I spent the first half of my twenties accusing myself of being a feminist fraud for wanting a boyfriend who thought I was perfect. I had been a good girl, a maniacal, career-focused, intellectually stimulated woman who leaned-in, took a seat at the table, and made my voice so heard I had become hoarse. But none of that seemed to matter in the Los Angeles dating world.
Looking for love had led me into the defined biceps of guys who thought I might turn into an acceptable companion if, and only if I changed something about myself. If I lost fifteen pounds. If I didn’t say “fuck” so much. If I made more money. Less money. Had a smaller nose. Didn’t always want to eat pasta. If I didn’t have a belly.
At some point between learning how to flirt in high school chemistry class and stumbling furiously toward the eve of my twenty-sixth birthday, I had given up. Stopped dating completely. Packed away the dresses, heels, and the innuendo. Vowed to focus on myself. Sharing a chocolate chip cookie sundae with a guy who wouldn’t be afraid to caress an arm, thigh, or hip bigger than a size two, five, or eight only happened in my imagination.
A male sundae-lover definitely didn’t exist in a Los Angeles gym.
I went to the gym once.
My childhood best frenemy, Jenna, convinced me that the gym helped women burn energy, melt fat, and meet men. The entire experience mirrored meditation, she’d told me. “Don’t complain about being fat. Complain about things you can’t change.”
I went alone, without telling her that I had decided to test out her theory. Bad idea.
With my phone, tiny polka dotted towel, and headphones in hand, I entered the world of adult, organized, physical activity. It smelled like stale water.
I flashed my electronic guest pass at the laser scanner, kept my focus towards the back of the big square room, and moved quickly past the cardio machines, knowing that if I tried to run or elliptical or spin bike myself, I’d be exposing my newbie status. A tsunami of terror hit me, hard. I had no idea what to do in a place like this. I quickly looked for a place to fit in, a place to disguise myself. A group of women crowded around one weight machine like it was a pan of brownies and they had PMS. It seemed like the magic potion. It was the Miss Universe of the gym, and if they had to have it, so did I.
Jenna’s directions echoed in my mind. “Stretch first. You don’t want to pull a muscle. Touch your toes or something.” So I leaned against the wall and touched my toes. Except touching my toes was more like leaning my elbows against my bent, trembling knees. I bent over a little farther, and the back of my thighs burned. A couple of bones crackled, but I had a good view of the magical machine.
“Totally worth it,” I whispered to myself, rubbing my hamstrings. A woman in a full face of makeup, with boob-length blonde hair taught me how to use the contraption without knowing it. I continued touching my knees.
Step 1: adjust the weight on the machine. Step 2: pull the level that makes the thigh pads fly apart. Step 3: sit down. Step 4: clench thighs together. Step 5: Repeat. A lot.
It seemed easy enough. The blonde sitting on the machine made it look like thigh clenching was a way of life. Real women learn to walk, talk, read, and thigh clench. So when she was done, and the crowd of women had busied themselves with other gym work like butt extenders, and arm pumpers, I approached my machine like we had an intimate relationship.
“Looking good,” I said, patting the seat.
I adjusted my weight and assumed my clenching capacity would be 50 pounds. I didn’t want to look like a complete wimp. I pulled the lever, sat down, and tried to squeeze my thighs together. Nothing moved. The more I tried to pull my knees toward each other the more everything stayed in place. At that moment, I understood why the weight lifting men grunted. I closed my eyes and pressed my knees against the pads. A grumble vibrated inside of my stomach.
Roar like you’re a queen. Queen of the fucking jungle, I thought.
My best attempt at roaring resulted in a throat clearing sound, a thankfully silent fart, and yet again, a complete lack of movement.
I lowered the weight down to twenty-five pounds and did two of rapid squeezes. The weights slammed together, alerting everyone within ten feet of me that I worked hard. I pumped iron. Made my body fat cry.
