Let Them Eat Cake

The last recipe I’d like to share with you from our Hanukkah celebration is one that always popped up in church cookbooks.  Unfortunately, those old cookbooks are disappearing and no one seems to produce them anymore.  I held on to this recipe and tweaked it a little by using raw sugar in place of white and dark brown sugar instead of light brown.  The changes make for an even richer cake that still receives lots of praise.  Not to mention I love pulling out this old recipe to share with people who’ve never tasted it.

I made this cake to share at my writers group.  Even though a few ladies took two pieces, there was plenty left for my boys.  And then it was game on.  They ate it for breakfast with coffee, as a midday snack, and again after dinner.  I had to battle them to get a piece myself.  The only thing to do was make another which worked out for me as I needed one more blog post this week.

This easy, delicious cake would be great on Christmas morning while opening gifts or to have on hand for when friends stop by during the holidays.  The ‘everything mixed in one bowl’ batter and topping along with ingredients one almost always has on hand makes you look like a culinary genius when the guests taste that first bite.

Old-fashioned Oatmeal Cake

1 ¼ c boiling water

1 c oats

1 stick butter, unsalted

1 c sugar (I use raw)

1 c packed dark brown sugar

2 eggs

1 t vanilla

1 ½ c flour

½ t salt

1 t baking soda

1 ½ t cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Pour the boiling water over the oats and allow them to stand for 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the oats are cool.  Using a handheld mixer, cream the butter, both sugars, eggs, and vanilla.  Add the oats and mix thoroughly.  Sift the flour, salt, soda, and cinnamon.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and blend well.  Pour the batter into a 9 x 13 inch pan that has been greased or sprayed with cooking spray.  Bake at 350° for 35 to 40 minutes.  A knife inserted in the center should come out clean.

Five minutes before the oatmeal cake comes out, prepare the topping mixture.

Topping:

½ c dark brown sugar

½ stick of unsalted butter, softened

¼ heavy whipping cream (can substitute whole milk)

1 c chopped pecans or walnuts

½ c flaked coconut

½ t vanilla

Mix all ingredients together and spread carefully over the hot cake so as not to tear the surface.  Work with small dollops of topping.  Heat from the cake will melt the butter and sugar as you spread.

Enjoy!

Eat, Drink, and Wear Stretchy Pants

There’s nothing quite like a well-seasoned turkey coming to golden-brown perfection in my roaster to bring tears to my eyes.  The smell alone reminds me of my Grandmother Smith, God bless her, clomping around her kitchen (she was not the most graceful) tending to the Thanksgiving turkey and many side dishes in preparation for dinner.

I mentioned in another post (When Maturity Strikes) that our son, Joshua, earned his first  turkey at his first job.  My husband received a turkey from work for our Thanksgiving dinner, so Joshua willingly saved his for Hanukkah.  He quizzed me on my intended preparation including seasonings and made me promise him that it would turn out juicy.  Based on the way we ravaged the poor bird, I believe I achieved success.  Here’s the kicker:  I don’t have a single picture of this culinary masterpiece.

My recipe is classic, simple, and tasty.  I know deep frying, brine baths, and flavor injections are popular, but I chose to keep it teenager-friendly.  It was, after all, his turkey.

Joshua’s Thanksgiving Turkey

1 proudly earned turkey, approximately 23 pounds

1 stick unsalted butter, cold and cut into eight pieces

½ stick unsalted butter, softened

½ T parsley

½ T rubbed sage

½ T rosemary

½ T thyme

½ T sea salt

½ T black pepper

Paprika

2 lemons

3 – 6 cloves of garlic, peeled

2 cans chicken broth

I started with a fully defrosted turkey that I rinsed, trimmed, and patted dry.  You will not need the giblets, neck, liver, gizzard, or heart for this recipe.  I worked with the turkey breast side up in my roaster.

Mix all the seasonings except the paprika.  Dip the cold pats of butter into the seasoning mixture on both sides and gently shoved beneath the skin of the turkey.  Use your fingers to separate the skin from the meat enough to place the butter.  Two pats on each side of the breast for a total of four, and two beside each of the legs also totaling four.  You will not use all of the seasonings for this.

