by Hannah Johnson
If someone asked her she would say yes, she was happy. She finally had a place to live and just yesterday she finally unloaded the last ripped gym bag doubling as luggage from her car. She was no longer scared any time she left the house that someone would steal or break into her car and take with them her last shred of dignity and all of her belongings.
And if that happened, her aunt would tell her that has no choice but to move back home. For Nora, home was not an option. She had a new home, even if she was just renting out an apartment above a stranger’s garage. It wasn’t perfect, but it was finally an actual mattress instead the front seat of her car titled back the half-an-inch it would budge. She didn’t have much but she stuffed every facet of her car completely full so her aunt would know it was final and permanent; she was not going back to Oregon.
Nora still sometimes woke up startled and confused at her new residence in Georgia. Even though she’d been at her new place for a couple months now, every once in awhile she would wake up and have to steady her rushing and pained heart at the panic of unfamiliarity. It happened every single night she slept in her car but mostly because a night guard would tap his flashlight on her window to tell her she couldn’t sleep there.
It was her first time having to practically live out of her car but it wasn’t her first time knowing she wasn’t welcome. When she was little and was sent to live with her aunt and uncle after her single mother died, her aunt made her a bed on the couch. It wasn’t even a nice couch; Nora had to share it with her “cousins,” which were five cats.
But this – this beautiful room that her landlord Grace fixed up nicely with fresh sheets and a stocked bathroom and fridge made Nora uncomfortable. Grace said it was just because that’s how they do it in the south and a Yankee like Nora would have to just learn to adjust.
Nora, a twenty-three-year-old woman, finally had a place of her own. It was the first time in her entire life. No more roommates. No more sleeping on couches – aunts or otherwise. No more of anything except what Nora wanted.
And it felt good.
She would never admit it to his face, but she liked Adam. She really liked Adam. And he was sitting right across the table from her, eating a meal she made. No more takeout, no more frozen or instant meals. She had a place to live, a job, and this guy that seemed entranced by her.
And who wouldn’t be? Nora – despite her knowing how damaged she was emotionally and mentally – knew she was a catch. She was beautiful and she knew it, even if it was in a subtle way. But she was broken. The last guy that sat across the table from her – eating a meal he made because he said for a woman he was surprised she didn’t know her way around a kitchen – destroyed her.
Nora was curvier now than she was then. She knew she put on weight because of him—the last guy. Every meal they ate was flooded with under-the-breath comments towards her like, “you’re really going back for seconds?” or “no dessert for you, pig, haven’t you had enough?” And after being told to put the fork down every day for over a year, Nora actually gained weight from all the eating she did when she was alone.
For a while, once she finally kicked him out of her life, she tried everything she could to lose the weight. She tried dieting, working out, decreasing her portions, everything. It took a long time – and little to no physical progress – for Nora to realize she was only losing weight to please whatever guy showed up next. And now, frankly, she loved her curves.
And Adam watched her as she cut her spaghetti until they were no longer long and perfectly cooked noodles but tiny pieces of perfectly cooked noodles; she made them.
“Do you like your job?”
She slurped a longer piece that she missed and the sauce splashed her chin. “It pays the bills.”
Smiling, Adam moved to wipe the marinara off her chin, but Nora shifted and wiped it off herself.
“I don’t have the luxury of liking my job, Adam. I never really have.” Nora took a large bite, bits of pasta spilling out over her mouth. She didn’t care about eating lady-like or dabbing her mouth or crossing her legs. This was the best meal she had had in a while.
