He had never been a masterful cook. Yet, as with all things in life, he tried. And tried, and tried. As though possessed by the spirit of Winston Churchill. Dogged in his pursuit of things that he didn’t necessarily have an aptitude for. But he was of the firm belief that if one just kept making the attempt, a talent would flourish. Some might call that the very definition of insanity. Repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Ben, instead, called it practice. And, at this very moment, that’s what he was doing with an endeavor to make mushroom risotto.
His experience with getting the texture and consistency of the dish just right had always been negative. Even so, he was determined to get it right for Deborah, who he was having over to his apartment for the first time since they’d started dating roughly a month and a half ago. He had been nervous about letting her see where he lived as, for one thing, she had to walk through the Tenderloin to get to it, and, for another, it was unavoidably cramped and unkempt. He did his best to make it look not quite so sad, vacuuming and dusting–even investing in some pathetic generic art from the Target on Mission Street. It amounted to: if he didn’t make her the most delicious meal of her life, she might never return again. Thus, he was feeling a sense of pressure that one should never have to when cooking; that is, if they want the meal to turn out well. With a sense of love rather than frustration. And as he frantically moved about the kitchen like a mad scientist in a disarrayed lab, he wondered how much of this desire to please Deborah stemmed from actually liking her versus his own detestment of not being liked himself.
This need to please arose long ago, as most things, in childhood. His mother’s constant disapproval and open disdain for most of his choices–his obvious lack–caused him to develop a complex that made him more obsequious toward others than he ought to be. Deborah was just another one of those people. Someone who was clearly settling for him because she had reached a certain age and likely wanted to have children within a five-year period. Even so, it seemed as though she was still making her mind up as to whether to settle for him or someone else she probably had on the back burner (like his risotto). That meant one little cock-up and it was a life spent alone. Pitiably in this efficiency apartment with a Murphy bed and shitty Target art. No, the risotto needed to be perfect. And just as he was chanting this to himself while pouring a dash more of oil into the pan simmering the mushrooms, the liquid–turned instantaneously to lava on contact with the rest of the oil–sprung up at him, a number of droplets planting themselves with force directly upon his right wrist. He gritted his teeth rather than screaming, as though a part of him relished the pain because he somehow deserved it. That was the effect of a lifetime of being told he wasn’t good enough. As he watched the oil seep into his skin and turn it a purplish-red that was fast growing into a boil, he grinned, finding a strange pleasure in this pain that he had only known in emotional form. He could never recall such a sharp sensation of agony in this corporeal iteration. Had never even so much as sprained an ankle thanks to the way he kept himself sealed off from the world as often as possible so as to avoid its judgment. This was new and delightful territory that made him briefly forget the task at hand altogether.
He was shaken out of his trance by the hissing of the oil in the pan threatening to come for him again if he didn’t pay attention. The mushrooms were veering on overly charred as he emptied them onto a plate and proceeded to stir the risotto that had been brewing atop a light flame of another burner. This meal was going to be shit, he accepted. Which meant it was a good thing he had overstocked on wine. Get her drunk enough beforehand, and maybe she wouldn’t notice yet another deficiency in him: that he couldn’t cook. That he couldn’t do much of anything accept hurt himself and others around him. The boil festered and intensified as he ran cold water over it (learning too late that the temperature should have been warm so as to draw the pus to the surface), not knowing what else to do. Soon, the suppuration would begin. But not before the chills, followed by a feverish state that meant his immune system was not as strong as he previously thought. For, according to the internet, it was usually only those in poor health who reacted so drastically to a boil formation. All he would need now to confirm he was more infirm than he thought was the development of an additional boil next to it in a couple days.
In his flurry of thought over yet another corroboration that he was weak, mediocre at best, he was jarred by the sound of a knock at the door. How could she do this to him? Show up twenty-six minutes early when she should have been at least fifteen minutes late. The kitchen looked like a post-atom bombed Hiroshima, Ben looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s unsightly assistant, Igor (or Fritz, depending on who you ask). Someone who should, in short, never leave the basement. But he had to if he was going to answer Deborah’s Morse code missive.
Opening the door with his boil on full display as he reached out to take the bottle of wine she had brought like a doting little guest, she gasped in horror. “Ben, what the hell happened?”
“Oh nothing, just a minor culinary setback.”
“It doesn’t look minor at all. Can I make you an ice pack or something?”
Why did everyone assume ice was the solution for a wound? “Don’t worry about it, Deborah. Honestly, it doesn’t even hurt,” he assured as it seemed to augment in size before her very eyes, literally spawning other boils that pocked the length from his wrist to his forearm.
“Um…are you quite sure?”
“Don’t even think about it. I have a lovely dinner prepared for us, which has made this physical deformity all worth it. Now, let me pour you some of this wine.” Though he was trying to come across as breezy, he knew he was actually sounding insane. The deranged man with boils who had lured a princess to his lair. He wanted nothing more than this dinner to be over, and he was already fairly certain he wasn’t going to get laid in this state. She was overtly repulsed as they sat across from one another at his butter pat-sized table in his fishbowl-sized kitchen. This was a terrible idea, he realized. Why would she ever want to take things further with him after seeing him in his natural habitat?
Although he could have covered up his arm, the grating feel of any cloth against it as he maneuvered his arm to eat was a level of pain even his masochistic ass wasn’t on board with at the moment. The humiliation of being in front of Deborah in this state already doloric enough. He just wanted the dinner to be over and for her to leave. There was no possible way he could envision enduring the embarrassment of pulling down the Murphy bed for her to join him in. Not that she was likely to ask to stay the night in this dump anyway. Maybe some part of him wanted her to see this. See that she ought to cut and run before it was too late.
She looked as though she was choking down the dry risotto with burned mushrooms rather than eating it. The awkwardness could have been cut with a petite Swiss army knife. They were both struggling to get through this ordeal with sandpaper conversation that was almost more painful than silence. Who knew environment could be so impactful on a dynamic? It was as though they were being observed like rats in a scientific study: how one group reacts to what is supposed to be a romantic social situation in a decrepit milieu complete with physical deficiency on the part of one rat versus a group in a luxurious, comfortable setting wherein both rats are physically unblemished. Sipping his umpteenth glass of wine as a means to ignore how excruciating this scenario was, he could feel the boils start to flare up, throbbing and pulsing as though being born. All at once, they proceeded to shoot pus out like bullets aimed straight at Deborah’s face, her mouth partially opened in mid-chew just long enough for some of the pus to creep in. She started coughing in horrified response. The retching leading her to flee toward the bathroom, where brown water emitted from the sink as she tried to wash herself off.
Ben sat silently at the table, looking down at his blistered arm and then to the empty chair in front of him. Yes, some people were too monstrous for monogamy. Your Quasimodos and your Calibans. Now, Ben had the medieval exterior to prove what his mother had always emphasized to him. He was a lusus naturae. The sound of Deborah slamming the door to the exit was but an exclamation point on that thought.