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A Feast For Love

by Merkin

Remove the rind and cut the bacon into lardons. Simmer for ten minutes in 1½ quarts of water. Drain and pat dry.

Ruben had dressed and tiptoed out of the room very early. His roommate Jack, snoring gently, lay sprawled on his back in the lower bunk looking very cute in spite of the few flecks of drool that had escaped his lips. Ruben was tempted to just stand and watch him sleep, as he had done many times before, but he had to get going in the dormitory kitchen if the meal was going to be ready in time.

Heat fat in casserole until almost smoking. Dry beef on paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp.

Under his arm Ruben carried his most prized possession, a copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. He'd found it in a used bookstore a few months before when he'd returned to the university for his sophomore year. The book had become his solace from the pressures of his struggle to maintain academic standards high enough to please his family.

Toss the beef and bacon again and return to oven for 4 minutes to brown the flour and cover the meat with a light crust.

Today was going to be a bench mark in his effort to teach himself to cook. No, not just to cook, but to cook magnificent meals designed to feed the soul as well as the body, meals to inspire. Today he was going to prepare Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon, for himself, his roommate Jack, and four of his best friends, for it was the eve of Valentine's Day, and as the poet said, 'Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all'.

One of the reviews Ruben had read, the one that had led him to select this recipe, said that 'Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon is the kind of stew that can earn marriage proposals'. Ruben was counting on it to at least get Jack's attention.

He was tired of longing for his roommate to move beyond the mildly flirtatious comments and covert glances at his bare body that had characterized their stalled relationship since they had started sharing a room. He had waited and waited for Jack to catch up to his own growing passion and attachment. What did Jack really want from him? Were they just going to continue to be dormitory buddies? It was show-your-cards time, and he had to find out if Jack was holding or folding.

Stir in the wine and 2 to 3 cups of stock, just enough so the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to a simmer. Simmer very slowly for 3 to 4 hours.

The dorm's kitchen was ratty and neglected, little used by other students except for the pizza sauce-encrusted microwave. Ruben was limited to trying to make do with the battered pots and mismatched pans and the too-few cooking tools he had managed to scrounge, except for the magnificent professional 7-quart chef's casserole he had been able to buy online at a fraction of its cost and which he now hauled out of its hiding place beneath the sink and placed on the counter.

While the meat is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Heat butter and oil until bubbling in a skillet. Add the pearl onions and saute over moderate heat for about ten minutes, rolling them so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins.

Ruben quickly got to work, pulling the ingredients he'd so carefully shopped for out of the ancient refrigerator and various drawers and cubbyholes. He knew Jack would wander in sooner or later, with an offer to help, and he wanted to get the principal part of the meal done and out of the way so the main dish, at least, would be the surprise he'd planned.

Wipe out the skillet and heat the remaining oil and butter over high heat until the butter has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough. Add the mushrooms. Toss and shake for 4 to 5 minutes.

He'd keep Jack busy by asking him to scrape some carrots and cut up some celery and put together an appetizer plate. The other guests were bringing bread and the dessert (absolutely NO red velvet cake, Ruben had insisted) and they had all pitched in for the wine, a very nice, full-bodied Cotes du Rhone, some of which was going into the preparation.

When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and the lardons to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms on top.

Ruben had just turned the oven to warm, the main dish completed, when he heard Jack scream, "Oh, shit!"

He whirled to see his roommate drop the old bent carving knife he had been trying to use to scrape and cut the vegetables for the appetizer platter. He clutched at his hand as blood gushed and spattered. Ruben grabbed a dishtowel and rushed to Jack's side, wrapped his hand and pulled him over to the sink.

Skim the sauce. It should be thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, thin with stock. Taste for seasoning.

As the water rinsed blood away from the wound they both could see that the cut across Jack's hand was deep and nasty.

"Ohmigod!" Jack moaned, and began to sway, his knees starting to give way. Ruben immediately re-wrapped the gaping wound tightly. "C'mon, Jack," he said, "We've got to get to Emergency at the hospital."

Pour the sauce over the contents of the casserole. Cover and simmer 2 to 3 minutes. Serve in the casserole or on a platter surrounded with noodles or rice.

