OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA |
The home of Sophia Paley-Kellner & Titus Torrens |
Sophia wrote out the ingredient list to prepare her husband’s favourite dinner: his grandmother’s lasagna recipe, homemade bread and caesar salad made with anchovies. Between the shopping and prep time, Sophia thought she’d need three hours before the lasagna was in the oven plus ninety minutes of baking time. And since Titus insisted on having dinner on the table at six sharp every night, Sophia asked her boss if she could leave early that day.
“Have an appointment?” he asked.
“Sort of. I’d like to make Titus his favourite dinner for Valentine’s Day. His nose is still out-of-joint that I didn’t do anything special for our anniversary, so…”
Sophia’s boss shook his head, “And what did Mr. Wonderful do for your anniversary Soph? Did he cook your favourite meal? Buy you flowers? Pick up the laundry?”
Sophia laughed, “No. He didn’t really do anything either. Well, except go ballistic that I’d forgotten,” she said, still smiling.
“You’re too good for him.”
“So, can I leave early? I’ll work through coffee break and lunch. And I’ll come in early tomorrow and stay late.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for another Titus tantrum,” he said.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she said, skipping back to her office.
What she hadn’t told her boss was that she was going to propose to Titus tonight. They talked about marriage a dozen times in the last year but no number of hints had prompted Titus to make the move. So Sophia decided that, like almost everything in their relationship, if she wanted it to happen, she’d have to take the lead. And, for the most part, she was fine with that.
Once the bread was on the cooling rack, Sophia put the lasagna in the oven. She had ninety minutes to get herself ready for the evening. She showered, shaved her legs and moisturized her whole body with a new body cream that had an ingredient in it that was supposed to communicate with a man’s hypothalamus. In other words, by half-way through dinner, she thought, Titus should only be thinking about covering her in chocolate sauce, which is why she didn’t bother to make a dessert.
By the time Titus walked through the door, on time at five-forty-five, Sophia was dressed in a sexy, scoop neck dress, hair and make-up perfect. She met him at the door with a smile and kiss.
“You going out? Girls night?” he asked.
“No, honey. It’s Valentine’s Day. I made Nana’s lasagna, homemade bread and that special anchovy dressing you like on your salad,” she said pushing her body against his.
“But it’s Tuesday. You know I like nachos on Tuesday.”
“I know, but I didn’t think nachos was a very romantic dinner,” she said, rubbing her cheek on his neck and kissing him.
Titus patted her head and moved away, kicking his shoes into the corner, on top of her neatly arranged shoes and boots. Sophia knelt and placed his shoes beside hers before following Titus to the living room where he’d just turned on the television.
“You have about fifteen minutes before lasagna is ready. Do you want to shower before we eat?” she asked with a hip wiggle that communicated very clearly that she wanted her man to be clean.
It wasn’t clear whether Titus understood the unspoken message but he agreed to shower and change. Sophia turned off the TV and put on music to ensure the television wouldn’t be turned on again when Titus came back.
As Sophia was plating the food, Titus called to her, “Have a bit of a problem up here. Can you bring the plunger from the downstairs bathroom?”
“Let it wait until after dinner,” she called back.
“I won’t be able to eat knowing this is sitting up here,” he yelled back.
Sophia sighed and left the kitchen. When she got to the ensuite bathroom, Titus was not waiting. “It’s here,” she said toward the den, where she figured he must be.
“So use it,” he yelled back, “since it’s in your hand already.”
“Titus! You can clean up your own mess!” she called back with a playful tone.
“Sophia, you know how shit makes me gag. That’s a double-coiler. I can’t deal with it. You’ve got to make it go away.”
And so Sophia did. And she gagged. And when the toilet burbled and overflowed after the second flush, she swore, loud enough for Titus, who was watching TV in the den, to hear. He didn’t move.
It took ten minutes to clean up the floor and then herself. She washed her arms up to her armpits and her legs to her knees then reapplied her new body cream. Sophia looked at her dress and decided it hadn’t suffered any splash-back so she left it on. With dinner now on the table she called for Titus.
The table was set with place mats and candles, wine glasses and matching dinner plates and bread plates. It was obvious that Sophia had gone to some trouble to make this a special meal. Titus sniffed the air as he sat down.
“You smell like my shit.”
Without a word, Sophia stood and went back upstairs where she changed into the clothes laying closest to the hamper, her flannel pyjamas. She left on her push-up bra and undid the top button, a playful gesture to make her comfy clothes have some amount of sex appeal. When she got back to the table, Titus had already started eating. She said nothing and took a bite of her lasagna.
“So, this all looks nice,” Titus said.
The irritation Sophia had been bottling diffused and she smiled at the man she loved, “Thank you. I thought it would be nice for a special occasion, to make a special effort.”
“Why wait for special occasions? Why don’t you set the table like this every night?”
Sophia gritted her teeth, “Because, honey, most nights you eat your dinner in front of the TV. It would be a waste of effort to do this if we’re not even at the table, don’t you think?”
“How’s the lasagna? I nailed it this time, didn’t I? Don’t you think Nana would be proud?”
He shrugged, “It’s okay.” Seeing the disappointment on her face, he added, “Good effort, Soph.”
The rest of the dinner conversation was banal. They talked about work and co-workers and bill payments that would be due soon. Sophia asked if he thought they’d have enough money saved for a holiday by May. He said that all depended on whether or not he bought a new motorcycle.
Sophia stared at the covered sugar bowl that hid the rings she’d planned to use to propose to Titus with. She’d bought him a plain gold band, very much like the one his dad wore, and she’d bought herself a simple white gold ring with two small diamonds. It was understated but obviously an engagement ring.
