Eloise is happy with her life as a successful private chef. She has her clients, her corgi, and a recipe for the world’s most perfect chocolate cream pie. What more could she need? But when her long-lost trio of high school friends reunites, Eloise realizes how lonely she really is.
Eloise, Lynne, and Teresa revamp their senior-class assignment and dare one another to create a list of things to accomplish by the time they each turn forty in a few months. Control freak Lynne has to get a dog, Teresa has to spice up her marriage, and Eloise has to start dating again.
Enter Shawn, a hunky ex-athlete and the first man Eloise could see herself falling for. Suddenly forty doesn’t seem so lonely—until a chance encounter threatens the budding romance and reveals the true colors of her friends. Will the bucket listers make it to forty still speaking to one another? Or do some friendships come with an expiration date?
Readers Guide and Recipes Included
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.18(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.98(d)|
About the Author
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Stacey Ballis
When the bell rings, we all shuffle inside the large corner classroom on the first floor in the old building of Lincoln Park High School. Twenty-six spotty, nervous, and hormonal freshmen, with quickly fading memories of being the older cool kids just three months ago at our various elementary schools, thrust into the lowest level of the social totem pole. Funny what a difference a summer makes. Some of us have grown new boobs, gained an inch or two; voices have deepened; skin has erupted in angry red pimples. Braces have been removed, revealing straighter smiles, or added, with annoying and embarrassing accessories like rubber bands that fly into the world of their own accord at inopportune moments, or headgear that makes us look like we’re eating television components. We’ve gained weight or lost it. Gotten chic haircuts or mortifying ones. Some are hoping for a clean-slate do-over, losing the hurtful nicknames and bad reputations that followed us through the previous nine years, and wanting to remake ourselves in a new image. Preferably a cool, popular image. Some are relying on previous ranking as A-listers to carry us through into an equally popular crowd. Many of us, on this first day, have already suffered the usual brands of freshman hazing: we’ve had various nonlethal items chucked in our general direction, like pennies, eggs, water balloons; we’ve been given directions to the nonexistent “fourth floor” or suggestions to use the equally absent “elevator.” The pretty girls have already been hit on; the not-so-pretty ones have already been ignored, if lucky, or laughed at, less lucky.
In Chicago, at a high-ranking magnet school like Lincoln Park, while there are some neighborhood-based feeder schools, a great majority of the students are in special programs that they had to test into. So the school literally draws from the entire city. There is a freedom in knowing that the entirety of your eighth grade colleagues are not in attendance, having scattered to the winds, enrolling in other equally good magnet schools, as well as various religious schools and private institutions. It’s only first period, but so far I’ve recognized just one kid from my graduating class, Benji Colson, and he and I, while not friends, were both solidly B-list at Oscar Mayer, and weren’t enemies. Benji appears to have grown about three inches over the summer, which is good for him, because he was still just a hair shy of little person height when we graduated, looking much more like a fourth grader than an eighth grader.
I wish I could have gifted him some of mine.
As of my official prefreshman physical exam, I am five-nine-and-three-quarters, and I’m pretty sure there is more growth on the way. My doctor said jovially that all the supermodels are tall. Which was sweet and annoying. Because what was left unsaid is that supermodels are also thin and beautiful, which I decidedly am not. I’m not fat and ugly either, thank goodness. My weight is what one might call proportional. I’m well muscled, with boobs that I pray stop growing very soon, since I totally bypassed training bras for a B-cup when I was twelve, and my current D-cup is already more than plenty. I have hips that are beginning to widen, thick muscular thighs, broad shoulders. Nothing jiggles on me—well, boobs notwithstanding. I’ve always been athletic, so while I think of myself as something of a gargantuan freak, at least for the moment my delight in all things delicious is fully balanced by my high activity level.
I’ve been blessed with clear skin, if a shade more olive than I would have liked, pale porcelain skin being all the fashion at the moment, blue eyes of no particular luminance, and dark brown nearly black hair that is very thick and straight, but thankfully naturally shiny. I keep it long so that I can pull it into a ponytail or braid when I run. I’m also sporting some godawful bangs, which I thought might make me look cooler but instead are just an enormous pain in the ass. I immediately regretted them, and began growing them out the moment I left the salon five weeks ago, so now they are in the “constantly in my eyes” length. I do a lot of blowing them up out of my way with a quick and noisy blast of focused breath, which is apparently driving my mother batshit. I suppose if I were five or six inches shorter, I’d probably qualify as “cute-ish,” but at my size, towering over most of the boys my age on the planet, let alone my school, I’m just lucky that my face is what my dad always calls striking, and my mom refers to as attractive. Neither of these is the same as beautiful, and I’ve always been grateful for them treating me like an intelligent being and not overpraising my looks the way some parents do. I know people think they are giving us self-esteem boosts, but mostly they are fine-tuning our teenage bullshit radar, and it makes them seem less honest than they probably are.
