The date indicated in the Mayan calendar as the day the world would end had come and gone with no major catastrophes.
The end of Margherita’s world instead depended on three things that all happened that Thursday.
But she didn’t know it yet.
Though there had been some ominous signs.
Margherita was in a large round room with lots of doors. I have to get out of here, I have to leave, she thought to herself. So she went to the first door and tried the handle, but to no avail. The door had been double locked. She tried the second door. Nothing. Anxiety started welling up inside her. She couldn’t stay there. She just had to get out. In desperation, she began running from one door to the next, feeling like a prisoner. There was only one door left. It was
the smallest of them all. She held out her hand fearfully. When she touched it lightly, the door sprang open. There, before her, appeared an immense, bright kitchen, overflowing with delicious, irresistible food, the fragrances tickling her nostrils . . . As she entered, though, the door began to shrink—or was it she who was growing disproportionately? She tried to walk through it but got stuck, unable to move or call for help . . . She felt more and more overpowered. Suddenly, the kitchen disappeared from sight, only to be replaced by a long, dark corridor. She struggled with the choking feeling in her throat; she tried to breathe, to free herself, to get some air . . .
All at once and gasping for breath, Margherita came out from under the tangle of blankets and furs that engulfed her in the double bed that took up most of the small bedroom. Francesco, her husband, gave an exasperated sigh and buried his head under his pillow. The furs moved in unison, revealing first a small bicolored face with big golden eyes and pointy ears, then a round pitch-black one, and, last, a bristly fat face covered in tangled fur that rather resembled the wild hairstyle of his owner.
Ratatouille, Asparagio, and Artusi.
“God, what a nightmare!” Margherita sighed in relief as she patted and scratched the two cats and the mutt that were vying for her attention: one was nibbling her big toe, another was “kneading” her legs, while the third was insistently pushing his paw against her arm.
At that moment, the radio alarm began playing a cheerful melody. As the last notes faded away, a woman’s voice said, “Scorpio. Squeezed between Mars and Saturn, you’ll have to wait until summer to smile again. If Mars is an anvil, then Saturn is the hammer! Today, its influence will force
you to eliminate from your life everything that is in any way weak or wrong.”
Margherita’s blue eyes darkened as she contemplated the radio with annoyance.
“Expect a very negative day,” the voice continued. “You will be oppressed by news that you would rather not hear, but because you are a Scorpio, you will know how to benefit from Saturn’s passage to make some important decisions.”
With a flick of her hand, Margherita changed the station. What a great way to start the day!
First, the nightmare. Now, this horoscope.
Normally, Margherita didn’t believe in ominous dreams, nor did she set much store by cataclysmic horoscopes.
Earsplitting hip-hop filled the room.
“Margy!” Francesco popped his head out from under the pillow and stared at her angrily. “Will you turn that damned alarm off?”
“Sorry,” she said, pressing the off button while he buried himself once more under the pillow.
Margherita couldn’t help thinking back to when it was Francesco who would get up early to make her a cup of coffee, which he would carry to their bed with a customary, “Good morning, sweetheart.” It had been such a tender ritual, and sometimes, between a kiss, a witty remark, a caress, they’d end up making love . . .
When exactly had everything changed?
For how long now had she been the one to get up, make coffee and breakfast, to try to sweeten his awakenings that seemed to be getting grumpier by the day?
I don’t know.
She needed to do something to neutralize these thoughts that were making her feel restless. She hopped
out of bed and landed on the floor, surrounded by a chorus of howls and meows, pulling all the blankets off the bed with her.
“Ratatouille, Asparagio, Artusi, let’s go, time for breakfast!”
“Margy, it’s the same old story every day!” Francesco’s voice was muffled by the pillow, but she could still tell he was angry. “Why don’t you teach them that the bed is off-limits?” he continued, as he tried to straighten out the heap of blankets.
Margherita’s feeling of vexation grew. And it made her feel guilty. After all, he was tired and stressed-out; she should try to be more understanding.
He works so hard, we don’t have a lot of money, and I lost my job at the call center . . .
“You’re absolutely right,” she answered sweetly. “I’ll take them into the other room.”
As she left the bedroom followed by her tribe, she heard him muttering something she couldn’t quite make out.
