Table for 2

Table for two

It’s only us now

Max sat at the dining table, white linen napkin spread open on his lap. He bent over the steaming bowl of soup and inhaled, eyes closed. He sat up, opened his eyes, and picked up his spoon, carefully dipping it into the bowl. He scooped up a hearty spoonful of broth, lamb, and vegetables, blew twice on the spoon, then put the food in his mouth. He chewed slowly, thoughtfully, staring into space. Then he put the spoon down, picked up his pen, and jotted down some notes in the medium-sized black notebook on his right.

Diane and Mel watched from the kitchen. Mel sat on a barstool while Diane leaned forward on the counter behind Mel. Neither woman could take their eyes off Max.

“So,” whispered Mel to her sister, “does he give you a rating or what?”

“Sometimes,” Diane answered, voice low. “On a scale of one to ten, I’ve never gotten above a seven with him.”

“Jeez, he’s harsh. Or are you a bad cook?”

Diane picked up a dish towel and swatted at Mel. “I am not a bad cook. He’s just . . . picky.”

Max repeated his steps – spoon in the bowl, blow twice, spoon in mouth, chew, chew, chew – then placed the spoon back on the table.

“Well, Diane, it’s certainly not your best effort. The lack of salt is apparent, as usual. The garlic is. threatening. Maybe hold back on that a little. And the meat is . . . suspicious.” Max stared at Diane, unblinking.

“Okay, first of all,” Mel said, looking back at her sister, still whispering. “Why does he call you Diane? What happened to calling you mom?”

“He does that when he’s Maximillian the Great, future food critic. When he’s just Max Larsen, he calls me mom.”

“Diane?”

“Yes?”

“He’s eight.”

“You two don’t have to whisper,” Max called from the table. He gathered his pen and notebook and joined them in the kitchen.

“It’s a five for me, Diane,” Max said to his mother, grabbing an apple from the counter. He looked at Mel. “Aunt Mel, I understand that you’re staying here this weekend but I can’t wholly recommend the soup. Maybe you should have a sandwich for dinner.” He patted Mel on the knee and then left the room.

Mel stood up. “That was surreal,” she laughed after Max exited.

Diane sighed. “Not anymore. It’s a regular occurrence with him now.” She went into the dining room and picked up the bowl, spoon, and napkin, bringing them back into the kitchen. She tasted the soup and winced. “You know, he’s right about the garlic. Too much.”

Mel opened the refrigerator and helped herself to a diet soda. “When did Maximillian the Great appear?”

“About two months ago,” Diane replied, pouring the soup down the sink. “He’s been obsessed with cooking shows forever. Like, Food Network is his favorite channel. Suddenly he starts bringing a pen and a notebook to every meal, making notes on everything he eats. Super detailed notes.” She grabbed the soda from her sister and took a drink. “I’ve seen the book.”

“Anything else?”

“What do you mean?” Diane took another drink and then handed the soda back to Mel.

“I feel like you’re holding something back. Like there’s more to Max than just him turning into a foodie.”

Diane sighed and sat on a stool. “I took him to Dr. Koontz. He thinks Max might be on the autism spectrum.” She picked up the napkin Max had used and held it up. “Did I tell you that he won’t use paper napkins or paper towels anymore? Cloth napkins only now. Says paper ones make him feel weird.”

Mel put her soda down and crossed her arms. “So what were his test results?”

Diane shook her head. “Haven’t done any actual testing yet. I was planning on talking to Darren about that this weekend.”

“Oh, nice, ruin your getaway with your husband by talking about how your kid might have a developmental disorder.”

Diane stood up. “That sounds mean, Mel.”

“I just meant that you two are supposed to be re-connecting. Your words, not mine, remember? This weekend is supposed to be about you two, not Max.”

Diane sighed. “I know. It’s just that Max is our only so I worry about something – anything – happening to him. Anyway,” she said, hugging her sister, “I’m glad you’re here. You don’t come around enough.”

“Oh, here we go,” Mel said, moving from the kitchen to the dining room. She stood in front of the massive picture window, gazing out at her sister’s enormous, carefully landscaped backyard. “Mel the drifter, Mel the aimless little sister, Mel who doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.”

Diane joined her. “For the record, Darren was drunk when he said that. I let him have it later. No one messes with my sister.”

“Yeah, well, he was kinda right. I’m a thirty-year-old dog groomer. Last year I was a waitress. The year before that I was a delivery driver. Mom and dad are in the great beyond, probably shaking their heads.” She sighed. “You got the suburban dream – successful husband, smart kid, mini-mansion – and I’ve got a crappy studio apartment I can barely afford cuz I’m a loser.”

Diane squeezed Mel’s shoulder. “You’re not a loser. You’ll figure it out, Mel. You just haven’t found your purpose yet.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I haven’t had kids. I’m fine with being the cool aunt.” Mel finished her soda and belched. “And I make a mean grilled cheese.”

An hour later, Darren arrived home from work and, after a quick snack (“Dad, don’t eat the soup,” Max warned him), he and Diane prepared to leave for their “love nest in the woods,” as Darren called it.

“Hey, Max,” Darren said, ruffling his son’s hair before he went out the door. “Be nice to Auntie Mel and don’t let her drink all of your mom’s precious diet Coke.” He winked at Mel who stuck her tongue out at him.

