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White carbon #2

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After the media blitz, where they're asked over and over if they feel like they were robbed in Sochi and about their retirement, as though they'd had time to consider their plans; after weeks on the road with Scott in performance mode, barely able to talk to him about anything other than work; after the dust of tour season had begun to settle, he disappears, to clear his head, he says.

The longer his radio silence extends, the less she thinks she wants from him—not comfort, not any particular commitment, not reassurance because there's almost certainly no reassuring her, not his apology for not having trusted her suspicion of Marina, just something.

Hey, she texts him weeks later when she can't stand it anymore, early on a Saturday morning. Miss you. When are you free for brunch? xox

He is, at least, quick to reply. He's found ways to make himself busy, or he's lying to her about prior commitments, but it's not for two weeks, he says. He's free the morning of that Saturday, the last one in August, before her classes start, and sure, he'll come over then, thanks for the invite.

"Get out of your damn head," she says aloud, into the empty bedroom.

Historically, her breakfasts for Scott have been takeout she'd volunteered to go get to cheer him up even though she hates early mornings, or extra pastries swiped from continental breakfasts in hotel lobbies and brought back to him upstairs; he's made breakfast for her dozens of times, in increasingly elaborate spreads. It occurs to her that this might be something they could try to do together, if she could sort herself out.

The next two weeks stretch before her as a dreary expanse of unbroken free time, all her friends either back at work or on holiday and unavailable for distraction, and there's no particular reason not to occupy herself with a new skill, even a dull one.

Her kitchen is equipped with housewarming gifts she found uninspiring, not to her taste, and had hardly touched. Teflon cookware, thick maple spoons and spatulas from friends in Ottawa, a block of heavy knives from the Bay with matte black acrylic handles. But there's a new kitchenware place in town since the last time she spent a day shopping, and she likes the character of their branding, so she drives there, stopping for coffee and at a bookstore on the way when she realizes it's not quite nine in the morning and they're unlikely to be open before ten.

The bookstore has a French jam book in a new English translation, a pretty hardcover with appealing typography, and she buys it, and thumbs through it in the parking lot, transcribing a prospective ingredient list into her phone. Stone fruit (underripe), lemons, sugar, currants (maybe).

Good: a novel breakfast direction. She's never known Scott to make preserves, or even to buy them.

The procedure and sensibility outlined in the preface are different from what she remembers her grandmother trying to explain to her when she was an impatient child, more relaxed and minimal, spaced out over a couple of days, what sounds like less sugar, no pectin from a box.

She's emboldened with fresh purpose to walk into the kitchenware boutique, which is well lit with huge floor-to-ceiling windows, in front of which a young man with burly tattooed arms and a waxed moustache corrects her grip on the chef's knife he hands her to try. Her tentative hold on the handle was not optimal, she learns; the handle is a counterweight to the heft of the blade, where her grip should be, pinching it between the pad of her thumb and the side of her crooked forefinger, the other three fingers balancing the handle lightly against her palm. It does seem more stable this way, and she can feel where the callouses would develop, if she kept it up.

She walks away having bought a nested set of hammered copper bowls, a sleek chrome-plated countertop scale, a strainer in the shape of an octagon, a wide stainless steel saucepan with a heavy lid, a carbon steel knife with a squared-off tip like a little cleaver, a ceramic honing rod, a pair of water stones in different grits with instructions for their use and a brief demonstration, and assurances that the knife is probably more brittle and delicate than she's accustomed to and will need maintenance, but that its fragility is a tradeoff for unusual keenness of edge, and that there are few harms beyond repair that could befall it.

At the farmers' market, she learns that a late frost southern Ontario apparently suffered in the spring had been hard on the orchards, but a vendor has black plums by the crate and apricots at a steep markup, and she picks out the greenest ones, which are few and far between so late in the summer.

There's cheesecloth, lemons, cane sugar, and Weck jars with hinged lids and red rubber gaskets at the Sunripe on Adelaide. She buys a dozen of them to be on the safe side, uncertain how much the fruit will yield.

