The following day, Aaliyah stood in front of her closet, disturbed by the state of her clothes. Bleach and paint stained house cleaning clothes, the dress from the night at the club, and her work shirts. Nothing in between. She was in desperate need of a new wardrobe.
“I hate everything in my closet,” She muttered to herself. “I have nothing to wear tonight.”
A knock sounded at her front door and she jolted.
Aaliyah walked to the door, opening it to Samantha.
She blinked, looking her up and down. She was dressed in sweatpants and a ribbed cotton top.
“Oh, girl, you’re not wearing that for your date tonight are you?”
“It’s not a date,” Aaliyah said. “I’m making him dinner to thank him for the other night.”
“Sounds like a date,” Samantha said, and her face erupted in a large innocent smile. “What are you making?”
“Lasagna,” she said impatiently, “and it’s not a date.”
“Whatever you saaaay,” she said in a sing-song voice.
A small smile formed on Aaliyah’s lips. “Would you like to come in?”
“Actually, I can’t stay. I’m taking Matthew out for a play date. I just came by to drop you off a few things.” She said and nudged the two boxes sitting beside the door with her toe that she failed to notice until now. “Every few months I go through my closet and give everything I don’t need to charity. They should fit you perfectly; shoes and everything.”
“Samantha, I can’t accept these,” she said gently, making no move to take the boxes sitting on her porch.
“Why not? They’ve just been hanging in my bedroom closet.” she argued. “Just take them.”
“Samantha, I shouldn’t—”
The woman was clearly growing irritated with her. “I’ve been planning to give them away. I just haven’t gotten around to it. Take. It.”
Aaliyah still looked hesitant so she added in a gentler voice, “Please, I want you to have them.”
The smaller woman sighed and took the boxes as if the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth. Samantha smiled, partly because she had won the fight. She turned and walked down the steps to her car. “There’s some really cute dresses in there for your date tonight with my brother.”
Aaliyah frowned. “Again, it’s not a date.”
Samantha laughed and gave her a little wave. “Whatever you say.”
Once inside, Aaliyah placed the boxes beside the door and started the preparations for dinner. It had been a long time since she’d eaten a real home-cooked meal, let alone cooked for someone else. Nathan had always criticized her cooking. For her, cooking turned into a nightmare. She was constantly worried about whether he would erupt in anger if something was not prepared properly.
In a stainless steel skillet, she filmed the pan with a little oil to prevent the ground beef from sticking and scorching in the pan. She placed the pan on the stove and turned the temperature to a medium-high heat before adding the beef to the center of the pan. Using a stiff spatula, she broke the ground meat into several pieces and sprinkled with salt and pepper. While the ground beef cooked, she pulled out a large stockpot from one of the bottom cabinets. Now it was time to make the meat sauce. She sauteed the garlic until it was soft and fragrant in a few tablespoons of olive oil for about two minutes.
When the meat was browned all the way through, she scooped the meat out of the skillet and into the stockpot. She Poured in the tomato paste, tomato puree, and a few seasonings, including the fresh basil and mixed them together. With the can from the tomato paste, she filled that with water and poured it in the stockpot. She lowered down the heat, letting the mixture simmer, uncovered, for a few hours.
She mixed the bread and divided them into twelve equal parts before rolling each piece into a nine inch rope. She transferred them to a greased cookie sheet where she covered them and let them rise an hour, then readied the ingredients for the salad. Those went into the refrigerator along with the pastry cream and the cheeses for the lasagna. When she finished mixing the ingredients for the pastry cream she placed it into the fridge and began working on the choux pastry.
Chocolate eclairs were one of her favorite desserts, so when pâte à choux swans were chosen as the ‘Daring Bakers’ challenge in her first year of college, she was thrilled. She’d never done pâte à choux in any shape but round or oblong before, so at the time it was a much needed chance to work on her piping skills.Using a pastry bag, she piped out twelve swan heads. After, she removed the tip from the bag and piped out twelve swan bodies. Once finished, she used her fingers to smooth out any bumps of points of dough that remain on the surface and placed them in the oven. When the swans were done, she placed them on the counter to cool and threw in the bread sticks in after. She quickly mixed the cheeses together and that went into the fridge as well. She put on a pot of water to boil for the noodles and grabbed the boxes sitting beside the door.