A woman with a bright orange towel draped around her neck walked back and forth in front of me. Sighing and pacing. Her orange shoes squeaked each time she spun to walk in the opposite direction. She was hunting me. Staring. My knees hovered in mid-thrust, incapable of meeting in the center, already too shocked by this new range of motion. Orange bang and I had been subjected to watching my shameful attempts at exercise long enough. My inner thighs tingled, and damp sweat bubbled under my butt. I would sacrifice my time on the clencher before Orange Bang threw me to the floor in an exercise-induced rage. I rubbed my inner thighs before getting up.
“She’s all yours,” I said.
Orange Bang looked at me, her head now between her legs because she could actually touch her toes, and mouthed thanks. She wiped down the seat before she took her turn.
I stood in the middle of the gym, scanning to find my next work out option. A thick film of steam covered the floor to ceiling windows of the gym. Bathroom mirrors after a hot shower had nothing on these shining beauties. Men were everywhere. And only one of them had a belly that hung over his shorts. He was diligently at work, doing squats all the way across the length of the gym floor. Squat. Step. Squat. Step. I was relatively inexperienced when it came to exercise protocol and gym etiquette, but I was pretty sure squats could be done in one location. A trainer, dressed in the gym’s collared uniform shirt, stood in the corner scribbling on a clipboard. The squatter smiled through open teeth, and kept his eyes glued to the clipboard – his finish line.
A man, who could have been a football player, or model, or a professional Hulk impersonator, fumbled with the weight control on a machine that looked like a horse and carriage. Right next to me. He set his desired weight, somewhere way at the bottom of the weight stack, and then jumped into the empty space fit for a human’s body – the horse section of the horse and carriage. He rested in a squatting position, his legs bent at an awkward angle. It already looked painful to me, and he hadn’t moved yet. He placed the handles on his shoulders, and unbent his knees, until they were completely straight. He let out a guttural sound that, to me, suggest he tore something. I squinted, but couldn’t look away.
He pressed his chin into his chest, took a deep breath, and bent down again.
This was it. My next victim. It seemed simple enough, as long as I stuck with what I had found to be my twenty-five pound limit. The man, finished with his grunting and growling, stepped out of the machine, and looked my way. “You next?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Yeah. I do these all the time,” I said, not moving from my spot in-between the thigh clencher and the horse and carriage.
“I’ve got a couple sets left. Let’s rotate.” He patted the machine, raised his eyebrows, and then poured water into his mouth from a water bottle he held a foot away from his face.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Rotating sets sounded more like baking cakes than exercising. Instead of being clueless and admitting it, I was clueless and nodding. “Yep,” I said. “Rotations.” I cracked my fingers on my right hand one by one.
I assumed he would simply move on to the bigger and better things this place had to offer, maybe returning to the horse and carriage when he was done with a different machine.
Pulling the levers down to rest on my shoulders turned out to be impossible. I leaned against the back of the machine looking for switches or hooks or buttons that would make it do what I’d seen happen for the Hulk a few seconds ago. I refused to read the instructions. No one at the gym read the instructions on anything since I got there, and I wasn’t going to be the first one.
You are a lion, I thought. A lion goddess. Jenna will be jealous because you will look like a fucking lion goddess. And then I roared at myself. Out loud. While the levers of the machine were still in the air and I, stood there, obviously not lifting weights.
“Get off for a second. I’ll adjust it for you,” the hulky-man said. And then he laughed softly.
My face felt like it had caught on fire. I had been discovered. “Why are you still here?” My undercover mission was prematurely aborted. I got off the machine. “You didn’t happen to hear any roaring, did you? Cause, if you did, I think it was that lady over there with the orange towel.” He shook his head.
“If you did these all the time,” he said, “you’d probably know that you gotta pull this handle back here. It raises the height and loosens the shoulder rest.” He rattled the metal, pulled what had to be fifteen different handles, and slapped the machine. “We’ll just have to adjust it again when it’s my turn.”
“Thanks,” I said. I needed to make a quick recovery if I was going to survive this encounter with any dignity. “I meant, I come here a lot, but I never use this machine,” I said.
