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  Table of contents Issue Twenty PASTA CARBONARA



ike came home late. Sara hid her second glass of Sangiovese behind the coffee maker when she heard his key in the door and then spurned the impulse of shame and brought it out in plain sight. What did he expect?

“You could have called,” she said. She hated nagging. “I could have made something else.”

She hated waiting, too, as if her time had less importance than Mike’s. Her non-wine-glass hand synced to her waist and sent her elbow out akimbo in a triangular threat. Mike attempted a peck and run kiss and Sara stopped his pivot away to turn him full circle and press her lips onto his. Mike obliged.

“Mm, you taste like wine,” he said.

“I was going to try to do Pasta Carbonara.” Sara’s eyes glowed. Any man would melt.

“What’s that? He’ll be here any minute. We can have it later.” Mike trotted down the basement stairs. Sara mirrored Mike’s path, slow so as not to spill or trip on a power cable.

“How long will this take?” Sara asked, frowning over the basement from a safe distance. She was loath to tread in Mike’s morass of hi-tech whatever that stuff was. Sara liked the real world and real things she could sink her teeth into, like a perfect al dente linguini or a muscular lover’s shoulder.

“I don’t know,” Mike said and happily wormed his way beneath the PC and wove his fingers into the octopus orgy of cords. In spite of the unsettling quantity of electronics populating the room, Sara approved of the lack of dust. Mike kept his rig pristine. Sara took a long sip of wine, savoring the burn of oak and fruit before she swallowed. She considered her position. Kevin preceded her in Mike’s life. “You know I’m not much of a hardware guy,” Mike would say. “I need him for this. You understand, don’t you honey?” She’d heard it before. The argument was endemic in their relationship. No need to speak of it again and again.

Resigned to Kevin’s imminent invasion, Sara’s excitement sank into consent. She’d left work early, anticipating immersion in the pleasure of food preparation, the culinary foreplay full of its own rewards that culminated in the shared hedonism of a rich dinner. She wondered if Mike even knew her sometimes. He pushed the lock of hair off his face that always fell when he was working and said, “Don’t be mad.” The same lock of hair disrupted Mike’s neat appearance in various sexual positions and picturing these inclined Sara towards forgiveness of his flaws.

“I’m not,” she lied.

Unchecked emotions can spoil a sauce. Carbonara, like a hollandaise or a crème brûlée, must be expertly tempered to prevent coagulation or salmonella. The eggs must be cooked, yet remain in thick liquid form to serve as a sauce. Sara fantasized about reuniting the disparate recipe ingredients into a sort of prima materia, a perfect dish. The transformational nature of eggs, their startling changes in response to subtle variations of temperature and time, their mercurial mutations from solid to cream and from meringue to crust, their metamorphic nature in combination with other elements of a dish--all aspects of eggs enchanted Sara. She’d studied the alchemy of eggs.

Sara once asked Mike, “What did you eat before you met me?” He said he didn’t remember. For Mike, food sprang onto his plate fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Sara surpassed herself routinely in a quest to impress him with more complex dishes. Mike was happy with a frozen pizza, but Sara shuddered. She would teach him to desire more. She plotted to transport Mike from culinary complacency to another dimension of sensuous flavors and textures as she trudged upstairs to put on a bra and make herself a presentable host for Mike’s computer repair date with Kevin.

Appropriately clad and emotionally contained, Sara greeted Kevin at the side door he used instead of waiting at the front. “How nice to see you!” she said, and thought, Does he never shower? The man smells like an ox. Kevin grinned, unshaved. Mike immediately materialized, shepherding Kevin to the basement. Sara had never spent more than a moment alone with Kevin. Mike always intervened. The two people closest to Mike remained strangers. Kevin’s tool belt clanked. His work boots stomped. He tracked construction debris and yard litter through the house. Sara could smell him after he’d walked away. She inhaled, trying to place why his scent seemed both noxious and familiar. She rather liked it. Shaking her head, she went to the kitchen and poured herself a fresh glass of Sangiovese and resumed her restless widow’s walk, pacing in feline vigil around the parameter of the butcher block.

Eggs, once broken, cannot be uncracked. When the moment struck, Sara had to move fast. Time was the enemy. Nothing could be allowed to simmer, to stew or to steep. Pasta must be al dente, sauce must be silk. Pasta carbonara would peak for but a brief and glorious moment. Too much time and the dish would collapse.

A sprinter awaiting the whistle, a panther premeditating attack, Sara circled the countertop’s epicurean still life of fresh ingredients with frustration: eggs, pepper, nutmeg, pasta, pecorino, and bacon. Not pancetta, but bacon. She’d been in a hurry. Sara, she could almost hear her Aunt Rosa scold, No, you gotta get the pancetta, you gotta make it nice.