“What does that mean?” Adam’s fork hovered over his food, not because he wasn’t hungry but because he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“It means,” she swallowed. “That I cannot afford to wait for a job that I like. It took me over a month just to get this job and the only reason why I accepted it was because if I went another week without a job, I would have to donate blood or eggs or my body or anything I had left just to afford gas to get me to the next state. So yeah, my job is fine. It pays the bills. No, I don’t love it but this is the first home-cooked meal I’ve had in ages that wasn’t previously a powder. But actual food I had the money and energy to cook, so it’ll do just fine. “
Nora returned to shoveling the food into her mouth as if he had only asked her about the weather. Because to her this was only weather. To her, there was nothing concerning about anything she said because this was her life. She was only just getting by for so long that now that she had an actual job and made actual money, she didn’t care what it was. This wasn’t a storm she was drowning in but merely a daily northwest sprinkle. And this was the life she chose. No one forced her to pack up her car to move across the country to a tiny town where she had no prospects, she chose to. And she was doing just fine.
Adam cleared his throat. “This spaghetti is delicious, by the way—”
“Damn right it is,” she said with her mouth full. “I’m a great cook.”
“—But I think you should like what you do.”
Nora scoffed. “Easy for you to say, you’re a cop. You knew what you wanted to do. During my interview I had to pretend that all I’ve ever wanted to do in life is file.”
“I’m surprised,” Adam said, taking a bite. “You’re telling me you didn’t always dream of being a file clerk?”
Reaching over for the garlic bread, Nora smiled. Adam was charming. He made her smile and not in a way she was used to. Ever since her mother died Nora became complacent with faking smiles when necessary. Over time her fake, tiny smile became the real thing. But Adam made her smile a real smile. And she wasn’t sure how she felt about it yet.
“You should smile more often, Nora,” Adam continued. “You have a pretty smile.”
And Nora’s smile faded immediately. “So if I didn’t have a pretty smile I shouldn’t smile at all?”
Adam laughed and forked the rest of his spaghetti into his mouth. Although Nora wasn’t laughing – or smiling – anymore, his smile remained as if he didn’t even hear her remark. He stood and took her empty, cleaned off plate. “Would you like some more? Honestly, I haven’t had spaghetti this good since my mom’s.” Nora nodded and when he returned with her refilled plate, he brought a bottle of wine with him. “And, by the way, I think you would have a beautiful smile even if all your teeth had rotted out and all you had were gums.”
“Is that supposed to be sweet?” Nora began cutting her spaghetti again.
Adam grinned. “Why? Do you think I’m sweet?”
Nora rolled her eyes.
“You’re right, you’re right, that was cheesy.” He said, munching on garlic bread. “You know what I’ve been wondering all night?”
Nora’s heart started to pound and she concentrated on her spaghetti. The whole day leading up to this night had been a whirlwind of emotions for Nora. Every part of her wanted to call him up and tell him not to bother coming over. She hadn’t been on a date in years. And even if she told herself over and over again that they were just two friends having dinner, she was attracted to Adam in a way she had never been attracted to someone before. This feeling was new and she wasn’t sure if she liked it yet. She didn’t have to act on any feeling at all just because it was new and exciting.
Her eyes darted to the wine bottle he brought over. As much as she was anticipating the night, begging herself to ward off any familiar signs of an anxiety attack, she wondered what exactly he was expecting.
The last boyfriend she had became an expert in pushing her buttons. He would use classic lines like, “don’t you love me?” whenever she wasn’t in the mood. He would guilt her until she gave in, and every single piece she gave him, a piece double that size would die inside her. He expected every last piece of her until she had nothing left.
Nora didn’t realize how long she had been staring wide-eyed at the wine bottle until Adam spoke up. “I’ve been wondering why you cut your spaghetti into such tiny pieces.”
Blinking, Nora sat up straighter and shook her head. “It gives the illusion that I’m eating more than I really am.”
“There’s something else I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
Her body tensed and she put her fork down. “Adam, I’m not ready—”
“Can I have the recipe for this spaghetti?”
“—for anything.” Her brain stopped and for a second she felt really stupid. A part of her wanted to apologize to him for assuming what he wanted but then she stopped herself. Either way, she thought, at least he knows where I stand.