As we all enter the classroom, heads down, you can feel the nervous energy in our group. This is the first chance to make our first impressions in our first class on the first day of high school. There’s a lot riding on it, and none of us look prepared. The woman at the front of the room isn’t what I expected. The sign on the door said Mrs. O’Connor, and I was imagining a roly-poly woman with pale skin, red apples on her cheeks, gingery hair going gray, maybe one of those Irish crown rings that you are supposed to wear one direction if you are single and another if you are married.
So the very tall, broad-shouldered, elegant African American woman with the short little dreadlocks standing in front of the chalkboard is a definite surprise. As we enter, I notice that the room is ringed with desks, leaving a big open circle in the middle, and none of the desks are labeled.
“Well, hello there,” Mrs. O’Connor says to me as I come into the room. She looks me dead in the eye, and might even have an inch on me. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t slouch, darling Eloise. You own the space you take up in this world. Abraham Lincoln said, ‘You have to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.’ You stand straight and proud in every inch of your magnificence. Otherwise you let me and all our blessed sisters of substance down.” She stretched out her swanlike neck and seemed to get even taller. Then she smiled, even white teeth in her beautiful face. I stood up straight, and she nodded appreciatively. “You’re going to love Maya Angelou when we get to her in the spring. She was six feet tall at fifteen, and she’s as fierce as they come.”
I blush. “She’s one of my favorite writers. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings last year.”
“Well, then, Miss Eloise, let’s do her proud this year.”
I nod, and cross the room as she directs everyone to stand in the center of the circle of desks.
“So, my new little loves, my name is Mrs. O’Connor and this is Freshman Honors Literature, room 106.” Some blond guy in the middle of the room says “crap” and runs for the door, just as the bell rings. “There’s always one,” Mrs. O’Connor says with a smile. The rest of us laugh nervously. “So, before we get started, we need to have desk assignments. I know many of my colleagues will be arranging you in the very-convenient-for-taking-attendance alphabetical order, but I think Mr. Lewkey and Ms. Lewis will spend enough time in close proximity to each other this year, so I will do things a little differently. I want you to arrange yourselves in order of birthdate. Month and day only, please. You will now have to introduce yourselves to each other in order to ascertain this information; I strongly recommend that you also exchange names and general friendly words as you go along. Spit, spot, as Mary Poppins might say.” She waves her hands with their long tapered fingers at us, looking like a ballerina finishing a pose. If I tried to do that with my mannish hands, I’d probably look like I was swatting at mosquitoes.
I mill around, saying “Eloise, May?” until I hear a voice behind me.
“Hey, May! Over here!” I turn around and see a short curvy girl with a mass of curly brown hair waving me over.
“Hi, I’m Eloise,” I say. “May twenty-eight.”
“Oh my God!” she says animatedly. “I’m May twenty-five! We’re practically twins!”
“Yeah, we look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito from that movie.”
She laughs and snorts. “Totally. I’m Teresa Caparulo. Where do you live?”
“Up in Ravenswood Manor. Where do you live?”
“Not far from here, actually, just a few blocks over.”
“Lucky you, that’s convenient.”
“Hey, did you guys say May over here?” The question comes from a gorgeous light-skinned African American girl with almond-shaped hazel eyes and long, wavy, chestnut-colored hair.
“Yeah, totally. Are you May too?” Teresa asks.
“Yep. May twenty-third. You guys?”
“I’m the twenty-fifth and she’s the twenty-eighth.”
“We’re practically triplets,” I say, smiling. “I’m Eloise; this is Teresa. She’s local; I’m in Ravenswood Manor.”
“Lynne,” she says, shaking the hands we hold out to her. “Hyde Park.”
“You win for longest commute,” Teresa says.
“Yeah, well, it was either here or U of C Lab School,” she says.
“But that is such a good school,” I say, puzzled as to why she would schlep all the way to the north side if she could have gone to one of the best private schools in the city right in her backyard.
“Yep. In part because my dad is assistant principal and teaches English.”
“Oh, then, never mind,” Teresa says seriously.
“Exactly,” Lynne says.
“So how tall are you?” Teresa asks me.
Lynne whistles under her breath. “Damn, girl, you had better stop eating your Wheaties.”
This makes me laugh, and then Teresa laughs and the three of us are quietly giggling in the corner of the room.