Rub the surface of the turkey with the softened butter.  Sprinkle the surface, taking care to get the legs and wings, with the remaining seasoning mixture.  Sprinkle lightly with paprika.  Cut the ends off the lemons and quarter them lengthwise.  Place all eight sections of lemon and the peeled garlic cloves in the cavity of the turkey.

Tuck the wing tips beneath the turkey so they don’t burn.  Add two cans of chicken broth to the roaster.  Do not pour them over the turkey, or the seasonings will be rinsed off.

How to Roast is a good guideline to follow, however, keep in mind there are slight differences between cooking in a roaster versus an oven.  My advice is to stay with your turkey if it’s your first time and also because you’ll want to baste it throughout the cooking process.  Once your turkey is cooked to golden-brown perfection, allow it to sit for ten minutes before serving and carving.

Enjoy!

**If you don’t have a half tablespoon measure, the equivalent is 1 1/2 teaspoons.

Oy Olé!

As we continue our Hanukkah celebration, I have to laugh because yet again the Gibson Household is experiencing What I Like About Being American.  By that I mean we enjoyed another, non-traditional yet delicious meal.  We love to include the best a culture has to offer, namely their food.

Mexican Family Skillet was invented a few days before I was due to grocery shop, and I needed to extend a pound of ground beef to feed and satisfy two hungry men as well as myself.  A little scrounging through my pantry shelves and spice cupboards, and a new dish was invented.

I don’t doubt that it’s a much Americanized version of Mexican cuisine, but the blending of cultures through food produces peace in a way that is often overlooked.  While it may sound too common to be served for a holiday, it still draws my family together over dinner, and that’s what really counts.

Mexican Family Skillet

1 lb. ground beef

6 green onions, the white and a small portion of the green, diced –OR– 1 small sweet onion, diced

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 can corn, drained and rinsed

1 can petit diced tomatoes, DO NOT DRAIN

1 T chili powder

¼ t garlic powder

¼ t onion powder

¼ t crushed red pepper flakes

¼ t oregano

½ t paprika

1 ½ t ground cumin

1 t sea salt

1 t black pepper

1 – 8 oz. block of cheddar, shredded

Sour cream, guacamole, chopped avocado, optional

Cook the ground beef in a skillet with the onions until the meat is no longer pink.  Drain the mixture thoroughly and return to the skillet.  Add the black beans, corn, and tomatoes with their juice.  Stir to mix.  Add the spices, stir, and heat through.

Serve the meat and vegetable mixture in tortillas.  Top with cheddar cheese.  Sour cream, guacamole, or chopped avocado is optional.

Enjoy!

The Meat of the Matter

Here at the Gibson Ranch, we like to step outside the corral of meat and potatoes to try a little something different.  For Hanukkah this year, we indulged in one of our favorites:  Lebanese meat pies.  They’re perfect as an appetizer, a side dish, or even a main dish.  It’s all a matter of perspective, what you’re serving them with, and how many you want to eat!

This easy recipe is a great introduction to Middle Eastern cooking.  I’m sure you’ll end up making it part of your holiday traditions, too.

Lebanese Meat Pies

2 lb. ground beef or ground lamb

¾ c pine nuts, toasted

2 large sweet onions, diced

Juice of 2 lemons

½ – 1 t sea salt

½ t black pepper

Hearty dashes of cinnamon

Slight dash of allspice

36 frozen dinner rolls (I used Rhodes)

Egg white for glazing

Prepare the dinner rolls the night before.  Place them on baking sheets coated with cooking spray taking care to leave room for rising.  Cover with plastic wrap also coated with cooking spray and place the trays in the refrigerator.  The rolls will defrost in the refrigerator, but you will need to let them rise at room temperature until they are at least doubled in size.

When the rolls are ready, preheat your oven to 450° degrees.

Toast the pine nuts in a toaster oven at 325° for 5 minutes stirring at least once.  Pine nuts burn easily, so start with 5 minutes and only cook in additional minutes, if necessary, until they are golden.  You can do these in a conventional oven, but keep an eye on them.  Set aside to cool, and then chop or grind coarsely.

Dice the onion and place it in a skillet with the ground beef.  Cook until the meat is no longer red and the onions are translucent.  Drain thoroughly; there will be quite a bit of liquid.  Return the meat/onion mixture to the skillet and add the lemon juice, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and allspice.  Stir to mix and warm through.

