Memories Of Grilled Cheese
Memories Of Grilled Cheese
A draft of cool air caught Anushka off guard as she opened the fridge to look for the components of a grilled cheese sandwich. She had spent the better half of the morning, at her desk, daydreaming of the perfect buttery crust, oozy cheese filling with just a hint of Maggie's sweet and sour sauce. Now, hours later, standing in front of the fridge, it was finally time for her to satisfy this craving.
The upbeat hum from the fridge's compressor mimicked her excitement as she looked at the big block of Emmental cheese she had picked up from the farmer's market which she could swear was eagerly waiting for the occasion to be grilled. However, there was one missing ingredient; she was flat out of bread. This wasn't in the least bit surprising; she had, in fact, made herself a midnight snack the night before using up the last slice of bread with a heaping dollop of crunchy peanut butter. Had it been any other household, such as one teeming with kids, parents, and unwelcome relatives, the fridge would have been fully stocked with a battalion's worth of food.
Anushka's fridge catered to her and her tastes alone. Having lived by herself for over eighteen years and being single for the last two, she had found her rhythm when it came to stocking the fridge. That same rhythm had told her she'd be out of bread even before she had felt the fridge's frosty air. However, it wasn't Saturday, the day she had for years dedicated to going to the grocery store to buy her weekly staples. It was, indeed, Friday, and on this day, it was her rhythm that had intentionally failed her.
That's how she wound up standing in a relatively short queue to get into the Kirana store. It was probably a good sign that her cravings coincided with her weekly grocery haul, she mused, even if it was a day earlier than what she was used to. Anushka, just like the seven people in line, was obeying the lockdown protocol. Masks on heads down, and everyone minding their own business. She hoped she wouldn't have to wait too long before she got to eat some carbs.
Armed with her earphones, she reached into her purse to grab her phone. The TEDtalk on following your life's passion had ended, and she needed a good dose of pop music to lighten the mood and keep her entertained while standing in the queue. Her playlist was a messy mix of songs from her favourite 90s Madonna hits to the recent 2019 pop charts. When it came to music, Anushka only listened to songs that compliment her mood; she believed that songs should be a soundtrack to feelings. Today's feelings were that of grilled cheese and bliss, so she scrolled through her playlist called 'pretty bad but always catchy' which were a collection of songs from the early 2000s.
Had she listened to any other music, she would have completely missed the opportunity that would change the course of her thoughts that day. In fact, the music was so loud that she almost didn't hear him, so it was a good thing that the song changed just in time for her to hear his crisp, polished accent.
"Looks like we're both in need of diet coke and dark chocolate." Confused, she turned toward the voice that was standing behind her, still unsure of whether the statement was directed at her. At first, all she saw was his strong chest, then she looked up and was met with the most captivating green eyes.
"What?" she said quizzically, now looking more clearly at the enormously tall man who was holding up a piece of paper.
"This fell out of your bag," he said.
"Right, I didn't notice, thanks," Anushka said, taking the handwritten list from his hands as she quickly stole a glance at his eyes, which she now noticed had a speck of brown in the left iris.
"No problem, I always seem to forget my list at home, don't know why I write them in the first place," he said amusingly.
"This is actually an old list, probably from months ago. Don't know how it landed up in my bag" she admitted sheepishly, stuffing the paper back into her green handbag.
"Well, chocolate is a staple, even if I didn't write it down, I have the good sense to add it to my basket," he said as he tucked an eco-friendly tote bag under his arm. "I'm Harry, by the way." He was about to reach his hand forward but stopped midway.
"Anushka," she said, smiling under her mask.
"Sorry, I'm still getting used to not shaking hands, this virus has made it very difficult to make new friends," he said earnestly.
"Shaking hands is all it takes to make new friends? No one sent me that memo" she said sarcastically, one eyebrow raised.
He laughed at her response, which took her by surprise. Her ability to deliver deadpan one-liners was something Anushka was notorious for. It was also something that had gotten her into trouble on many occasions. However, at this moment, the gorgeous man in front of her understood her twisted sense of humour.
"Well, it's probably among the other memos about having to wear a mask with a beard," he said with a chuckle as he wiped a small bead of sweat from his forehead.