The walls of the short, narrow corridor that led to the kitchen (or, to be more exact, to the corner that Margherita obstinately referred to as the kitchen) were covered from top to bottom with pictures of her animals in funny poses, some individually, some in groups. Besides the threesome that was noisily following her at the moment, some of the pictures also featured a large mynah with shimmering feathers. The same one that greeted her as soon as Margherita lifted the cloth draped over the cage next to the window.
“Good morning, Valastro!”
“Hello, my love!” the bird replied, poking its beak between the bars to peck affectionately at her hand. She’d
found the bird with a broken wing, and after nursing it back to health, it had become a full-fledged member of her furry/feathery tribe.
Margherita smiled and gazed fondly at her motley crew of pets gathered around her in that corner of the house she liked so much: filled to the brim with all kinds of kitchen equipment, the refrigerator covered with magnets all inspired by food, and a plaque hanging over the stove that read QUIET . . . CHEF AT WORK!
“I love you all . . . ,” she said tenderly, as she held a few seeds out to Valastro.
Francesco had tried to convince her not to bring the whole menagerie to their new home. “Sweetheart, in just under five hundred square feet, there’s barely enough room for us, let alone for two cats, a dog, and now a bird, can’t you see?” But Margherita had been adamant about it. She had accepted the idea of moving to Rome, of looking for a new job, of living in this concrete nightmare where, if you opened the window on one side, all you could see was a wall, and if you opened the window on the other side, you could see your neighbors. “But honey, it’s quiet and it’s cheap, it’s a bargain!” he’d told her, having given up on his dream of becoming a musician and accepting a mundane job in a real estate agency. But Margherita had refused to go anywhere without her pets.
As she fumbled with the coffeepot and cups of all different colors and sizes, Margherita found herself thinking that nothing had gone as she’d imagined. She had dreamed of living with Francesco in a house with a big garden where her animals could run and play while she dedicated herself to new culinary inventions and he rehearsed musical compositions that would make him famous—dreams
that had been shattered one after the other. All that remained was their love for each other. But wasn’t that the most important thing? So how could she explain the vague feeling she was having lately? Once again, she drove the thought from her mind, focusing instead on preparing breakfast for her various customers: no canned food was allowed in her house. “Do you have any idea the kind of junk they put in there?” she had asked her husband indignantly when he’d suggested buying the food wholesale to save money.
After she’d finished feeding her pets, Margherita meticulously prepared a cup of fragrant coffee for Francesco and set it on a tray along with some of the coconut chocolate cookies she’d made the night before, trying to ignore the negative vibes she felt slithering inside her like a snake. Was it the nightmare that was bothering her? Or that horoscope? Or something else?
“Margy . . . where’s the coffee?” Francesco’s voice, part impatient and part beseeching, kept her from completing her train of thought. Yet one image did manage to cross her mind: a color photo that gradually faded into melancholy sepia, then into blurry black-and-white, and, last, into a gloomy negative. Was this what had happened to her life? She mentally drew a curtain over the image. She hurried toward the bedroom, set the tray down next to her husband, stroked his face, his hair, and . . . put her lips on his. But his kiss seemed hasty and absentminded—or was it just her gloomy frame of mind that made her think so? Francesco sipped his coffee, ignored the cookies, and got up in a hurry.
“It’s late.” Then he looked straight at her and, knitting his eyebrows, he said, “Please, Margy. Don’t make me look
bad, my boss himself made the call to the person in charge of hiring.”
Margherita just managed to hold back a snort.
“I know, I know. You’ve only told me about a million times already!”
“Only because you’re the one who keeps losing her job!”
Now, that was a stab in the back!
“Are you saying it was my fault that the boiled cod who calls himself the manager at the call center fired me?”
“He fired you because you were suggesting recipes instead of convincing people to pay up!”
“I was trying to establish a rapport . . .”
Why, oh, why do I always have to justify what I do?
“All right, all right,” Francesco cut her off. “This job should be the right one for you. It involves food and people. The two things you like best, right?”
Why was the tone of his voice so . . . condescending?
But it was no time to start an argument, Margherita decided. After all, he’d gone to all that trouble to help her; he’d disturbed the big boss . . . Of course, working as a promoter for a cheese company wasn’t exactly what she’d been dreaming of doing all her life, but nothing could be worse than working in a debt collection call center.
“So this time there shouldn’t be any hitches,” he concluded, taking her silence as a yes. “Besides, the interview is really just a formality, all you have to do is smile and show you’re interested in the product. We need that job, don’t you forget that! So get going, or you’ll be late.”
