Haunted (excerpt)

The sun had fallen, disappearing behind the horizon and leaving the kitchen sleepy and dim.  Ami had been sitting there awhile, grading a stack of Lord of the Flies essays analyzing instinct versus order—a mind-numbing topic when put in the hands of 100 tenth graders.  It was nearly seven and the darkness reminded her that she’d promised dinner tonight, a task that usually fell within Tim’s domain, but he was working late—mandatory drinks.  Lawyers had different ways of earning promotions, traditional work hard/get promoted rules be damned.

For the last month following her mother’s death, she’d had no appetite and dinner was often a bowl of cereal, or a handful of almonds and a banana, simple things easily put together.  She never craved one thing or the other, just went through the motions to help stop the fidgeting and restlessness that consumed her in place of the energy-zapping depression that she expected. 

Hunger had recently awakened again, the need to fill herself up every moment driving her to eat more frequently and in larger portions.  But over the last few days, the repetitive flavors she was most adept at producing—bland creaminess and subdued heat—had become unappealing.  Suddenly, today, she desired the flavors she’d abandoned for spoonfuls of mac and cheese or ten-minute burritos that tasted more like canned beans than any other ingredient.  What she most craved was the mixture of spices her mother used in all dishes, the kick that helped clear her sinuses and was so specifically Indian.  The smell of oil and turmeric and paprika mixed with coriander and curry powder had always reminded her not of the special occasions—like Diwali or her engagement—but of weeknights spent doing her homework while her mom spent an hour in the kitchen preparing vegetables such as okra or cauliflower for dinner.  When they needed a quick fix of something more intense, her mother would make chickpeas and serve them alongside fluffy puris, which she would fry once the rest of the family came to the table so that everyone (except for her) could enjoy them while they were hot.

Earlier in the day, Ami had located the index card on which she’d written the channa masala recipe and she reviewed it now, gathering the list of ingredients from the cupboards and fridge.  The comfort of having everything in one place—canned garbanzos, plump hothouse tomatoes, an onion and even the rarely-used Tupperware full of tiny spice jars her mother had filled and labeled and often referenced in her cooking tangents over the phone—reassured her. 

She turned the knob and ignited the gas flame.  Placing a saucepan above it, she embraced the challenge of making her first from-scratch Indian meal.  For years, she had no interest in this task, and then, when she finally took interest after college, she feared if she tried, she would discover a deficiency in her own ability.  But today, she felt like she had to prove to herself that she could recreate the beloved dish.  A combination of emotions fueled her fervor as she poured the oil: guilt, shame, self-doubt, and a growing sense of judgment that had been implanted by her mother and now lived in her conscience. 

As the oil heated, she chopped.  First the onions, then a small tomato.  She added these to the pan and when the onions appeared golden, she began to measure out the spices: channa masala, garam masala, coriander powder, turmeric, salt, chili powder, garlic.  The quantities were specific, but knowing how hard she’d had to push her mother to commit to a tablespoon or teaspoon, she doubted any would be accurate.  It had been two years since she’d recorded the recipe and she had yet to prepare it.  It was meant to be for Tim’s birthday, a dish her mother had ins

isted he’d like, and so Ami had taken it down and stored it away, knowing that the recipe he’d prefer was the fettuccini alfredo they’d enjoyed on their first date. Today, her mother’s recipe was relevant again, unearthed from where it’d been buried.

For several minutes, she watched the pot too closely and stirred the mixture too often. She tasted it over and over. She forgot to adjust the salt and garlic and then overly relied on the channa masala to fill in some flavor. She regretted not having observed her mother’s technique; a firsthand demonstration would’ve helped her hone her instinct before attempting these meals on her own. Without any direction or point of reference other than the tasty final product she’d enjoyed many times as a child, she cooked aimlessly, pushing away the claustrophobic angst that threatened to consume her, the void of being lost.