Eric Bittle has just had the greatest sex of his entire life when his boyfriend of nearly two years says those three little words: “This isn’t working.”
Eric would like to argue that point because clearly, something about their relationship is working, but he guesses this isn’t the time to mention that. Instead, he pulls his quilt up to his chin and watches Alex tug his pants on and fumble for his shoes.
“What do you mean?” he asks. He can hear the surprise in his voice and scolds himself for the tears that immediately spring to his eyes.
“I mean …” Alex pauses and looks around the room, carefully retrieves his shirt from where it fell on the floor earlier in the evening. “We both knew this was never going to be anything more than what it is, right? I wasn’t looking for a relationship when we met. But we were having so much fun I let it become a relationship before I knew that’s what we were doing. I don’t want to get married, Eric, and you do.”
Eric opens his mouth to protest but Alex doesn’t let him. “I know you want a husband and a family. You talk about it a lot. You probably don’t realize how much you talk about it. And the longer we’re together, the more people ask me about it, the more I realize it’s something I don’t want. I don’t see myself doing that. Ever. I should have said something earlier. I’m sorry.”
Alex is polite, even when he’s breaking up with Eric.
“When did … Why did …” Eric tries a third time. “Why now?”
Alex sighs and sits down on the edge of the bed. “The invitation to my sister’s wedding came in the mail today,” he says gently.
“All of my siblings are married or are getting married. After Ana, that just leaves me. That should make me feel … something? Pressure? I know everybody is looking at us, wondering. But I don’t want to get married. I never have. I’ve been deluding myself, I think, thinking we’re okay because we’re having fun. But it’s selfish of me to keep leading you on when you could be with somebody who wants the same things you want. You should be with somebody who wants those things.”
Eric doesn’t say anything. Of course he’d noticed the way Alex was suspiciously silent whenever he mentioned marriage. It wasn’t like he talked about it all the time, but after two years it had come up once or twice. And there had been that time a year or so ago his parents had visited and specifically hinted about grandkids. He hadn’t missed the way Alex had grimaced at the suggestion. He probably thought Eric hadn’t seen it. Eric pretended he hadn’t seen it. He’d been deluding himself too, probably.
Bizarrely, the only thing Eric is able to think about as Alex leaves is they’re supposed to go to Harvest Haus next month to celebrate their anniversary. Over a year of logging onto the website on the first Tuesday of the month, precisely at 10 a.m., had finally resulted in a coveted reservation. They’ve been looking forward to it for ten months. “Longer than a pregnancy,” his mama had laughed over the phone when he told her he’d finally snagged a reservation at one of Boston’s most exclusive — and mysterious — restaurants. “Y’all could have a baby by then.”
“Mama, stop,” Eric had protested. “There will be no babies until there’s a ring on my finger.”
“Well, that’ll happen soon enough,” she’d said, sounding strangely confident. “I just read a blog post by a couple who got engaged at Harvest Haus.”
That, Eric thinks now, will definitely not be happening.
“Aww, Bits,” Lardo says the next morning during their weekly call. “Do you want me and Sam to come down this weekend? We can get drunk and do face masks and tell you we never really liked Alex anyway.”
Eric laughs in spite of himself, and in spite of the 6:30 minute per mile pace he’s currently sticking to. “You’re saying the right things, but I know y’all are busy. It’s enough to know that you would.”
“Pfft. We’ve left the kid with my mom before. You know offer is there. Any time. Not just this weekend.”
“You could come here to see us, too. Sam keeps talking about those brownies you made last time, and I know Lily wants her Uncle Bitty to take her to the American Girl store.”
“I could take her to tea there,” Eric suggests.
“I don’t know if a two-year-old is up for tea. Do they serve it in sippy cups?”
“You’re the one who’s always saying Lily’s very advanced for her age.” Eric stops for a red light and takes a few deep breaths.
“Are you actually running? You are, aren’t you? Who gets up and goes for a run the morning after being dumped?”
“It’s a habit. I couldn’t sleep past 5:30 even if I wanted to.” The light turns green and Eric crosses with the traffic.
“Yeah, well, I think I’ll stick with running only when it’s to make my morning train.”
“I love you, Lards,” Eric says, feeling a rush of affection for his best friend. Maybe he will take a weekend trip to New York soon, try out a few new restaurants for the blog while he’s at it. “Tell Sam and my goddaughter hi for me.”
Eric ends the call and the audio in his headphones flips back to his running mix. The Beyoncé-heavy playlist, at least, puts him in a more upbeat mood as he finishes his run. Once home, he starts the coffee to brew directly into his travel mug, showers, dresses, and grabs the coffee and a protein bar on his way out the door.
School starts at 8 a.m., but Bitty likes to arrive a little early in case any of his students need to see him about an assignment or just want to talk. In addition to the culinary arts classes he teaches, he serves as the advisor for the Gay-Straight Alliance and is the varsity cross-country coach, a role he fell into when the previous coach quit without warning. He enjoys coaching more than he thought he would, and it brings in some extra money, but it still amuses him when his runners and their parents refer to him as Coach Bittle. Coach Bittle will always be Eric’s father, and in the hierarchy of high school sports, football and cross country are about as far away from each other as they can get.
(That doesn’t stop Coach from proudly wearing the Hamilton High School Cross Country shirt Bitty gave him for Christmas last year. He’d put it in the rotation along with his old Samwell Hockey and Atlanta Falcons shirts. He even — bless his heart — tries to talk strategy with Eric, despite never having seen a cross country meet. Eric has to give him credit for trying, at least.)
Julia, a sophomore in his Intermediate Baking class and one of his most tightly-wound students, is waiting outside his classroom when he arrives. “My final project is a disaster!” she greets him.
Eric has to work to keep a straight face. He’d known this was coming when Julia decided to make three versions of lemon meringue pie for her final project. When he’d given their assignment — choose a popular dessert, trace its origins and history, and prepare three versions using a traditional recipe, a modern recipe, and a recipe modified for dietary restrictions — most had chosen chocolate chip cookies or chocolate cake. Only Julia had chosen something with such a high degree of difficulty.
“What about it is giving you trouble?” he asks, guiding her inside the classroom.
Julia flings herself dramatically into the chair on the other side of his desk. “The gluten free paleo crust is terrible, and I can’t get the lemon curd right for any of them.”
Eric tamps down every impulse he has to laugh. It’s not his goal to discourage his students, even those who are in way over their head.
(He knows a little something about being in over his head. Baking was how he coped with the stress of college and then grad school. It took him a good while to realize that maybe he should shift his focus to teaching culinary arts instead of pursuing that master’s in history.)
“So,” he says, trying to project the air of an all-knowing mentor, “the first thing you need to understand about grain-free crusts is that they just aren’t going to be light and flaky like a flour-based crust. You’ve had cheesecake with a graham cracker crust? That’s the texture you need to expect.”
Julia nods as she furiously takes notes. “Maybe I should ask my aunt who follows the paleo diet to tell me if it’s any good.”
“That’s a great idea. I perfected a lot of my high protein desserts when I was on my college hockey team. Feeding college athletes who need fuel to perform and recover isn’t quite the same as the people you’ll be serving at your mama’s book club potluck. Now, when it comes to your lemon curd ...”
The school week is busy and Eric doesn’t have much time at all to dwell on the breakup, but he knows Saturday will be rough. He and Alex didn’t always spend the entire weekend together, but if they didn’t have bigger plans they almost always met mid-morning for coffee or brunch before Eric’s weekly farmers market trip. This weekend they were to have gone to a birthday party for Alex’s youngest niece but obviously — even though he’d made it clear Eric is still welcome — that isn’t happening. Alex’s large family is nice, but a family event less than a week after being dumped would be awkward.
In an effort to keep his mind off of things, he packs his schedule. There’s a six mile run followed by a stop at the neighborhood coffee shop for coffee and a blueberry scone, which he eats during his cool down walk home. After he’s showered and dressed he sits down with his notebook and plans out some blog posts.
Food writing is an outlet in the same way his college baking vlog and Twitter feed were. In addition to his own blog, Bits and Pieces, where he shares personal stories, recipes, and reviews, he writes a monthly column for a local lifestyle magazine and the occasional restaurant review for the local paper. The blog and freelance work bring in a modest amount of money, he gets to eat for free at area restaurants, and he even has a few sponsorships with companies that provide him with products and baking gear. He’s long since given up hope that it will ever be his full time job — and he likes teaching too much to even consider it, at this point — but it’s a nice hobby.
He looks over his list of potential post topics and considers which he’d like to do. There’s a Red Sox game this afternoon, which means he could check out some new vendors to update his ongoing series about concession food at regional stadiums and arenas. But he usually brings Shitty along to those and he doesn’t really feel like rehashing the details of his breakup today. That leaves a sponsored post. A few months ago a kitchen gadget company sent him a box of spatulas and he still owes them the last of three posts to fulfill his obligation to the company. He can make salted caramel brownies, he decides, something easy that has the benefit of being excellent breakup comfort food.
What most people don’t understand is that a recipe post can be hours in the making, what with having to set up his camera, making sure the lighting’s right, and pausing every so often to take pictures of the recipe in progress. That doesn’t take into account false starts (though Bitty prides himself on getting things right the first time), unexpected delays (the time the power went out when he had a cake in the oven), and the time it takes to write the post and edit his photos. It takes hours, which can be irritating when Eric would rather be doing something else. Today, it’s the perfect distraction.
He begins by taking out all of the ingredients and arranging them just-so on his gleaming marble countertop. He’d rented this apartment knowing he’d be using the kitchen for blog photo shoots, so he hadn’t minded splurging a little on a unit with a newly renovated kitchen. It’s small, but it beats his previous apartment’s kitchen, with its 90s-era appliances and scratched Formica countertops.
“It’s a food blogger’s paradise,” he’d told Lardo the day he signed the lease.
“Yeah, you think that now, but you gave up a place with in-unit laundry. Do you know what I’d give up to have in-unit laundry?”
“The spare bedroom you use as a studio?”
“Yeah, you have a point,” she’d laughed.
Secretly, Bitty sometimes thinks Lardo was right. Schlepping his things to the laundromat every week gets old, especially in the summer. He has enough savings now that he can start thinking about buying a place of his own. It’ll have to be small, but he can make it work. Once school lets out for the summer, he decides, he’ll start looking.
After taking the initial pictures, Bitty takes out his mixing bowls and prepares a pan and gets to work. This isn’t the mindless baking he used to do to take his mind off of school work. He has to stop every so often to adjust items for a picture or scribble a note to himself in his notebook. If he changes the recipe on the fly, runs into trouble, or thinks of something that might make his recipe more accessible to his readers, it gets written down so he can remember to include it in his post.
When the brownies go into the oven, he sits down at his laptop and begins writing. He’ll upload and edit all the photos later, after he’s taken some pictures of the finished product.
~ bittersweet salted caramel brownies for the recently dumped ~
It sure has been a week, as they say. On Sunday morning, my boyfriend and I went to brunch and caught the newest Avengers movie. Not my thing, really, but rumor had it Chris Evans was making a cameo, and he really likes Chris Evans. (I have to agree, that boy is easy on the eyes.)
By Sunday night, we were breaking up.
(I promise it had nothing to do with Chris Evans.)
Have you ever ended a relationship, knowing it was going nowhere, yet were still sad that it ended? That’s kind of how I feel right now. My boyfriend — my ex, I should say — and I had a lot of fun together, but that’s all it ever was. It was nice to have somebody to take to weddings and share Groupon two-for-one deals with. Lord, in the time we were together we must have gone to every dance fitness class, rooftop bar, and mini golf course in the entire state of Massachusetts. But having fun at weddings and discounted activities isn’t the basis of a great relationship, is it? At the end of the day, we didn’t have a whole lot in common beyond a mutual love of brunch and dance fitness classes. At the end of the day, we saw different futures for ourselves and there’s no way we would have worked. I can’t lie, though: It sure is a blow to the ego when your significant other ends things in bed.
I’ll be okay. I’ve been indulging in some self-care this weekend. It involves long runs in my neighborhood, lots of Parks and Rec reruns, and a bit of baking. Because if you can’t indulge in comfort food after you’ve been dumped, when can you?
These salted caramel brownies, with my homemade salted caramel (you can use store-bought if you want to skip that step) and premium bittersweet chocolate are the perfect post-breakup comfort food, if I do say so myself. It combines the salt of my tears with the bittersweet memories of a long term relationship. (That’s a little too on-the-nose, isn’t it? Let’s just say I felt like eating a pan of brownies and leave it at that.)
(And in case you’re wondering, yes, I still have that reservation to Harvest Haus and I plan to keep it.)
Eric dresses for Harvest Haus the way he might dress for a first date. It might not be the romantic evening he had planned when he made this reservation, but by god, he’s going to put some effort into it. He took his nicest sport coat to the cleaners earlier in the week and bought a new bow tie just because.
Because he’s seen the pictures on Instagram. He follows the #harvesthaus hashtag. The restaurant itself doesn’t have an official account and doesn’t allow photography inside — adding to the intrigue, everyone says — but the swing that hangs on the porch outside the entrance has become a popular photo op. In the foodie world, a photo of yourself on the Harvest Haus porch swing is a status symbol. Eric may not have a date to impress tonight, but damn if he isn’t going to look good on that porch swing.
Eric knows, from the reviews he’s read, that Harvest Haus is quite literally a house. Apparently, the building is a second, smaller home on the larger surrounding property. It used to be part of a farm, he heard, before the descendants of the original owners divided the land into lots and sold it to developers. The original farmhouse and other buildings used by the family, however, were preserved and restored before being sold to a private buyer.
From the car, Eric can see the exterior looks just as it does in the photos he’s seen. The home, though it went through some renovations before it was reconceived as Harvest Haus, has an inviting rustic look helped in no small part by the porch swing. In the waning light, he can just make out the path leading to the garden. The chef, Eric knows, grows quite a bit of the herbs and produce used in the restaurant’s dishes. He’d love to tour it.
Walking up the steps, Eric considers sitting on the swing and posing for a quick selfie before deciding it can wait until after his meal. By then, the sun will have set and the front porch will be illuminated by the fairy lights strung in the nearby trees.
“Welcome to Harvest Haus.” The woman behind the hostess stand smiles pleasantly at Eric when he enters.
“Reservation for Bittle. Eric Bittle.”
She glances down and frowns. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a Bittle. I have a McAlexander, a Cruz, and a Melikian.”
“Oh! Right.” Eric’s not a huge name, in the food blogging world, but he’s big enough locally that he’s recognized when he makes reservations. He’d made the reservation under Alex’s name, hoping he’d fly under the radar. After all, tonight was to be a date, not work.
“The reservation is under Alex Cruz.”