He disappeared into the bathroom.
“All you have to do is smile and show you’re interested in the product!” Margherita repeated in a mocking tone. She looked at her watch and sighed. She threw open the
window, fluffed up the pillows and made the bed, ran to the “kitchen” to wash the cups and dishes that had been left (by Francesco) in the sink, then raced to the living room area to straighten out the sofas, make a neat pile of the magazines that had been strewn about everywhere (by Francesco), pick up the sneakers (Francesco’s) peeking out from under the sofa, open the windows, stick the sneakers in the shoe rack, pull out a pair of her own, put her coat on over her pajamas, put Artusi on a leash, and rush outside.
Once she was out in the street, she tried to hurry the dog, who, fruitlessly, seemed to be looking for a few blades of grass in the cracks of the neglected and ramshackle sidewalks, over which loomed, in a vaguely threatening way, the monotonous concrete tenements that made up their “residential district,” as it was called in the ads created by the agency Francesco worked for. Margherita closed her eyes and for a second imagined that she was at home, in Roccafitta, that she could smell the flowers, which must have been in full bloom by then, and breathe in the smell of the sea carried by the spring breeze . . .
“Hey, lady, what are you, asleep? Get off the road!”
Margherita quickly opened her eyes and met the hostile stare of a driver. The scents and fragrances of home faded away, replaced by the enraged honking of cars. Margherita hurried back onto the sidewalk, pulling Artusi by the leash as she tried to convince him to follow her home.
When Margherita got back to the apartment completely out of breath, Francesco was coming out of the bathroom. Margherita took off her coat, got out of her pajamas, and, while balancing on one foot, grabbed her clothes.
“Still not ready?” Francesco looked at her disapprovingly. “You can’t be late today!”
Margherita had to purse her lips to keep from answering rudely, and locked herself inside the bathroom without saying a word.
He’s being obnoxious!
A half hour later she had arrived, puffing and panting, at the address for her job interview.
I need to smile and look interested.
The line of hopefuls whose turns were before hers soon got shorter. When they called Margherita’s name, she found herself standing in front of a guy in his thirties wearing a blue suit, hair sculpted with gel, and a fake smile on his face.
“Mrs. Carletti, do come in, I was expecting you,” he said as though they were accomplices, which irked Margherita right from the start. If they didn’t really need this job, and if Francesco hadn’t insisted, she would never have accepted his boss’s help. Instead . . .
I need to smile and look interested.
She turned on autopilot and nodded enthusiastically while listening to the man’s spiel about the role of the promoter, the company’s “calling card,” the importance of one’s image and the company’s in its relationship with the customers, about the “three levels of communication,” about the need to harmonize with various types of customers, how to speak and what expressions to avoid, how to pitch promotions and present the product, how to manage the meeting with the customer—as well as his or her possible objections, and, finally, about “the PPI,” the Personal Plan for Improvement. Margherita wondered whether she might dislocate her jaw and cervical vertebrae if she kept on smiling and nodding so enthusiastically. But she needed this job. They needed the money to
pay back the loans they’d taken out to buy their car and the TV, and to pay for Francesco’s golf club membership. And everything seemed to be heading in the right direction.
That is, until she saw the products.
The guy gave a quick description of the different types of cheese, stressing the importance of the packaging and the way they were to be presented to the consumers.
“Sometimes all it takes is a smile, a pat on the head of the child sitting in the shopping cart to sell two or three items,” he explained. “I don’t think you’re going to have any problems with that,” he added, giving her an overly appreciative look.
Was this revolting individual hitting on her?
Margherita stopped smiling, looked him straight in the eye, and asked, “Why don’t you tell me something about the cheese itself?”
The guy stared at her, speechless, and that was when Margherita hit the ground running. Were only the best raw materials used? Were the artisanal methods described in the advertising respected? Were the ingredients all natural? Did the milk come from select dairies? Did the aging process take place in a controlled environment? Were they sure there was no contamination of the aquifers?
As she fired off these questions, the smile on the man’s face gradually faded away.
“All you’re supposed to worry about is selling the product, nothing else,” he answered drily.
“Are you saying you won’t answer my questions? You can’t expect me to convince people to buy something without knowing whether it’s genuine, or whether it might be harmful to their health?”
He glared at her and said, “Okay, then, you’re free to go.”