To assemble the meat pies, take one roll, stretch it out round, and place a spoonful of meat mixture in the center.  Fold one side in toward the center, and then fold up another side.  Pinch the seam shut between the two sides.  Fold up the third side, and pinch the other two seams shut as well.  You will end up with a triangular-shaped pie.  Some people bake them seam down, but I’ve always baked them seam up.  If your seams are secure, I’ve found it really doesn’t matter.

Brush the sealed pies with beaten egg white taking care not to rip them open.  Bake for 10 – 11 minutes until golden brown, ending up more on the golden end of the color spectrum.  Depending on your oven, you may go 12 – 15 minutes, but do not burn the bottoms or overbake the tops.

Enjoy!

Holy Macaroni…and Cheese

I love the craziness that is planning for Hanukkah, especially the food.  Traditionally, fried foods are consumed as part of the commemoration of the Maccabees not having enough oil for the menorah which miraculously burned for eight nights despite the small quantity.  Why fried foods you ask?  Because it’s fried in oil.  Get the connection?

We’ve tried an all-fried or mostly fried menu in the past, and our stomachs lived to regret it.  There are, however, many delicious recipes one can make for Hanukkah that aren’t fried.  They also probably aren’t traditional, and may raise a few eyebrows, but good eating is part of what it’s all about for us, and Adonai has blessed us richly!

So don’t laugh when I tell you the Gibson household will be dining on my homemade macaroni and cheese for Hanukkah tonight.  It’s so rich and cheesy that it’s almost sinful.  Fear not, we pray over it before eating to counterbalance that last point.

HL’s Homemade Macaroni & Cheese

1 – 1 lb. box of elbow macaroni

½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ c all-purpose flour

4 c whole milk

3 – 8 oz. blocks of cheese, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

½ – 1 t dry mustard, optional

Side note:  I start with blocks of cheese over pre-shredded because it’s creamier.  The pre-shredded stuff always seems dry to me.  Also, I suspect the quantity isn’t exactly what the packaging says.  You’ll want at least six cups of cheese, however, I’ve found that a little more never hurts which is another reason I prefer blocks of cheese.

When choosing cheeses, I like to include at least one orange cheese to make it look like traditional, American mac-n-cheese.  However, an all-white version is just as tasty and visually pleasing.

Consider mild, sharp, or extra sharp orange cheddars, NY white cheddar, mozzarella, Gruyère, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Colby-Jack, Longhorn, etc.  I know some of these are considered to be the same, but I’ve found subtle taste differences that make choosing half the fun.

Recipe:

Preheat your oven to 400°.

Cook the macaroni according to package instructions until al dente.  Drain thoroughly as macaroni holds a lot of water in the crook of the elbow.  While the macaroni is draining, use the hot pot you cooked it in to melt the butter over a low heat.  Add the flour and whisk until smooth.  Cook for one minute and do not let it burn.

Slowly add the milk, whisking thoroughly, and cook for another minute over medium heat.  Add all but a half cup of the cheese by handfuls, stirring after each addition.  Continue cooking until the cheese melts and becomes stringy.  Not all the cheese may melt, but this is acceptable.

Add the drained macaroni to the mixture and stir to coat.  Carefully pour the mixture into a well-greased 9 x 13 glass baking dish.  (Do not panic if it seems soupy.  The extra liquid will be absorbed and make the mac-n-cheese creamy.)  Top with the last half cup of cheese.  Bake at 400° for 25 minutes or until the cheese on the top browns and bubbles.  Let it sit for ten minutes before serving.

Options:

I’ve chosen all Italian cheeses, added ½ – 1 T of Italian seasoning, grilled chicken, and topped  with slices of provolone.

Bread crumbs tossed with parmesan cheese is also a delicious topper.

Uncured turkey bacon, cooked and diced, tastes wonderful stirred in.  We use Applegate.

Nuttin’ but the Best

Most of the recipes I supply are connected to my writing, but this time I’m offering a favorite Gibson Family recipe just because.  Well, that and we’ll be eating it for Hanukkah this year.  This recipe comes highly recommended by my husband and son, and it’s super easy to make.  Factor in the deliciousness, and you’ll want to make it part of your holiday traditions, too.