The hostess nods. “Perfect. Feel free to take a seat and wait for Mr. — or Miss? — Cruz. We like to seat parties together.”
“Oh, no. Mr. Cruz won’t be joining me tonight. It’s just me.”
The hostess narrows her eyes.
“We were — we broke up,” Eric rushes to explain. “When we made the reservation we were together and things have changed.”
“I’m sorry,” the hostess says, “but I’m sure you understand why we can’t seat you if you don’t have a reservation. If we seated just anybody who walks in here claiming to be part of a group —”
“I have the confirmation. Just a second, I have it saved in my email.” Eric pulls out his phone and pulls up the email confirmation he received months ago. He triumphantly flashes the screen at the hostess.
“Mr. Bittle. I know you —”
“Hannah, is something giving you trouble? I heard this guest come in five minutes ago and —”
And it’s like Eric’s slipped back in time ten years, because he’d know that voice anywhere. There’s a third person in the small foyer and that person sounds exactly like —
The voice quietly conversing with Hostess Hannah is, improbably, Jack Zimmermann, Eric’s college hockey captain and unrequited crush. Once, they’d been best friends. But Jack had drifted away from the Samwell set after graduation, when he went to play for the Providence Falconers, and then he’d dropped off the map altogether. Eric hasn’t seen or heard him since he attended a Falconers game against the Bruins early in his senior year. A few months after that, just before the All-Star break, Jack went down in the middle of a game and was declared out for the season. His absence extended into the following season and then … Then his agent had quietly announced his retirement from hockey.
They weren’t really considered proper friends at that point, not anymore. Right after the injury, Eric and some of the guys from the old Samwell team had sent flowers and a card to Jacks’ parents’ house in Montreal, where he was rumored to be recuperating, but the only acknowledgement had been a short thank you text from Jack’s mother. Eric hasn’t heard from — or about — Jack since.
But this … Maybe time has passed, but Eric would know that voice anywhere. And when he finally dares to look up from his phone, he’s proven correct. It’s his Jack, a little bit older but still as handsome as he was the day he graduated.
“Still glued to that phone, eh Bittle?” He smiles and turns toward Hannah. “He’s a friend, I can vouch for him.”
Friend is stretching it, Eric thinks, considering he hasn’t seen Jack in almost a decade. He feels a little lightheaded. This has to be a dream.
“You know what,” Jack says, when neither Eric nor Hannah moves, “I’ll seat him. Did I hear you say you’re dining solo tonight? We aren’t waiting on anybody?”
“It’s just me tonight,” Eric manages.
“That’s weird, I could have sworn all of our reservations tonight were for couples or groups.”
“It’s just me,” Eric repeats.
Understanding seems to dawn on Jack; Eric notices the way the look in his eyes changes from neutral to something slightly sympathetic. It’s almost imperceptible, would be imperceptible to somebody who doesn’t know him, but even now Eric can read Jack Zimmermann. “Ah. That’s not a problem. I’ll just show you to your seat.” Jack motions for Eric to follow him into the small dining room. It’s cozy, with just four tables, none able to accommodate more than four or five people. “I had you at this table,” Jack says, gesturing to a larger table near the middle of the room, “but I think you might be more comfortable here.” He pulls out a chair at a table for two in a secluded corner of the room.
“This is weird,” Eric says, but he sits.
“I’ll bring you some bread,” Jack replies. “There’s a wine list. You can take a look at it and let me know …” He waves a hand at a small card in front of Eric’s place setting.
Lord, Eric needs something stronger than wine right now. He wonders if tub juice is an option. He’s about to make the joke when Jack repeats “bread” and hurries away.
He returns a few minutes later, plate of bread in hand. “Are you a waiter here?” Eric finally asks.
Jack smiles. “Waiter, chef, owner. I kind of do it all. Hannah helps me in the front but otherwise, it’s a one man show.”
“Oh.” Of course. It makes perfect sense that Jack Zimmermann, who quit the NHL eight years ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since, would turn up running a farm-to-table restaurant in Boston.
Jack must sense Eric’s confusion. “I can explain. Please let me explain, Bittle. I know you must have a lot of questions. Can you stay a little while after your meal?”
It’s a Saturday night. Eric is dining alone because he was recently dumped. The guy he had a crush on for a good part of college has suddenly and improbably reappeared and wants to talk to him. He can stay a little while.
Eric is content with his glass of wine — drinking alone feels a lot classier when it’s at a five-star restaurant and not on his couch in front of Brooklyn Nine-Nine reruns — when Jack returns with the menu.
“It’s a fixed menu. I assume you know that. But there are a couple of options. The appetizer is a choice between pumpkin seed-encrusted eggplant with goat cheese and tomatoes or cornbread crab cakes. The main course tonight is chicken in a wine and caper sauce, with haricot verts and either angel hair pasta or cauliflower mash.”
“What does the chef recommend?” Eric asks.
“I, er ...”
“You do have a preference, right? If I weren’t me, what would you recommend?”
Jack smiles. “I would suggest the cauliflower. The pasta is homemade, but I think the cauliflower is more flavorful.”
“Then that’s what I’ll have,” Eric decides.
“Your appetizer will be out shortly,” Jack says, and disappears again.
Eric continues to sip at his wine and eat the bread while he waits. Occasionally, out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jack at other tables, talking with other diners and bringing out their food.
The “genius” behind Harvest Haus has been a well-kept secret since it quietly opened four years ago — Eric thinks it never would have become popular if it hadn’t been for a well-known food critic accidentally discovering it while on vacation — but Jack Zimmermann is the last person he would have guessed. The Jack Zimmermann Eric knew is supposed to be playing a hockey game somewhere. That’s the way this was supposed to have gone.
After a rocky start to Eric’s college hockey career, he and Jack, who was destined for NHL greatness, had somehow become best friends. Maybe it was the early morning checking practice Jack insisted on so Eric could work through his fear of physical contact. Maybe it was the class they’d taken together, which had led to Eric teaching Jack to bake. Maybe it was living together with three other teammates in a run-down frat house.
(Haus. They’d called it the Haus. Eric had assumed the restaurant’s name was just an amazing coincidence, but it doesn’t seem that way now.)
At some point, Eric had also developed a tiny (and then not-so-tiny), hopeless crush on Jack. He’d even begun to think Jack maybe returned those feelings. Near the end of his sophomore year, they’d gone on a series of what Eric would now interpret as dates — if near-daily trips to the campus coffee or frozen yogurt shops, which Jack always awkwardly insisted on paying for, were considered dates.
And then there were those first confusing months after Jack graduated: Even though Jack was embarking on a new stage of life, they’d talked as much as they did when they were living under the same roof. He can still remember the giddy pleasure he felt when Jack called or texted him over the summer to talk about seemingly inconsequential things — the dishes he’d picked out for his kitchen, or the new running route he’d discovered in Providence. That closeness had slowly become something more distant, as Jack settled in to life as a professional athlete and Eric returned to school. Then the calls had slowed to a trickle, and finally stopped altogether. Eric’s hurt and confusion finally gave way to grim acceptance when he realized Jack was nothing more than his former captain, his former best friend. Somebody he used to know.
With time, the hurt has faded. After all, Eric himself can’t really call most of his college friends his “best” friends anymore. Oh, sure, he still sends a holiday card to “his” boys from the year he captained, he always makes a point to “like” his former teammates’ wedding and baby pictures, but college and the people he was so close to seem far away these days. They all would have drifted eventually, he thinks. Jack was just the first.
Dinner is one of the more surreal experiences of Eric’s life. The courses, presented simply-yet-elegantly on plain white plates, are divine. It’s not trendy or boundary pushing — it’s simply good, lovingly prepared food. Eric’s awe at the flavors and presentation is tempered by shock that Jack Zimmermann was responsible for this meal.
It’s late when Jack brings two plates of pie and two mugs of coffee to Eric’s table and takes the seat across from him. All of the other diners have left; Eric has spent the past hour making small talk with Hannah, who is in culinary school in Boston.
“Did you enjoy your meal?” Jack asks.
“Lord, Jack, it was amazing. I expected it to be amazing, of course, everyone says it’s amazing, but I definitely didn’t expect it would be you. Yours? I’ve spent years following the subreddit for Harvest Haus and nobody has ever come close to figuring out who runs this place.”
Realizing he’s rambling, Eric abruptly stops talking and picks up his fork. “I’m looking forward to trying dessert. You know pie’s my favorite.”
Jack smiles a little nervously as Eric takes his first bite.
It’s good. Eric would bet money it’s based on his old recipe, but it has a slightly different flavor profile. “Is there cardamom in this?” he asks.
Jack smiles shyly. “I’ve been experimenting a bit, trying to make it my own.”
“I like it.” Eric has at least a thousand more questions, but he puts them on hold so he can savor his dessert.
“How did you get here?” Jack asks as they eat.
“Lyft.” Eric nods in the direction of the empty wine glass. “Figured I might have a glass or two.”
“Do you live far? I can drive you home and we can talk. Unless ... are you in a hotel?”
“I’m local. And a ride would be great, if it’s not out of your way.”
“I actually live in the other house on the property. But I don’t mind.” Jack smiles again, and this time the smile reaches his eyes.
Eric follows him out to where his car is parked. “Someday, when it isn’t dark out, you’ll have to come back and tour the garden,” Jack says as they crunch through the gravel trail leading to the house. Eric is grateful for the short walk; after multiple courses and three glasses of wine, the fresh air is invigorating.
The only vehicle in front of the house is a ten-year-old SUV. Suddenly, the conversation they had the day Jack bought it comes back to Eric in a rush.
“Blue or silver?” Jack had texted. Eric had been leading a basic cooking class, teaching his campers to make no-bake granola bars, and he just barely had time to surreptitiously type out his reply.
“Blue or silver what?”
“I’m looking at cars. They have blue and silver on the lot.”
“Well,” Eric had replied — a little flirtatiously, yes — “you know I love a boy in blue, Mr. Falconer.”
A few hours later, Jack replied with a photo of him standing in front of a blue Jeep Cherokee.
“Such an old man car! Planning to drive your three kids to soccer practice in that?”
“Ha ha. I was actually planning to take you for a ride.”
Now, Eric’s first response is to chirp Jack.
“Guess I’m finally getting that ride, huh? It’s only about 10 years overdue.”
“Yeah, well, I’m 10 years closer to the old man you said I was when I bought it,” Jack replies, without missing a beat.
It’s like they haven’t been apart at all.
Once they’re in the car, though, the conversation turns generic and polite. “Have you lived in Boston very long?” Jack asks.
“Since graduation,” Eric says. “I lived with Shitty and Lardo for a little while, just while I figured out what I wanted to do. But then Lardo got a job with a marketing agency and moved to New York. Shitty and I tried it with another roommate for a little while, but by that time I was teaching and he was working for a firm in the suburbs and both of our commutes were too much to keep living together.”
“Do you still see them?”
“All the time. Well, Lardo not so much, but I’m her adorable little girl’s godfather so we try to get together every couple of months. Shitty and I go to a lot of Red Sox and Bruins games together.”
“Wow. Lardo has a kid? Shitty’s not —”
Eric shakes his head. “They tried to make it work for a little while, off and on like always, but once she moved to New York it just got too hard for them. They’re still close, though. Shitty is Lily’s other godfather.”
Jack smiles at that. “And the rest of the guys?”
“Rans and Holster are still doing the corporate thing. I haven’t seen either of them since Adam’s wedding a few years ago. Justin was the best man, no surprise there. Chowder, as you probably know, went to play for the Sharks. He ended up getting traded to Anaheim a few years ago. Cait coaches volleyball at one of the colleges down there. They have a couple of little ones.”
Jack nods. “I always thought he’d go far.”
He went far and still manages to keep in touch, Eric thinks uncharitably. He doesn’t say it, though.
“And the other guys are all off doing various things,” he continues. “Living life. Getting old. Lord, sometimes I can’t believe I’m gonna be 30.”
“I’m almost 35,” Jack says.
“How are your parents?” In the light cast by the streetlights outside, he closely watches Jack’s face for any sign of distress at the mention of his parents, but he just smiles.
“They’re great. If you’ve kept up with hockey, you know Papa is still out there commentating. Mama isn’t working as much as she used to, but she’s on a lot of charity boards. She and Papa started a hockey camp for LGBTQ youth a few years back, and they do a lot of work with that. They’re planning to expand from their original site in Montreal to a second camp somewhere out here.”
“That’s wonderful, Jack. I’d love to be involved with that, if they end up here in Boston.”
“I’ll let them know. Do you still play?”
Eric snorts. “Not hardly. I tried for a little while but I don’t have a lot of time these days. I coach the cross country team at school.”
“The previous coach took a job at a different school and my principal knew I captained a NCAA sport. He didn’t care what sport, just wanted somebody who could lead a group of athletes. And it came with a nice little bonus, so I couldn’t say no to that. Paid for my meal tonight.”
“I paid for your meal tonight. I asked Hannah not to run your card.”
“It’s the least I can do for an old friend.”
Old friend? Eric can’t help the strangled little laugh that escapes. Jack makes it sound like they’re old war buddies. His face doesn’t reveal anything. Eric can’t tell if he’s happy to be with him now, or irritated, or … Well, probably not irritated, since he’s driving him home.
As nice as it is to catch Jack up on their old teammates and hear about Jack’s parents, Eric really just wants to stop being polite and get to the real reason they’re here right now: the story of what Jack’s been up to for the past decade. They don’t get that far though, because just as Eric is about to bring it up Jack pulls up to the curb in front of his building and turns the car off. “It’s late and we probably shouldn’t talk about this when we’re tired, but I do want to explain everything,” Jack says. “I don’t work on Monday. Do you think we can meet to talk?”
“I have work on Monday,” Eric says, “but I’m usually out by four.”
“I can come out to meet you,” Jack offers. “So you don’t have to drive out to me.”
“That sounds good.” Jack is familiar with Eric’s neighborhood and they make plans to meet at a café within walking distance of his apartment.
“I’ll see you on Monday,” Eric says.
“I’m glad you feel like you can trust me. I know that you have no reason to after … everything.”
Eric can sense Jack retreating back into himself, so he places a hand on top of Jack’s. “I trust you, Jack. I know you’re not gonna disappear on me again. Besides, I know where you live,” he says, trying to draw a laugh — or at least a smile — out of Jack. Maybe he should be wary, after the abrupt way Jack disappeared on him before, but he’s surprised to find he does trust him.
Jack’s hand relaxes under his. “Thank you. I’ll see you on Monday, then.”
Eric trusts Jack to keep his word. He just doesn’t know if can trust himself not to fall for him all over again.
