I learned how to cook, really cook, when I was with X. Sometimes when I’m dicing aromatics, my brain will conjure him. I have to stop what I’m doing when this happens; I’ve nicked myself more than once, even sliced off a good part of a nail. My memories of him are like fat carpenter ants. A few, wandering from cracks in the walls, and then an anthill, swarming.

He was good at taking care of me. Care in the simplest form. If I hesitated over wanting to drive, he took the keys. If I was tired, he went around drawing all the blinds, so that his apartment would be dark and cool. If I hadn’t eaten, he fussed over me.

He was an excellent cook. He joked that without him, I’d get scurvy, like a sailor. He made elaborate meals, the kind that require dozens of highly specific ingredients. We’d drive twenty miles to specialty stores to get cold pressed sesame oil or white truffle salt. He’d grill on his complex’s patio as I smacked my thighs and neck, coming away with rust smears and crushed insect wings.

Stop moving, he said. You’re attracting them.

It was never just a plate slid in front of me. It was always instructional. He liked to show me things, taught me how to chop herbs, fine as strands of hair. How to sear a chicken thigh, so that the skin wouldn’t stick. How to tenderize steak.

He modeled knife skills, sliced through handfuls of cilantro and then slid the wooden board towards me. I tried to cut my own herbs identically. If they were close, he’d give me one of those lazy, tongue between the teeth smiles. If he deemed them insufficient, he’d say want to try it again, in a way that never felt like a question.

I always took the knife from him willingly, eager to please in a way that sometimes made him irritable. It was possible that the thing that drew him to me—my obedience—was the thing that frustrated him the most.

He woke up early to procure fish from a local dock. Grilled and served whole branzino, web of translucent bones intact. Stewed tomatoes until they’d fully oxidized, the color of brick. It made the fish look bright and bloody on the plate, striking against the ceramic.

This is like a study in color composition, I said. Completely balanced.

He would arrange food so beautifully, I almost didn’t want to eat it. I want to take a mental picture. For your cookbook, I’d joke, your greatest hits.

It was only partially comic, because I did compile his acts of care in my mind. I paged through them every time he did anything horrible, in an effort to remind myself he was capable of something good.

We ate on the patio, and he watched as I lifted my fork, held the fish in my mouth. Let the tomatoes sit on my taste buds until their tartness was almost unbearable.

What are you doing? Did you forget how to chew? I’d think he was teasing, if it wasn’t for the flint of correction in his tone. I swallowed.

What do you think, greatest hits?

I nodded. The acidity had a numbing effect on my mouth. My tongue felt strange, as if I’d forgotten it was there.

After, when we were doing dishes, he smacked himself.

Who left the fucking screen open? More threat than inquiry; it was only the two of us. The mosquitos are eating me alive.

Maybe you should try moving less.

I don’t know what possessed me. I knew, in the currency of our relationship, what a comment like that would earn me. He’d grab my wrist, raise his voice, pull me taut against the refrigerator. And yet, I got a flash of vicious pleasure, turning his own words against him. A thin ghost of control.

I still use X’s little trick, when I cut onions. Angle the exposed cuts away from me, turn them down on my cutting board. Their milk-blood seeps into the wood. My eyes stay dry.

Katerina Ivanov Prado’s multi-genre work has been published in the Florida Review, Passages North, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Pinch, Joyland, The Rumpus and others. She has won the John Weston Award for Fiction, the AWP Intro Journals Award, The Pinch Nonfiction Literary Award and the Florida Review Nonfiction Editors’ Award. She teaches writing in Tucson and is working on a novel. 

Photo by Amy Selwyn