Margherita was thrown for a loop. “Go where?”
“Home. This interview is over.”
Margherita found herself back on the street. She was dazed, but she was also aware of the anger building up inside her. She fished her cell phone out of her handbag and called Francesco. He’d understand, she was sure of that.
Instead, he was furious. “I can’t believe it! It was a done deal! What the hell got into you?”
Margherita felt like she’d been wronged twice.
“It’s just that I didn’t want to sell something without knowing what’s in it!” She defended herself.
“You never change. You’ll never change!”
For a second, Margherita thought they’d been cut off. Then she realized what had really happened: he’d hung up on her.
He hung up in my face.
She stared at the screen for a few seconds, unable to move.
Meanwhile, it had started to rain, to pour in fact. The roar of the rain that now poured down on her was the perfect sound track for her mood. To get out of the rain, she slipped into the first grocery store she could find. As she wandered aimlessly along the aisles, between the towering walls of all kinds of food with labels that were often written in an incomprehensible language, she realized it hadn’t been such a good idea to come into the store. She kept thinking about the interview, about the probably low-quality products that she would have had to promote, and, most important, about Francesco’s reaction. A wave of nausea came over her, so she left the store quickly, elbowing
her way through the people standing in line at the registers. Never before had she wanted so much to be in Roccafitta. Home.
When she got back to the apartment, the elevator wasn’t working. Again. The fourth time this week. As she braced herself for the eight-story climb (to be multiplied by two, since she would have to take Artusi out for his walk later), she noticed a letter sticking out of the mailbox. She pulled it out, opened it, and started reading. Suddenly, she stopped. The warning in the horoscope she’d heard that morning came back like an undigested onion.
She reread the unequivocal words: Eviction Notice. Everything around her started spinning. She shut her eyes.
“Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly. Breathe in, breathe out . . . ,” she repeated like a mantra.
“Is everything all right?”
Startled, Margherita spun around to find Meg standing behind her. Meg was Francesco’s English teacher. (“Being fluent in a foreign language is crucial to my work,” he’d told her. “And I’ve found a teacher who’s a native speaker and whose prices are affordable. I’m sure you see my point, don’t you, love?” And she had said nothing about the fact that they were already having a hard time making ends meet . . .)
As Margherita nodded hello, she wondered what Meg could be doing there at this time of day. Had something happened?
“Hi, Meg . . . is there a problem?”
Meg looked her in the eye.
“Yes, there is. We need to talk.”
Dumbfounded, that’s how she felt. Stunned. Meg’s words had been like a blow to the head. How could she possibly not have noticed anything—for a whole year? How could she have believed the lies Francesco had told her? Suddenly, everything made sense, like the pieces of a puzzle that until that moment hadn’t seemed to fit together: lessons at the oddest hours, the ridiculously low cost, the understanding looks that passed between Francesco and Meg, the long and inexplicable periods of time when her husband’s cell phone seemed to be switched off, his growing irritability . . .
And now what?
How could she pretend to feel like she was a frothy soufflé when she instead felt like a focaccia that hasn’t risen? She held back her tears. She needed to think, and there was only one way she knew how: by cooking. So she took her old recipe notebook with the yellowing pages down off the shelf and started leafing through it absentmindedly, trying to organize her thoughts. Carrot-and-zucchini pie, fanciful pizzelle, eggplant torretta, mustard-and-mint pâté, and then, suddenly, peeking up from the pages was the drawing of a small red heart, right there, next to “Asparagus Temptation.” She felt like tearing the page out of the notebook, totally erasing the recipe that had turned her life upside down six years before . . .
It was a gorgeous Saturday in March. The air was warm and it made you feel as though winter had finally decided to make way for spring in Roccafitta. Margherita was ready for her first day of the season at the beach with Matteo,
her best friend, and a group of their friends. But at the last minute, Rosalina, who usually helped her mother, Erica, in the kitchen of her small eponymous restaurant had fallen ill, and Margherita hadn’t had it in her to go off and leave her mother on her own.
“Don’t worry, Mama. There’ll be lots of other days to go to the beach, and besides, something tells me that today’s going to be a special day . . .”