We’re ice cream freaks at the Gibson household, and nothing makes ice cream a little tastier than a homemade sauce.  With that thought in mind, what could be more American in flavor than peanut butter?  The following recipe is one we enjoy time and again on chocolate or vanilla ice cream.  It’s also good on waffles, pancakes, banana bread, and shortbread cookies.  I’m sure you’ll come up with a few places to try it, too.

Peanut Butter Sauce

1 c smooth peanut butter

⅓ c sugar (I use raw)

¾ c heavy cream

2 T butter

¼ c light corn syrup

1 t vanilla

If using raw sugar, place the heavy cream and sugar in a small saucepan over the lowest heat possible.  Stir constantly but gently until the sugar dissolves.  This step is necessary to melt the larger crystals.

If using regular white sugar or a small-grained, organic sugar, place all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat.  Stir until the ingredients are combined thoroughly.  Do not boil or overcook as this will make the sauce too thick.

Cool the sauce slightly before using.  I’m told you can store it covered in a refrigerator for two weeks, but ours never lasts that long.  You can reheat the chilled sauce in a saucepan on a low heat.  Thin it with 1 – 2 tablespoons of heavy cream if necessary.  Do not microwave the sauce or it will become grainy.

Spin to Win

spin-to-winIn December of 1927, Claude Willoughby has been left behind in Maryland as his father, sister, and step-mother return to Kentucky for Christmas. The cruel abandonment is Claude’s punishment for disobeying his father’s directive. Sam Feldman comes to Claude’s rescue by inviting him and their friend, John Welles, over for an after-the-fact Hanukkah celebration. After a meal of brisket and latkes, the boys play dreidel with Sam’s mother, Gladys.

Although the game is meant for children, I know quite a few adults, myself included, who get caught up in playing dreidel every Hanukkah. In fact, we have a tradition that last year’s winner must return to defend his or her title the following year.

The Hebrew word sevivon or s’vivon means to turn around. Dreidel is the Yiddish word for a spinning top. All dreidels have four Hebrew letters on them which stand for the saying Nes gadol haya sham, meaning a great miracle occurred there. In Israel, instead of the fourth letter shin, there is a peh which changes the saying to Nes gadol haya po, a great miracle occurred here.

Playing with the dreidel is a traditional Hanukkah game played in Jewish homes all over the world, and rules may vary. Here’s how to play the basic dreidel game:

  1. Any number of people can take part.
  2. Each player begins the game with an equal number of game pieces (about 10-15) such as pennies, nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, matchsticks, etc. (Our family uses Hershey’s Nuggets which makes winning or losing fun as many of the playing pieces are enjoyed during the game.)
  3. At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center pot. In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot.
  4. Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the outcome, you give or get game pieces from the pot:
  5. Nun means nisht or nothing. The player does nothing.
  6. Gimmel means gantz or everything. The player gets everything in the pot.
  7. Hey means halb or half. The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one.)
  8. Shin (outside of Israel) means shtel or put in.  Peh (in Israel) also means put in. The player adds a game piece to the pot. (Our family puts two pieces in.)
  9. If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either out or may ask a fellow player for a loan. (We’re pretty ruthless for the Dreidel Champion title; once you’re out, you’re out!)
  10. When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!

For non-Jewish players, we came up with a way to remember what do to for each Hebrew letter:

Nun you get none – don’t do anything

Gimme gimmel – you get the entire pot

Hey means half – you get half the pot plus one if there’s an odd number of pieces

Shin two in – put two game pieces in the pot

Keep Calm and Eat Latkes

Keep Calm and Eat LatkesLatkes are featured twice in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. The first time was during a Hanukkah celebration Sam Feldman hosted for his two friends, John Welles and Claude Willoughby. Although Hanukkah was technically over, Sam’s idea to celebrate again was meant to cheer up Claude who had not returned to Kentucky with his family for Christmas. Sam’s mother, Gladys, made the latkes as an accompaniment to her brisket.

The second instance in which latkes are served was during the dinner John had with his neighbors, Reuben and Hannah Wise, during the years he lived in West Virginia. Hannah served the shredded potatoes with salmon patties.