She takes a photo of herself when she gets home and has lugged everything inside, brandishing the knife with a broad grin and a wink, and texts it to Scott, with not quite a joke, not quite an explanation: Turning over a new domestic leaf, gonna make you breakfast. Look out.

The ringer's on, but she can't stop herself from checking for notifications anyway, every few minutes for the next hour of making coffee, finding something in the pantry that could pass for lunch, putting her feet up, trying to read something to unwind, until eventually, exasperated with herself, she turns the phone off and changes into shorts and a tank and heads out for a run without music, even though it's punishingly humid outside and when she woke up she had no intention of running today.

Try not to lose a limb :) is her reward when she emerges from the shower afterward, which is a little distant, but fine, she supposes.

Unbelievably, it's only midafternoon.

No time like the present, she thinks, and unpacks the apricots into the strainer to rinse them, and sets them on the cutting board one at a time, in a row.

The fruit twists apart easily when she bisects it from pole to pole around each pit. She cuts each half into orderly dice, concentrating on grip and form: her right hand pinching the spine of the knife and wrapped loosely around the handle, the fingers of the left curled back, knuckles brushing the flat of the blade at each stroke, through three vertical slices and seven horizontal, each apricot in sixty-four pieces.

When she's finished, sweat has gathered above her lip and at the small of her back. The central air she installed when she bought the house has been on the fritz since May and between the tour schedule and the press junkets she has just not had the presence of mind to arrange for its repair. The breeze through the open kitchen window is damp with the threat of a thunderstorm, and suffused with the scent of roses from her neighbour's yard across the alley.

The book suggests a range of sugar quantities to allow for different tastes. She considers Scott's preference against sweets and eases off on it, only half the amount of fruit by weight. The balance of the afternoon's task is to bring it to a simmer and then leave it overnight, to separate and cook in turns tomorrow, and she handles it without incident, after some initial anxiety over whether there's enough liquid in the pan to simmer at all. But as soon as the heat hits the fruit it starts to bleed into the sugar, saturating it with enough juice to dissolve it completely, as directed.

Impulsively, before pouring the mixture into a bowl and setting it aside in the fridge for the day, she adds to it a teaspoonful of dried lavender she bought on holiday in Provence once, and by the time she thinks to second-guess herself, it's too late, and that was all the apricots anyway.

A dark patina is blooming from the edge of the blade after only a few minutes with the fruit. It's a half-moon four fingers wide, about a third of the length of the knife from the tip, and it's reassuring to have before her evidence of its use and her work.

When she strokes the knife along the honing rod at the prescribed angle, propping it upright with its rubber tip on the countertop, first down one side then the other, the patina at the edge is buffed away, leaving it a thin scalpel-sharp flash of silver.

The clouds roll in and the humidity breaks at sunset, and she opens all the downstairs windows to air out the house in the howling wind, and falls asleep there on the couch after the storm abates, on top of a throw damp from the rain, still dressed.

In the morning, so much liquid has leached out of the diced apricots that they're floating in it. It's thick and slow to pass through the strainer when she pours it over the saucepan, clinging to the mesh, and slippery on her fingers when she brushes it free. She brings it to a simmer slowly, maybe more cautious than necessary, afraid it might caramelize or burn.

After a half-hour, thick and pale curds of something are gathering at the edges of the pan, and she scrapes them down and watches them melt into the syrup, watches as the rolling boil turns slower and lazier the more viscous the syrup becomes, until there's some kind of tipping point and foam rises suddenly to overflow the pan and spill onto the range, promptly setting off the smoke alarm.

She yanks it off the element, claps a lid over the smouldering sugar ash to corral the acrid smoke, pulls the alarm from the ceiling and takes out the battery, and makes a quick circuit around the main floor to open all the windows. When she gets back to it, the syrup, as it happens, is the precise temperature it was meant to be—104C by the thermapen's reckoning. She supposes the foam is a tell.