“You know what this means, our birthdays all the same week?” Teresa asks.
“What?” I say.
She links one plump arm through mine, and the other through Lynne’s. “We are going to have to be best friends, the three of us.” And the way she says it is so decisive, so matter-of-fact, that Lynne and I find ourselves just nodding along. “Best friends forever,” Teresa says, as a proclamation, and so it was.
“Okay, Ian, here we go—open your surprise box and tell me what you have.” I’ve got my finger on my phone, the timer set for thirty minutes, ready to go. Ian’s little face is so serious. For a ten-year-old he has tremendous focus.
“Let’s see,” he says, furrowing his dark brows over huge green eyes, his dark curls a little unruly and popping out from underneath his black bandanna. He reaches inside the lidded wooden box that says Darcy’s Treasures in faded pink lettering on the side, a loving donation to his training from his twelve-year-old sister. “I’ve got a leftover cooked pork chop from dinner last night, an acorn squash, pistachio nuts, and honey vinegar.”
“Okay,” I say, practically watching the wheels turning in his little head. “Time starts . . . now!”
Ian gets down to business, steeling his little chef’s knife.
“Talk me through it as you go,” I say.
“I’m going to do a pork chop and roasted squash quesadilla with pistachio salsa verde and honey vinegar crema.”
“That seems smart. Tell me why as you prep.”
Ian begins slicing the acorn squash into rings, laying them on a baking sheet and drizzling with olive oil. “Well, the pork chop is already cooked, and quesadillas are a smart use for leftovers because they cook fast so things don’t have time to dry out or get tough. The squash has good sweetness, which will go well with the pork, and will also be friends with the honey vinegar.”
“Good. Why not just toss the pistachios into the quesadilla?”
He seasons the acorn squash rings expertly with kosher salt, taking a pinch from the bowl and holding his hand at eye level, raining the salt crystals down evenly over the squash, and then pops the tray in the oven. “Because the heat of cooking would make them lose their snap and you need that textural element for contrast with the soft quesadilla.”
“Excellent. Tell me about the salsa verde.”
He throws the pistachios into a small nonstick sauté pan and starts to toast them. “Well, I’m toasting the nuts to bring out the flavor and intensify the crunch, and I’m going to chop them roughly and mix them with minced green olives, mint, parsley, shallots, olive oil, a touch of the honey vinegar, maybe some red pepper flakes for heat.”
I’m so freaking proud of this kid, rattling off salsa verde ingredients like a boss. I know I inherited him with a heck of a palate, but in the last six years, I feel like I’ve practically raised him from a pup. “I thought you were using the honey vinegar in the crema.”
He smiles wryly. “Judges love it when you use ingredients in multiple ways.”
I laugh. “Boom.”
Ian is training with me for America’s Junior SuperChef. The wildly popular kids’ version of the reality television culinary competition is holding Chicago casting tryouts in five months. Ian tried out last year and made it through the fourth round, getting cut before callbacks, but he’s a champ and not a quitter, and they asked him to come back to auditions this year, which makes me think they are setting him up to be this season’s comeback kid. I’ve been the personal chef for his family, the Farbers, since he was four. I spend three days a week with them, prepping breakfasts and school lunches for Ian and his brother and two sisters, filling the fridge and pantry with reasonably healthy, easy-to-grab snacks for the kids and their endless gaggle of friends who always seem to be hanging around the house, and cooking heat-and-eat dinners. One afternoon a week I train Ian after school. As a personal chef I hit the goddamn motherlode.
The Farbers are the kind of rich that would make the Koch brothers say, “Damn, that’s a lot of money,” and the kind of people who make sure you would never in a million years suspect that they have that kind of wealth. Shelby and Brad were college sweethearts, fell madly in love, and got married right after graduation, before he invented some super-secret something or other related to communications that he sold for a couple of billion before he was thirty. But unlike some of their much less flush contemporaries, they don’t broadcast it. Brad runs a tutoring nonprofit that focuses on providing safe and structured after-school programs to underserved neighborhoods. He looks like your basic sweet Jewish dad, a little bit paunchy, a little bit balding, average height and looks. Shelby is tiny, maybe five foot even, and slim, with an appetite like a lumberjack and the metabolism of a hummingbird. I’d hate her if she weren’t so damned nice. She keeps her dark hair in a pixie cut, lives in well-worn jeans, Brad’s old sweaters, and ratty Converse All-Stars, and is beyond devoted to her family. She treats me like a sister. Their house, while in the tony Lincoln Park neighborhood not far from where I went to high school, is not on one of the main McMansion streets, but tucked away on a small side street on the northern edge of the neighborhood.
