Home Cooking


Home Cooking

You’re going to say I should have arranged housing in advance. But if I had, where would I be now?

After filling out a mountain of forms at registration, I drove around Provo looking for a place to stay. Finally I picked out one of the new apartment units near the campus. The office girl told me they had a vacancy in number 33.

The apartment complex is in the shape of a big C, with a swimming pool and frisby field in the middle. I walked across the lawn to number 33 and knocked on the screen door. Nobody came, although I could hear voices inside. I knocked again.

“Somebody get the door,” a male voice yelled out.

I waited another minute and then knocked again. This time with my foot.

“Enrico, the door!”

A thin, antiseptic-looking guy shuffled to the door, holding a piece of chalk in his hand.

“Hi there,” I said.

He gazed at me with a lost expression. “Hi,” he mumbled, turning around plodding back.

I opened the screen door and stepped in. The fellow with the chalk was writing on a chalkboard that someone had hung on the wall crooked. “The trouble was,” he mumbled, “in not assuming a frictional air force. Let’s try it again,”

There was another student on the couch. He was reading a Russian newspaper out loud.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?” He ignored me.

Finally I turned to a fellow talking on the phone. “They said you had a vacancy. I need a room. Okay if I move in?”

He waved me away with one arm. “I know the concert was arranged, but the drummer got sick. So no concert. Do you follow that much?”

A girl walked in carrying a sack of groceries and three shirts rolled up in a plastic bag. She set the groceries on the kitchen counter, got an ironing board and iron from a closet. Pulling out one of the damp shirts from the bag, she started to press it.

“Look,” the guy on the phone continued, “if there’s no concert, then we don’t need the popcorn we ordered from you for refreshments. It’s that simple.” He paused, listening to the man at the other end. “I know I ordered 200 pounds of popcorn. But that was when I thought the band would be here.” He started walking around the room, gesturing to add emphasis. “No, I don’t know how much space 200 pounds of popcorn takes up.” Pause. “That much?” Pause. “No, I don’t know what you’re going to do with it.”

That’s the way it was. The fellow at the chalkboard, who I later learned is named Harold Roberts, is a physics major and nicknamed Enrico, after Enrico Fermi the famous World War II scientist. He was writing down line after line of equations, talking excitedly as he went. The second fellow is Roger Thornton, who we call Boris because he’s a Russian language major. He was reading Pravda. The third guy, Brad Jones, called B.J., is a studentbody officer majoring in pre-law. The girl, Cher Weiss, had a classic Greek face with high cheek bones and a dominant nose. She was wearing a pair of wire frame glasses. Her dark, shoulder-length hair fell in front of her face as she worked and was periodically being brushed aside.

I walked over to the girl. “Excuse me, do you speak English?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Talk to me, please. Nobody else will.”

“Aren’t you working with Enrico?”

“No. I just want to talk about the vacancy.”

“All right, have it your way,” B. J. said. “We’ll pay for the popcorn at half price. Goodbye.” He slammed down the phone, immediately picked it up again, and dialed.

He walked over to the girl and touched the finished shirt hanging on the doorknob. “Not so much starch next time, Cher.”

“This guy wants to talk to you,” she said to B.J., who finally hung up because the line was busy.

“If it’s about the concert, we’ll refund the money at the Wilkinson Center desk starting Monday.”

“It’s about the vacancy. I want to move in.”

“I’m in a hurry now,” B. J. said as he picked up the shirt hanging on the doorknob and started for a bedroom. “It’s okay by me if you move in. Did they tell you how much the rent is?”

“Right.”

“Okay. We’ve got a phone. That’s extra. Cher comes in each day and cooks our supper for us. We each pay $10 a week, and she buys all our groceries and takes a little something for herself. That’s it. Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

“Okay. Sure great to meet you,” he said as he disappeared into his room.

I shook hands with Boris and Enrico, although they didn’t realize why for a couple of days.

B. J. came out of his room, wearing the neatly pressed shirt, a tie, and a blazer. “Well, see you later,” he said to nobody in particular on his way out.

