“Thanks for coming to help,” said Shaia to Ondine as she poured two more glasses of red wine. The pair were in Shaia’s kitchen, prepping dinner for themselves and the three other women who would join them later. The scent of spices and garlic were heavy in the air, deliciously warm against the cold winter landscape just outside the window, and the womens’ cheeks were flushed red with the effects of the heavy red wine.
“I always get so stressed when I’m cooking for a group. And Paul was usually the one in the kitchen…”
“Well I’m more than happy to play Sous Chef,” said Ondine. She let a few beats pass before she asked “So…have you heard from him?”
“I have,” said Shaia, after taking a deep breath. “And you know what? It’s all good. I’m good. I … did what I needed to do to get myself back on track and now, I’m good.”
Ondine’s eyebrows knitted together – the late night calls listening to her friend sobbing down the phone were still fresh in her memory. It didn’t seem plausible that Shaia would be over it just like that.
“Really Ondine! I’m totally over it,” said Shaia as she raised her glass of wine, a grin plastered on her face.
“Well….fine, I’ll drink to that,” said Ondine. “So! What’s for dinner? Seriously it smells divine and I am so hungry!”
“Okay I’ve got salmon meatballs and avocado dip for appetizers and Boeuf Bourguignon that’s been simmering on the stove for three hours. I was kind of nervous to cook that one for an actual French person,” she said, nudging Ondine playfully, “but I’ve used something a little different and I think you won’t have tasted anything quite like it yet. So mostly I just need help with the avocado dip, mashing these potatoes and getting the salad together.”
“Okay but, as your Sous Chef, I get to taste everything first,” said Ondine, already reaching for the lid of the massive pot simmering on the stove.
Shaia whacked her friend’s hand with a wooden spoon and said “Don’t spoil your appetite! You’ll need all the room you can spare because there’s cake for dessert and about a gazillion bottles of wine and we are finishing everything tonight – no leftovers.”
“Fine, fine…let me just go wash up then, I’ll be right back.”
Ondine made her way to the bathroom through Shaia’s bedroom. As she passed the bedside table, she noticed all the empty picture frames and a stack of photos crumpled near the wastepaper basket. She knelt down and picked one up, smoothing it out. It was, as she expected, a photo of Shaia and Paul in happier days, his arms around her waist, Shaia’s head thrown back in laughter. Ondine felt a familiar pang of guilt…then shook her head, dropped the photo and made her way into the bathroom.
She glanced around the room as she washed her hands, noticing the stacks of dirty clothes crumpled on the floor, a pair of rusty-looking washing up gloves strewn carelessly and dripping over the tub, and a pair of green men’s sneakers pushed underneath the toilet. She was a little surprised – Shaia was pretty OCD when it came to keeping her place clean and her apartment always looked like the inside of Architectural Digest. Ondine furrowed her brow and looked back at the shoes. They were Paul’s, she knew. She’d been staring at them as he told her that he needed a break, needed to make things right with Shaia. Strange that they would be here…
Just then she heard the trill of the doorbell. She turned off the tap and made her way back to the kitchen just as Andra swooped through the front door, bringing a blast of cold air with her.
“Oh my God it smells so good in here!” said Andra as she made a show of inhaling deeply.
“I know, right?” said Ondine as she kissed the woman’s cheeks. “I was trying to sneak a taste but I’m not even allowed to open the pot.”
“Where can I put my coat Shai?” asked Andra.
“Just put it on my bed and join us in the kitchen – I have to keep my eye on the entrée!”
Andra walked into Shaia’s bedroom, flung her coat and handbag down onto the bed and turned back towards the door, but something caught her eye. She took a step back in and stared at the red and white checkered boxer briefs laying casually by the foot of the bed. The ones with the blue piping around the top and the little mouse on the leg. The ones she had bought for Paul. Her breath caught in her throat. He’d been wearing them that last time, the last time that he said was the last time, so he could patch things up with Shai.
But Shaia had said she was done with him, invited her girls around because she was finally feeling sociable again, finally free. That’s what she’d said. So why were Paul’s underwear here on her floor? Andra felt dizzy. She closed her eyes and put one hand on the wall to steady herself, fighting a wave of nausea. The doorbell rang just then, startling her. A few seconds later, she heard loud shrieking as Alex and Celine swept in. Andra took a deep breath, plastered a smile on her face and went to join the fray.
Coats and scarves hung, boots exchanged for comfy ‘house shoes’, the five women were squeezed into the kitchen, chattering like chickens and warming themselves with wine.
“Alright ladies, the appetizers are ready so grab your glasses and follow me to the living room,” said Shaia.
“Oh but I want to see what’s for dinner,” said Alex as she reached over to uncover the pot still simmering away on the stove.
“No peeking!” said Shaia as she playfully slammed down the pot lid “It’s Boeuf Bourguignon and you’ll have a plate of it in front of you in a few minutes. Now let’s get this party started!”
“Well you don’t have to tell me twice,” said Alex with a grin. “Ah but I almost forgot, I brought ice cream for dessert! I’ll just stick it in the freezer, Shai.”