"So many memos, how to keep up?" she asked.
"Just in case you were wondering, wearing a mask over a beard can make a man very hot in this city's heatwave," he said, rubbing his beard over his mask. Her tummy did a quick jump at the mention of the word hot; she silently cursed her body for betraying her mind.
"I see.. well, you might want to include a razor on your to-buy list," she said, taking in the man she was looking at, feeling a sense of attraction forming in the pit of her stomach again, like a seed about to take root. He had broad shoulders and the type of strong arms you see on men who flex at the gym that look incredible in kurtas, she mused.
"Perks of not going to the office; don't have to shave the 'stache" he said, distracting her thoughts.
"Madam," shouted a store clerk, motioning her to move up the line. She turned around briefly to see that the person standing in front of her had taken a few steps ahead. Moving up the line, she realised this short conversation was the most fun she'd had in a while. It was also the most physical interaction she had had since the World Health Organization had declared the deadly pandemic and the local government enforced a lockdown. In the 40 days of self-quarantine, this conversation with a stranger was fast becoming a highlight.
"So, the office is against facial hair then? Think I might like to visit," she said, turning back to face Harry.
"Well, I'm the boss, here at the India offices, so beards are allowed but the higher-ups back in London wouldn't take me seriously if I walked in looking this rough," he said, pointing at his short beard that was concealed under a white mask.
"Perks of the boss," she retorted quickly.
Moving up the line further, Anushka was almost at the entry of the shop. Their conversation had been the ideal light-hearted entertainment she needed while waiting in the queue. It was also at this point that she realised the people around them were starting to stare at the man she was talking to. It wasn't solely his commanding presence, but it was rather unusual to see an expat, most of them had left the city on the last few flights before the lockdown. Therefore the sight of a statuesque foreigner standing in line at the local Kiranawala, with a beige shopper bag, blue T-shirt and a white cloth mask was peculiar.
"Hand sanitiser madam," the store clerk said flatly.
Anushka was at the entry of the grocery store, and while she was ready to get her freshly sanitised hands on some bread, she didn't feel ready to say goodbye to her new companion.
"See you in there," she said, and with that, she walked into the store. Anushka didn't need a physical list, which is why she had found it funny when Harry found the piece of paper. After years of buying the same food and hygiene items, she could navigate the store blindfolded. Almost like muscle memory, she knew exactly what she needed and where in the store she could find it, the world may have changed, but her local kiranawala with its tiny aisles were the same, she comforted herself with that thought. So, she took off like a writer on a deadline and started to walk the aisles, keeping in mind that she wanted to spend some time picking up the perfect loaf of bread for later.
"Sourdough... where are you" she muttered to herself as she browsed through the limited options of bread. Unlike other women who constantly watched their carb intake, she revelled in it. Nothing satiated her cravings like a slice of pizza could, and for those days when her jeans felt tight, a few body combat workouts would help her squash the guilt which she sometimes felt when she overindulged. She was about to reach for the sourdough when she felt a niggling sensation, the kind you get when you know someone is looking at you. She turned to find Harry standing a few feet away, the narrow aisles making him look larger than normal.
"Sorry, can I just squeeze past you, I need to get the pasta" he said as he took a step in her direction. She shuffled closer to the bread, now pressed up against the rack behind her. As he turned sideways to walk past, only the handheld shopping basket between them kept them apart. The heat of his body and the faintest scent of men's soap washed over her, making her heart start to race, and her skin feel flush. She had found the source of Pune's heatwave; it just happened to be a chestnut-brown haired man standing in the pasta aisle. Such were the thoughts that were running through her mind. Secretly, she thanked the Gods that her face was partially covered by a mask, so she could keep her emotions hidden.
Before he could cross back over, she picked up the bread closest to her in a hurry; whole wheat sliced bread would have to do, she thought. Not wanting to do anything silly, she felt the need to check out, but not before allowing herself one quick peek in his direction. She saw him holding a bottle of pasta sauce and noticed how he raised his eyebrow ever so slightly while reading, a quirk that made her tummy tie in knots. Sadly, what she mistook as knots was actually her gut trying to give her the courage to put herself out there. However, she resisted the silly urge to run up and give him her number. If there was one thing she was superb at, it was ignoring her instincts. Instead, she turned around and headed to the check out counter.