Boris put on a pair of large, wrap-around, stereo headphones and sat down on the couch, listening to Russian tapes. Enrico got his equations about two-thirds of the way down the chalkboard and then ran out of steam. He stood there, examining the first equation and its logical, muddy conclusion.

I brought in my luggage and deposited it in the room with the empty bed. After unpacking and washing up, I went back out into the living room-kitchen combination.

“I’ve got a few shirts that need ironing too,” I said to Cher. “There’s no hurry though.”

“Take them to the cleaners. I’m not in the business.”

“Sorry. I thought it was part of the service,” I explained.

“It isn’t. I just iron B.J.’s shirts.”

“Oh. Why does he get special treatment?”

“I don’t know,” she said, hanging up the second shirt. “Sometimes I wonder.”

“Are you going together?”

“We used to. We still go out sometimes, but not much anymore. He’s so busy with student politics and all.”

“What year in school are you?” I asked.

“Senior.”

“Me too. Feels great to be almost out, right?”

“Negative,” she replied.

“How come?”

“I’m not engaged or married. If you’re a fellow and that happens, you’re just choosy. But if you’re a girl, they say, ‘Four years in a school with 8,000 boys and she couldn’t find one?’”

“Who’s they?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She looked up and smiled. “Sorry. Forget what I said.”

“Sure. Are your folks members?”

“There’s just my dad now. Mom died two years ago. I joined the Church when I was 14. But Daddy is still about as far away as you can get from joining the Church. How about you?”

“I joined the Church just last year,” I explained. “My parents still think we’re the group with the nice neat farms in Pennsylvania.”

“What will you do when you graduate?” I asked.

“Go back home. That’s Patchogue, New York. Or else get a job in an office building in Salt Lake and set traps in the hall.”

“Patchogue. That’s on the island, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes, have you been there?”

“Sure, it’s on the way to Riverhead, right? I was raised in Queens until I was 16, and then we moved to Trucksville, Pennsylvania.”

“No kidding,” Cher said, putting away the ironing board and iron.

“I thought you spoke nice. Out west they have a dialect all their own.” She went into the kitchen area and took some cans out of the bag. “I’m waiting for the day Daddy comes out for graduation. He has a New York accent you can cut with a knife. I can just hear him, ‘Tirty tousand people, and an old man can’t get a cup a coffee?’”

We talked about how we came to be taught the gospel, and the changes it had made in our lives.

“What are we having for supper?”

“Steak, tossed salad, and strawberry shortcake.”

“How do you cook like that on what we’re giving you and still make a profit?”

“I shop bargains,” she said, her face clouding over.

I stood in the kitchen and watched her work. I added up in my head the cost of the food for that meal alone. It was expensive.

“Cher, how much are you kicking in to the food bill?”

She turned around. “Not much. Really.”

“Is it to impress B.J.?”

“Don’t tell him. Okay?”

She explained that she had met B. J. her first semester. They were in the same branch. She helped him run for freshman class president. They went steady until he went on his mission.

“Once he asked me to marry him before he left. I said I would. I waited for two years until he got back. I even changed my major twice so I would not be ahead of him in school when he returned. We dated some after he got back, and then he got interested in campus politics again. He’s forgotten I’m around now. It’s like I’m not really here.”

She seemed to get so depressed talking about B. J. that I changed the subject. “Tell me something. After you’re here for a while, don’t you miss the New York taxi drivers, delicatessens, and Jones Beach?”

“When I joined the Church, all of a sudden I wanted to be Mormon in everything. I learned to make quilts, can pickles, and make plastic grapes at Relief Society. I want the whole package—a father-in-law who’s on the high council, a mother-in-law who makes bread, and a crowd of relatives who get together every year in Emigration Canyon for a reunion.”

The steak was ready at six. B. J. came in 45 minutes late.

“Why are you late?” I asked.

“I had a meeting. Why, did I miss something?”

“No. Cher has gone to all this trouble to prepare a nice supper, and you come back with the steak all dried out and cold.”