Ruben was exhausted, sick with worry about Jack. He'd now been here in the Emergency Department's waiting room for nearly an hour and he wondered as he looked around if anyone ever got any information. It was as though the afflicted had been swallowed up into the huge university hospital, and the people waiting had been forgotten.

"There're no more honey buns." The boy kicked at the base of the vending machine. His face was flushed and he looked ready to cry.

Ruben shuddered at the prospect of a meal based on honey buns and eyed him sympathetically. Twelve? Thirteen? He was wearing some sort of muddy sports uniform with 'Fishburn Academy' emblazoned across the front.

The other boy, similarly muddy, got up from his chair and went to him, his cleats dancing on the floor. "It's all right, Noah." He gave the first boy a hug, then hastily glanced around to check if anyone had seen him do it. Ruben quickly averted his eyes. "I wasn't really hungry, anyway."

"But what can we do, Max?" Noah wailed.

"We just have to wait a little longer. I'm sure we'll find out something soon." The adult sitting with them spoke tiredly from his seat. The man and the two boys had been sitting in the waiting room when Ruben arrived, and they appeared exhausted and worn. The hard plastic chairs and the buzzing fluorescent lighting did nothing to provide comfort.

What was going on? He hadn't seen a single person from the other side of those swinging doors since he'd arrived. He'd driven his old beater Volkswagen as fast as it would go from the dormitory parking lot to the university's huge hospital, to deliver Jack to those anonymous green-gowned figures that had rushed to help his roommate as he staggered from the too-small car clutching a blood-soaked towel tightly to cover the deep cut across his hand.

The last Ruben had seen of Jack was his pale form sitting slumped in the wheelchair the attendants had pushed him into, disappearing rapidly through the entrance bay to the emergency room. Ruben, forced by the uniformed officer standing guard to move his car away from the emergency entrance, had lost nearly fifteen minutes trying to find parking before he could return to the admissions desk to convey what information he could about what had happened.

Ruben couldn't remember how he had managed to get Jack out to the dormitory parking lot and into his car. All he could recall was that everything had happened very quickly and that he had driven faster than he had ever before dared to and that, somehow, all the traffic and all the traffic lights had cooperated to get them to the university hospital almost, it seemed, instantaneously.

As soon as Ruben had somehow convinced the admissions clerk that he and Jack were university students--thank goodness for shared data bases--he had been dismissed and told to go to the ER waiting room where 'someone would be in touch', and 'No, he Could Not be with the patient'. Reluctantly, Ruben had turned and entered the swinging doors to the waiting room, and there he'd sat, waiting, worrying, and watching those around him doing the same.

He'd overheard the two teens talking, and worked out that they were waiting for word about their friend Danny, who had been smashed in the head with a lacrosse ball as he was attempting to defend his goal. Danny had been transported, lapsing in and out of consciousness, from a school's playing fields to the hospital by the team's coach, the man sitting with Max and Noah.

They attended a nearby boarding school, and Danny's parents were apparently half a continent away and not expected to arrive until much later tonight. As near as Ruben could tell the boys had all been involved in an intramural scrimmage, and Noah was the one who, trying for a goal, had lobbed the ball that had hit Danny. Max was Danny's boyfriend, or was he Noah's? Relationships at their age were so transitory, and the tension between the two boys waxed and waned as Ruben watched. They'd been here most of the day, increasingly tired, irritable, hungry and bewildered. When the boys weren't bickering they were weeping, shifting through emotions rapidly and without warning. The man sat in dogged silence, seldom offering any conversation. Ruben wondered if he was worrying about the potential for a lawsuit, possibly naming him and the school. Ruben knew that the lawyers were never far behind accidental tragedy, especially when someone's child became involved.

In another corner of the room an elderly woman sat silently, wringing her handkerchief. Her head was down and she was shaking slightly. Ruben was tempted to go over and put his arm around her, but he had no idea what misfortune had brought her there, and he had no experience with the kind of counseling any of these people appeared to need. Indeed, as he himself needed.