The former three-flat that they converted to a single-family home still has all of its turn-of-the-century charm and quirks. They personally drop their kids off at school and take them to soccer games and go to recitals. They have a couple of regular babysitters for when they go out evenings, just local teenagers picking up extra money, and a housekeeper who comes twice a week to keep the mess under control. Brad drives an ancient Wagoneer that he restored himself, and Shelby has an Infinity SUV that is five years old. I’d say ninety percent of their extensive philanthropic generosity is donated either anonymously or in honor of other people.
But most important is that the kids also seem to have no idea that they are the top one percent of the top one percent. They are really well behaved, and not entitled brats in the least. Sixteen-year-old Robbie is a junior at Northside College Prep, excelling in his classes, and just got moved up to cocaptain on the lacrosse team. Darcy is a twelve-year-old eighth grader, in her last year at Catherine Cook elementary school with Ian, who is in fifth grade, and little four-year-old Geneva, who is in junior kindergarten. Darcy is the musician of the family, playing trumpet in the concert band and electric bass with her School of Rock after-school program. Geneva is the dramatic one, and we all joke that she is destined for the stage or screen. She’s a lovable terror, like a tiny little Amy Schumer, who remembers fondly every vulgar or scatological thing that was ever accidentally uttered in her presence. Full of sass and attitude, with a raspy little whiskey-soaked voice like she’s been smoking two packs a day since birth. They are as close to having kids as I am probably ever going to get, considering both my ever-advancing age and my permanent state of single. With the added benefit of not having to put any of them through college.
I watch as Ian pulls the cooked squash out of the oven and drops it on the part of the cooktop that is currently not in use to let it cool for a moment, while mixing honey vinegar and a touch of brown sugar into thick crème fraiche, tasting along the way with the spoons I keep in a little cup on the stovetop. Satisfied with the crema, he turns back to the food processor, where he has chopped the pistachios, shallots, olives, and herbs, and empties out the contents into a bowl, adding a splash of the honey vinegar, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a healthy glug of olive oil. He tastes, adds salt and a good grinding of black pepper, tastes again, and nods, pleased with himself.
“Ten minutes to go,” I say, checking my phone. “Keep talking me through things.”
Ian reaches for a large flour tortilla and places it in a dry nonstick skillet. “I’m going to assemble the quesadilla now,” he says, sprinkling shredded fontina cheese over the whole surface of the tortilla. He dots the shredded cheese with small bits of fresh goat cheese. “I’m using fontina because it melts well and is mild, and some chèvre for a bit of punch and creaminess. Now the pork.” He has sliced the pork thin, and layers it over the cheeses, following with cubes of the roasted squash. He takes a second tortilla and places it over the whole thing, pressing down so that the cheese, which is already getting melty, will help stick the two halves together. He covers the pan with a lid, then turns to get three plates out of the cabinet. He places a spoonful of the crema on each plate and gives it a very professional smear with the back of the spoon.
“Five minutes,” I say.
He turns back to the stove, removes the lid, and deftly flips the quesadilla over, revealing the well-browned and crispy underside. He presses again with the spatula, hearing the sizzle as a little bit of cheese leaks out the side. He pulls one end of the quesadilla up to check that it is browned underneath and slides it out onto the cutting board.
“I think I’m going to let it rest for a minute,” Ian says.
“So all the cheese doesn’t ooze out. Like resting a piece of meat so you don’t lose the juices?”
“I think that is a good idea, and you still have two minutes to go.”
“Is it time yet?” Geneva says loudly, walking into the kitchen and clambering up into my lap on the bar stool where I’m perched.
“Almost. Give him one more minute,” I say, kissing the top of her curly head.
Ian cuts the quesadilla into six wedges, stacking two attractively on each plate. Then with a saucing spoon, he adds some of his salsa verde over the center of the wedges. He takes the towel that is tucked into the belt of his apron and gently wipes a couple of stray drops of oil from the side of one plate.
“And time,” I say. “Hands up.”
Ian raises his hands, grinning like mad.
“Now we can eat eat eat!!!” Geneva claps excitedly, bouncing in my lap.
“We need one more judge, Gen—”
“DAAAARRRRCCCCYYYY!!!” Geneva yells at the top of her lungs. Jesus, this kid has pipes. I think my ears are bleeding.
“Darcy’s at her trumpet lesson,” Shelby says, coming into the kitchen and kissing Geneva’s cheek. “But something smells amazing in here. Can I be a judge?”