“It tastes okay,” he said, washing down the steak with a glass of milk.

“Okay? Is that all you can say? This is not a hamburger and fries at some roadside diner. Tell Cher you like it.”

“I like it Cher. Well, I’ve got to run.

“Have some dessert,” I demanded.

“I don’t have time.”

“What? The school is suddenly going to fall apart if you don’t leave now. Have some dessert.”

“I’ll have it when I get back,” B. J. said.

“The whipped cream will be turned back into a puddle at the bottom of the bowl by then.”

“What are you, the Galloping Gourmet?”

“It just seems that you could show a little appreciation around here. That’s all.”

“We’re paying her to cook for us whether I eat it or not.”

“It’s okay, Tony,” Cher said. “Get off B.J.’s back. It’s no big deal.”

B. J. went into his room. Boris went out. Enrico erased the chalkboard and began the ritual of filling it with funny symbols. I helped Cher clean up.

In a few minutes B. J. came out wearing another neatly pressed shirt. His face was shaved and covered with after shave lotion.

“See you around.”

“Where are you going?” I asked, “I’ve got a date to study political science.”

I dried while Cher washed the dishes. We didn’t speak for awhile.

“It doesn’t hurt you that he’s wearing one of the shirts you washed, starched, and ironed on his date? You know, he’s making the big impression with your creases.”

“I know. Let’s not talk about it.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Only when there’s lipstick on the collar.” She looked like she was going to cry.

“I’m not going to let it go on this way. Either give him up or do something different. May I suggest giving him up?”

She concentrated on scrubbing the broiler pan. Finally she said quietly, “Let’s talk about doing something different.”

We finished the dishes and sat down around the kitchen table. I took out a sheet of notebook paper and wrote at the top “Operation Engagement.”

“We’ll make a list of the things a fellow looks for in an LDS girl. First: testimony. Second: a nice face, a good figure. Third: common interests. Fourth: sense of humor. Fifth: a supporting attitude.”

“Let’s go down the list,” Cher said. “Testimony. I’ve got one, Tony. I really do.”

“Okay,” I said. putting down a check on the paper.

“Face.” She held out her hand, rotating it to the right and then to the left in a gesture familiar to Easterners. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

“It’s very good. Like a Greek goddess. Do you have many cavities?”

“Our water had fluoride—53% fewer cavities.”

I put a check beside “Face.”

“Wait,” she said, “except for the glasses.”

“You have to see.”

“I’ll get contact lenses.”

“I like you the way you are.”

“It’s not you we’re trying to impress,” she said coolly. Then, quickly, “I’m sorry, that wasn’t kind.”

“No problem.”

“Figure?”

I cleared my throat. “Fine.”

“You don’t think I’m too skinny?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Aren’t you going to say anything more about the figure?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Do I dress modestly enough?”

“You dress like a lady.”

“Maybe I should dress less modestly to get B.J.’s attention.”

“If he noticed you that way, I’d punch him out.”

“Okay. Common interests.” she said.

“I think B.J.’s biggest interest is himself. So you have a common interest.”

“You don’t know him very well. Be constructive.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Boys from the West are crazy about deer hunting. Do you know anything about deer hunting?”

“What’s there to know?” she asked.

“Do you know how to clean a deer?”

“Do they get dirty?”

“I will ignore that. Probably your biggest common interest is the Church. Maybe that’s enough. Let’s see, sense of humor.”

“I don’t think B. J. has a sense of humor.”

“If you marry him, you’re going to need one. A supporting attitude. That means you help him on his campaigns. Or you try to do nice things for him, like cooking his favorite food to show him that he’s special to you. You’re doing fine, Cher.”

“Tony, there’s one other thing. I have some of that Eastern cynicism. I’m not like your average coed. Maybe I seem too cynical. I need to be more sincere.” She wrote down another word at the bottom of the list, sincerity.

The next afternoon when I came in after my lab, she was already working on supper.