Erica hadn’t insisted, especially because she was expecting a full house at lunchtime. Although the restaurant was small, it was still hard to manage everything without any help. Of course, Armando, her husband and Margherita’s father, was fabulous in the dining room, with his jokes and pleasant manner, but when it came to the kitchen, it was best to keep him out. So from the early hours of the morning, mother and daughter had been hard at work at the stove. While Erica kneaded the dough for the tagliatelle, Margherita worked on an idea she’d had for a new recipe. Looking around, she’d spotted the asparagus. “We only serve products when they’re in season, it’s the best way we know to take good care of our customers!” her mother always said. Margherita grabbed the peeler and started to gently remove the stringy parts from the stems. Then, after she’d broken off the white ends, she sliced off the spears and plunged the stems in a pot of boiling stock for a minute or two. Erica had smiled at her with a mixture of affection and pride. “A new creation?”
Margherita had nodded. “I want to become as good a cook as you are, Mama . . .”
Erica had stroked her hair. “You already are, my darling.”
Feeling happy to hear those words, Margherita had sliced three spring onions and browned them in butter and oil. Then she’d
added the asparagus stems, which she had in the meantime chopped into rounds, and simmered over low heat until they had practically melted.
“Margy”—her mother had been the first one to call her by that nickname—“you know it takes time to make risotto . . .” But Margherita had smiled back as if to say she needn’t worry. Then she’d put the mixture in the blender and pulsed it a few times until she’d gotten a creamy green sauce, neither too thick nor too watery, to which she added salt and pepper.
After toasting the rice with the sautéed onions and asparagus sauce, she had cooked it, adding the stock gradually. When it was done, she’d added robiola cheese to make it creamy. And yet, although the flavor was pleasant, Margherita wasn’t satisfied. Something was missing, something that would make this dish unique. But what could that ingredient be? Thyme? Mint leaves? Perhaps just a pinch of marjoram? None of these ideas convinced her.
It had been Erica who suggested she grate some lemon zest over it just before it finished cooking.
“That’s what was missing! Thanks, Mama, it needed your magic touch!”
Then Margherita had taken the individual ramekins, lined them with the cooked asparagus tips, and added the rice, carefully pressing it and making it compact.
“I’ll serve them along with some asparagus tempura, and the cream right next to that,” she’d announced, satisfied.
Erica had dedicated one of her bright smiles to her. “And what’s the name of this new creation?”
tear fell on the page and spread out over the ink, distorting the letters. The memory was still there, as clear as if it had taken place only a few minutes ago.
A true Cupid, that risotto. No doubt about it.
That day, the restaurant was packed. Margherita and Erica hadn’t been able to stop rushing between the tables for a moment. When the customers finally started to leave, Erica, who looked exhausted, had breathed a sigh of relief.
“I don’t know what I would have done without you today. Thanks for staying, sweetie . . .”
Margherita had hugged her mother lovingly.
“You need to rest, Mama. Get your things and go home. I’ll take care of cleaning up.”
Erica had smiled at her and without protesting had taken off her apron and gone home.
As Margherita had loaded the dishwasher, she’d thought that she simply had to convince Armando to take her mother away for a few days. She could deal with the restaurant; with Rosalina’s help it wouldn’t be a problem. So absorbed in her thoughts was she that she hadn’t noticed that someone had entered the kitchen.
“It’s all just a dream, right?”
Margherita spun around. Standing in front of her was a tall, blond, handsome—actually very handsome—young guy.
“Can I help you?”
He flashed her an irresistible smile.
“Let me guess: you’re the amazing cook who made the risotto. Today’s my lucky day, I know it is. In one fell swoop I have found Eve, temptation on earth, and a sublime cook. And by the way, nice to meet you, my name is Francesco.”
Margherita could not help laughing.
“And my name is Margherita, not Eve. But I’m glad you liked the risotto, it was an experiment . . .”
He moved in closer, looking at her intensely.
“I like people who know how to take chances.”
Margherita could hardly breathe. His eyes were simply too blue. His voice was way too sexy. And that amazing body . . . better to stay on the defensive.
“Are you here for the check?” she’d asked, moving away to reestablish some distance between them.
“No. I want to know what a beautiful girl like you is doing locked up in a kitchen.”
Francesco had reached out to straighten a lock of hair that had slipped out of her ponytail, an intimate gesture that he’d done so naturally it had made her weak in the knees.
“Why?” she’d asked him, lowering her eyes.
“I don’t know. Maybe because I was expecting to find a nice little old lady, a guardian of ancient culinary wisdom, and instead I found you . . .”