“Absolutely!” Ian says, coming around the island to serve us our plates. Shelby kisses him as well, reaches up to squeeze my shoulder and wink at me, and perches herself next to me on a bar stool. Geneva immediately clambers over to her mom, who receives her with a loud “oof.” I miss the warm weight of her in my lap; she’s a cuddly kid, and I’m her godmother, an honor I was beyond touched to take on when Shelby and Brad asked me. I’m close to all the kids, but Geneva is the only one I’ve known since birth, so I have to admit she’s got an extra-special place in my heart. But this family? Any one of them has first dibs on my kidneys if they need them.
“Chef, can you tell us what we are tasting today?” I ask in my serious Ted Allen impersonation.
“Yes, Chef. Today I have prepared for you a pork and roasted acorn squash quesadilla with fontina and chèvre, served with a pistachio chimichurri and a honey vinegar crema. Please enjoy.”
I take my fork and knife and cut off a tip of the quesadilla, dragging it through the crema, and using my knife to make sure I get some chimichurri on the bite as well. I close my eyes and taste. The tortilla is crisp; the pork surprisingly juicy, despite being a lean cut that was reheated; the acorn squash sweet. The fontina was a good choice. It’s super gooey but has a mild flavor that lets the pork and squash shine. The slightly sweet-and-sour crema works well, as does the bright herbal crunch of the chimichurri. Frankly, if I’d been served this dish in a restaurant, I’d have been pleased.
“Wow, Ian, it’s good!” Geneva says, now sporting a crema mustache, a huge wedge of quesadilla in her hands dripping cheese and chimichurri into her lap. She starts to wiggle and sing. “His name is I-an, he cooks so goo-oo-ood, and he’s my bro-ther, so I get to eat every-thing . . .”
“It’s delicious, sweetheart. You’re going to have to make more for Daddy later—he would love it!” Shelby says, using her napkin to absentmindedly try to mop up Geneva, who is devouring the snack with continued abandon, humming her little song as she goes, dripping crema on her shirt, her chin slicked with chimichurri. Then, with a sudden crescendo, she drops the rest of her piece on the plate, slides off her mother’s lap, and begins a series of pirouettes around the kitchen.
“Ian, give me your assessment,” I say, pushing my plate in his direction.
He tastes a couple of bites and then looks at me. “It mostly works well.”
“Anything you would change if you did it again?”
Ian chews his lower lip thoughtfully. “I think next time I would leave out the goat cheese?” He seems to be asking me instead of telling me.
“Um, too much stuff?”
“That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. What makes a dish have a taste of having too much stuff?”
“If it all isn’t in balance.” This one he knows.
“So take me through your components, and tell me where the balance would be off.”
“Tortilla, crispy. Pork, savory. Squash, sweet. Fontina, gooey and salty. Chimichurri, peppery and green and bright, with some acid. Crema, tart and creamy and cool. And goat cheese . . .” He trails off.
“What does the goat cheese bring to the party?”
“Well, it’s creamy, but the crema gives enough creaminess. So the goat cheese fights with it a little bit, overwhelms it, sort of makes the flavor . . . blurry?”
He’s such a badass. “That’s a good word for it, Ian. Anything else?”
He takes another bite. “I’d probably do the crema like the chimichurri, just a last-minute drizzle on top instead of underneath with the schmear . . . it’s making the underside of the tortilla lose its crisp.”
“That’s a good catch. What is our rule about presentation?”
He grins and recites it like a catechism. “Presentation is important, but our mouth better be the happy one in the end. It needs to taste even better than it looks.”
“Perfect. But Ian? This is all just nitpicky. This is a spectacular dish, and you should be very proud.”
“Okay, what’d the squirt whip up now?” Robbie says, coming into the kitchen and dropping his backpack on the floor. He leans down to kiss Shelby on the cheek, while snagging a wedge of quesadilla off the plate. “Hey, El,” he says around a huge mouthful.
“Hello, Rob. How was today?”
“Good,” he says, chewing. “Hey, Ian, dude, this is pretty killer. Good job.” He reaches over for a brotherly high five. Ian beams. Shelby and Brad got super lucky with the kids spaced as they are. The two boys and two girls are both far enough apart in age that there is very little rivalry, and both of the older kids are very protective of the younger ones. There is certainly a normal amount of sibling squabbling, but in general they get along pretty well and are hugely supportive of each other. They all have different interests, so there is no competitiveness.
Shelby hands Robbie a napkin as he reaches for the remainder of the piece Geneva has abandoned.