“Tony, look what I picked up in the bookstore today. You’re not going to believe this. It’s perfume in a time-release capsule. You just open this little pill and scatter the tiny beads on your hair with this little can. The beads are programmed. The aroma starts out kind of mild, but in about three hours it’s really something. I’m going to put some on.”

She applied the contents of one of the small capsules.

“Do you want to smell?”

“In the interests of science,” I said.

“Let’s see. It’s 4:30 now. We’ll eat at 6:00. So if I can get around B. J. by 7:00, I’ll give him the full dose.”

She started peeling potatoes. I sat at the table and thumbed through a book I was supposed to be reading. The perfume did change aroma as time went on.

“I pick up my contact lenses on Monday, Tony. And I’ve really worked at being sincere. Look at me.”

She was standing with her head up, looking at the ceiling.

“What are you looking at the ceiling for?”

“I’m looking at the clouds as the sun breaks through.”

“We’re in a room. There are no clouds,” I said.

“I know. But you’ve seen those movies where they close with someone looking at the clouds. Now that’s a sincere look, right? Well, I’ve got it, right?”

I stood up, grabbed a dish towel, and draped it over her sincere face.

Later, after we had cleaned up the water she had thrown on me, we got back to work.

“Tony, what if this doesn’t work out? I think if I hear one more talk about the importance of marriage and the family, I will cry. I’m doing the best I can.”

B. J. was on time. He complimented Cher on the meal too.

“How’s our campus leader?” I asked him.

“Busy. Next week we go to the Church Office Building with the Belle of the Y. We’ll see some of the General Authorities and then have our picture taken.”

“That’s really great, B.J.,” Cher said as she leaned down by him, ostensibly to look at his appointment book but really to allow him a whiff of “T + Three Hours and Counting” perfume.

It was at that moment I realized I loved Cher and didn’t want her to be around B.J.

Monday when I came in, Cher had her contact lenses.

“So how do you like me now?”

“You can really see me?”

“Sure.”

“But why are you crying?” I asked.

“My eyes are just watering a little. It’ll clear up once I get used to the lenses.”

“I can’t even see them on you. Let me get a little closer.” I moved very close to her and looked into her eyes.

“How’s that?” she asked.

“Fine.”

“I mean, can you see them now?”

“I’ll have to get closer.”

“That’s close enough,” she said, moving away.

“Are they hard to take out?”

“Not at all. You just put your finger here on the corner of your eye and blink.” She put her other hand below her eye, but the lens missed her hand and fell to the floor.

“Just stay there, Cher. I’ll look for it.” I got down on my hands and knees and started looking for it. I soon found the small, green, plastic lens. “Cher, can you see anything?”

“No. Why?”

“Nothing.” I put the lens in my shirt pocket.

“Cher, maybe if you get down and help look for it.”

She got down on her hands and knees also. “I think we should both concentrate our efforts over here where you were when you dropped it.” I moved over by her.

We looked and looked. Finally we decided to take it one tile at a time.

“Tony? You have your hand on top of my hand,” she said, looking down at our hands.

“Oh, I do. Do you want me to move it, Cher?”

“I don’t know. I can’t decide.”

“Cher, you are really good looking.”

“With contacts, I’ll look better. Maybe that’s been my trouble all along.”

“No, I mean with glasses, and without the time-release perfume, and without the forced sincere look. You are beautiful. You don’t need any improvement.”

“No, I’m not beautiful.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not,” she insisted.

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Well, maybe not beautiful. But definitely pretty.”

“So you don’t think I’m beautiful!”

“Yes, I do. But you wouldn’t accept it, so I figured I’d compromise. And Cher, you are sincere. In fact, you are just about the most sincere person I’ve ever met. Truly.”

“Thank you. I try to be sincere. And Tony, you’re the only person I’ve ever been able to talk to without wondering what I’m supposed to say. With you I’m just myself.”

“Cher, you have a nice hand.”

“We shouldn’t be here alone like this.”

“We’re not alone, Cher. Boris is on the couch, and Enrico is looking at the chalkboard.”

“I know,” she whispered, “but it’s like being alone.”