In both stories, the following recipe is the one I had in mind. Because the Feldmans and Wises are Jews, they would have used any oil other than lard. I recommend peanut oil because it ensures a wonderful crisp exterior and a tender, well-cooked middle. Some cooks prefer canola, but all appear to agree that this is one time to forego olive oil. Forget fancy potatoes for latkes as the starch in Russets also guarantees crunchy edges and soft, fluffy middles.

Latkes

12 Russet potatoes, shredded

1 large Vidalia onion, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, pressed

2 eggs, beaten

4 T flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Peanut oil

I recommend shredding the potatoes through a food processor to achieve matchstick like shreds. Be sure to press out all the liquid from the potatoes either by squeezing them through cheesecloth or a clean tea towel or in a colander under a heavy bowl filled with water. Wet potatoes do not fry well.

Combine the shredded potatoes and chopped onion in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients (except the oil) and stir. You may need to mix with your hands to ensure the clumps of potatoes are thoroughly coated.

Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet to very hot. The oil will ripple across the top and pop when ready. Drop in large spoonsful of the mixture and fry until golden brown and crisp on each side. Transfer the cooked latkes by slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined platter. Serve with sour cream and applesauce.

Enjoy!

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 14

Writer's Soul 14I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my writing, and I don’t mean in quantity. Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot of different things about what my writing is or isn’t.

It started last year around November when my novel was technically finished. There were a few minor points that needed to be re-researched (is that even a word), and I had a wonderful research librarian who I met at the Conneaut D-day Reenactment assisting me. The whole process was starting to bog me down. I began to hate it, resent it, and wanted to dig a deep hole in my back yard in which I could bury my book without any witnesses.

The holidays were coming, and since much of the preparation for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas fell to me, I really didn’t have anything left to give my writing. I didn’t want my writing to suffer, but I felt so guilty about setting it aside. After all, what kind of writer would I be if I wasn’t writing every single day? Good question.

While wrestling with this dilemma and wanting to be able to focus on all the fun that comes with the holidays, I ran into our pastor’s wife at the local grocery store. After the usual pleasantries, she asked after my novel. I told her what I’ve already mentioned above and concluded that I wish someone would give me the permission to quit for a little while. If I could just take a break, I knew I would go back to writing in January once I was refreshed.

She looked at me and said, “Heather, I give you permission to quit.”

Even now I laugh at how easy it was for someone else to grant me the grace I needed to give myself but was unable to. And guess what? I did go back to the writing and research in January as I promised myself I would. In fact, I attacked it with renewed vigor and produced better writing than I would have had I pressed myself to go on through November and December. What’s more, I enjoyed it!

So what’s the point of this blog post you may ask? It still scares me somewhat that I took off two months of much needed rest time. There are so many writing books, and I imagine books devoted to other forms of art, that will tell you to create every day without fail. Are these people right in tasking others in this way?

Yes and no. If I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. You have to find out what works for you. Thankfully, the day I returned to writing coincided with Chapter 11 of Heather Seller’s book, Page After Page. The writing exercises in this chapter were wonderful for getting me back on my rails. You’ll understand this better when you read the book which I highly recommend you do.

The funny thing was, while Chapter 11 worked for me, I recalled that before the holidays, Chapter 10 flipped me out. This is the beauty of the book. The next time I read it, Chapter 10 may be exactly what my writing needs. All this to say, don’t be afraid to embrace the bad (insert chosen art form here) because you may uncover a gem on the way to the good (insert chosen art form here).

In doing so, your creativity will flow and your art will come naturally. There are going to be different amounts of flow, and that’s to be expected. Don’t despair over these days even if they extend into weeks, months, or years. Begin again in small ways, flex your creative muscles, and build up to your peak performance like an athlete training for the Olympics. You will achieve gold.

Write Happy!

Moving Day

Thunderstorm_in_sydney_2000x1500Thunderstorms of a Noachian proportion blast the city for three days, washing the sun from the sky. White water eddies cluttered with trash swirl around the tires of cars abandoned until the deluge subsides. Undulating sheets of rain reduce all human activity to that of water-logged muskrats scurrying from building to bus stop and back again.

