Lección de Cocina
by Anna Hull | March 25, 2022
The kitchen is gleaming white. It’s a shame to have to tarnish it with use. You’d need to sit down to contemplate it, to describe it, to close your eyes, to conjure it up. Pay close attention to this neatness, this purity which is not to that dazzling excess that gives you chills in hospitals. Or is it the aura of disinfectant, the rubber-soled footsteps of the cleaning ladies, the hidden presence of sickness and death? Why should I care. My place is here. I’ve been here since the beginning of time. In the German proverb women are equated to ‘Küche, Kinder, Kirche’. I wandered aimlessly in classrooms, streets, offices, cafés; squandered my time on skills that I must now forget in order to learn others. For instance, choosing the menu. How could I carry out such a monumental task without the assistance of society, of the whole of history? On a special shelf, fit for my height, my protective spirits are lined up, those lauded tightrope walkers who in the pages of recipe books reconcile the most irreducible contradictions: slenderness and gluttony, attractiveness and frugality, speed and succulence. Along with their endless combinations: slenderness and frugality, speed and attractiveness, succulence and… What would you recommend for today’s meal, experienced mistress of the house, inspiration of mothers past and present, voice of tradition, well-known secret of the supermarkets? I open a book at random and read: ‘Don Quixote’s Dinner’. Very literary but very unsatisfying. Because Don Quixote wasn’t famed as a gourmand, but as a scatterbrain. Although a deeper analysis of the text reveals etc, etc, etc. Ugh. More ink has flowed around that figure than water under bridges. “Pajaritos de centro de cara.” Esoteric. The centre of whose face? Do faces even have a centre? If they do it can’t be appetising. ‘Hunter’s stew’. But just who do you think you’re talking to? If I knew what tarragon and pineapple were, I wouldn’t be consulting this book because I’d know many other things. If you had the slightest sense of reality you should, yourself or any of your colleagues, have taken the time to write a dictionary of technical terms, draft some preliminary remarks, come up with a preface to make the difficult culinary arts accessible to the layperson. But they start from the assumption that we’re all in the loop and limit themselves to short statements. I, at least, solemnly declare that I’m not, nor have I ever been, in this loop that you all share, nor in any other. I’ve never understood a single thing. You can see the symptoms: I stand, rendered an imbecile, in an immaculate and unremarkable kitchen, with the apron that I usurp to give the appearance of efficiency, and which I will be stripped of, shamefully but justly.
I open the refrigerator compartment labelled ‘meat’ and extract a packet which is unrecognisable under its icy coating. I dissolve it in hot water and the name is revealed, without which I would never have identified the contents: it’s a special meat for grilling. Wonderful. A simple and healthy dish. Since it entails neither overcoming an antinomίa, norposes an aporía, it doesn’t appeal to me.
And it’s not just an excess of logic suppressing my hunger. It’s also the appearance of it, stiff with cold; it’s the colour that is emerging now that I’ve cracked open the packet. Red, as if it were on the verge of bleeding.
Our backs were the same colour, my husband and I, after our sun-kissed love-making on the beaches of Acapulco. He could give himself the luxury of taking the lead, and he lay face down so that his sore skin didn’t chafe. But I, self-sacrificing little Mexican woman, born as a dove for the nest, was smiling like the tortured Chauhtémoc when he said “mi lecho no es de rosas” and fell silent. My bed is not made of roses. Face up, I bore not only my own weight but also his on top of me. The classic pose for making love. And I moaned, from the tearing, from pleasure. The classic moan. Myths, myths.
The best thing (for my burns, at least) was when he fell asleep. The nylon of my nightdress, in its fraudulent efforts to resemble lace, slid beneath my fingertips – not very sensitive due to their prolonged contact with the keys of the typewriter. In the darkness of the dead of night, I played with the stitching of the buttons and those other decorations that make anyone wearing them appear so feminine. The perfect whiteness of my clothes – deliberate, repetitive, shamelessly symbolic – was temporarily abolished. Perhaps at some moment it managed to consummate its purpose under the light, and under the gaze of those eyes that are now overcome by sleep.
Eyelids closing and here is exile, once again. An enormous expanse of sand with no ending other than the sea, whose movement proposes paralysis; with no invitation to suicide other than that of the cliff’s edge.
But it’s a lie. I am not the dream that dreams, dreams, dreams; I am not the reflection of an image in a windowpane; I am not destroyed by the closing of a consciousness or of every possible consciousness. I continue living a life that is dense, viscous, murky, even though those by my side and those furthest away from me ignore me, forget me, shelve me, abandon me, cease to love me.