“Hey! You! I’m eating that!” Geneva stands at Robbie’s side like a tiny little dictator, hands on hips, glowering. Robbie reaches down and sweeps his little sister up into his arms and over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“Is that right, little Miss Bossypants? Looked to me like you were giving a dance recital to the kitchen chairs, and not eating Ian’s delicious snack.” He starts to spin her around a bit, and she squeals in delight.
“I’m telling you right now, Robert, if she pukes down your back you will get no sympathy or help from me,” Shelby says, smiling at her brood and winking at me.
“I’m not gonna puke, Mom!” Geneva says loudly. “Wait, maybe I am . . .”
Robbie stops spinning at once and puts Geneva down quickly.
“Ha! Gotcha!” she says, grabbing the rest of her snack out of Robbie’s hand and returning to the other side of the kitchen, dancing and singing and being generally hilarious. At least to me. I think deep down Geneva is one of those kids who is a hoot when she doesn’t belong to you and you get her in smallish doses. I would imagine that living with her energy full-time would be exhausting and maybe even eventually annoying.
“Eloise, what do you think? Do we have the next Junior SuperChef here?” Shelby asks me, as Ian begins to clean up. It’s part of our rule. When I cook for the family, I clean up. But when we train, he is in charge of keeping his stuff clean and keeping his equipment in good shape. I taught him how to sharpen his knives by hand, how to clean the cast-iron skillet with salt and oil it before putting it away. He takes it all very seriously, which impresses me almost more than his natural cooking talent.
“Forget Junior SuperChef, your house might get a Michelin star before his voice changes.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Ian says in a voice an octave lower than his usual tone. Which makes Geneva lower her already basso profundo into an even lower register, making her sound scarily like the little girl in The Exorcist.
“Ian will get three Michelin stars before he has any hair in his pants . . .”
“Geneva!” Shelby says, trying not to laugh. “That is not appropriate.”
“Sorry, Mom. Robbie said it the other night. I don’t know why Ian is going to get hair in his pants, but it sounds gross.” Geneva rolls her eyes at Shelby and dances off.
“Not my fault. She’s always eavesdropping. I did not say it in front of her on purpose. She’s only gonna get worse, mark my words . . .”
“That is not the point, young man.” Shelby is barely containing her smile.
Robbie shrugs. “I’m going to do homework. What’s for dinner?”
“Thursday night is pasta night,” I say. “I left you guys a lasagna Bolognese, garlic knots, and roasted broccolini. Ian is going to make the Caesar salad tableside.” Thursday is the day I come in only to train Ian, so on Wednesdays I always leave something for an easy pasta night. Either a baked dish, or a sauce and parboiled pasta for easy finishing, some prepped salad stuff, and a simple dessert.
“Awesome. Does the lasagna have the chunks of sausage in it?”
I narrow my eyes at him. “Robert Adam Farber, would I leave you a lasagna without chunks of sausage in it?” I say with fake insult in my voice.
“No, El, you totally have my back on all things meat. What’s for dessert?”
“Lemon olive oil cake with homemade vanilla bean gelato.”
“Epic. Thanks, El, see you tomorrow. Good job, broseph.” And he grabs his backpack and heads up the back stairs to his bedroom.
“Eloise, you’ve had a long afternoon, I’m sure, and Ian has the kitchen in hand. Why don’t you take off?” Shelby says. “Tell me you have fun plans tonight—let me live vicariously . . .”
“Oh, I have a big night planned. First I’m going to stop by my mom’s and have a quick cocktail hour with her and Aunt Claire, and then I have Marcy stopping by for a bit, and finally some quality time later with Netflix and a cuddly corgi.”
Shelby sighs. “Simca might be the cutest dog on the planet, but she is no substitute for a person . . .” Shelby would love for me to be dating. Anytime she meets a single man over six feet tall she tries to fix me up.
“Don’t ever tell Simca she’s not a person—she’ll never forgive you!” I say in mock horror.
Shelby doesn’t seem to get that, for me, alone does not mean lonely, and I’m really genuinely looking forward to the evening ahead. “But since all is good here, I do think I will head out, try and get my visit in before Mom and Claire are schickered.” My mom and Aunt Claire have been best friends since kindergarten, so Claire never got the least bit prickly when Mom started dating Claire’s older brother Louis when they were in high school. Or when she married him six years later.
Claire’s husband, Buddy, died in a horrible car accident several years ago, followed by my dad barely a year later from a fast-moving devastating pancreatic cancer. So Claire sold her house in the burbs and bought the house next to the house I grew up in, and they settled into their combined widowhood together. They pulled down the fence between their respective backyards to have one large backyard where they can garden and putter and entertain together. They are both a bit hippy dippy, occasional pot smokers thanks to Claire’s convenient glaucoma diagnosis and Illinois’ burgeoning medical marijuana industry, and they both love comfort food (and junk food, when they have the munchies). I’ve occasionally wondered whether there might not be something of an untapped lesbian thing happening there, but one night when they were stoned I got up the courage to ask them, and the two of them laughed so hard that Claire literally peed her pants a little bit.