The ringing of Eric’s phone wakes him on Sunday morning. He feels vaguely unsettled, thinking it’s because he overslept, when the previous night’s events hit him like a truck. Jack Zimmermann, who abruptly disappeared from the hockey world — and Eric’s life — eight years ago, not only lives a mere half hour away, but is a chef.
He thinks the technical term might be restauranteur, since Jack owns the place and also indicated he takes care of almost everything else related to its operation.
(He even grows his own vegetables? It’s possible the wine had gotten to him by the time Jack mentioned giving him a tour of the garden next time. As if there’s going to be a next time.)
And, oh lord, there just might be, because now he remembers making plans to meet again tomorrow.
He finally answers his phone just before it goes to voicemail. “Hi, Mama.”
“Dicky! Goodness, did I wake you? I’m just about to head to church, but I’m dying to hear all about Harvest Haus. I didn’t see anything on your Instagram; I hope you got one of those porch swing pictures. My friend Carolee didn’t believe me when I told her you were going.”
Darn it all. Eric most certainly did not get “one of those porch swing pictures,” before he left, seeing as how he was a little preoccupied after dinner.
“It was … It was great, Mama. I have a lot to tell you about, but I just woke up.”
“Is everything okay?” Suzanne Bittle has always had some sort of sixth sense for when Eric’s troubled, and it must have kicked into high gear because he can hear the note of concern in her voice. “I hope that dinner wasn’t a let down; you’ve been looking forward to it for so long.”
“No, nothing like that,” he reassures her. “I just … Do you remember Jack Zimmermann, from the team at Samwell?”
“Your captain Jack, who helped you when you were having all that trouble at first? Honey, of course I do. Such a handsome boy. Just like his daddy.”
Right. There’s no way Suzanne would forget Bad Bob Zimmermann’s son.
“I —” Eric has to be careful how he words this. He doesn’t want to break Jack’s trust by outing him as the genius behind Harvest Haus. “I ran into him last night and I’m still a little shocked, is all.”
“Kind of. Mama, it’s a long story and I really have to go. Talk later?”
“Of course, honey. There’s a potluck right after church, but I’ll be home afterward and waiting for your call.”
Somehow, Eric makes it through all of Sunday and Monday. On Sunday afternoon he finally calls his mother back and discusses last night’s dinner in very vague terms, but he manages to stop himself from calling Lardo or Shitty. Instead, he stress bakes oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, stress blogs about said cookies, and stress eats half the batch before wrapping them up and hiding them in a cupboard.
~ oatmeal chocolate chip protein cookies ~
Have you ever had a friend you can’t imagine letting a day go by without talking to? I had one of those in college. I had a lot of friends like that in college, but one was different. We got off to a rocky start, but by the end of my sophomore year we were best friends. I was still going home for the summer in those days, and my friend stayed back East, but we talked every day. When I think about that summer, I think about waiting all morning for my lunch break at my summer job so I could check my texts.
Things happen, as they do, and we drifted apart. I didn’t expect to ever see him again — he’s not one for social media or reunions — but I’ve thought about him often over the years. None of our mutual friends is in touch with him. We don’t all get together that often, but when we do there’s a big hole where he used to be.
I was going to blog about the amazing dinner I had at a restaurant my ex and I were looking forward to experiencing together. But, you regulars will know we broke up before dinner could happen. (See Salted Caramel Brownies for the Recently Dumped)
I’m not one to let a good reservation go to waste, especially after waiting so long, so I took myself out anyway.
The last thing I expected was to run into my friend.
We had a nice little chat, he drove me home so I wouldn’t have to order a car, and … we made plans to see each other tomorrow.
We’re just going to get some coffee and catch up. But I’m nervous. So I did what I always do when I’m nervous, and baked.
Something told me I should bake oatmeal raisin cookies. They aren’t my go-to cookie, but I guess I was thinking about my friend. He wasn’t big on sweets, back in the day, so I came up with a “healthier” version of the classic chocolate chip cookie: It has oat flour, a little bit of protein powder, and maple syrup in place of refined sugar. (Did I mention my friend is Canadian?)
Some people like to use rolled oats in their oatmeal cookies, and that would be the traditional thing to do, but the oat flour gives it a smoother texture. The protein powder started as an inside joke, but it turned out to be an unexpected hit.
I’m going to bring him a batch of these cookies to remind him of the good times we had in that old run-down kitchen.
On Monday Eric wakes extra early and stress runs three extra miles. None of it helps. In a last ditch effort to calm his nerves, he brews a cup of decaf tea in lieu of his usual morning coffee.
Once he’s at school, it’s easier to keep his mind off of Jack. Jess, one of his fellow teachers in the culinary arts department, corners him immediately and pulls him into a discussion about the end-of-year staff luncheon their students are catering. Then one of his first period students burns chocolate in the double boiler, and that crisis ends up occupying much of his morning. The foul odor lingers in his classroom for so long that he takes the rest of his morning classes to the library and allows them to research their final projects.
The second half of the day passes surprisingly quickly. He has only two classes after lunch, followed by his prep period. He uses it to grade papers and modify a recipe the kids will be making in class next week.
Jack’s waiting in front of the café when he arrives, looking as handsome as he ever has. The years have been good to him. In this light, Eric’s able to catalogue the changes that weren’t visible in the low light of the restaurant. He can tell his hair is a little grayer, his body softer without hockey, but he knows he’s changed, too. If he feels a little off balance it’s not at all because Jack Zimmermann still makes his heart skip a beat, he tells himself. It’s only because he’s still in shock that Jack is here at all.
He mentally assesses his own appearance and wonders what Jack sees: That post-college growth spurt had never come but he’s finally okay with that. Over the years, his face has thinned out and his jawline has sharpened; it’s been a long time since anybody has mistaken him for a teenager. And all the running has kept him in pretty decent shape. He’s not built like a college hockey player anymore either, but then, he never really was.
Once they’re seated he pulls the Tupperware of cookies out of his bag. “I made these for you.”
Jack’s mouth turns up in the barest of smiles. “Still can’t go anywhere without bringing baked goods, eh?”
“Wouldn’t be me if I didn’t,” Eric replies. He pushes the container across the table. “You can save them for later. They’re oatmeal raisin with extra protein.”
“You remembered.” From across the table Jack meets Eric’s eye and they both smile a little shyly. And then it’s like neither knows what to say. They sit in awkward silence for a few minutes, just sipping at their coffee, when Eric finally decides to take control of the conversation.
“So,” he says, gesturing to himself. “I’m Eric. I teach culinary arts at Hamilton High and I’m also a freelance food writer. What do you do for a living?”
Jack huffs out a little laugh but plays along. “Uh, I’m Jack …” He looks down at the table.
“That’s a nice name,” Eric says, trying to draw him out. “I used to know a Jack, back in college. Lord, that seems like a long time ago. You kind of remind me of him.”
Jack snorts out another laugh. “Yeah, I get that a lot. Apparently I look a lot like some washed up hockey player, but I’m actually a chef. I have a restaurant just outside of the city.”
Eric continues to play along. “Sounds exciting. You must do pretty well for yourself, to have your own place.”
“I do okay. I did well in my previous career.”
“And what did you do previously?”
“I played hockey,” Jack replies with a straight face.
“That’s quite the U-turn. How’d that happen?” This is it. He’s given Jack an out, an opportunity to clam up and retreat back to wherever he’s been these past eight years. It occurs to him that having this conversation in such a public place might be too much for Jack. He’s about to suggest walking the few blocks back to his apartment when Jack surprises him with an answer.
“Making it in the NHL was my dream. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want it. I let it get away from me, the first time, but Samwell helped me remember why I loved the sport and by the time I graduated I was ready. At first it seemed too good to be true. I was a leading scorer on a great team and somehow, in my rookie year, we went all the way. The plan was to build on that momentum, have a career like my dad’s. I began that second season riding the high of winning the Stanley Cup and then there was that game against the Oilers …”
“We all saw it. That was a dirty hit.” Eric remembers watching Jack go down with his heart in his throat, the announcement from the commentators that Jack was out for the rest of the game, then — a few weeks later — the more formal announcement from Falcs management that he was out for the season.
Jack nods. “My season was over, just like that. It was a fluke thing, could have happened to anybody, and it happened to me. I was furious. Why me? After everything I’d been through to get back to that level, why was it taken from me again?” Jack shrugs. Eric doesn’t think he wants an answer so he just nods encouragingly to let Jack know he’s still listening.
“After the surgery I needed a lot of help getting around so I went home to stay with my parents and that’s when things got really ugly. This is —” Jack pauses and takes a deep breath, grips his coffee cup with both hands as if to steady himself. “I’m not proud of the way I acted. I was supposed to be going to PT so I could be ready to be on the ice at the beginning of the next season, but I couldn’t find it in myself to care very much. I slept a lot. I was drinking more, too.” Another deep breath. “I ignored my calls. Not just you guys, but my teammates, Falcs management, my agent. By the time the new season started I was in no shape to get back on the ice. I told my agent to make a statement that my injuries were more severe than initially reported and recovery was taking longer than expected. Management cut me some slack. They knew there were problems and looked the other way because I was Bad Bob’s kid and I’d given them a Stanley Cup.”
“Oh,” Eric says. “You were —”
“I was depressed, yeah. My parents eventually lost patience with me, though. They tried to give me the space I needed and didn’t say anything when I stopped working out and seeing my therapist, but they finally got sick of their adult son taking up space on their couch. Papa gave me an ultimatum: Get my shit together or get out. I think he was hoping to shock me into getting back on the ice.” Jack shrugs at this. “I think I surprised both of us when I signed up for a cooking class at the local rec center instead.”
Despite the sadness of Jack’s story, Eric finds this utterly charming. “And can I ask why a rec center cooking class was your first thought, Mr. Zimmermann?”
“Yeah,” Jack says, a soft smile playing on his lips. “It was the only thing during those long months that made me happy. Papa’s always enjoyed being in the kitchen and he’d get me in there to help with dinner. To keep an eye on me, probably. If I was in there working, it meant I wasn’t sleeping or drinking. But he’d give me little jobs to do, like chopping peppers and stirring sauces. It was relaxing and it was the only time we were able to talk about what happened and what I might do next. And, uh, it reminded me of baking with you. I always really liked that. Pretty soon Papa had me making desserts every night and I got okay at it, but my pies were never as good as yours.”
“Darn right they aren’t as good as mine.”
“So I said I wanted to take a cooking class, and my parents said fine. I think they still thought I’d work through everything, realize I missed hockey, and go back. But the more I was away from it, the more I realized I didn’t miss it. Is that weird?”
“I’m not a therapist, Jack, but I think that maybe being away from it helped you realize it wasn’t the only thing in your life. And already having that Stanley Cup probably helped. How’d your parents take it? Other than, you know, yelling at you to get it together.”
“Oh, you know my parents,” Jack says and yes, Eric had known the Zimmermanns, once upon a time. Mostly, he remembers how kind they had been to him on their visits to Samwell. “When it first happened, Papa tried to cheer me up. There were a lot of pep talks about how I’d get back on my feet, he’d seen guys worse off come back stronger than ever. Mama looked concerned a lot and did her best to get me out of the house. I kind of wished I had you to talk to, or Shitty. I missed you.”
“You could have called at any time. Or, you know, returned our calls.”
“I know. It was hard. My anxiety ... I felt like I’d done such a good job of burning those bridges, I didn’t know how anybody would ever forgive me. I’m sorry, Bittle. I’m sorry I wasn’t a good friend to you.”
Eric has to ask: “Why’d you let us all go, Jack? That’s what I’ve never understood. I know everyone always promises to stay close after graduation and of course half of those promises are lies, but I thought we were different. We were different, weren’t we? I wasn’t imagining —”
“No,” Jack says, so softly Eric can barely hear it above the ambient noise from the music and other customers in the café. “No, you weren’t imagining anything. Maybe ... Can we talk about this somewhere else?”
For the second time in a week, Eric feels like he’s on the other side of a deceptively hard check. This one, he should have seen coming, but somehow it hurts more than the surprise of seeing Jack on Saturday. He quickly rises from his seat, determined to keep Jack from seeing the tears threatening to spill from his eyes. “There’s a park a couple blocks from here, with a walking trail. Do you have time?”
Jack nods, and Eric doesn’t think he’s imagining the sadness in his eyes. They walk the two blocks to the park in silence.
“These spring nights are nice, aren’t they?” Eric asks. “Winter always seems so long here.”
“Still not used to the cold?” Jack chirps.
“My life is here but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the winters.”
“Did you ever consider going back?”
“To Georgia? Nope. I thought about moving to California for a hot minute. I went for Chris and Cait’s wedding a few years back and there was this guy in the wedding party with me, one of Chris’ cousins. We texted for a little while after that, talked about being more serious if I ever wanted to get out of Boston. I even flew out for a job interview at a private school there, but in the end nothing came of it. I like it here. My life is here.”
“I do too. I had opportunities to go elsewhere. I was in New York for a couple of years, before coming back here. I have a contact in Vegas who’s always telling me he can get me a head chef position at one of the resort restaurants. An ex-girlfriend went to Portland to open a vegan bakery and wanted me to go with her. But I like it here. It’s quiet.”
“Is that why you moved out here?”
“The restaurant I was at in New York closed unexpectedly, and my head chef asked me to open a new place with him. But if I was going to start over, I wanted it to be on my terms. And I wanted to be anonymous, which is easier to do here than it is in New York City. I’ve already failed publicly. If I’m anonymous, the stories are about the food, not the washed up athlete who’s already crashed and burned twice.”
Eric hums thoughtfully as the ground beneath them slowly changes from pavement to dirt trail. He guides Jack to the right to avoid the faster runners and cyclists, who pass on the left. “It’s a nice night,” he explains. “A lot of people come out after work.”
“All we’ve done is talk about me,” Jack says. “Tell me about your work. You said you’re a teacher now?”
So Eric tells Jack about graduating and feeling completely unmoored, about half-heartedly applying to grad school at Samwell because it was a way to delay making a decision about what to do with his life. About crashing with Shitty and Lardo while going to school and working in a bakery for a semester until he realized his heart wasn’t in any of it. “I guess you could say I was depressed too,” he tells Jack, “but I thought it was just the way everyone felt when they graduated. One Saturday morning a group of high school kids came into the bakery I was working at to shadow us for a career assignment and I got to teach a couple of them to make fondant and ganache. That’s when it hit me that I liked teaching kids how to bake more than I liked working in a bakery.”
“You taught me how to bake,” Jack reminds him.
“That I did. Should have known then, right?”
“We both should have.”
And here they are again, back at the conversation they’ve been dancing around since Saturday night.
“So,” Eric continues in a rush, “I quit my masters program and applied to the teaching program at a state college instead. While I waited to start, I kept working at the bakery and took some baking and pastry arts classes at a vocational college. My teaching program took about a year, and then I just hoped some school with enough money to support culinary arts classes would hire me.”