When the skies finally clear, the ancient apartment building smells like books stored in the basement. Tenants prop open their doors with fans to shift the staleness from corner to corner, never allowing it to settle on the pages of their lives. Cycling dehumidifiers placed by the landlord lure the saturated air with the promise of stagnation in the too-small reservoirs.

Joel’s fingertips rest on the windowsill; his eyes scan the street three stories below. Part of him wants to go downstairs to search for the movers’ truck. They were scheduled to arrive at nine that morning but probably couldn’t find a place to park out front. For all he knows, they’re circling the block or double parked, ticketed, and arguing with a cop. His fingers drum impatiently, and he sighs. His own lack of punctuality over the years has not made him lenient toward other people’s lateness.

Another stack of books is removed from the shelves, the void outlined in dust, and absentmindedly placed in a cardboard box. All week things he’d rather be doing kept popping into his head, but he doesn’t have the leisure of avoiding the chore, and no one else is going to do it for him. The zip of duct tape brings Kirsten from the bedroom. Her eyes are red and swollen.

“Can I help?”

Joel kneels to press the duct tape along the seam of the cardboard flaps. When he looks up, a forced smile twists his mouth sideways.

“I got this.”

“’Cause you know I’ll help. It’s not like I wouldn’t or something.”

“I know.” He stands and places his hands on her arms. “It’s why I love you.”

A quick peck to her forehead conceals his cringe at having misspoken, but now he’s afraid his kiss also sends the wrong message.

“You don’t have to be here right now–or stay–if you don’t want.”

“I came out ‘cause I thought you’d enjoy some tea, but I’ll go back if you want.”

“That’s fine, tea is fine.”

She shuffles to the doll-sized kitchen, the slap and scuff of her slippers grating on Joel’s already frayed nerves. Gray sweatpants and hoodie render her dancer’s body shapeless. Her unwashed hair is pulled into a sloppy ponytail, exposing her long neck as she stands at the sink filling the kettle with water. Damn he loves the sight of her neck. It was the first place he ever kissed her, right where the long, sable strands stopped and the micro fine, colorless ones began. She had been wearing a ponytail then, too.

He could spend hours making love to her neck alone, her warm flesh goose-pimpling beneath his parted lips, and the sweet scent of lily of the valley residing behind her ear. Being with Kirsten felt like standing in intense, bright sunshine, and looking at her like viewing diamonds of light dancing on water until his eyes teared, the pain so sweet. He believed he possessed something truly worth having when he held her in his arms; he was free and bound all at once in his love for her.

Joel’s eyes close like a stage curtain dropping on the memory.   He remains motionless for several seconds listening to the click and ragged woof of the burner. When his body sways, his eyes flick open. Dizziness on the fringe of his senses is replaced with the claustrophobia of the stuffy living room crammed with packed boxes of his stuff.

“The tea should be ready in a jif.”

He nods at Kirsten and wanders about the room gathering the last few items that defined his space in their home. A high school swimming trophy, the book on Albert Einstein he is currently reading, a chipped clay dinosaur he made in first grade, the teak kaleidoscope Kirsten gave him for Hanukkah, a Lego pirate, his Call of Duty video game; all these items are cradled in his arms. Again he looks out the window wondering where the hell the movers are.

“Where’s your favorite mug?”

Kirsten searches the cupboard where it should be and all the ones in which it was never stored, opening and slamming the doors shut, making little noises in her throat every time she doesn’t find it.

“I already packed it, but I know right where it is.”

“Never mind; you can use mine.”

Gathering clouds and the return of soft rain diminishes the light in the narrow room, fuzzing the crisp edges of the long shadows. Joel listens to the patter against the windows, his thoughts disturbed by the remembrance that she doesn’t have a favorite mug. Another lie.

Kirsten removes the kettle from the burner when the metal begins to tick and hiss with the strain of the boil inside. The simple process of drinking tea will draw them together one more time when all Joel really wants is for Kirsten to leave so he can focus on packing. Anything would be better than the haphazard orbit they’ve danced for the past three weeks, tactfully avoiding each other but never able to escape the other’s pull.