In her bedroom, Aaliyah set the boxes on the bed and opened the first one. The box was filled with what looked like relatively unworn garments, pretty one piece dresses, skirts, blouses and jeans. A few of the skirts and blouses actually still had sales tags hanging on them. In the other box, there were at least two-dozen pairs of shoes.
She took everything out of the boxes and began to put her clothes away, back into the closet and the drawers of the dresser. She went to the bed where she’d laid out her outfit for tonight.
Back in the kitchen, she turned on the radio and threw the lasagna noodles into the boiling water. There was nothing like music to cook by. She turned up the radio, and started to dance. Pharrell Williams was singing a song where he felt limitless possibility.
Being busy was good. There was no time to dwell on problems or stress. With the music blaring in the kitchen, she felt like she could do and accomplish anything, no matter the obstacle.
While the breadsticks were still baking, she mixed the garlic butter topping ingredients together. When the breadsticks were done, she brushed the butter mixture over the tops of the hot, cooked breadsticks and stored them in an airtight container.
She took a swan body and used a very sharp knife to cut off the top. She then cut the removed top down the center to make two wings. Piping the pastry cream into the body, she insert head, and then added the wings. And for the finishing touches, she sprinkled them with powdered sugar.
When the noodles were done, she began to assemble the lasagna. Once she was finished with all the layers she popped it in the oven and set the timer and headed upstairs to get ready.
She showered quickly and dressed in a peach strapless high low dress. She brushed on some light makeup and curled a few chunks of her brown strands into beachy waves and called it good.
Jason knocked on the door at eight o’clock on the dot.
She took a few deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. She repurposed her nude pumps and fluffed her hair nervously in the mirror. Finally, she opened the door.
He greeted her with a smile that nearly took her breath away. He was gorgeous in his simple white collared shirt rolled up at the sleeves and dark blue jeans. His normally spiky hair was smoothed carefully to the side, though it rebelled here and there in a way that was still sexy and fashionable.
“Hey.” He gave her a quick hug and stepped inside. “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t know what else to say, but she self-consciously tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. She tried to appear unaffected by Jason’s new level of comfort with her.
Jason held up a bottle of Chianti.
“I hope you don’t mind but I thought this would go great with what we were having tonight.”
“I don’t mind at all,” she smiled. “You have good taste in wine.”
“Thanks,” he grinned. She led him through the small living room and toward the kitchen where the oven timer went off for the lasagna. Aaliyah opened the oven door and the smell of sweet Italian sauce filled the air. The lasagna was ready. She grabbed her oven mitts to pull the pan out of the oven and set it down gently on a rack on the stove.
He leaned toward the lasagna. “It smells amazing,”
He turned and noticed the pastry swans on the counter. “Wow. Are those swans?”
Aaliyah smiled. “Yeah. Pretty cute, right?”
“They’re amazing. Almost too beautiful to eat. Did you make these?” He sounded impressed.
She nodded silently.
He smiled. “Beautiful and talented. Is there anything else about you I should know?”
She swallowed hard. My real name is Angeline not Aaliyah. I’m married. I managed to escape from my crazy, abusive, and possessive husband who’d beat and rape me repeatedly.
She shook her head with a nervous smile.
“Nope. I’m just your average girl with a strong passion for cooking.” Aaliyah opened a cupboard and removed a couple of wine glasses. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a glass of wine.”
“Good idea,” he agreed. “Do you need me to open it?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind while I finish up a few things here.”
“Not at all.”
While Jason opened the wine and poured two glasses, she went to the refrigerator and pulled out the salad she’d made earlier, and began spooning it into a wooden bowl. Then she topped off the salad with olives and set it on the table along with the breadsticks.
When she returned to the kitchen he handed her a glass. As she took it, she could smell his cologne, an exotic, spicy scent that enticed her.
Once finished, she prepared two plates, and Jason carried them into the dining area. They sat at the distressed wood farmhouse table, a beautiful and expensive piece of furniture Samantha bought for her as a housewarming gift.
They dove in and were silent for a few moments before Jason motioned toward it with his fork.
“Wow,” he commented. “This is amazing.”
“Really? His words made her flush with pleasure.
“Oh yeah. This is by far the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten.”
She smiled, content and maybe a little empowered.
“Where did you learn to cook like this?” His plate was nearly clear while she had barely made a dent in hers.