Another tear fell on her notebook. Francesco had always known how to make her feel special, unique. In the beginning she had tried to hold him off, but he hadn’t let up. Every weekend after that he’d come back, one time with special oil infused with satureja, another time with gelo di melone, a melon jelly dessert he’d had shipped from a famous café in Palermo called Alba. Any excuse to surprise her, to astonish her.
He became a regular at Erica’s restaurant. Every Saturday and Sunday, there he was. And even when Margherita made sure she wasn’t around, he’d stay there to talk about her with Erica and Armando. Or, taking out his guitar, he’d
play the songs he’d written for her. Francesco had won over everyone’s heart with his charming, open manner.
“You can’t come here every weekend, all the way from Rome, traveling all those miles, just to dine with us here.”
“It’s worth it. I’ve found the woman of my life at last and I’m not going to let her get away.”
“Are you really doing all this for me?”
“I’d do anything to be with you. Even if it means traveling back and forth forever.”
But it was the morning he showed up with a cat as black as coal that he’d heard mewing in a garbage can in a rest area on the highway, that Margherita had finally succumbed.
“Asparagio . . . that’s the name I gave him,” he’d said smiling. “You wouldn’t want us to live all by ourselves, would you?”
A few months later, they’d moved to Rome. If only Margherita had known what Erica wasn’t telling her, she would never have left.
For Margherita, cooking was like recharging her batteries. So without thinking, she opened the refrigerator to seek inspiration. Once again it was the asparagus that helped her make a decision. Yes, my dear Francesco, I’m going to make you all your favorite dishes.
Her kitchen reflected her personality—colorful, cheerful, chaotic. But there was no trace of cheerfulness in Margherita’s expression as she sliced bacon and rolled it around prunes, which she crisped in the oven, or when she kneaded the dough for the pizzelle Francesco was so fond of. Her hands raced from one mixture to another until,
sitting on the kitchen counter, were the prune rolls, her famous asparagus risotto, and the Neapolitan pizzelle—all ready to be eaten. Now it’s time to make dessert, she said to herself as she leafed through the pages of her notebook. Apple meringue or ricotta tart? No, this was a really special day, and she was going to make him pineapple cream pie, his absolute favorite. Margherita mixed melted butter with confectioners’ sugar, added a pinch of salt, then almond flour, eggs, and flour she’d sifted together with cocoa. She kneaded the dough with her palms and fingers, venting all her frustration on that cohesive mass, until she got a smooth ball, which she put in the refrigerator to rest. Again her thoughts raced far away.
She should have figured it out when, having just come back from Erica’s funeral, he’d asked her to make him that cake . . .
“Please, Margy, I don’t feel so good, I should never have gone to the funeral . . . ,” he’d moaned, while her heart was in pieces as she remembered that final farewell. “And anyway, you know, cooking takes your mind off things . . .”
And once again, Margherita had said yes.
“And Margy, when you finish, could you set up the vaporizer? I have a terrible cough,” he’d continued.
Why didn’t I tell him what I was thinking? Why was I so concerned about him and not enough about my own feelings?
Why does Francesco always come before everything else?
As these thoughts crossed her mind, she blended the pulp of half a pineapple, meanwhile heating up the milk on the stove.
Then she beat the egg yolks with the sugar, her tears mixing with the ingredients. (I wish, she thought, the same thing would happen that I saw in that movie, the one where the
main character, who loves to cook but suffers from a broken heart, as she prepares the wedding cake for her sister who’s stolen her boyfriend’s heart, pours all her tears onto the icing, so that the next day, when the guests taste it, they’re struck by a sense of nostalgia, melancholy, gloominess . . .) But Margherita’s tears weren’t tears of sadness, they were tears of anger and bitterness. She added the pineapple puree to the eggs and milk and, stirring gently, transferred it to the heat.
Yes, dear Francesco, this is what I wish for you, my lying husband.
When the cream began to thicken, she removed the saucepan from the heat and added a drop of rum, stirring occasionally, while she checked the piecrust she’d put in the oven a few minutes before. “Ready,” she said, taking it out of the oven. She picked up the other half of the pineapple, sliced it quickly, sprinkled sugar on it, and caramelized it over the gas flame. She whipped the heavy cream, then gently folded it into the pineapple puree, after which she poured everything into the cocoa-flavored shortcrust pastry, garnishing it with the caramelized pineapple. As she worked, Margherita seemed to have undergone a sort of metamorphosis: no more tears, the expression on her face more and more purposeful. By the time the delicious aroma spread to every corner and inch of the house, announcing that her creation was ready at last, she knew her mind was made up.
