“Victoria,”

Fiction by Jessica Soffer

Victoria, an 84-year-old Iraqi Jewish widow, is hosting her first cooking class and hopes, against all odds and reason, that the only student who shows up might be the child of the daughter she gave up for adoption many years before.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Lorca,” she said. And I slumped inside just the tiniest bit. I’d never read Lorca. I should have. He’d been on my list.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead,” she said. “I called a little while ago but I couldn’t hear anything. I wanted to ask if it was okay that I showed up.”

“Of course it’s okay,” I said.

I introduced myself, thank goodness, unsure of whether to shake her hand or kiss her on both cheeks, so instead I said my name as I took the meat out of the garbage can.

“I’m Victoria, nice to meet you. This was wrapped,” I said.

“Great,” she said and I believed her. She was biting her thumb. She slid onto one of our barstools, as gracefully as I’d ever seen it done. She untied a scarf from her neck and held it to her stomach, slouching in a way that came easily to her. I could imagine her sleeping in the tiniest coil.

“There were supposed to be others,” I said, wiggling out my fingers from beneath the heavy meat and putting it onto the butcher block again. “They didn’t show.”

For a moment, as she turned her head, I thought she was going to suggest that she leave. Then we caught each other’s eye. I hope. I hope. I hope. What a pretty face she had, the kind that was unnerving in a child but always would be too. The kind that you could swear you’d seen before, but only because you wanted to. She was a composite of startling things. Cheekbones like you read about. Eyelashes that tickled her brows. A disproportionately large upper lip. She slid off the stool. I thought she was going for her coat.

“No,” I began.

“How can I help?” she said and washed her hands in the sink. Child of my heart, she washed her hands. She used the soap and a paper towel, which she folded into a square and put into her pocket.

“Well,” I said, “we were going to make bamia.”

“That’s great,” she said. “Just tell me what to do.” 
           
“Really?” I said.

She looked at me, confused.

“Really?” I said again. “You don’t mind?”

She picked up an orange and smelled the skin. I smiled. I couldn’t help it. In the supermarket, people stared. I once smelled all the different soups at Dean and Deluca, and a manager came over. He called me madam. He asked me to kindly tell him what I was up to. I said, “Kindly? I wasn’t blowing my nose into the chowder.” What was wrong with people? Smell is everything.

“Have you ever had a bergamot orange?” she asked.

And I thought, Here we go. I knew this was going to happen. She was going to think I was a fake.

“I don’t really like them,” she said before I could answer. “My mother uses them . . .”

She trailed off and blushed.

“Well,” she said. “They’re okay, I guess. But I like these better.”

“Did you grow up in New York?” I asked. It was a legitimate question.

“No,” she said. “In New Hampshire. Nowheresville is what my mother calls it.”

“Northville?” I said. “Oh, nowhere. I understand.”

I needed to watch myself. I hadn’t been around sharp minds for a very long time.

She put the orange back delicately, as if it were glass.

“We went to New Hampshire,” I said, trying to be breezy. “Fifteen years ago now. Not to nowhere, though. To the lake?”

I couldn’t remember its name. Joseph had planned our trips. I brought my book. I brought loads of bug spray. He did the rest. I remembered the loveliest bakery there, with peach scones. I didn’t say any of this out loud and at least there was that. At least I wasn’t a babbling duck.

She said, “Winnipesaukee.” She’d read my mind.

“That’s the one,” I said. “It has two hundred and fifty-three islands,” she said.

“You don’t say,” I said. And then: “How did you get your name?”

She told me like she’d told it before. I felt silly for asking then. It felt like asking her to repeat herself. But I couldn’t help it.

“Your mother doesn’t like it?” I said. “What would she have named you?”

She was quiet for a moment. Her hands stopped moving. I thought she was going to get mad. She didn’t seem like the kind of girl to anger easily, to be jealous and so on. But I thought, I’ve gone too far. I’ve asked too much. It must kill her to have to talk to me. Stupid me with the stupid accent and the stupid dress that she tied so very nicely.

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “My mother is sort of complicated.”