He dropped the weight from twenty-five to ten. I adjusted the underwire in my sports bra.
“You know, if you want to lose weight quickly you have to focus on your diet more than exercise,” he said, as if he were talking through me.
I got off the machine, made some excuse about having to use the bathroom, and walked to the water fountain near the entrance. We were separated by half a wall, a couple of mirrored pillars, and hundreds of sweaty people, but what he said felt like it lodged itself in between my ribs. Jenna had been so wrong. No one designated wanna-be Hulk as the king of the gym universe. He didn’t know if I was there to lose weight. He didn’t know what I ate on a regular basis, if I was actually healthy or not. He didn’t know anything about me, and yet, out of his mouth came an ice cold dagger.
But neither the Hulk or Jenna could know that the gym had gotten under my skin. So I stuck around. I played with a strange arm contraption, choked back tears of embarrassment, waved some free weights in the air, and accidentally hit the max speed button on my archenemy the treadmill before I ran out of the gym basically screaming.
When I came home sticky and red skinned, I looked in my own mirror for an entire hour. Sat and stared. It seemed like I had grown larger than I was when I left for the gym. I removed my faded white shirt and saw rolls of flesh that had in no way been taught a lesson by an ab-ripper. Without the support of my sports bra, my breasts were sagging and young, a complexity I still can’t understand. And under my yoga pants there were seas and valleys, mountains, craters, and hills that were either created by nearly twenty-six years of a delicious diet, or a poor genetic makeup. I sat for the entire hour, inspecting my body, centimeter by centimeter, wondering how anyone could unveil me, explore me, and touch me without seeing this history of a rebellious body. At the end of the hour, I was naked and alone and unchanged.
I texted Jenna.
Me 7:05 PM: Liar! Meditation does not exist at the gym. There are no magical fixes. I have boobs and thighs and arm bulges and cheeks and I hated the entire experience. Keeping my body the same. Thanks.
Jenna 7:10 PM: Hahaha, you actually went? Okay chubs. If you say so.
I knew my best frenemy was an asshole, but the longer I sat in front of the mirror, the more I solidified my belief that someone out there could love a stomach that wasn’t the countertop, washboard, six pack, bikini ready bombshell type. Jenna had to be wrong. Somewhere, there’s a single guy who would love a woman even though she despised the gym. He would probably have three sisters and would adore his mother. He might eat large portions of healthy lettuce wraps and protein shakes when in public, but at home would nurture gnocchi in pesto creams, butter sauces, and béchamel toppings. He’d indulge in garlic breads and steaks and brownies and ice cream cakes. When entertaining a lady, he would not stare at her disapprovingly if she went back to the kitchen for a second taste. And he certainly would not recommend that she accompany him on his next trip to the gym.
I wasn’t so desperate for designated exercise time that I was willing to justify paying hundreds of dollars a month to attend the sweatiest, most judgmental place on earth at four in the morning on a Thursday. I didn’t want to go running at four in the morning on a Thursday either. And doing crunches to an online workout video wasn’t my idea of an enthralling way to spend a Friday night. I wouldn’t have wasted a Monday night on that. I’d rather paint, or browse make up blogs, or learn how to play an instrument. Anything other than the gym, honestly.
I hoped that I could find a man willing love the naked woman sprawled exhausted and overwhelmingly bootylicious on the floor of her bedroom. I had only encountered the opposite of him. Then again, I didn’t bother to spend time in many different places – I went to my makeup studio, I went to the mall, to the bank, to buy groceries, the park– but surely the most enticing and rare of the male species must have gone to places like these too. If he did, he must have been hiding from me.
I was absolutely against the online dating world – if not for any larger reason than that upon meeting my initially two-dimensional friend, he might have found that my picture didn’t accurately portray who I was in person. Maybe he would expect my body to be similar to a nutritionist or a gymnast instead of a hardcore foodie or a self-proclaimed pizza connoisseur. I was always in the mood for a good, thin crust, fresh mozzarella covered pizza. Anyway, the body-type mix up was possible despite video chatting and selfie-sending. Honestly, no one ever looks like themselves on Skype.