Adam nodded in recognition. “I totally get that. Can I still get the recipe though?” After a few moments of Nora staring at him quizzically, he laughed lightly. “It’s going to sound weird but I swear this tastes exactly like the spaghetti my mom used to make and I haven’t had it in years.”
“You know, Adam,” Nora stood, taking her plate and adding it back into the pot for leftovers. She had made enough to last her for a week and she couldn’t wait. Perry was such a small town that the waitress at the diner was starting to recognize Nora since she went in every day, and it kind of freaked her out. “The spaghetti is just pasta and Prego. I added a couple spices but there’s not secret or special recipe or anything.”
Adam’s smile faded as if she had just told him his dog died. He turned away from her and started playing with one of the napkins. Nora sighed quietly. She could tell he was upset but she had never been good at the whole consoling thing.
When her mom died, her aunt – her mom’s sister – pretended to be distraught in public, saying if only they had reconciled beforehand then she wouldn’t feel so bad, as if Nora felt less terrible because her and her mom were so close. Whatever sympathy strangers had left over for Nora felt fake, just simple pats on the cheek or taps on the hands. After a couple of months, Nora retracted from any form of physical contact from strangers and stared deadpan at anyone who expressed condolences while her aunt would wipe fake tears on tiny paper-thin tissues she carried at all times.
Very quickly, Nora learned how to deal with her own problems and emotions without the help of any levels of support. So to see Adam visibly upset made Nora wildly uncomfortable and if it weren’t her place, she would leave. She considered asking him to leave and battled with herself on whether or not it was rude to ask an upset guest to leave or if it didn’t matter because it was her place anyways.
“You know,” Adam started quietly. “I’ve never been able to figure out her recipe.”
Nora sat back down, shifting awkwardly. “Why don’t you just ask her?”
One corner of Adam’s mouth pulled up in the makings of a smile but he forced it away. “We aren’t exactly on good terms.”
At first Nora didn’t understand how anyone couldn’t be close with their mother – she had been best friends with hers – but then she thought of her aunt. Now that she had a choice, Nora wanted nothing to do with the woman who technically raised her and would be perfectly happy never speaking with her again.
Even though it was for a short time, Nora loved her relationship with her mother. She didn’t understand it at the time of course; at the time it was as natural as waking up. At seven years old she didn’t have to consciously force herself to appreciate the relationship she had with her favorite person she ever knew. There wasn’t a single inch of her that even thought it would be possible to live any other way.
That was why when her ex-boyfriend forced his own mother on her all Nora wanted was her own mother back. No matter how nice his mother was and no matter how many home-cooked dinners she made or mani-pedis she paid for, she wasn’t Nora’s mom.
“When we get married, she’ll be your mother now. You can call her mom and you can call her when you’re upset or want to get lunch or anything you want because you’ll have a mother again,” he would say. “We’ll be your family now.”
But Nora didn’t want his family. Who said she wanted a family at all, let alone his family? His family was crazy – crazier than normal, she swore. But she didn’t want that family. Agreeing to even want someone else’s family made her physically sick. Because it made it even harder to leave him when she needed.
When she left her ex, he threatened to hurt himself or worse. And his mother, the one who patted her hand in greeting instead of hugged her; the one who would comment on Nora’s weight not with her words but with her judgmental eyes; the one who never referred to Nora by her name only by bitter pronouns; yelled, screamed, and slapped Nora when Nora dropped by to pick up her things.
Even now, Nora rarely uses the word abuse. She knows what it was, no amount of word-usage changes what happens to her. But whenever people learn that she was in an abusive relationship, they look at her differently. And Nora’s been through that enough.
With her mom, her upbringing, and then her personal decision to drive across the country to a state as far away from people she knew, she got enough weird looks from people. The last thing she wanted was to add, “I survived an abusive relationship,” because the looks would turn to apologies and ignoring of the word, “survive.” People only ever heard the word “abuse” and would treat Nora as if it was her choice to remain in said relationship. As if it was a choice to give in to the fear that controlled every cell of her being and every breath that rushed out of her every time he raised as a threat.
