Davide Rissone – Lacquered duck breast

I am here lying on my bed while my wife is there in the kitchen with the boy for private lessons. Since we moved she decided to put herself back to study. She enrolled in Mathematics, but, according to her, she does not understand anything.
In the evening, when we sit at our table, she tells me about the lessons she attended and I cannot follow a single word: I am a cook, not a mathematician. I chew quickly as to hurry and make the whole story last as little as possible, but, with a piece of meat among her teeth, she starts talking about calculus, functions, differentials, fields of existence and domains; then she goes on with vegetables, she breaks her bread and she starts over again. In ten minutes I finish. I clear my side of the table, I turn on the tap and I fill my glass. I down the water in one gulp, turning my back to her while she enthusiastically goes on with complex numbers, imaginary parts and the tangent arch at the end of something. I keep my back turned even after I finish drinking, with my glass clenched in my hands. I hear her scratch the dish with the fork point: she has almost finished. I sit down again, put the empty glass in front of her dish and look at her lips that open and close, spitting out particles of food just chewed and sinusoids, integrals dependent variables, hyperbola branches.
Once she was beautiful, enough to take your breath away. Well, I’m not saying she turned ugly all of a sudden. She’s forty and still attractive and many people find her seductive. Yes, they say she is captivating and I understand them. She’s tall, her hair, of a chestnut honey colour, is strong and healthy and her body, even without doing anything special for it, is winning the race against the clock. Force of gravity seems to ignore her as if the time to surrender to the laws of physics had not yet arrived for her. Her measurements are near the standard, ninety-sixty-ninety and since I have known her (fifteen years next June) they have never changed. Her lips are full and her skin is smooth and velvety, in spite of the fact that I almost never see her putting cream on, except the night one. I could not explain why I cannot find her attractive anymore: since she left her job at the restaurant where we worked together and she decided to take one year all for herself, she unexpectedly lost part of her charm. It has nothing to do with her look: it concerns her attitude, her way of living in this world.
I never completely got the idea, but the sous-chef of the restaurant where I work always talks about that in reference to customers. One evening he told me: “Do you see that couple there, at table number nine? Did you see what they ordered? It’s clear, isn’t it? If you take the lacquered duck breast you have to go through your way of living again.”
I always nod when he comes out with this kind of sentence, but I never understood what he means. I don’t think that choosing a dish tells much about a person. What difference is there between the duck breast type and the one who prefers autumn-scented tagliatelle? Or between the woman who chooses the thinly sliced raw meat with pink Himalaya salt and the man who prefers ravioli melted with pigeon?
The evening he pointed to the duck breast couple, I only saw a man and a woman. He was around forty-five, well dressed, smart but not too much; she was just a little younger, very beautiful, I remember this, without make-up on her eyes, her hair gathered up in an elegant bun and a cream sober dress perfectly close-fitting. Both of them were enjoying their food as it usually happens in our restaurant, if memory does not fool me, at a certain moment, he also took her hand.
But that evening more than others, my sous-chef pressed me to look at them with more attention because it was clear: those two had to go through their way of living again. Nevertheless, even if I did not have the courage to confess it, I kept on seeing only a couple eating quietly, maybe the man a little faster and the woman looking at her dish too often. But how could I blame her? Duck breast is one of the most choreographic creations of our menu. It consists in a delicate breast lacquered with honey on which is left a crisp and golden brown greasy layer. The breast lies on a real garden of vegetables following an arrangement in which, from the black dish, as if by magic, small carrots, peas, potatoes, garlic sprouts, white asparagus and edible flowers peep out; all of this sprinkled with red fruits steeped in cherry vinegar. It’s a real spring garden, sublime to sight and taste.
But the sous-chef who had caught my hesitation, said: “look and see.”
He went near the table pretending to ask if the dinner had been to their liking and he stopped for a conversation. Then he left and went back to the kitchen. I watched the whole scene and when he asked me: “Do you understand now?” I had to acknowledge my ignorance.
“But come on”, he went on, “the woman’s wedding ring was on her napkin and when I asked her if she liked the duck breast, her eyes turned red. At that point I went away. I had seen enough.”
Although the sous-chef is sure of the fact that his theory is good, I keep my own idea; people who set foot in a restaurant like ours, do it only to eat well and try unusual dishes. Though, that definition “way of living”, intrigues in an unhealthy way: it excites me inducing me to let my imagination wander; it compels me to enter people’s life, to nose around looking for evidence. A sentence said twice, an expression of the face, any detail able to make me say: “Actually, that guy is like this, that one is like that, that couple is happy, the other one has problems, the guy with the check shirt is unfaithful to his wife, the other one, yes, the one with the aquiline nose, drinks secretly and so on.
That way of thinking stuck to me like bacon fat to frying pan. When I have dinner with my wife or wait for her in bed to make love, I find myself thinking that she should go through her way of living again in order to regain possession of her charm. But since I don’t completely understand the meaning of this idea, I end up searching in our married life for an element able to enlighten me.
Now I do it almost every day. Since we moved she does not work: she only attends to her lessons. In the morning she goes out very early to reach the university. I go out one hour later, go around the city and think. I picture her sitting at her desk, with a pen in her hand and staring at the algebra professor, while he is talking about functions, logarithms and things like that. She tells me she really has big difficulties in following so that her mind begins to wander and she starts talking with other students. All of them are young people of twenty-twenty-two years old. She often has a cigarette break with them or she drinks a coffee at the campus cafeteria. My wife had never smoked in her life (when she was very young her father died from lung cancer) and she hates coffee. But since the beginning of the courses she practices both gestures with gusto. She goes out from the classroom and spends her morning with her fellows smoking and drinking coffee. I imagine her happy among so many lives that wait to start, to bloom like a flower.
She sticks a cigarette in her mouth; she deeply breathes closing her eyes just a little because of the smoke, she fills her mouth and she blows everything outside, gracefully. She crosses her legs, drinks a sip of coffee and starts smoking again, while smiling for a joke and putting a hand on the knee next to her to support herself. She is so young-looking and beautiful! Nobody thinks “What is a fully grown woman doing here?” No, they listen to every word feeling that the twenty years that separate them are a time unbelievably flourishing of experiences, anecdotes and epiphanies from which she can draw as she tells stories to entertain them.
I think this is what my wife does in the morning.
Now she is in the other room with that guy. He is younger and his voice croaks a little bit. I think about my own business, but some unknown words arrive to me: parabola tangent, integration, differential calculus, matrix. At a certain moment, my wife asks: “Would you like a coffee, Luigi? And a cigarette? Open the window so it does not smell”.
I think about my sous-chef when, this evening, he will tell me: “Look there…! Those two over there, at table number three. I think it’s clear for you now: they should go through their way of living again. They have no choice at this point, don’t you think so?”
I shall just nod as I always do.

Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Amy Scarlett Holt)