“Oh lord, I hope you find space in there…”
“Jesus Christ, Shai! Did you kill a damn deer?” Alex held the freezer door open, exposing the bags and bags of bloody meat stacked tightly against each other, filling every space.
“Something like that,” Shaia murmured. “Just try tucking it in under one of the bags. Follow me chicas!”
Shaia grabbed the plate of appetizers and led the other women to the living room like the pied piper and his rats. They all settled on her big comfy couches, each talking a mile a minute in their eagerness to catch up.
Alex told them about her lecherous old boss who was still trying feverishly to sleep with her, even though she was sure he was too old to get it up anymore. Ondine filled them in on her recent trip to Greece and Andra complained that her life was super boring because she didn’t have anything exciting to share with the group. As the women continued gabbing, Alex reached back to put her wine on the side table and suddenly felt her heart lurch into her throat. There, on the table, was Paul’s gold Rolex. The Rolex that had been resting on her own bedside table not one week ago before it was replaced by a note written hastily on the back of a theatre ticket while she’d been sleeping. A note saying it was over, that he’d made too many mistakes, that it was time to repair what he had broken…
Why would it be back here on Shaia’s table?
Alex gripped her wine glass and turned back to the group. Celine was giving them an update on her wedding plans, which, she said, were now completely out of control and was driving her and her fiancé to seriously consider eloping to Bali.
“Ugh, do it!” said Ondine. “Weddings are such a waste of money! Just make sure you invite us to the elopement.”
“Speaking of weddings Shai,” said Alex. “Have you heard anything from Paul?”
“Alex!” whispered Celine violently, her eyes wide in admonishment.
“No, no it’s okay,” said Shaia. “I was just telling Ondine, I have heard from Paul. I asked him to meet, just for…well…for closure I guess. And he came over and, you know, we talked and whatever and now I’m over it.”
“Wait wait wait,” said Ondine. “You didn’t tell me he came over. What do you mean ‘and whatever’ – you didn’t sleep with him, did you?”
“NO, oh God no, no I didn’t. I just mean…oh, I don’t really want to go into the details of it but, let’s just say I had reached a point where I just didn’t feel like being miserable anymore and I said goodbye in my own way and that was it. And I’m good now.”
The women all stared at Shaia skeptically.
“Ach your faces!” laughed Shaia. “Look, I know I was completely broken over the last few weeks. I mean, I spent ten years of my life with this man and to find out that he’d been sleeping with one of my friends the entire time? I mean, yeah, I was a mess.
“Plus…I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just that one friend…”
An uncomfortable silence crawled up the walls and settled over the group of women. Celine cleared her throat and Alex looked like a deer in headlights. A rash of red was crawling its way up Ondine’s neck and face while Andra had gone completely green.
“What…um…what do you mean?” Ondine finally asked. Her heart felt like it was beating in her stomach and she felt a sudden, pressing urge to take a very big shit.
“Well,” said Shaia as she munched on her salmon meatball. “I mean that I don’t think it was just Misha. I think he worked his way through quite a few of my friends.”
“What makes you say that,” Celine asked, although it came out as barely a whisper. She could barely breathe. Panic was spreading through her veins like ice water. It had only been that one time.
“Oh it doesn’t matter now! Look guys, I’ve made peace with it and now I am good. Trust me,” Shaia said with a wide grin at her guests.
The women sat rigidly for a moment of uncomfortable silence, except for Shaia, who had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye.
“I think we need more wine!” yelled Ondine a little too loudly. The women all laughed awkwardly, feeling, for the most part, like they had dodged a bullet.
“I’ll go grab it real quick,” Ondine said she hopped up off the couch and almost ran to the kitchen. She needed a moment to breathe, to refocus. She stood at the kitchen counter taking a few deep breaths. It really did smell intoxicatingly good in there – so good, it was distracting. She walked over to the stove. To hell with waiting, she wanted to get a taste right now.
She grabbed a spoon out of the drawer and opened the lid of the pot, almost swooning when she smelled the simmering meat. The scent of red wine and herbs floated up into the air and she inhaled deeply and sighed in satisfaction. This was going to be good, she could tell. She dipped a spoon into the stew, grabbed a chunk of meat, and popped it into her mouth. Shaia was right: she hadn’t tasted anything quite like it. The meat had a very distinct flavor, like game, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it could be.
She wanted more. She grabbed the soup ladle sitting on the side of the sink and dug through the stew until it hit up on a bone simmering at the bottom of the pot. Ondine’s curiousity was peaked – she really wanted to know what kind of meat made it taste so different from the one her grandmother used to make every Sunday in Marseille.
She tilted the pot towards her and scraped and scraped the bone up the side. It was heavy and oddly shaped, but she was finally able to lift it a little ways out of the stew.
And then she froze. Her mouth dropped open, her breath caught in her chest.
It was a jawbone.
A human jawbone.
Ondine stared and stared and stared and then blinked a few times in succession, but the jaw still stubbornly remained a jaw. The skull it was once attached to was missing, most likely to fit it better in the pot, Ondine thought, and then wondered how she could think something so rational when a human jawbone had been simmering for hours in a dish she was supposed to eat. She thought back to what Shaia had said about doing what she needed to do to get over Paul. How suddenly she seemed to have bounced back after spending the last few weeks at the bottom of a well of despair. The rust coloured gloves dripping onto the tub, Paul’s shoes stored carelessly under the toilet. And all that bloody meat in the freezer.