Jack nods. “I bet you’re a really good teacher.”
“According to the administration, 80-percent of students who take my level one course end up taking levels two and three,” Eric says proudly.
“Swawesome,” Jack says, and the small smile he flashes Eric’s way is the real Jack Zimmermann smile. “It’s a great feeling, to know you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing.”
“But for you that’s not hockey,” Eric says, because it’s still so surreal to think about Jack Zimmermann doing anything else.
“Not anymore. I’ve been very fortunate. I know I’m probably somebody’s cautionary tale. But this is a good life. Quieter, not as exciting, but my mind is quieter, too. I haven’t had an anxiety attack in years.”
“That’s really great.”
“Part of that was really removing myself from the public eye. I know I could call up my old agent, tell him I want to make some sort of statement to ESPN or Sports Illustrated, and it would end all the speculation that comes up every year or so. But that would mean more attention, more questions, and I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”
“Do you think you ever will be?”
“Maybe someday. I’m starting to be more comfortable with the idea.”
They fall silent again but the silence feels familiar and intimate instead of awkward. They’ve already made one lap around the park, and Eric is about the suggest one more when Jack clears his throat. “So, uh, Saturday was weird, right?”
“Jack Zimmermann, there are so many things I want to say to you right now.”
“I deserve all of them. I know I have a lot of apologies to make. I’m sorry I stopped calling. I’m sorry I ignored you when you tried to reach out. Bittle, I’m so, so sorry I never told you how I felt when I had the chance.”
“And how was that, Jack?” They’re teetering on the edge of something here. Now that Jack’s finally acknowledging it, Eric isn’t sure he’s ready to talk about it.
“You were my best friend. And it took me a long time to realize the way I felt was … more. More than what I felt for Lardo or Shitty. I liked you.”
“I liked you too, Jack,” Eric says, voice small, because if Jack is confessing, he might as well confess too.
“For the longest time, I didn’t even know that was what I felt. Remember how we texted and talked all the time that whole summer? I wanted to tell you and I just couldn’t figure out how. Then I started having more team obligations and you were back at Samwell. Shitty was going to visit you and Lardo all the time and he’d ask but I was never available. I would talk to Shitty, and he’d tell me about all the guys who were interested in you. I talked myself into believing that you never would have returned my feelings anyway.”
Eric snorts. “Shitty should have kept his mouth shut and stopped looking for things that weren’t there. There were always guys at the kegsters, especially once Nurse and Ford started inviting their artsy friends. But my love life was, sadly, nonexistent for most of my junior year.”
“If you hadn’t been dating — or if I hadn’t thought you were dating — I think it would have been easier for me to keep visiting and hanging out. If we’d been together, I wouldn’t have been able to stay away. But you were always busy and Lardo was always with Shitty and it was just easier to throw myself into my new life instead of being that guy who can’t move on from college. And I was busy.”
Eric’s heart feels like it’s being squeezed. All this time, he’d thought Jack was staying away because he didn’t care, when he’d actually been lonely. “You don’t have to make excuses, Jack. We all knew you were busy. I can’t say that it wouldn’t have made a difference if you’d told me how you felt, because I did have a horrible, embarrassing crush on you and if you’d said the word I’d have been in your arms. But I thought you were straight, anyway.”
“Not that straight,” Jack says. “Not really. I was never trying to hide it, it just never came up.”
“I wish you’d said something,” Eric says, a little sad. It’s not an accusation, just a wistful acknowledgement of something that might have been.
“I know,” Jack says, and neither of them speaks for a while.
They finish their second lap around the park as the sun begins to set. Eric looks at his watch. “Are you hungry? Do you want to come back to my place? When’s the last time somebody cooked for you? I can make something real quick or we can get dinner out, there’s a Thai place down the street, and a deli, or I can just order a pizza on the app …”
“Bittle,” Jack says, laughing. “Slow down. I’d love dinner. Thai sounds great.”
“Oh, it is! One of my former students’ family owns it. You have to try the pad thai and the little egg rolls. They always put extra egg in the pad thai for me …” Eric knows he’s rambling now, trying to distract them both from his admission of his (apparently-not-so-one-sided) years-ago crush.
“Protein’s important,” Jack says with a small smirk, and it’s just like they’re flirting in the Haus kitchen all over again.
Eric Bittle is so fucked.
At first it’s strange to be back in Jack’s orbit. Eric wasn’t sure what to expect after their dinner together, still not quite sure if Jack thought of it as an opportunity to catch up before retreating back to his life of solitude or if he genuinely wanted to reconnect. But in the weeks following dinner, Eric decides it’s the latter. Jack is busy with the restaurant and Eric is busy preparing for finals, but they manage to check in with each other at least once a day. Jack is a conscientious friend, and surprises Eric with his strong texting game. It’s a morning message telling him to have a good day, or a picture of a plant in his garden in the afternoon sun. It’s his Wednesday afternoon shopping list followed by a picture of his purchases lined up on the conveyor belt at the grocery store — a random assortment of items that includes a canister of protein powder, a pint of Cherry Garcia, a bunch of bananas, and a box of Wheaties. It’s ridiculous selfies taken in the most unexpected places — and if you had told Eric ten years ago that Jack Zimmermann would be sending him daily selfies, he’d never have believed it.
Today’s selfie is of Jack’s feet: Yellow running shoes in a puddle somewhere, Eric guesses, on Jack’s property.
You’re supposed to run around the puddle, not through it!
Oh. I knew something was wrong.
Hate to say it, but I think the mud makes those shoes look *better*.
Eric is cleaning up after class (his students are supposed to clean up after themselves, but somebody always forgets something) on Friday when another text comes through:
Do you have plans tomorrow morning?
Just the usual.
What’s the usual?
Run, coffee, farmers market.
Do you want to come tour the garden after you shop?
Only if you’re my tour guide.
Ha ha. Is that a yes?
What time should I arrive?
Jack’s waiting for him outside of the restaurant when he arrives on Saturday morning.
“Hipster farmer’s a good look on you,” Eric greets him, taking note of his plaid flannel button-down, jeans, and well-worn work boots.
“I prefer to think of my style as Canadian.” Jack looks serious, but Eric can see the smile in his eyes.
“Either way, it suits you,” Eric says. His cheeks feel a little warm when he meets Jack’s eye, but that must be because the morning sun is particularly intense.
“It’s comfortable. And easy. I just reorder the same pants and shirts whenever I need to replace them.”
Somehow, Eric doesn’t think Jack is joking. But he isn’t either. Hipster farmer is a very good look on Jack.
“So this is technically the backyard,” Jack says, leading him around the restaurant. “I grow some herbs here,” he says, indicating a series of hanging planters on the back porch. “But the vegetables are this way.” Eric follows him down the gravel path toward the larger house. They follow it around to the back of the house. “I keep meaning to put a gate in. For privacy. And to prevent animals from getting in and eating my carrots.”
Eric giggles at that. “Carrots?”
“Carrots, beets, radishes, potatoes. I plant according to the season and plan my menus around the harvest.”
“Harvest Haus,” Eric says with a smile.
“Right. I do a lot of trading with other growers and artisans, and I shop the farmers market. I don’t go overboard with planting because I don’t need very much for just a few dinners a week.”
“How’d you get the idea to limit the reservations like that?” Eric asks. “Seems like it would be more lucrative to pack ‘em in five or six nights a week, offer brunch on the weekends.”
Jack squats and plucks a few spears of asparagus from one of the raised beds. “I could,” he agrees as he brushes some dirt from the vegetables, “but being lucrative has never really been my goal. I just want to make good, simple food without the stress of running a big kitchen and being in charge of a team of employees. You get that, right?”
Eric thinks about the bakery, about all the employees’ schedules his manager had to keep track of and of last minute shift switching, and nods. “So you do it all?”
“I even do all the cleaning myself,” Jack says proudly. “Monday mornings.”
“You always were better than the rest of the boys when it came to cleaning up after yourself in the Haus.”
Jack keeps walking. “The tomatoes aren’t in season yet, but I planted them a month or so ago.” He points at a series of small plants growing in wine barrels. “I use them for salads and sauces.”
Eric can picture the plants in a few months’ time, heavy with fat red tomatoes. “Tomato soup,” he says.
“Ha ha. That too. Not at the restaurant, so much, but I can make it for you.”
Eric meets his eye. “I’ll hold you to that. Tomato soup is one of my favorites.”
“Would you like to see the chickens?”
“Oh my lord, you do not have chickens.”
“Why are you surprised, Bittle? Chicks dig me.”
It’s not a funny joke — it’s actually kind of terrible — but Jack looks so pleased with himself Eric can’t help but giggle. “Oh, ha ha, Mr. Zimmermann.”
“This way.” It’s another short walk to the chicken coop, which is home to twelve chickens, Jack tells him on the way. “They produce enough eggs for the restaurant and my personal use.”
Some of the chickens are wandering the property and others are resting in the coop. “You can hold one,” Jack says as he lifts a small white hen. “This one is gentle.”
Eric barely has time to prepare himself when he suddenly finds himself with an armful of chicken. “She’s soft,” he marvels as Jack pulls a few eggs out of the coop. “And she doesn’t look much like any chicken I’ve ever seen.”
“You’re probably used to seeing chickens that look like that one,” Jack says, pointing at a larger brown hen a few feet away. “This one is a silkie.”
“Looks like a little diva,” Eric remarks, patting the wispy plume of feathers on her head.
“Ha ha. Kind of. They all are.”
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?” Eric asks, an idea beginning to take shape.
“Just a protein shake when I got up.”
“I can whip us up a frittata with some eggs and this asparagus,” Eric suggests. “If you want.” It’s a bold idea, predicated on the assumption that Jack will even want Eric in his kitchen, but Jack nods in agreement.
“I have some garlic scapes in the kitchen; we can use those, too,” Jack suggests. Eric sets the chicken down and follows Jack back the way they came. “So, uh, I do most of my personal cooking at home,” Jack tells him as they enter through the mudroom. He sits on a bench and pulls off his boots. Eric toes off his sneakers as well. “I’ll give you the full tour later, but I figured you’d want to see the most important part.”
It’s smaller than Eric expected, but he’s always been a believer in the “good things come in small packages” adage and it proves true here. Jack’s kitchen, though simple, is full of high end appliances Eric has only dreamed about owning. “Oh, lord,” he sighs, tracing a finger over the butcher block counter top. “No fair, bringing me here. How will I ever leave?”
Jack just shrugs as though it’s the least of his concerns and sets the asparagus and eggs on the counter so he can wash his hands. Eric follows suit and instinctively begins opening cupboards in search of a mixing bowl.
“Bottom right.” Jack points at the correct cupboard with his foot. He’s already pulled out a knife and cutting board.
Eric cracks the eggs into the mixing bowl while Jack washes and trims the asparagus. He’d thought he would make breakfast for Jack, but it seems Jack has other ideas. They work well together, but that’s really nothing new. What is new is the ease with which Jack inhabits the kitchen. He’s easy and relaxed, and moves with the same natural fluidity he had on the ice. It’s a far cry from the awkward jock who used to look to Eric for reassurance at every step of a recipe. “I still can’t get used to this you,” he confesses as Jack expertly dices the asparagus and throws it into a skillet to sauté.
“It took my parents a while too,” Jack says, tone light.
They cook together like they’ve done it every day of their lives. “Hey, move it,” Eric says, nudging Jack out of the way to grab the pepper mill. “You’ve got all this space in a big kitchen, you need to learn to share.”
“I’m sharing!” Jack protests. “You think I let just anyone in here?”
“I bet you say that to all the cute young blonds,” Eric says.
“Young?” Jack raises an eyebrow.
“Watch it, Mr. Zimmermann. You should know better than to mock a man holding a knife.”
“Put it to use, then. That tomato needs dicing.”
“Bossy. No wonder you work alone.” Eric bumps Jack with his hip again and reaches for the tomato. Next to him, Jack chops a leek.
In college, Eric used to fantasize about moments like this. Oh, he definitely had fantasies that involved celebrating with Jack — and Jack alone — in the locker room at Faber after a successful game. But his mind often drifted to domestic moments like this, cooking and laughing with Jack in some future kitchen, far from the Haus. Twenty-year-old Eric was so far gone on Jack Zimmermann that he’d actually thought, more than once, about how he would decorate their hypothetical future kitchen. This moment is familiar enough, even if the circumstance isn’t.
After the frittata goes in the oven, Jack opens the Sub-Zero and pulls out a variety of citrus. “Juice?” he asks.
“I can make it,” Eric offers, “if you start a pot of coffee.”
“While it’s brewing I can give you the tour.”
There isn’t much to see, but the rest of the house is as cute and cozy as the kitchen. A tidy, sparsely furnished living room dominates the rest of the first floor. Jack’s bedroom and office are upstairs. His furniture is streamlined and simple, nothing too flashy but clearly expensive and well-made. Throughout the house, the walls are decorated with family photos and what Eric assumes is Jack’s own photography, given the subject matter: a frozen pond, Jack’s garden, a chicken that might be the same one he held earlier. And then he spots the painting hanging above the fireplace. “That’s —”
Jack pointedly doesn’t meet Eric’s eye. “Yeah.”
“Lardo said it was purchased by an anonymous buyer. She has no idea, does she?”
“My parents saw it in a gallery on one of their trips to New York. They couldn’t stop talking about what an amazing coincidence it was, this picture that made them think of me turning out to have been painted by one of my old friends. It even matched my furniture. They sent me a picture and it felt like it was meant to be. I should have gone in and purchased it myself, but I was embarrassed. I hired an agent to handle the transaction.”
“That painting paid for a year of Lily’s daycare,” Eric informs him. “Lardo was so grateful to her mystery buyer, you have no idea.”
“I told the agent I’m interested in more, if she ever does a companion piece.”
“There is a companion piece,” Eric says. Bizarrely, he feels like crying, his giddy mood from earlier replaced by something heavier. “It’s hanging above my fireplace.” He manages a weak little smile.
“Yeah.” Eric’s piece was a housewarming gift when he moved in. He’d often wondered about the person who had purchased the alternate version, never imagining they’d ever cross paths. “You should tell her. She’ll be surprised, but I don’t think she’ll be upset.”
“I should,” Jack agrees.
In the kitchen, the timer on the coffee maker beeps.
“I don’t want to push you,” Eric hurriedly adds, following Jack back into the kitchen. “You should wait until you’re ready. I just … I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be able to keep you a secret, not when we’ve been spending so much time together.”
“I want to,” Jack says, sounding more sure of himself this time. “I’ve missed Lardo and the guys. If you think they want to see me … Do you still take yours with a cup of sugar?”
“Bold of you to assume I haven’t developed a more refined palate.”