She knew better. Bacon was a compromise. She’d googled Italian markets, but the whole metro area had none. Exiled to the southwest by Mike’s promotion, Sara survived stranded in the flat tepid suburbs bordered by desert in the service of software development and a happy marriage. She’d left behind the hustle and clutter of the northeast, left behind her family (such as it was) and her job (good as it was) for a faceless community where confronting the managers of overpriced high-end markets that didn’t stock pancetta resulted in the careful response reserved for dangerous lunatics and feral animals. Back home, you could ask for what you wanted, the louder the better. Every store in the southwest looked the same. Placid women floated along the aisles behind their carts like mannequins (where were all the men?) and glanced but didn’t gawk at Sara’s sarcasm. “What kind of specialty store is this?” Sara asked. “No, I don’t want you to order it, I need it for dinner. Where can I get pancetta tonight?”

Sara and Mike had left everything behind. Everything except Kevin. Mike hadn’t thought it important to mention Kevin’s concomitant transfer before Sara agreed to the move. It was only work, he’d shrugged, baffled by her outrage.

Stuck at a red light with a pound of bacon gloating beside her in the passenger seat as she’d rushed to get home, Sara had watched brown and gray hills lumbering mutely away in an endless earth-tone death march, a funeral procession of the already-dead bereft of grief, passion or rage. Everyone she met here seemed to be obsessed with inner peace, especially the indigenous Stepford wives who spoke of serenity and invited her to meetings. Serenity was a word Sara associated with lilies and graves. No thanks. The landscape beyond the city seemed to stretch aimlessly towards infinity, bored by its own monotonous dry heat, unsexed by its absence of moisture. Sara secretly wished for a fire.

Now kitchen-bound, Sara strained for a signal from the basement as she poured the last glass of Sangiovese. Mike’s tenor punctuated Kevin’s baritone. Drilling overrode both. Snippets wafted from below. “My wife,” Kevin said often enough to arouse her curiosity. Sara sipped and mused she could make a drinking game of taking a swig every time Kevin said “my wife.” Her internal Aunt Rosa scolded, but Sara Santoro as early as age sixteen had made it a matter of pride she could hold her own when drinking with the boys, defying the elderly aunt who dwelled black-clad in the humid kitchen hovering shapelessly over a stockpot, issuing edicts and advice she was helpless to justify or enforce. Sara Santoro didn’t listen to Aunt Rosa, didn’t learn to cook until she was twenty-seven and had to teach herself with vague, imperfect memories and YouTube videos sought out of spite. No way would she go crawling back and ask for help. At age sixteen and beyond, Sara Santoro had done exactly as she pleased.

Santoro, a name like a pastry, a saint, or an opera star: Santoro, yet another piece of herself sequestered away in service of the marriage and Mike. She’d had her fill of tumultuous romance by the time she met Mike, as she told her skeptical and shocked friends. It was time to settle down and clean up her act. Mike had enticed her with the solace of stability. The loss of a name seemed a fair price to pay. Aunt Rosa, forever clad in mourning dress for a spouse who passed away thirty years prior, approved of Sara’s choice and said You did good, Sara. Now I can die happy. Soon after, she did.

“Blah blah blah my wife mutter mutter and my wife drill drill,” played the endless refrain of Kevin’s basement complaint. Mike offered no coda except eager questions. Sara heard sound but no content, words blurred as a dissonant harmony escalated in duet. Kevin’s voice drove deep to deflate the excitement while Mike’s query veered high to pitch renewed debate. The call and response of their courtship rose to a crescendo. Sara speculated they might come to blows. The thought made her smile.

Sara was done waiting. She drained her glass. Her time and her desire had been held hostage too long and she ignited the gas flame, chopped the bacon, and laid the mangled muscle and lard in the hot pan. Sara declared war as the fat rendered, sending smoke signals through the house. No more, no more. She put the pasta water on to boil, salting it by hand: magicians never measure. She set upon the pecorino, shredding the cheese like the will of a man. They were so easily seduced. Mike would never suspect and she could effortlessly drive a rift between the two. I must be drunk, she thought. She eyed an egg balanced on the edge of the butcher block, a promise waiting to be broken, a prince before the fall.

“Something sure smells good up in here!” Kevin boomed, slamming through the kitchen and out the door, confronting Sara’s private erotic fantasy. The man was an ox. Mike sidled up behind her.

“He’ll be done in a minute. He has to get some cable from the truck. ” Mike’s uncertain hand feathered Sara’s shoulder. His face avoided her eyes and he pressed himself tentatively into her back.

“Down boy,” Sara said in a flood of belligerent affection and leaned back hard. Kevin came in as the couple drew apart. Mike grinned and almost seemed to blush.

Water boiled as the pair descended in tandem. Sara set the timer for eight minutes and softly stirred so the pasta wouldn’t stick. She heard the hiss of a stray drop escape the pot. She took the bacon off the heat and its cracking and sizzling subsided. The kitchen grew quiet. She heard voices declaim from the basement, and then abruptly cease. She drained the pasta in silence and reserved a cup of water, wondering vaguely if the men had died. She would worry about clean-up later. She quickly combined the bacon, pecorino, pepper, nutmeg, and a little pasta water in a bowl off the flame. Before the mixture cooled, she would add eggs.

“Whatever that is, it sure smells good,” Kevin thundered, striding up the stairs. “I wish my wife could cook like that!”