“Puh…Paul?” she said, quietly, as if she expected the jaw to respond.
Ondine gasped and dropped the ladle full into the pot, her hand to her chest, as she turned to see Shaia in the kitchen door.
“Haha, jumpy! Are you coming, we’re all waiting for you.”
“Ya, ya, I’m right behind you.”
“Did you sneak a peek, naughty girl?” asked Shaia, her eyes glancing towards the pot and then back at her friend. “Well…?”
Ondine couldn’t be quite sure, but she thought she saw a challenge in the way her friend looked unblinkingly into her eyes.
“Yes. Yes! I’m just…I’m starving and I couldn’t resist a quick taste. You know how impatient I get when I’m hungry,” she laughed.
“Well then, how about you bring the wine out and I’ll bring out dinner and we can get started?”
“That..yes, that sounds good,” said Ondine. She took a bottle of wine off the counter and scurried quickly past Shaia, unable to meet her eyes.
“You need the wine opener,” said Shaia, handing one to Ondine, who took it with a shaky smile.
Ondine walked quietly back to her seat and joined the other women. She went through the motions of opening the wine and filling the glasses, but she felt completely numb. She sat down on the couch, staring glassy eyed at nothing while the other women chattered away. Was this really happening? Did she really see what she thought she’d seen? Did she just eat a chunk of Paul? She felt her gorge rise.
Behind her, Shaia was bringing the plates of food to the dinner table.
“Alright ladies, let’s eat!”
One by one, they filed to the dinner table and took their seats before a steaming plate of gorgeous looking stew. They were all making appreciative murmurs about the meal, except for Ondine, who was looking blankly down at her dinner. Paul Bourguignon, she thought before quashing the hysterical laugh that bubbled up her throat and threatened to erupt out of her mouth.
Shaia raised her glass and said “To my lovely friends, thank you for seeing me through my darkest days. To friends, to happiness, and oh yeah, fuck Paul!
“To friends!” said Celine and Andra, at the same time that Alex and Shaia said “Fuck Paul!”
Just as the women were about to tuck into their meals, Ondine yelled out,
“Stop! It’s Paul!”
The women froze. Shaia looked at Ondine from under her eyebrows, the corner of her mouth raised in the slightest of smiles. Everyone was staring bemusedly at Ondine.
“What’s Paul…?” asked Celine.
“The meat. It’s Paul! Isn’t it, Shaia? I saw it in the pot. I saw…him in the pot. You cooked Paul and you’ve meant for us to eat him.”
All eyes turned to Shaia, who calmly put her spoon down by her plate and looked at the women, one by one.
“Don’t be silly, Ondine!” said Andra.
“All that meat…” said Alex. “Is it true, Shai?”
“Well,” she said, quietly. “You all wanted a piece of him. Now you can have him.”
The women looked at Shaia, their eyes wide in disbelief. Each of them were piecing things together. The way he’d fallen off the face of the earth after he’d broken things off, his voicemail too full of messages to accept new ones. The way he was never at work when Andra tried to catch him at his office over the last week, or at his apartment when Alex drove by to see if his lights were on. The way Shaia had done a complete 180, moving on so suddenly from her heartache. His things they’d spied throughout the house that shouldn’t have been there. And the meat.
And each of them thought about their guilt.
Alex remembered that burning feeling in her chest every time Shaia had cried to her on the phone. Celina thought of the cold sweat on her skin as she held Shaia while she wept. Andra could still feel the nausea in her stomach when she’d learned that Shaia had to take time off work and was seeing a therapist. Because of them. Because of Paul. And it was Paul’s fault that they all felt so guilty, wasn’t it? He just couldn’t keep it in his pants, could he? And he had made them complicit in the ruination of their friend.
But here she was risen from the ashes. Offering them a way out of that guilt?
“You know,” said Shaia, her head cocked to the side, wine glass in hand, “I thought you were all hungry.”
Her eyes settled on Ondine. But it was Alex who spoke first.
“I’m fucking starving.”
All heads swiveled to look at Alex as she scooped up a spoonful of stew and tucked it into her mouth. Shaia smiled.
“Well I didn’t eat all day just waiting for dinner,” said Celine. She tucked into her stew and hummed slightly when the flavours hit her tongue.
“And really, Shai, this smells so good,” Andra said before she gobbled down a mouthful of the bourguignon.
By now Shaia had a wide grin on her face as she turned back to face Ondine, eyebrow slightly raised – in a question or confrontation, Ondine wasn’t sure. The only thing Ondine was sure about was that her friends were fucking crazy. Shaia had killed Paul and now they were eating him. They were eating him!
And she was scared. She looked at Shaia’s face, at her friends making a meal out of the man they had all slept with, and she knew she didn’t want to be next on the menu.
So she took a heaping spoonful of stew and looked Shaia in the eyes as she scooped it into her mouth.
“Shaia,” said Ondine. “Paul is fucking delicious.”