And so, on the eve of my twenty-sixth birthday, in a gym induced state of fatigue, I threw both middle fingers in the air. Fuck Jenna, Orange Bang, the Hulk, and the gym.
“Victory,” I screamed. I stood in front of the mirror, middle fingers still up, swaying, spinning, and posing for no one but myself.
After many years of contemplation and in the face of all the things that men and women might have considered my cosmetic deal breakers, I decided to find new public places to spend some time, places that embraced bodies like mine. A place where I could find my person. My tribe. I committed to participating in a new social activity every weekend, even if I was uncomfortable or terrified. Promised myself I would stay for at least an hour. Pinky swore I would talk to or maybe even flirt with at least one guy during that time. One place, one hour, and a couple of weekends to find the love of my life. Or maybe to find a couple of men who showed potential. At least, that was the plan.
I walked into the cooking class alone on the first Saturday evening in February. My twenty-sixth birthday. The day I had casually titled Find My Soul Mate Date. It was raining outside, a cruel and unusual punishment for Angelenos. The windows of the corner restaurant speckled with condensation. A sign informed the public that the restaurant was closed for a private event, but it was written on a chalkboard positioned inside the closed door. Helpful, right? As I got farther into the room, the door behind me opened and closed, and hungry groups of people hummed and grumbled while retreating back into the damp night.
I brushed past empty tables for two or four, and targeted the ten people already in the back of the restaurant, not including the chef who wore a floppy, white hat covering the very top of what could only be a charmingly bald head. I wondered how many people in the group already knew each other before that night. It definitely crossed my mind that all ten of them came in a huge party bus, and that I would be the intruder, the odd woman out, the one oblivious goldfish in a pond of stunning family of koi.
Initially, I thought a cooking class would be a perfect event to find a man who appreciated a curvy body. But as I pried each foot off of the ground and then forced one in front of the other, I saw that of the ten people, only two males were present. One of them attached his pinky to the brightly polished pinky of a woman in a short black dress. Taken. Under no circumstances should a woman attempt to attract a man who obviously operates under the spell of another woman. Even I knew doing that brings bad dating karma. So I immediately diverted my attention to the other male. He was surrounded by a group of three women, and none of them looked particularly attached to him. I was interested, and terribly sweaty.
I made it my mission to sneak into a conversation with the only seemingly single man in the room. With about ten minutes until eight, we had time to mingle. The ten people were standing in subgroups of six and four, and I turned slightly to the right to angle myself at the single man. The more I focused, the more clammy my palms got. There was no ring on his left hand, and he had very nice facial hair – the kind that required special grooming tools and more time to perfect than the amount traditionally expected for a man to spend. I approved.
When I was about five feet away, I made eye contact with the woman standing next to the single man. I smiled. The extra fat on my stomach wiggled up and down with each bang of my heel against the floor. Looser clothes were on the list of necessary items for my next night out. While draping my coat over my right arm and sliding it in front of my stomach, I continued smiling. Looking friendly had to give off good vibrations.
Standing just slightly outside of the circle their bodies had formed, I leaned forward, glancing at each person’s face.
“Hello,” I said, which sounded way too professional and not at all fun. Who ruins saying hi? I waved, hoping it would lighten up my manly hello. Sweat formed in my armpits, lubricating my skin in the most unpleasant way. I made sure that my hand was the only part of my arm that moved. “I’m Katherine,” I said through a forced smile.
The woman standing next to the single man grabbed the hand I waved with and shook it. My arm flailed wildly as she pulled it up and down. Mission accomplished. Sweat droplets fell from my armpit and slid down the side of my torso, settling somewhere near my belly button. Pull yourself together. You’re not meeting the fucking President.
“My name is Mindy, and this is my brother Zander,” the woman said as she pointed to the single man.
