicking through endless pictures of mouth-watering food while he waited on either a human or a machine to answer his call. The online photos were making him hungry, despite it being immediately after he’d finished lunch. When a woman picked up, he snapped to attention and took his office phone off of ‘speaker.’
“Touring Table. This is Joy. How can I help you today?”
“My buddy Steve recommended you. I’m planning a special dinner for my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.”
“That’s sweet. But I’m not really equipped to cater a big event. Touring Table is just me. I’m marketing. I’m administration. I’m the chef. I’m the waitstaff. I’m the busser…”
“It’s just my folks and my brother and sister and I. We aren’t even bringing dates. So…party of five. Too big?”
“No! That’s perfect. Just…usually major anniversary dinner that a kid is planning is a larger…”
“I can do any dietary restriction. No problem. High blood pressure? Diabetic? Celiac disease?”
“Social anxiety with severe agoraphobia.”
“Oh. That’s a new one,” she honestly stammered. “I didn’t know that…I’m not familiar with how to cook for someone with…”
“He doesn’t have any special diet,” Martin chuckled. “He just doesn’t like crowds. Or going out at all for that matter. So, y’know…big party’s not really his thing. But I still wanted to do something special for my mom, ’cause she’s not…she deserves a ‘big deal.’”
“Reese. But call me Marty. ‘Mr. Reese’ sounds like a high school principal in some 80’s teen movie.”
“Haha! ‘Marty’ is the lead in Back to the Future…”
“I’d rather drive the Delorean time machine than be the bald, temperamental killjoy.”
“Hahahahaha! Gotcha! What kind of menu were you thinking of, Marty?”
“You’re the expert there, Miss…”
“Cooper. But please call me Joy.”
“Okay, Joy. What do you suggest?”
“What’s your price range?”
“Under five thousand dollars.”
“That was serious. I spent about a grand on my best friend’s bachelor party this year. Love Steve-O, but these are my parents…”
“Understood,” she stated, plainly impressed. “You’re giving me virtually limitless finance with no ingredient elimination…really?!”
“Kinda. People usually call me because I…I don’t think in the six years I’ve been in business that’s ever happened before.”
“It’s usually, ‘Gimme gourmet food on a pauper’s budget.’ Or, ‘Classic French fare, but no butter.’ Or, ‘Thai, but spice gives my husband heartburn…’ Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy the challenge, but this freedom is…overwhelming, kind of. Thank you.”
“’Thank you’ is surprising?”
“Never actually had anyone thank me for my business before. And that one seemed…I dunno…extra sincere. So…yeah. Surprising.”
“I won’t let you or your folks down, Mr….I mean, Marty.”
“Let me know how to pay you.”
“It’s an unfortunately non-refundable check for groceries four days prior to the event…”
“Non-refundable is totally understandable there.”
“And then the balance for cooking and serving services at the event’s completion.”
“That’s more than fair. So I’ll owe you…whatever your receipts add up to by…week from Tuesday?”
“That’s perfect. I’ll be ready for you that next Saturday evening.”