Kevin stopped to lean over the butcher block smiling as if they were old friends. Sara heard water running in the basement. She considered Kevin’s bovine eyes and sweat stained shirt with equal disdain and lust. She wanted to ask, What do you do with my husband that I don’t do? “It’s the bacon,” Sara said. “The smell’s overpowering now, but the taste is sublimated in the finished dish.”

“Bacon?” said Kevin, “I don’t eat bacon.”

“Yes, it should be pancetta, not bacon. But the flavor transforms when all the lesser ingredients are combined with eggs in the sauce. You know, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. ”

“I wouldn’t know about that, ma’am. I’m a vegetarian.”

Ma’am? Really? Sara laughed out loud into his big, brown eyes, the earnest eyes of livestock. She could roast him and put an apple in his mouth. “Of course you are. Very nice.”

Kevin rapped the countertop with his knuckles as though some matter had been settled between them and said, “Well, have a good one!” Mike’s soft footsteps ascended the stairs as Kevin banged the side door shut and left. Sara felt jilted.

“Can I help?” said Mike.

Sara could have said he could help her by never seeing Kevin again, by taking her time and her demands seriously, by leaving this freakish town full of pod people behind and going somewhere exotic and fun for once. It wasn’t like they didn’t have the money. Instead, she told him dinner was almost ready and he could go sit down.

The first egg was always the hardest to break. Depending on how fresh and whether it was white or brown, commercial or organic, the shell might require a different touch when cracked against the edge of the bowl. Sara never broke the eggs in a separate vessel for safety. She went straight into the dish. Sara took a moment to appreciate the pristine shell and marveled how it could stay cool despite remaining out at room temperature for over an hour in the hot kitchen, and brushed her lips lightly on the shell before she brought it down on the open bowl and then folded it in and served.

Mike said it was great. He had a second plate. Then he said he had to go to Kevin’s to return something Kevin had left behind and no, it couldn’t wait until morning. Kevin would be out in the field tomorrow. “The basement’s a mess,” Mike said with an uncomfortable laugh. “Don’t go down there until I clean it up, okay?”

What choice did Sara have? She never went in the basement, but she would go tonight. Mike had declared it unsound. Bluebeard’s wife, alone in the castle, must use the secret key and glimpse her fate.

The lights went out as she started down the stairs and Sara said to herself I’ve seen this movie before. She trod cautiously through the quagmire of cords, drawn to a milky fungal glow and peculiar damp odor being emitted from beneath Mike’s PC. The only way to get a better look was to lie down on the floor below the desk, face up. Sara’s forehead flushed from the sudden heat. Her eyes watered from the stink. Pushing away a fine mesh of fibers like doll’s hair woven across the phosphorescence, Sara uncovered an oblong orb embedded in the wiring.

She pulled it free.

Sara sat up in the black confusion of cables with her legs crossed, hair askew from her foray on the floor, the orb large like an emu egg grasped in her hands. She needed both hands to hold it. The orb radiated its own light, illuminating Sara’s reflection in its mirror-like shell. Sara stared at her own face in miniature, puzzled at first that she could not see her hair, then noting as she moved closer how the blurred features seemed to float motionless and the eyes remained closed, how the fetal curve of the backbone stood out naked and raw although she was, of course, wearing clothes, and then she understood that she was not looking at a reflection of herself, but a replica, a homunculus gestating within the warm stinking shell. Fear and madness should have overtaken her. But Sara Santoro was not one to swoon. Curiosity and excitement filled her instead.

What do you do with my husband that I don’t do?

Sara had no doubt about her transmutational skills. Aunt Rosa, were she still alive, would try to undermine her, saying, A man like that, Sara, you can’t trust him. How do you even know he’s a man? Sara felt a visceral thrill. Giddy with delight, or perhaps with the noxious familiar odor of the orb, Sara started upstairs with joyful anticipation to prepare a final course. Great chefs embrace a challenge, and thereby embrace all of life. Ingredients like balut, the fertilized duck eggs popular in the Philippines, are rarely used in desserts except in the most avant-garde of kitchens.

Sara put the egg under lukewarm running water in the kitchen sink and then threw some frozen pastry dough into the microwave to thaw. After washing the shell, she cracked it open, pleased to see an adequate amount of yolk for custard. She sliced away the tough string of albumen and raw nerve connecting the embryonic imposter to its life source. The homunculus, its translucent skin displaying a webbed pattern of veins and arteries across a thinly veiled set of internal organs, did not scream like a mandrake as she expected, but shuddered once wetly and then lay still with a small bubble protruding from its lips. Sara halved it from head to groin, testing its texture. It held softly firm like an almost melted gelatin. Perfect. The hollow bones would crunch no more than crisped rice. Sara rolled out her pastry dough and beat sugar into the yolks over a bon marie, superseding the transformation her beloved had planned for her, preparing to face him and feed him her magnificent dish.




Joanna Koch’s short fiction appears in “Pins & Needles, A Journal of Contemporary Fairy Tales” and “Game Fiction Volume One” from Goldshader Press. She holds an MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University and an undergraduate degree in Fine Art. She lives near Detroit where she tends a small habitat garden and works as an advocate for women’s rights.

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