All signs pointed to Zander’s potential. He had a sister, and she was friendly. Progress. I moved to shake Zander’s hand and I made a quick but complete once over. Brown eyes. Trimmed mustache. Crooked bottom teeth. Tousled black hair. Tight green shirt. Black suit jacket. Dark jeans. Converse. Maybe twenty-eight. Skinnier than the average guy. Cute.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. It looked like he was winking but I didn’t know for sure so I acted like he wasn’t and decided that I needed to say something interesting to Zander. That was my self-imposed requirement before meeting the other two people in the circle.
“So what brings you here on a Saturday night?” I said and then immediately regretted. It didn’t get any cheesier than that. No, the first thing out of my mouth was even worse than cheesy, it was strangely forward. Not even cute-forward. Just bizarre. No one says that tired line except cougars who know they sound like an extra from a one season sitcom. I continued picking myself apart for asking that question while Zander made conversation.
“My sister loves cooking. I live on the east coast so we don’t get to spend much time together. While I’m visiting I try to hang out as much as possible. Quality time, you know?” He grinned. His sister was chatting furiously with the other two women from the original group of four. I told myself to go for it. It. Zander. Flirting for the first time in five years. Because I had already been cheesy and strange, so I thought the night had to be up from here.
“And,” he hesitated a little, leaning forward, “I don’t ever turn down good food.” He smiled a one-sided grin.
And we have a winner, everybody! That was all I needed him to say.
Before I had the chance to convince myself that I totally wasn’t Zander’s type I was blurting out things like, “I could show you around sometime,” and “Maybe I could take you to see the Hollywood sign?” Determination goes a long way, I guess. He stared straight at me as stupid words fell out of my mouth. I stood there squeezing my arms into my sides, feeling shocked at my ability to be bold, and worrying that in about two seconds I’d be shot down. I wasn’t worried because I’d be getting shot down from Zander in particular, but because I didn’t want to be shot down at all. No one likes to be told they suck. The possibility of rejection, of someone saying right to my face that they didn’t want to get to know me, or even have a one night stand with me (not that a one-nighter was the goal, even though hell, it might be nice) was enough to make me run straight out into the rain and down the street to the closest gym. Really, any kind of rejection, even a remotely polite one, might as well scream “You’re not good enough,” or “You don’t look like that girl on T.V. and you probably eat a lot so taking you out to dinner would be too expensive.” I worried that if someone told me that I might want to change myself.
I resisted the sudden urge to bat my eyelashes and flip my hair because I wanted this guy to like me for me and not for whatever horrible impression of a runway model I could come up with on a fifty-four degree winter night in the back of an empty restaurant on Pico Boulevard.
“That’s nice, really. But, no need to show me around,” he says confidently. I knew it was coming. There was no chance that we had made a connection in the first place. I should have walked right back out into the rain when I saw there were only two guys here. I could have pretended I was a hungry customer turned away by the chalkboard announcement.
I wanted to break eye contact with him but he smiled and then I couldn’t look away.
“I’m from here originally. Born and raised. I work in New York now, but I’ll always be a California boy at heart. Actually, I could probably show you a thing or two about L.A.,” he says. He nudged my arm and walked over to his sister who had joined the pinky partners’ group.
I touched the spot on my arm where his elbow brushed my skin. I had become a giddy teenager in less than ten minutes.
“Everyone find your kitchen companion,” the man with the chef hat said. “It’s going to be a delicious night.” He walked around to the front of the kitchen where his counter top was, and explained in a thick Italian accent that the class would be making Fettuccini Alfredo. “Pasta and sauce from scratch,” he said, “because that is the only way.”
After everyone was paired up, Zander with his sister of course, myself and the second half of the pinky partners were the only two people standing alone. Her male companion found himself partnered with a woman with giraffe legs. He drooled and stood there staring, right at eye level with her breasts. I looked at him, and then back at the woman he came with. I sighed. “Men,” I said under my breath.
The kitchen assistant dropped a ball of dough on my work stand, slapping the dough once on its puffy top before she moved to the next pair of amateur cooks.
