Chapter 7: Breaking Bread and Giving Thanks
taken by cronewynd
|Story Type: Original|
Content Cautions: None.
Critique: Very, very welcome.
Summary: Leigh has moved from Earth to a station orbiting Mars. She has an exciting new boyfriend, and she's going to make him a nice home-cooked meal.
As time goes by, Jak starts running out of new-and-different restaurants he can take Leigh to without being likely to run into anyone he knows ... so he's actually relieved when she suggests that next time, he come over to her place.
"I think I've finally gotten the hang of the heating unit, and I want to make you a proper chicken dinner with all the trimmings. It should be turkey, but my unit's too small for a turkey, and besides, I'd have to import it from Norborg."
"It's late November back home, and we've got a holiday where feasting your friends and family is traditional. Think of it as a harvest thing, I guess. Or, anyhow, an American thing. Well, and Canada, but they do it on a different day. The rest of Earth doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, at least not like we do."
"Ahhh," he says with a grin and twinkle, "So it's an important ritual of your native culture, pegged to Earth's seasons and agricultural rhythms? I'll have to be sure to take notes, sounds fascinating."
She punches him lightly in the arm, and he deserves it. "No, I just want to make you dinner! It'll be fun, you'll see. I've been figuring out where to get all the produce from for days. I didn't want to ask until I was sure I could do it *right*."
He puts his arms around her, there in the elevator, and smiles against her forehead. "No, it's ok. I get it," he says, then adds in his plummiest Proper Voice, "I would be honored to accept your invitation, madam." Which lights her face up with that adorable grin again, just as he'd hoped it would.
On the appointed day, he turns up at her doorway. She's pinned an orange-and-brown garland around her doorframe, made of what look like a lot of little paper leaves. Another Earther harvest custom, probably. Or else she just likes orange? He adjusts the small, brightly-wrapped parcel in his hands and adjusts the lapels of his slimcut suit before pressing the annunciator.
The door flies open and there she is, smiling, her dark hair sort of all over the place despite her attempt at a really basic braid. "Hi!" she says, a little breathless with her trademark borderline-embarrassment. The woman seems to go through life perennially sure that whatever she's doing is not-quite-right. It's one of the things he finds endearing about her. All his female cousins seem to be sure that *he's* the one who's always skating on the edge of transgression (or unforgivable stupidity). At least with Leigh, he feels confident and knowledgeable.
"Hi," he replies, and steps in.
She tucks her hair behind her ear reflexively. "Right on time! Dinner'll be all done in about ten minutes. Here, have a seat." She turns to show him to her neatly-set dining table, though the tour is made rather unnecessary by the sheer size, or lack thereof, of her quarters. Aside from the 'fresher (or, what he assumes is the 'fresher -- it's the only door in the place except the one he came in through), the entire room can't be much more than four meters by three; all the appointments and furniture are modular and collapse into the walls. Currently, there's a table folded down from the wall opposite the door, draped in a snow-white cloth and accented with little brown-and-gold-plaid rectangular cloth mats, plus an assortment of dishes and tableware. There's a gnarled knotty-walnut bowl of apples and squash in its center, flanked by two cheerful tall beige candlelights, their bright white bulbs casting twin pools of radiance.
The bulkheads are a uniform sort of dove grey color, which would be oppressive without the dark-gold area rug she's centered on the floor, and the profusion of small-to-medium prints hung here and there on the walls. She's done something with the overhead light fixture, which makes the whole scene a little homier. Its bright-white luminals would otherwise tend to throw a fairly harsh light. A lot of her art is reproductions of 'classics,' meaning old paintings from Earth, but there are a few by stationside artists he recognizes. She goes for landscapes and pictures of flowers and fruit, mostly; one of her bigger pieces is a lovely work by a digital artist from Van Allen Station of the sun peeking past Mars' rim, throwing the canyonlands below into stark contrast, with the sibling crescent Earth and Moon hanging (in a really astronomically-inaccurate way, but hey, it's pretty) luminously off in the distance. That one hangs over the dining table, its rusts and golden sunlight complimenting her setting's color scheme nicely.
In the galley corner by the door there's a double countertop folded down, and a panel above is slid back to bare a humming food-heating unit. There's an array of good-smelling things set out there, almost buffet-style, and it is to this corner that Leigh hurriedly returns to do inscrutable food-preparation tasks. Jak clears his throat, sits, and fidgets with the hostess-gift in his hands.
"Welcome to my humble abode," Leigh says facetiously over her shoulder as she ... uhm, spreads or something. "What there is of it. Man, that's one thing that's hard to get used to about stationside life -- if it's not the circular floors it's the tiny rooms."
Jak blinks, and glances about again as he says, "Oh, it's not so bad. Transients -- sorry," a little grin apologizing for the traditional name for her short-timer sort, "Crawl the walls and go a little nuts if they don't at least have room to pace decently. But cubage isn't exactly cheap, and you have to pay the going rate."
She shrugs, turning back to her task, and replies, "I guess so. Every liter of space up here was built by human hands, I know. It's just strange." She looks over her shoulder with a weird remembering grin. "It took me a while to get used to how all the ... bits work."
"Oh? Methinks I hear a *story* in that, madam!"
"Indeed you do! Though really more of a completely slapstick cartoon than anything literary. I thought I was doing all right until I got the table and the bed jammed together and couldn't retract EITHER of them, which blocked the dresser too. I was an hour late for work that day, with no idea what to tell my supervisor."