As she walked into her kitchen, a smile on her face from the earlier interaction with Harry, she started to regret not giving him her number. It wasn't every day that you quite literally meet Mr Right, she mused. Looking down on the unfortunate selection of wholewheat sliced bread, she still had her grilled cheese sandwich to look forward to. And so, with a newfound enthusiasm that can only come from the reward of carbs with cheese, she unpacked all her supplies keeping aside the bread. At that very moment, she had fully intended to make her sandwich, but the rhythm that failed her earlier wasn't done just yet.
She was folding the tote bag that was carrying all the groceries when a small slip of paper fell to the ground, this time she noticed it. Thinking it was the receipt from the shop, she was about to throw it into the bin, when she stopped in her tracks. Written in shabby but legible handwriting was a note.
Let's chat about memos and lists again - Harry +91 8677734130
In Anushka's mind, an 80s love ballad was playing, and somewhere in the world, there was a pair of dolphins dancing in the ocean. That's precisely how she felt when she re-read the note for the second time. She wondered when he'd gotten the chance to slip the note in her bag. Then, out of nowhere, she started to get that sinking feeling. The type of emotion that creeps in when your rational mind doubts the reality, for right now, things seemed too good to be true for her to believe it. The serendipitous quality of the whole meeting didn't seem real to Anushka. Something like this only happened in books or in a Mindy Kaling TV show, she thought to herself. As she searched for her phone, the thoughts running through her head were that of self-worth.
When it came to men, Anushka was never the leading star in her romantic movies. All her relationships started after years of knowing the other person. Spontaneous attraction and whirlwind romances were for her girlfriends, who had all found their prince charmings before the age of 30. Secretly, of course, she didn't really think her girlfriends' husbands were princely, in fact, she often found herself wondering why they had settled for these men who stopped working out, controlled all the money and confined their wives in some shape or form. Her free spirit ached for another that would flame her fire, shine as bright as her and be gorgeous to look at. Delusional as that may sound, Anushka was perfectly happy being single and believing in her utopian views of relationships and Mr Right.
Anushka could not fathom what she had done to merit a rendezvous with a potential leading man. When actually faced with utopia, would she be able to embrace it? Tying her shoulder-length hair into a bun as best she could, she dialled the one person who would be able to make sense of it all, or at least she hoped she would.
"Hey, whats-" Said Gayatri.
"You'll never believe what happened to me," she blurted out, almost too fast to be understood. The two had been best friends for over fourteen years, and in that time they'd never once judged each other, a quality that sealed their friendship from day one. As Anushka went over every juicy detail from the events of her 'gorgeous grocery guy' encounter, as they started to term it, the girls began to dive further into the big question of what to do next.
Gayatri and Anushka shared a lot in common, something both of them equated to the fact that their birthdays were seven days apart. So, when it came to decisions, both intuitively knew what was best for the other, even though they didn't always express it.
"What do you have to lose?" asked Gayatri, sounding a bit exasperated.
"It just seems odd, why would a guy like that even be interested in a girl like me?"
"Well for starters your eyebrows look fabulous even after a month of not going to the salon -"
"Seriously Gaya, you should have seen him, he was tall, and you know that's a big plus for me. And he had that polished English accent and gentlemanly stance -"
"Do you hear yourself? You've met the guy once, and already you're swooning" she said. Anushka could sense the eye roll from over the phone, even though she couldn't see it.
"You're right, I shouldn't call, I'll only overthink things and drive myself crazy," said Anushka.
"You trying to make me say it, huh?"
"Well, not entirely, but at least if you say it I can blame you when it all goes south-"
"If that's your logic then when things go well I should get a present of some sort, a pair of heels maybe?" Gayatri retorted with a chuckle.
"Alright, don't get too excited, for all we know he hands out notes to all the women he meets," she said, secretly hoping that wasn't the case.
"Don't overthink it; just do what you think feels right. It has been two years since you broke up with Dinesh, time to get back in action. Besides, do you have any other men to talk to during quarantine?" she said sarcastically.
"You made your point. I'll text him. What's the right opening text anyways?" Anushka asked, hoping her friend would at least be helpful with something.