My partner’s name was Hunter and the pinky partner was her husband. She told me they have an open relationship, and patience is not in his nature. It was going to be a long night.
We began rolling out our own sections of pre-kneaded dough just like the chef instructed. “So,” Hunter said, moving her rolling pin in short bursts, “Anyone special in your life? A lover, I mean, not a best friend or a sassy grandma or anything.” Her eyes fixed on me, expectant. I told her I didn’t, and that I was in the market for a six-foot-two businessman who had a thing for bigger women.
“Oh please. You’re not a bigger woman,” she said, almost too quickly in my opinion. I laughed it off and put more pressure on the rolling pin. “Honestly Hunter,” I said, putting too much upper arm strength into the task, “you and I both know that out here anything bigger than a size 5 is a bigger woman these days.” Holes began to peek through my dough, which looked more like lace than like pasta. Hunter rolled her eyes.
“It’s true,” I continued. “ They call size eights plus sized models, and if any woman dares to call herself curvy but has a little extra stomach, then she’s not the hot kind of curvy she’s just fat.”
“Honey,” Hunter said, throwing a flour-covered hand in the air. “A little confidence goes a long way.”
“Do you know how long it took me to get into this dress?” I asked.
“Same amount of time it took me to get into this thing,” Hunter said, pushing her breasts together with her arms.
“Impossible,” I replied. “I’m a 10, the dress says it’s a 10, but it wanted to act like a 5 tonight,” I said, pulling the dress down at my thighs. Smudges of flour polka-dotted along the hemline. “My dress has multiple personalities.”
Hunter shook her head. “Poor thing,” she said while laughing. “All the best ones do.”
The chef spun around quickly in our direction. “All the best what?” he asked. He peered down his nose at our workstation, and held my dough up for the class to see. It hung in the air; the weight of the mass opened the holes up even more.
“Attention class! This dough here, is not the best. Don’t. Do. This.”
I could have sworn it wasn’t that bad stretched out on the counter. Even though there were only ten other people there, my face went red as he explained that my lack of technique resulted in a poor product.
“Stop all the talking. You are not focused,” he added.
I glanced around the room to gauge everyone’s reaction to the chef’s tirade and there he was. Zander. He looked at me and mouthed the words: I like it. He shrugged his shoulders.
I felt sweat seep from the pores in my hands. The rolling pin slid easily against my palms. The chef handed my dough back to me, and I crumpled it up to start over. The chef shook his head. “You are not a natural. It will take more work,” he said. Zander watched and laughed silently. With my crusty ball of dough in hand, I swung it through the air in a halfhearted attempt to hurl it at Zander’s head. I quickly slapped it back onto the counter, and blew him a small kiss. Zander held up his flattened dough and swirled it in the air like a pizza.
“The biggest and most important rule of my kitchen, this kitchen, or any kitchen is: do not play with the food,” the chef said as he wandered over to Zander’s station. He said something directly to him that I couldn’t hear. I was staring long and intently enough that I should have been able to read their lips, but I couldn’t. The chef walked away and Zander whispered in his sister’s ear. In that instant I was already jealous of their relationship. If he were that interested in me, wouldn’t he have looked at me first? After all, we were having an across the room food fight when he got busted. His attention should have been directed at the last person of contact before the interruption.
And there I went. My imagination exploded in a fury of fake memory montages: my first date with Zander, quickies before work, meeting the family, Thanksgiving dinners. We had absolutely no relationship and I was already acting like we had to decide which set of parents to visit on Christmas.
If Zander would have shown up here alone like me, maybe then we could have been partners. Maybe I could have practiced this flirting thing without adding in the complications of jealousy. I was still watching him when Hunter began to tell me about how she and her husband met. She mentioned something about Palm Springs in the summer time and a business trip to get away from his ex-wife who was adamantly against the open relationship lifestyle. But when Zander’s eyes met mine and I had absolutely no idea what Hunter was talking about anymore. He winked. I was sure of it.