Jack raises an eyebrow but fills a mug and slides it across the counter.
“Okay, fine, do you have milk and sugar?”
Jack smiles — a little too smugly, Eric thinks. “Sugar’s next to the coffee maker, and there’s some milk in the fridge.” He doesn’t add anything to his mug, simply takes it over to the small kitchen table and takes a seat. Once his own coffee is three shades lighter and a bit sweeter, Eric joins him.
“Lardo and Shitty would love to see you,” he says, because he’s not letting Jack off the hook easily. “I can’t promise they won’t be angry, or hurt that you waited this long to get back in touch, but trust me, they’ll want to see you and know you’re doing well.”
“I know.” Jack rakes his hands through his hair. “I know that’s a condition.”
“Of being with you. That is … I mean … Being friends again,” he clarifies.
Eric’s heart is racing, and it’s not due to the sudden hit of caffeine. “They’re my best friends. And they were yours once, too. It’s not my place to tell you what to do, and I won’t say anything unless you want me to, but you’re right. It is a condition.” It’s a difficult thing to say, but it’s the right thing. As happy as he is to have Jack back in his life, Shitty and Lardo never left. If it ends up being a choice he knows who he’ll choose, but he doesn’t want to think about that possibility right now.
“Okay,” Jack says, and his smile is so endearing Eric almost can’t bear it. “Should I invite them — and their partners, I guess — for dinner?”
“Depends,” Eric says. “Dinner here or dinner —” he nods in the general direction of the restaurant — “there?”
“This place is kind of cozy for more than two, but I can do something casual in the restaurant. On a weekday, so I can sit down with you all?”
“Maybe you should just invite the two of them over here, leave the significant others out of it for now,” Eric suggests. “It’ll be hard to get to know new people if you’re just getting reacquainted with Shitty and Lardo. And Shitty’s relationship status is always weird anyway.” He nods decisively. “But don’t get ahead of yourself. Call ‘em first. Or email, whichever you’re more comfortable with.”
“Is that an assignment, Mr. Bittle?”
“Homework,” Eric agrees with a smile. “Next time I see you, I want to hear you’ve called them.”
“You and my therapist would get along great.”
Is that what this is, then? Jack’s way of working out whatever guilt he has over the way he behaved eight years ago? Some long-delayed making of amends to all the people he hurt? Eric studies the inside of his now-empty coffee mug. “I don’t want to be your therapist, Jack. Just your friend.” He picks up his mug. “Do you want a refill?”
“Bittle, I didn’t mean … I didn’t mean to make it sound like I’m using you. That’s not why I invited you over.”
Eric silently pours his coffee, adds the milk and sugar. He’s only been here an hour an he already feels at home in this kitchen. “I know,” he finally says. “I think it’s just gonna be a little strange for a while. You understand that, right? Whatever’s between us, we can work out together. But I can’t fix your other relationships. That’s on you.”
His back is to Jack so he can’t see his face, but he hears the scrape of his chair on the wood floor as he stands.
“I want you here.”
In every fantasy he’s had like this, this would be the moment where Jack wraps his arms around him from behind and kisses his neck and does absolutely obscene things to him on the kitchen counter while the frittata burns. But this is real life, surreal as it may be, and whatever Jack was going to do or say (certainly not that) is aborted by the ding of the oven timer.
“That’s breakfast,” Jack says. Eric hands him a potholder.
The awkwardness of the few minutes prior dissipates as they dig into their breakfast. “You could do brunch, if you wanted to,” Eric notes. The frittata had been almost too pretty to cut into, and he’d hurriedly snapped a photo with his phone before Jack made the first incision.
“Still taking pictures of your meals?” Jack teases as they take their first bites.
“Some people pray before they eat. I take pictures.” Eric raises his juice glass. “Toast?”
“Shit. I knew I forgot to make something,” Jack deadpans. He raises his glass anyway and lightly taps it against Eric’s.
~ savory leek and asparagus frittata ~
You may notice the blog is taking a different turn here today. My personal recipes tend to lean toward the sweeter side of things, but today I’ve got a savory recipe to share.
You can blame my friend, who invited me to tour his vegetable garden. He has an abundance of asparagus this season and can’t use it all himself, so he kindly offered to share. His bounty is now my bounty, and I am definitely making use of it.
First up: A savory leek and asparagus frittata, perfect for weekend brunch.
Serve it with breakfast potatoes if you wish, although it’s hearty enough you don’t really need a side dish. Mimosas are also optional, but recommended.
If you have any leftovers (which you won’t), they’re perfect for a quick Monday night dinner.
“Have you bought your ticket for the Fourth?” Suzanne asks Eric on their next Sunday afternoon call. “You don’t want to wait too long, you know prices go up the closer it gets.”
“I know, Mother.” Suzanne Bittle is the sort of woman who arrives at the airport three hours before her flight, “just in case.” Just in case of what, Eric’s never been sure. Security delay? Shortage of comfortable chairs in the waiting area? Godzilla attack?
“You are coming home, aren’t you?”
It’s a silly question. Eric always goes home for the Fourth of July.
“Of course, Mama. I’ve just been so busy getting things all tied up for the end of the school year I really haven’t had time to go online and look at tickets.”
“Well, if that’s all that’s holding you up, I can take care of it for you,” Suzanne offers. “I suppose it’ll be just you this year?”
Idly, Eric wonders what Jack would say if he asked him to visit Madison with him. He knows Jack wouldn’t misinterpret the gesture, but his parents probably would. “Just me,” he confirms. Suzanne makes a little disappointed noise. “Mama, I barely have enough time to buy a plane ticket, when do you expect me to date?”
“Oh, trust me,” she says, “if the right one comes along you’ll make time.”
“I just got out of a longterm relationship,” he points out, “with somebody who was not the right one. Maybe I like my time to myself.”
Except, increasingly, he’s choosing to spend time he’d otherwise spend alone with Jack.
As if she can read his mind, Suzanne changes the subject. “Whatever happened with that Jack Zimmermann? You mentioned running into him a few weeks back. Have you seen him again?”
Eric wonders if she suspected something was going on between them all those years ago. He certainly spent enough time that summer talking about Jack, and texting Jack, and locking himself in his room most evenings to Skype with Jack.
He gives her the very condensed version, eliminating any details that might give away Jack’s current occupation. “He’s pretty busy, but we’ve been hanging out some,” he adds.
“Well, you tell that boy hello for me.”
“I will, Mama.”
“And his lovely parents! Oh, we had so much fun together that one parents’ weekend …”
He won’t have to wait too long to relay the message. Since that first Saturday brunch, Saturday mornings have become Eric-and-Jack mornings. They never start too early because Jack doesn’t usually finish up at the restaurant until after midnight, but that’s fine with Eric because it gives him time to run and hit the farmers market. By the time he finishes, Jack is usually awake and ready to begin his day. It’s often spent preparing for the evening’s dinner service, but Eric is happy to join him as he runs errands or even begins food prep in the kitchen.
The first time Jack invited him into the kitchen, Eric hung back out of the way and just watched Jack work, mesmerized by the way he diced onions and prepared a whole chicken for roasting. The second time, Jack told him to be useful and handed him a knife and a bowl of tomatoes. Eric didn’t need Jack to tell him it was a sign of trust.
Last weekend when Eric visited, Jack had somewhat sheepishly asked him if he would mind making mini pies for the dessert service. “Yours are better,” he’d said simply. And how could a boy resist that? Eric had made the pies according to his recipe (and refused Jack’s offer of payment) and reserved two for him and Jack to share later. He’d kept out of sight during the dinner service, but didn’t miss how confident and at ease Jack appeared as he plated the meals and served his customers. Later, after the last diners had left and they’d washed the dishes and stripped the tables of their linens, they’d eaten their pie on the swing out front, talking well into the morning hours.
It was the most romantic non-date he’d ever been on.
As Eric finishes the last mile of this morning’s run, he mentally plans the rest of his day. After a shower he’ll head to the farmers market for breakfast and fresh produce. It’s been a while since he’s made a pie for the blog, and the strawberries have been particularly sweet this season. A strawberry cream pie, maybe? He can splurge on fresh butter and cream from the sisters who have a stand near the coffee hut and get a fresh baguette from the couple who run a pop-up bakery. Later, he’ll make the pie and start a blog post to go up on Monday.
He’s working on his list when a text from Jack comes through.
Do you have plans today?
Heading to the neighborhood farmers market. Do you want to come on over and join me? It stays open until noon.
It’s just now 8:30. Even if Jack isn’t ready for the day, he has time to get over here.
I have a better idea. I have to go to one of my suppliers to pick up some milk. Do you want to join me?
Maybe you can write about it for your vlog.
An actual laugh escapes Eric.
I know you know it’s a *blog*, Mr. Zimmermann.
I do need to go to my farmers market though. Otherwise it’ll be another week before I can get berries and butter. What time are you going? I can meet you.
I don’t mind picking you up. Your place is on the way.
Give me an hour? I have to shower, but I can make the market trip short.
Are you sure? I don’t want to stand in the way of whatever damage you plan to do there.
Fine, an hour and a half.
See you soon, Bittle.
Eric completes an abbreviated version of his list, showering quickly and sticking to just the berries and butter at the market. He’s just put the goods in the fridge when Jack texts to let him know he’s parked on the street.
“Right on time,” he says as he climbs into the Jeep. “Hope I didn’t delay you by too long.”
“No, you’re good. I brought you coffee,” Jack says, tapping a Dunkin’ cup in the cup holder. “Extra milk and sugar, just for you.”
“Bless you,” Eric says, taking a sip of the still-hot coffee. “You’re perfect.”
The corners of Jack’s mouth turn up just the tiniest bit. Eric would miss it if he weren’t staring at him so intently.
“I saw your review of that new tapas place in the paper,” Jack says. “It was really nice.”
“Have to try the competition.”
“Ha ha. I took a look at your blog, too. It’s good. Why don’t you write full time?”
That’s what everyone asks when they find out about Eric’s side gig. “Food writing isn’t particularly lucrative these days. It can be done, but it would be hard to make a living as a freelancer. I’d rather keep it as a hobby, that way I still get to teach.”
“I don’t know how you have time for it all. You post at least twice a week. Plus the reviews for the paper. And you’ve been helping me out.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret: I do a couple of foodie trips a year during school vacations, and schedule those restaurant reviews to post throughout the year on the blog. The local stuff I can do on the weekends. And —” he says, casting a sideways glance at Jack — “I like helping you out. All that pie making, I feel like I’m getting back to my roots.”
Eric hadn’t intentionally drifted away from pies. But in the bakery, and then in his pastry classes, he’d become proficient in other things. He doesn’t make pie nearly as often as he used to. Jack is doing him a favor by letting him bake for Harvest Haus.
“And the sponsorships? They don’t pay?”
“I get those because have a little bit of name recognition now. They’re nice, but they’ll never support me. And I’m pretty picky about what I’ll promote.”
“If you ever need a kitchen for your photo shoots, you can come over.”
“I don’t know if you know what you’re getting into with that offer,” Eric says with a laugh. “Sometimes those shoots take the whole day.” Inside, Eric is doing cartwheels. He does the best with what he has, but a kitchen like Jack’s is the dream.
“Bittle, you can use my kitchen. I saw that look in your eye when you were over the first time. “
“Just so you know, I’m not hanging out with you because of your kitchen. I would never use you like that,” Eric says.
Jack chuckles. “I know.”
“The kitchen’s just a bonus.”
Jack doesn’t reply, just hums along with the country song that’s playing at low volume on the radio. It could just be the way the light is hitting him, but Eric could swear he’s blushing.
Jack’s supplier is about a half hour outside of the city. The road gradually turns into a well-traveled dirt road that leads to a small farm. A sign outside advertises —
“Goats!” Eric cries. When Jack had said “farm” and “supplier” he hadn’t quite expected this.
“Ha ha, yeah,” Jack says, bending down to scratch under the little goat’s chin. “Bits, this is Debbie.”
“Well, aren’t you a cutie.” Eric squats and reaches out a hand to stroke the top of Debbie’s head.
“Debbie used to give milk,” Jack explains, “but these days she’s just the mascot. The milking goats are over there.” He points to a field where several goats graze. “My friend Helen, the owner, makes cheese and soap.”
“Can’t say it sounds like a bad way to make a living,” Eric says. “This place is beautiful.”
“Come on,” Jack says. “I’ll take you to meet Helen.”
Eric (and Debbie) follow Jack to the big red barn he noticed on their way in. “Helen?” Jack calls, sticking his head into the barn’s open door. “I’m here. I brought a friend.”
“Just a sec!” comes the reply from somewhere within the depths of the barn. “I’m just wrapping up this batch of soap. Come on in.”
They enter and make their way to a large table situated in the middle of the floor. As Eric’s eyes adjust to the low light, it becomes apparent the barn is used as workspace rather than to house animals. A long table, filled with piles of cellophane and string and hand-stamped kraft paper, is situated in the center of the room. There are a couple of large refrigerators in the back, a sink and a stove, and another workstation with a computer. Shelves lining the wall display what Eric can only assume are Helen’s products: soaps, lotions, candles in Mason jars.
“Jack. Right on time.” Helen rises from her chair and they embrace. “You said you brought a friend?”
“Hello, ma’am.” Eric moves to shake her hand but she hugs him as well.
“Any friend of Jack’s,” she says.
Although she’s definitely a dozen or so years older, something about Helen reminds Eric of Lardo. Petite, with white-blonde hair cut in a pixie cut, she’s dressed in ripped jeans, a loosely fitting black tank top, and black combat boots. Her only jewelry is a pair of silver studs in her ears.
“Your cheese is in the fridge,” she tells Jack, who is already heading in that direction. To Eric she says, “Have you ever milked a goat?”
“I had to take an animal science course in high school,” Eric tells her. “Is it anything like milking a cow?"
Helen’s laugh is surprisingly deep considering her size. “Oh, it’s a bit easier than milking a cow. Let’s do this.” She leads Eric out to the field while Jack fills his cooler with cheese. “This little mama looks ready,” she says, assessing the wide eyed animal who greets them. “Now, you watch me first, then I’ll hold her steady so you can try.” Helen expertly grabs the animal’s teat and within seconds produces a steady stream of milk.
“I’ve known Jack for four years,” she says as she works, “and this is the first time he’s brought a friend by to meet me.” She turns away from the animal to level a look at Eric. “Jack doesn’t have very many friends.”
“I — I kind of gathered that,” Eric manages. “We went to college together, Samwell. We were friends there.”
Helen gives him a short little nod. “Hockey?” she guesses.
Eric sighs in relief. He hadn’t wanted to say too much, but Helen is obviously close enough to Jack that she knows at least some of the important stuff. “He was my captain for two years.”