Aaliyah reached for her glass and took a sip of wine.
“My mother was a phenomenal cook. I learned a lot from her.”
“Was?” he said gently.
She paused before answering to carefully consider how much of her personal life she really wished to share. Talking about her mother invariably introduced the mystery of her father, a difficult concept for people to grasp. The fact that her father murdered her mother elicited a range of reactions from others, from shock to judgment to pity. Despite her misgivings about bearing all to Jason, dodging his questions would only delay the truth. No doubt he would pester and pry it out of her, bit by bit.
“She passed away when I was a child.” She swallowed against the twinge of sadness that surfaced every time she spoke of her. “My father had a heavy-hand. One day she had enough and packed up our things while he was away at work. Unfortunately, he came home early that afternoon. God, I still remember the look on his face. He was so angry. He lifted his hand and hit her. She fell and hit her head against the coffee table. She never got back up.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Thank you.” Saddened by the memory, she picked at the food on her plate.
“So who raised you?”
“I went into foster care.”
Jason frowned. “Jesus, Lia. You went into one of those places? You didn’t have any other family? No one who would take you in?”
His genuine shock was almost humorous. “Lots of kids wind up in foster homes. There are some very good, kind people running them. It’s not so bad, given the alternative.”
“But wasn’t there anyone?”
“There are a couple of distant relations out there somewhere. But they didn’t bother to come forward when they heard of my mother’s death. My caseworker tracked down one of them, my aunt on my father’s side, but she said she couldn’t possibly afford to take me in. She had her hands full with her own three kids, and her husband had just walked out on her. But it is what it is, I suppose.”
“You must miss her.”
Across the table, Jason watched as she ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “I miss my mother every day,” she said. “So much time has passed, I have a hard time remembering everything about her. I feel like food is one of the ways I can keep her memory alive. That sounds strange, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t think so,” he said as he picked up his empty plate and headed into the kitchen.
“When’s the last time you had something to eat?” She asked when he returned with another heaping plate.
“I’m a sucker for a home cooked meal.” He grinned and took a sip of his wine.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh sure.”
’I’m not lying,” he laughed. “I’m not a good cook. In fact, I’m downright horrible at it. One time I decided to make dinner for my family and a couple of friends. I remember that I was making lemon-thyme chicken with rice and veggies. The recipe made four portions, but since there were six of us, I thought I’d simply double it. A while later, it was smelling great. However, I had forgotten to adjust the cooking time. So about an hour and a half, it all came back up. I gave my entire family and friends food poisoning. All I can say is thankfully we had three bathrooms in our house.”
For the first time in a long time, she wanted to laugh. She tried hard to stifle the giggle that threatened to bubble up. Jason’s face beamed as she struggled to keep a straight face, and he smiled, a dazzling, fool-toothed, all American-boy smile.
“I’m glad you find me funny,”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh. That’s actually really awful.” She said. “Perhaps I can give you a few easy recipes to try, recipes that are impossible for someone of your caliber to mess up.”
He chuckled. “That would be great. Thank you.”
After dinner, they had some dessert and savored the exquisite taste of the pâte à choux swans she made. Their meal had been absolutely delicious and the dessert was even better. Afterward, he helped her clean up. Once they were finished the two stepped out of the house and into the cool night air. A few minutes later, they’d wandered to the beach that had darkened now. They took off their shoes and walked along where the waves lapped up softly on the sand.
Jason bent to catch a shell rolling up with the tide. “You must love it down here. It’s so peaceful.” He tossed it back into the restless waters.
“I do. I’m not sure I can ever be without it again.” She laughed quietly.
He smiled, hope leaping in his chest. “So you’ve considered staying here in Port Isabel?”
A small smile crept over her lips. “Yeah, I think so,” she said. “Though, I, uh, I’m gonna miss all my friends back home, especially Veronica.”
“Well you know, they make these nifty little handheld gadgets called cell phones,” he said. “She’s only a phone call away.”
“I wish it was that simple,” she said. “Right now, things are a little complicated between the two of us.”
“I’d rather not say...at least not right now.”
He nodded slowly. “So is this Veronica your best friend?
“Uh-huh. She and I go way back. We’re practically like sisters. She is the one person that I can always count on,” Aaliyah replied looking back at Jason. “Since I was a teen, she has been the only constant person in my life.”
Why was she telling him all this? Perhaps it was because she trusted him.