“After going through all of that,” Hunter said, “I knew for sure he was supposed to be my husband. If we could get through something like that and still be in love. And I mean he really supported me through it all, then I could explore a non-traditional relationship for him.”
“Definitely,” I said, pretending to be completely up to speed with the conversation.
“Who knew I would love it so much?” Hunter burst into laughter. “Well, honey that’s life.”
I nodded, the other half of my consciousness sill across the room lost in whatever Zander was doing with his hands.
My hands had given up on rolling my useless crumbly ball of dough into anything edible. So Hunter made the fettuccini. I asked Hunter if she thinks she has found true love. She handed me a hand held pasta cutter and a sheet of dough. “Do that.” She pointed to the screen at the back of the class, magnifying the intricate work of the chef. Hunter slipped her section of dough through the slicing machine as she looked at me and asked, “is dough only pasta after you cut it?”
“Not sure,” I said.
Hunter raised her eyebrows, and plopped the long noodle into a pot of boiling water. “So you’re the type who likes to speak in riddles?” I asked.
“A little bit.”
We dropped the fettuccini into boiling, salted water, and the chef taught everyone how to make Alfredo sauce with butter, Parmesan cheese, and a little heavy cream.
“No garlic or onion or any extra seasoning. Not authentic,” he said.
I let Hunter do most of the work. My job was to stir. Wooden spoon in my hand, I stirred and stirred to meld the ingredients into one united sauce, and to keep it from burning. My hand sweat made the spoon slide around in my grasp. The damp hands could have been a result of nerves or a product of the sauce’s tiny sauna. Both were equally possible. I stirred while I looked at the back of Zander’s head wondering if he was too handsome. I wondered if he lived too far away, or was too skinny, or too rich, or too smart to be interested in someone like me. I consoled myself with the idea that he could simply be a nice guy. The nice guy who said nice things to the sort of chubby girl who came to the cooking class alone. I laid the spoon handle against the side of the pan and then wiped my palm against my shirt.
“I’m sorry if I’m being too intrusive,” I said to Hunter, who still hadn’t told me the status of her belief in one true loves. “I thought we were sharing stories.”
“I haven’t heard very much about your story yet.”
“Well,” today’s my birthday-“
“And you’re by yourself?” She looked surprised. “That’s usually a thirty-something thing to do.”
“How do you know I’m not thirty-something?”
“Honey, because I’m thirty-something. You’re still a baby.”
“I’m twenty-six today, thank you.”
“I’m twenty-six today, and I’m-” I lowered my voice. “I’m trying to meet people, kind of the old fashioned way. I felt like I needed to do it on my own. Be responsible for my own happy ending.” I tapped the top of the sauce with my spoon. “So here I am.”
Hunter directed her attention to Zander, and then back to me. Then she did it a couple more times, raising her eyebrows the whole time.
Hunter asked if I was interested in the guy with the black suit jacket. “You know, the guy who likes to play with his food,” she said. “I know you want to go talk to him. In my opinion, he’s a little immature for you, but if that’s what you like…” I stirred the sauce again, my eyes fixed on the pot.
“Oh come on, you’ve been staring at him the entire time. I thought you were going to slip your fingers into the pasta machine.” The pasta machine was highly frowned upon by the chef, but was there in case anyone was inadequate with slicing by hand.
“Practice. Practice. Practice.” The chef clapped after every pause. He stopped to hover over every station, inspecting the sauce’s aroma.
An intense heat flooded my cheeks and I wondered if I had in fact been that obvious. “Look, Zander seems alright but I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough for one night,” I said. “I just want to eat this pasta and head home.”
The chef stopped at our station, adjusted his hat, and yelled with a wide-open mouth. “Practice!” He clapped twice.
Hunter dropped the freshly drained fettuccini into the alfredo sauce and inhaled deeply. “Sweetie, don’t be sorry when that cutie walks right out of here and you never see him again. Mine likes to be curious and all,” she said, gesturing to her husband who was chatting with the giraffe girl and not even attempting to learn about making fettuccini alfredo, “but I know who means the most to him.” She smiled and dropped fresh pasta into boiling water
“True love?” I asked.