“Love you, kiddo,” Diane said, bending down to kiss her son on the cheek.

“Ew, mom,” Max replied, wiping his cheek. He went over to Mel and grabbed her hand. “C’mon, I’m starving. Let’s have dinner.”

As soon as Diane and Darren left, Mel made two thick grilled cheese sandwiches using sourdough bread and a combination of Havarti and cheddar cheeses. She and Max ate in the kitchen at the counter.

“A solid eight, Mel,” Max proclaimed, writing in his notebook.

After dinner, Mel tried to convince Max to watch a movie but he insisted on watching episodes of “Barefoot Contessa” on Food Network.

“It would be a dream to meet Ina Garten one day,” Max said with a sigh, snuggling against Mel on the couch. “She’s just divine.”

Mel shook her head. “Kid, you’re something else.”

Two hours later, Mel woke to her phone vibrating in her pocket. Carefully she untangled herself from a sleeping Max’s grasp and moved into the adjoining room to answer the call.

“Hello?” she said quietly.

“Hello, am I speaking with Melissa Barnes?” “Yes, who’s this?”

“Ms. Barnes, my name is Officer Park. Do you have a sister named Diane Larsen?”

For the next few minutes, Mel listened, horrified, as the officer described the accident that claimed the lives of her sister and brother-in-law. She kept glancing into the family room, praying Max wouldn’t wake up, as she heard phrases like slippery mountain road and head-on collision and no survivors. When she hung up, she could feel the night’s dinner churning in her stomach, and she hurried into the nearest bathroom, vomiting.

Wiping her mouth, Mel crept back into the family room. Max snored lightly on the couch, oblivious that the world as he knew it had just flipped upside down. Tears flowed down Mel’s cheeks. God, what was she going to do now?

The next week passed in an anxiety-ridden blur as Mel juggled childcare, death notifications, and arrangements for a double funeral. There wasn’t any family to help her. Darren was an only child who lost his parents as a teenager. Mel and Diane’s parents died six months apart – one from cancer, the other from a stroke – when Diane was a senior in college and Mel was a high school junior. She didn’t know any of Diane and Darren’s friends. Similarly, Darren’s business partners were strangers to her. Mel had always struggled with responsibility; now she felt she was drowning.

On top of everything, Mel became convinced that Max refused to process the deaths of his parents. He didn’t cry when she told him about the accident, at least not in front of her. Maybe he cried when he was alone in his room. But she doubted it. He was strangely stoic about the whole situation. She kept him out of school while she continued to stay at the house, dealing with everything. He spent most of his days in front of the television, watching Food Network. Mel thought he was overdosing on cooking shows but she felt too overwhelmed to reprimand him about it.

The funeral took place ten days after the accident at a quaint, non-denominational church. Mel nixed a post-service reception. She wanted to shield Max from the flock of funeral attendees who would fill his house with their well-meaning but ultimately unwelcome regrets at the passing of his parents.

Instead, later that night, Mel and Max found themselves sitting at the dining table, sampling the various dishes that had been dropped off on the front porch throughout the day. Mel nursed a diet Coke mixed with a little rum and picked at a bowl of potato salad. Max, on the other hand, had two full plates of food and was busily trying bites of this and that, occasionally stopping to write in his notebook.

Mel watched as Max put a spoonful of ambrosia salad in his mouth. “Well, let’s hear it. What do you think of that delight?”

Max swallowed forcefully. “First of all, not a delight. Too much pineapple, not enough coconut, and an obscene amount of food coloring in the whipped cream. It’s a pink nightmare.” He took several drinks of water.

Mel chuckled. “I love your vocabulary, Max. You’re the smartest eight-year-old I know.”

“Pretty sure I’m the only eight years old you know.” Max picked up a buttered biscuit and took a bite. “Now that’s heaven. Must be homemade.” He jotted down some notes.

“Speaking of heaven,” Mel said, taking a deep breath. “Wanna talk about your mom and dad?” Max continued to eat the biscuit, not looking at Mel.

That was a terrible intro, Mel chided herself, sipping on her drink. He’s not ready. Max cleared his throat. “I hope they didn’t suffer.”

Mel almost choked on an ice cube. “No, buddy, no. They didn’t. They died instantly. No pain.”

Max nodded. “That’s good. They were good parents. I . . . I loved them.” He gazed at Mel with big brown eyes. Diane’s eyes. “I’ll miss them.”

The tears came before Mel could stop them. She reached for Max and pulled him to her, hugging him tightly. “You need to know something, Max. I’m a mess of a human being. Most days I don’t feel like a grown-up at all. But I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. If you’ll have me.”

Max wriggled out of Mel’s clutch. He wiped her tears from her cheeks. “It’s okay Aunt Mel. We can grow up together. And when I’m a famous food writer, I’ll help you pay your bills.”

Mel threw her head back and laughed. “Well, thank God for that cuz I always have bills!” She reviewed the food remnants on the table. “Guess I’d better eat some before it goes bad. What do you recommend, sir?”

“Allow me, madam.” Max draped a linen napkin over his arm and picked up a plate. “Table for one tonight?”

“No, Maximilian the Great,” Mel replied, shaking her head. She touched his cheek. “From now on, it’s a table for two.”

Story by Munashe Mamini

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