The strained fruit swells and turns translucent when she adds it back to its syrup, and it's only a few minutes until it's foamed up dramatically again, but she's ready for it this time and pulls the pan from the heat before it overflows. The book suggested tracing a fingertip across the back of a teaspoon dipped in the preserve to test it for readiness, which she tries, in the spirit of experiment.

The spoon is silver, one of her grandmother's, and she leaves it too long in the jam, and her index fingertip burns and starts to blister as soon as she touches it; but the liquid preserve is drawn apart and does not flow back together, like it's supposed to do, so she decants it into a jar.

Somehow the fifteen-dollar sack of apricots had generated less than half a litre of jam, but it glows in the sunlight filtering in through the bay window, speckled with lavender flowers, and she allows herself a moment of basking in the thrill of achievement.

Once it's set—and it does set, densely, as soon as it's cooled, which felt like too much to hope for, and even the book suggested that she avoid cultivating a prescriptive attitude toward the set of preserves and instead allow fruits their own character, sometimes firm, sometimes fluid—she tries it, on a thin slice of baguette.

Its flavour bursts open at the back of her mouth with a tartness she can feel as an ache in her jawbone before it shifts forward, resolving into the lingering scent of lavender at the tip of her tongue. Not bad.

A first attempt at plum, after the weekend, comes out with the texture all wrong—she'd thought to treat the fruit the same as the apricots, all stone fruits perhaps being alike enough, but the peel didn't soften; it only pulled off the dice and curled in on itself, unpleasantly chewy.

She blanches the fruit for a second attempt—another new-to-her technique that doesn't seem plausible, until she sees for herself the peels drawing away from the shallow X she sliced into the bottom of each plum, and how they slough off in her fists when she plunges them into a sinkful of icewater—but the colour of the finished preserve the next day is uninspiring without the peel, saccharine and pallid pink.

She adds a splash of rosewater to it hoping to change her impression, thinking maybe it could be less cloying if it tastes as delicate and floral as it looks. But it's no use; she can't imagine it would appeal to Scott's preference, it's all sweet, no balance.

What are you up to today? she asks him that evening, from bed. Thunderstorms here. The second one in three days is keeping her awake, rattling the old windows on the second floor she still needs to replace. She doesn't know whether Scott's even in the province.

She's almost drifted off notwithstanding the storm when he texts her back, just a photo of a bar with an Argos game on the TV in the back, and a crowd of people she doesn't recognize.

Looks like a real rager, she says, but he doesn't respond.

Inspiration strikes on the Thursday before brunch when she's reading through the chapter on jellies: lemon pith could be a bitter counterweight for the plums, and need not appear in the finished jam, if it's only implicated in the simmer and is fished out afterward. As for the peel, there's no reason it couldn't be simmered and removed too: finally a purpose for the cheesecloth.

She slices the tip of her middle finger open while paring away the last bit of peel stubbornly clinging to the last of the plums, slick where its skin had already slipped off, the edge of the knife catching unexpectedly against the pit, the gore indistinguishable from the shocking red of the peel undersides already smeared all over her hands.

When she rinses everything off, she discovers that she's not the only casualty, and that the knife edge also has a tiny nick out of it, at the centre of the developing patina, and blood had sunk into the grain of the unvarnished wooden handle, birch it looks like, and settled there. Stupid, clumsy, careless.

It's still usable to dice the peeled plums, and she does it gingerly, middle finger held out stiffly to avoid soaking through the bandage into the wound, with mixed success. The chip in the edge would not have bothered her before, she'd never paid any attention to any kitchen knife anyone had ever handed her, which happened seldom, but now it seems vexing, like an interruption to the workflow.

She favours the tip of the knife instead, the awkward angle inducing her shoulders to creep up around her ears no matter how she tries to relax them.