“Our own kind of true love.”
At the end of the class everyone was sitting around eating fettuccini with slices of bread and drops of olive oil and the scent of Italy rising from the pots seated on multiple stoves. I shoved my elbow into Hunter’s side when I saw that Zander was walking over to our station. “Oh my God,” I said as I shoved a forkful of pasta into my mouth.
“Swallow that pasta! You don’t want to look like a pig, do you?” She giggled after asking and I assumed it was to take away the sting of calling me a pig.
“Asshole,” I muttered to her. She ignored me.
I swirled the fettuccini around my fork and asked Hunter if she thought it was pasta or dough now. “Both.” She shrugged and I swallowed. I shoveled in another bite hoping I would still be chewing when he reached our station.
He started talking before he made it all the way to where I was sitting. “How’d yours come out? Mine was a little dry,” he said, attempting to replicate the chef’s accent. All I could manage with my mouth fully occupied by creamy starch and cheese was a clumsy head nod.
“I take it that nod means your food was molto magnifico,” he said with some kind of waving hand gesture. “Your horrible job on the rolling must have been the secret.”
“Did you have too much wine or do you always speak in tiny spurts of Italian?” I asked.
Hunter butt-bumped me from her spot at the counter, and then cleared her throat.
I took another bite of the fettuccini, a little smaller this time, hoping that having something to do with my mouth would excuse any moment of silence in case the small talk grew stale. As I looked up from my plate, I noticed Zander’s eyes weren’t focused on my face. He wasn’t even staring at my chest like I expected. His eyes were glaring at the area directly underneath my chest, and I couldn’t be sure what his conclusion about that area was. I had a feeling it could be something like: This girl should really stop with the forklift of cheese and cream ‘cause I can see right where it’s headed, and it’s not pretty. I stood up immediately to help disguise the bounding rolls. I smiled and took another bite. Bigger this time.
“My sister and I are leaving now, but I thought maybe I could get your number,” he hesitated, for what I could only explain as an attempt to read my reaction. “In case I forget something about L.A. and need a tour guide or something.” He smiled and his eyes traveled from my face back down to my stomach, and all the way to my feet. I didn’t know if he was intrigued or appalled.
“I think its sweet that you’re asking, really, but you really don’t have to do that,” I said. I put my plate down and wondered if his sister put him up to this. She probably said, “Zander, that poor girl looks so lonely. And I can tell she likes you. She could have a fun time with a successful, attractive guy for once. Show her a good time and then go back to New York. No harm done.” I could just imagine it happening. If I could read lips I probably would have recognized the exact moment it happened too.
“Don’t have to do what?” Zander asked as he fumbled with his cell phone. I pressed my tongue into the corner of my lips and wished I was still chewing so I could buy myself some time to respond without having to tell him the ugly truth. I couldn’t tell him that I was too afraid to give him my number because if he never called all of my fears would be staring me in my big, hope-filled face. I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t want him to call out of pity, or because he just wanted a girl he wasn’t attracted to for a friend so that the relationship would never get messy and complicated. I must have stood there thinking for too long because he shifted his weight to his left side and asked, “So do you have a boyfriend or are you just not interested after all?” His gaze stayed on my face this time.
All at once I could see my heart breaking before it happened. If we actually started a relationship his friends would ask him when he started being into bigger chicks. They’d tell him he could do better. His mother would disapprove. His sister would tell him she didn’t mean for us to actually date, she just wanted us to have a little fun. He would go back to New York and would decide that he’s too nice of a guy to dump me. So we would have a long distance relationship, and then he would run into a model on her way to a photo shoot. He would cheat on me and they would fall in real love. And it would all be because I was never meant to be with someone that far out of my league anyway.
“Its none of that Zander. I actually have to go. It’s getting so late. Great job on the dough though!” I turned around, grabbed my coat and my plate of pasta, and ran out of the kitchen and into the cold, sprinkling night.