"Sent you something on WhatsApp. Now, I got to go and start my Yoga; you keep me posted. Ciao," she said which concluded with a smacking sound, this was Gayatri's classic way of saying bye, with an air kiss.
An eggplant emoji and a wink face emoji popped up on Anushka's phone. She chuckled, and for a flash of a second she seriously considered it, shaking her head in disbelief, she realised she was starting to lose her mind already, after all, dementia did run in her family.
Send text: 'You're lucky I found your note, decided to thoroughly check my bags this time. It's Anushka BTW'
The swoosh sound of the send button sent chills of excitement through Anushka's body. She had done it. It had only taken one can of iced diet coke, a packet of banana chips and hours of pacing back and forth in her cozy one-bedroom apartment, but she had come up with what she thought was the perfect opening text. Words had always been important to her, they were, after all, the building blocks of her career as a children's book author. Unlike other writers, her words were usually aimed at little minds, so when it came to conveying her thoughts to grown ones, she often struggled. Checking the message again, she sent a screenshot of it to Gayatri.
Message received, Gayatri: Dude, that's a really good opening line, but you should have ended it with an *eggplant emoji*
Looking at the screenshot of her text to Harry again, she did think it was good enough for at least a response, even though her tummy betrayed her thoughts. Scribing the opening line was only act one of this play, this second act was something she hadn't anticipated - waiting for a response. As a single, successful woman in her 30s, Anushka wasn't new to the waiting game. This was all thanks to her profiles on countless dating apps and websites that came with the promise of a relationship but inevitably resulted in waiting for someone to swipe right or message back. This cat and mouse game, which singles called communication had not only made her a pro at waiting but helped her devise a plan to keep her mind off it.
She reassured herself that getting a text back from Harry on the same day they met was reaching for the stars. So, she put her phone on silent, not wanting her heart to leap every time she heard the familiar notification sound. Her failsafe when it came to keeping occupied was to workout. This proactive approach wasn't something that was second nature to her. She had only recently learned that she enjoyed exercise, this realisation came after years of conditioning that told her working out for women meant looking bulky or masculine.
Similar to countless other women who grew up with a convent school education, Anushka's P.E class was not the main focus. Girls were pushed to be academic, and those who did want to excel at sports were made to wear bloomers under their sports kits, so as to not to flash any on-lookers. Since Anushka wasn't overweight or skinny, society had deemed her acceptable. However, lack of encouragement when it came to the fitness department weighed heavily on Anushka through the years, especially when her 30th birthday rolled in and she saw the visible changes in her poorly shaped body that had lost its 20-year-old girl tautness. So, she enrolled herself in a Zumba class, the only type of class she felt least embarrassed to join. To her amazement, the class, filled with middle-aged married women, was the gateway to her fitness journey. Her budding enthusiasm and a need to push her body's limits lead her to a new passion, in the form of kickboxing, muay Thai and martial arts. Thus, slashing years of convent school oppression with one high-intensity body combat class and replacing bloomers with trendy athleisure.
The 45-min workout which would have normally worked a charm, only made it harder for her to concentrate. The instructor in the video had arms similar to Harry's, which made her mind go to titillating places it hadn't been to in a long time. Boxing out her frustration to the beat of a hyped-up techno track would have to do for now, she thought to herself. Quenching her thirst the only way she could, with a bottle of water, she looked at her phone that was now sitting upon a block print tablecloth looking innocent but laden with promise. She wondered if it concealed a message from her gorgeous grocery guy. Her strength, not just from the body combat class, but from the inner corners of her spirit helped her resist the urge to check her phone.
Not knowing how long she could keep this up, she headed for the shower, at least that would help cool her thoughts, she mused. Little did she know that her sense of smell had other ideas. The patchouli and Japanese cherry blossom body wash she was gifted, had notes of a familiar scent. Ordinarily, it wouldn't have evoked such a visceral response. However, this day, those same masculine smelling notes sent her thoughts reeling to the man she'd just met. In particular, of being in close proximity to him with only a handheld shopping basket between them.
Traces of foam were quietly dissipating on her shoulders, as she dashed out of her quaint bathroom with the floral tiles, to get to her seemingly innocuous phone. It was still sitting upon her dining table, but as she looked at it this time, she was convinced he'd replied.