“Jack doesn’t have a lot of friends,” she repeats. “He’s careful with his heart. I don’t know what you are to him, but it means something that he brought you here.”
Eric isn’t quite sure how to respond to that. As they’ve renewed their friendship and tiptoed closer to what they had before, it’s become evident that Jack chooses his friends even more carefully now than he did when they were at Samwell. For whatever reason — maybe it was just his dumb luck being in the right place at the right time — Eric has again become one of those people. But Helen seems to be insinuating something else, something Eric has avoided thinking about. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to reply because Helen abruptly stops milking and jumps to her feet.
“Your turn!” she says, motioning to Eric to take a seat on the milking stool. She guides his hands into the correct position. “You want to pinch off the milk at the top of the teat and apply downward pressure,” she instructs before moving around to the front of the goat to help steady her.
Eric’s first attempt is not quite as fluid as Helen’s. Even with her steady hand, he struggles to keep a grip on the animal. “She can tell you’re inexperienced,” Helen says. “Try not to be so nervous. You won’t hurt her.” Eventually, he finds a rhythm, and by the time Jack joins them he’s filled half the bucket.
“Nice,” he says, peering inside. “What do you think, Bits, can you make anything with goat’s milk?”
“I’ve never really tried,” Eric confesses. “You’re the chef. What do you suggest?”
“If I may make a suggestion,” Helen says, “I happen to know Jack is a fan of my ice cream.”
“I’ve never had goat’s milk ice cream,” Eric says.
“Well then, I think you need to. I like Oreo cookies in it myself, but if I know Jack he’ll insist on something a little healthier.”
“Oh, I happen to know Jack has a secret sweet tooth,” Eric says with a laugh. “As much as he tries to pretend he doesn’t.”
“Only when you’re making dessert, Bits,” Jack says softly.
Helen catches Eric’s eye and raises an eyebrow.
“You flatter me. I do like Oreos,” Eric muses, “but I think I have an idea. It’s not quite the season, but if I can get my hands on some peaches …”
“Oh my god,” Jack says, dipping his spoon into his bowl for a second bite. His eyes are closed and he looks …
Well, Eric doesn’t want to think about other situations where Jack might make that face. He concentrates on his own bowl of gelato as Jack makes absolutely indecent sounds of approval. He made the gelato while Jack was at work, taking advantage of Jack’s gorgeous kitchen and the time to himself to take photos of each step for a blog post. It’s almost two in the morning now, but it’s worth it to see Jack this happy.
“Aw, shucks, I bet you say that to all the boys,” Eric says, really playing up his accent.
Jack snorts. “You sound like you did when I first met you.”
“Oh, lord. Don’t remind me of me at eighteen.” He lies back on the couch and closes his eyes. “Ugh. I think I ate that too fast, I have an ice cream headache.” He squeezes his eyes shut in an attempt to quell the sudden brain freeze.
“It’s worth it,” Jack says. “I wouldn’t have thought of roasting the peaches.”
“Well.” Eric shrugs. “I am from Georgia.” He lets his accent slip through a little more.
“We should take some to Helen tomorrow.”
“How’d you meet Helen?”
Jack is silent for a moment as he savors another bite of gelato. “When I first started thinking about opening a restaurant and using local suppliers, her farm was one of the first I found. She and her husband supported me from the beginning. They were big hockey fans. Apparently they recognized me the first time I visited, but they didn’t say anything for about three months. They gave me a lot of advice as I was getting things ready to go. I had a lot of money, but I’d never run a business — I always had people to manage my money for me — and they helped me figure out the basics. And they helped me get to know the area. Every time I had a question about regional wineries or which crops to plant, they were there.”
“Oh. This is going to sound silly but I thought maybe you and Helen —” Eric shakes his head. “Never mind. You just seem very close.”
“You thought we were sleeping together?” Jack sets his spoon in his empty bowl.
“We did once, about two years ago,” Jack admits. “It was kind of a disaster. Helen is very devoted to her late husband. And he was a good friend to me. It didn’t feel right to either of us.”
“So she’s a widow? The poor thing.”
Jack nods somberly. “Heart attack. He made a fortune selling his company to a big international conglomerate, and they moved to the farm because they wanted to slow down and relax. They should have had more time together.”
“Really makes you reconsider your priorities, I suppose,” Eric says.
“Yeah. More than the overdose or my injury, that’s what made me realize life is too short to do anything other than what I love. That thing my dad is always saying, I deserve to be happy? I didn’t really get it until Jim passed away.”
“Well, at least you did,” Eric says. “Some people never figure that one out.”
“And whenever I get too in my head, Helen’s there to remind me. She’s been my best friend here.”
“Like you and Lardo, probably.”
Cast in this new light, Eric can’t help but like Helen even more than he did after meeting her earlier today. She takes care of Jack.
“I don’t mind taking some gelato to Helen tomorrow,” he says.
“You can stay tonight and we can go first thing in the morning.”
Eric takes the proposal for what it is: a place to sleep in Jack’s guest room so he doesn’t have to drive home at this hour. He accepts the offer of the office futon, and the too-big T-shirt and shorts Jack leaves in the bathroom.
Jack pokes his head in as Eric’s getting into bed. “Try not to wake me up by singing Beyoncé in my shower, eh?”
Eric rolls his eyes. “Good night, Mr. Zimmermann.”
Jack’s smile is soft and affectionate. “‘Night, Bits.”
And just like that, the school year is over.
Final projects have been sampled and graded, and grades have been turned in. Eric accepts bags of cookies and beautifully decorated cupcakes from his students, which always makes him laugh. Most teachers like to jokingly complain about all the treats their students give them, but as a culinary arts teacher the gestures reach new levels of absurdity. By the time his students have filled his desk with tarts and cupcakes he’s already graded their final projects, but he swears some of them still think they need to impress him. He takes pictures of all of them, takes a few home, and drops the rest off in the teacher’s lounge.
He goes to the afternoon graduation ceremony so he can watch his seniors walk, then promptly does what has become tradition and gets on a train headed to New York. By evening, he and Lardo are toasting the end of another year in a wine bar near her office.
“Shit, this place is classy as fuck,” Lardo says, swirling the red in her glass. “When did we get old enough for this?”
“I think around the time you had a kid and I started teaching them,” Eric says with a giggle. He had a glass of wine on the train and may already be halfway to tipsy.
“So, Miss Duan,” Eric says, signaling the bartender for a refill and pulling out his phone, “these are the restaurants I’m thinking we need to try this weekend...”
Eric sleeps over at Lardo’s, takes Lily to the playground and a neighborhood bakery in the morning so Lardo and Sam can sleep in, and spends the rest of the morning making bread and two pies to thank them for their hospitality. They grab lunch at a kid-friendly noodle shop that Eric will be able to blog about, and he meets up with a fellow blogger at a new Greek restaurant for dinner. After Lily is in bed, Eric and Lardo take one of the pies up to her building’s rooftop garden to eat while they watch the sun set.
“Last night was fun,” Lardo says, “but I’d rather sit on a roof somewhere and eat one of your pies. Nothing is this good. I know you’re a great teacher, but you should be selling these.”
“I don’t want to quit my job,” Eric says. “If I could do it on my own terms, maybe.” He doesn’t tell Lardo that he’s spent the past few weekends making desserts for Jack’s restaurant. If he ever had any doubts about his skill, they’ve certainly been put to rest. Last week, one of the customers asked Jack if he could buy an extra slice of pie to take home. “There’s just something about your pies, Bittle,” Jack had said admiringly.
“What if I sold them on the side?” he asks Lardo. “Not full-time, but when school’s out and I have time to do a little extra baking. Maybe I could work something out with a local restaurant.”
“I’ve been telling you to do that for years.”
“I wonder what my life would be like if I’d stayed at that bakery,” Eric says now. It’s something he’s been thinking about a lot these days. What if Jack hadn’t stopped playing hockey? What if Shitty and Lardo had stayed together? What if he’d told Jack how he felt about him. What if …
Lardo leans into Eric. “In some universe, there’s a version of you who became a baker, and there’s a version of me who married Shitty, and we probably aren’t happier or sadder than we are now. We’re just us, getting things right sometimes and fucking things up the rest of the time and making a beautiful mess of it all.”
“Did you get high when I was at dinner?”
“Don’t judge me. I live with a toddler who’s in the middle of the Terrible Twos.”
Eric rests his head against Lardo’s. If there’s a universe where he’s a baker and Shitty and Lardo are still together, maybe there’s also a universe where he told Jack he loved him.
Maybe it’s still not too late, in this universe.
Eric goes home for the Fourth, as he always does. He endures a week of jam making with Mama, Coach’s stoic attempts at male bonding over beer and Braves games, MooMaw pushing a second slice of her apple pie (which puts his own to shame) on him at every meal, and an endless stream of inquiries from well-meaning relatives and church ladies who want to know when he’s just going to find a nice young man (or woman, some people still haven’t gotten the message he’s gay) and settle down already. He leaves Georgia with a suitcase full of just-canned peach jam, which he plans on giving to Jack. If he likes it, and thinks he’ll be able to find a use for it in the restaurant, Eric can teach him how to make it.
“I’ve never made jam before,” Jack says the following Wednesday, wiping sweat from his brow and collapsing heavily into a kitchen chair. Eric clucks in sympathy. Why he suggested his own kitchen for this endeavor, when Jack has access to a fully functional professional kitchen, is beyond him. The inadequate wall air conditioning unit does little to cool the room and while Eric’s used to it after three summers in this apartment, Jack is clearly suffering.
“If you wanna grab a glass of sweet tea and take it into the living room, I can finish up in here,” Eric offers. “We can wait until it cools down a little to do the second batch.”
“Does it ever cool down in here?” Jack asks, fanning himself with a magazine he found on the kitchen table.
“Not enough,” Eric grumbles. He remembers his promise to himself, a couple months ago, to start looking at houses. He should get on that. “I have a box fan in my bedroom, I’ll go get it.”
He returns with the fan to find two glasses of sweet tea on the counter and Jack at the stove, stirring the jam. “I think it’s coming together,” he says. “Shouldn’t be long now.”
“It always takes longer than you think it will,” Eric says. “Let’s see.” Jack shifts to the side so Eric can slide in next to him and hands him the wooden spoon. There’s not as much room to maneuver around each other in this kitchen. Jack is pressed up against him and yeah, Eric is warm. It probably has more to due with Jack than the weather outside.
“So, uh, while you were in Georgia I saw Shitty,” Jack says.
“Jack Zimmermann.” Eric abruptly stops stirring and just stares at Jack. “You sneak! How did manage to keep that from me all morning?”
Jack flushes, though Eric supposes that could be due to standing over a steaming pot of jam. “It was kind of hard to get a word in edgewise,” he chirps. “Has anybody ever told you that you talk a lot?”
Eric swats Jack’s ass with his free hand. “Oh no, you are not gonna turn this around on me. You’ve been holding out on me. And Shitty has too. Deets.”
So Jack tells Eric about how he reached out to Shitty the day Eric left for Georgia, hoping he might be free to meet and talk. It was Shitty who suggested hanging out together on the Fourth of July. “I showed up to his place with a couple of steaks and a case of beer,” Jack says. “And we just hung out and talked about stuff.” Jack does not elaborate on stuff, but Eric can guess the conversation was a lot like the one he had with Jack a few months ago.
“How did it go? What did he say?”
“He said, and I quote, ‘Jack Zimmermann, you have some huge balls to come in here acting like you didn’t ghost us all eight years ago.’ Then he hugged me so tight I almost passed out and said he’s going to attach a tracking device to me so I can’t disappear on him again.”
“Sounds about right.”
“It was good,” Jack concludes. “I was afraid things would be awkward but then I remembered he’s been naked in my bed.”
“That’s an unshakeable bond,” Eric agrees. “He still does that, by the way. At least once a month, usually after we’ve gone to a game and he’s too wasted to drive himself home. Which was a weird thing to explain to my last boyfriend.”
“I told him I’ve been hanging out with you, and that the reason you didn’t tell him and Lardo about me was because I asked you not to. I didn’t want him to be upset with you for keeping my secret.”
“You know Shitty isn’t like that,” Eric says. “But thank you.”
“I think I’d like to get in touch with Lardo soon,” Jack adds. “Shitty says she comes to see her parents once a month or so.”
“It’s a bit harder to get one-on-one time with her,” Eric says, “but her partner and parents are real good about staying behind with Lily when the three of us want to go out.”
“Shitty showed me a video she sent. Lily’s a cute kid.”
“She’s adorable.” Eric had gotten the same video of Lily, waving a small American flag while dressed in a tutu and Darth Vader mask. “Definitely Lardo’s kid.”
“It’s still strange to think of Lardo with a baby,” Jack says. “I can buy you as a teacher, and Shitty as a lawyer, but somehow our friends having kids makes me feel …”
“Old?” Eric guesses.
“Like maybe I went to bed one day and I woke up and everybody had moved on.”
“You kind of did,” Eric points out.
“Kent Parson has a kid too. I don’t talk to him, but my parents get his Christmas card. He’s married and has a toddler.”
“No kidding,” Eric says. “I haven’t thought about Kent Parson in years.” He knows the basic story — that Kent, who came out a few years after Jack disappeared, was the first out player in the NHL. But Eric doesn’t follow the Aces closely enough to know details about Kent’s personal life.
“He married a mailman.”
“Well, good for him. I bet those government benefits are better than teachers’ benefits. Maybe I should get me a mailman.”
Jack laughs, a low rumble from deep within his chest. “Or you could just marry rich.”
This. This is exactly the sort of thing Jack’s been doing — more and more frequently — that leaves Eric feeling confused and empty when he leaves. Every time he starts to think he and Jack are just friends, Jack goes and says something like this and makes Eric think whatever feelings he might have had for Eric eight years ago are still in there somewhere.
“You’re right, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that,” Eric says, forcing his tone to remain steady and light. “Know any rich, eligible bachelors looking for a sweet Southern baker with a bunch of student loans and a shoe box apartment?”
“I can think of one,” Jack murmurs.
Eric leans a little further into Jack’s space — really, he doesn’t have to lean much at all, this kitchen is so cozy — and smiles a little coyly. “And would that rich, eligible bachelor also happen to be a —”
They spring apart at the sound of the egg timer on the counter. It’s a nice egg timer, bright red like his stand mixer, which he bought on sale with his first teaching paycheck. One of these days his whole kitchen will be decorated with pops of red, but for now he has his mixer and his egg timer.
“You gonna get that?” Jack asks, reaching around Eric and turning off the timer.
“Right, so,” Eric says, forcing himself back to the present and giving the jam another stir. It’s just about right. “We need to let this cool before we put it in jars.”
“So we just wait?”