He felt helpless and out of control. He was just a college sophomore with absolutely zero experience coping with crisis, and here he was, sitting in an ER waiting room, just as confused and frightened and lonely in his distress as any of the rest of them.

Fuck it, he decided, and got up and went over to sit beside the old woman. Startled, she looked up, tired eyes in a worn face.

"Oh! I thought you were the doctor again!" she said.

"I'm sorry if I disturbed you, ma'am," Ruben replied. "I was wondering if I could bring you a drink from the machine, or some water?"

"How sweet of you. I'd love some water."

Ruben pulled one of the flimsy paper tricorns from the dispenser behind the water fountain and filled it. It only held a few ounces of water before it showed signs of collapse, and he carefully walked it across the room and made sure the elderly woman had it fully in her grasp before releasing it. She sipped at it gratefully.

"Have you been waiting long, ma'am?" he asked.

"Since about nine this morning, I think. What time is it now?"

Ruben glanced at his wrist. "Nearly five, I'm afraid."

"Oh, dear. Still no word. Edward missed his breakfast, and I'm sure they haven't given him any lunch."

"Edward is your husband?"

"Yes. The poor dear fell when he got out of bed this morning. He's not good on his feet, you know. Especially when he tries to stand up after lying down all night."

"So it's happened before?"

"Oh, yes. But not like this. This time he hit his head, and couldn't get up. And of course I couldn't lift him, he's so heavy. So I called 911 and they came right away. They let me ride with them in the ambulance, but once we got here they took him away and told me to wait in here. A little while ago the doctor came and told me Edward would probably have to go into assisted living. I've been expecting it, but it's going to be a hard step for us. I'm waiting until I can go in and tell him myself."

"So you've missed your breakfast and lunch, too."

"Oh, I don't eat much at my age." She gave a little laugh. "Besides, I just sit and think of food, and that fills me up."

Ruben looked at her skeptically. "What kind of food can you think of that fills you up so you're no longer hungry?"

The old woman gave Ruben a big smile. The years fell away from her face and her eyes glistened. "Why, French cooking, of course! Julia's cooking!"

Ruben was stunned. "Do you mean Julia Child?"

"Yes! Do you know about her, young man?"

"Know about her! I have her cookbook! Why, I was preparing her boeuf bourguignon from it this afternoon, for our Valentine's Day dinner!"

"Oh, how wonderful! Are you a chef?"

Ruben looked down. "No, but I'd love to become one. I'm a student at the university, enrolled in the pre-law program. Cooking is just a hobby, I guess."

"Why not more?"

"My father is a lawyer. My grandfather was a lawyer. There's a sign already painted to welcome me into the family law firm."

"I see." She was silent for a moment. "But you've selected one of the hardest of her culinary preparations. Why is that?"

"Er, I looked it up, on the internet, you know." Ruben gestured, a little embarrassed. "The description said something about it being the kind of stew that could earn marriage proposals." He blushed.

"Ah, I see. You're trying to impress someone special."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Well, you made the right choice. Savory onions, slow-cooked beef, rich red wine—why, I remember the aroma alone was enough to make your knees weak."

"Have you made it, ma'am?"

"Oh, you must call me Edith. 'Ma'am' sounds so old. No, I was never that good, or that patient. But when Julia made it, everyone stopped dead in their tracks and just drooled."

Ruben was agog. "You knew Julia Child?"

"Oh, yes. When I was young I worked in public television in Boston, and I was a producer trainee on some of her shows. The pay was pitiful but we all got to eat whatever she prepared, so it was a wonderful experience. Your meal will be lovely, my dear, I'm sure. Together with your charm, it's bound to do the trick with your intended."

Omigod! He'd forgotten all about the dinner! Ruben pulled out his phone and checked the time. Phew! It wasn't quite time for the guys to start showing up... he'd better bring them up-to-date on the situation. "Excuse me, Edith. I'm very sorry, but you reminded me I have to make a call, to try to save the dinner."

"You go right ahead." Edith patted him on the arm as he rose and walked to a quiet corner.

Jay answered the first ring. "Hey, where are you guys? We've checked the kitchen and the dining room downstairs, and except for that wonderful smell, there's no sign..."