“Sweetie, trust me, if your mom and I were thusways inclined, I’d just have moved in with her, and not gone through the hassle of buying that silly, expensive money pit of an old house next door with all the maintenance problems,” she said. Claire’s turn-of-the-century brick house is in need of constant repairs and upkeep, as all old houses are.
“All right, all right.” Shelby throws her hands up in mock surrender. “Have a good night, Eloise. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’m stopping for supplies on my way in. Any special requests for the weekend?”
“You know us, we love everything you do. But make sure we are good on kid snacks. I think both Robbie and Darcy have friends sleeping over this weekend. Lean heavy on salty stuff and not too much sugar—we want them to sleep eventually . . .”
“Will do. See you tomorrow. Great job today, Ian, you’re really rocking it out. Next week we’ll do a baking challenge.”
“Thanks, Chef!” Ian always calls me Chef on the days we train, practicing for when he will hopefully need to respond to the judges respectfully. The rest of the week I’m just Eloise.
I grab my jacket off my hook in the mudroom and sling my bag over my shoulder. I peek back and see Ian scraping down the wood cutting board, to prep it for a beeswax and mineral oil treatment. Geneva is pulling Shelby down the hallway toward some adventure in the front room, yammering about something animatedly. As much as I love my little house and my little dog and my little life, for some reason I’m always the teensiest bit reluctant to leave the warm and loving chaos here.
I head out into the gangway and up the side of the long house toward the front. Just as I get to the sidewalk, I see Darcy coming up the street.
“Hey, Eloise! How did Ian do today?” she asks, breathless after jogging the last half block to come see me.
“He did great, Darce, just great. There might still be one small bit of his masterpiece left in there if you hurry. How was your lesson?”
“It was cool. I finally hit a C above the scale!” she says, waving her trumpet case at me.
“Wow, you’ve been working at that for a while. Good for you!”
“Yeah,” she says, brushing the fine hair that has escaped from her ponytail off her forehead, revealing her gray eyes with their long dark lashes. She’s at that gangly stage between kid and teenager, all long legs and knobby knees. “I just really went for it and it was there, right up there!”
“So cool. When is the first band concert?” I try to come to the occasional after-school event for the kids, a recital, a game, a decent role in a play . . . not enough to be the creepy wannabe extra mom or anything, just about once a year per kid, enough so they know I care.
“Oh, Eloise, don’t come to the first one, come to the one at the end of the year. By then my teacher thinks I might get a solo!”
“You let me know. I’ll come when you want me there.”
“Cool. And Eloise?”
“My friend Brooke is coming to sleep over this weekend.”
“Is she the peanut allergy or the vegan?”
“She’s gluten free.” Darcy rolls her eyes. “I know, gross. But she’s the real kind, the get-sick celery-something kind, not the fake ‘I think gluten makes me fat’ diet kind.”
“Yeah, that. Can you . . . ?”
“I’ll prep everything separately and label it for you guys, and pick up some packaged stuff as well just in case.”
“You’re the best. See you tomorrow!” And she jumps up the front steps two at a time, her long legs accentuated by the hot pink leggings she is wearing under her black plaid skirt, with her new floral Doc Martens boots. For all the trumpeting and concert band, she wants to present herself as a rocker chick, and having seen her perform with her School of Rock band over the summer, my money’s on rock and roll. I gave her the new Sleater-Kinney album for her last birthday, and now whenever I’m working, she steals my phone to scroll through my iTunes to see what other secret musical treasures I have. She hasn’t found the Ani DiFranco yet, but it’s coming.
I unlock my Acura MDX and slide in. The Farbers gave it to me a couple of years ago when my old Honda Accord finally gave up the ghost. Brad said it was important for me to have a vehicle for getting to and from work and schlepping all the groceries. I tried to tell them that they already overpaid me, and that I was fully capable of buying my own car, but Shelby shut me down. “This is Brad you’re talking about. If you tell him you can’t accept the Acura, tomorrow he’ll buy you a Bentley just to spite you.”
“Brad, I cannot possibly accept the Acura . . .” I said jokingly, and Shelby swatted me on the arm, and then hugged me.
“Eloise, you’re family. Besides, when Robbie gets his license he’ll need a car, so then we can trade you up and give him this one with some mileage on it, and it will be big enough for him to take over the morning drop-off for his siblings.”