A few dunks of the tea bag and Kirsten plops down on the loveseat with both legs tucked beneath her. She splashes the hot tea on her hand and winces with childlike poutiness. The mug intended for Joel stands alone on the countertop. He can feel a bee swarm of bitterness rising in his chest as he dumps the gathered items in his arms on the countertop next to the tea. He knows Kirsten wants him to join her on the loveseat, but he resists her wishes. Much to his surprise, he has to resist his own as well.

To drink the tea means he’s yielding his will to hers, but he doesn’t know what to do with her simple offering. It’s just tea, though; green tea with jasmine, his favorite tea in her pretended favorite mug. The unspoken request for forgiveness swirls upward with the coils of fragrant steam.

The thing is, Joel wants to forgive Kirsten. The knotted rope of muscles between his shoulders would finally be eased; his stomach would stop roiling like a bad chemistry experiment. And how many times has he heard in life that forgiveness is as much for him as it is for the other person? Countless. Just do it, he thinks and chuckles at relationship advice coming from a Nike ad.

Kirsten reaches between the loveseat cushions to retrieve the remote. She points it at the stereo releasing Monica’s voice into the room. Angel of Mine fills up every ounce of space not already taken up by moving boxes and furniture. Joel’s shoulders sag, and his weight shifts to one hip. When she pats the space beside her, he obeys.

“More than anything–no wait–I just want, hope rather, that we can part on…if not good terms exactly, um, happy?”

“Friends? You want us to leave as friends, Kirsten?”

“Well at least friendly. Kind to each other would be nice. There’s no reason anymore to be angry or bitter. Not now that you’ve decided to leave.”

Joel seriously considers a scalding gulp of tea to keep from saying what he truly wants to say and to keep the conversation from deteriorating into an argument. Monica has given way to Marvin crooning about sexual healing.

“You’ve conveniently made this my fault because I decided to move out.”

“I don’t believe this is a matter of fault, Joel. I’m not pointing fingers or laying blame.”

“No, Kirsten, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Just forget it, okay?”

He stands too quickly, spilling tea on his cargo pants. As he pauses to brush at the blossoming stain, she jumps up to follow and runs into his bent back, dousing his ratty cardigan with tea.

“Ow–that’s still hot!”

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”

Her hands join his in trying to wipe away the liquid, but he pushes her away bodily with his arm.

“Never mind, Kirsten, I’m gonna have to change. It soaked through to my t-shirt.”

“But your clothes are already packed.”

The stupidly obvious statement silences him; he stares at her as if she suddenly grew scales on her lovely neck. With exaggerated precision of movement, he walks to the boxes stacked three high. The top two are removed with great flourish, and then Joel pauses to make sure Kirsten watches.

“Look, honey, they can just as easily be torn open.”

He grabs the doubled-over, duct tape handle he fashioned and rips it from the box removing a great deal of cardboard with it. The ragged scar across the edges will be difficult to reseal. All manner of clothing is flung about the room until he locates a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The neat freak in Joel stalks past the mess without stopping to pick it up. He heads for the bedroom with Kirsten in tow.

“Joel–I can fix this. It’ll be okay.”

“You can’t fix this, Kirsten. It’s ruined.”

Janet calls from the stereo reminding him that’s the way love is.

He tosses his clean clothes on the dresser then sheds the drenched cardigan and throws it at her feet, turning his back on her to remove the rest of his clothes. When he faces her, she has his sweater, pants, and shirt clutched in her arms, pressed to her face. Her muffled voice comes to him edged in tears.

“It’s not ruined, Joel. It just needs cleaned.”

Cool air makes his skin prickle; he feels like a fool in just his socks and underwear. A shiver makes him cross his arms. She lifts her face from the soggy bundle.

“And I can sew on another button where you lost one, put some Fray Check on the cuff where it’s unraveling. Please let me fix this.”

Every fiber of his being wants to beg her for forgiveness, no longer caring that the blame has shifted to him. He accepts it willingly, never questioning how he came to be the one needing to explain his actions.

“It’s just that that sweater was my Grandpa Joe’s. I’m named for him, you know.”

“I know.”

“He wore that thing every day of his life. I can still smell him on it.”

“That cologne he wore?”

“Yeah. It was like his signature scent or something. His calling card before he entered a room. And his sweater…”

“I get it, Joel. Really, babe, I do.”