After that, I did stop asking questions. I wasn’t going to make a mess. I thought, Kitchen sounds only. From now on, we cook. I passed her the mint and she was so adept with it, chopping it into a neat little pile. Her fingers moved dexterously around the knife, her motions smooth and steady — and I was thinking: Don’t get your finger, you’ll never come back then; if you bleed all over, you’ll hate this place, and, like an imbecile, I’d thrown out all the Band-Aids.

I pointed out the things I was doing. I tried not to sound formal. I was suddenly conscious of my English. She watched me, nodded, but kept chopping. It seemed adult to me, her focus. She didn’t flit around. She was calm. Was I calm like that? Was Joseph? It was as if she were at the ocean, her feet rooted deep in the sand.

I opened the can of tomatoes. I regathered the spices: paprika, celery seeds, red pepper flakes, mint, curry powder, ground ginger, salt, and pepper. I asked her to measure out half a teaspoon of each as I cut onions beside her and she said, “Do you know the wooden match trick?” I did, but I said no. And she told me. I passed her the garlic. After a little while, she lifted the grater and the garlic close to her ear and leaned into it. She looked at me as if to say, Listen.

“It’s so funny,” she said, the silence collapsing in on itself. “Doesn’t it sound like swishing with mouthwash?”
I put my hand over my mouth. My breath. Was she making a point?

“No,” she said, laughing a little. “You don’t need it. I just think that. I think it sounds like that.”

I laughed too. I laughed at myself. I felt suddenly lighter. I laughed a little more.

“There’s no one here,” I said, shrugging. “You never know. My breath could be awful.”

We made three dishes that night. We talked about polite things. Lorca was on a break from school for the entire week. She didn’t have pets. She lived with her mother and her aunt. She told me that she loved to cook. We loved to cook! And that she’d never traveled except to Florida and went to the bookstore a lot because she didn’t have many friends. I don’t either, I wanted to tell her. Joseph did but I was never social that way. It’s not the worst thing. I didn’t say that, though I wanted to. I didn’t feel like a glowing example.

The sky was dark, and Lorca looked out the window. It was as if she were looking through a keyhole, into a fantasy book. Her face was romantic like that. She said, after the bamia, hummus bi tahini, and cabbage salad, “What’s next?” I was tired but not. It was eleven o’clock. I hadn’t been up this late for ages.

She said, “Are you tired?” And without thinking, I told her, “No.”

My goodness, my word, my heart. No, I’m not. I could do this forever. Please stay. Please stay, little child.

After Lorca left, I shuffled around in the kitchen, where life lingered. It felt like a much-needed rainstorm had passed through. I cleaned up and then stopped. I loved the nest of dishes we’d made. Just so.

I was in a daze as I undressed and put on my pajamas. I felt exhausted, but overwhelmed too. All this was so new. And I couldn’t tell Joseph, so the emotion hung about me, like a ringing phone.

I didn’t want to get ahead of myself but certain ideas had crept into my mind and were creating an odd sensation in my chest. There wasn’t much left ahead of me. It wasn’t just the freckle, or the big feet, or even the shadow of Middle Eastern-ness in Lorca’s skin — though it was all those things too. Lorca felt so familiar to me somehow. Not like I’d once bumped into her on the street or sat next to her on an airplane, nothing as uninteresting as that. It was something smokier. It was more reflexive too, like being hungry or being stared at or waking up a minute before the alarm clock goes ding.

It was wild, what I thought, outlandish even, but I thought it. Saying it out loud would be like trying to explain a dream.

Still, I let myself think that there was some meaning in all this. I wasn’t spiritual. I didn’t believe in fate. Once in a while, I’d toss salt over my left shoulder but then feel ridiculous. I just kept thinking, She’s supposed to be here. She might just be someone to me.

“Joseph,” I whispered. “Can you hear me? Did you see Lorca? Did you see?”

Silence. More silence. Maybe a creak somewhere. Maybe an ambulance somewhere. Nothing to speak of. I couldn’t be sure. I sat there with a sock half on and half off until a car alarm caused me to jump.

“Joseph,” I whispered. “I was sad too.” And though nothing happened then, no bright light, no crash, I felt a vague sense of comfort that had everything to do with Lorca. Sadness, and then.



Excerpt from "Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots" by Jessica Soffer. Copyright ©2013 by Jessica Soffer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Ms. Soffer’s work has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Vogue, and on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” She teaches fiction at Connecticut College and lives in Amagansett.