I tried to say that in that case, she should take the new Acura and give me her old car, but she said with all the kids she hauled around, the endless snack crumbs and Gatorade spills and occasional unexpected vomiting, she had no intention of having a new car until Geneva left for college. I never could argue with Shelby and Brad, especially over their generosity with me. They have taken me with them on vacations and gifted me fully paid-for vacations for me to take on my own. They pay full benefits, with killer private health insurance, and insist on getting billed for all uncovered out-of-pocket. My salary is double what a live-in full-time private chef would usually command, and I work only three and a half days a week. My last Hanukkah bonus paid for me to fully remodel my master bathroom. And last year, they brought in a kitchen designer and let me work with her to do a full remodel of the kitchen, no budget, top-of-the-line everything, and I was like a kid in a candy store. A German candy store. Every Gaggenau appliance imaginable, Poggenpohl cabinetry, twin Miele dishwashers with the really cool flatware rack on top . . . those Germans are amazing with precision appliances.
Aunt Claire once asked if my work was satisfying. After all, I only have the Farbers and one other client, Lawrence Costas, the famous interior designer, now retired, for whom I cook one day a week and one dinner party every few weeks. Lawrence predates the Farbers—he was my first private client, and so he is grandfathered in for life.
“Why wouldn’t it be? I have clients that feel like family, I make far more money than I’ve got a right to, considering the workload, and I have amazing benefits. What could be bad?”
“I suppose I meant if you are satisfied creatively.”
I’d never really thought about that. The Farbers give me free rein, but they have a repertoire of my dishes that they love and want to have regularly in the rotation, and everything has to be kid friendly; even if we are talking about kids with precocious tastes, they are still kids. Lawrence is easy: breakfasts, lunches, and healthy snacks for his days; he eats most dinners out with friends, or stays home with red wine and popcorn, swearing that Olivia Pope stole the idea from him. And I’m also in charge of home-cooked meals for Philippe and Liagre, his corgis, who like ground chicken and rice with carrots, and home-baked peanut butter dog biscuits. Simca was a gift from him, four years ago. She was a post-Christmas rescue puppy, one of those gifts that a family was unprepared for, who got left at a local shelter where Lawrence volunteers. He couldn’t resist her, but knew that Philippe and Liagre barely tolerate each other, and he couldn’t imagine bringing a female of any species into their manly abode. Luckiest thing that ever happened to me, frankly. She’s the best pup ever. I named her Simca because it was Julia Child’s nickname for her coauthor Simone Beck. She is, as the other Eloise, my own namesake, would say, my mostly companion. Lawrence’s dinner parties are fun to do—he always has a cool group of interesting people, occasionally famous ones—but he is pretty old-school, so there isn’t a ton of creativity in those menus, lots of chateaubriand and poached salmon with the usual canapés and accompaniments.
The most creative I get is alone at home, in my kitchen, developing new recipes. I’ve got dozens in my computer that are what I would consider finished, probably a couple hundred more in my notebooks in various stages of planning and testing. No one knows about them. They are just for me. Although I don’t know what I’ll ever do with them. I know I don’t want the stress of a restaurant or catering business, and I wouldn’t ever leave the Farbers or Lawrence. Adding another client would be technically doable, but since I don’t need the income, I don’t see a point in looking for one. I told Claire I was content.
“Content ain’t the same as happy, muffin. I’m just saying.”
Which may be true. But it isn’t the same as unhappy either.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. The goals that Eloise and her friends come up with are meant to be challenging and to push each woman outside of her comfort zone. What goals would you set for yourself? What goals would you create for your friends?
2. Eloise, Lynne, and Teresa have been friends since high school. How would you characterize their relationships? Do you think friendships can last beyond high school? Do you think that they should? Why or why not?
3. Lynne accuses Eloise of breaking “girl code.” What do you think of Eloise’s choices? How do you feel about Lynne’s reaction? Use specific examples from the book to illustrate your points.
4. Discuss how the book handles race. Why do you think the author chose to feature an interracial couple? How did it affect your reading of the novel?
5. How would you characterize Eloise’s relationship with her clients? Do you think that her devotion to other families has been beneficial or detrimental to her own happiness and achieving all of her life’s goals? Use specific examples from the book to illustrate your points.
6. Eloise, Lynne, and Teresa each seem to play a specific role in their friend group. Discuss those roles. Do they change over the course of the novel? What role do you play in your own friendships?
7. Why do you think the author chose to include the character of Marcy? What does she add to the story? What do you make of her interactions with and feelings toward the other women?