“Cher, you are very special to me.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Tony.”

“Who’s hurting? My knees are a little sore, that’s all.”

“That’s not what I meant. I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”

“It’s too late. I already have. I want to marry you, and I’m asking you.”

She started crying.

“If you want to wait before you give me an answer, that’s okay.”

I got up to get her a box of tissues. When I returned, she was sitting on the chair in the kitchen. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and sat there.

“Tony, I really like you, but I’ve been thinking about B. J. for so long there’s no more room for anyone else in my heart. Can we be good friends?”

The next day I paid a visit to B.J.’s office in the Wilkinson Center. “B.J., I want to talk to you.”

I told him about Cher and the way she felt about him. “The poor girl,” he said. “I had no idea she felt so strongly about me.”

“What are you going to do about it?” I asked him.

“I guess I’ll have to take my shirts to the cleaners and tell her to buzz off.”

I slammed my hand down on his desk, breaking his plastic, desk name plate. “No, B.J., that’s not what you’re going to do. You’re going to take that girl out and try to fall in love with her. You are going to treat her like a queen, or some morning you’re going to wake up with your head shaved.”

“Perhaps I should go out with her,” he said quietly.

For the next several weeks, I stayed clear of Cher. I spent my late afternoons watching the Foucault pendulum swing, or listening to music, or taking long walks. Then I would go home around 8:00 and eat whatever was left. Cher was cooking for B. J. now. She made homemade wheat bread, beef stew, meatloaf—the things that B. J. liked.

It was especially bad when I knew they were going out, and I stayed away from campus for fear I’d see them together. Every couple seen from a distance looked like them. Every time I saw a girl with her head on some boy’s shoulder, I got cold chills. I wished I had never met her.

One weekend B. J. took Cher home with him to meet the family. That was the Saturday I ran. I got up early and put on sweat pants and sweat shirt and drove out to a country road. After parking the car I started running. Soon there was just the road, the pain in my side, and the crunch of my feet against the gravel. But the pain in my mind diminished as the pain in my side increased. So I kept on. Finally I collapsed on the side of the road. It was a long time before I could make myself get up and walk back to the car.

A couple of weeks later B. J. had to go to a conference of student leaders in New Mexico. That Tuesday night I entered the apartment at 8:00 expecting to see the usual empty kitchen with a plate of food in the refrigerator.

Cher was in the kitchen cooking. “I thought you were never coming,” she said. “Sit down and get started.”

She sat down across from me, and we said the blessing.

We got through the salad in silence. Removing the salad plate, she replaced it with a plate of lasagna and garlic bread.

“Why are you cooking with B. J. gone?”

“I get paid to cook here, remember?”

“But why did you wait for me? I’m two hours late.”

“Your name Tony Versalino? Of Italian ancestry? You like Italian food?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what it means.”

“Cher?”

“Item five, a supporting attitude. ‘Like cooking his favorite food.’”

I put down my fork and held her hand. “What about B.J.?”

“He was a dream in my mind for all those years, but a dream with no reality. Besides, it finally occurred to me that it wasn’t necessary for all members of the Church to walk and talk and live like they came from Panguitch, Provo, or Parowan. I can’t fit the Utah-Mormon mold. I like the East, and I want to go back and help the Church grow there.”

“You mean, the West is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there?” I caught the aroma of her perfume in the last stages of its time-release cycle. “Lady, what you need is a nice Mormon boy from Pennsylvania.”

“I don’t want to push you, Tony.”

“I’m your man.”

“You know what Daddy is going to say?” Cher said. “‘Queens? He’s from Queens? I send you by plane across the country, you live in a desert for years, and you find a husband from Queens? For Queens, I could pay subway fare. Now you tell me you want to get married in a temple in Utah? We got plenty of temples in New York, and I know a rabbi …’”

For dessert we had a dish of Italian ice.

[photos] Photos by Longin Lonczyna, Jr., and Jed Clark

[photo] Posing are Craig Rich, Mace Breinholt, Scott Bullock, Doug Petty, and Bruce Dangerfield