Yet I am also a consciousness that can close itself off, abandon the other and expose it to obliteration. I… The meat, under the sprinkling of salt, has quieted its scandalous redness and now seems more tolerable, more familiar. It’s the piece that I saw thousands of times without realising, when I would poke my head in quickly to tell the cook that…
We weren’t destined for each other. Fine, we met purely by chance. It’s still too soon to say. We ran into each other at an exhibition, at a conference, at a ciné-club; we met unexpectedly in an elevator; he gave up his seat for me on the tram; a park ranger interrupted our puzzled and, until then, parallel contemplation of the giraffe because it was closing time at the zoo. Someone, he or I, it doesn’t matter, asked the basic but essential question: do you work or study? A union of interest and good intentions, a demonstration of “serious” intent. A year ago I didn’t have the faintest idea of his existence and now I’m lying beside him, our thighs interlaced, damp with sweat and semen. I could get up without waking him, walk barefoot to the shower. To cleanse myself? I don’t feel disgusted. I prefer to believe that what joins me to him is something as easy to wipe away as a secretion and not so terrible as a sacrament.
So I remain motionless, breathing rhythmically to imitate calmness, polishing my insomnia, the only maiden jewel that I’ve preserved and which I’m prepared to preserve until death.
After the brief shower of pepper, the meat seems to have gone grey. I dispel this sign of old age by scrubbing as if wishing to break through the surface and impregnate it with spices. Because I lost my old name and I’m still not used to the new one, which isn’t mine either. In the hotel lobby when some employee calls for me I remain deaf, with that vague sense of unease which is the prelude to recognition. Who is it, who isn’t listening? It could be about something urgent, serious, definitive, a matter of life or death. The person calling gives up hope, departs leaving no trace, no message, and no possibility of another meeting. Is it anxiety squeezing my heart? No, it’s his hand squeezing my shoulder. And his lips which smile with a benevolent mockery, more like an enchanter than a master.
And yes, as we walk to the bar (my shoulder is burning, it’s starting to peel), I accept the fact that in the contact or collision with him I’ve undergone a profound transformation: I didn’t know and now I know, I didn’t feel and now I feel, I wasn’t and now I am.
I am I. But who am I? Your wife, obviously. And that title is enough to sever me from past memories and future plans. I bear a brand of ownership and even so you look at me with distrust. I’m not weaving a web to ensnare you. I’m not a praying mantis. I’m grateful that you believe such a hypothesis. But it’s false.
I will ruminate, in silence, on my resentment. I am assigned the responsibilities and tasks of a maid-of-all-work. I have to keep the house spotless, the clothes clean, the rhythm of meals running like clockwork. But I’m not paid any kind of salary, I’m not given a day off each week, I’m not able to change employers. And on top of that I must contribute to the maintenance of the home, and I have to efficiently execute a role in which my boss makes demands and my colleagues scheme and my subordinates hate me. In my leisure time I transform into a society woman who hosts lunches and dinners for her husband’s friends, who attends gatherings, who is a patron of the opera, who watches her weight, who renews her wardrobe, who cares for her skin, who keeps herself attractive, who is up to date with gossip, who stays up late and gets up early, who runs the monthly risk of maternity, who believes in evening executive meetings, in business trips, and in unexpected visits from clients. Who suffers olfactory hallucinations when she detects the aroma of French perfumes (different from the ones she uses) on the shirts and handkerchiefs of her husband. Who, during her solitary nights, refuses to contemplate why or for what reason he has so many engagements and pours herself a stiff drink and reads a detective novel in the fragile spirit of a recovering patient.
The oil is beginning to boil. I got carried away, poured it out extravagantly, and now it spits and leaps and burns me. So too will I burn in the confines of Hell, and it’s my fault, it’s all my fault. But darling, you’re not the only one. All your schoolmates do the same, or worse things, they denounce themselves in the confessional, they pay penance, they’re pardoned, and then they relapse. All of them. If I’d have carried on visiting them they’d be subjecting me to an interrogation right now. The married ones to verify it, the single ones to find out just how far they can stray. Impossible to let them down. I would invent acrobatics, sublime weaknesses, transportes as they’re called in The Thousand and One Nights, records. If you were to hear me you wouldn’t recognise yourself, Casanova!
And it’s not as if you’ve disappointed me. Indeed, I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. Little by little we’ll reveal ourselves to each other, discovering our secrets, our little tricks, learning to satisfy ourselves. And one day you and I will be a pair of perfect lovers and then, in the middle of an embrace, we’ll melt away and the screen will display the words ‘The End’.∎
Words by Anna Hull. Art by Emily Archer.