“My Grandmother Judith made that sweater for him. It’s been around for like–ever. It’s endured a lot.”

“And it’s well made. That’s why it’s survived.”

“Exactly.”

Kirsten tucks Joel’s shirt and pants under her arm. With the clothes pressed against her body it’s difficult to properly fold the sweater, but she does. The precious garment is placed on the dresser, the ordinary clothes dropped. She stand before him for so long that he doesn’t know what to do next.

Instinctively, his arms pull Kirsten against his chest where his skin quivers at her presence. His mouth seeks her forehead, her cheek, her earlobe. Joel slips outside of his own body, watching his hands sneak under the draw-string waistband of her sweatshirt, caressing her back as they move upward. He sees with his fingers that she isn’t wearing a bra.

Luther tells him all that matters is here and now. So Joel submits to the sacredness of the moment, the opportunity to occupy the same space as Kirsten, the chance to reknit the warp and weft of the fabric of their life together. Time stops, and the morning is lost to work more satisfying than packing boxes.

There is no before, no after, only rain drumming a cadence on the roof of their building, the sound dulling Joel’s consciousness as he sinks into the softness of Kirsten’s embrace. He spirals downward toward sleep, aware of the sensation overtaking him until his body jerks. The buzzing cell phone vibrates on the hardwood floor, demanding attention.

A missed call is followed by three rapid-fire texts. Joel slips from the tangle of Kirsten’s arms and legs, twisting on the bed to pick up her cell phone where it fell when she undressed.

Emilio: Hey babe is he gone yet

Emilio: Call me when the jerk leaves

Emilio: Are we on for tonight

Joel’s thumbs work at punching out the message: screw u Emilio

Plastic and tidbits of circuitry fly in every direction when the cell phone hits the closet door.

“Hey!”

Kirsten sits up in bed and points at the debris of her new iPhone freed from its hot pink paisley cover.

“What the hell are you doing, Joel?”

“You’re worried about your damn phone right now?”

“What the hell else should I be worried about right now? Oh, how about the fact that my boyfriend has gone psycho?”

“Unbelievable, Kirsten; you are just so freakin’ unbelievable.”

Joel grabs his tea-stained, damp pants from the floor and jams his foot into one leg, hopping around on the other foot.

“This is so typical of you, so typical, and I am so tired of being your computer geek patsy. How cliché for the principal dancers to fall in love with each other.”

“What–What did you say? You’re muttering, Joel.”

He spins around and loses his balance, his feet tangled in both empty pant legs as his knees crash into the bed, and he lands on his outstretched arms. His face is only inches from hers. Kirsten laughs and places her palms on either side of his face.

“Oh, Joely.”

“No–don’t you Joely, me.”

“It was just a cell phone, honey; I don’t mind, although I do feel bad since you paid for it.”

“How could you? This isn’t even about the stupid phone, Kirsten.”

“Then why don’t you tell me what it’s about? And why don’t you either put your pants on or lay back down with me?”

Her arms assume the fifth position as she reclines on the bed, but her legs are in second beneath the covers. Disgust contorts Joel’s face, and he pushes himself upright.

With his back to her, he finishes dressing. A sneaked look in the mirror on the bedroom door reflects her image with drawn up knees and her chin resting on her crossed arms. Wide-eyed, innocent Kirsten has returned.

“Joel, I know I’m not perfect–”

“You got that right–”

“–but I believe what we have together is worth saving.”

“That may have been true at one time, but I’m not so sure now.”

“If you’re not sure, then why leave? Why make a hasty decision you’ll end up regretting?”

“Because I don’t want to stay here and end up regretting us.”

“Is that your final decision?”

Joel sits on the caned chair by the window. The torn seat gives under his weight but does not break. His eyes search the view outside, his back still toward her, as Tina asks what’s love got to do with it.

“Kirsten, I have allowed this to play out for so long, that I don’t even know what I’m looking for anymore. I want–I need–a sign or something to tell me what am I supposed to do?”

Joel squints when sunlight slices through the partially drawn bedroom curtains. He stands to lift his face toward the brightness like a sunflower. His chin drops to his chest as the squeal of brakes on the street below signals the arrival of the moving van.

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