Jak stifles a chuckle as best he can. "Yeah," he says, glancing about to figure out the layout of the builtins. "I'm pretty sure they're not meant to both be out at once."
"Well, NOW I know that!" Leigh laughs, never unwilling to tell a joke upon herself. "And, for the record? The little half-page sheet on 'Hygiene On-Station' they gave me was completely inadequate. That bathroom should come with a sixty-page manual, at least. I had to have my poor orientation agent come over five or six times to tell me how to make it put out hot water -- and then how to make it stop! And we won't even mention the bidet functionality," she says, with a mock-prim little expression. "Or how surprising it can be when you accidentally hit the button for same when using the facilities in the middle of the night."
"Shocking," Jak deadpans, before losing it entirely at the image of, yes, an indignant cartoony version of Leigh getting squirted somewhere completely unexpected, levitating in midair with blurred-flailing arms and legs and a big black anger stormcloud hanging over her head shooting out cute little lightning bolts.
There's a tasteful little 'bing' from the heating unit, and Leigh removes something steaming and heavy from it. "There, we're almost done. If you bring your plate over, we can start filling it -- there really isn't room to serve anything but 'family-style' in here, I'm afraid. My mother would be horrified." The little grin she shoots him over her shoulder implies it wouldn't just be at the apartment and the informality, but perhaps also the dinner partner.
"Well, then, let's be sure not to tell her, shall we?" The plate looked like ceramic on the table, but its weight clearly pegs it as resin, much cheaper, but still quite nice-looking. He approaches and stands behind her shoulder to study the prospective feast. "Ok, *that's* chicken," he says, which is a gimme since the half-defleshed carcass is still resting in the pan beside a tidy pile of slices of pale meat. "The rest of this I'm not so sure about."
Leigh, his guide tonight to the world of Exotic Earther Cuisine, smiles and nods. "Yes, that's chicken, specifically my great-grandma's secret ginger-lemon recipe. I won't tell you what goes into it, ancient family secret. But you can have some." She reaches up to beep his nose before moving along down the countertop, serving him portions as she goes. "Candied yams," she says, using a serving spoon to break into a congealed whitish crust that looks like some rather exotic lumpy mold moved in, reproduced, and was toasted to death. The goop underneath the crust is bright orange. She plops a helping on his plate. He hopes he's keeping his expression even and anticipatory, despite his private misgivings. "Green bean casserole" is at least recognizably made of green beans, with some kind of toasty topping. Toppings are apparently big in Earther holiday fare, since the next one has some too. She calls it "Scallop potatoes." Whatever a scallop is. Then there's some carrot coins in sauce with little blackish lumps, slices of the meat, some kind of dark fruit jelly goop, and the ominously nonspecific "Stuffing," which looks rather like cut-up shock couch padding, soaked in something brown and baked until stiff. With herbs. "Oh, yummy," he says, a little weakly. The last thing out of the oven she refuses to show him, saying, "It's for later, and it has to rest first anyway. Go on, sit down, no sense standing on ceremony!" She then fills a plate for herself and follows him to the table.
She sets her food on the colorful mat underpinning her place setting, then returns to the galley corner to fetch beverages. Not feeling particularly adventurous just now, Jak opts for chilled water. When she returns, however, she does not immediately begin eating. Instead, she clasps her hands before her in midair and closes her eyes for a long moment, looking rapt. He's just about to ask her if she feels all right, she suddenly says, "Amen," and reaches for her fork. When she notices the odd look on his face, she smiles a little sheepishly, and says, "It's Thanksgiving, I had to tell God what I'm thankful for."
Oh. God. Right. They do say dirtsuckers are superstitious, but somehow he'd never really expected to see one talking to her all-powerful imaginary friend right in front of him. He clears his throat and covers by scooping up a quick bite of whatever's closest. A strange, but not unpleasant, goopy sweetness (with the faintest stringy undertone to the texture) fills his mouth, and his eyes go wide for completely a different reason. He looks down for a quick plate-census: ok, that was 'candied yams.' He swallows, and says, "Oh. Um. These are good ..." He pokes at the stuffing dubiously, then has a bite of the green beans to steel himself. Whatever the topping is, it's crunchy and nicely flavorful.
"Thank you! I'm afraid I couldn't get any cranberries, so that's not authentic, but I made my great-aunt's sour cherry spread instead. Try it on the meat, it's good."
She's right, it is. The dark fruitiness works well with the bird meat's texture. The black things in the carrots turn out to be raisins. Even the 'stuffing', as it happens, is made out of old bread or something. It's gluey, but has a sort of meaty taste. If he puts enough gravy on it, it even stops sticking to the roof of his mouth. On the whole, an ... interesting cultural exploration. If kind of bland compared to what he grew up eating. And even if it'd been cardboard and lubricating fluid, it'd almost be worth it just to watch her sparkle at him.
Her final course turns out to be an apple pie, and THAT has enough spices and aromatics to satisfy even his stationer palate. He polishes off a big slice with no trouble at all, and then presents her with his hostess-gift: a boxful of his big sister Clari's special dark-chocolate truffles (spiked with just a tasteful touch of ginger liqueur), of which they each have one before the richness overwhelms. Being a gentleman, he helps her put the dishes in the scrubber and tidy the table away so there's room to lounge comfortably in their chairs without straining their yummily-bloated tummies.
--- I'm going to break here and post it, picking up with the postprandial conversation in a later chapter. ---