The filet mignon was tempting, but the stewed tomatoes were heavenly.
Of course, Cora's attention was not caught by dish itself, but on the one who could transform the hated food into such a delicious piece of art. The medley of spices masterfully blended made the single tomato into an entire meal in itself. After that first bite, she paid little attention to the other dishes. The other chefs were good, but they were only human.
Caleb was a magician.
She read his nametag when she snuck back to the makeshift kitchens to investigate the origins of the miraculous tomato dish. He was there cooking, surrounded by a cloud of spices. Those spices would always linger in his hair and his clothing. Her mother argued, scornfully, that Cora had only fallen in love with the scent and the spices but not the man.
"He isn't handsome," the older woman would protest. "And he can't afford to make himself so."
Her mother's party had brought the two together. Her insistence on gourmet and fresh-cooked refreshments for her aristocratic guests was responsible for Caleb's presence in that neighborhood, one in which he would never have been seen out of uniform. Her mother was responsible for their meeting. But she had skipped the tomatoes that evening, and hadn't cared who made them. It was only when the cooking dared to woo her daughter that she even noticed him.
Cora's pleading never bought her mother's approval; but Caleb's talents in the kitchen could tempt it. When she eventually deigned to try her son-in-law's cooking, she at least had to admit that her daughter's heart–or perhaps her stomach–had never stood a chance against that charm. Even the stubborn heiress could attempt to forgive the pale, rotund man his looks and poverty for one of his homemade meals.
Still, even after three years of marriage, the audacious woman would call her daughter from time to time about some attractive (and always well-off) young gentleman she'd met at one of her clubs. Just last night she'd suggested one.
"He can afford an entire kitchen of cooks!" she'd argued.
"But I love Caleb," said Cora.
"Oh Cora..." she sighed. "Forget him. Please?"
Cora hung up.
That night, like every night, she fell asleep thinking about him and woke to the same thoughts in the morning. In the hazy moments before fully waking she felt the weight of his limbs wrapped around her like a comforter. Her chin rested on a hand as big as two of her own. And against her back, his soft chest leaned like a pillow. She felt absolutely secure. In those moments, she shifted in and out of the pre-dawn doze. Her thoughts lifted her up lightly, like clouds, and she rested on them in lazy contentment. Her mind entertained only one subject.
His teeth shown like alabaster - all of them - when he smiled, and the rose in his cheeks never paled. His arms were heavy, but gentle; her own barely reached around his waist. She felt tiny in his arms, but safe. And always, the scent of spices lingered in his hair and clothes and over his skin.
The house, too, was always full of their perfume: steak sautéing in onions and peppers, spiced tomatoes, stuffed olives, and herbal breads. She drank in the aromas in every breath, and at night they wrapped her up like a comfort blanket.
"I must remember to get cumin for the chili tonight" she reminded herself before the shifting half dreams swept her away again.
But as she drifted off, a lead dart punctured the clouds she lay upon.
The smile she remembered had faded and the cheeks dulled.
That day there had been no dinner.
Beans sat soaking on the stove but the soup was never made.
The hospital had a dining room but it was not the same.
She could not have eaten anyway with the elephantine weight crushing her chest. Even breathing was hard. Each breath seemed insufficient to sustain her until the next. The blanched waiting room was like a lifer's cell; she could not imagine the world outside it. Hours and hours pressed in on it until it seemed no bigger than a closet. Beneath the petrifiction that gripped her body, a tremor shook her heart.