"Listen, Jay, there's been a hitch." Ruben described what had happened, while his phone emitted squawks of 'Ohmigod!' and 'That's terrible!'

"So you see, we'll have to change our plans a little bit. Here's what you need to do..." Ruben quickly issued instructions for taking the big casserole out of the warming oven and what to check in the refrigerator.

"Can you guys handle all that?" he finished.

"We're on it. Don't worry about a thing, Rube. The meal will be salvaged, and the day saved. Leave it to us." By now it was Sammy on the other end of the phone, with Jay already downstairs securing the food. "Hopefully you'll soon know something about Jack, and we'll come over there to see you as soon as we can."

Ruben was vastly relieved that he could count on good friends to do what needed doing, and he was even more relieved when, instead of a doctor or a nurse finally coming through the swinging door, it was Jack himself who appeared, left hand bound tightly and in a sling. He was a little pale but he was smiling, a smile that brightened considerably when he saw Ruben.

"Jack!" Ruben rushed to him and grabbed him in a tight hug. Jack winced but threw his right arm around Ruben's neck. The two stood, forehead to forehead, for a long moment.

Jack cleared his throat. "I guess this means we're not just roommates anymore," he said.

"Oh, Jack," Ruben sighed, "You big dummy. I planned to ask you tonight if you have the same feelings I know I have toward you."

Jack turned his head and gently kissed Ruben on the lips. "You're my hero, my best friend, my roommate, and much, much more."

Ruben, electrified, returned the kiss, awkwardly at first, and then it turned into a long, passionate embrace.

They broke when they heard the sound of applause. Turning, they saw that everyone else in the waiting room was staring and smiling and clapping their hands. The two young teens were blushing but they were leaning together. Edith looked radiant as she smiled at them.

"Let's get out of here," said Jack, embarrassed.

"Not so fast," Ruben said. "We've still got our Valentine's Dinner, but the plan has been changed a little. These folks have been stuck in this waiting room for hours, and they're starving. If you can be just a little patient, presto!"

As he spoke, Jay and Sammy came bustling through the entrance doors. Jay carried a camp cooler while Sammy had a plastic bag bulging with supplies. In no time flat they had pulled a table from a corner to the center of the room, cleared it, floated a clean bed sheet atop it, and arranged paper plates, cups, napkins, and plastic utensils in neat stacks.

Ted and Duka arrived a few minutes later, bringing a picnic basket and the bottles of wine. Ruben flipped open the lid of the cooler. Inside, still toasty warm, reposed the casserole. A tightly-covered pot of just-cooked noodles was Jay's last minute contribution. The picnic basket yielded up several long sticks of crusty french bread and a newly-purchased supermarket platter of raw cut vegetables.

"Please, everyone," Rubin announced, "please grab a plate and help us eat our Valentine dinner!"

The two young teens did not hesitate. They rushed to the table, but then had the sense to hang back as Ruben helped Edith to her feet and walked her over to the table. He put a fresh dishtowel over his arm, bowed, and lifted the lid away from the casserole. A wonderful aroma permeated the room. As Edith took a few noodles and a scoop of the stew, Ruben noticed a green-gowned figure enter and go over to whisper to the boys' coach. Soon both were smiling, and Ruben lifted his chin to direct the attention of Max and Noah. The boys turned and ran over to the adults, then let out a loud whoop.

"He's awake! They say he's going to be alright!" Noah shouted. He grabbed Max and they did a little dance, then stopped abruptly, quite embarassed.

"You'll have to fill us in," murmured Jack.

"it's all good," said Ruben. He encouraged the others to take plates and fill them. Sammy poured wine for the other students, then at a nod from Jack, for the two teens and their coach.

Ruben helped Edith carry her plate back to her seat, then poured a bit of wine into three glasses. He handed one to her, one to Jack, then held his, waiting.

Edith took a bite of the boeuf bourguinon, chewed slowly, swallowed, then broke into a beatific smile.

"Quick," she said to Ruben, "Feed your beloved! This will make his eyes roll skyward and his knees go weak!"

She raised her glass and touched it to Ruben's, then to Jack's. "Bon appetit!"

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