When he got home, Francesco was surprised at how quiet the house was. No trace of Margherita’s furry tribe, no whistled greeting from Valastro, and, most important,
no sign of Margherita. Maybe she went to the vet’s, he thought, taking off his shoes and leaving them in the hall. But if so, she hadn’t mentioned it.
I hope this doesn’t mean I have to go food shopping, that would be a real pain, he thought to himself. So he hurried into the kitchen to check. Before his eyes, as if by magic, were all his favorite dishes: prune rolls, asparagus risotto, Neapolitan pizzelle, pineapple pie. Francesco was dumbstruck. Now he was worried: he must have forgotten something. Oh, my God, what day is it? Is today some anniversary of ours? He quickly started listing the important dates in their life together.
March 15, the first time they met.
November 9, Margy’s birthday.
June 7, wedding day.
None of the dates matched today. So what was the story here? With a finger, he touched the cream on the pineapple pie and brought it to his mouth. It was still warm, fragrant, inviting. His favorite. And next to it, a letter. Francesco picked it up, smiling. But as he read, his smile froze on his face, like the topping on the pie into which Margherita, like the character in the movie, had poured a good dose of her tears.
Today was truly a special day. One after the other, I was bombarded by three events that hit me without warning. Here they are, in chronological order:
1. I didn’t get the job that was supposed to be a “done deal.”
2. I received a letter saying that we were being evicted from our house because our landlord’s son needs the apartment.
3. And, last but not least, I received a visit from your “girlfriend,” Meg, who informed me, tearfully, of course, that you’ve been seeing each other for over a year and that she does not want to share you with anyone anymore.
She says our love is “gone” (this, it seems, is what you confided to her).
In short, she asked me, as she continued to cry, to step aside and grant you a divorce. When I asked her why you hadn’t told me yourself, she said that you are too nice a person to hurt me that way. So she thought it might be time to do the job herself.
Oh, and I almost forgot! I discovered that we have a child; Meg told me that he’s old enough to understand and that I needn’t worry about him. Too bad I don’t remember ever having had a child. (Just out of curiosity: how old was I supposed to have been when he was born?)
At the same time that Francesco was reading Margherita’s letter in astonishment, she was heading down the highway in her station wagon filled to the roof with suitcases and bags, and Valastro, who kept croaking, “VACATION! VACATION!”
The ruckus inside that car would have made anyone else nervous, but not Margherita. At that moment, she was so euphoric that she could have withstood anything. With her, besides Valastro, were Asparagio, the famous cat who had convinced her to give in to Francesco’s advances, and who in the meantime had turned into a miniature black panther
with a powerful meow; Ratatouille, a minuscule patchwork of feline flesh and fur; and Artusi, who, according to Margherita, was claustrophobic, at least to judge from his desperate protests each time he was forced to take a ride in a car. Needless to say, Ratatouille and Artusi had also been strays she’d taken home with her.
Meanwhile, back home, Francesco, who had collapsed into an armchair, was rereading the last part of the letter for the umpteenth time and was still incredulous. It had taken him a long time to understand the meaning of those words, which a part of his brain continued to reject. Margherita, his Margherita, couldn’t have done such a thing to him. It was impossible. Unimaginable. He took another look at the letter and realized that the words were dancing before his eyes, because his eyes were welling up with tears.
And do you want to know the most surprising thing of all?
It’s that after your mistress came to see me, when I started making YOUR pie, convinced that I was going to suffer terribly, feel the earth shake beneath my feet, instead, I felt euphoric, light as a feather! It took all three bitter blows (especially the last one) for me to understand that my life with you was one small, stifling, sweet hell! It took my finding out that you were in love with another woman for me to understand that all I was looking for was an excuse to be able to leave you!
Yes, because it’s hard to leave a . . . “child,” even when he’s over forty and has a few strands of gray hair around the temples, and it’s tragically obvious that he’ll never become a mature adult.
What a relief! Now someone else can play mother to you!
In other words, in no time at all, there I was packing my bags. There’ll always be a place for me at my father’s house . . .
You’re probably wondering what I’m going to do with my life now.
The answer is: I don’t know.