A notification with its lipstick orange dot on the message icon sent a chill up her spin. This simple dot signified one new message, but it didn't say who sent the message. The rush of excitement as she clicked the icon was palpable and entirely ridiculous for a woman in her 30s who was standing wrapped in a towel and soaking wet, she thought annoyingly.
Message from Pri Di: Just read your book to Tanya, she loved it and wants to thank her aunty. Video call next week?
Although it wasn't a text from Harry, it was the next best thing. She had written the book on body positivity and loving your skin colour with her niece in mind. She wanted her 3-year old niece to grow up in a world where at least one children's book celebrated brown skin. So, the text from her sister, Priyanka, about her niece loving the book was something she had dreamed about ever since the day she conceptualised the story.
Send text: Always got time for Tantan, next Wednesday works for me. x
A smile on her face, she hit send and went back to her inbox. That's when it happened, had she not replied to her sister, his call would have gone unanswered, thanks to the silent mode her phone was currently on. Just like their meeting, so much of their interactions were at the mercy of chance and timing, both of which were not in Anushka's control, much to her chagrin.
There was no trill to pierce the air, instead, there was a wash of silence as his name flashed across the screen. Suddenly immobilised, Anushka didn't know whether to answer. Caught off guard and still in a towel, she wondered if right now was the appropriate time to talk to the man who plagued her thoughts. It must have been the adrenalin because before she realised what she had done, she heard his baritone voice.
"Hey, It's Harry -" a pregnant pause followed, it wasn't long, but at that moment, it seemed like an eternity. "- hello? Am I speaking to Anushka?" his British boarding school accent pushing through the phone's speaker.
"Yes, sorry, I was in the middle of.. I wasn't expecting you to call" she said earnestly, thinking he didn't need to know she was in the middle of the living room wrapped in a towel that was starting to dry, just like her throat as she tried to think of what to say next.
"I should have probably texted, but I don't have the patience for it. Hope I wasn't interrupting anything"
"Actually.. Could I call you back in ten minutes?" she said. The idea of her standing practically naked while speaking to him was making her lose focus. Clothes, she thought, would help her concentrate on the conversation and not the hot sensation burning through her at the sound of his voice.
"Sure, I'll be waiting by the phone," he said charmingly, a compliment that was not lost on Anushka.
Getting ready in a matter of minutes was a speciality of hers. She could, in fact, be dressed and out the door in under 15-minutes, a feat that surprised many of her exes. Although she wasn't going to be visible to him, she wanted to look her best. Wearing something cute always made her feel more confident, a quality she felt she desperately needed when speaking to the man who had made her tummy flutter ever since she had laid eyes on him. And so, she slipped into a matching set of silk pajamas with a poppy print and white trimming. As she passed her nightstand, she grabbed her face cream, which usually gave her a fresh glow. She undid her hair, which had a messy, yet soft tousle going through it from being tied in a bun all afternoon. With that, she felt ready to speak to Harry, her tummy grumbled, which she thought was the excitement, only to realise that she hadn't made her grilled cheese yet. It's easy to confuse hunger and lust, she mused.
Time To Plate Up
Dialing Harry, she stood in her kitchen, preparing to make a grilled cheese sandwich. The excitement of meeting a gorgeous man had, almost, made her forget her love for carbs and cheese. Almost, she thought, as she started to get the ingredients out for the second time that day.
"Finally, that was more than ten minutes," he said cheerfully.
"Keeping track? This isn't the typical behaviour of a patient man"
"What gave you the idea I was patient?"
A jarring clang interrupted the call, the skillet had fallen to the floor as Anushka was trying to put it on the stove while also balancing her phone on her shoulder.
"You alright?" he asked.
"Sorry about that, I'm trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich, I've been craving one all day."
"So, I have your cravings to thank," he said.
"Yeah you're lucky I was out of bread, or I might not have met you. I usually go grocery shopping every Saturday."
"No wonder I haven't seen you before, I'm a Friday guy. I like to stock up for the weekend."
"Hold on a sec -" she perched the phone on the coffee container, "-alright, I've put you on speaker, time to get cooking."