There's nothing else for it. Once she's wiped off the blade and set the sugared fruit aside for the day, submerged peels stowed in a cheesecloth sachet secured with an elastic (having neglected to buy twine), she unwraps the stones. They each exhale a stream of air bubbles when she presses them into a sinkful of water, slowly tapering off until they're thoroughly saturated.

It's clear on close inspection that the steel of the edge is cladded with some other steel also not stainless; the patina closer to the spine is a different colour, more blue than grey, and there's a wavy dividing line a little under a centimetre from the edge that had not been visible when the knife was new.

The procedure is conceptually familiar to her, and the smell of the steel on the stone is like every sharpening stand in every ice rink she's ever set foot in. But it's different, and feels more intimate, to find the angle of the grind herself, a bit haphazardly, on the coarser of the two stones, where she grits her teeth and sets to work removing metal.

The scraping of the steel on the ceramic changes tone when the angle is right, less steep further back from the edge and steeper toward it, and she finds a halting rhythm of semicircular strokes, ten on one side, pause to check the edge, ten on the other, pause, and back again.

When it seems like she's exceeded the depth of the chip—it was really not so bad, only a millimetre or two—she shifts to the finer stone, where the sound has a different character and the slurry the metal yields to the ceramic is slower to appear on its surface, but she keeps the strokes smooth and consistent, and it does in the end.

The cladding is marked with scuffs in small swirls like cirrus clouds from her first failed attempts to find the angle of the bevel, but the edge is smooth and flat again, though the finish is no longer mirror-bright.

There's a Shoppers flyer on the counter from yesterday's mail, and when she picks it up in one hand and draws the knife experimentally down and through it with the other, the cut is effortless and clean the whole length of the blade, with no hitch where the chip had been.

Overnight the crisp yellow flesh of the plums softened and collapsed on itself, so when she gets to it in the morning, it's the coral of grapefruit once it's strained out of the syrup, itself a clear dark red. Between them and after the introduction of a quartered lemon, removed before she adds back the diced plums, they average out to a finished preserve of brilliant scarlet.

The flavour is almost floral in spite of her reluctance to make it so, but it's not a floral note like perfume; she thinks it might be from the peels, or maybe the lemon, and it's the best iteration yet.

Scott, who hasn't texted her in days except to confirm he didn't forget, arrives at eleven on Saturday, unshaven.

"I made this," she says, leading him into the dining room where she'd laid the table. "Well, kind of."

The quiche came from M&M and had been in her freezer for months, and the pastries are from La Noisette, where she'd nipped out to pick them up first thing in the morning. She did make the coffee. It's got nothing on what Scott has often made for her, she realizes, a little chagrined.

"The jams, I mean, I made those."

Not for the first time, she's self-conscious about anticipating what he might want, like no amount of closeness can afford them a common gift-giving vocabulary, and the best she can do is guess, and hope he can tell that whatever she has for him is deeply felt.

"You left lavender in it," says Scott, taking a seat and a scone and a teaspoonful of the apricot.

"Yeah," she says. "But it macerated with the fruit overnight and then I simmered it so it's candied almost, it's not a weird texture."

Sometime during the simmer the dusky purple of the flowers had become a brilliant fuchsia, warm even against the deep orange of the apricots.

"It works," says Scott, who looks pleased by her thoughtfulness, or perhaps by her new knowledge of the word "macerated".

They work through a half dozen scones, most of the quiche, and all of the coffee before he asks her how she's been, and she decides on honesty.

"Pretty bleak," she says. "I don't know what to do with myself, I dropped like a grand on kitchen stuff I'm probably never going to use again instead of fixing my A/C." The dining room has a north-facing window and is cool in the morning, but even so, the humidity is becoming oppressive.

"Yeah," he says. "I've been watching a lot of football."