Her—trusting a man. She never thought she’d say that. Or at least not for a good long time. But if she trusted him, why couldn’t she tell him who she was and what her current predicament was? Was she afraid of what he might think of her if she told him the truth?
Jason’s voice broke into her thoughts. “That’s good; friendships like those are rare.”
She lowered her gaze. “Yeah, they are.” she said. “I sure do hope her boys aren’t giving her too much trouble. What I wouldn’t do to give them both a big hug right about now.”
“You like kids?”
“I love kids,” she admitted quietly. “I’ve always wanted a big, loud family. I see her with Jaxon and Michael at the park, and I’m envious. You?”
“I’ve always wanted children, but Deb never liked them.”
“Deb, your ex-wife?”
His face fell and his lips curled into a sad smile. “You heard about that, huh?”
“I’m sorry!” She gasped, her eyes wide. “It’s just...I overheard some of the women talking in the diner a while back and—”
“No, it’s fine. It’s a small town; word gets around. And yes, my ex-wife.” He said. “Anyway, she said she didn’t want any little monsters making messes or ruining her blouses.”
“Did you know about that when you married her?”
“No,” he said. “Unfortunately, she changed her mind about having a family after we married. We got hitched right after college. I tried to be what she wanted, but I wasn’t enough. I was working long hours. Living in such a small town, she got bored. Guess that’s what led her to infidelity.”
Aaliyah flinched. “I’m so sorry.”
“She begged and pleaded for me to give her another chance.” he laughed a little. “I guess it worked, because I took her back. After the affair, we tried to make it work but she was back to her old ways. Money started missing and the affairs still continued. I became frustrated and it eventually led to a big fight. I don’t blame her for wanting something different but I don’t like being lied to.”
She swallowed hard, feeling less brave and more guilty with each passing moment.
“My parent’s weren’t too fond of Deb. I should have listened to them.”
“No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, it’s what we do. The best thing you can do is learn from them. You gain confidence from learning, failing and rising again.” She said. “And as far as changing goes, your values, opinions and personality are what make you you. Don’t tone yourself down for someone else’s delicate ears. Find someone who can handle your loud. If you’re silly, find someone who matches your level of wacky. In fact, go ahead and date Bugs-fucking-Bunny as long as you’re happy. But never trim down your yin to fit someone else’s yang.”
“Aaliyah Barnett, girl philosopher.” He murmured. She glanced up at him and saw a trace of a smile on his lips.
“Are you laughing at me?” She narrowed her eyes.
“I wouldn’t dare,” he said, holding his hands up like she’s threatening him at gunpoint.
“Oh, okay. That is the last time I try to offer you any words of comfort, Mr. Moore.” She muttered. Turning away from him, she headed back to the house, trying to hide her smile. This man was impossible to be angry at. He was sweet-natured and charming and had a great sense of humor.
“You’re smiling. I’ll take that as a good sign.”
She offered him a smile, a true and genuine smile and Jason found himself wondering if he had ever seen anything so wonderful.
Their journey back was pleasant, she found him easy to talk to, and as much as she hated to admit it, she wanted to spend more time with him. When it was time for Jason to leave, Aaliyah packed up some of the leftovers from dinner so she could send them home with him for lunch the following day. She walked with him down to his truck.
“I had an amazing time with you tonight,” he murmured, and leaning down, he kissed her cheek, taking her by surprise. “We should do this again sometime.”
She nodded and gave him a shy smile. He grinned and turned, reaching for something in his truck. “Before I forget,” he said, and pulled out a small gift bag. “The club called me earlier today to claim our prizes. Inside was a winner’s certificate, a winner’s medal, a bottle of sparkling wine and the photo they took together that night. “We each got one, not a bad picture if I do say so myself. I took the pleasure of framing yours.”
She stared at them together. She looked surprised by the camera, nervous, off balance. For his part, Jason looked impossibly handsome, calm and happy. She placed the picture back inside the bag and gazed up at him.
“Thank you,” she spoke quietly.
“Anytime,” he said as he climbed into his truck. “Until next time.”
“Good night, Jason.”
She watched him drive away and when he was out of sight, she went back inside.
Closing the front door, she sauntered over to the wall shelf and reached into the bag for the framed picture. She placed it down gently and smiled.
Today was a happy day, no matter what. One she would never forget.