"Grilled cheese huh? What type are you using?" he asked.
"Emmental. Got some from the farmer's market. Although, it's not local, everything at that market is imported -"
"You're so right, there aren't even any farmers. Ah, the pre-lockdown life."
"Well, I've never used Emmental for grilled cheese, so here's hoping" she said. The heady aroma of the salted butter permeated the kitchen, as she grabbed two slices of whole wheat bread and placed them on the skillet.
"Emmental is my favourite, my mother used to make me ham and cheese sandwiches when I was in elementary school", he said.
"Well, I might have to have you over post lockdown for a quick bite," she said sheepishly, hoping he wouldn't think it was too forward of her.
"Wow, an invitation on the first phone call, I'm honoured."
"Don't be, the only thing I can cook is grilled cheese. I'm pretty miserable in the kitchen" she said.
"Lucky for you I'm excellent and not just in the kitchen," he said, which was followed by a contagious giggle, making this statement more playful than sleazy. It was a giggle she had never heard come from a man before, but one that resonated deep within his spirit. It was precisely at that moment; the rhythm that had failed her started to sync up to the tempo of his giggle. A knowing unlike any she had felt before flashed before her eyes. It was, in fact, a memory of the full life they had lived together, with memories of every triumph, happiness and ultimately, pain.
Shaking her head, Anushka found herself thoroughly enjoying the conversation, ignoring the flood of lucid memories. She really was losing it, if she was already starting to visualising their future, she mused.
"So, how come you didn't head back home? I thought most of the expats had left before lockdown," she said.
"Well a little neurovid isn't going to scare me, who needs so many memories anyways. I'd be happy to be left with only the good ones," he said.
"Spoken like a man well-travelled. But, sadly the virus doesn't work like that," she said, a sense of heaviness filtered through her as she flipped the sandwich that was starting to turn gold.
"I'm guessing India isn't your first overseas job?" she said, trying to change the subject.
"My fifth actually, which is why I wasn't in any rush to go home. Haven't lived there in over a decade."
"Don't you miss it?" she asked earnestly.
"Home is anywhere my heart feels connected, and my heart hasn't found its roots... yet," he said, making her cheeks flush, she knew he probably wasn't alluding to her, but in the heat of the kitchen, it did feel like it.
"I can hear that sandwich sizzle, why didn't I pick up some of those ingredients today?" He said
"I'll remind you next -" she said almost automatically, and she hoped he didn't catch that sentence.
"Oh, so there's a next time? I like where this is going," he said.
Harry, along with the makings of a grilled cheese sandwich, was the perfect way to round out the day. As she plated her sandwich on a pink porcelain plate, the rhythm that had been playing with her all day wasn't quite done yet. The last thing she heard him say was -
"So, almost done with the sandwich?"
Anushka repeated these words, looking down now, at the block print tablecloth, a phone was an arm's length away. A damp towel wrapped around her freshly washed hair, that smelled of patchouli and Japanese cherry blossoms.
"Are you done with the sandwich?" Anushka found herself saying again, this time a little more unsure of why she said it.
Overpowering the smell of the shampoo was the delicious aroma of a grilled cheese sandwich that wafted through the air. A girl in her mid-20s with messy shoulder-length hair, walked towards her, stopping to switch off the TV that was broadcasting a body combat workout video. The girl who was wearing a blue T-shirt and white mask placed a pink porcelain plate in front of her.
"Didn't I just make this?" said Anushka. Her rhythm was definitely failing her, she thought, trying to cling on to the memory of when she met her husband Harry. A sudden flutter in her tummy formed a fleeting glimpse of his captivating green eyes, with a brown speck in his left iris. His eyes were the only thing she still knew to be true.
"Aunty? It's Tanya, and today is Friday, time for your famous grilled cheese," she said with a contagious giggle. "Look, I even used Uncle Harry's favorite Emmental cheese." Anushka looked at the girl, a calm expression washed over her face, that sense of rhythm suddenly clueing her in.
"I'm going to the grocery store to get some supplies. You finish up your sandwich" Tanya said as she grabbed an eco-friendly tote bag.
Anushka watched as the girl was about to leave and said: "You dropped your list."