"I saw," she says, but that seems to be all the conversation that either of them are prepared for, and they finish the quiche in silence. Scott clears the table and fills the sink to start the dishes without her needing to ask, and she puts away the leftover pastries, tucks the untouched jar of plum preserves into the messenger bag he's in the habit of carrying everywhere, makes another round of coffee and pours it, bringing the cup to his lips when his hands are slippery with dishwater and soap, like this is something they're used to.

When he's wiping down the stovetop, she comes up behind him and wraps both arms around him, one hand on his ribs, the other low on his hip, and rests her cheek on the back of his neck.

"Thanks for clearing up," she says, turning to kiss his shoulder out of habit, realizing too late that it might have been an overreach, it's so unclear to her what she might be to him anymore.

It's not one; he turns and lifts her in one motion onto the low counter across from the kitchen island where she’d had a butcher block built in, and tugs at the collar of her white v-neck to expose her collarbone, and kisses her there.

Her nipples stiffen in the breeze through the open window when he pulls her shirt off of her, and he traces each one with his tongue and then his teeth, and draws a line the length of her sternum with his fingertips, making her shudder with the lightness of his touch; and he hikes up her skirt and eases her to the edge of the counter toward him, and he kneels in front of her on the buckled linoleum floor, and he presses his open mouth to her underwear, inhaling her.

She reaches down to pull it off herself, and spreads her lips apart for him, which makes him moan into her, and he fucks her slowly with his fingers, drawing her clit between his lips and tracing his tongue around it. When she’s close, she moves her hands to his hair, and he takes her clit lightly between his teeth and slides a third finger into her, and she comes around him, nearly sliding off the edge of the quartz countertop, slick with her sweat.

When he rises to his feet, he kisses her on the mouth, for the first time since they left Sochi.

His tongue tastes like her cunt, and like lavender, and metallic like the smell of steel dust that persisted under her fingernails even after she had scrubbed them clean.

Afterward he cradles her head against his chest, brushing her hair back behind her ears, until she's caught her breath, and then he retrieves her shirt from the floor for her and eases it back on, and helps her off the counter, and leads her to the foyer.

"This was very sweet of you," he finally says at the door. His eyes don't quite meet hers.

"Thanks," she says. "I just thought that it might be nice if I learned a few cooking things, then we would have something we could do together, besides golf, I mean. Speaking of which, when—"

"I'm seeing someone," he says, cutting her short, and her heart stops.

"Oh," she says.

"You met her in Sochi," he says, and she remembers who he must mean. "I think it might turn into something, you know?"

"She's great, I'm happy for you," says Tessa. She doesn't even not mean it when it comes out of her mouth, but her ears are ringing and she can't seem to inhale, and she's sure her face must be frozen into some grotesque rictus of friendliness.

"She wants to get a place together, in Toronto," he says.

"And you want it too?" she asks, and he nods.

She can't help herself.

"But you thought you'd fuck me one more time first, as what, like a send-off? That bodes well for you and her." She doesn't not mean this either, and Scott's mouth twists in the way it only does when she's said something too caustic, but there's no taking it back.

"It's not like that," he says. A muscle in his neck tightens and she sees his fist clench, as he digs his fingernails into his palm.

If not like that, then what, she wonders, but he doesn't volunteer it.

"All you ever want from me is space," she says.

"You never asked what I wanted from you," he says, and turns on his heel to leave.

"You still have to golf with me even if you're mad," she calls after him, already halfway into his truck.

"Fine," he calls back, out the window, before rolling it up and peeling out of the driveway and up the cul-de-sac to the avenue, and then to who knows where.

She slams the door behind her and is satisfied to know that the sound would echo up the cul-de-sac, even if he's not there to hear it, and she heads back to the kitchen, where the drawer next to the landline has a sheaf of invoices and business cards in it from the contractors who've been working on the slow piecemeal reno, and she finds the card of the one who did the countertops, which is tucked into a leaflet of photos of swatches; she's hated the quartz since it was installed, it's too warm a white for the light in the space, and there's probably time before school starts to order a replacement, something darker and maybe in granite instead, he already has the measurements on file.