One day, while shopping for groceries, she spots a magazine with a picture of a cartoon devil on the cover, and it reminds her of fra diavolo sauce. It has been years since she’s made it. The “brother devil” gravy laced with hot peppers used to be a staple in her diet, back when she cooked at home with her parents and in her college apartment, before Rick and Christina came along. Peeled tomatoes, red pepper flakes, a little cayenne pepper for the extra kick, some pureed roasted red pepper (her little addition), and some grated parmesan for some earthiness. She missed it!
Jill excuses herself as she backs her cart out of the check out line. Suddenly she sees the contents of her cart. She can’t remember choosing these things, and yet, here they are: Boxed breaded chicken fingers, bags of frozen French fries, Pringles, frozen egg rolls. Who eats this boxed, frozen crap?
Then it hits her: These are Christina’s foods.
One by one she puts the items back where she found them. Then she fills her cart with everything she needs for fra diavolo.
When she returns to her apartment, she sees her neighbors’ glowing yellow windows and notes that hers, too, is bright and warm. The thought of going inside isn’t so scary now. In fact, Jill is excited. She gets to make fra diavolo. She practically runs to the kitchen and starts boiling the water for pasta.
As she unloads the bags, she wonders what else being married with children prevented her from enjoying. The answer came instantly: jazz. The American standards were the soundtrack of her teenage years. While everyone else was listening to ABBA and the Jackson 5, she had Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and some jazzy renditions of Harold Arlen tunes. When Christina discovered music, she preferred the computer generated buzzing of mindless three-minute pop songs. Before that, Rick’s music filled their house—the screams of angry white men with loud guitars on the classic rock station.
She turns off the burner on the stove and goes to the basement. There she finds her old record player in a box labeled “Jill—College.” Within fifteen minutes, she has the old record player plugged in and spinning Ella’s Songs in a Mellow Mood. And just like that, an old friend has stopped by. When she flips the record over and plays Ella’s rendition of the Cole Porter tune, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” she thinks of her own father, and how, when she was Christina’s age, she didn’t catch the sexual messages and just wonders how any teenage girl could be so loyal to her parent.
Jill finds herself swaying to the music and humming along as she stirs the fra diavolo.
That weekend the winter clouds part and sunlight bathes the state of Maine in warm light. Jill cooks herself eggs and toast and sits at the kitchen table where the sun warms her pale skin. It’s been a dark and cold winter. The sunshine feels like a drug.
Later she goes for a run. On this sunny day, with the snow melting and the water rushing in sheets over the streets, she takes a new route and passes a gardening supply store. It occurs to her that she could start now—buy some dirt, some seeds, some little plant pots. Perhaps she’d have plants a few inches tall before temperatures really start to rise in May. She imagines what the deck would look like in June—a massive terracotta pot for her tomato plant, a few attempts at hot peppers, maybe, and then of course some basil for pesto, and oregano, too.
It occurs to her that Christina’s room gets a lot of sun.
By four o’clock, Jill’s hands are black with dirt. She sits on a plastic sheet that covers the floor of Christina’s room. The large window allows enough sunlight for natural heat even in winter, making it a perfect greenhouse. A row of plastic pots lines the large window like an audience at a movie theatre.
She’s working on the flower pots when she hears a key in the lock downstairs. Then Jill hears the door open. From the top of the stairs, Jill listens to a familiar set of keys jingle as footsteps cross the living room.
Jill follows the sound downstairs and sees the door to the basement is open.
“Christina?” she says to the basement stairs.
“I’m just getting a box of my stuff,” Christina replies.
“You should have called first,” Jill says.
“I don’t want to talk.”
Christina comes upstairs carrying a box of books and CDs. She avoids her mother’s eyes as she heads for the door. Jill discovers that she doesn’t really want to talk, either. She’s anxious to get back to her plants. “I’m not going to make you talk,” Jill says. “But I need your key.”
Christina stops in her tracks. “What?” she says.
“If you don’t live here, you need to turn in your key,” Jill says. “And if you have other stuff, you should take it now.”
“This is all my stuff,” Christina says.
Christina puts the box down and takes out her keys. For a few moments, she struggles with the key ring. She sighs loudly. “Goddamn thing,” she says.
“Give it to me,” Jill says. Christina hands over the keys. She digs her fingernail into the ring, slides the key to her apartment off, and hands the keys back to Christina.
“What’s on your hands?”
“Dirt,” she says. “I’m using the spare room for a greenhouse.”
“You mean my room?”
“Well, it’s not really your—”
Christina turns and runs upstairs.
“—room anymore, since you decided—”
But Christina is already out of earshot.
Jill stands in the living room, wondering if she should follow. She looks outside. Rick’s car is outside, but he’s not in it. She reaches of the foot of the stairs as Christina comes running down again, her eyes filled with tears.
“Looks good, Mom,” she says. “Nice job. Really, really nice.”
“Christina, what was I supposed to—”
“I gotta go,” Christina says.
She leaves with her box of things and Jill closes the door behind her.