“When I was a little boy,” Eric says, “Mama always used to put a movie on for me to distract me from asking every five minutes. When it ended, the jam was cool enough to can. Movies are an essential part of the jam-making process.”
“Yeah? What movie?”
“Usually Aladdin or The Little Mermaid. When I got older, Julie and Julia.”
Jack eight years ago might not have appreciated that, but he does now. “Do you want to watch it while we wait?”
“I can make popcorn,” Eric offers.
As it turns out, Julie and Julia isn’t streaming but The Little Mermaid is.
“I was in a production of The Little Mermaid,” Jack says as Eric settles down on one side of his couch, placing the bowl of popcorn between them.
“What? You’re making that up. How did I not know that?”
“Do you think I’d ever tell anybody in the Haus? Rans and Holster never would have let me live it down. As it is, my parents bring out the video every Christmas.”
“Oh my goodness, Mr. Zimmermann, I need all the details. And the video.”
“Uh, well, for some reason my teacher decided I should have a lead role even though I’d never performed before. I think she figured I got some of Papa’s hockey talent, so I must have gotten Maman’s acting talent, too.”
“Speaking as somebody who did not inherit his father’s football talent —”
“Right. I was the world’s most awkward Flounder. It was third grade, so I was still fat, and I mumbled all of my lines. Thank god I didn’t have to sing, but they made me dance, and that went about as well as you might expect.”
“Aww, I bet you were adorable. And I’m sure your parents keep that video around because it reminds them of the way you were as a little boy, not because it embarrasses you. My parents still have all the videos from my first skating competitions. There’s a lot of falling.”
“Ha ha.” Jack steals handful of popcorn. “Oh, hot!” he gasps, dropping it all over their laps.
Eric giggles. “Yeah, I literally just took it off the stove, you big goofball. Did you burn your fingers?”
“It’s fine,” Jack says as Eric grabs his hand to inspect his fingertips.
“Hmm, just a little red,” Eric says. “I don’t think we have to call the burn unit this time. Need me to kiss it better?”
He’s teasing, but when he meets Jack’s eye he’s looking at Eric like maybe he wants him to kiss it better, and that’s just too much. Eric drops Jack’s hand like he’s the one who’s been burned.
“It’ll be fine,” Jack says. “It’s not like I haven’t done worse.”
They both settle back to watch the movie. When Ursula has been defeated and Ariel and Prince Eric have gotten their happily ever after, Eric taps his watch. “Jam is probably cool now,” he says, standing and stretching. “Lord, did we eat that entire bowl of popcorn?”
“It is dinner time,” Jack points out.
Eric carries the bowl into the kitchen and sets it in the sink. “If you want to call for takeout while I get these jars ready, there are a few menus in that drawer over there.”
He can hear Jack ordering curry and butter chicken from the Indian place down the street as he begins ladling the cooled jam into Mason jars. “You didn’t miss much,” he tells Jack when he hangs up. “This is freezer jam, so we don’t need to sterilize these. It’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, though it never lasts that long. Otherwise, you can store it in the freezer for a year or so in plastic containers. Though that never lasts long, either.”
Eric shrugs. “MooMaw has a couple of peach trees, so that’s just what we always made. I guess we could have made strawberry or apricot, but use what you have and all. I know you understand that.”
“Maybe next time we can make strawberry,” Jack suggests.
“If that’s what you want, Sweetpea,” Eric says as he twists a lid onto one of the jam jars. He doesn’t realize the endearment has slipped out until Jack clears his throat.
“I mean, you know how I get when I get comfortable with people,” Eric mumbles, more to the jam than Jack. “Sometimes things just slip out.”
“Do you —” Jack carefully takes the jar out of Eric’s hand and sets it on the counter — “think of me that way?”
“I call Shitty and Lardo sweetheart and honey and darlin’ all the time,” Eric backpedals.
“But you called me ‘Sweetpea,’” Jack says, gently placing his hands on Eric’s waist and turning him so they’re facing each other. Jack’s eyes are so blue. Eric might get lost and drown in those eyes.
Only he’s not drowning, because suddenly Jack is kissing him, saving him from himself. He forgets they’re standing in his too warm, too small kitchen surrounded by jam and jars. Right now, everything is Jack.
“Was that okay?” Jack asks when they separate.
Eric nods. He can’t quite find the words to tell Jack it’s more than okay.
“Can I … again?”
“Come here, you.” This time it’s Eric who initiates, but Jack follows his lead, keeping up as Eric’s kisses get more frenzied. “Couch?” Eric gasps when they come up for air. Jack nods and swiftly picks him up and carries him the few steps to the couch. Jam can wait.
They’re still making out like teenagers forty minutes later when their food arrives. Jack laughs as Eric straightens his shirt and runs his hand through his hair. “Stop that laughing, Mr. Zimmermann, or I’m not sharing,” he threatens.
“I’m not hungry for that anymore anyway,” Jack says huskily. Eric has to take a moment to compose himself before he opens the door. He practically throws the cash at the poor delivery boy while Jack smirks at him from the couch, that tease.
In the end, they leave the bags of food on the coffee table, unopened.
Jack may be a chef, and Eric a culinary arts teacher, but cold, post-sex chicken curry just might be the best meal Eric has had in his life.
They eat straight from the cartons, switching every so often and laughing as they feed each other.
“I think I’m going to have to pay to have your couch cleaned,” Jack says, picking a piece of chicken up off of the cushion.
“We just had sex on that couch and you’re worried about curry?”
“You’re right, we should burn it. You’ll never be able to have your parents over again without thinking about the ways we’ve defiled this couch tonight.”
“Jack!” Eric elbows him, knocking another piece of chicken of Jack’s fork. “That’s it, we’re moving to the bed after this.”
Eric raises an eyebrow. “I could just say goodnight and kick you out, if you’d rather.”
“Don’t be mean, Bittle. I was hoping you’d let me stay,” Jack says, moving in for another kiss.
“You can stay however long you want,” Eric gasps as the container of chicken curry falls to the floor.
Jack kissing the back of his neck. Jack kissing behind his ear. Jack kissing him, in all the ways he never expected Jack to kiss him. It’s almost too much. They stumble together to Eric’s bedroom and fall together onto the bed, landing awkwardly.
“Oof, sorry, I’m crushing you,” Jack grunts through laughter as they untangle themselves.
“Don’t apologize,” Eric says, adjusting himself and pulling Jack back down on top of him. “I like this.”
“You like this?” Jack asks, flipping them so Eric’s on top.
“Honey, I don’t care as long as it’s with you.”
“What about this?” Jack asks, playfully biting at the sensitive spot between Eric’s neck and shoulder.
Eric can’t find the words to reply, but Jack correctly interprets his moan of pleasure as a yes. He reaches up to pull at Jack’s hair, which has the effect of egging him on.
“You like that?” Eric asks.
“More,” Jack groans into Eric’s shoulder.
Eric gives him more.
Just before midnight, Eric leaves a lightly snoring Jack in his bed and returns with two slices of French bread spread with a thick layer of peach jam. “Thought you might have worked up an appetite,” he says, nudging Jack awake.
“Do this often?” Jack asks, taking the plate so Eric can slide in next to him.
“Only when it’s a handsome chef in my bed,” Eric says.
“Get many of those?”
“You’re the first.”
Jack takes a bite of his bread and nods thoughtfully. “Do you remember that kegster right before we won the Cup? Shitty and I came back to celebrate the end of your season. I was kind of hoping I might have one last shot … but you were with somebody that night.”
Eric remembers. “I was with Peter.” They’d dated for a few months at the end of Eric’s junior year.
“I think Shitty said he played water polo.”
“Swimmer. It doesn’t matter. Turns out swimmers aren’t my type. Too smooth.”
“Are you saying I would have had a chance with my awkward flirting and my dad jokes?"
“I meant because they shave everything,” Eric says, tugging lightly at Jack’s chest hair. “But if the shoe fits, Mr. Zimmermann.”
“So you’re saying I’d have had a chance?”
“You still have a chance.”
“I could kick myself, for not making my move then,” Jack admits. “I keep thinking that things might have been different if you and I —”
Eric puts a finger to Jack’s lips. He knows Jack is agonizing over this, has been for years, probably. So he chooses his words carefully, not wanting him to feel like he’s dismissing his anxiety. “Even if you had said something,” he begins, “there’s no guarantee things would have been different. We may have crashed and burned. You aren’t the only one who was a mess back then. Do you know I still wasn’t out to my parents? It took me a good five years and two actual relationships before I could tell them. I’d like to think it would have been different with you, because you’re you and it’s us, but what if it hadn’t been? You can say that maybe things would have been different for you if we’d been together, but I wasn’t in a good place myself and there’s a good chance I’d have dragged you down with me. Would you have been okay being in the closet for that long? Keeping me a secret? Being my secret? Besides, you give me too much credit. You and I have both spent enough time in therapy to know that the hard work of getting better has to come from within, not from the person you happen to be with.”
“You’re right. I know. I just … I’ve missed you. And knowing that we were missing out on this —”
“I’ve missed you too, honey.” And Eric lets Jack kiss him again and again.
Eric bolts upright when his alarm goes off at 5:30, taking the covers with him. Jack shifts and squints at him. “Do you always wake up this violently?” he mumbles. “Or … this early?”
Eric falls back onto his pillow. “I should be used to it by now, huh? I have to get up this early on school days if I want to get a run in, ‘cause Lord knows it isn’t happening after school.”
“I still can’t believe you’re a runner now.”
“I have to keep in shape somehow. My hobby is literally going to restaurants and writing about the food I eat. Have to do something, or it’s gonna start to catch up to me. Anyway, I can’t believe you, of all people, are complaining, Mr. 4:30 A.M. Checking Practice.”
Jack huffs out a laugh. “Do I look like I still get up before the sun to work out? I didn’t get this body by hitting the gym before the sun comes up, Bittle.”
“Hush, I love your body. Better for cuddling, anyway.”
“And sleeping in,” Jack says, pulling Eric back down and tucking him under his arm. “Stay here just a little longer.”
Eric shifts to his side so he’s facing Jack. Last night, just before he’d fallen asleep for good, he’d had the fleeting thought that waking up next to Jack would be awkward. It’s not. And he’s not especially eager to leave his side right now, when the bed is so warm and Jack is so here. “I don’t have to run. If I skip it and give you another hour to sleep, will you let me make breakfast for you?
Jack gives him a lazy smile. “You used to make the best French toast.”
“We ate the last of the bread last night and I’m not sure I have anything else that’ll work,” Eric says, mentally going through the contents of his kitchen. “But I can do bacon and eggs with fruit and yogurt. We can save the French toast for this weekend. If …”
“Well, okay then.” Eric scoots a little closer to Jack and closes his eyes.
The second time Eric’s alarm goes off, Jack wakes up a little more willingly. By the time he’s had his shower, Jack’s in the kitchen chopping peppers and overseeing a pan of bacon on the stove. Even though he’s used to it by now, it still does something to Eric’s heart to see Jack so comfortable like this.
“I thought I was supposed to be cooking for you,” he chirps, coming up behind Jack and putting his arms around him.
“I like cooking for you,” Jack says.
“Well, if this is going to be a thing —” Eric points from himself to Jack — “we’re going to have to get used to two chefs in the kitchen. Because I like cooking for you. I only wish my kitchen were a little nicer for you.”
“It’s perfect,” Jack reassures him, picking up one of Eric’s rabbit salt and pepper shakers. “It’s very you. But I’ve told you before, there’s a standing offer to use mine.”
“The only place I’d rather have you than in my kitchen is in my bed.”
“Oh, my,” Eric says, mostly to himself.
“And if this little guy ever wants to take a field trip —” Jack says, making the rabbit hop along the counter — “I wouldn’t mind having a little bit of you at my place all the time.”
Jack leaves later that afternoon with a box full of jam, Eric’s salt and pepper shakers, and a container of leftover takeout that Eric will probably always refer to as “sex curry.”
“Good thing your chickens are the only ones who’ll see you doing your walk of shame,” Eric chirps. He pokes at a jam stain on Jack’s chest.
“I should make you come with me. Make you explain to those girls where I’ve been.”
“Oh, no, mister,” Eric says with a grin. “I’m not getting in the middle of a domestic dispute.”
Jack snorts. “You could stay for dinner. I’ll even let you cook.”
“Now, that’s just not fair. You know I can’t resist that big oven.”
Jack raises an eyebrow. “Is that the only thing you can’t resist?”
Eric will probably regret saying no, when he’s watching Jeopardy! alone in his quiet apartment later tonight, but it seems important to take a few moments to breathe. If Jack stays, they’ll just end up spending the rest of the day in bed, and Eric really does have things to do. Like laundry.
“I still haven’t unpacked from my trip to Madison,” he admits.
“I know, I know. I’ll do my laundry and pick up dinner and maybe we can talk tonight?”
“I’ll text you,” Jack promises as he gets into the Jeep.
His text comes through just as Eric’s walking in the door with his clean laundry and Chipotle burrito. First a picture of a chicken, then Jack’s message: “Chickens miss you. Come home soon.”
The bubble is nice while it lasts. Eric knows that, eventually, he’s going to have to tell people about his new relationship. For now, he luxuriates in that new relationship bliss, where everything is just Jack Jack Jack (and, fine, a dozen chickens).
Lardo pierces it with a single phone call.
“Hey, Lards,” Eric answers, half distracted by the TV. Afternoon television is a guilty pleasure during his summers off.
“I got an interesting follower request on my personal Instagram yesterday,” Lardo says by way of greeting. “Someone going by jlz01 who has three followers and one photograph of a stand mixer that looks suspiciously like yours.”
“Oh?” Eric says. He’d helped Jack set up the new account just a few days ago. Jack had insisted on using that photo, which he’d spontaneously taken during their jam-making session, even though Eric had suggested something a little more personal for his first post.
“It is personal,” Jack had replied. “You love it and I love you —”
“What?” Eric dropped the plate he was drying. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry, that’s yours. I’ll replace it.”
“Bits.” Jack joined Eric on the floor, where he was gingerly picking up the larger shards. “Stop, you’re going to cut yourself. There’s a broom in the supply closet.” Eric tried to get to his feet, but Jack quickly clasped his hand around his wrist. “I hope it’s okay that I say that. I know it’s fast; we’ve only been together a few weeks. But it’s true. I love you.”
“Oh, honey.” Eric allowed Jack to pull him close and hold him against his wide chest. “I love you too. I didn’t want to say anything because it’s just so soon.”
“I was with Alex for two years and I never felt this way and I’ve just been waiting for something to happen to make you decide you don’t really want to be with me and —”
Jack put a stop to his rambling with a kiss. It was, they were both learning, an effective way to get him to stop talking.