Sophia had planned to ask Titus to open the sugar bowl and pass it to her during dessert, and surprise him with the rings and then propose to him. But given how the evening had gone, she wasn’t feeling particularly amorous towards the man she thought, eight hours ago, she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
Titus broke the silence, “Well, I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you,” he said, taking her hands in his and looking her in the eye. It was this look that made Sophia melt. This look that made up for all of Titus’s flaws. She let go with one hand and reached for the sugar bowl, setting it down between them.
“I’ve been offered a promotion.”
“Titus! That’s wonderful. Congratulations, honey! And I have something I want to say, too,” she said, placing her hand on the sugar bowl’s cover.
He put his hand on hers so she couldn’t open it. “Thanks,” he said, “but you may not be very pleased with the terms.”
“Why? What are they?”
“It’s a transfer. To Abu Ghraib.”
“In Iraq?” she said taking her hand from under his and wrapping herself in her own arms.
“Mm,” he said.
“What would I do in Iraq? You’re not going to take it are you?”
“Well,” he paused and looked at her, “I already accepted.”
Sophia felt ill. She took her glass of wine and swallowed it all.
“One of the reasons they chose me over the guys with more experience,” he continued, “is because I’m not tied down. I think the word management used was ‘encumbered’ by a wife or family. So, I took it. It’s a great opportunity.”
“But,” she hated that she had to ask the obvious, “what about us?”
“We’ll still be us, Soph. That doesn’t have to change. I’ll be in Iraq for six months at a time, then I’ll need to come back to the U.S. To renew my work Visa, so the way I figure it, we keep seeing each other except I’m here for two or three weeks every six months instead of every day. I think it would work great. You take care of me so well. I’d hate to lose you.”
Sophia called in sick the next day. Her boss chided her for having had too much fun the night before. She didn’t argue. After Titus left for work she called her sister, Kim, who came right over to console her.
Kim let Sophia work herself into a full rage about Titus and what a miserable boyfriend he was. Kim agreed with everything her younger sister said. Not just to be supportive, but truly and deeply. Kim despised Titus and the way he’d managed to turn her otherwise smart and independent sister into a molly-coddling mommy to his every man-child need. Every wish Kim had made over the last eighteen months—on shooting stars, blowing out her birthday candles, when she and Sophia ‘jinxed’ each other—had been for the early demise of her sister’s relationship with Titus. But nothing had worked. Until now.
Kim didn’t know how to tell her sobbing sister that two days earlier she’d transferred one thousand dollars to a woman named Mother Teresa who promised to rid women of men who were no good for them. Kim didn’t know how to tell Sophia that in fact, she was probably responsible in an around-about way, for Titus’s promotion and transfer.
But she knew that she had to tell her. They were terrible at keeping secrets from each other. And whenever they’d tried, it ended worse than if they’d just been honest from the get-go.
“Soph,” Kim said, cautiously, “What would you say if I told you I was kind of, well, maybe sort of responsible for Titus moving to Iraq?”
“I’d say, ‘how much do I owe you?’” Sophie replied without any humour.
“Two thousand dollars,” Kim said equally seriously.
“A deal at twice the price.”
“No. Really,” Kim pulled the ad that she’d found in a magazine at her massage therapist’s office from her jacker pocket and handed it to Sophia who read it and shrugged.
“I don’t get it. I don’t have any bad smells in my house,” she said.
“You won’t once Mr. Twice-around-the-bowl moves out,” Kim said, hoping Sophia would laugh. She grimaced. Then smiled. Then managed a small laugh.
“I still don’t get it,” Sophia said.
Kim showed Sophia Mother Teresa’s website. She navigated from page-to-page with excitement, now that she knew the service actually worked. Sophia was much more reserved; she didn’t say a word.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Kim said.
“How much did you pay her? Two thousand dollars?”
“One thousand down and the other thousand is due once the problem is resolved. And,” Kim said, “I think it’s resolved, don’t you?”
Sophia stared at her sister, face turning red, hands pulled into fists, “What problem are you referring to?”
Kim knew better than to answer the question with the name that was in her head.
“I don’t know, Soph. Are you happy? I mean, really happy, not just content?”
“Yes. At least, I was.”
Kim stared at Sophia, a look that she knew would cut through her sister’s ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ answers, as she liked to call Sophia’s bullshit positive spin on crappy situations.
Sophia tried to stare Kim down but finally gave in, “Happy? Mostly. But happy with Titus? I guess not. He’s kind of…”
Kim waited for ten seconds for her sister to find her words. When nothing came, she finished the sentence for her, “a big baby who wears size thirteen sneakers?”
Sophia smiled, “You have no idea.”
“Sweetie, I know you two had lots of good together, but do you think Titus is really ‘the one’?”
“I did. I thought I did. I wanted to think he was. But you know, this idea that he’ll be gone for six months then come home and expect me to be here to pick up where we left off…it kind of leaves me cold, you know? Am I a terrible person? I don’t think I want to wait for him,” Sophia said.
“You could do so much better. A man who is an equal to you—”
“A man who can make his own dinner from time-to-time would be nice. You know?”
“You’re a great mom for him, Soph. But if you want to be a mom I think it should be to a much smaller sucky baby.”
“You’re right. But I’m still heart-broken. Despite all his flaws, he really knows hot to start my engine, you know?”
Kim changed the conversation to a road trip she wanted to take to Portland with Sophia that spring. She didn’t mention Mother Teresa again. And, she decided to wait until Titus was actually in Iraq before paying the second thousand dollars.