And now Adam was sitting here, not knowing anything about her past or anything about who she used to be – that cowering doormat that she was – and every tiny look he gave her was full of genuine curiosity and kindness.
“And the spaghetti?” Nora asked, finally.
“Well,” he sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “I guess I was just being nostalgic. I haven’t eaten homemade spaghetti in a while and it just reminded me of my mom. It’s weird finding out that this thing you’ve romanticized your whole life isn’t special at all.”
Before she could even stop herself, Nora was reaching over the table and touching his hand. Her hand was sweating from clenching her nerves all day but he didn’t pull away. He smiled at her and gave her hand a slight squeeze. He cleared his throat and sat up more. “Tell me about yourself.”
Nora released his hand and sat back. She hated the broadness of that question and how loaded it was. She felt like there was always a wrong answer to that question. Her lips pressed tightly together as if nothing he said could get her to even breathe a word to him.
He sensed her mood change and shook his head. “Nora, you’re acting like you’re the only one with trust issues.”
When she was little, her mom could sense a mood shift before Nora even knew it had shifted. Before Nora would even think about crying her mom was there to comfort her. And for seven short years, someone read and understood Nora. And in a flash the love and understanding was gone.
Adam was the first person since then that could read Nora and she crossed her arms, trying to ward off any possible signs she could be giving him. She didn’t want to be read. She wanted her emotions and reactions to remain her own, and she was furious that she let herself fall for his charm. As quickly as she had let her guard down, Nora shot it back up.
Adam was a stranger, she kept repeating in her head. He didn’t know her.
“You know, Nora, if you keep acting like you want to be alone that’s all you’ll ever be. You’ll only be alone.” Adam stood. “You’ll never let anyone in and no one will be able to trust you either.”
“Good,” Nora blurted out. “That’s exactly what I want.”
He stared at her for several dreadfully silent moments. Nora stared back at him. She didn’t feel like she owed him anything. Just because he shared with her his story didn’t mean she had to share hers.
And yet, she felt a twinge of guilt. And she hated it. The first time she’s been alone with a guy in years and she felt like she could hurl from these new feelings fighting against everything she made herself to be. She was used to pushing people away. She was used to being alone. There was nothing wrong with being alone. But now she wanted Adam to know there was a part of her that wanted him to really know her. But after everything, it was hard to trust anything she was feeling.
A man with a gun took her mom from Nora, along with the love and understanding her mom gave freely. Now this man, standing in front of her silently and patiently, was giving Nora a different kind of understanding by choice, even though Nora felt she hadn’t given him a reason to.
“That’s okay,” Adam finally said. “Whenever you decide that you’re ready for a friend, I’ll be here.” He walked to the door then paused and looked over his shoulder. “And just letting you know, your spaghetti was way better than my mom’s. It’s the kind I’ll be thinking about for the years to come and will remember with fondness the next time I eat someone else’s spaghetti.”
His answer took Nora aback. She had been quiet, reserved, and even rude. And still this guy was nice to her. Nora realized she could be herself – her pushy, rude, quiet self – with someone and they would still not mind spending time with her. She didn’t have to change anymore. She could be the same Nora she had been, the Nora her challenges had turned her into, without giving away pieces of herself.
“Adam, it’s only pasta.”
He smiled and opened the door. “No, Nora, it wasn’t just the pasta.” And he left.
Nora sat there by herself, smiling to herself, a new smile. A smile just for her, not anyone else. It was one that came from deep within and made her cheeks feel warm. She stared at the door and wondered if she would ever see Adam again.
When she realized she would be okay with being by herself but that she truly wanted him in her life, Nora decided she would call him tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that. With the smile still on her face, Nora walked over to her pot of spaghetti and dished some out into a Tupperware container to give to Adam – if she didn’t eat it all herself.