“I always want to be with you,” Jack said when they paused to take a breath.
Now, a suspicious Lardo is telling Eric about the private message she received from somebody claiming to be Jack Zimmermann. “He said he had something else he needed to tell me.”
“Lord,” Eric breathes, and this is it. Though he hadn’t told Jack not to tell Lardo about them, he had hoped to tell her himself.
“That painting I sold a few years ago? The one that goes with yours? He bought it. I asked him to prove it so he sent a picture. It’s hanging over his fireplace. In his home. Just outside of Boston.”
“That’s great,” Eric says, trying to play it cool.
“You don’t seem very surprised.”
“I’m just a little distracted right now,” Eric lies. He’s not. He’s watching a mime who went viral a few weeks ago perform on Ellen.
“Eric Bittle, are you fucking Jack Zimmermann?”
“It sounds so crass when you put it that way.”
Lardo snorts. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend your delicate Southern sensibilities. Are you making love to Jack Zimmermann?”
“I don’t know if I’d use that terminology either,” he hedges.
“Fine. Are you sleeping, as in currently sharing a bed in both a literal and intimate sense, with Jack Zimmermann?”
“Lards, I’m in love with him.”
“That’s it? You’re not gonna lecture me and remind me that I just got out of a relationship, and that I have a huge blind spot when it comes to Jack?”
“Nah. It sounds like you’ve done enough of that yourself. I met Sam three months after Shitty and I broke up for good. I never wanted to date again and now we have a kid.”
“A kid who needs a little brother or sister.”
“Stop trying to deflect,” Lardo admonishes. “After I talked to Jack, I called Shitty. He was just as baffled as I was when Jack got back in touch, but he mentioned he’d also been in touch with you before he contacted either of us. Shitty had a feeling something might be happening with you two. Neither of us has heard much from you lately.”
Eric thinks, guiltily, of all the baseball games with Shitty that he’s blown off these past few months.
“I told Jack he’s an asshole and he better not disappear on us again, and he agreed,” Lardo adds. “And that if he hurts you, they’ll never find his body.”
“I’m probably gonna marry him,” Eric says now. It’s too soon to talk about such things, but the instant the thought enters his head, he’s certain.
“Dude, I am all for being your best ladybro or whatever you want to call me, but before I start planning your bachelor party you really need to talk to him about what you expect out of this relationship. If you have any doubts at all, you need to address them now. I’m glad he has his shit together, but he kind of has a history of —”
“Not having his shit together,” Eric finishes. Damn Lardo for being so reasonable.
“Bits, it sounds like he’s really sincere. He’s probably not going to dump you in the middle of sex like some people I could name. But you should put everything out there before you get in too deep.”
Lardo is right. Eric knows she’s right. Before this goes any further, he has to talk to Jack about what it all means.
He brings it up after dinner on Monday, when they’re both relaxed and ready to settle down on Jack’s couch to watch the day’s Jeopardy! recording. Eric’s been spending more and more time here. They haven’t discussed him moving in, not exactly, but each time he comes over he brings a little more with him. It’s probably a telling sign that he’s all but forgotten about looking for a place of his own.
“Before we start,” Eric says, gently taking the remote control from Jack and placing it on the arm of the couch, “we need to talk about a few things.”
That … was probably the wrong thing to say. Jack’s gone from content and relaxed to tense and on high alert. Eric gives his knee a little squeeze. “Don’t worry, honey, it’s not bad. I just think we need to talk about where we stand. We’ve both been in relationships that didn’t work out, and I think this is different for both of us. At least, it’s different for me —”
“It’s different for me too, Bits.”
“Right.” Eric nods furiously. “The thing is, Jack, I can’t do this if you’re gonna disappear again. If I’m gonna be sitting here in a year surrounded by your stuff, wondering where you went, because you decided you want a different life than the one you’ve got. And I can’t do it if —”
“My last relationship didn’t work out for a lot of reasons. But one of the reasons it was never going to go anywhere was because we didn’t have the same goals. I really want to get married someday. And I want kids. Not right away, but someday. I know that’s not fair to demand right now when we’ve only just started, but —”
“Bitty.” Now Jack puts his hand over Eric’s, which he didn’t even realize was trembling. “Let me address the first thing first: I have generalized anxiety disorder. I’m always going to have it. I take medicine and see a therapist. I still have really bad days, sometimes. But I’m not going to run away again. I don’t know how to prove that to you any other way than by just being here for you every day for the rest of our lives.”
“If you think it will help,” Jack continues, “you can come to my next therapy appointment with me and ask any questions you might have. I think it would be a good idea to introduce you to her, anyway. My parents have met her and she helped me reassure them when they had the same concerns.”
“I’d like that,” Eric agrees.
“As for the other thing —” Jack shifts his body a bit and pulls Eric closer. “— those are things I want, too. Maybe not right away. Probably not right away. But I like thinking about someday. Especially if it’s with you.”
Eric’s always thought about someday in somewhat hazy terms, but suddenly he can see it a little more clearly: A life with Jack, lived in between this house and the restaurant. Getting up early to run during the week and sleeping in together on the weekends. Falling into bed together, exhausted, after busy nights at work. Planting fruit trees together so they can harvest their own fruit for jam and pie. Friends and family who fill their house on Thanksgiving and Christmas. A chubby baby with Jack’s blue eyes, a sweet dumb dog, a sassy cat to chase away the mice. And chickens. Lots of chickens. He likes thinking about it too.
“You know,” he says, gazing at the painting above the fireplace, “I should bring my painting from Lardo over next time. I bet it would look real nice hanging up there next to yours.”
“I’d like that,” Jack says, pulling Eric into his lap and kissing the back of his neck. “They were always meant to be together.”
Chapter 8: Epilogue
From Eric Bittle’s blog, Bits and Pieces
~maple apple pie ~
Apple pie is forgiving.
Unlike lemon meringue, apple pie doesn’t need to be babied. If you mess it up, you can always turn it into a crumble, or get really creative and blend it into some ice cream. You can serve it with a thick slice of cheddar cheese if you want it to be a little savory, or sweeten it up with some maple syrup in the crust. For a spicier pie, season it with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and nutmeg.
Apple pie is classic and comforting and reminds me of home.
For a few years, “home” was a run-down frat house. I made dozens of apple pies during my time in that house, usually with a certain boy in mind. Sometimes we baked together, and we worked as well together in the kitchen as we did on the ice. I thought we might work well together in other ways, but I was too shy to tell him how I felt. It wouldn’t have mattered, or so I thought: I was convinced he was straight. (Spoiler alert: He’s bi.)
After I graduated, I started this blog and started to experiment with things other than apple pie. Meringues were a challenge I was determined to crack. I broke a lot of eggs. I spent entire weekends teaching myself to work with fondant, so I could make cakes for my friends as they celebrated birthday and engagement milestones, then weddings and first birthdays for their babies. I didn’t forget about my apple pie, exactly, it just wasn’t what I needed.
A series of events recently brought my college boy back into my orbit. We’re both a little more seasoned than we were when we were college kids, but at the same time it’s sweeter than I imagined it could be.
Being with him is like coming home. It’s like taking that first bite of apple pie after flirting with meringues and cake and thinking, “Yes. This is what I want for the rest of my life.”
From The Boston Globe
A reclusive chef comes out … in more ways than one
“What ever happened to Jack Zimmermann?” is a common question in professional hockey circles. After leading the Providence Falconers to a franchise-first Stanley Cup win in 2016, his rookie year, Zimmermann suffered a premature end to his second season in the league after a hit during an early-season game against the Oilers took him off the ice. Although it was reported — and fans were assured — he would return following shoulder surgery and rehab, Zimmermann never returned to professional hockey, leaving fans to wonder: What happened?
The gossip blogs went to town. Some reported Zimmermann, who famously dropped out of the 2009 draft after a prescription anxiety medication overdose, had relapsed. Others claimed the injury was worse than previously reported, and he was in no shape to return to active playing. There were rumors that he’d surfaced on a beach in Hawaii, and on a farm in Vermont.
That last rumor isn’t far from the truth. For the past four years, Zimmerman has run — primarily on his own — Harvest Haus, the farm-to-table restaurant outside Boston that has been called “The next French Laundry.”
He operated the restaurant in relative obscurity for a year, until Angela Hastings of The New York Times chanced upon it on vacation and raved about the experience first on Twitter, then in a glowing review. Even as its popularity grew and he found himself serving a packed house every weekend evening, Zimmermann famously declined interviews
So why reveal himself now?
“I fell in love,” he replies. “My boyfriend is someone I’ve known for a long time. But we lost touch after college and I just figured we missed our chance. If it hadn’t been for a chance encounter when he came into the restaurant, I know we wouldn’t be together now. It got me thinking about how protecting my privacy only ended up hurting me. Also,” he says with a wry grin, “he’s got a pretty popular food blog. It would be hard for him to keep us a secret.”
That boyfriend, Eric Bittle, is a Boston-area high school teacher and freelance food writer. His writing has appeared in regional publications and on his blog, Bits and Pieces. He’s become a fixture at Harvest Haus, where he’s been moonlighting as pastry chef.
“Yeah,” Zimmermann says with a smitten smile. “He used to bake to avoid studying. We were teammates in college and shared a house for a year. After a while I started to join him in the kitchen. After my injury, when I made the decision to retire, I started to think about what I really enjoyed and baking was up there. I ended up liking the cooking part of culinary school a little more though. It’s why we make a good team.”
He’s quick to point out his sexual orientation was never a secret, and that the pressure of being a closeted professional athlete had nothing to do with his premature retirement.
“I played in the league for such a short time, it never came up. Although I knew even then that I’m bisexual, I didn’t have any serious relationships during my time in the NHL. Since then, I’ve had relationships with men and women.”
It’s clear Zimmermann’s sexuality is a non-issue, and he quickly shuts down questions about his previous partners. “I’m with Bittle now,” he says. “That’s what matters. We’ve both been with other people, and those other relationships didn’t work out for a reason.”
Zimmermann’s parents — NHL Hall of Famer “Bad” Bob Zimmermann and former model Alicia Zimmermann — say they’ve always supported his career moves.
“Did we understand it at first?” Bob Zimmermann asks of his son’s decision to change careers. “Let’s just say it was a surprise. But when you’ve gone through what we’ve been through as a family, you quickly learn your child’s health and happiness is more important than money and fame.
“Besides,” he adds, “he’s done pretty well for himself. Even Alicia and I have to wait for a reservation.”
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak, does Zimmermann have plans to capitalize on Harvest Haus’ success? Are there books or television gigs on the horizon?
“Ha ha. Probably not,” he says. “But I am joining the board of my parents’ nonprofit foundation. They’ve been putting on LGTBQ-inclusive youth hockey camps in Montreal for a few years, and Bittle and I are looking forward to being involved when they expand to Boston next summer.”
There is also, he adds, an exciting development for fans of the restaurant’s new dessert menu. Bittle’s pies, goat’s milk gelato, and jams are available at a rotating selection of farmers markets in the greater Boston area. Sold under the Harvest Haus name, they’re the same recipes used weekly at the restaurant.
From Eater Boston
Rec Room to debut
Chef Jack Zimmermann has had a big year.
In January, the famously reclusive former NHL player revealed he’s the chef-owner of Harvest Haus, the small farm-to-table restaurant known for its locally-focused menu and months-long wait list.
In June, he returned to his roots when he helped his parents, Bob and Alicia Zimmermann, host the United States’ first Zimmermann Hockey Camp, in Boston.
In July, he announced his engagement to Eric Bittle, his former Samwell University hockey teammate who is now a food writer and high school teacher in the Boston area.
Now, the couple is collaborating on a new venture: Rec Room.
The new restaurant, inspired by “the comfort food my mom would make after a hard hockey practice when I was a kid,” will operate in the basement of his original restaurant.
“Food has always been a big part of our relationship,” Zimmermann says of himself and Bittle. “Not just eating, but cooking together. I first fell in love with cooking — and Eric — while baking in the kitchen of the house we shared in college. When we reconnected last year a lot of our dates — which neither of us thought of as dates, at first — involved food. One night a few months after we started seeing each other, we had a kind of elaborate dinner planned that we were going to cook together. But Eric was tired from a full day of work and coaching, so we decided to save our special dinner for a night when he wasn’t as tired —”
Bittle picks up the thread of the story. “Jack said he was going to take care of me, and make me his favorite meal that his mama always made him after a hard practice. I should have remembered he always had a bag of chicken tenders in the freezer in college,” he says with a laugh. “But for some reason, chicken tenders and tater tots were exactly what I needed that night.”
“It’s still what I like to cook for myself after a day of cooking for other people,” Zimmermann says.
“We got to talking about the foods we loved as kids, how a plate of chicken tenders or a bowl of tomato soup still evokes those warm memories of being cared for by someone who loves you,” Bittle continues. “In my case, I was a figure skater for most of my childhood. Now, my daddy wasn’t much of a cook, but my mama used to go to book club one night a week and he would make me tomato soup to warm me up after practice in the winter. I grew up in Georgia and Jack grew up in Montreal, but we both have those fond memories of eating comfort food after practice.”
Rec Room was conceived to evoke that same nostalgia in its diners. With its wood-paneled walls, big-screen TV, and coin operated games (including air hockey), it feels more like a Midwestern (or Canadian) basement than a restaurant. Diners can choose to eat on couches (“faux leather,” explains Bittle, “because people spill”) or at a bar made from repurposed hockey sticks. (“We have some very talented friends,” Zimmermann says.) Zimmermann is too modest to display memorabilia from his own short-but-succesful NHL career, but a picture of the NCAA team Zimmermann and Bittle played on hangs on the wall behind the bar.
The menu, according to Bittle, is upscale comfort food.
“We made a list of all of those comfort foods from growing up and living in our hockey house in college, and kind of put a grown up, gourmet twist on them,” he explains.
As such, you’ll find homemade tomato soup, a three-cheese-and-tomato grilled cheese sandwich, bite-sized wood-fired pizzas topped with organic and ethically-sourced meats and veggies, and — yes — gourmet chicken tenders on the menu.
“We also have poutine,” Bittle adds. “Had to have something authentically Canadian on the menu.”
“I don’t even like poutine,” Zimmermann says. “But he insisted.”
“You love it,” Bittle playfully argues.
“Maybe a little,” Zimmermann admits. “Mostly when you make it.”
“It’s because of the secret ingredient,” Bittle whispers.
“Love?” I guess.
Both men laugh. “That sounds like something Jack would say,” Bittle says fondly. “No, it’s the red wine I add to the gravy. It really improves the flavor profile.”
“But there’s love too,” Zimmermann insists. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we hadn’t fallen in love.”
“Yeah, okay, you can print that,” Bittle says with a laugh. “The secret ingredient is love.”